What Use Coffin ?
Stories From Navarro County, Texas


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What Use Coffin?

By Matt Dawson
Originally published in "The Navarro County Scroll", 1956
Reprinted with permission of the Navarro County Historical Society


In Corsicana, Texas, I heard the strange, almost incredible story from a well known historiographer of that city, Mr. Alva Taylor, who has been at great pains to authenticate every detail of it.  This version is essentially true.

It appears that in 1895 a Mr. McIntyre lived with his wife and three sons on a tenant farm some sixteen miles southwest of Navarro County's capitol.  McIntyre hailed from Tennessee, I believe, and brought to the Southwest the same sturdy qualities displayed in other representatives of the Old Volunteer State, who gave distinction to Texas, such as Davy Crockett and General Sam Houston.

Although possessed of sturdy qualities and a diligent worker, McIntyre failed to acquire fortune.  Repeated droughts cut down cotton production, and the price continued distressingly low.  Oftentimes he would look out on Cowhead Road, which ran alongside his rented acres, and old trail which received its name from the skulls of cows, or perhaps buffaloes that marked the stage coach route in a still earlier day.  In such times he would wonder if in spite of all his toil, he, too, might at least perish from sheer want.  Nor was his shortage in anywise due to extravagance or indulgence.  True to his Scottish forbearers Pa McIntyre was frugal and made good use of all his resources.

He lived a few miles from a community called Pansy, a small village now entirely extinct, but of some importance in the 1890's.  Nearer to him was a neighborhood general store called "Slap-Out", from the habit of customers saying "I'm slap-out of coffee" or "slapout of tobacco".  In most instances these sources of supplies met his requirements, so that he saved the expense and time of making the ling sixteen-mile drove to Corsicana and back.

The year 1895 differed from the usual run.   It was wet -- phenomenally wet, especially in the fall.  November was just one protracted wet spell.  It turned so wet that the Slap-Out Store nearly exhausted its stock of groceries and supplies.  Wholesalers stopped their wagons from attempting to deliver to Pansy.

As ill luck would have it, in the midst of the wet spell, an epidemic of influenza spread throughout the region.  Mr. McIntyre, like many another, came down with a virulent attack.  The family sent for the Corsicana doctor and when the good physician arrived, he shook his head and informed them that the malady had gained such headway in all likelihood Pa McIntyre could not hold out more than another day.

"I just don't see much use of my coming out through all the mud tomorrow.  It will cost you another $2.00 and I think your father is too far gone for me to do him any good".

"We understand, Doc", replied the sons, "But is there anything we can get to relieve the old man's suffering?"

"Yes," said the Doctor, "If he makes it through the night you should get him this medicine.  It won't cure, but it'll make it easier for him in his last hours".  So saying, he left a prescription with the boys.

Alas, neither "Slap-Out" nor Pansy could fill a prescription.  This meant a long muddy trek to the drugstore in Corsicana.

The McIntyres went into conference.  Actually it was not the medicine out of hand - they had not a crust of bread left in the house.   Bogs or washed out bridges, they would have to go to Corsicana or let the old man suffer.  Finally, it was resolved that two of the boys would hitch up their four mules to the farm wagon and under take the journey to the County Seat, a real hazardous adventure.

It was past noon when the two brothers pulled into Corsicana.  The cold rain was still falling in torrents.  Bill surveyed the situation in unrelieved gloom.

"Sam", he said to his brother, "You see how awful it is.  We barley managed to git here.  The doc has already said Pa can't hold out a day longer.  It simply means that when we git back home, we'll have to turn right around and drag through this turrible mud all over again.  Why don't we tend to the coffin now?"

"Well that's plumb sensible", agreed Sam.

They picked up their medicine and supplies and they traded for a sturdy pine box, and put it in the wagon with their provisions.

But extreme anxiety still beset them.  What would they do with the coffin once they got back?  It wouldn't seem right to leave it out in the cruel rain overnight.  If Ma should discover it, she would be horrified.   If a neighbor changed in and saw it, they would regret it.  After prolonged meditation and some discussion, they came up with the idea that they would hide it in their barn.

Dusk was settling down on the farm place when they ended their harassing trip.  In order to carry through their plan, they whipped up the wearied bespattered mules past the bedroom window to a safe spot near the barn.   Disturbed by the faster movement of the wagon, Pa McIntyre raised up on his elbow and craned his head out of the window and called:

"Hey there, what you got in the wagun?"

Startled, the boys could only call back, "Nuthin', Pa" -

"Oh, yes you do - it 'peers mightly like a coffin ta me - that what is 'tis, ain't it?"

Petrified with chagrin, the sons looked at each other out of ashen faces.  They sat there speechless, but their old man was not done.   Between wheezes, he called out again:

"Go ahead and put that thar contraption in the corn crib, jus' like you plotted - but we ain't a-gonna use it like you thought - at least not for a while yet.  Its fit to feed the stock in - I'm a-gittin up outta here, and we'll make a trough out of it for the mules".

It has been established that Mr. McIntyre made good his will to live.  Upon getting out of bed, he nailed legs to the coffin, fed the mules in it and next year raised a bumper crop.

They say in Navarro County that for 25 years the coffin served its unintended purpose and when Pa McIntyre finally passed on at the age of 93, he was the first man ever laid to rest in a feed trough.

 


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