Tennessee Mountain Stories

Early Life in Tennessee as recounted by Clyde Whittaker

[Clyde was born in Monterey, Tennessee in 1924.  His mother was 19 years old and he was her first child.  Clyde’s father was native to the Monterey area but his mother’s family lived in Martha Washington.  His sister June would be born 22 months later then a brother the following year. There were a total of 5 children.]

Clyde writes:

I am interested in sharing how different life was for me and my family from life today.  My earliest days I lived about half a mile down the road from Steve Welch’s house.  We rented a small house with two rooms in front, a porch across the front and a narrow room across the back which we didn’t use except in bad weather [when] Mom did the laundry there.  There was two beds and a pot-bellied stove in one.  The other room had a table and chairs and a small cast iron cook stove.  The stove was called a step stove because the two caps over the fire box was about three inches lower than the part over the oven which had a door on both sides.   It was so small that Dad made a platform to raise it about a foot to make it a good height for Mom to work.  It was a wood stove.  We burned coal in the pot-bellied heater. 

In those days if you bought or rented the usual small house there was not cabinets or appliances.  Usually not even a closet.  There was no running water, electricity or phone.  Most people didn’t have enough clothes to need a closet.  For water we had a well in the back yard.  A narrow bucket was lowered on a rope then a crank was turned to raise the bucket.  Wells in the area were usually 30 to 40 feet deep.  The water had a yellow iron oxide in it that would stain laundry so we had a large wood barrel at a back corner of the house to catch rainwater for laundry.  We called it the rain barrel.

I remember June and I looking through the fence near the road to watch people passing.  Cattle ran loose that time so you had to have your yard fenced.  There was only one or two cars passing per day but there would be wagons pulled by horses or mules.  It was a dirt road that was graded by horse drawn scraper two times a year.  Some rode horses to town.  One morning we saw a dead cow by the railroad track.  The railroad paid for cows it killed.  An uncle said, “When a cow is killed it suddenly become a $100 cow.”  A good cow at the time was $25 or $35.

We didn’t have many toys so we played with what we had.  We had two one gallon buckets.  We put a short piece of lumber on the two buckets and that was our car.  I used a bucket lid for steering the wheel.  No women we knew drove.

I had a little dog named Jyp.  My great Uncle Frank shot him because he chased his hogs.  It was a very small dog and couldn’t hurt the hogs.

I usually wore bib overalls and a blue shirt made by Mom and no underwear except in winter when I wore long Johns.  I took off my overalls and slept in my shirt.  I had at least two pairs of knickers in my young years but didn’t like them.

We didn’t have mattresses at that time.  We had a tick filled with wheat straw which sold in bales like hay.  The bed springs was an open array of springs not in a box.  I had no trouble sleeping on it.

One day a farmer with his mule drawn wagon stopped in front of the house.  The farmer asked Mom if she wanted to buy some mutton.  Then there was no refrigeration so if a farmer killed a cow or sheep except in freezing weather they had to sell the meat they didn’t want.  They put a sheet in the wagon with the meat on it then covered it.  He would go house to house in town until he sold the meat.  Mom told the farmer no.  I didn’t know anything about mutton but I told Mom she should buy some.  She called the farmer back and bought some.  To this day I remember how the cooking mutton smelled.  We probably threw it away.

All of this may sound like we lived in poverty, but we ate well and had good clothes.  Most working men lived in small houses that the poorest today wouldn’t live in.

Dad bought Mom a new sewing machine in 1928 for $75 which was a lot of money then.  Mom made many shirts and dresses over the years.  We moved into town near Grandma Whittaker when I was five.  I started school at six.  All twelve grades were in one building.  [There was] no running water the first year.  We had a girl and boys outdoor toilets.  There was a well with a hand pump near the back entrance.  Each class had a water bucket.  In lower grades the teacher would send two boys to fill the bucket and carry it back to the room.  Each kid had a telescoping cup that collapsed until you could put it in your pocket.  Each room had a large pot-bellied stove for heat.  The teacher would send two boys to the basement to get a scuttle of coal.  The teacher had to keep the fire going.  The following year we had running water, steam heat and indoor toilets.  In first grade a new girl joined the class, Mary Frances, wearing a red polka dot dress with bloomers of the same material that were three inches below the dress.  I thought she was the cutest girl I had seen.