Articles & Stories

Recalling Memories Of An
Annual Memorial Day Meeting

Favorite Old-Time Hymns, High-Spirited Preachers,
And Scrumptuous Food Blessed The Occasion In Perry County

By Truman Fields - 2002

The biggest religious event of the year always took place on Memorial Day. Meetings on Decoration Day, as some folks called it, were the spectacle of all spectacles. These highly-attended religious meetings' singing and preaching sessions were something to behold. The best female singers of the area always blessed the crowd with favorite old-time hymns. Preachers were invited according to their ability, plus their current standing in the community. People wanted to see and hear preachers jump up and down, pound on the pulpit, loudly quote the Bible, and get the crowd stirred up like a working beehive.
Zeal, showmanship, and a convincing delivery usually judged men of the cloth. Knowledge of the Bible, doctrine, and education were normally secondhand. Most never prepared a sermon. Instead, they depended on the spontaneous inspiration of the occasion. Some were "hot coals off the altar" who spoke about 300 words a minute. Our preachers disagreed on many things, but they all believed the devil was out there nearby just trying to get the sinner to sin well.
Competition was keen on Memorial Day for preachers who could deliver and entertain. Many folks had Memorial Day services at their family graveyards. Everybody wanted good fire and brimstone preachers. Getting two, three, or even four such Reverends filled with heat and sulfur was not too unusual. About every four or five years our community landed a loud, entertaining preacher man that could bring out the religion in nearly everyone. Sometimes we got the good, the bad, and the ugly, along with the entertainers, and sometimes we got con men. Thankfully, the latter was not the case that one Memorial Sunday I fondly remember.

The old log benches were filled at this annual memorial meeting in a family cemetery located in the mountains near Jackson, Breathitt County, Kentucky. This photo was taken in the 1940s by Marion Post Wolcott and is part of the Farm Security Administration photograph collection. The young boy looks as if he had already sat through a couple of sermons delivered by community preachers.

