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When I wrote this, it was for a project in school. If I had been
doing it on my own, I would have done it a little differently. In any case, I must
have done something right; I made an 'A' on it.
And Then There Was the One About the Docker Chicken
"Oral history reveals daily life at home and at work--the very stuff that rarely gets into any kind of public record" (Yow 13). The stories people tell about the rural South might describe misfortune, practical jokes, or an ordinary event for the time period. While listening to these stories, listeners are able to learn about the people who lived in simpler times. The actions of the people define them so well that listeners understand their morals, beliefs, and values without directly being told. The listener learns that these people knew how to survive both physically with manual labor and mentally with common sense and a touch of humor.
The word "listeners" has been used as opposed to "readers" because much of the feeling in the story is lost in the transition from mouth to paper. It often loses the enthusiasm expressed by the teller, causing any humor and part of the reality to disappear. Therefore, people do not get the full effect when a written account of oral history is given. The stories included here are only intended to present examples of oral history from Wilkes County, North Carolina occurring between 1840 and 1940. Most of these tales come from my grandmother Doris Bauguess Duncan, who has recounted events from her childhood or stories told to her by older aunts and uncles. Others are taken from books dealing with the lifestyles in the area. Together, these tales present an accurate and realistic picture of the time period.
Outside the city of Wilkesboro, Wilkes County was, and still is, mostly rural. The county "resembles a wagon wheel in shape, the paved highways like spokes leading from Wilkesboro to the county seats of all the adjoining counties" (Hayes 1). Over fifty years ago, it was not uncommon for neighbors to live a mile or more away. Houses were not close because they were separated by fields of crops such as corn, tobacco, and potatoes. Because they grew the majority of their food at home, families owned a lot of land for farming. The presence of larger families made acres and acres of farming possible. When my grandmother was growing up on the farm, there was no gas powered machinery to make the task easier. Almost every member of the family (there were twelve children) was expected to help in the fields.
Children were initiated into manual field labor almost as soon as they could walk. When my grandmother was four years old she was given a handful of corn to plant. One kernel was supposed to be pushed in the ground every so often along the rows. However, like most four year olds, she had a different idea. She went to the edge of the field, dumped the kernels in a pile, and covered them up with dirt, making her job for the day finished. But when all the corn in the field started coming up except hers, the family became suspicious. When her Daddy asked if she knew why her corn was not coming up, she replied, "I don't know." He realized what the problem was when he saw a cluster of corn stalks at the edge of the field.
The Bauguess family could not afford to let seeds or anything else go to waste. When crops failed to come up or were damaged, money was lost. At harvest time, every part of a crop was put to some use. When the corn was shucked, all of the shucks would be gathered with the stalks and fed to the cows. Even bare corncobs were not wasted. The majority of them were fed to the cows, but some were kept in the outhouse for emergencies.
There was a certain boy who "had to go" every morning on his walk to school. Usually there was no problem in finding enough leaves to take care of the situation. However, one morning when he stopped, he made a terrible mistake. When he started using some leaves, his friend informed him that he had chosen poison oak. The mistake kept him out of school for the next two weeks.
What if a farmer had a small family, and therefore a small farm? How could he feed his cattle cheaply? What would he keep in the outhouse? This was the case with Elias Brown who never had children and did not have a wife until he was forty-five years old. With the latter, it can be assumed that he was able to raise enough corn to suffice. The former was a more serious problem which he solved with common sense. He built his cabin near his father at Stone Mountain probably in the 1850s. His farm was situated on steep, unproductive hillsides which he used to his advantage. In the summer he used a hand scythe to cut "briars, weeds, bushes, and anything else green, which he stacked to dry to feed to his cattle in the winter. When he was asked about the poor quality of his feed, he answered that it would be better to throw (that) out to his cattle in February" than it would be to throw out a snow ball (Royall 66-67). Mr. Brown was able to take advantage of his assets just as the Bauguesses did. They both had the same problem with different circumstances which they overcame. Through extensive research, Michael Frisch discovered that "an individual can survive through hard work and ingenuity, no matter how bad the situation" (Yow 16). "These people were adventurous, courageous, industrious, and persevering. In spite of their handicaps, they instilled in their descendants the dignity of labor, the value of thrift, the rewards for overcoming difficulties" (Hayes 79). The people in the area knew how to be frugal with what little they had. It was a necessity to live.
Some people will argue that one other thing was a necessity to stay alive in Wilkes County, especially in the cold winters: moonshine. In a physical sense, that is arguably wrong, but it holds some truth economically. The biggest reason people made moonshine was for money. My great-grandfather's cousin, who was an avid moonshiner, once said, "Moonshine is not supposed to be drunk. It's meant to be sold!" Nonetheless, he experienced two prison terms for liquor making. Some were able to partially avoid the risk by hiring people to run the still and giving them a percentage of the profit. Still yet, if the Revenue caught anyone at the still, that person could give up the name of the person who hired him. However, this rarely happened indicating that a rather effective relationship existed among the moonshining community.
