Laurel County's First Hybrid Corn
I was telling my son, Danny, by phone about the time when I was 13 years old. My older brother and I went to the Kentucky Experimental Farm at Fariston (Laurel County). We were told about how a new hybrid corn could increase our corn yield by 25%. They sold my brother a gallon of seeds for one dollar, which could plant one acre of land. In those Depression days, one dollar was pay for a day's work.
When we returned home, my brother told my father about the gallon of seeds and the one dollar price he'd paid for it.
However, Dad said, "I want you to have a good acre to plant it in, so take the bottom land near the bridge where Robinson Creek overflows, and plant your corn. I wouldn't want you not to have a good yield."
That is what we did. We used fertilizer, had the land plowed and well-prepared, and checked the rows. We planted three grains of corn in each crossrow, 44 inches each way. We plowed it each way and hoed it, as was the custom on my father's farm. The corn would grow to be seven feet tall. We had to continue to plow the corn, because Dad didn't like for the weeds to grow, even after the corn had set on. It was so hot and humid in late July and August in Kentucky that we and our team didn't have a dry thread on us.
The corn we planted was only 4 1/2 feet tall. The big, long, two ears per stalk on our regular corn had been replaced by a cluster of four or five small, short ears. Boy, did our father have one on us!
Then, time came to harvest what we had. I was in grade school at Merrimac. My brother was driving a truck for hire. So Dad had a hired hand harvest the corn.
"Where do you want the corn hauled to?" asked the hired hand.
"Oh, put it in that small room in the barn. I don't want it mixed with my good corn in the crib."
Some time later, the man said, "I have the small room full. What shall I do with the other? I still have half of it to bring in."
Dad said, "There must be some mistake, but put what you have in the barn loft to keep it away from mine."
The harvest was complete, and we started to shuck the corn and shell it. We found the two big ears had been replaced with a cluster of ears, with a very small cob. Compared to a large cob and small grain, our grain was almost twice as long as the corn Dad had. Our yield turned out to be one and one-half times what Dad had been used to. No need to say, we were very pleased and told all our neighbors. I might say our father was impressed, also.
When we told him we couldn't plant our corn as seed corn, because it was a crossbreed and may not reproduce, he said that wasn't a problem. He ordered new hybrid seed corn each year, for as long as he lived.
Dan C. Stanberry
Miss Snyder Of Cedar Chapel
When I was a boy growing up in Southeastern Kentucky, there was an old 1920s model, four-door, Dodge sedan that sat just off the main road on the Minnear Harris property. Harris was an old man, commonly referred to, simply, as "Minner." He lived about half a mile below Big Laurel, a small community situated at the fork of three roads: one going down Greasy Creek, one running across the mountain to Blue Diamond, and the other leading to Pine Mountain.
I don't know exactly when this car was parked there, but it was never moved again. It sat there for years and was still there, when I left the area in 1955. I don't know when or how the car disappeared, but it was gone years later, when I passed by its resting place.
Perhaps, it was washed away by floodwaters or covered up, when a new road was built. I don't know if Minner had acquired this car, or if it just gasped its final breath on that particular spot. Minner was an old man, who didn't drive anyway.
The point I want to make is that this car was originally owned by Miss Snyder, a missionary and nurse, who came to the area from Van Wert, Ohio. Miss Snyder came to Greasy Creek to preside over an outreach mission and elementary school called Cedar Chapel, located about two miles below Big Laurel (Harlan County).
I first saw her when, as a child about five years old, I had to go to Abner's Branch School to get a typhoid shot. I had heard about shots. I saw what shots could do, when local men brought back rabbits and squirrels from hunting trips. Needless to say, I was somewhat apprehensive, when I heard Miss Snyder would be at the school "giving shots."
Mothers and kids were already at the school, when Miss Snyder showed up, along with her assistant. She drove her Jeep onto the playground, reached into the back seat, and removed a large, black case. Inside the schoolroom, we kids were lined up from the eldest to the youngest.
Opening her black case, Miss Snyder proceeded to lay out various torture-like instruments and vials of serum. Amidst pretended bravado from the oldest and pure hysteria from the youngest, we received our shots.
If this first encounter with Miss Snyder could have been written off as the final and necessary step in the continuation of our welfare and good health, we could have assumed that it was over, and we had survived. Unfortunately, for me, this meeting would not be the last.
