by Henry Carl Hickman
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They tell me that I was born on the hot night of August 15, in 1887. The event occurred in my grandfather's 1 log house located on a sandy ridge that slopes gently down to the pin oak flats in the "Dark Corner" of Bradley County, Arkansas. The Dark Corner consisted of all that triangular portion of the county that is bounded on the north by the Big Road 2 leading from Moro Bay to Johnsville. The southwestern leg of the triangle was the Ouachita River, the southeastern, the Saline. The northern portion of this triangle consisted of pine flats with its virgin growth untouched by saw or ax; the lower segment of the triangle was subject to annual overflow from the river. The vegetation in the bottoms was cane, briars, low scrubby oak, vines, and typical subtropical growth...tupelo, mayhaws, cypress. Only a few transient trappers lived in the swampland area. It was a jungle filled with a wide range of wild life -- deer, turkeys, panthers, wolves, 'coons, 'possums, squirrels, with the lakes and streams filled with warm-water fish and an occasional alligator. Mud turtles crawled out of the sloughs and sunned their hard backs on the mossy cypress logs.
The upper segment of the triangle, comprising a strip two to four miles wide, lying south of the Big Road was habitable and probably fifty families 3 lived on small ridges that rose up from the flats enough to provide drainage. Some of this land was productive prior to "the war" (Civil), but in the deep despair of the '70s and '80s had been abandoned and had reverted to dense pine thickets, often the only trace of the first houses being a few foundation stones or perhaps an old well that had not been fully refilled. We once had a cow fall into one of these old wells and it was almost a week before we found and rescued her from the underground prison. She was stiff, weak and almost famished, but gentle, careful attention brought her back from the deep.
The first incident planted in my memory had to do with a cotton patch. We lived in a small log house on the north side of the Big Road (Moro to Johnsville), 1/2 mile west of the Concord Baptist Church. My parents had given the church an acre of land. My father cleared a small tract of the woodland adjacent to the house and extending northward to a small branch that wormed its lazy way though the bushes. As I recall the layout, it probably contained some 3 to 5 acres. This tract, he planted to cotton and it grew tall...twice my height. It fruited heavily and I still see the deep, white, fluffy snow, back with my father patiently picking the locks from the big 5 sectional bolls. The yard was fenced off from the field by riven palings about 4 1/2 feet high. The gate opened onto a trail leading across the cotton patch to a crossing of the branch. It was left open the day I first recall and I followed it out into the field where my father was working. He soon put me back on the path and told me to go to the house. A girdled tree had fallen across the path and I recall clearly my childish efforts to get over it. Evidently I did, but I recall nothing else other than trying to climb up and over.
My mother's father was named Madric Washington Merritt. I have previously noted that I was born at his home at the edge of the pin oak flat. There was an uplift of several feet from the floor of the flat. Near the base of this incline was a good clear flowing spring of pure cold water. The whole county for several miles in all directions was open range. That is to say that the horses, cattle and hogs were not fenced in, but that fences were required to fence the stock out. Being thus free to come and go at their pleasure, this spring was a favorite watering hole. Adjacent to it on the ridge were a number of big oak trees that provided a good resting place while the cattle were chewing their cuds.
Having noted the historic appellation borne by grandfather, it seems appropriate to note that he had two brothers who were similarly honored, James Madison Merritt and Julius Clay Merritt. James Madison (Uncle Jim) was perhaps the first school teacher in Bradley County. As an old man with a long gray beard he on occasions stopped at our house and amazed the family and friends, parsing, declining and extolling the virtues of grammatical conformity. He married late in life and had one son whose descendants still live in southeast Arkansas. Uncle Clay moved to Stuttgart, Ark., and my idea is that he had only one child...a daughter -- and that she married a Petit. There were two sisters in the family. Jane married Brooks and bore three children, Merritt, Martha and a girl who married a Splawn and lived at Dermott, Ark. She had three children, Bud, Bessie, and Ola, the latter now living in Little Rock and known as "Skeeter."
But I drifted away from the matter of which I set out to speak. So let's go back to Grampa down in the dark corner. Times were hard then and for some reason he decided to leave Bradley Co., and to move to Pine Bluff, or more accurately to a small farm near Bayou Bartholomew, a few miles west of Pine Bluff. My parents decided to join the exodus, and that trek was what I had in mind to talk about. It was in the early nineties. I think I was four or five years old. The one thing that sticks out in my memory was that we had the wagon loaded and were preparing for an early start the next morning. Among the things aboard was a crate of chickens. We found out that two or three hens had skipped the coop and when night came along that they went to roost on the low branches of a mulberry tree in the front yard. In order not to leave them behind, the folks made torches of pitch pine and so blinded and caught the oviparous vagabonds. There was a mule hitched near the tree and all hands were busy keeping me out of kicking distance.
