Hiram Parks Bell: Boyhood on the Farm
The following is the second chapter from Col. Bell’s volume Men and Things:
“Those familiar with the history of Georgia during the first half of the nineteenth century will remember that, at the close of the Revolutionary War, but a small part of the State, extending from the coast up the Savannah River, was occupied by white inhabitants; the bulk of the territory, of what now constitutes the ‘Empire State of the South,’ was wild woods, occupied by hostile Indians and wild beasts. The absence of money and commerce, the continental war debt, apprehension of failure in organizing successfully the new system of civil government, and the general demoralization resulting from the war, and the disorganized state of society generally, created the conditions to be met. These conditions developed the cardinal factors in achieving our present advanced type of civilization---enterprise and industry. Men and women went bravely to work to win bread and better their condition. Controversies were adjusted, and treaties negotiated with the Indians, population poured in, new counties were formed, forests subdued, the wilderness reclaimed, churches and schoolhouses built---cheap and humble at first, it is true, but they were the seed of a harvest to be gathered later.
“That portion of Georgia lying west of the Chattahoochee River, known as Cherokee, Georgia, was the last portion of the State opened for settlement by white people. It was occupied by an industrious, hardy class of people, with small means, very speedily. There were few slave holders among them. The settlement of this section of the State took place at the time when President Jackson’s removal of deposits from the national bank, and specie circular burst the bubble of ‘flush times’ sent the wild-cat banks, which had spring up like Jonah’s gourd, to grief; and left the people in debt without a circulating medium. Under these conditions---from 1840 to 1847---and between 13 and 20 years of age, from sunrise until sunset, in winter and summer, I was engaged without intermission in work on the farm, which consisted in the winter season in clearing and fencing the land, cutting, hauling logs, and erecting buildings. The county was heavily timbered, which was wasted with reckless prodigality. Each neighborhood had its circle of 15 or 20 neighbors; and every spring as regular as the Ides of March, each neighbor had his regulation log-rolling; and in the fall, each within the circle had his corn-shucking. The house-raising was another institution of these primitive times. This was carried on either in the winter or in the summer, between the crop-finishing and fodder-gathering season.
“These good people wrought hard and constantly, without money; and strikingly illustrated the truth that: ‘Man wants but little here below.’ They were plain and simple in their dress; the cotton patch, flocks, cards, spinning wheel, loom room, and deft hands of good, virtuous housewives supplied the wardrobe. It was not long, however, until the farm, herd, orchard, garden and dairy poured their treasures into the refectory in a variety and profusion that would satiate the appetite of Milo, or eclipse the board of Lucullus. They lived like princes on the proceeds of honest labor.
“In those days many communities had its own little log church, built over a vigorous controversy over its location, at which they held their Sunday school and attended preaching, which was often on a week day, and to which the men would go from the field and the women from the loom---all in fatigue dress. They went to hear the Word of Life, and were generally thrilled by its power, and comforted by its solace. They lived in peace, all, or most of them, unconscious of what was transpiring in the great big world around them. If they were denied the blessing of different environments and a more advanced state of civilization, the law of compensation exempted them from the annoyance of an army of cooking stove, sewing machine, and insurance agents, and peddlers of rat poison and Chinese grips. It was not long, however, until the thin-nosed, irrepressible, wooden-nutmeg, Yankee clock peddler put in his appearance.
“It is written: ‘In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread.’ My boyhood life on the farm is a striking illustration of the truth of this divine statement. An accident to an elder brother in the spring of 1834 sent me to the plow at the age of seven years. Other hands put on the gear and tied the hamestring, and a friendly stump or fence corner, after climbing, enabled me to reach the back of the horse. In 1843, in the absence of my father, I bossed the farm. The weather was phenomenally cold in the winter and spring, forage was scarce, livestock died---a magnificent comet stretched across the southwestern heavens. Miller’s prediction of the approaching end of the world alarmed the superstitious. It snowed in March, and the ground was deeply frozen as late as the 5th of April; and vegetation indicated no sign of appearance at that date. A little later, an indiscreet neighbor put out fire on an adjoining farm in dry, windy weather, which caught the dead timber on my father’s farm, set the fence on fire, and necessitated the tearing down and rebuilding of between two and three hundred panels to save the rails. I felt something of the consternation of Napoleon when he discovered the blaze of Moscow. I did not retreat, but saved the fence. How much trouble, labor, expense and solicitude we could save others by a little caution at the proper time! In the winter of 1842-1843 my elder brother and myself made the rails and enclosed a forty-acre lot of land, thirty acres of which was mainly a chinquapin thicket. When the crop of 1843 was finished, my father returned home from a mining enterprise in which he and my elder brother had been engaged, and constructed a threshing machine, the band of which my two brothers and myself turned in the month of August until we threshed out the wheat crop of one hundred bushels at the rate of five or six bushels per day. In the winter of 1843-1844, my elder brother having attained his majority, left home and entered school. My two younger brothers and I devoted our time to the clearing of the thirty acres of chinquapin thicket, which consisted in cutting off the bushes near the ground with club or pole axes.
