I am standing on the steps leading down from our screened-in back porch to the back yard. There is a bannister on the right side as you face the house. It is covered with clematis in white bloom. I am holding on to the bannister to keep from falling. A train whistle blows, and I look slightly to the east across the highway and see the train on the tracks beyond the few houses and buildings and trees on the far side of the road. The train is passing from east to west. It is pulled by an old-fashioned locomotive and smoke is trailing behind. Colors are vivid. Everything is somehow separate but yet part of a larger picture. Perspective is flat. Later on when I see paintings by Grandma Moses, I know that is what it looked like. I recall strong feelings of astonishment and joy.
The house sat back from the front fence with Highway 14 beyond. A cement walk that pointed toward the North Star ran from the front porch to the gate in the fence, and my childish handprint was imbedded in the east side of the walk near the front gate. Do I recall pressing my hand down in the wet cement? Possibly, but more likely I recall only its presence there and pressing my hand down into the hardened imprint.
Immediately to the west of the front yard was my father’s post office and general store, gasoline pump out front, benches on the front store porch where customers and kids might sit.
I believe that when my mother’s father built the house and store in about 1927 the two buildings were more in alignment, but by the time I can remember much the house had been moved back so that the front porch lined up with the rear store porch in order to give us more front yard. That move, also done by my grandfather, was necessitated by a change in the highway: it used to run alongside the railroad tracks to the north and had been moved about a city block to the south as part of an attempt to reduce the number of times (seven) that Highway 14 had crossed the railroad tracks in the eight miles between Sawyerville and Greensboro to the east. The moving of the house I believe took place in my lifetime, but I don’t remember it at all.
The Millwood Road (later known as County Road 17) ran south on the west side of my father’s store. That’s a different road from the one with the Millwood name coming out of Greensboro, although they end up at the same place. Across that road was where the Waltons lived: Warren, his wife Willard Martin, their children Jud, Doug, Melinda, and Jim. Jud was a couple of years older than I, Doug a year younger. The other two were so much younger that they didn’t get much attention from us older boys in those early days.
Their yard was larger than ours, and to the south of it was a barn and to the west an old pecan grove where once stood the house of Enoch Sawyer, the early postmaster from whom Sawyerville got its name. I can recall bits of rubble there, and beams from that house were used in constructing the Walton house and bricks from it were used to make the walk from their front porch to the driveway. There is an old Sawyer cemetery to the east of the barn, but Enoch was buried in a cemetery in Greensboro and his wife in a small plot near St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in the same town. Later in life I speculated that the cemetery might have been for slaves instead of for family. Even when I was a child, the modest gravestones, not the big marble monuments found in most early cemeteries, were weathered and barely if at all legible. But lately I was told of one Thomas Williams, a native of Virginia, born March 11, 1793, died August 7, 1836, and buried in a gravesite near the Sawyer home in Sawyerville "a few hundred yards south of the filling station, located in a bunch of gnarled old trees." That description would place him in that cemetery and verify that it was in fact not a slave cemetery.
Another early memory. Or is it really a memory? Did I make it up from tales I had heard? I seem to recall a small store on that property, likely the filling station mentioned just above, and in my mind is the image of that building being rolled across the highway to a position directly opposite our front yard. I don’t recall the building used for anything other than storage during its years across the highway. But I do have a photograph of my father sitting on the front porch of his store and behind his is that building shown in its earlier location.
Down the hill to the east and south of our front yard was our patch of woods. We owned, and I still do, about an acre of yard and three acres of woods. Up the hill east of that is the small house where my Uncle Tom died in 1941. A few years later the Walter Johnson family moved there from the Crackerneck area a few miles to the north (that area is east of old Wedgeworth, and I seem to recall it being so named because the roads were so curvy that a snake crawling along them could crack its neck if it wasn’t careful). The Johnsons had a couple of older girls and a son, Charles, who might have been a year or so older than Jud, making him the oldest boy in our bunch. Charles knew about things that the rest of us didn’t know.
To the east of the Johnsons was the enormous yard of Umbria Plantation with its old raised cottage sitting way back from the highway. Actually, the Pickens family of Umbria owned that small white house where Uncle Tom and Aunt Vera had lived, and if memory is right Miss Eloise Pickens, Mr. Will Lunsford’s wife, let the Johnsons use it in return for some help on the place.
The front gate to Umbria Plantation was about a quarter of a mile east of the house where we lived, where I live now. You’d go through the brick gates and the driveway would dip down before rising to the house set back behind two enormous magnolias. Where the driveway began to curve to the left you would look straight up the walk to the wide steps leading from the ground up to the wide veranda that ran across the front of the house.
