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Three views of Harlan County


Memories of My Childhood

Page 4


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When fall came, we butchered the hogs and started putting away vegetables for the winter months. The ham and bacon would be smoked and hung up. Mother would cut up the fat and render it for bacon grease and to make soap. The pork fat would be pressed down to get all of the grease out. The pressed fat were called cracklings. They were greasy but they were very good to eat. The only thing  not used on a hog was the squealer. Corn, green beans, cucumbers, would be pickled in large crocks.  Beets, tomatoes, and other vegetables would be canned along with pears and peaches. White potatoes and sweet potatoes would be stored in the corn bin. We would also broke green beans in three pieces, strung them crosswise on a long piece of twine, and hung them up to dry. When winter came, we would unstring a couple of beans and soak them over night. The next day, they would be cooked with a large piece of fatback cut in strips to the rind. This was our meat. These beans are called shucky beans, "beans with shells". Shucks is Hill Billy talk for shells. No other bean can match their taste. The favorite variety of beans is the Kentucky Wander pinto beans. Corn, for bread and hominey, would be ground at the local gristmill. The garden also had lettuce, turnips and mustard greens. I never liked okra or pokeweed. We would go through the fields looking for some edible weeds such as plantain and rabbit lettuce. We also raised sorghum cane to make molasses to use as syrup and to make taffy candy. We would cut the cane and slice off the leaves leaving bare stalks. These would be put  into a grinder. He would hire a sorghum grinder to squeeze out the liquid. We took the liquid to Uncle Taylor's who also raised cane and had a big vat for boiling it. With only basic groceries to buy, we mostly lived off the fat of the land.



Jean Ritche's Aunt skiming molasses on Mace's Creek
Photo by George Pickow


My father had a third grade education and my mother had two years. Both could read and write as good as any sixth grade student of today. Before I was old enough to start school, my father taught me how to count to a hundred front and backwards, the alphabet front and backwards, and simple addition. My brother Marcus and I knew that if he had gotten a good education, he would considered to be genius. He could do figures in his head faster than one could do on paper. Years later, Marcus and Dad had gone to the lumber yard in Hazard to buy material for an indoor bathroom and toilet. They had already dug a well and put in an electric pump. On the way home, Dad told Marcus that he had been charged fifty cents too much. Marcus said that it was impossible for the man had used a calculator. Dad said he didn't care what he used, it was fifty cents too much.  When they got home, Marcus went over the figures and sure enough, he had been charged fifty cents too much. Fifty cents doesn't seem like much, but Dad would work an hour hoeing corn on a hot July day for seventy-five cents an hour. I don't remember him ever buying anything needlessly. He paid cash for everything he bought and never owed a dime in his life.

I started school when I was five. The first day Marcus told the teacher about my being able to say the alphabet and count to a hundred front and backwards. The teacher had me stand up before the students and recite my numbers and alphabet. The school house had one large room with a big potbellied stove in the middle. We had one teacher for all the grades. There were three students in my class. In those days, grades ran from primary through the eighth making it nine years of grammar school. The primary grade was not kindergarten. If you did not pass primary, you did not go to the first grade. The school was built seven years before and consequently there were students who were in their teens when I started. I shared a desk with a sixteen year old student in the seventh grade. I have a very faint memory of a spanking that I got. One Sunday while attending Sunday school at the schoolhouse, I accidently spilled a bottle of ink on  my desk. The next day, when the teacher saw this, he asked me if I had done it. I told him yes. He gave me a spanking. I told my father what happened. Dad went to the teacher's house and told him not to ever do somethinng like that again.

Fred started school when he was six. He never wanted to go and our mother had to watch him every minuute to make sure he went. One day in the winter, one of the neighbors stopped by to tell her that he saw Fred naked sliding on the ice. When she found him he was sitting bare butt on the ice. She brought him home and made him get dressed and go back to school. Another time, she heard a noise outside on the porch. There was Fred struggling to put on two layers of clothing. She thought that he had left for school a long time before. He did not want to go to school until Baxter went. Baxter was four and a half years old. She talked with the teacher about letting Baxter start school early. The teacher agreed and she had no more trouble with Fred.  Dad always made sure that we had school lunches. We had sandwiches in the warm weather and a half-gallon lard pail of cold milk and cornbread in the winter. We put the pail in a stream that ran by the school yard to  keep the milk cold. Four of us were in school at this time and we each had a spoon. A few years ago, Baxter told me that he hated this. I told him that we at least had something to eat whereas a lot of children had nothing.  I saw some kids licking the icing off the cake wrappers in the trash can.

