Thursday, March 12, 2009

Memories of Mama's Daddy

Last month, I wrote about my maternal grandfather visiting us shortly after we moved to Wilmington. Over the past four years, I’ve mentioned him in several other blog entries including one about his last Christmas, his family on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, planting his vegetable garden on Good Friday and him killing rattlesnakes. The photo is of his lantern sitting on the mantel of my fireplace. That lantern and a kerosene lamp that is in Rick Bragg’s family (he tells about it in Ava’s Man) inspired these memories. The second photo is of my granddaddy holding me when I was 4 1/2 months old (May/June 1957)

The fire truck had already left and the barn had been reduced to a heap of smoldering logs and twisted tin when we pulled up in Dad’s big Buick. We came as soon as Dad got home from work. Mom had received the call about the fire earlier that afternoon and took us out into the backyard and we looked in the south for the smoke. Back then, flue-cured tobacco barns were built like a chimney, designed to draw heat up through the leaves on sticks. If a stick of tobacco fell into the fire and flashed, allowing the flames to reach the bottom leaves, the flames would quickly be drawn up through the drying the leaves. There would be little one could do to save the barn.

Dad parked behind the pack house, pulling off of the sandy two-track so that other vehicles could get in and out. We walked over to where my granddaddy and a few men were standing around, exhausted, leaning on the on shovels and rakes they’d used to clear the brush from around the barn, to keep the fire from spreading to the pack house. It was bad to lose a barn, it would have been disastrous to have lost the pack house which was filled with tobacco that had already been cured and waiting for the market to open. There was nothing left for us to do. Luckily, the summer was almost over. For the rest of season, my granddaddy hauled his tobacco down to Frank’s farm, his son-in-laws, on the other side of Carthage, and cured his crop in one of his barns. I didn’t know it then, but it was an end of an era.

Ever since he’d left the shipyard at the end of the war, my granddaddy had raised tobacco along with some of the best vegetables in Moore County. Before the war, he’d worked on other people’s farms along with driving a truck for the WPA and making moonshine on the side. After doing time for the later, and under the watchful eye of his mother-in-law (my great-grandma), he stopped making hooch and, I’ve been told, became a teetotaler. Although he was never very active, he joined the Beulah Hill Baptist Church. The war was a good to him. With the shipyards opening in Wilmington, he’d gone to High Point to take a welding class. During the Christmas break, just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, he moved his family to Wilmington. He took a job in the shipyard and my grandma worked in the cafeteria at the dry docks. My great-grandma moved with them and lived with them, watching the kids and cooking for the family which always included a few boarders who’d moved to Wilmington to work in the defense industries. During the war, he’d saved enough to buy two small farms—the Gyger place and Brook’s land. These farms were adjacent to my great-grandma’s land and just west of Beulah Hill. It must of took him a while to arrange things, for after he was laid off from the shipyards at the end of the war, he spent the first year as a sharecropper in Lillington, raising crops on someone else’s land. But then, in late ’46 or early ’47, they’d moved back to Moore County.

Granddaddy built a log barn at the edge of the woods, behind the Gyger house. There, during the late summer, he’d spend most of his hours around the barn, often sleeping under the tin porch, as he cut wood and fed the fires that cured the golden leaf. He’d come home for dinner and to clean up, but he had to stay close to the barn to tend the fires. At night, his constant companion was a kerosene lantern that I have and still use.

Granddaddy had a small tobacco allotment, raising only three or so acres of the leaf. In the winter, he’d take on a second part-time job, as a night watchman or tearing down buildings for salvage. That winter after his barn burned, he built a new one. Instead of using logs, it was a framed barn, built out of salvaged materials. He covered the outside with green tarpaper. Instead of using wood heat, he installed four kerosene burners, attached to a large tank that sat beside the barn. No longer would he have to sleep at the barn, waking up every few hours to feed the fires. Now, with a thermostat, he could sleep in his own bed, stopping by two or three times a day to make sure the temperature was holding. Of course, I was young and don’t remember my granddaddy sleeping at the barn, but I wish I had been there. Guy Owen, in his classic story, “The Flim-Flam Man” writes about men watching the barns at night, while sipping whiskey and swapping stories. Owen blamed modern curing barns, the ones that used kerosene and later gas, for the decline in storytelling in southern culture. No longer did men have to live at the barn, constantly watching the fire. But it was a life I never got to experience. I was four or five when my granddaddy’s barn burned, nine when he raised his last crop of tobacco. My granddaddy’s heart gave out a month or so before setting out tobacco beds for a new season (the plants are started in a bed late in winter, then transplanted into the field after the threat of frost is over). It was a week before my tenth birthday. For years, he’d been suffering from emphysema.

I tell you the fellow that invented them gas curers ought to be horsewhipped. He put an end to some fine tale-swapping and yarn-spinning. The truth is, that's where I got my real education, hanging around Tobacco barns and listening to old timers talk.
-Guy Owen, The Ballard of the Flim-Flam Man


  1. Look at that scowl on your face! :)

    I didn’t know it then, but it was an end of an era.

    That line is so nostalgic, so sad. I don't think we ever know it, do we?

  2. What a cute baby you were.

    My great-grandparents lived on a working farm and I used to visit them, but they died when I was 12 and 13, and I never really got to experience life on the farm. Too bad neither of us did.

  3. Might have to re-read the flim flam man . . .

    cute baby!!!!

  4. Aye...I have been thinking of all that was lost in the "mechanization of farming. Profit was gained but seeing the loss is something less tangible than numbers on paper.