If you followed that road on around to the left, you would pass outbuildings and end up at the Pickens family cemetery. The last time I visited the cemetery, it had been turned into a dog yard. I cannot bear to see it again.
The front veranda faced north. I remember the wicker swing and with its back to the wall a large wicker armchair with slots for books and magazines and a roll-out container too hold your beverage glass. I assume that Miss Eloise’s husband, Mr. Will, made use of that chair. Two or three other smaller wicker chairs and a wicker table were positioned in the area. All of this furniture ended up on our front porch when Miss Eloise had to sell the place in the mid-1950s.
The living room was a seriously big room. I imagine many houses from this period would have had a wide hallway running from those double front doors to the facing ones at the rear, but here the designer opted for open space. In my younger days the enormous table that seemed to take the place of the non-existent wall to the right was stacked high with National Geographic and other magazines. Double doors opened into the dining room to the left, and it was big too: it and the living room made up the whole front of the house.
The main body of the house and the two side wings formed a U which enclosed a formal garden. There was a picket fence with gate across the back. The back porch inside the U overlooked the garden, and stairs near the center led down to the garden and the lower level. Other steps near the kitchen led up to the attic, which ran the length of the house. The kitchen and two bedrooms with a bath between on the east wing were connected by doorways inside, and there were doors from those bedrooms onto the inner veranda as well. The bedrooms on the west side of the house opened only onto the inner porch with no connecting doors within. There was a bathroom on the south end of that west wing, but to get to it you had to go outside onto the inner veranda. Chamber pots, anyone? At least in cold weather.
The ground level, slightly sunken, remained cool in hot summer and could provide for summertime sleeping should the weather be inordinately hot. During my early ears it was used primarily for storage. Wandering through this property and especially the lower level of the house was part of the regular play of us Sawyerville boys in the 1940s. We never asked. We just assumed we had permission. We always seemed welcome.
Construction on the house was started in 1833 by Colonel Samuel Pickens, work continuing until the 1850s. After Miss Eloise was forced to sell the property in the mid-1950s, it passed through several hands, one set of which belonged to a man who had worked on the construction of the Panama Canal. One owner was a psychiatrist born in Alabama but practicing in New York: he tried to make it into an upscale rest home for clients from his practice, but only a couple of patients ever arrived. Another owner was a mortician from Tuscaloosa. The house burned in the early morning of December 29, 1971, and according to reportage in the Greensboro Watchman “was reduced to a few brick walls, chimneys, and smoldering ruins.” The home not being occupied at the time, there was nobody on the place to report the fire, and by the time neighbors became aware, the house was gone. Even those ruins have long since been taken down.
After the fire that destroyed the house, the property was sold to a family from Tuscaloosa who used it for hunting and fishing, with one of the tenant cottages providing a place to stay. Later they sold it to a lumber company. In 1999, after it was clear-cut, the owners divided the land up into a number of three- to four-acre lots, which were then auctioned off. There are some quite nice houses on those smaller properties, but the old Umbria is no more.
(Umbria was central to my childhood, to my life, something I cannot overemphasize. It deserves its prominent place up front in this description of my dreams and memories of Sawyerville in my early years. For more information on the place, check the Umbria Plantation entry on Wikipedia. The link to the Historic American Buildings Survey found on that site is especially useful for pictures of the house in the 1940s.)
Directly across the highway from my father’s store was the large brick building built by Melton True Martin soon after the main highway was moved to where it is now. Before that move, stores fronted the old main road that ran beside the railroad. In my younger years, adjoining Mr. M.T.’s brick store at the rear was his original old wooden store that had faced the railroad and the depot. That wooden structure was used as storage after the new building was built, and it was separated from the brick store by a heavy iron door that remained there until it disappeared in 2017.
Across the road to the left of the Martin store was Emmett Callahan’s filling station. He was the father of Emmett, a year older than I, and Thomas, a year younger, early playmates. His wife, Annie May Hollis, through her Parr line was a cousin of the Mays. To the left of that establishment and beyond a wide passageway where the little kids of the 1940s and 1950s liked to play was my Uncle Murray Martin’s original store. On the west side of the store he had constructed an apartment where he and his family lived for some time (his wife was my mother’s middle sister, and their daughter close to my sister and me in age). Those two structures are gone now, but the brick sides to the M.T. Martin store still stand although the roof has caved in.
