Early Settlers of
Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements
Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life
By: Ethelene Dyer Jones
Last week’s column was on the subject of fertilizing, turning (plowing) the land, harrowing it, and getting ready to plant crops. On the farm, there was hardly ever a slack season, but that did not mean our lives were all work and no pleasure. The Fourth of July stood out as a favored holiday, and attending our nearby churches during revival season was a distinct pleasure (yes, plural, for we attended neighboring churches’ revivals, in addition to our own). These “high religious festivals”*—protracted meetings—came in July and August, after cultivating the crops had come to a halt and the time to ‘lay them by’ had arrived.
Planting was a solemn and thought-engendered process, as well as hard work on our mountain farm. After all danger of frost was past (he hoped) my father would “lay off” the rows in given sections of the farm for particular crops. Our main crop was corn, and we had fields of it, mainly in the bottomlands along the Nottely River. One year when I was a very young child (I don’t recall the year) a late snow and freeze came when the corn was already up and several inches high. That was a discouraging situation, for my father had to replant those corn fields after that cold snap had destroyed his early crop. But dealing with eventualities like the weather was all a part of planting and cultivating. It was known as “rolling with the flow,” praying a lot about what only the Lord could control, and trusting for a harvest in the fall. I recall not only the cold that sometimes required replanting of crops, but one summer it was so dry it looked like the crops would parch in the fields. Much like our hot summer in 2001, growth was at a standstill, and prospects for harvest were slim, indeed, unless rain came soon.
Our church leaders and pastors called a special prayer meeting for rain. As I recall, that meeting was on a Saturday afternoon, for we normally had “church conference” on Saturdays. We came from hot, parched fields where our work was not yielding results anyway. We cleaned up, dressed in our Sunday clothes, and went to church. A prayer meeting of great intensity occurred. I can hear some of those good old saints of God, like Hayes Hunter, and Great Uncle Jim Dyer, asking God to intervene and send us rain. When we finished the prayer meeting, dark clouds had already gathered. We stood at windows of our little white clapboard church and some at the doors, giving thanks for rain and answered prayers. Those who had faith enough to bring umbrellas began their walks back to their houses even before the welcome shower was over.
Cultivating the crops consisted of two processes. First, the farmer with his “one-horse” cultivator plow would go back and forth in the rows stirring the sod. This loosened any weeds growing, turned them over and covered them. It also gave fresh dirt against the growing plants and helped to nourish them. Then came the second step: Hoeing. Usually, women and older children did this work. This process got the weeds out of the row itself and from around the plant. We were also instructed to gently heap up the dirt around the stalks of corn. Imagine a cultivated field, free of invading and robbing weeds, and the crop of corn (or sorghum cane or potatoes or beans) growing inch by inch in favorable weather. A farmer’s field was his pride and joy and a testimony to his diligence as a good worker. “Laying by,” or the process of not cultivating any more but leaving the crop to grow on its own, came after about three times of plowing the middle of the rows and hoeing.
We didn’t usually get into town for the Fourth of July to participate in the celebration there, for we lived eight miles out in the country and didn’t have a vehicle to drive. We did, at times, however, have a celebration in our own community on our nation’s birthday—at the schoolhouse, close enough for us to walk—or at the church. We always had good orators and sometimes those running for some public office would take advantage of 4th of July celebrations to proclaim their merits for the office sought. We seldom had ice cream in those early years, for no one in our community had a source for ice needed to make homemade ice cream. But we would have cookies and other goodies to eat, whatever the housewives in our community could provide from their kitchens. By the 4th, usually fresh green beans were ready to pick, and the first potatoes ready to “grabble.” We would often have a celebration dinner at church, with fried chicken or fish (caught in the river) fried to a golden brown, fresh vegetables, and apple stack cakes made from fresh June apples. Choestoe Church still practices this 4th of July dinner-on-the-grounds, with a fish fry to which all have an open invitation.
And it seems that nearly always, some of the older boys had firecrackers to shoot on the 4th. Some might be shot toward the end of the gathering, outside away from the building. Or else at night, back home, if we listened, we might hear firecrakers exploding in the distance. As a small child, I was not thrilled by these little explosions and rather that had not been a part of our 4th observance. Simple though these 4th of July celebrations were, we came away with the distinct feeling that we lived in a good country. We were grateful for the gift of freedom.
Soon after the Fourth of July, our church would have summer revival, which we called then, “protracted meetings.” We would have a visiting preacher in addition to our own pastor, and sometimes a visiting song leader. It was customary for the revival team to stay in the community for the duration of the “protracted” meeting, so called because the revivals went a week, two weeks or sometimes longer, as long as the Spirit moved among the people and there was a harvest of souls for the efforts expended by the evangelistic team and the people who shared their faith. We always had the ministers in our home—to eat dinner (as we called the noon meal) and supper (the evening meal), and sometimes they spent one night with us as well. They traveled to several homes in the church community where they were invited.
It was a time when only necessary work was done on the farm, like tending to the livestock and milking the cows, gathering the eggs, and feeding the chickens. People visited one another and sat on porches, talking and enjoying a brief respite from the hard work expended on the farm up until “laying by” time. It occurs to me that the term had a multiple meaning: not only were the crops “laid by” to grow into their upcoming harvest, but the people themselves were “laying by” their troubles and concerns and enjoying spiritual, social and recreational time together.
In our fast-paced times now, it is hard for us to even imagine a time when general work was placed on hold and people enjoyed a time of refreshment (Going away for vacation now? Yes. But not having one right at home in your own community!) Maybe that’s what made us as strong as we were, a time-out, a time to gain perspective before the next season and its special demands descended upon us. And when our church’s “protracted meeting” came to an end, there was always another church near by holding meetings—near enough to walk. And everyone was always welcome, whether you normally attended there or not. That’s how it used to be in the country. A certain rhythm existed, and if you were fortunate, you joined in the song of the particular seasons and enjoyed each one.
(Note: *The term, “God’s high festival, protracted meeting” was used by poet Byron Herbert Reece in his poem, “Choestoe – A Dancing Place of Rabbits” published in The Prairie Schooner, in Spring, 1944. I highly recommend that you find a copy of the poem and read it. He gives many characteristics of our mountain people in that particular poem.-EDJ)
Jones; published June 30, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville,
Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
[Ethelene Dyer Jones is a retired educator, freelance writer, poet, and historian. She may be reached at e-mail email@example.com; phone 478-453-8751; or mail 1708 Cedarwood Road, Milledgeville, GA 31061-2411.]