Life in the Old South

(This may be the start of a series of nonfiction accounts of life in the early 20th Century in rural Alabama.  I'll see if enough read them to make it worthwhile to post them.  Each story is short, only 650 words.  That can make for quick and easy reading.)


By Elton Camp



            When Milas was born in 1874, the Civil War had been over for only ten years.  Ulysses S. Grant was the president of the United States. Winston Churchill, the English lion, was born the same year. 

            As a strapping young man, Milas married the teenage Mary Miranda Hix. He was taller than most men of his day, angular, slim, but with a beak-like nose, and protruding ears. Miranda was a brunette with a trim figure, warm smile, and sparkling blue eyes.  They made an attractive, although plainly dressed, couple. 

            As was then customary in rural Alabama, the two commenced to beget a brood of children. The framed, oval, sepia-toned photograph of Miranda, taken a year before her death, shows a somber, beaten-down woman who appeared nearer to fifty than to her actual age of forty-one. The sparkle was long gone from her eyes and the smile faded from her lips.  Life had been hard.

            “We’se movin’ tomorrew, Mirandey,” Milas stated flatly when he completed one of his many land deals. 

            No discussion took place. Her opinion, if she had one, was irrelevant. He decided and she obeyed. 

            “Ye heered Paw,” she told the older girls. “Holp me git thangs gather’d up.”

            The next day, the family loaded its meager possessions onto a mule-drawn wagon. Off they went to the lodging the stern patriarch had selected. The load filled the wagon.  Milas drove.  Wife and children walked alongside. If they moved quickly, they could avoid being coated by the cloud of choking dust. 

            “This’s hit. Whoa.” Milas ordered the bony mule to stop at his latest acquisition. It was about three miles from their previous home. 

            The house, a crude cabin with four rooms, was of frame construction with unpainted, weathered, vertical boards nailed directly to the framing. The tin roof long ago lost its shine and developed patches of brown rust. Lightning rods extended a foot or so above the peak of the roof at each end. The few windows had small panes of wavy glass. Irregular, brown stones, stacked into pillars, supported the structure a few feet off the ground. The weight of the house was all that held them in place. 

            Inside, plank floors had cracks between them that provided glimpses of the ground.  The sealed front room was meant to serve as a family gathering place. A crude, fieldstone fireplace was its only source of heat.

            The barn was nearly double the size of the house. An intense odor of hay and manure permeated it. Mice scurried at any disturbance.

            The outhouse was adjacent to the hog pen.  Two square cutouts in a bench at the back served as toilets. A box, partly filled with white cobs, was to the left of the door.  A Sears and Roebuck Catalog, with many pages torn out, hung loosely from a nail.  The tiny building’s horrid stench was overwhelming.  Yet, it served an essential purpose. 

            The yard would soon be bare of grass, kept that way in the country tradition.  Patches of grass in a yard indicated a lazy, shiftless family.  Few had so little self-respect.  After hoeing any vegetation, the industrious homemaker always swept her yard clean with a broom made of a common sedge called “broom sage.” 

            From the woods across a field issued the sound of a screech owl, interspersed with the mournful cry of a whippoorwill.  In the distance, a circle of buzzards slowly glided on the rising air currents. 

            “Holp yore maw set up, young uns,” Milas ordered as he moved apart and concerned himself with more important matters.  They need expect no help from him.  Moving was the work of women and children. 

            His role was provider, progenitor of babies, and ruler of his family.  Farming and land trading were all he knew.  His circumstances would change in the years ahead. 

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The first of a possible series of nonfiction accounts of daily life in rural Alabama during the early 20th Century.