Where I come from, people 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 backcountry living. I was already thinking of and looking for a way out. Dreaming was more like it because I was short on specifics.
Up the two front steps, the six-foot deep front porch spanned the 36-foot width of the house, A swing hung from a rafter on the right side of the porch, an Adirondack chair, and a few straight backs sat on the floor nearby. 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. It served as our washbasin.
Access to our 13 x 13 foot kitchen, to the right from 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. Anchored in a corner, near the entry door, rested the main attraction — 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. Momma and Daddies 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 stood 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. Momma’s foot-powered Honeymoon (brand) sewing machine (circa 1910) rested nearby.
A window about five feet tall, and three feet wide, configured with 8 x 10-inch sheets of glass, was located to the right of the fireplace and yielded a view north toward the gravel road. Some 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 painted a light blue.
Lighting for all rooms was provided by two kerosene lamps with dark orange 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 fabricated windless using a short sweet-gum log with a handle, rope and pulley system, and a galvanized-gallon bucket was used 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 Momma 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, 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 excellent 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 longleaf pines. Our pigpen was to the left, about 200 feet, usually downwind.
A portion of the front yard from the porch to the gravel road looked like the dirt infield of a baseball diamond. As an alternative to grass (not uncommon at the time), Momma scraped the area clear of any vegetation using a hoe and maintained it that way.
Momma’s impressive 20 x 20-foot varietal flower garden was just to the left of the front porch. She planted, nurtured, and cared for that 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 Susans, and other beauties.
With its roof collapsing, a sharecropper’s shack 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. But 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, with its roof and sides covered with corrugated tin; behind it was a corral large enough for feeding a few 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 swinging my legs and trying to reach the shaded grass to cool my heels 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. Its fruit fell too early for good eating; however, it was suitable for the hogs. I was tossing the sad 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.
I sprinted hard toward the road with my toes planted in the grass. 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.
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