For the last big May Family reunion in 1981, my father wrote down his memories of growing up on the old plantation. This document is probably the last and longest memoir of those days and of my grandparents Jonathan Brooks and Nicie Elizabeth Kinnaird May. Thinking of the upcoming May Reunion of April 30, I decided that it might be a good idea to post this in one of my blogs.
As you will see, he was a man of his times. He also was a man who, in the words of the old song that if you remember it will probably date you, preferred to "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative." These are memories looking backward through glasses made rosy by time. But I don't mind, and I don't think you will either.
Being the youngest and the only living child of Jonathan Brooks May and Nicie Elizabeth Kinnaird May, I have been asked to bring to light a few of my memories of my mother and father. If I may be allowed to express my opinion, I believe that at one time they were among the most popular people in Hale County. They had hearts of love, kindness, and compassion for all people, young and old, rich or poor. No one could help but love them.
On my father’s plantation of 1,040 acres he had eight or nine [15 or 16] Negro families. They had comfortable houses to live in. Some of them rented the house and a certain number of acres of land at a very reasonable price. Some of them were sharecroppers.
The sharecroppers were the ones who worked on my father’s farm. They were paid the regular wages that were paid by other farmers in the county. Now I will tell you how my father operated the farm.
He had to borrow money every year to finance the farm. If the renters wanted him to help them through the year, my father would manage to do so. They were free to get help from anyone they wanted to, as long as they paid the rent in the fall of the year after the crop was sold. The sharecroppers were different. I cannot remember if he charged them any rent on the house, but a certain number of acres were allotted to each. When the laborers were working on my father’s farm, they would work a sharecropper’s farm just as if the crops were my father’s. While they were working on the sharecropper’s farm, they continued to receive the same wages as if they were working on my father’s farm. When harvest time came, the crop that came off the sharecropper farm was kept separate from my father’s crop. When the crop was sold, my father got half and the sharecropper got half. If the sharecroppers needed any medical attention, my father saw that they received it.
Now a few words about my mother and the housekeeping. During the best years of her life my mother was claimed by many people to be among the best housekeepers and cooks in Hale County. With nine children I don’t see how she managed as well as she did. Mother did not do it all alone. As long as I can remember she always had good servants in the house. She always had a cook and other servants to come in each morning. The house had nine double beds, all of which were used only when guests stayed for the night. It was necessary to make up beds, straighten up everything, and sweep up rooms and porches.
I do not remember just how the house servants were paid. Maybe not very much because while there they always got plenty to eat. During my time one of Mother’s best cooks was the wife of a sharecropper, Henry Pasture. Her real name was Mary Ella Pasture. I don’t know how she got her nickname. It was Sis. Everybody called her Sis.
Of course, Mother had to supervise the cooking and the house cleaning. Mother had a good sense of humor. One night when we all went in for supper, right beside every plate was a whole sweet potato pie. Maybe she wanted us to believe that was all we were going to get for supper. We all had a good laugh over that. Very often Mother would make a sort of potato pudding. She would grate the potato and sweeten it with home-made syrup and then put in some other little seasonings. It certainly was good.
Now a little about the family as I knew it. We were looked upon as a Christian family. My mother and father belonged to the Melton Baptist Church. They had services one Sunday a month. I suppose at one time or another, most of the children were members of that church. I am not sure of that, but after they married and left home, some of them joined other churches. We did not have a family altar in our home, but at every meal we had the blessing and thanked God for his many blessings. Our mother and father encouraged us to read the Bible. I do know one thing. During our growing up days, we were one of the happiest families you could find anywhere. Mother and father had a minimum of trouble with the children. Of course if we got out of line, if it was necessary, father would give us a whipping. Mother only gave us a few love spanks. The children got along fine together and we were all a great happy family.
Among My Memories
Some of the things I remember
Right between my mother and father’s room and my sister Mamie’s room was a passageway or wide hall. It was right through the middle of the house. On one side of the hall was a two-seated swing. It was very comfortable to sit in and swing.
I will tell you of the first things that I can remember in my real early childhood. My sister Mamie was fairly in her mid teens and was old enough to take care of the baby of the house, which happened to be me. After the sun had set in the west and was shining on other parts of the world, when the golden glow was fading in the west and darkness was creeping over the fields and meadows, Sister Mamie would swing and sing me to sleep. I can never for get the song she sang:
Come sister come
Kiss me good night.
For I my evening prayers have said.
I’m tired now and sleepy too.
Come put me in my little bed.
I cannot remember when my sister Comer married, but as I grew up I can remember them coming home on Sunday. Before he married, my brother Ellery had moved from home out to Sawyerville. At one time there was a mercantile business called May and Stevenson. The Stevenson was my brother-in-law named Will Stevenson who had married my sister Comer. I do not remember how long or how successful the mercantile business lasted. Later Comer and Will moved to the village of Melton. After several years there they moved to Greensboro. Will was a farmer and cattleman.