I was told that Mr. M.T,’s store was considered a local marvel when it was first built. At the time it was one of the largest stores for a good ten miles in any direction, and there were tales of country people viewing it with great amazement. There was a large porch in front supported by tall brick pillars, and you can still see the outline where the porch roof attached to the building. The double front doors were set back, and on each side were large showcase windows, glass-paned on the front and on the inside, now simply covered with old tin on which has been painted “No Traipsing.”
Some years ago the owner at the time had the porch taken down because it had become a hangout for the idle. I miss the porch, but I don’t miss the idle. But what I do miss is the brick on the column on the right that had been scraped down over the years by men sharpening their knives. I wish I had thought to save that one brick.
Across a field to the west of Uncle Murray’s store and positioned parallel to the highway and facing east was another old store where local farmer George Springer would store bales of cotton or piles of cottonseed. I assume, but don’t know, that the store had earlier been located elsewhere and had been moved to that spot by Springer. Whether he had run the store himself or had purchased the building from someone else is one of the bits of information that never came my way. Or if it did, it has been forgotten.
Set back from the highway and immediately to the west of Mr. M.T.’s store was the Walton store. There was a passageway between the M.T. Martin and Walton stores just wide enough for one wagon or car. I can remember that building being used primarily for farm storage by Walton’s father-in-law, James Robert Martin (we always called him Mr. J.R.), who was a brother to M.T. Later on it was turned into a general store, run by Warren Walton. It was obvious that the old front had faced the old main road. Derelict in recent years, the building finally burned in November of 2013. Arson, likely.
Directly behind Walton’s store and across the dirt road that used to be the main highway was the old Sawyerville train depot. We had a westbound train in the morning and an eastbound one in the evening, and then there was the occasional troop train or (even more exciting) circus train passing through. There was a siding where you could usually find flatbed cars awaiting loads of paperwood or boxcars parked for whatever purpose: both would furnish great places for boys to climb and play. The depot itself was a favorite playhouse as well.
Immediately to the east of the big store and separated from it by a narrow alleyway was Sawyerville’s primary entertainment center for its black citizens: the Johnny Pickens establishment which we called the Rock-Ola, a combination honky-tonk, restaurant, butcher shop, barber shop, and simply place to hang out. The black music emerging from the juke box that gave the place its name formed the soundscape of much of my childhood. At the time we didn’t know it was soul. At least the white folks didn’t.
Later on Pickens closed down his operation, and some years after that it functioned briefly as a church for a small gathering of four people who would drive down from Tuscaloosa to worship. It sagged more and more over time, and early in the morning on September 13, 1979, it finally collapsed during Hurricane Frederic.
Behind the Pickens place was the ice house, also run by Johnny Pickens. I have the vaguest memory of accompanying my father there for blocks of ice for our ice box before we had electricity and later for the freezer we’d use to produce home-made ice cream. With more electricity and refrigeration becoming available in the post-war years and the early 1950s, that ice house operation was discontinued.
[Note: Johnny Pickens was the son of Sam Pickens who was the son of Samuel Pickens who built the Umbria plantation house and a black servant named Dilsey, so far as I know the only child of the never-married Sam. He was born in the 1870s and died when I was about ten years old. I have speculated that this family heritage might have had something to do with his owning prime land in Downtown Sawyerville and coexisting successfully with white-owned businesses. Many of the Pickens families living in or near Sawyerville today can trace their lineage back to Johnnie Pickens. Sam left his estate to his brother John, father to Miss Eloise Pickens Lunsford, the last Pickens owner.]
To the east of the ice house and also facing the old road was another wood building that I believe was owned by George Springer. And here memories fade and blur. Was this the same building that also housed part of his grist mill operation at the other end? Or was that another building to its right? But I certainly remember the grist mill during the seasons when you ground corn for corn meal. What with the music from the Rock-Ola nearby and the sound of that grist mill thumping away, Sawyerville moved to a lively beat.
There was an open well used in connection with the grist mill, and although it was covered when not in use I can recall constant reminders from parents not to fall in. We didn’t.
Memories fade back in. The grist mill building was in fact a different one from the other building that faced the old road. I see in my mind’s eye how the driveways (if you can dignify the openings with that term) curved around them. Nowadays the Sawyerville Post Office sits almost exactly on the location of the old grist mill operation. [I have speculated that the old building facing the old road may have been the mortuary also owned by Johnnie Pickens. If so; that might explain the presence of the ice house.]