To visualize Miss Snyder's physical appearance requires some grasp of the imagination. She did not resemble the traditional form of the American nurse, with which most people are familiar, and she was certainly not in the tradition of trim-waisted mountain women. Round-shouldered and beefy, she was with a squatty neck and chin that rested snugly about the collarbone. Wire-rimmed spectacles rested on a pug nose, inlaid into a round, heavy-jowled face. Her coal black hair was combed straight back and wound into a bun, reinforced with a half-moon comb. Couple these physical attributes with a uniform that ran straight from the shoulders to below the knees covering white cotton stockings inserted into black, flat-heeled shoes, and you get a picture of Miss Snyder.
If all this were not enough to excite one's imagination, the sound of her voice chillingly commanded one's respect and attention. Her semi-nasal baritone voice I can compare only to the buzz of a "hossfly," whirring around the rump of a horse. She spoke with authority, and the natural inclination was to obey her, immediately.
I began my first year of school, when I was six years old. I would walk down the hillside, cross the bottom to the creekbed road, and wait for my cousins; who lived at the mouth of Bear Branch on the opposite side of the creek. Together, we would walk some distance to the schoolhouse at Abner's Branch, crossing and re-crossing the creek along the way.
When I was nine years old, it was decided that I should attend the school run by Miss Snyder at Cedar Chapel, about two miles up the road from Abner's Branch. This would require my staying at the dormitory for boys, which she herself supervised. On Friday evening, we could return to our own homes, but we had to be back at her headquarters by bedtime on Sunday evening.
Returning to our homes on Friday evenings was somewhat of a hazard, in that we had to pass the home of a certain family, who lived up in the woods below Cedar Chapel. This was like running a gauntlet, because we had to dodge rocks thrown our way, and sometimes, dogs would chase us down the road.
One Sunday evening, my nephew, Carl, and I returned to Cedar Chapel, just a little after dark. Lights were on at the church house, and a sermon was being preached. Entering the building, Carl proceeded on down to the front row, near Miss Snyder, who was playing the organ for the singing.
I elected to seat myself in the very back row, along with twin boys named James and Joe. Now, these boys were the sons of Miss Snyder's immediate neighbor, whose beliefs on matters of the Bible and organized religion were sometimes at odds with Miss Snyder's. Be that as it may, James and Joe were an independent duo. Since they didn't have to abide by Miss Snyder's rules and regulations, they were a mischievous and reckless pair.
As they sat there twittering, snickering, and squirming around, it seemed that I was a part of their frivolity, whether I was or not. Once, I noticed Miss Snyder with her left arm cocked on the top of the bench rest, looking back at us. Was it my imagination, or did I actually see her finger motioning for me to come up front? I did not look in her direction again.
After the service and prior to bedtime, I was told to go to Miss Snyder's office. Upon entering, I saw she was sitting at her desk, hands clasped, elbows spread, and looking at me through those wire-rimmed spectacles. After receiving a lecture on the proper comportment and respect to be observed at a worship service, I was told to bend over. Opening a drawer of her desk, she removed and uncoiled a two-inch-wide razor strap that was about two feet long. That night, I learned to count to ten all over again, as each whack reinforced my resolve to be ever vigilant and attentive and up front at a church service.
Some years later, Miss Snyder was officiating at the funeral of a stillborn infant at Abner's Branch. Passing out the hymnals, she called upon me to lead the singing.
Another time, my sister-in-law was on her way to the hospital to give birth, and she could make it no further than my grandpa's house. Miss Snyder came to the rescue, and a healthy baby girl was delivered.
Through her contacts with the outside world, Miss Snyder received clothing and other merchandise, such as toys. These articles were to be distributed at Christmastime. At other times, she would have sales. Like women everywhere, the locals appreciated a good sale and would ride their horses side-saddle to Miss Snyder's clothing sales.
With her aides, Miss Lucas, Miss Rhodes (nee Lewis), Reverend and Mrs. Boggs, and Reverend and Mrs. Lehner, Miss Snyder brought a lot of good to these mountain communities many years ago.
We knew her only as Miss Snyder; no other name comes to mind.
The Joel Williams Family
My story was told to me by my mother, Dale B. Lucas. It was told to her by my grandparents, King and Annie Williams, who raised her after her mother had died, when she was only eight years old.