  5. So you only had hair for about 5 years of your life, Sage? ;-)

    The area south of London, Ontario area is a big tobacco growing region and ex-boyfriend Canada Guy #1 use to tell his stories about his summer jobs working in the fields. While Googling to see if those barns were called kilns (which I think is what I remember him referring to them as), I found thisinteresting article about the history of tobacco growing in SW Ontario.

  6. I had always thought that tobacco was air cured. Learn something everyday.

    Though they were built like chimneys, we lost several barns full of hay over the years. I was always amazed at hot they built and would dig around afterwards for the globs of glass that had melted in the heat.

  7. TC, such a view is often only realized from hindsight

    Kenju, but my expression is a bit of a frown

    Diane, I think I need to reread it too! Great book.

    Walking Guy, Even though things got easier, there was a loss that was hard to express

    Murf, I'll have to check out the Ontario site. There are still some places in Honduras where they flue-cure tobacco

    Ed, there are different types of tobacco. The tobacco grown in the mountains of NC as well as in Kentucky is Burley and that is air dried. Flue-cured is done in heated barns.

  8. Thanks for this. I read it last night, but Blogger was acting up and I couldn't get my comment to post. (I only have dial-up at my home in the weeds.)

    I still smile at the smoke-houses sitting out back of the older farms here in my county, most of which have been acquired by rich St. Louisans. I wonder how many of them know the purpose of the building as opposed to it just being a shed for the Lawn Boy.


  9. This is a very well written piece about your granddad. The lanterns are beautiful. And the story inspires me to sit down and write... too bad that I don't have good stories like that.

    Thanks for sharing.

    PS: The Prince of Frogtown is really good!

  10. I love family stories and history like this... what things really mean and matter to people. Thanks-

  11. Great story. I think you might enjoy Margaret Maron's North Carolina books. Though I think of them as chick mysteries, the atmosphere is pure tobacco farm and the first is called "The Bootlegger's Daughter."

    Loved learning how your family got to Wilmington. That's the big city here :) Whenever somebody needs major surgery they head for Wilmington which scares me a bit--I would like good health care here

  12. Randall, I hate it when I write a long reply and blogger eats it!

    Mother Hen, Lanterns? There is only one--there is a mirror above the mantle

    Beau, thanks

    Pia, Wilmington does have good medical facilities... I'm not much of a chick-mystery reader, but he tobacco farm setting is interesting

  13. No one recollects as beautifully as you do, my friend. I'm so glad Tanya sent me by this evening. I feel enriched by this tour through your family history.

    Loved Murf's comment, too: that's my neighborhood! I go cycling past the tobacco fields every summer!

  14. Your memories make the most interesting stories. Your grandfather was quite a man and I think it's neat that you ended up with his kerosene lamp!

    I love the pics, too!

  15. i am glad that there are story writers and good old folks that are having their lives commemorated.

    Thanks for the visit.

  16. So lucky you had a granddaddy. I only ever had my gram and I miss her more and more each day.

  17. lovely words. wonderful memories. my family has tobacco barn history in their veins, too...

    NetChick says Hi and I invite you over to my place for a walk through some words I am crafting...

  18. Carmi, thank you for the kind words. I used to love running in the summer, past barns curing tobacco, the smell of curing tobacco was heavenly (and I don't smoke!)

    Scarlet, I am finding that I want to know more about him--I have vague memories of him and what little my mother had said about him, but she has never talked much about her childhood

    David, I hope they don't mind a bit of dirty laundry aired!

    Mistress, I was blessed to have all four grandparents and five great-grandparents alive when I was born. I was seven when we lost the first, a great-grandma. Now, I have only a grandma, but since I've crossed the 1/2 century mark, that's pretty special.

    Kim, thanks. According to your profile, we must have grown up in the same area

  19. The lantern pic is beautiful. Your baby pic even looks inquisitive. :-)

  20. You favor your grand daddy through the cheeks and nose area.

  21. Murf: Canada guy #1? There was more than one? I think we need more information about this.

  22. A truly beautiful post. Can you believe it, I have got my maternal grandfather's kerosene lamp.

  23. Great story, Sage. Sorry I'm just now getting around to it.

    Your stories are always packed full of history.

    My grandfathers both died before I turned four years old. I know I missed out on a lot.

  24. Sage: I came for your Yucatec trip and became involved with your family stories. I think it is wonderful that you are writing them. I have been doing these stories of my own family, with several hundred pages on my great grandfather in the Civil War (during which he reflects on his grandfather in the Revolutionary) and my own gothick childhood in a disorderly part of southern Illinois called Little Egypt. And I have started the same thing with my wife's Virginia family, in the course of which I discovered that her father would have grown up knowing (or knowing of) men who had gone on Pickett's Charge, all of which I am writing for the grandchild, so that he will know that he has a history and a connection with this country.

    On another matter, I appreciated that you signed up as a follower to my blog, but I notice that you and others -- sometimes everyone -- sometimes get omitted from the page. I assume this is a fault of Blogger. Do you still get heads-up on new posts? (I try to post two or three times a week.)

  25. Sage: Contact me at . You don't need any written material from your Civil War relatives to trace their experience in rather surprising detail by using other, publicly-available sources. I have from my great grandfather only part of a single sentence written fifty years after the fact, but at Shiloh, for example, I can place him to within twenty yards of where he stood when the first attack hit them. There is an amazing amount of stuff out there which may not have your relative's name on it, but by tracing his regiment and those brigaded with it, and their personnel who did leave written accounts, you will be delighted to find out how much you can learn about his experience.