Between the grist mill and the highway stood the little building that I seem to recall being moved across the highway when I was a baby. To the east of that was an old building that was a black church when I was a child. My first experience with funerals was watching from our front yard the services that took place at that church. Earlier that building was the old May Brothers store, I believe, which became my father’s when May holdings of farm and other property were divided among the various brothers. I assume that he gave that building up when his new store was built across the highway.
I still find it interesting that in the middle of Downtown Sawyerville and facing the main thoroughfare you had two black establishments, the honky-tonk and the church. In those days black establishments tended to face onto back streets or side streets.
Nowadays I can stand on the spot where the old Sawyerville railroad depot used to be and look down the gully to the west left by the old railroad tracks. Just the ghost of the path of the train remains: the tracks themselves were taken up long ago. North of the tracks a road ran along beside the railroad to the west up to the home of Mr. J.R. and Cousin Susie Martin, and beyond that to the Emmett Callahan home, both houses gone now.
Cousin Susie had been born a May, daughter of Jud May (my grandfather’s brother) and Susan Parr. After her mother’s death her father married a widowed Martha Ann Martin, mother of Mr. J.R. and others. Susie and J.R. later married. (This can look kind of peculiar on a genealogical chart.) Cousin Susie (actually we pronounced it more like “Cud’n Susie”) had three brothers and a sister, Cud’n Edna. Edna married Wade Martin, and one of their sons was the Uncle Murray who married Martha Julia, my mother’s middle sister. That’s why my sister and I are cousin to their daughter on both sides. And since Cud’n Susie was grandmother to the Walton children next door, we were some sort of third cousin to them. Susie’s brother Cud’n (or Unca, depending) Pickett lived in a small building beside their garage, and he too was a fixture of my childhood.
Actually everybody in Sawyerville seemed kin to everybody else in at least two ways.
Lil’ Emmett and Thomas Callahan in those early years were invariably with the rest of us kids when we ran about Sawyerville, but I seem to be the only one of us boys who would play down at their house. Why that was I do not know. I didn’t even remark this at the time, assuming it was just the way things were. I most clearly recall the open front porch that faced the railroad with the swing hanging at the west end, and for some reason I remember the outhouse down a path behind the main building. In later life Lil’ Emmett killed himself, but last I heard Thomas was still with us.
On the north side of the railroad tracks was “the quarter,” as white people tended to call it, where most of the black residents, those that didn’t live “out in the country,” had their homes. Many of them worked for Mr. J.R. and Mr. M.T. Martin and others, menfolk on their farms and the women as house servants. About two houses down the dirt road that ran across the tracks right by the depot was the small house where Sadie Roberson lived for much of the time that I knew her. The black Pickens family lived up near the railroad, and the Dedricks lived further back, the Howards around the bend in the road. The Sawyerville boys knew all of these people well and there was never any hesitation in our going back there on our various adventures.
But the most exciting place across the railroad tracks was Isom Mosely’s blacksmith shop. As a child I thought it way up the railroad tracks east of the depot. Now I realize those were child distances: there was the Pickens house, then another lot, then the shop. Isom shod horses and mules and repaired broken wagon wheels and other parts of wagons and put new handles on farm implements. As more folks began to buy automobiles, the need for his services declined, and when he closed his business there seemed no need for anyone else to take it over.
But for a child, this place was heaven. All those wonderful old tools hanging on the walls. The old bellows, and Isom would permit us kids to turn the long iron handle to force air through the coals to heat things up and make a grand racket. That particular whoosh still lingers with me. And you could actually watch him shoe an animal! It looked like it would hurt, but the horses and mules never complained.
What used to be the main road through Sawyerville continued west of the depot but in my time it was more a lane than a major thoroughfare. The first house down that way was the one that Mr. M.T. reputedly built when he was courting my father’s older sister Mamie in hopes of wooing her into marriage. But Mamie had other plans, namely Wallace Moore of Heiberger, and Mr. M.T. turned to Miss Bill (or Aunt Willie) from Greensboro for his wife. They lived directly across the railroad from his brother J. R., but I am told that the two brothers never spoke in my lifetime. The Walton children were discouraged by their forebears from going down to Mr. M.T.’s house. After Mr. M.T.’s death, Miss Bill sold the house to the Murray Martins when she moved to Greensboro.
The next house belonged to Cud’n Itty (Aunt Itty to some in Sawyerville). This is the Martha Ann who was the second wife of Uncle Jud. I remember Cud’n Itty as being older than the hills and living in the big two-story house with her daughter Miss Louise Martin. (Why was the one Cud’n and the other Miss? One of life’s little mysteries.) I can recall Cud’n Itty’s funeral at her home sometime in the 1950s with burial following at Hollow Square Cemetery, a mile and a half west. The reason I remember it so vividly is that our family dog Tippy, recognizing our car driving slowly in the funeral procession at a speed that he could easily equal, ran alongside us all the way to the burial site. The big house itself burned in the late fall of 1961. Being at home at the time, I watched its demise.