Rufus King Williams' father, Joel Williams, came to Kentucky in 1823. He began buying farm land on Ghent Sanders Road in (then) Gallatin County. In 1838, Carroll County was formed from parts of Gallatin, Trimble, and Henry Counties, including the Ghent Sanders Road area.
He met and married Sarah Deatherage of North Carolina in 1832. They had nine children: Mary, William Byrd, Joel Newt, Rufus King (my great-grandfather), George Washington, Dale Owen, Alice Eugenia, Nancy, and Sally.
After he came to (then) Gallatin County, Joel Williams bought up a lot of land along Ghent Sanders Road, from 1823 until his death in 1868. He had only purchased five acres in the year of his death, but had accumulated a total of just over 2,501 acres.
Whenever one of his children married, Joel gave the newlyweds a 200-acre farm (with a house on it) or a 250-acre farm (without a house). However, there were no deeds given for the properties, for he didn't trust any of the spouses. Over the years, he had given away his land to each child, a couple of grandchildren, and to the church.
Finally, in 1868, just before his death, he issued deeds for these properties. Joel's cautious, "Trust no spouse" strategy paid off, for a daughter's husband had left her and tried to sell the farm. Since there was no deed, the plan to sell was foiled.
I was born and reared on my great-grandfather's land, where my mother was also reared. After Mom and Dad married in 1922, they lived in different places. When her grandfather, Rufus King, died, they came back to the farm and took care of her grandmother, Annie, who passed away in 1929. I was only four years old then, but I can remember her quite well.
We lived on the farm with two brothers and a sister, until 1939, when we moved to Sanders. We lived at Sanders for four years, then moved to Carrollton, where we lived for eight years, before eventually moving to Madison, Indiana. My dad passed away in 1976. Mom said no one ever told her where her great-grandfather, Joel, was from. If they did, she said she didn't remember. However, Mother's cousin married and lived in Norwood, Ohio, on Williams Avenue. Just down the street lived two old ladies, who were great-granddaughters of Joel Williams and were among 26 others, who had settled in the Cincinnati area (then "Yeatman's Cove").
They said Joel (Jr.) had sold his inheritance, which had been left to him by his father, Joel, upon his death in 1823. He then moved away to Kentucky, and nothing else was heard about him. These two old ladies felt sure that our Joel Williams was this same son of old Joel Williams.
I went to a Cincinnati history library to do some further research. Old Joel Williams had married Phoebe Brown in 1792 and had 10 or 11 children, but only nine of them lived. One of the surviving children was Joel (Jr.), whose birthdate was listed as 1807 (our Joel's date of birth was listed as 1799 on his tombstone). The lady at the library said it was hard to know which dates were actually correct.
But one of the things I learned about this Joel from Cincinnati that convinced me he was actually our Joel, was the fact that he was a good friend of a man by the name of Rufus King.
I often wondered where Joel's father came up with a name like "Rufus King" Williams. Mother said her grandfather always liked his name.
He Bit His Own Ear
Back in the 1930s, I had a job with offices in the courthouse at West Liberty. One of the office doors opened into the rear of the courtroom. By opening this door slightly, we had a good view of the judge's bench and jury box, so I could hear some very interesting court cases. One such case involved a man that proved in court (more or less) that he bit off his own ear.
During the Depression years, there were not many paying jobs available and not much in the way of entertainment that you did not provide for yourself. Consequently, this group of friends (that the man had been with) would get together, drink, and play poker. They were pretty well matched as to ability, so the money would be passed back and forth.
Occasionally, they would find a "patsy" with money to bring into the game. They would then work as a group to clean him out of his money. That would provide extra money for their game, with some extra to buy moonshine for the group.
On one such occasion, some of the fellows got a little too much to drink and a fight ensued. As the fight progressed, it got pretty rough, with the two combatants rolling on the ground, choking and clawing. In the end, one of them bit a good-sized chunk out of the other's ear. It so happened that the circuit court was in session, and the man with the injured ear was called before the grand jury to make an indictment against the aggressor. By this time, they had all sobered up and were good buddies again. Not wanting to cause his friend trouble, he told the judge and jury that he "bit off his own ear."
