Plowing Through with my Grandfather’s…
Last year (2014) I participated in Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Week 52 Ancestor stories challenge. In as much as I enjoyed it, I didn’t feel I had the time to commit for a second year back-to-back. But yet I didn’t want to step out for good, so I opted to continue on a monthly basis. Amy stirred up the challenge this year in offering weekly themes and it was Week 5 “Plowing Through” in January that called to me.
The fifth week theme caught my eye with the word plowing and I instantly thought of my grandfathers, Edgar T. McKinley and Paul P. Bryan; they were from a long line of dirt farmers!
Farmers are the backbone of America – but they were often depicted as just a poor dirt farmer. Yes, they might have been poor, but their blood, sweat and tears is what built this country.
It’s the farms which built this country, but today so many of those farms have been replaced with big box stores, shopping malls and factories. Then you notice those winding stone walls crumbling by the road – our generation is probably the last to recognize what they really represent – long forgotten farms.
My grandfather Edgar T. McKinley was born in 1894 in Hancock County, Georgia and destined from an early age to be a farmer just like his father, grandfather, and all who came before him. He spent more time in his father’s field picking cotton than going to school and I’m sure that attributed to him not receiving an education of more than a few grades. In writing this story, I wondered if my grandfather felt unimportant, as most farmers were considered poor people. Mama always told me, “we were poor” but yet I feel her stories of their life were rich. Granddaddy McKinley lived in one of the poorest counties in Georgia – Greene County.
Much attention was soon given to this county when Arthur Raper, well known sociologist moved to Greene County to live and document their lives of the racial and economic inequities. He resided there for several years as he studied the land and people; his son attended school for several years alongside my mother.
Many families welcomed Mr. Raper and his camera, even though their photos, their homes and their surroundings were portrayed through his lens as poor. Mama still remembers the day Mr. Raper came to her father’s farm – he didn’t remain long there as her father sent him packing, but not before saying “you’re not taking my picture and portraying me as just another poor dirt farmer.” My grandfather, no matter what he had or didn’t have, was a very proud man.
Edgar T. McKinley never finished high school, probably had no education past the fourth grade. He was the son of a farmer – there was no time for school, most felt that school wasn’t necessary; they were destined to be a farmer, why did they need to spend time in school? It was the way of life in that period of time, but regardless of his level of education, he was a very smart and wise man.
Edgar bought his farm through a government program – a program destined to help and encourage farm ownership. He had previously worked as a tenant farmer for ten years before becoming a land owner. As a tenant farmer, you often lived on the land, living in a tenant home and farming the owners land for a partial profit.
Edgar McKinley signed a Tenant Purchase Loan note secured through the Bankhead-Jones Farms Tenant Act of 1937 – signed into play by President Roosevelt. This promissory note on May 27, 1939 was a loan for $3,000 with interest of 3% per annum with principal and interest paid in forty installments of $129.78. The loan was only written in his name – my grandmothers’ name never appeared on any of the land records; which seemed to be the way things were in those days.
On June 6, 1939 Edgar McKinley bought his farm, 117 acres of prime rich soil in Greene County. It came with a farmhouse and two barns – everything needed to begin farming. He paid $1500.00 for the land – I’m assuming the balance helped him to acquire farm implements and livestock. That was less than 78 cents an acre! I had heard that the house and barns were built by the government for him, but I have never been able to accurately determine that to be true or false. From census records he farmed about sixty acres with the remainder growing timber. It was that timber that bought him the farm. He walked and watched that timber grow – watching and waiting! What was he waiting for? To sell! Why? To pay off his loan.
Let’s step back a moment to when Edgar first purchased his farm. As I went through all the many papers saved, I was excited to discover the original deeds and purchasing information had been saved. What a find! I knew the actual figure he paid for those 117 acres and his schedule of repayments shocked me! He only had to make one payment a year of $129.78 for forty years. Wouldn’t we all love that mortgage payment plan? But think about the money they really made as farmers; they could never have made monthly payments. Crops needed time – they first needed to be planted, then time to grow, then time to harvest, and then to sale – if they were lucky.
Even though he only had to make one payment – once a year – his dream was to pay off that loan quickly! And that is exactly what he did in a little over five years, but not without a slight struggle. Edgar McKinley walked into the government loan office in Greensboro one Saturday afternoon with a check in hand for the balance of his loan, and was quickly told, “Mr. McKinley you can’t do this.” Now I told you before that my grandfather was a smart man, and he had done his homework! He replied, “would you like for me to have my lawyer walk across the street to tell you otherwise.” They took his check! I’m sure he walked out of that office with a smirk on his face – going up against the government isn’t always easy, but winning puts a smile on your face.
What did my grandfather grow on that farm that provided a life for his family – cotton! And from the census, cotton was the main crop grown on those sixty acres farmed. That meant long days when the cotton bloomed and was ready for picking – and it was all picked by hand; everyone in the family worked in the field – no exceptions. They worked right alongside the temporary workers during those long hot days.
My mother is the last generation who can say she lugged a cotton basket through those rows and rows of cotton. She laughs now about the time she fainted in the field – just to get out of picking for the day and the time she dropped rocks in the baskets to make them “feel” heavy. You didn’t pull the wool over my grandfather’s eyes – if he let you get away with something – he let you!