The old main road continued on a bit to the west where it crossed the railroad and came to George Springer’s cotton gin and sawmill. This place was even more exciting to boys than Isom’s blacksmith shop. We had free run of the place during the time of ginning and baling cotton, and not once did any of us get caught in that dangerous-looking machinery. Lots of wonderful-sounding bumps and grinds and whooshes and whistles, and there were great thuds when the bales of cotton would come out the other end and drop down to the loading platform.
I don’t recall the sawmill in operation, but what was wonderful was the big piles of old sawdust there. This was a dangerous place, as our parents kept reminding us. Holes could form deep down inside, and if you were climbing about the piles they might collapse and you would be buried alive. And there was the threat that old damp sawdust might combust. Do you think that kept us off them? Of course not. There was an old abandoned dug well close to the sawdust piles, and that only added to the glamor.
When was the main road through Sawyerville paved? Was it in my lifetime? Again, memory fails. As far back as I can remember, Highway 14 was paved through Downtown Sawyerville. That pavement extended a half mile to the east and a half mile to the west, and then the highway became just a dirt road to both Greensboro to the east and Eutaw to the west. I believe that I was in the second grade when the road was paved between Sawyerville and Greensboro. I can recall, because one day the school bus could not make it all the way home to Sawyerville and the kids were expected to walk the rest of the way, perhaps a couple or three miles. As it turned out, neighbor Warren Walton came via backroads to pick us up, and we rode home through that same circuitous route in the back of his truck.
Looking back, it is apparent to me that the half mile in either direction did form a sort of boundary for the children of Sawyerville in which we were comfortable and felt safe. The north and south boundaries of our lives, while not as clearly defined, were also about a half mile away.
Well, perhaps the north boundary was a little more than a half mile away, just on the other side of Mr. J.R. Martin’s big cotton field which ran west to the cotton gin property and to the edge of the farm road that became a path that led from the ginhouse up to the top of Chinquapin Hill. That was definitely a western boundary. We’d often climb the path to the top of the hill. From up there you could look back over much of Sawyerville. Surveying our kingdom, as it were. We’d follow that path a good piece, but we never made it all the way to Crackerneck, where we somehow thought it would eventually lead.
The south boundary was not quite a half mile away, really at the curve at the top of the next hill down County Road 17, pretty much at the south end of the Walton pasture.
That approximate square mile did include a lot of possible adventures. The May woods, the Walton pasture, and the M.T. Martin woods and pasture to the west of that provided a lot of room for exploring and mischief. The little stream running through provided places to build dams, and there were pools where we could catch minnows on small hooks and trap crawfish with our bare hands. We did follow that stream further as it ran through lands belonging to George Springer, but that was definitely a step beyond our regular exploring and became a more serious adventure. We kept promising to follow that branch all the way to the Black Warrior River, but that adventure never came to pass.
The southeastern quadrant of that square mile was taken up by the Umbria Plantation, and somehow the land, like the lower level of the main house and the outbuildings, was never forbidden to boys at play. Umbria too had a stream running through, originating in a spring at the bottom of the wooded hill to the east of the driveway that led from the front gate to the house. The spring itself, which in memory was a decent-sized pool, had its fascinations, and the Umbria folk would use it to cool watermelons before they would be cut and consumed at the star-shaped group of benches at the top of the hill by the Sawyerville children invited over for the occasion.
The woods along that stream were thicker and taller, older, than the ones we were used to in our other play areas. I don’t know that they were native forests, but I do believe that they had stood uncut longer than most of the woods around Sawyerville. There seemed to be a mysterious quality to them and to the stream itself running through toward the south. Going down this stream and through these woods was a serious adventure.
Probably around 1960 a new owner cut the trees and built a dam toward the east end of the property so that he might have a lake. The lake is nice, but something is missing now. The magic. Fifty years later there was a bit of excitement involving the lake. A large alligator which for years had been content living in a lake south of Sawyerville that belonged to my former dentist wandered north to that lake, possibly seeking food or a mate. It was shot by wildlife authorities because of the number of children who now lived in houses around that lake. My dentist had it stuffed for his den. I miss that alligator. Sometimes at night when walking my dogs I would hear its bellow from its earlier home.