Judge Wolford, a very stern judge, was on the bench; with Henry Rose as prosecutor. This plea sounded very strange to the judge. Looking out from under his bushy brows and over the rim of his glasses, he said, "I would just like you to prove that you bit your own ear off." The aggrieved man began to name the men who were present that would swear to the truthfulness of his statement. Mr. Rose, the prosecutor, knew all of these men well and was familiar with these poker parties.
After some deliberation, he told the judge, "You should just as well drop this case now, since this man can take those fellows and prove anything."
The case was then dropped and pursued no further. This case went down in history as the man that proved in a court of law that he bit his own ear off.
Keeping Memories Alive
Through the woods, on a narrow manmade road, over several hollers, and up a steep hill, my grandparents lived in a small house built of planks. It looked more like a barn, yet was adequate for a house of its time in rural St. Francis, Marion County, Kentucky, in 1929. That was the year my dad was born. He was the baby boy of 13 children.
We've all heard the stories of how they walked ten miles to church, in five feet of snow, and how one pair of overalls and a pair of shoes lasted a year, sometimes maybe two. Picking blackberries for a nickel a gallon would buy enough flour and lard to make biscuits on Sunday, with a fried chicken dinner. The boys would chop wood, and the girls would sew dresses out of meal sacks. Sometimes, the boys would play marbles, and the girls would play "Ring Around The Roses." Not all the kids could go to the one-room schoolhouse, because farming and chores needed to be done in order to put food on the table.
I remember being ten years old and staying one night with my grandmother. One of her most interesting stories, and difficult to understand at my age, was about the guerillas coming through Little Chicago, raiding homes and killing people. They hung her brother from a tree, and two men on horses came later that day to tell her mother of the tragedy. Her mother had to go cut the body down from the tree. Grandma said that when the guerillas came through the town, even the horses would hold their breathe, not making a sound in fear the guerillas would take them.
It was the strangest thing to me, how could guerillas (the only "gorillas" I knew lived at the zoo) kill people? Later, I learned it was Morgan's Raiders, who devastated the South.
I could listen to these stories, endlessly. It gives me an appreciation of my roots, which are deeply embedded and very strong. I find strength in knowing my family has survived hardships throughout the years.
My parents taught my nine sisters, brothers, and me that family is important. They are the ones you can depend on, the ones to turn to for help and support. Just as their parents set examples for them, my parents instilled a sense of family importance in us.
Keep the stories alive in your family. Pass them on to younger members. History is a thing of the past and the future.
The Love Of Family
I have always loved family history. But in sharing my own family history with readers of The Kentucky Explorer, I don't really know where to begin. I have come to the conclusion that my life is like a patchwork quilt, made up of different parts and pieces. I was born one Friday in October. My daddy had gone to eat supper with his family. Image a young father not being there today when his child is born!
My great-grandparents were very special to me. My great-granny Arvin was a midwife, and she was the one who delivered me. They raised my mother, when her mother died, when Mom was just four months old.
Grandpa Arvin was a preacher for as long as I can remember. He baptized me when I was 13 years old. I can still see him sitting beneath the old tree in the churchyard, waiting for us on Sunday mornings. If I close my eyes, I can hear him singing his favorite hymn, "Hold to God's Unchanging Hands." Grandpa believed every word of that old song. He testified to the Lord's power and grace.
One story he used to tell was about a woman, whom some said was a prostitute. He was on his way to church one Sunday, when the woman asked him where he was going. "To church," he replied, and the woman asked if she could walk with him. The first thing he thought of was, "What would Mom say, if she heard about the two of them being seen together?" He recalled the Biblical story of Jesus and the woman at the well and answered, "Come along, sister." I think Grandpa told this story to remind us just how forgiving the Lord is, and that we should not judge others.
Granny Arvin, on the other hand, served the Lord, but in a more direct manner. She just told it the way she saw it. One time, not long after the death of my mom's mother, Grandpa Millard came to Granny Arvin's house with a woman. They were both drinking, and Granny didn't hold to any sorriness, and she told both of them so. Granny threatened to hang the old girl and sent one of Grandpa's younger brothers to the barn for the plow lines. If you did that today, they'd have the law after you.
Granny Arvin weighed about 300 pounds, and her heart was as big as her body. She was loved by all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She died on her 63rd wedding anniversary, as she had lived, with her loved ones around her.