Her favorite memory was of riding in the wagon with her father to the cotton mill in Siloam; the small country town in Greene County where they lived. She was proud to sit beside him with a piled-high wagon of cotton – she was often called little E.T. He lined up in line with the other wagons to have his cotton sucked up under the chute, to be turned into bales of cotton. Everyone usually sold their cotton on that day – but not my grandfather. His first question was always “what’s the price today per pound?” If he felt the price too low, he brought the bales home and stored them in the barn until the price was what he wanted. I found a small notebook of his scribbling of pounds and prices – it was what he used to track what he sold and for how much. Nothing like paper copies! In a way – that was his cite-sourcing! The small book, wasn’t even an actual notebook, just a free advertising book with a few blank pages – he wasted nothing. That was the way during those years – they used and reused until it couldn’t be used anymore. These were people who had lived through the depression – they were not wasteful people.
Farmers grew almost everything they needed for survival – and they needed to. Besides selling the cotton, they used it. Grandmamma stuffed their mattresses and pillows with it and layered her quilts for quilting; that cotton supplied them with both a nice nest egg and kept them warm.
It wasn’t all just cotton grown on his farm – he grew wheat to supply the family’s cooking. The wheat was taken by wagon to the local mill to grind into flour and cornmeal. Often the owner was paid with part of the finished product. Plus it was another fun trip in the wagon for my mother.
There were no beef cows on his farm – why you ask? Granddaddy didn’t like beef, but he did have a heard of milking cows. Bessie led the way to the barn every evening, with the rest following behind her to the clanking sound of the cowbell, as it swayed back and forth, under her neck. That simple cowbell is among my family heirlooms and anytime I pick it up and hear that clank, it takes me back to remembering my grandfather. Mama often climbed the persimmon tree to await Bessie walking underneath; sitting on a lower branch yielded her an easy slide onto her back – for a ride to the barn.
But mama wasn’t the only one who liked to follow Bessie, Clark Gable, her brother Leroy’s large yellow cat, often beat the cows to the barn. He’d perch on top of the stall ledge waiting for his squirt of milk – until granddaddy yelled “that cat gets more milk than what’s hitting the pail.” Clark Gable didn’t care, he never jumped down until the milking was done, he knew he’d get another squirt or two.
And the Plowing continues on…
Both of my grandfathers had farms, but only one was still farming when I grew up – Paul Pinkney Bryan in Union Point, Georgia. He had a small farm of only about five acres situated at the end of a dead end street. Granddaddy Bryan was born to farm – he was the most comfortable behind that wooden plow and mule. He never farmed with a horse because he said that they will work themselves to death – literally. A horse never knows when to rest, but a mule will stop and rest in the middle of plowing when they’re tired – and no one makes them work again until rested; that was ok with granddaddy as he rested also, and there was always a “Casa Blanca” cigar tucked in the top of his “Pointer” overalls – just for that purpose.
Granddaddy Bryan loved to plow more than anything in life – I think he was the most comfortable and happiest as he followed behind that plow. He was a man of few words and it didn’t take much to prod his mule along – just “gee” and “haw” and they both understood. It was a quiet relationship doing what they both loved best.
Those five acres were his pride and joy and what he lived for, although farming was not his 9 – 5 job. Paul Bryan worked 6 – 2 every day at Chipman Hosiery Mills, just two blocks up the street from his house. Every afternoon at two o’clock, the whistle blew ending his shift and Granddaddy Bryan walked home and began the work he loved – tilling the warm earth!
He farmed every bit of land that surrounded his house at that dead-end street. A small creek ran through his field that split off from the head of the Ogeechee River; it helped to keep his bottom land moist.
Granddaddy’s main crop was corn – and he grew the best “silver queen” around. Although the majority of it was sold, we enjoyed at every Sunday dinner and I remember always leaving their house with a couple sacks of corn. Everyone in town knew where to come for fresh vegetables – and no matter if granddaddy had corn already picked that morning, if someone stopped to buy, he donned his hat, slung his satchel over his shoulder and went to pick them a “mess” of corn – fresh from the field. He always felt if they wanted to buy from him, he wanted to give them the freshest! Granddaddy was proud of his corn and vegetables he grew – he took pride in growing the best and selling it fresh!
In my grandfather’s later years, and after the mules knobby arthritic knees weren’t allowing him to pull that plow any longer, my father bought him one of the new metal tillers. After following behind a mule for years, enjoying a cigar on the mule’s breaks, this new-fangled tiller, he so called it, of metal and steel – didn’t cut like the flesh and blood that used to pull his plow. The farming slowly dwindled to almost nothing as this wasn’t farming to him without the flesh and blood of his mule in the field with him; something was missing for him.
Farming in its original form of how my line of dirt farmers worked their land is pretty much extinct! No more wooden plows, no more mules, and no need because those small farms are no more. The farms today are more commercial run, unlike the many small farms of yesteryear. The days of the small time farmer are gone, and never to return.
Both grandfather’s might not have thought their lives were worth much, being just a poor dirt farmer, but look at you now! You’re lives meant more than you think – and you’re remembered here for all to see.”