ecause early Arkansas was mostly made up of small family farms, rather ignorant of the so-called “finer things,” and because of their ways of life, Arkansas people were perceived to be ragged, overall-wearing, tobacco-chewing, snuff-dipping, moonshine-making, shotgun-toting, barefoot, shaggy-haired, wild-eyed, dirty hillbillies. Hillbillies! Do you know what hillbillies are? Goats – brush-eating, shaggy, foul-smelling goats.
Now a lot of us Arkansas people did wear ragged overalls and faded flour sack dresses and some – both men and women – chewed tobacco and dipped snuff, and they did tote shotguns, to help get meat for the family. But they were generally hard working, God-fearing, good neighborly, family-loving people. They were loyal to their friends and for the most part tolerant of those who sought to exploit them. They were resourceful and had a real knack for making do with what they had, which wasn’t much. Money was scarce and most often non-existent. They swapped work for food and other things they needed. I’m not old yet – but I remember how it was with us in the old days.
I have heard my folks tell of the second year of their marriage, and after I was born, how they made a crop on just $20 for the whole year. I’ve often wondered how they did that. With money that scarce they had to wear ragged clothes because they didn’t have money to buy more. At least, land was cheap, and for just $5 in money and the promise to make improvement, one could “take up” from the government 120 acres of land. My Dad did that at Pickens Chapel in 1935-36 – built a very small log cabin, cleared up a few acres of the land. When we moved into the house in 1937 we had only one old iron bedstead, the springs and mattress were worn out; a cot (that I slept on; my brother had to sleep with Mom and Dad); a small cast iron box-type heating stove; a homemade table and a couple of chairs – no cook stove. Mom cooked, such as it was, on the heating stove. We had flapjacks for bread and pinto beans – lots of pinto beans. The top of the stove didn’t really get hot enough to cook the bread properly. Mom said it just “sobbed” done. I know one thing, I didn’t like it, but that’s what we had to eat for several months. We got our water from a spring about a quarter of a mile from the house down in a hollow. So you can guess we didn’t use more water than we just had to. Mom had no “rub board” to wash clothes with, just one old leaky tub with a rag stuffed in the hole to slow the leak. She did have a large wash pot to boil the clothes in and used lye soap when she had it. When she didn’t, she did without.
Daddy had patched overalls. I’ve seen Mama patch the patches. When my brother started to school he had to wear patched overalls, but Mama was a proud person and she made flour starch, if she could spare any flour, and starched and ironed his overalls. We went barefoot to school when the weather was warm. We got one pair of shoes a year; they didn’t usually last a whole year but we “made do.”
Most of the folks we knew were just like us. There were a few that were a little better off, and some a little worse, if that was possible because we were at the bottom of the ladder.
The first couple of years Daddy sharecropped with a neighbor, one old mule and a single stock plow, but “new ground” just doesn’t produce much, so he had to do some scratching to keep food on the table. He made a little money by hunting and trapping ‘possums and skunks for their hides, which he sold for 35 cents to a dollar per hide, depending on the size. If he was lucky enough to get a ‘coon, bobcat or mink, the hides might bring as much as $15 per hide. Dad didn’t make “moonshine” but we knew a lot of folks who did. That’s the way they made a living for their families. When we moved to the log house, Grandma gave Mama an old hen and 15 baby chicks; from that start we raised a lot of chickens. My brother and I made pets of all those chickens and gave each of them a name.
While Daddy was sharecropping we went a little hungry a few times; but he was finally able to get credit with Howard Davis, who owned the cotton gin and store at Sidon. He came home one day with a team of mules, a wagon, some plows and a bill of groceries. We thought we had become rich all of a sudden. Daddy farmed cotton for cash, corn for feed – for both the animals and us. In the spring, Mama went out gathering wild greens, and we always picked lots of wild blackberries and other wild edible things to help out with our food. Daddy hunted wild bees so we nearly always had honey for sweetening. As our livelihood got better and Daddy was able to get a milk cow, we had milk and butter and didn’t have to eat water gravy anymore. Wow! What a change!
We hoed cotton, we picked cotton; we hoed corn, we picked corn; we cut bushes (I hated that job; when I tried to cut a bush it would “warp” me across the face, make me mad, and I’d do it again, and it would “warp” me again…). It was all very hard work, but it was what we had to do to live.
There were people who didn’t farm for a living. They ran little “groundhog” sawmills. Daddy worked at some of them. There were those who made railroad ties; Dad and Mom did that, with an old crosscut saw; there were no chain saws then. They cut pulpwood. Some folks dug wild herb roots for sale. Sure, we were ragged and the living was tough, but we survived.
Sometimes I wonder if we were not better off then. What with all the crime and violence, and the sick, pitiful world we now live in. Back then we had respect for each other. Kids respected their parents, and most folks were helpful and courteous to each other.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t want to go back to that time. I love all the good things we have now; but I miss kids being taught to say “Aunt” and “Uncle,” “Yes, Ma’am,” “No, Ma’am,” “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir,” “please” and “thank you.” I miss people being respectful of their elders, teachers, preachers and law and order. I miss not being afraid of strangers. I miss not having to have “No Hunting,” “No Fishing” and “No Trespassing” signs on all property.
(Illustrations are by the author, who is a member of the White County Historical Society.)