Grandpa lived to be 93 years old. Two weeks before he passed away, he preached a message of God's love. These simple, loving people now rest in the Hunt Cemetery on Barns Mountain in Estill County. No child was ever blessed more than I was.
I was four years old when a cousin of Daddy's had a little girl to die. I remember going with Granny Mamie to the Young family home. They had the baby laid out on the kitchen table, bathing her. They clothed her in a yellow dress, and Uncle Jesse Harris made her coffin.
On Sundays, we spent most of the day with Granny Mandy and Uncle Denny. They lived on Ross Creek in Estill County.
My extended family consists of the Arvin, Young, Harris, Isaacs, Dunn, Bowles, Crowe, and Carmack surnames. They came from all corners of the world and all walks of life. I'm proud to be related to each and every one of them.
My Uncle Denny taught me to respect my parents. He thought a lot of his mother. He stayed with her and took care of her until she passed away.
Tom and Louise Isaacs were always there when I needed them, and I'll never forget my great-aunt, Lillian Arvin Harris, who helped raise my mother.
I am married to a loving husband, Dale Mosley. We have a daughter, Lori, and grandson, Gage. We love them and each other very dearly.
There's nothing like the love of a good family.
Connie Young Mosley
The Old Country School
Of all the fond memories of my childhood, there's none more dearer to me than the memories of the little one-room country school where I attended school. It sat about a quarter of a mile off the main creek, up a hollow, surrounded by tall mountains on every side, and near a rough wagon trail that followed up the hollow, and crossed over into Leslie County; on the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River in Northwest Harlan County.
The old country school sat about half a mile up Salt Trace Branch from the main water course, which was Straight Creek. When I attended school there, everyone got their mail at the old country store at Gross, Kentucky (now Bledsoe), given out by the owner of the store. Later, this was moved over into Leslie County, on the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River. It was known as Red Ox.
The school was at least a half mile from Straight Creek. We carried water from a spring, at the foot of Pine Mountain, beyond Straight Creek.
Salt Trace received its name from old settlers of that day, who traveled this route all the way over into Clay County to a saltworks, where they would process a year's supply of salt. Even some came in all the way from Virginia, following this route to and from the saltworks. The old country store sat near the mouth of Salt Trace, and the old country mill sat near the head of Salt Trace.
The schoolhouse itself was perhaps 24 feet wide by 40 feet long, with three tall windows on each side and a door in the center, at the front. It was built rather high off the ground, at the front, and set low, at the back. A pair of steps, with five or six treads, led up to the door. The two gable ends were tall, and the roof had a steep pitch.
A few years before I started to school, all the old country school buildings were built of logs, but this old country school was built of lumber; weatherboarded and painted white. The walls and loft were ceiled, and the floor laid with matched flooring.
Inside, there was a small stage at the back end, where the teacher had her chair and desk. The blackboard extended all the way across the back end, from wall to wall, crossing over the stage part. To the left, near the stage, was the flue, beneath which stood the large potbellied stove, which was the only heat in winter.
There were three rows of double seats and desks; one row near each side wall, and one down the middle of the room. These double seats were necessary in those days; for sometimes there would be children who didn't have books and would sit with someone else who did, so they could study together out of the same book.
To one side of the door, there was a long, wooden bench for dinner pails and a water bucket. This water bucket was a must, for water had to be carried from a spring almost half a mile away. On the opposite side of the door, nails had been partly driven into the wall to hang coats on.
All eight grades were taught here in this one-room school by only one teacher, and everyone got a lesson from each of their books every day.
In the old country school, the primer class was taught its ABCs, numbers, and also colors. Many times, I have watched the teacher hold up little colored sticks and heard the primer class shout, "red," "blue," "green," or whatever the color might be. Before the short school term was half over, there was no one in the primer class, who couldn't read from his/her book, and they knew what they were reading, for they knew the words by sight, not by memorizing.
Everyone, from the primer up, did work on the blackboard, and it surely was interesting to watch an eighth grade student work out some intricate problem on the blackboard, explaining what he was doing as he went along. Sometimes, a problem would cover up a large portion of the blackboard. Students in lower grades, sitting at their desks, watched and learned a lot by this. There were some arithmetic wizards in the old country school.
Our morning began with roll call, which in many cases, the children answered by quoting a verse of Scripture. Then each grade had reading, beginning with the primer and working up, grade by grade. Then each grade had an English class, except the three lower grades: primer, first, and second. After that came morning recess, which lasted 15 minutes.