North of Umbria and across the railroad tracks was a large field with streams and ponds and lots of blackberry bushes. We would venture into this pasture from time to time, particularly in the marshy area close to the county road heading north (the road that comes up the hill to the west of my property makes a zigzag east for one block on Highway 14 before heading north again as what we used to call the Dry Creek Road and is now simply County Road 17). Other than the marsh my strongest memory of this field was going blackberry picking in the spring. Carry a stick and watch out for rattlesnakes!
A railroad is, among other things, a path. We would venture east and west along the railroad tracks, often placing our ears against the iron rail to see if we could detect a train coming. If someone had an extra nickel, he might place it on the rail when the train was coming so that it might be smashed flat. We would tend to wander further west than east, for going west we could see the ginhouse behind us, and somehow just keeping that in sight made us feel more secure, a link to safety. We’d usually turn around about the time we’d get to the first big curve.
When I first read Stephen King’s novella “The Body” in his 1982 collection Different Seasons and later saw Rob Reiner’s 1986 film version Stand by Me, the old railroad adventures flooded back to my mind. Both works capture wonderfully boys and railroads. And to think that the movie is forbidden to boys because of its “R” rating! Why? They talk like boys talk.
The house where George and Mae Springer lived with old Mr. and Mrs. Springer was down the old Lock Six Road that angled southwest of the highway and was definitely within the square mile, but somehow that property was in our childish minds outside the safety zone. That may well have been because the Springers had a yardful of really scary dogs that would rush out barking if you approached the gate.
Looking back, I am fascinated that we seemed to have, at least in our minds, boundaries that were clearly defined. As I have indicated, we would venture beyond, but that was rare and would become a Really Big Adventure. I wonder whether the “end of the blacktop” stop points influenced the size of our territory or whether that was a typical safe area for kids in those days.
I think back with awe at how free we felt and how much freedom we were allowed in our big square mile.
When I was a child, Sawyerville seemed an exciting place to grow up. Kids had free run of everywhere, and it was assumed that adults would keep a look out for our welfare, whether the adults were our white kin or the black folk who lived near us. Not all was perfect in those days. The plight of black folk now leaps to mind. And the nation was at war.
I don’t remember the beginning of the Second World War. As I came to consciousness, it was just there, part of what was. I did not recall a time when there was no war. Always Germany was bad. Japan was bad. Italy seemed oddly mixed. When we kids would play war games, the enemies inevitably were Tojo, Hitler, and Mussolini. We’d shoot them and they’d fall down. No doubt anticipating Quentin Tarantino.
I loved doing things for the war effort. My mother would remove the paper from and then wash out tin cans, and I learned how to use the can opener to take out the bottom of the cans and then step on them to squash them flat for recycling. How did they get to the next stage? Did somebody come by to pick them up? That part of it has vanished. And in my cynical old age I wonder: was that metal important? Or was it just a brilliant mechanism to engage the populace in the war effort?
All sorts of things were saved to Help Our Boys Overseas. I can remember that we would peel the tinfoil off chewing gum wrappers and save the foil. My daddy being a country storekeeper, I found lots of discarded wrappers to peel.
Ration stamps were fascinating to me. I loved the little books they came in, and it was intriguing to me that my father had to collect them in our country store as part of the payment for certain items. I remember signs posted in the store, usually with Uncle Sam pointing a finger, about rationing as well as his need for YOU! What with Prohibition being over, alcohol was rationed along with other items. We never used our alcoholic beverage ration stamps: they were saved for Mr. Will Lunsford at Umbria. He had cancer and was in pain which was relieved by alcohol.
Butter was replaced by oleo margarine. Back then we always called it by its first name, oleo. It came in a soft pack and it was white, and there was a small plastic button in the corner that you crushed with your fingers to release the yellow food coloring and then you squeezed the packet over and over between your hands to make the color uniform. That was great fun. I loved doing it. It amazed me that the button was red but turned the white oleo yellow. People who learned to cook during that time still prefer to bake with margarine instead of butter.
Even after the war margarine was cheaper. North of Greensboro was an area referred to as sub-marginal, a term related to the quality of the soil. I heard it as sub-margarine. I took the term to mean that the area was populated by people too poor to afford even margarine.
My sister, a few years younger than I, remembers being frightened when airplanes would fly over. She thought bombs would be falling from them. Me, I was more excited by the prospect than frightened, and I’d run outside and look up just in case I could see something thrilling. I seem to recall that at least one of the fathers of the neighborhood kids was a “plane spotter.” What I don’t know is whether that was an official appointment or just something he did so he could talk about it. I remember listening to war news on the radio with my parents. It was serious and exciting. Better than The Hit Parade and the many radio stories we’d listen to. Life Magazine and newspapers were filled with war photographs, and before I could read I loved looking at them.