Going back to my sister Mamie. I do not remember how old she was when she married Wallace Moore of Heiberger in Perry County. There was just a home wedding. After the wedding and she and her husband had left, I cannot forget how lonely I was. I went out behind what we called the storehouse and shed some tears all by myself. After a time, things worked out all right. Mamie and Wallace visited us on Sundays and weekends.
All the while the other children were growing up, I was tagging along behind. I will tell you more about them a little later. There were so many children down there that the education department let us have a teacher at our home. One of the rooms was for a while called the schoolroom. But later one of the servant’s homes just a little east of the main house became vacant. For two or three years one of the rooms of the servant home was fixed up for the schoolroom. We later attended school at the Sawyerville school.
One of the teachers at the home school was Miss Burdine Dew of Greensboro. Later she and my brother Ellery were married. I cannot remember too much of their early marriage. They later moved to a place in east Alabama. I think Comer was the name of the town. I don’t think they were too happy in Comer, so they later moved to Selma, where Ellery was with a lumber company. They later moved to Greensboro where Ellery was one of the owners of the Greensboro Lumber Company. They had several fine daughters and sons.
I am going back a little while and tell more about my father’s farm. On my father’s farm, he had a ginhouse, a gristmill, and a lumber mill. [There was also a cane mill for making syrup.] Cotton was the main money crop. He would gin all the cotton raised on the place and for anyone else who would bring their cotton there to be ginned. Saturday was gristmill day. He would grind all the meal needed for the farm. The lumber mill turned out some fine lumber. There was a lot of timber on the plantation, and I am sure that is how my father got the lumber for all the families that lived on the plantation. Power for the gin and mill was a steam boiler and engine. I think John Jackson, a Negro on the farm, was the fireman who kept plenty of steam for the boiler and engine to operate. The boiler had a safely valve to open up if the steam pressure got too high. I do not remember who they were, but my father always had good men who knew what they were doing to operate the gin, the lumber mill, and the gristmill. They never had an accident that I can recall. [Nelse Haggard was the cotton press man.]
While we boys were growing up, we liked to play hide and seek and baseball. We played hide and seek around the house and yard. We played baseball near the ginhouse. When we played baseball, there were a few teenage Negroes on the place who would join us, and we always got along fine. Just east of our home was a little hill, and on pretty moonlight nights we would see how quickly we could run to the hilltop and back. I don’t think any one of us could say he was the best runner. Most of the time we came out about even. It was lots of fun and good exercise. I was a pretty good runner in my youth.
At Christmastime our main decoration was holly. We would go up in the woods and bring lots of holly for decorating in the house. Mother would do a lot of good cooking during Christmastime. Santa Clause would bring us oranges, apples, raisins, nuts, candy, [popcorn balls], and lots of fireworks. Roman candles and skyrockets were our favorites, but of course we would have firecrackers, too. One Christmas I got a little toy automobile. Wind it up and it would run across the floor. We did not get very much but we were happy. Many times our cousins, the Johnson boys, would come out on Christmas day, and we all had a good time together. We would shoot firecrackers during the daytime and save the Roman candles and skyrockets for night.
All of my brothers were good hunters and during hunting season, we always had plenty of good meat on the table. The principal game were deer, ducks, turkeys, squirrels, quail, and doves. We also had plenty of good fish whenever we wanted it.
One of the strange things about hunting. Our Uncle Thad who never married stayed with us part of the time. The only hunting he cared about was rabbit hunting. Now here is the strange part. One of the best bird dogs that we had was named Bell. We do not know how that dog knew Uncle Thad, but when she went hunting with him, she let the birds alone but would go in the bushes and ditch banks and run out the rabbits for Uncle Thad.
Now comes one of the sad, sad times of our family. In 1910 our brother Thad died of malaria. We thought Thad was the most healthy and best looking boy in the family. That surely did hit the family hard and we were a long time getting over it. I felt so sorry for our father. Mother took it better than I thought she would. If father could have shed some tears, I feel sure it would have helped him. The first day or two after Thad died, all he could say was, “Oh my boy, my boy, oh my boy, my boy, oh my boy, my boy.” Of course we realize that time is the greatest healer of sadness. We realized that life had to go on.
I do not remember what year it was. The Post Office Department decided to have a rural route out of the Sawyerville Post Office. It was among the first rural routes in Hale County. My brother Tom received the appointment as rural carrier. At first it was a horse and buggy affair that covered about 28 miles. It later became an automobile route with the mileage increased to around 40.
You remember that my sister Mamie and her husband lived in Heiberger, Ala. On one of Tom’s visits to see Mamie, he met Miss Vera Wallace. It must have been love at first sight. In a few months Tom and Vera became engaged. The Moore family and the Wallace family were close friends. Tom and Vera’s wedding was at the Heiberger Methodist Church. Do I remember the wedding? You bet I do. You see I was Tom’s best man at his wedding. For the first few years of their married life Tom and Vera lived at the May plantation home; a few years later when a house in Sawyerville became vacant, they moved to the Sawyerville community. They lived there the rest of Tom’s life.