Lunch or dinner was the time we looked forward to, not to eat, but to play. We had a whole hour, and everyone would grab their lunch buckets, which were, for the most part, four-pound lard buckets or gallon or half-gallon Karo syrup buckets, and hurry through lunch; so they could get at play.
There was no special food for lunch, here. You brought what you ate at home. Many children brought milk, with cornbread crumbled in it, and each child had a spoon; and it wasn't uncommon to see four or five children surrounding a one-gallon syrup bucket, dipping away with their spoons.
Green beans, stewed or fried potatoes, fried apples between biscuit halves, and baked sweet potatoes were very frequent lunches here at the old country school. Sometimes, there might be a piece of fried chicken, a cake of gingerbread, or a slice of fruit stack cake in one of those lunch buckets. Everyone was equal here. No one was any better than anybody else. There were no snobs or socialites at the old country school.
Oh, how I wish I could go back 70 years to that old country school and participate once more in those thrilling school games I played with my school chums.
Here, everyone was barefoot boys and girls. Only the teacher had on shoes, and those barefoot boys and girls could almost fly. Sticks, stones, sharp pebbles, and even thorns had no effect on our tough, bare feet; and many a hard-contested race was run over rough, rocky ground. Running base and "What Are You Doing In My Garden?" were two games that took a swift runner, as well as a good evader, to compete in. I have seen the whole school after one runner, and sometimes it would take quite awhile to bring him to bay.
We played several school and party games at the old country school, but many times, we made up our own games and rules to play by. We played "Great Big Ring Around The Susan Girl," "The Farmer In The Dell," "All In And Out The Window," "Old Bald Eagle" and the "Needle's Eye." These were school and party games that everyone could join, and I still remember most of the words to all these games we played 70 years or more ago. These were all singing games.
We also played "Jump The Rope," and in our case, the rope was a grapevine cut from the nearby hillside, and as two children threw it over and over, we lined up, ran in, and jumped a few times, and then ran out; without getting hit by the grapevine. Sometimes, two children would run in at once, jump awhile, then run out. We got pretty good at this rope jumping.
The children at the old country school played hard, as well as doing a lot of walking to and from school. They also did a lot of work at home after school, so they got a lot of exercise and were a tough, healthy bunch. I doubt very much if there was a child attending the old country school, who had ever made a visit to a doctor's office, and I know that none of them had ever seen the inside of a hospital.
Since all the exercise we got burned up a lot of energy, we were hungry almost all the time; not that we didn't get enough to eat, for I am sure everyone did, but I suppose we just required more food.
Wild food was almost always in season and was there for the taking. Pawpaw thickets were on every hand. We would gather them by the bushel and have whole sinkholes full, where everyone could go by and help themselves. There was a large beech tree in one corner of our playground, and we played many games beneath its shade. The ground was smooth and packed hard with our bare feet. This old beech tree literally rained fat, brown nuts, and you could scoop up a pocket full to munch on, while at play, in just a few minutes. Chestnuts, too, could be found on the nearby hillside, and there were fox grapes and blue fall grapes. The fall grapes were very good, but the fox grapes were sour enough to lock your jaws; we ate them anyway.
Also, there were persimmons, which got sweet after the first frost, but would pucker your lips together before frost. Our lips were puckered many times. In those days, apples grew wild, and there were few cornfields that didn't have one or more apple trees. These trees seemed to always have apples on them, even when a late freeze would kill all the fruit in the orchards. There were walnuts and hickory nuts to crack, and many blackberry and raspberry patches were available to us, so we were always munching on something gathered out of the wild.
About five minutes before lunch period was over, the teacher would go into the schoolhouse and appear at the door to ring her little hand bell. Of the six teachers I had at the old country school, four of them were women.
Everyone would be literally melting from all the hard playing, when we came in from lunch period. Tablet backs or sheets of paper were folded into little fans, waving all over the school.
The old country school started in July, and we caught the real hot weather. It ended in January, up towards the latter part.
To one side of the old country school was a small creek that ran over and around large boulders, which constituted the bed of the creek. Just beyond this creek was a steep hillside cornfield. Then, on the opposite side of the school was a mountain, with uncut forest.