Looking back at this one room schoolhouse sitting on a spot dug out from the mountainside by my older brothers and his peers, I realize that this building has a special place in my heart. Not only was it the place where I learn to read and write, it was the heart of the community. It was our community center for special occasions and our place of worship on Sundays. We held box suppers and pie sales there. A girl would pack a box usually fried chicken and the boys would bid on it. The high bidder would share the food with the girl. We always bid on the box that belonged to the girl that we were "struck on". The pie sales were held the same way. These funds were used for the school to buy Christmas presents for the school children. We also had Halloween parties. A lot of courtships started there. Some started marriages and lasted lifetimes. My favorite girl at this time was Margaret Fay Grace. I always bought her items. We would also draw names for exchanging gifts. Marcus and another boy happened to draw each others name. Dad bought Marcus a jack knife to give to him. The boy did not have a present for Marcus. Of course, Marcus was very disappointed. He told Dad what happened and Dad reminded him how poor this family was and probably did not have the money to buy a present. He told him not to worry and that he would buy him a jackknife. We had Christmas plays that almost every parent attended.

At church services, almost everyone in the hollow attended. My father was considered as one of the spiritual leaders in the community. The service usually started with a couple of hymns. The song leader would recite a line and the congregation would sing it. We did not have any songbooks. There would be prayers and testimonials and the preacher would preach. If you have never heard one of these old time preachers you have missed one hell of a service. They were pure fire and damnation at the top of their lungs. They had the Bible in one hand while waving the other with a closed fist and sometimes pounding the teacher's desk. I don’t believe that they ever read from it. They would go for about what seemed an eternity and stop to take a deep breath. I thought that this was the end, but then, he would raise the Bible and slap it his side and begin again. Friends, this was not city preaching or Television Evangelism. This was pure hillbilly preaching. If you got religion, as we called it, you were baptized in Carr Creek, sometimes in the middle of the winter going down three times. There was no sprinkling water on your head from these people. They would come up singing and shouting and praising the Lord. People, standing on the banks, would wade out to meet them and they would be shouting praises to heaven. These people were true believers.

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Baptism on Carr Creek near Vicco


Once a year a service would be held at the grave yard which was on top of the mountain. The reason that it was on top of the mountain is that there was no other level space to have one. The service was to commemorate the people who had died the previous year. There would be three or four preachers taking turns. They would preach at the top of their lungs. Many times, I left early and I could still hear them preaching all the way down the mountainside.

  According to the gospel of Mark believers "shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." It is believed in some southern American Pentecostal churches that if a person truly has the Holy Spirit within them, they should be able to handle rattlesnakes and other venomous serpents. Snake handling is used as a test or demonstration of faith. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION)

Snake handling is now outlawed in every state but West Virginia


One time my Dad and I walked from Scuddy to Sassafrass to go to a Church of God meeting. My Dad was very religious and attended different churches. Well, we got an eyeful this time. We did not know that this was a Church of God Under Signs, one of the different branches of the Church of God. It happened to be a snake handlers meeting. The congregation went through the usual singing and praying and then they got up and starting writhing and shaking and the preacher pulled out a big rattler from a company store paper poke and started to talk while looking at the snake and told that snake that he was the devil and daring him to bite. About this time, my Dad looked at me and said, " Let’s get out of here". On our way back home he told me that he could never believe in that kind of religion. We had walked over four miles to see something like that.

Dad had to work full time so the boys took care of the house. Shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed, my oldest brother, Watson, informed my mother that he as going to volunteer for the Army. This left James in charge. He was deferred from service in the army. In 1943, he decided to go to Alaska to work as a civilian in the service. Dad would get our breakfast for us and Marcus would do most of the cooking for supper. I would do the dishes and both Marcus and I would clean the house. When Dad came home, he would get a broom and start sweeping under the beds and other furniture. I asked him why are you doing this when we have already swept. He would say to us that he knew that we never got under the beds. He was nit-picking clean throughout his life.

We seldom ever got a whipping, but I did get my share. The earliest that I can remember getting one was one day Fred was on a rock on a hillside across from our house. He shouted out some curse words. Dad told him to get down from there in get in our yard. He was not punished. I thought why not do the same. I got on that rock and shouted the same words. My father got a switch and told me to come home now. When I got there, he hit me acroos my behind with the switch. I asked him why he was whipping me and not Fred. He said that Fred did not know better, but I did.  We received a lot of threats, but not too much action. Another time, the four of us were playing with our friends down the road. Dad came out and screamed for us to come to bed. We didn’t. A few minutes later, he screamed again. We didn’t. The third time he came out, he went to a big poplar tree and got a switch and came after us. He said I told you to come home and I meant it. Every one of the neighbors were waiting to see what was going to happen. Dad came at us swinging the switch. The last time he swung, Marcus took off running toward the house. Dad swung at him and missed. Then, I took off and he missed me, and so with Fred and Baxter. All the neighbors were laughing and finally, Dad began to laugh. If you could sit him out, you could get away with a lot little things that you were not supposed to have done. Dad always went to bed at dark.  If you had done something wrong and you were afraid that your butt would be spanked, you would come home at his bed time. There was a big rock in the front yard that you sat on. Dad would yell for you to come in the house. You would shout back that if you did he was going to spank you. This would go back and forth two or three times and then he would finally say, "If you don't get in here now, you WILL get it." You knew then that you were safe.