Crossing the Rubicon (Saline)
The only incident that I recall that pertains to the trip enroute to the new home has to do with our crossing the Saline River between Warren and Pine Bluff. The river was full and fast-flowing. The crossing was on a ferry operated on manpower. A big rope was tied to a stout tree on either bank and dropped down to the floor of the ferry and then the craft was pulled back and forth from bank to bank. I recall being out of the wagon and trying to reach down to the water as it lapped the frail side of the craft. My mother soon broke up that part of the fun, and I was directed back to the cramped quarters in the wagon. The wagons were equipped with bows over which a wagon sheet (tarpaulin) could be stretched and securely tied during rainy weather.
The Promised Land
I have few recollections of our life in the new home. I know that we did live a few miles southwest of Pine Bluff close to the tracks of the Cotton Belt railroad and in sight of the wagon road to the resort community of Sulphur Springs.
One bright spring morning there was a noise at the kitchen door. My mother was at work nearby and looking out the open door, she saw two of the most down and out individuals that ever walked the track...dirty, ragged, hungry. Plying their trade, they asked for food. Notwithstanding that own fare was light, she yielded to her tender spirit and shared with the callers. I don't know just what the meal may have consisted of but there was one item I never forgot and can still see after a lapse of more than 70 years. They poured generous servings of molasses onto their plates and onto this they piled thick chunks of butter. Then they began to cut up the butter into small pieces and to stir the yellowish combination into the most repulsive dish that I had ever looked at. Biscuits were then opened up and a sop made of the whole gooey spread. I have never eaten butter and sometimes think my dislike of it might be rooted in the buttered 'lasses.
The Big Wheel
Our house did not face directly onto the pike, but was sufficiently close to observe the traffic in that unhurried time. Curiously, the feature that always comes up on my "memory screen" is that of the bicycles. They were not of the sort that fascinate the visitors to Scandinavia, but the type that consists of wheels of different height, the front wheel being as high as a man's shoulder, and the rear, scarcely up to his knees. A half-dozen of these skimming along through great clouds of dust gave a lasting impression of fast and high living. Surely nothing could be finer or more certain to conjure up dreams of faraway places, like Sulphur Springs, for instance. Five miles --- whole miles --- away.
Horace and Neppie4 were twins, 2 years younger than me. During our stay there in the cabin along the tracks, Horace fell sick and died. They buried his little body on a slight huckleberry knoll across the tracks from the house. It was not a regular cemetery, but a few other graves were there, marked by pine boards onto which the names had been roughly inked in. No trace remains to spot the ancient grief. Horace's tender bones have long since returned to the clay ---the ultimate lot of all. A small headstone in his memory accompanies others of the family in the plot near the old school grounds at Marsden.5
Back to Bradley
After a year in the Pine Bluff area my parents returned to Bradley County. They acquired land on the Warren road, two or three miles north of the place from which they left to go to Pine Bluff. I think it was acquired from the state under an arrangement to return to private ownership lands that had been acquired by the state on account of failure to pay taxes. There was a small clearing --- five to ten acres on the first uplift from the L'Aigle bottoms. There was an old log house with a lean-to, in badly run-down condition. A lone apple tree stood near the kitchen door. This tree produced a few apples and when they began to ripen we picked the ones that seemed nearest to maturity and put it on the top shelf of the kitchen safe. It was put on that shelf to be safely out of my reach, and so it was. But I did not forget where all the fresh fruity smell was coming from. So when my parents were out of the house in the field I shoved a chair over to the safe, climbed on top of it, and opened the door. Oh, the smell! Oh, the fragrant aroma of a summer apple to a fruit-famished tot! So I would have it, and have it now! In reaching for the apple, I somehow got the milk pitcher instead, and down came pitcher, towhead and all, spilling the milk all over the place. A misfortune of that magnitude could not be covered up and my screaming brought the folks from the field. And I still recall what happened next. They did not want to spoil the child, so applied the highly touted preventative. The treatment did not provide lifelong immunity, so that it was repeated as the various occasions required.
New House Begun
We soon moved from the log house to a new house out on the main road. Actually, only about one-half of the house was constructed first. The prevailing farmhouse pattern consisted on one room with a shed-roof lean-to on each side. Or, if on a grander scale, there were two large rooms with a wide hall separating them. Extending the full length across the front was a wide open porch or gallery as it was called. Another room, or rooms, extended to the rear of one side, forming a L-shaped structure. So ours was planned along the more spacious lines but as a starter we had only the one big room with an L on the side. A year or two later, a similar big room was built across the hall. At first, this room was a bare shell of box construction, one door leading into it from the hall. There was no money for windows, so it was completely without light and was appropriately know as the "dark room".
My father was a hard worker, and he cleared new lands on both sides of the road. We subsisted on the scant crops of cotton, corn, peas, and a wide variety of garden truck that my mother grew. There was an ever increasing number of children to feed. My father split the rails for the fencing, razed boards for the roof, palings for the yard and garden, dug a well, and built log stables and a crib on the west side of the road.
