Articles & Stories

The Country Education Of
A Louisville "Town Boy"

A Glimpse Of Life On A Hopkins County Tobacco Farm In 1940

By Charles Whalin - 2002

When Aunt Mary Nisbet married Uncle Henry Jackson, a whole new world opened up for me. Uncle Henry and Aunt Mary lived on a farm near Anton, Hopkins County, Kentucky. I was a youngster living in Louisville. In the summer of 1940, shortly after their marriage, Mother took my sister, Martha, and me to visit Uncle Henry and Aunt Mary on their farm. It was the beginning of an education for a "town boy."

On that first visit, Uncle Henry gave me a ride on his plow horse, Star. After warning me that Star had recently been having "fits," he lifted me up, sat me on her broad, bare back, and handed me the reins. Just then, Star started shivering to rid herself of those pesky flies. I shouted, "Star's throwin' a fit!" and jumped off.

I don't think Uncle Henry ever had a saddle, and all riding was done bareback. Later, he hoisted my sister, Martha, up behind me. With her arms around my waist, she started slipping to one side, saying, "I'm falling off!" Martha held on real tight, and we both tumbled to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

Dreaming of the Kentucky Derby, I once tried to race old Star down the dirt road from Pond River Bottoms. When Star started jogging, I just kept bouncing up and down, until I fell off the rear of that horse. I never did learn to ride old Star.
I had many more lessons to learn on the farm. Early each morning, I'd crawl from the featherbed to go with Uncle Henry, while he slopped the hogs; fed the chickens, horses, and cows; and, of course, milked the cows by hand. As he sat on the stool, using both hands, he'd shortly fill the bucket with fresh, warm milk and, occasionally, would shoot a squirt of milk directly into the mouth of the barn cat that sat patiently nearby awaiting its breakfast. When I tried to milk the cow, she'd just turn her spigot off, dry up, and stand there stamping her feet.

In those early years the farm had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Each night after supper, Uncle Henry would enjoy telling ghost stories by the spooky light of the kerosene lamp, but this didn't keep me from sleeping soundly, unless nature called me to the outhouse; which in wintertime, was always very, very cold.

I was at the farm the day Uncle Henry's son-in-law, Richard Bowles, "water-witched" a new well. Several neighbors were there to watch, as Richard walked around with a forked stick, finally marking the spot where the well was to be dug. That well yielded sweet, soft water and never went dry.
My education continued.

I learned how to operate the corn sheller, turn the crank on the cream separator, and operate other gadgets that were totally strange to me. I happily gathered eggs from the hen house, drew water in a bucket from the well, picked vegetables, and did lots of other farm chores that, to a "town boy," were pure fun.

One day we all went over to a neighboring farm, where a contraption called a threshing machine sat out in a field making strange noises. I heard the men talking about how a boiler on one of those things had blown up, so I didn't get anywhere near it all day.

There were several families there from nearby farms. The men worked all morning threshing wheat, while the women cooked in the kitchen, and the children played outside. At noontime all the men came in for dinner and were served first, then the children. After everyone else had eaten, the women sat down to eat, relax, and visit before cleaning up.

As I grew older, I worked in the fields, but needed still more education, like the time I learned to hoe corn. Uncle Henry; his son, Boyd; and I went to the toolshed, where he sharpened three hoes, then we walked to the cornfield to hoe corn. I made up my mind to show Uncle Henry that a town boy could indeed hoe corn.

As soon as we arrived there, I began to furiously chop away as fast as I could. Boyd shouted, "Daddy, make him stop. He's chopping down the corn!" That's when I learned that we really there to chop out the weeds, not hoe the corn.
My sister, Martha, and I spent many happy weeks on that farm. I couldn't wait for school to end each spring, and my favorite summer vacation was with Uncle Henry and Aunt Mary on their farm.