Our mother did the laundry on Mondays. She had two No. 2 wash tubs. One would be boiling water over an outside fire and the other would be full of cold water for the rinse. She would carry the water from the branch that ran by our house. She would scrub each piece on the wooden scrub board, wring them out by hand, rinse them, and hang them on a line to dry. She would use a cake of soap that she had made, a can of bluing for brightning, and a can of lye. One day, she forgot to take the lye inside. She and my Aunt Amanda had gone to the garden to pick some vegetables. I got hold of the can and took a small bite. I started screaming and clutching my throat. Marcus saw me and started running to get my mother. Fortunately for me, she was a short distance. When my Aunt saw me, she screamed that I had eaten some lye and told Marcus to get some grease. We had fried bacon that morning and there was still some grease in the pan. She poured some down my throat. It neutralized the lye and I suffered no damage to my throat.

One day, a Maytag washing machine salesman came up the hollow with the newest gasoline driven machine. He saw her doing the laundry and stopped to try to sell her one. She politely told him that she didn't need one. He kept trying and she kept refusing. In order to clinch a sale, he offered to do her laundry for free because he knew that she would buy it after seeing how much work it would save her. She relunctly let him demonstrate. It took him an hour to finish all the clothes. When he finished, he looked at her and said "After seeing all the work that you can save and how much easier it will be to do your laundry, you will have to buy this machine." She looked at and told him that she didn't want one before and she didn't want one now. There was one angry salesman who put his machine in his truck and drove off. Thinking back on it, why in the world would he come up there selling gasoline driven machines when there wasn't a place where one could buy gasoline for miles? The only containers that one owned was a half gallon lard pail. It was hard enough to have money to put clothes on one's back, never mind buy a washing machine.


When I was young, I saw a lot of these home


You want to know what poverty is? This is it and there were a lot of homes like this one scattered throughout the mountains. Two rooms and ten childreen.


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I  Saw the Light
Hank Williams Sr.
Words and music

I wandered so aimless life filed with sin
I wouldn't let my dear saviour in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord I saw the light.

I saw the light I saw the light
No more darkness no more night
Now I'm so happy no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord I saw the light.

Just like a blind man I wandered along
Worries and fears I claimed for my own
Then like the blind man that God gave back his sight
Praise the Lord I saw the light.

I was a fool to wander and astray
Straight is the gate and narrow the way
Now I have tra
ded the wrong for the right
Praise the Lord I saw the light.

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Delmore Brothers
Alton 1908-1964
Ralon 1908 1952

Kentucky Mountains

How the sad wind moans on Kentucky Mountain
And the rain is falling in her face
And by her side in the lonely graveyard
I want to lie down and take my place

She sleeping on Kentucky Mountain
And the rain is falling in her face
And by her side when this life is over
I'll lay me down and take my place

We fell in love there in the mountains
Our love was beautiful and free
She was so young when the maker called her
I guess she was not meant for me

I'm like a lonesome dove at twilight
As she flies around from tree to tree
My aching heart is full of sorrow
Since never more my love I'll see.

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Blue Moon of Kentucky
William "Bill" Monroe

Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining.
Shine on the one that's gone and proved untrue.
Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining.
Shine on the one that's gone and left me blue.

It was on a moonlight night,
The stars were shining bright.
And they whispered from on high,
Your love has said goodbye.

Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining.
Shine on the one that's gone and said goodbye.

Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining.
Shine on the one that's gone and proved untrue.
Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining.
Shine on the one that's gone and left me blue.
It was on a moonlight night,
The stars were shining bright.
And they whispered from on high,
Your love has said goodbye.

Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining.
Shine on the one that's gone and said goodbye.

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Tenessee Erfnie Ford
"Bless your little pea pickin' heart"

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Eddie Arnold
"I'm sending you a big bouquet of roses

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Little Jimmie Dickens
1920-"Take an old cold tater and wait"

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Irene Ambergey
Better known as Martha Carson
"The Queen of country gospel"


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