Guest Post: From the Front Porch, 1955
Although now incorporated into the Pikeville City Limits and with access to city water, sewage, and other public amenities, in 1955, Harold’s Branch was a different place in a different era. Instead of sewage pipes, many outdoor toilets emptied into the creek, and if you were fortunate enough to have an indoor bathroom, the sewer line was straight-lined into the creek. With the abundance of sewage flowing into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River, a baptism in the river could cleanse the soul and shock the immune system.
Drinking water was obtained by lowering a bucket into a well of water. The process was called drawing water, as in, “Junior, would you draw a bucket a water?” This was the coldest, purest and best tasting water ever to quench my thirst.
By 1955, the neighbors on Harold’s Branch had electricity and refrigerators, but there was an occasional ice box kept cool using large blocks of ice delivered by Uncle Bill Jack who worked at the Pikeville Ice Plant. Many houses were heated by coal-burning fireplaces or Warm Morning stoves. Our house was heated by gas room heaters. On some dark nights I awoke to the vision of shadows playing on the bedroom walls. I was so sure the house was on fire I would touch the walls, feeling for heat. The erratic flames from the gas heater were creating the reflections on the walls. Finding the walls were cool, I would soon go back to sleep. My fear of a house fire was fueled by massive fires that destroyed two houses belonging to neighbor Norm.
When I sat in the rocking chair on the front porch, I faced the house of Zella and Lossie (Aren’t those names exotic sounding?) who lived across the creek and road. They had four children, and one was my age. Zella had the luxury of having a ‘hired girl’ who worked a few hours a week doing laundry, ironing, and house cleaning. Zella was the only neighbor who understood and participated in Trick or Treat and would make scrumptious popcorn balls. Unfortunately, she and Lossie moved when I was in the 4th grade, taking with them my good friend and the prospect of popcorn balls at Halloween.
If I looked down the road to my left, I saw the house of Nell and Harold. One of Harold’s endeavors was opening a little country store next to his house; however, 1/4th mile down the road was an established store that provided competition, but not enough to lower prices at either store. In later years, Nell’s niece described her as a Renaissance woman, ahead of her time, and she could do anything. She hand dug and built a beautiful concrete fish pond in the yard. My lasting memory of her is with the hair surrounding her face, tightly pin curled using bobby pins. The hair on the back of her head always seemed to be free from the pins.
Perched on the side of the hill between the houses of Nell and Zella was a small rental house that belonged to Harold and Nell. I recall one renter I would visit but whose name I no longer remember. She made delicious potato salad that was unlike what Mom made. Instead of using sweet pickles, she used dill, mashed the potatoes, and served warm. In later years I learned this was called German potato salad. My visits to the house on the hill were enjoyable, but infrequent, as the trek was a bit treacherous for me.
Next to Nell and Harold lived Alex who was Mom’s uncle on her Dad’s side, but we never called him uncle. Alex was briefly married to Ada, and Mom corresponded with Ada for years after she moved to Illinois and always called her Aunt Ada. I did not know Aunt Ada but wrote letters to her for Mom until I left for college. Mary O’Neill was Alex’s long term partner, and she was always called by both names, never just Mary. Mary O’Neill walked the Harold’s Branch narrow graveled road asking for used clothing or cloth scraps, and with these scraps, she made rag rugs. After the rugs were made, she would travel the same road, stop at the same houses, and try to sell the rugs to the donors of the fabric. As for recycling, Mary O’Neill was ahead of her time. On the hill behind Alex’s house was the Robinson Family Cemetery. These were my Mom’s people. Walking up the hill to reach the graves was no easy task, but carrying the casket for burial was nearly impossible, especially in rain or snow.
To get to his toilet, located at the base of the opposite hill, Alex had to cross his yard, the road, and the creek. I imagine he was a frequent user of the slop jar (chamber pot for the genteel).
A few hundred yards down the creek from Alex’s toilet sat a house that was not much more than a shack. It too was lodged against the side of the hill, and Mary O’Neill’s daughter, Opal lived here.
The last house I could see from the front porch rocking chair, was a rental house belonging to Pikeville banker John M. Yost. In this house lived the Bradley family. Mr. Bradley was a minister, and he and his wife had older children. When walking down the road, I would pass their house and speak, as would they. I sensed they were good people, and I never heard an unkind word spoken about them, but we did not visit. I was white and the Bradleys were Black. It was 1955. With Pike’s racial make-up of less than 0.5% of the population being Black, it had to be incredibly difficult to live in a place where you rarely saw anyone who looked like you.
The remaining view from the front porch was the foot traffic from those living up the creek and without automobiles. Walking to town for supplies and appointments was their mode of transportation. Of course, those with cars would often stop and give them a ride. The walkers encountered speeding coal trucks, clouds of dust, and lost lumps of coal flying from the overloaded trucks which made pedestrian travel hazardous as well as strenuous. Observing the walkers, I was able to recognize there were different levels of poverty, and one family in particular troubled me. Rudolph and his family appeared to be extremely poor, and soon word traveled they had moved to the Poor Farm located in Poor Farm Hollow in Pikeville. Prior to state and federal assistance, institutions like the Poor Farm were created to care for the neediest. With the advent of Public Assistance, the Pike County Poor Farm closed in 1965.
Not visible from the front or back porches, lived Dad’s mom and her second husband, Uncle Richard, who was Mom’s uncle. Not visible, but audible. Although their house was about 1/4th mile up the creek, Grandma could be heard yelling “RICHARD” with a voice that reverberated against the sides of the hills. Never in a hurry to answer her, with a sly grin, he would mosey toward the house where he would find her sitting on the porch in her black Naugahyde rocking chair smoking her pipe.
Uncle Richard was a farmer and a good one. Using a mule to plow and following the signs according to the Farmer’s Almanac, he would plant a large corn crop in the bottom. Part of the crop would be used by Grandma to make pickled corn which would ferment in large butter churns in the cool of the cellar. The smell and taste were vile to this girl, but in later years I learned this was a developed taste. When pickled corn is fried in bacon grease and served with shuck beans, fried potatoes, and corn bread, a better meal is hard to come by. Grandma was considered to be a good cook, and in earlier years, she was the cook for the Pike County Jail. Her pinto beans were flavored with pods of dried hot peppers that could scorch the hide off your tongue. Speaking of a scorched mouth, Grandma had a vile temper. She did. Uncle Richard, who I never heard speak in a raised voice, was the recipient of her wrath. Lord only knows what he did to provoke her, but provoke her he did.
Toilet paper was an item never available in Grandma’s outhouse. Catalogs were coveted, the thicker, the better. If you have never had to depend upon pages from a catalog to perform your anal hygiene, trust me when I tell you to always choose the black and white pages rather than the glossy colored sheets of the Sears and Roebuck Catalog.
But mostly what I saw from the rocking chair on the front porch were hills, hills that were steep and close due to the narrow hollow called Harold’s Branch, where the sun was slow to rise and quick to set, and although verdant in spring and summer, come winter, the lush green of the mountains would be replaced with the grays and browns of barren trees. Not to pass over the rich colors of autumn, this season would also bring rings of fire on the mountain tops, feeding my fear of the house being consumed by fire.
In 1960, while sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch, I began thinking about leaving the hills, and in the fall of 1964 I heard about Berea College, a college for people like me who were motivated but poor. August, 1965, I left the rocking chair and the front porch, and eventually learned the hills would always be home, at least in my heart.
Guest post by Saundra C.T.