The old wagon, riding, and walking trail passed right through the playground and not ten feet from the schoolhouse. We would look out at all the riders or walkers as they passed, and we were especially thrilled by the few wagons, which passed this way, and we would watch them clear out of sight.
There were very few children in the old country school, who had ever seen a train, and none of them had ever seen an automobile. I can remember once, when an airplane flew over the old country school, while we were inside. The teacher turned us out, so we could see it. I must have been 10 or 11 years old at that time, and this was the second plane I had ever seen.
The fanning, combined with the cooling breezes from the nearby forest, would soon cool us off, then we would have a singing session. Some of these children had really sweet singing voices, but not me; so I just sort of croaked along on such songs as, "My Old Kentucky Home," "Battle Hymn Of The Republic," "Old Folks At Home," or some of the other Stephen Foster lyrics.
Then came spelling. We didn't write out our words. We stood up and spelled them, orally. There were some expert spellers in the old country school, who could just about spell any word the teacher could pronounce.
After evening recess, we had geography, then history, which was our last class. We were then dismissed to go home, which could be as much as four miles away. I lived perhaps a mile and a quarter from the school.
On Friday afternoons, after our last recess, we would have a spelling match. Two eighth grade students, usually a boy and a girl, would stand at opposite sides of the room, choosing their teams. The choosing continued until the entire school was chosen. Of course, the best spellers were picked first. Then the teacher would start giving words from the first part of the speller, until all the weaker spellers had been eliminated. It would settle down into a real contest, as the teacher waded deeper and deeper into the speller, where the words were longer and harder. For someone like me, who has to use a dictionary to check his spelling on even a short letter now, believe it or not, I've stood many times to the very end. Sometimes, it would take an hour or even longer, before one side or the other was vanquished. These spelling matches were a lot of fun, as well as educational. They taught both sportsmanship and competition.
Sometimes, we would use the whole of Friday afternoon to put on a program. We worked hard at this. Some of the children would memorize and recite long poems, Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," tell funny stories, or sing. I was an avid reader, and by the time I was in the fourth grade, I had read every textbook in school, plus any story book or novel I could borrow. Of course, we had no library, but some of my teachers had a few books, and knowing my interest in literature, they were kind enough to lend me a few.
I read rapidly and absorbed what I read. I could repeat, almost word for word, all the highlights of a book I had read only once, and much of the small commonplace passages, also. Then too, I had a lively imagination and began making up little stories on my own, at an early age.
So, in these programs, I was always the storyteller. Sometimes, I would tell a story of some interesting book or short story I had read, but often I would just make up one on the spur of the moment.
One other thing we looked forward to was Christmas. The teacher would always treat us with a small present and a little bag of hard candy, sometimes an apple or an orange or both.
There were no notebooks or notebook paper in the old country school. Paper of any kind was scarce, and we didn't waste a single sheet, writing on both sides of the paper. Our paper came from rough tablets, about the size of typewriter paper, and cost five cents per tablet. Many times, we didn't even have this and had to borrow from someone else who did. No child in the old country school ever refused to lend a sheet of paper, for they knew that, sometime, they might be borrowing something. Pencils were also precious, and we would use them clear down to an inch stub. Mostly, we used the little penny ones made from cedar wood. These had a little nub of an eraser stuck down in one end of the wood, and it either wore out or fell out with the first day's use.
One precious memory to me was the conglomerate smells of the old country school. Inside was the smell of chalk, books, and the medicinal smell of the oil that the teacher put on the floor once a week. The cool, clean smell of the mountain was wafted through the windows on the gentle breeze. From across the little creek floated the sweet odor of tasseling corn. Goldenrod, yellow top, stickweed, and milkweed blooms added their fragrances to the breeze. The pungent odor of chinchweed, which we had crushed with our bare feet, while at play, mingled with all the other smells, and was not unpleasant to my country-born nostrils.
There are many great halls of learning in America and abroad, where a renowned doctor, lawyer, politician, author, or statesman laid claim to his degree of higher education. But never was there a better place to start the foundation for higher learning than at the old country school, which, like so many things, has passed from the American scene and faded into obscurity, forever.
Col. Edward Ward
Every reader of The Kentucky Explorer, no doubt, has a special memory. Why not write it down and share it here in this column? Help preserve the story of our vanishing past for today and tomorrow. We need memories and photographs from every part of Kentucky and beyond.