My grandmother's Uncle Sherd hired people to make moonshine for him even though his own uncle A. P. Bauguess was a prohibition agent for Wilkes County (Hayes 403). He was by no means wealthy, but, because of the profit he made from selling it, he could afford to hire moonshine makers. On several occasions the Revenue caught the people he had hired. Sherd was always lucky, and he himself was never caught. He was so successful as a moonshine seller that he sent his two daughters through college on moonshine money.
Much of Wilkes County feared the Revenue. Even if people didn't make moonshine, the Revenue could trick them into telling who did. Once my grandmother was walking along a path to Uncle Joe's house with her sister Selma and two brothers. They stopped along the way to play near a still when the Revenue happened to be in the area. The first thing the Revenue asked was who they were. My grandmother was careful and gave her cousin's name. When asked whose still it was they said they didn't know even though everyone in the area knew who had stills in certain places. When the Revenue asked where they were going they said along the path. Where does the path go? They said it went to Lyon's Store which was not a complete lie. Along the path, the store would just be four miles away and across two creeks with one having a log as a bridge and the other rather wide. Nonetheless the path would have eventually taken them to the store. Since they were not any help, the Revenue let them go.
On another occasion, my grandmother and Selma were walking to Grandpa Matt's house when they ran across a still. They could smell the liquor as they got closer, and they did not see anybody around. It was bubbling and fizzing because it had not fermented yet. The foam was supposed to be raked off soon. My grandmother touched it and licked her fingers to see how it tasted. Selma tried to rake the foam off, but was having trouble. My grandmother said, "You can't rake that off. It's a dead possum!" A possum had fallen in and drowned.
A related story was told by Ruby McBride Warren about a time before modern medicines were available. A local doctor who used whiskey as his main medicine was asked to pull a girl's tooth. Apparently he gave the girl too much pain killer, and she thought she was going to die. "Whether the pain was so bad or she felt so good, . . . (she) demanded to be baptized at once." The doctor and a neighbor "took her to the nearby river and baptized her. The doctor must have had second thoughts about acting like a clergyman, as he and the neighbor agreed not to tell about the incident for a number of years" (Royall 5).
When the Bauguesses were sick, they did not rely on a local doctor: They could always count on Aunt Mollie. The family turned to her for care in anything from pneumonia to delivering babies to injured chickens. She cared for her brothers Frank and Jack for two years each until they died of pneumonia in 1930 and 1934, respectively. My grandmother was at Aunt Mollie's house one night when a Docker chicken swallowed a short, but sharp stick. It became lodged in its throat and the chicken started choking. Mollie stayed calm and started plucking the feathers from its neck so she could make an incision to get the stick out. After it was out, Aunt Mollie used a needle and thread to sew the hole together. That Docker chicken lived several more happy years until that fateful Christmas when Aunt Mollie did not want a ham dinner. Nonetheless, I like to think that Aunt Mollie performed the first tracheotomy on a Docker chicken.
Aunt Mollie had many talents and was almost completely self-sufficient. She lived alone from age fifteen until a few years before her death at ninety-one years old in 1984. She made a lot of the clothes for her brother's family because they could not afford to buy them. Aunt Mollie was a very practical person and had only one pattern for girl's dresses. They all had long sleeves and went down to the ankles. She sewed them all from cotton feed sacks that had floral patterns. The dresses only varied in size which depended on the age of who needed it.
The rest of the feed sacks were white except for where the name of the company was imprinted into the fabric. Aunt Mollie would bleach the cloth and use it for shirts and underwear. She sewed the material together with cotton thread she made entirely herself. First she picked it manually in the fields. Then the seeds had to be removed while being careful not to get stuck by burrs. After a few more procedures, it had to be spun on a wheel into thread which was finally used for sewing.
Even though most of Aunt Mollie's work was for the family, she made a small amount of money by selling butter she made. She had a churn on the back porch where she made it from cow or goat milk. My grandmother helped sometimes when she was little and never did understand exactly how it worked, but Aunt Mollie always knew when it was finished. My grandmother would turn the crank until one arm got tired, and she switched to the other arm. When it had turned to butter it was divided into smaller parts, and Uncle Sherd took it to Wilkesboro to be sold.
One of the funniest stories about the always-serious Aunt Mollie involves a baby calf. It had just been born and she had a small stable built for it. Over the next few months she fed it very well. One day, when she decided to let it out of the stable, she realized that the cow would not fit through the door. Eventually the entire front of the stable was removed to get the cow out. Even then, Aunt Mollie remained calm and serious throughout the ordeal.
Back in those days, people survived the hard times by emphasizing the lighter, happier aspects of life. They must have stressed the positive because most of the stories that are remembered from the past include a light or humorous idea. No society could have lived in an environment with only the harsh conditions that are associated with the time period. They had a secret weapon. They realized the importance of light and humorous thoughts. Perhaps that is the greatest difference between then and now. Maybe our society would not complain about stress so much if it held the same values as people in rural Wilkes County did in simpler times.
Duncan, Doris B. Personal Interview. 5 Nov. 1994.
Hayes, Johnson J. The Land of Wilkes. Wilkesboro: Wilkes County Historical Society, 1962.
Royall, Hardin and Virginia. Log Cabin Families of Stone Mountain, North Carolina. North Carolina: Nu-Line Printing Company, 1981.
Yow, Valerie Raleigh. Recording Oral History. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1994.