And of course those exciting newsreels at the movies!
I remember that when we went to the movies, my father would always be the one called upon to read the telegram from President Roosevelt urging all Americans to Buy War Bonds. Maybe Daddy would be called because at least he could read. And maybe being a postmaster gave him status.
My father, as Sawyerville postmaster, had the only telephone for miles around. It was a wall phone hanging in the northeast corner of the store. Long distance to everywhere. The public was allowed to use it, and after each call one of my parents would check with the phone company to get the toll so it could be charged to the customer. If someone called the number long distance person-to-person, my father would inform the operator that the party would be available at a certain time, and then he would send word or himself drive to the person’s home to have him or her by the telephone at the designated time. If the telephone rang late at night, we could hear it in our house next door, and my father would put on his robe and go across to answer it. If somebody made a call or the phone rang, it was serious. Good news, you wrote. Bad news, you called. Or sent a telegram. “We regret to inform you” telegrams from the War Department would be received in the telegraph office in Greensboro, and the operator would call my father with messages for people served by his post office. On occasion I would accompany my father when he delivered sad news to families.
Somehow we must have had access to plenty of gasoline, possibly because we did have a gasoline pump in front of the store, or possibly because as postmaster my father got a supplemental ration to deliver those bad news messages. You could get three gallons and some for a dollar, not that most of our customers ever could afford that much at one time. As a kid I pumped many a single gallon of gasoline for a customer. That would get him home and back to the gas pump when he had more money.
We did make it to Sunday School and church (First Methodist Church of Greensboro), and afterwards we would have Sunday dinner at my grandmother's house, my mother’s mother. Frequently we would go to the movies at the Strand Theater after Sunday dinner (Sunday movies were always good) and then return to Grandmama’s for supper. Whatever was left over from lunch had been left sitting on the table covered with a cloth for just that purpose. Afterwards we’d attend the evening church service. Sunday was an all-day affair.
Sawyerville tended to be quiet during the week in those days. People in walking distance could come in to check their mail and pick up the occasional item during the week, but the throngs didn’t show up until Saturday.
On Saturday farmers would fill up the backs of their trucks with everybody, young and old, who lived on their “place” and bring them out to Sawyerville for big weekend shopping. Black families who had their own wagons (rarely in those days a car) would come to town in those wagons pulled by teams of mules. The big field across the road and to the west of Warren Walton’s store and to the north of Uncle Murray’s store and to the east of where Mr. T. and Miss Bill lived would be filled with wagons parked so close together that you could walk across the whole field from wagon to wagon without touching the ground if you were so inclined. Benches in front of all the stores would be filled with the older folks, and the Rock-Ola jukebox in the Pickens joint to the east of Mr. T.’s store would be blaring out the black music of the time.
And what did they buy? Flour (mostly in printed sacks that could then be used to make clothing), sugar, canned milk, fatback, salt mackerel, soda, salt, pepper, washing powder, all the standard stuff that any household might need that it didn’t produce on the place. Most stores had a big stick of bologna sausage hanging from a nail on the wall, and customers could buy a ten cent pack of soda crackers (that would be enough to share) and a slice of bologna and maybe a nickel slice of hoop cheese for a quick meal. Good eating, that. At least I liked it. If you didn’t want bologna, cans of sardines, potted meat, and Vienna sausage were cheap. You’d wash it down with a soda pop.
Some of the larger stores had an assortment of dry goods, and people bought overalls and heavy-duty shoes and caps and big red or blue handkerchiefs. As important as the shopping was the socialization: a grand time was had by all, accompanied by the sometime overindulgence in spirits and the occasional stabbing. The county being dry in those days, those spirits had to be bootleg or moonshine. Stores would stay open on Saturday until nine or ten o’clock, and the partying lasted well on into the night
I probably shouldn’t tell this, but it’s too good to keep to myself and it does make a point: One Monday morning my mother, no doubt put out by the noise of a late Saturday night, asked Lucinda Howard, who worked for her, just what black folks got out of all the loud merrymaking. Lucinda told her, “Miss Annie Lee, if you was ever a n----- in Sawyerville on Saturday night, you’d never want to be white again!”