During my high school years, I worked on the farm for one dollar a day, plus room and board. By that time, Uncle Henry had acquired a John Deere tractor, but still used old Star to plow the garden. I learned to tie sacks on a combine, stack bales of hay in the barn loft (using a hay hook), and turn the crank on the ice-cream freezer, which I especially enjoyed.

Every Saturday Martha and I would accompany Uncle Henry to Madisonville, where he'd buy rock salt and ice for the ice-cream freezer, and whatever groceries were needed. We always stopped at his brother's grocery, where Uncle Henry would buy us each a cold soft drink.

Aunt Mary was a great cook and always set a bountiful table. Breakfast included hot biscuits, fresh butter, sorghum molasses, pork tenderloin, thick-sliced bacon, eggs, tomatoes, milk, and thick Jersey cream over blackberries.

Dinner usually featured fried chicken or country ham and a variety of fresh vegetables from the garden, topped off with pecan pie.

After the noon meal, Aunt Mary would spread a table cloth over the food to keep the flies off, and it sat there until suppertime, when we'd dig into whatever was left from dinner. I never went hungry, unless it was just before mealtime.
One summer Aunt Mary turned me loose in the garden with permission to eat all the tomatoes and watermelon I wanted. This was a rare opportunity for a town boy, and I seized the chance to eat until I could hold no more. The next morning, I had red rashes all over my body and learned a lesson in how to break out in hives.

The nastiest work I ever did was suckering dark tobacco. The tobacco patch was slightly less than two acres, and it took Uncle Henry and me three days to sucker the whole field. The crop had to be suckered three times during the season.

Each day, after morning chores, I'd soak the old wooden water jug, fill it with cool water from the well, tamp in a corncob stopper, and also soak down a burlap sack. We'd head for the tobacco patch, put the jug of water in the shade, cover it with the wet burlap sack, and start suckering. We'd work until noon, come in and eat dinner, rest for awhile, then return to the field and work until time for evening chores.

Uncle Henry showed me how to coat my hands and arms with dust to keep the tobacco gum from sticking. He also taught me how to break off the suckers, and how to pick off those big, ugly, green tobacco worms and splat 'em on the ground. After awhile, I was able to sucker two rows at a time, swinging from one side to the other. We had to sucker all the way down each stalk, stooping and straightening up.

After my first day of this, I was ready for supper and a good night's sleep, but the next morning, when Aunt Mary called me for breakfast, I was certain that my back was broken. I was so sore I could hardly get out of bed. After three days, however, I guess my back got used to it.

When working out in that hot sun, I'd start thinking about that water jug and would ask Uncle Henry if we could stop at the end of the field, rest, and get a drink. He'd always reply, "To the 'yon end and then," which meant one more trip to the far end and back before stopping. We had no ice in that water jug, just cool water from the well, but no matter how hot the day was, that water was always cool.

Uncle Henry chewed his own homegrown twist, and each time we drank, he'd spit out his wad of tobacco, take a swig of water, swish it around in his mouth, spit it out, and then drink. I was always so thirsty that I never minded tasting a little tobacco juice.

Stripping tobacco was a pleasure, especially after suckering in the hot sun. In those days every barn had a stripping room. Here, the tobacco leaves were stripped from their stalks, sorted, and tied into "hands." It was often cool enough for a fire in the potbellied stove, and men from neighboring farms gathered to help strip, as well as socialize.

My "town boy" education continued as I learned to strip; sort the leaves, lugs, and trash; and tie a hand of tobacco. I enjoyed listening to the men as they swapped news, told tall tales, and recalled special memories.

In later years, my wife, daughter, and son were privileged to have known and loved Uncle Henry and Aunt Mary and to have spent time on their farm, which brought much pleasure to them, as it did to me.

Those days are now gone forever and remain only in memories, especially for a "town boy" who was blessed with a very special education.

Charles Whalin, 2303 Newmarket Drive, Louisville, KY 40222, shares this story and photos with our readers.

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