You remember the United States became involved in World War One. I want to bring in parts of that. My brothers Albert and Freeman were soon mixed up in that. And later, even though my brother Tom was married and served a rural route, he was drafted. When I became 18 years old, I had to register for the draft and was placed in 1-A by the Selective Service. I was expected to be called at any time, when the war ended. I want to bring out a few words about Albert, Freeman, and Tom.
Albert served in the Rainbow division all during our time in the war. He drove a supply wagon that carried supplies up to the front line. He had some terrible times during his service in the war. He said there were many, many times he thought that he would not survive. Luck was with him, and he came back safely. I never could tell if the efforts of the war had any effects on his later years.
Freeman was not connected with any particular division during the war. His battalion or company was moved from time to time to various sections of the fighting zone. A strange thing. Many letters were written to him from home, but not a single letter ever caught up with him. After the war the letters started coming back home one by one. Brother Albert received his mail, because he was in the Rainbow division all the time he was in service.
Tom spent about three months in training, but before he was sent to the war zone, the armistice was signed and he was sent home. While Tom was in service, my father was his substitute carrier and served the route while he was gone. At times, I assisted my father with the mail service.
My brother Stephen was deferred from the war because he was a big part of operating the farm.
Some time after the war, my brother Albert married Miss Mary Lou Johnson of Heiberger. That made three of my in-laws who came from the little community of Heiberger. I do not know how and when brother Albert met Mary Lou. During their first few years, Albert and his family lived in Greensboro. I think Albert was with an automobile company while in Greensboro. They later moved to Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Albert operated a mercantile business for several years. The mercantile business did not turn out too well. During the remaining years of his life, he worked with the Veterans Hospital in Tuscaloosa.
My brother Freeman was wounded in the war, not too seriously, but he was terribly shell-shocked. I am quite sure that he never did completely get over the effects of the war, but he got along fairly well. After the war, Freeman married Lyconia Hall Sample. Lyconia did not live but a few years. Freeman later married Cammie Lee Wilburn. Most of Freeman’s working years was as Lock tender on the Black Warrior river. He worked there until he was admitted to the Veterans Hospital. In the hospital was where he spent his last few months.
My sister-in-law Vera stood it fairly well while Tom was in the training camp. We knew it would be very hard on her. The few months that he was gone, she spent part of her time at her home in Heiberger and part of the time on the May plantation. You see, that part of their life happened before they moved to the community of Sawyerville.
My brother Stephen was a good timber man. His job was to haul timber out of the woods to the sawmills. He spent several years doing this kind of work in several communities in central Alabama. I feel sure that this paid off real well for him. He later moved his family back to the May plantation.
On a sad, windy Sunday morning, the plantation home was destroyed by fire. I can never forget the sadness that came to my heart when I heard about it. It was decided that a defective chimney caused the fire. My brother Stephen built another house there, and lived there the rest of his life. All of this happened several years after my mother and father had passed away. I forgot to mention that he married Miss Laura Quarles who lived near Akron, Ala.
Sister Mamie’s husband passed away while the children were still fairly young. I do not remember just what their ages were. Mamie continued to live in Heiberger and for many years, she operated a Fashion Shoppe in Marion, Ala. She finally retired from the Fashion Shoppe. She dearly loved the little community of Heiberger and all the people there. She called Heiberger home until she passed away.
Our father passed away in 1923. He had been ill for about 18 months. He passed away in Johns Hopkins hospital, Baltimore, Md. The doctors did all they could to save him but to no avail. Mother took it better than we thought she would. I feel sure that she had prepared herself for it. We children knew that life would never be the same again. We all loved him so much.
Our mother unexpectedly passed away on Christmas morning 1925. She was visiting brother Ellery and his family, and had not been ill. I had made plans to spend Christmas day with her. That morning I received the greatest shock of my life. Our dear wonderful mother would not be with us any more. If there is a hereafter, we knew that our mother and father were together.
A little over three months after my mother passed away, Annie Lee and I were married, on April 4, 1926. No one has ever had a more wonderful wife than I have had. Through all the ups and downs that we have had, she really made it possible for me to keep going. I could not have accomplished the things that I have accomplished, without her help. Through it all, we have a fine daughter and a fine son that we dearly love. We feel sure that they love us as much as we love them. They have brought us much happiness. Always remember Annie Lee how much I love you.
The plantation that my mother and father loved so much is now owned by my brother Stephen’s wife and children. I am so happy that it is still in the May family and will be for a long time. I realize that in the distant future it may be necessary to sell it to some one else. I am sure that before that happens I will have taken my journey beyond the sunset of life.
Sawyerville, Alabama Jonathan Bryan May, Sr.