We did have family involved in the war. My father, being too young for the first war and too old for the second, was spared from service, although he did contribute by serving on the Selective Service (or Draft) Board. The Draft Board met in Akron over Mr. Ramey’s drug store. My father would let me accompany him, and when I got bored upstairs Mr. Ramey seemed pleased enough to have me come down and sip Cokes while sitting on those old drug store chairs with the curved metal backs and looking at comic books from the rack.
Uncle Porter was in the Navy, having joined up in peacetime when he was only sixteen. In 1941 my mother and I went by train from Sawyerville (well, from Akron, that’s where passengers got on the north/south trains) to Norfolk, Virginia, to visit him and Aunt Agnes. I don’t remember the train ride, which is surprising. I do recall that my mother liked to tell later of the conductor on the return train being worried that she and her son would be getting off the train in Akron at nine-thirty at night. “Nothing there but hoot-owls and possums!” But my mother assured him that her husband would be meeting her. And he was. I remember getting home that night, a vague memory of undressing in front of the fire in the coal fireplace in the family bedroom, happy to be home and the family all together again. It is not irrelevant to my tale that getting home made a deeper impression on me than the trip itself.
I can recall military mail from Uncle Porter to the folks at home, mostly to my grandmother, and whenever she got a letter she would share it with the rest of the family. It was fascinating to me that military mail looked so different from regular mail. And of course I remember the starred flag that my grandmother was allowed to display in a front window because her son was in the Service.
Uncle Jimmy enlisted in the Army toward the end of the war, most of his service being in France and Germany during occupation.
My May uncles were all older than my father, and their military service was in the First World War. Two were gassed in the trenches and survived, but it was thought that They Never Got Over It. And I think they didn’t. My father was convinced of that.
My sister and I were the babies of the next generation of cousins, and many of our older first cousins were involved in the second war. Cousin Thad was in the squadron of planes whose departure from San Diego was delayed for repairs long enough that they missed arriving in Pearl Harbor in the middle of that particular excitement. Cousins Tom and James, brothers, actually got to see each other briefly at Pearl Harbor, but that was later in the war when the port was functioning again.
I do remember the end of the war. It was summer and the doors of the store were open and the big fan hanging from the ceiling blowing, so my assumption is that this was August of 1945.
Somebody came in with the news: the war is over! I happened to be playing in a tall cardboard box that individual boxes of ice cream cones came in, and when everybody was exclaiming in excitement and joy, I started to join in by jumping up and down and screaming as well, not really knowing why but that didn’t matter. The box, of course, turned over, and I hit my head on the floor and was knocked unconscious. Celebrations had to be curtailed so that my mother and father and attendant company could take care of Little Jonathan. When I came to, I couldn’t figure out what that particular part of the excitement was all about.
And I remember the Atomic Bomb! Boy, if you grew up on World War Two explosions in newsreels and news photographs, you really got turned on by the Great Big Mushroom! It thrilled me to see pictures and newsreels of that thing going off. Only later did I get caught up in the fear of the atom.
I remember the pictures of the liberation of the German prison camps. So many naked people, some of them dead, but they looked so pitiful that their being naked didn’t matter. And so thin. Sometimes you couldn’t tell if the people were alive or dead, unless they were standing up. I remember a fascination and a horror, not the thrill of bombs. It made me feel bad and not excited like the bombs and tanks did.
I remember that when I realized the war was over, I fretted because I thought that the newspapers and Life Magazine would all close down because there was no war to make them necessary and fill them with interesting stuff.
War stuff was all that I remembered being in them at that time.
After the war, even in the South there were signs of increasing prosperity. Fewer wagons, more cars. People were able now to drive all the way to Greensboro or Eutaw for shopping, especially now that the roads were being paved. Stores no longer stayed open as late on Saturday nights. Sawyerville, very slowly at first, began to wither away. The Callahan filling station closed and nothing took its place. The Callahans moved to Tuscaloosa. Mr. M.T. sold his big brick store to my Uncle Murray When Uncle Murray moved his business there, he closed his old building down as a functioning store. Electricity and refrigerators and mass-produced corn meal and grits available at affordable prices made the old ice house and grist mill no longer necessary or viable. The blacksmith shop was no longer needed, and besides, Isom was getting old. Log trucks began to supplant the railroad as the means for transporting paperwood from the area. In not too many years the railroad depot was closed, and later the trains were no longer running through at all and even the tracks themselves were pulled up. As the store owners grew older and retired or died, all of the old stores from my childhood gradually were closed.
But at least I got to experience Sawyerville in its prime. It really was a wonderful place for a boy to grow up. And a wonderful time for an old man to look back on.
(The preceding essay is excerpted from an unpublished memoir by the author.)