“Early in the month of May, 1844, the brush was burned, the ground was laid off, without breaking, and planted in corn. After wheat harvest, on the 20th of June, my brother Matthew and I commenced to plough it for the first time. Father and a negro woman followed with the hoes. The rows were nearly a quarter of a mile in length. The water sprouts were as thick, and very nearly as tall, as ordinary wheat at maturity---so thick and tall that we frequently lost the row in running the furrow next to the corn. The corn having grown in the shade, was about 18 inches high, and the stalk but little larger than a well-developed sedge broom straw; so slender, indeed that when the sprouts were taken from around it much of it fell down. We had been plowing, or trying to plow, for about three hours in this wilderness on an immensely hot day, when I discovered an immensely large rattlesnake making an effort to disengage itself from entanglement with the foot of my plow. I shall not attempt to describe my horror, for the reason that there are some things beyond the attainment of human power. I killed the snake, reported at once the adventure to my father, and begged him to abandon the field, urging that it was tempting providence to take the risk of the snakes. But my father had more faith than I, and scarcely gave my importunate plea a respectful hearing. We ploughed on for nearly a week; and passing each other near the center of the field, we stopped and engaged in conversation. I noticed in a moment my brother’s face turned white as cotton. He had discovered a large rattlesnake lying under a bush in the row between us. We loosened our horses, dispatched the rattler, and turned to hitch them, when I discovered, under another bush nearby, a companion snake of equal size, which was also promptly dispatched. After 10 days of plowing in new ground covered with a wilderness of bushes, permeated with roots and stumps, and inhabited by rattlesnakes---suffering all the agonies of mental crucifixion---we finished the job with Nil as the result, so far as the crop yield was concerned. A few years ago, as I closed my brother’s eyes in death---within an hour after I reached his bedside in Milledgeville---these struggles, toils, and associations of our boyhood came trooping down the dusty aisles of memory, with a power and pathos for which language has no expression.
“The year 1845 was eventful in most of the Gulf States, on account of the absence of rain and the failure of crops. Hundreds of families, especially from South Carolina and Georgia, sought homes in the West. Four weeks of the summer of this year is epochal in my history. I had, for that period, the benefit of my brother’s instruction. The preceding year, he had the instruction of a first-class teacher, and was himself an accomplished grammarian. This month’s instruction from a competent teacher laid the foundation for what little I may have attained in the way of education.
“In 1846 my father took a new departure in his farming enterprise. He had tried cotton, which his boys had shivered with cold in picking during Christmas week and in January and which he had hauled with an ox team to Madison, Georgia, then the head of the Georgia Railroad and sold at 2 1/2 cents per pound. This departure consisted in substituting a tobacco for a cotton crop. He planted ten acres in tobacco plants. The land happened to be in the most favorable condition to produce its largest yield of crab grass. The season was unusually wet, the growth of the tobacco was retarded, that of the grass, not. After much toil, the crab grass, late in the summer, was subdued. If there is any one thing for which a farmer boy ardently pants, it is a few weeks of rest after the crop is ‘laid-by,’ and the peach and watermelon season puts in an appearance. But just as this halcyon heaven of boyish delight was reached, the tobacco plants must be topped, and the worms and suckers removed. This process consists in pinching off the top bud and suckers with the fingers and knocking off the great, green, loathsome worms with a stick and mashing them with the foot. The operator is bent forward in the broiling sunshine, besmeared with the gum and stench of this plant, and disgusted with the sight of worms. This is anything but a delightful exercise. It was completed, in this case, some days after the drying fodder had suffered for gathering. Then the tobacco house was to be built and daubed, the plant to be cut, placed on sticks and cured, stripped from the stalk and bound into hands. What the crop yielded in money I do not now remember. I am sure it was the only experiment my father ever made with tobacco. He went back to cotton.
“Having attended school---all told, only six or eight months in snatches of two or three weeks at a time---in the old field school, most of that time to very inferior teachers, even for this grade of school; and having attained the age of 20 years without education, I proposed to my father to serve him another year if he would send me to school for one year; or, that if he would release me from the service, I would discharge him from the obligation to give me a year’s schooling, as he had done for my older brother, and take the chances of educating myself. He generously accepted the latter proposition. It is due to the memory of my dear father to say that he had a high appreciation of his obligation to educate his children, and ardently desired to discharge that obligation. But having a large family to support, always necessarily in debt, settling in the woods remote from schools fitted to be entrusted with one’s education, it was utterly impracticable for him, with these environments, to carry out his wishes in this respect. It is a matter of solace to me, that most of his children, somehow, secured a good English education.
“Before I close this chapter, allow me to say that there is one phase of the life of the average country-brought-up boy that it would do him great injustice to omit. It is about the time in history when the first application of a dull razor is made to his upper lip, designed to elicit the appearance of an infantile mustache, and he is, or thinks he is, desperately in love with a neighbor’s daughter. My observation convinces me that this event in a boy’s life constitutes a rule of general, if not universal, application. I was not an exception to the rule. On a bright Sunday morning, having blacked my shoes---that is, the top of the front portion of them---with a mixture of cold water and chimney soot---as much as I could induce them to mix---donned my best suit, saddled and mounted a small mule, something---but a little larger than a full grown Texas jack rabbit---(it was a very small mule), and set out on the Don Quixote adventure of calling to see the object of my supposed idolatry. Within a quarter of a mile from the house the road crossed a creek with rather precipitous banks. The mule, as it soon afterwards became apparent, was thirsty. As soon as it came within reach of the water, it very naturally but very suddenly and very decidedly unceremoniously put its mouth to the water, which left its body in an angle of something over 45 degrees. The result was, the rider was tumbled over the mule’s head into the creek, followed by the saddle, which fell on him. This mishap was then esteemed a calamity. It is now regarded as the poetry of the ludicrous. It would present a picture that would shame the genius of Nast, whose artistic skill as a cartoonist broke the heart and caused the death of Horace Greely.”