Our closest neighbor was a Negro, Floyd Hargraves. He lived in a shanty that adjoined us on the north. Several other Negro families lived on the little ridges nearby. Floyd was about the age of my father. He had been born a slave, and had belonged to a man named Hargraves --- who was the husband of one of Grandpa Hickman's sisters. We used to tell Dad that he and Floyd were cousins. They had known each other from childhood and remained good friends throughout their lives. Floyd had trouble with his wife. They were divorced and he married again --- a young one this time. There was a long stair-step of children and Floyd always spoke of them affectionately as the "old hen and the little chicks".
Start to School
My school days had their beginning while we were living at this place. There was no one farther up the road to come by for me to go along with. Naturally, I went alone, there being no bus! The school house was about 2.5 miles from our home, and there were only two farm houses along the way. The rest of the distance, perhaps two-thirds of the total distance, was carved through the woods. The timber was almost entirely scrub oak, gum, and small pine. Old timers claimed that a devastating twister had wrecked the area long years before and that all the virgin timber had been destroyed. The road was not graded, so the wear of wagon wheels soon wore it down and it was lower than adjacent lands. In rainy weather the road was full of water. The worst places were bypassed by trails. Logs were laid over the lowest swales. We walked them to keep out of the worst water and mud.
Arkansas is a southern state, but it isn't tropical, particularly in winter. Our clothes, the best that my parents could provide, were mostly made by our mothers, and were seldom "store bought". One especially cold morning my hands were almost frozen when I reached the Hairston place. Mrs. Hairston was my aunt, being my father's sister Myra6. I went into their house and while I stood by the big, open fireplace, Aunt Myra soaked my numbed hands in ice water. That must have been the treatment needed for now three score and ten years later both are doing their accustomed chores, being only somewhat slowed by arthritic joints.
Another cold, frosty morning a farmer who lived several miles north of us on the Warren road picked me up. He was driving a nice span of matched bays and as the weather was cold the horses did not mind trotting, especially as he had an empty wagon. He was enroute to Moro Bay, a steamboat landing on the Ouachita. There he would buy a load of commercial fertilizer that had been shipped up the river from New Orleans. In those earliest years, little plant food other than barnyard manure was used. A few years later, this same farmer7 and his family moved into our community. In due course, his daughter Mattie married my brother Roscoe ...ten years my junior... and they became parents of four fine sons of whom all the relatives are proud.
The school building was on the Moro road, a quarter mile west of Mill Creek. The underbrush was cut away, forming a small yard, but all the larger trees, pine and oak, remained. From fifty to seventy-five children attended or were eligible to attend. Most parents were super lax in requiring regularity. There were ample excuses -- rainy weather, bad roads, sickness. Little or no precautions were taken to control colds, measles, or mumps. When any sort of illness struck, it generally made a clean sweep --- everyone was affected before it ran its course. For instance, there was a well with a single water bucket and one common dipper out of which all drank.
The building boasted only one room, something like 30x40. Walls were made of rough, unplaned pine boards stood upright. The cracks were covered by 1x4 strips. Wide boards pressed tightly alongside each other, but not tongue and groove, formed the floor. Heating was by a wood burning stove with the chimney sticking out the roof, there being no ceiling to hinder its rising. Most of the fuel in the first years was pine limbs or knots that the older boys picked up in the surrounding forests, there being no clearing within a mile in any direction. In later times, the school district bought several cords of split timbers, which were cut to usable length and stacked alongside the building. Desks and seats were made of heavy, local pine, and were deeply engraved with the names of earlier users. Made of wide boards, planed as smooth as could be expected of amateur local workers, and painted black, a strip about four feet wide spread across the south end of the building. This was the blackboard.
Some of the older boys like to make the tobacco juice sizzle on the hot stove. The larger boys played fox and hounds and that gave them the excuse to range deep into the adjacent woodlands, hiding in the thickets and trying to slip back upon the open school yard without being caught. On one occasion I went with a larger and older boy as far the mill on Mill Creek8. Here we found a small pool that contained a few fish. We muddied the waters and picked up two catfish, each about six inches long, and dumped them into the school well. Some one told the teacher and then there was trouble -- as well there should have been. The teacher made us get 'em out. To do it, we had to draw the water out with a bucket, until an accomplice could go down into the well and catch the fish. That was the last time the well was used as a fish pond. Regrettably, the older boy involved was killed in a backwoods accident while still a young man, but happily on February 18, 1965 I am still enjoying the blue skies and bright sun of Colorado winter.
One of the bigger and 'dumber' boys, unable to learn anything, became very rude and hostile toward the teacher, a small man who later graduated from Ouachita College and became one of the leading men in the state. This big bully waylaid the teacher as he was going home after school one afternoon, and by his youthful, brute strength beat the teacher up with deep gashes in his cheeks, black eyes, and bruised-up nose. So far as I know, no punishment was ever given to the bully. In fact, one of the professional requisites of early-day teachers was the ability to meet local rowdies on their own terms. In some school districts, it was impossible to conduct school or church services because of the depredations of these longhaired backwoodsmen.
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Edited by: Gerald J. Hickman