Where I come from, most people I knew had dirt under their fingernails, farmers touched their soil.
Popping and creaking in the unrelenting July sun, the rusty tin roof on our old farmhouse was seething with heat like it was letting off steam. It was no mirage. It was Mississippi, hot, humid, hard-time Mississippi.
In 1955 at age eight, just out of the first grade, I knew there had to be life beyond farming and country living. I was already thinking of, and looking for a way out. Dreaming was more like it, because, I was short on specifics.
Our unpainted dogtrot style dwelling (circa 1898) in rural Northeast Mississippi featured two fireplaces and a breezeway but lacked electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing.
Up the two front steps, the six-foot deep front porch spanned the 30-foot width of the house, and the 10-foot wide hall ran all the way through the middle.
Our back porch was a continuation of the hallway, except it was open on the left. On the wall to the right hung a two-gallon galvanized bucket with an aluminum dipper. It was our access to drinking water. To the left, on the back porch, a one-gallon aluminum pan sat on a board about four feet above the floor. This served as our washbasin.
Access to our 13 x 13 foot kitchen, to the right of the back porch, had light blue walls and dark linoleum floor covering. Daddy’s straight back chair sat at the head of the “eating table,” and a long bench on one side and few upright chairs surrounded the rest. Three hutches served as cupboards. One featured a built-in flour sifter. The main attraction was anchored in the corner, a large black cast-iron wood-burning cook stove (circa 1930) with its four burners, baking oven and two warming closets.
There was a 13 x 13-foot living-sleeping room, on each side, midway through the breezeway. Mom and Dads were on the right. The original wood plank flooring was worn smooth from decades of foot traffic. Oval framed pictures of relatives long passed hung on the unpainted walls. A rustic black iron bedstead supported a feather bed on its frame, and a couple of straight back hickory chairs with bulrush seats rested nearby.
A fireplace with a small hearth and brick surround rested in the center of the outer wall. A pair of blackened Andirons embellished with the image of a dog was used to raise the logs off the hearth and prevent them from falling forward. Two tall translucent vases filled with noteworthy papers sat on the mantel. An old dresser missing its mirror, was stationed in the corner near the fireplace. Mommas foot powered Honeymoon (brand) sewing machine (circa 1910) rested nearby.
A window of about three to five feet, configured with 8 x 10 inch sheets of glass, was located to the right of the fireplace, and yielded a view north and the gravel road. Some of the panes were held in place with dressmaker pins and needles pushed into their wooden frames. A similar window on the right side wall provided a view of the front porch and beyond.
The room across the hall was identical and similarly furnished, except for an additional bed and walls that were painted a light blue.
Lighting for all rooms was provided by two kerosene lamps with dark orange bowls (fonts), flat cotton wicks, and 8-inch high chimney globes. The 10 to 15-lumen output of each lamp, provided about the same brightness as one medium-sized candle.
Still standing. Swan Family Farmhouse (below) as seen in 2013. Maintained by Don's elderly and amazing brother Dale. Note the original stone foundation. Built circa 1898. (Swan collection)
Indoor living space amounted to about 700 square feet, including the two small “side rooms” on opposite ends of the hall that stored canned goods, and clothing. In one of those rooms, we were storing for someone, an old and ornate organ (circa 1930) with a built-in mirror, surely the most valuable item in the house. While pumping the well-worn pedals, striking the keys, and experimenting with the draw knobs, I eventually learned to play Rock Of Ages.
A swing hung from a rafter on the right side of the front porch, an Adirondack chair and a few straight backs sat on the floor nearby.
We fabricated a windless using a short sweet-gum log with handle, and a rope and pulley system, along with a galvanized-gallon bucket to draw water from our 20-foot deep well. In the summer when we needed it the most, it was barely adequate for our needs. Covered by an open tin shed, the well was just a few feet to the right of the front porch, besides a sweet shrub bush.
A two-seater outhouse, that Momma built, was situated on a gentle slope about 150 feet behind and just to the right of the back porch. Supported on one end by a mulberry tree and the other by a cedar post, the floor was dirt. It was framed similar to our chicken coop across the street, which Mamma also fashioned.
The scrap plank theme of the privy had the weathered look of the outside of our house and the same type of sloping roof. The entryway on the left had no door, but it faced the woods. The two taking care of business holes were cut in octagon style, again, rough plank. There was no lighting or water of course, but a Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog was there for clean-up and a great chance for me to fantasize while exploring the foundation section.
In the large backyard apple, peach, pecan, walnut, and fig trees grew along with Scuppernong and other grapes varieties. Farther behind the house, our 8 x 15-foot smokehouse, with its high ceiling, abutted a grove of long leaf pines. Our pigpen was to the left, about 200 feet, down wind.
A portion of the front yard from the porch to the gravel road looked like the infield of a baseball diamond. As an alternative to grass (not uncommon at the time), Momma had scraped the area clear of any vegetation using a hoe.
Just to the left, was Momma’s impressive 20 x 20-foot varietal flower garden. She planted, nurtured and cared for this beautiful plot — envied by those who had the fortune to walk into Momma’s version of peace and tranquility — with her fragrant magnolias, dahlias, snowballs, hydrangeas, black-eyed-Susan’s and other beauties.
A sharecropper’s shack, with its roof collapsing, sat 200 feet to the north, making our dogtrot look pretty good; a reminder that our family, may have had even harder times. Still, most of my clothes and shoes were hand-me-downs from my older cousin Frankie. Having footwear in the summer months was not an issue, my brother and I went barefoot.
Across the road, some large sweet gum trees stood beside a few smaller cedars. Slightly to the right two 10 x 12 x 15-foot tall structures, served as corn and cotton cribs. A small chicken coop was attached to one. Still farther to the right rested our 20 x 30-foot barn, the roof and sides covered with corrugated tin; behind it was a corral large enough for feeding the livestock. No far to the right of the barn was a half-acre field, our nearest cotton patch.
The narrow gravel road that ran past our house, just thirty feet from our doorsteps, was seldom traveled, led to pretty much nowhere, and didn’t hit pavement for miles. For me, a passing vehicle was an event. Six days a week, I could expect about three, the mail carrier, a farm truck, or tractor.
Sitting on the edge of the front porch facing south toward the pigpen in my Big Buck™ overalls, I was trying to cool my heels by swinging my legs, and trying to reach the shaded grass when I remembered a chore I’d forgotten.
I dropped my feet into the six-inch tall Johnson grass, made a sharp turn right and raced 40 feet or so toward the backyard, and stopped under a scrawny crab apple tree that bore ample fruit, which sadly fell to the ground too early for good eating. It was ideal, however, for the hogs. I was tossing the little apples into a bushel basket when I heard the sound of a vehicle, fast approaching from the north, blocked from my site by the house.
With my toes dug into the grass, I and sprinted hard toward the road. I made it in time to get a perfect view. Not more than 20 feet directly in front of me was a speeding car kicking up rocks and dust. But it was no farmer hauling hay, nor a local heading to a fishing hole.