On that day we had five mountain preachers. All could deliver with polished zeal and unquestionable authority. Of course, they all tried to out-preach the others. That glorious Memorial Day service occurred long ago at the Morgan Family Cemetery near Avawam, Perry County, Kentucky. A few, maybe five or six, of the graves had a little wooden shed with a shingle roof as a cover. The wooden sheds were a sign of affluence. Some of the homemade tombstones made of poured concrete had the names and dates finger-written in them. Some of the wooden ones had white paint used to identify the deceased. In other places, stones were used to mark the head and the foot of graves. Several logs had been split and laid out as seats for the overflow crowd. Near the center of the gravesite a wooden platform was put in place for the four chosen female hymn singers and the highly-respected preachers. Purple crepe paper with big yellow bows was strung in the trees and along part of the fence. Two rough toilets were constructed by the Morgans.
The people came like the pouring down rain. Several people brought flowers, mostly red roses, and laid them on the graves of their departed kinfolks. Mournful crying could be heard openly. Wildflowers and pine needles were all over the place. Some of the trees had moss growing around their trunks. Every grave was manicured and decorated with flowers. The flush of spring green was as far as the eye could see. Newly-planted Kudzu vine, that had been planted to help hold the road, had grown from the creek bed all the way up to the edge of the graveyard fence. I remember it being one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
The larger-than-usual crowd was anxious to get the service going. Many folks particularly looked forward to the sumptuous dinner that was to be served on the ground immediately after the conclusion of the last preacher's delivery. What most people wanted was to hear some good, fire-and-brimstone preaching. Going through two or three sessions of fire and brimstone made folks think they had received something valuable they badly needed. Going through four such sermons would, for sure, put the hunger in the entire crowd. Every soul present was more than anxious to get things started that sunny Memorial Day.
They didn't have to wait too long. About 10:00 a.m., right after the quartet finished the last verse of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," the four ladies got things started in a hurry. The singers were special; they knew precisely how to handle a meeting. That day they all looked good; each singer was dressed to kill. Someone said the singers tried harder than the preachers to outdo one another. Sister Sara McGuire seemed to be in charge. She used her large fan, in a poking motion for every word, to conduct as she started and stopped the songs. When the fan went up, singing was sure to quickly follow. Everyone knew when the song was about to end. Sara would always put the fan by her knee just before the last word was sounded.
Dora May Fugate, the oldest of the gang, wore a yellow and green bonnet that was tightly tied around her neck. Dora moved her head, with a pecking motion, as she sang out every word. Her bonnet, that matched the crepe paper, stayed put all day. Bertha Combs wore her red dress. Bertha liked singing at any place. Her favorite place was at funerals. She always spoke of people who had requested her singing at their final parting of the earth. Mildred Sizemore, a double-first cousin to Sara, sang bass. She was a high school gym teacher. I just can't recall what she wore. I do remember she had the highest high heels of the quartet.
The singers started singing, and the first preacher could hardly wait to get going. He stood up and got ready before Sister Sara's fan went down. Brother Coy Melton started slow and low. At first the hushed crowd had to listen hard to hear his soft and quiet words. About halfway through his sermon Brother Melton took off his coat and straw hat. At 11:00 a.m., dripping with sweat, the tie came off and his top shirt button was undone. Brother Melton turned out to be loud and long. He preached with an emphasis on family that permeated the entire society. With a voice like an undertaker, the man soon raised his volume to an auctioneer's level, as he preached of the Second Coming.
The large crowd quickly applauded the first preacher. At the conclusion of his preaching I was hungry and bored. Realizing there were four more preachers to go before we ate, I decided to rate each of the speakers. My method was to award points on a scale of one to ten. Brother Melton had earned about a seven on my unofficial approval-rating chart. That was not a bad start on that hot, glorious Memorial Day.
The song "Amazing Grace" was beautifully performed when Brother Melton sat down. The large crowd joined in the singing. Normally the first verse and the chorus were all the worshippers knew. That was not the case with the four singers; they knew every word of every verse of every song.
Most of the crowd hummed through the unknown parts. The quartet sang "Lord I'm Coming Home" to introduce the second reverend. Joshua C. Combs got off to a roaring start with a clear definition of both heaven and hell. His body was moving around in jerking motions and his long, white hair was flying high and wild. Brother Combs seemed to favor his long white hair. His right hand frequently stroked his full crop of head cover.
He talked louder and longer about hell; heaven took only a small part of his time. Brother Combs summed everything up by shaking his head wildly and telling the crowd that hell was at least a hundred times hotter than the 90-degree heat we were all exposed to there on the side of that hill in the attractive Morgan burial grounds. Several people winced and fanned themselves harder when the 90-degree figure was used. I gave Brother Combs an approval rating of eight. "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" was sung after Reverend Combs sat down to a good round of applause.
"Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" was rendered to introduce Coy Browning. Brother Melton had to nudge him when his time came. Brother Browning must have been leaning a bit too much himself, for he fell as he slowly struggled up the four steps to the platform. He had more trouble as he mumbled and searched for something in his big, black Bible. Brother Browning, usually one of the best of the best, started his sermon on something about flying away to heaven. When he threw up his arms with real gusto the big Bible flew out into the third row. It actually woke some people up. The Reverend completely lost his train of thought.
The four singers knew exactly what to do; they immediately began singing, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" again. They sang magnificently as they helped the reluctant Brother Browning off the stage to a nearby steady chair. Of course, the sermon-maker didn't want to go anywhere. But the singers persevered. I heard one of the other preachers say, "Good Lord, help my good brother." Another one said, "Amen!" Brother Browning got a two for his rating. He leaned left and right as the singers gently forced him off the platform.
After the actions of Brother Browning, the female singers needed an upbeat song. They chose "Give Me That Old-Time Religion" and performed it beautifully to introduce Felix Fair Eversole, the fourth preacher. Brother Eversole told the large crowd to get ready because the Lord was, "a-fixing to take charge of your body, mind, and soul." As he worked himself into a frenzy of emotions he used a big, red handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face. While talking, he often drank from a glass of water, then spat on the ground. Brother Eversole talked a little more than an hour on the faith he had in his God. He said good old-time faith and grace would get you to heaven. He went on to make his big climax special by using both hands to starting the song "Faith of My Father." The singers joined in with the Reverend and sang the first four verses without missing a single word. They introduced the last speaker with "Are You Weary, Are You Heavy Laden?" I was hoping the singers would sing something about food. I was starved.
Brother Jethrow P. Wooton III was the only obstacle between the crowd and the superb dinner on the ground. He seemed happy that the Reverend Browning had taken such a short amount of time. It was agreed by many that Reverend Wooton could out-preach anyone, anytime, anywhere. Everyone felt fortunate we had the number-one preacher in Leslie County with us on that scorching Memorial Day Sunday. According to Aunt Sally, Reverend Wooton was the best looking of the bunch. He wore a neat, well-pressed suit that fit, and he had polished black boots.
The final preacher began his talk by telling the restless crowd to stand up, stretch, and move around. The female singers started the hymn "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus." Sister Sara used her fan in a motion for everyone to stand up and sing. Some folks moved closer to the food, water, and toilets. Brother Wooten saw the devil at work and quickly instructed everyone to sit back down and listen to God's Holy Word. Most of the people did. God seems to have a good way with good people even when they are nearly starved.
Standing up and stretching was a good stroke for Brother Wooton. He woke several people up and got everyone's complete attention. By now the crowd was hot, hungry, tired, and thirsty. They had had enough fire and brimstone for one year. They would have loved to start the dinner on the ground right then, but dinner had to wait because the final speaker wanted to be compared and judged more favorably than the preceding mountain reverends. He already had some important things going for him. The famous Reverend Wooden was small and energetic. He stepped fast and moved with athletic precision. The little man used his talents well.
He usually totally aroused the crowd, and that was the reason he was to go last. Aunt Sally was right about the looks. The topic of his sermon was how to get to heaven. He told everyone to listen carefully, as he started reading in the book of Genesis. When the first book of the Bible was mentioned a heavy-set lady in a red, white, and blue dress fainted. I reckoned she thought the preacher man was going to read the complete Old Testament. The four singers were quick to act. They struggled and smiled as they helped their fainted sister to the water pail. They lowly sang another verse of "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus" as they assisted their overcome sister to the liquid refreshment.
Reverend Wooton never missed a beat as he used a piece of chalk to draw the Dead Sea on the wooden platform floor. He jumped back and forth across the Dead Sea, demonstrating how God led the Hebrews to the land of milk and honey. I got real hungry and thirsty when milk and honey were mentioned. A drumstick and a RC Cola could have sent me to the Promised Land.
He finally did fminish his worthwhile religious talk about 2:00 p.m. The temperature had climbed to near the 100º mark. Brother Wooton concluded his preaching with a flurry of Bible verses. He quoted the long list of verses, at least a dozen, by heart. He seemed to have total recall of the entire Bible. He, like the other four preachers, never used any kind of notes. Reverend Wooton waved his arms and told everybody that both he and the Lord loved them. As he jumped off the platform everyone was happy; they showed it by applauding long and loud. To my dismay Brother Wooton jumped back up on the platform. He cleared all four steps and landed somewhere near the Dead Sea. Then he helped the singers with the song "I Saw the Light." What people wanted to see was dinner on the ground. The savvy singers immediately laid hands on the beloved Brother Wooten and led him to the homemade feast spread out on the ground, on blankets, on stumps, on wagons, and on a few tables near the hillside cemetery.
I gave the four singers a rating of 11 because they were the best of show and the best of all performers on that wonderful Memorial Day Sunday over half a century ago. The rating for the stack cake, three helpings of homemade vanilla ice cream, and the dinner on the ground was so good the final count for it was off the chart.

Truman Fields, 137 Lorraine Court, Berea, KY 40403, shares this article which he wrote several years ago. It is taken from the archives of The Kentucky Explorer.