Stocklaw and Dora

Stocklaw and Dora, a Unique Alabama Couple


By Elton Camp


            When I was a youngster in the 1940s, I was able to see the final days of a period of special interest in Guntersville, Alabama.  The county seat of Marshall County, Guntersville is located on a peninsula formed when the nearby Tennessee Valley Authority dam was constructed on the river as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.  That part of the state was an area of extreme poverty and the home to numbers of families who had little or no education and barely managed to eke out a living from combinations of farming, preaching, bootlegging, fishing and hunting. 


            Saturday was the day for country folks to come to town to visit, swap and buy what they were unable to produce themselves.  Some walked, others rode horses, but entire families typically loaded onto horse-drawn wagons for the highly anticipated trip into town.  During the years I personally remember, cars and trucks were common and the other means of transportation the exception. 


            The center of activities was the brick courthouse that had replaced the beautiful Victorian building claimed by fire many years previously. 


               The courthouse grounds were especially suitable as a gathering spot due to the presence of a low, sandstone block wall that enclosed the area.  The wall was topped with a flat, cement slab that was just right for sitting or displaying one's wares.  The picture which follows show a portion of that wall at its left,  back corner down a side street.  The part of the wall that was in more regular use was toward the front along Main Street.  I believe this picture was taken in the 1920s.  Notice the horses and wagons in the parking area outside the wall.  Most of the store buildings in the background can be identified today. 


            In the later times I can remember, the country people were often poorly groomed and wore homemade garments of the cheapest material, often from sacks that had contained food or farm materials.  The men typically had moustaches and beards and the women long hair.  Occasionally, a woman would walk along the sidewalk, breastfeeding her infant openly.  They stood out as distinctly different from others in town, but they were not treated as inferiors or made laughingstocks.  They were just different and very much in the minority.


            A regular, interesting feature was self-appointed preachers who stationed themselves at various spots on the courthouse grounds and gave forth with loud, impassioned, extemporaneous sermons.  The most common theme was the horrible fate in hellfire that awaited the unconverted who rejected the particular speaker's tenets.  Each preacher would draw a small, ever-changing circle of listeners if they could be called that.  While he expounded, they carried on separate conversations that included laughing and joking.  The preacher often perceived their divided attention and angrily reviled them for it, threatening the wrath to come.  The preacher usually had his hat upside down on the ground to receive the small amounts of change that his audience might toss inside. 


            The best-known of these stump preachers was Arthur P. (Stocklaw) Johnson.  He was probably more widely known than any other man in Marshall County.  A.P., as his wife called him, was born in 1890 in nearby Etowah County.  He earned the nickname "Stocklaw" from his opposition as a 12-year-old boy to a proposed law that would forbid allowing one's stock to roam freely.  He composed and often sang his own composition which contained the repeated refrain, "Stocklaw."  The name stuck with him the rest of his life although he later changed his view and supported stocklaws. 


            At the time when I knew him and occasionally chatted briefly with him, he was in his fifties.  He was a noticeably short man who always wore a hat, dress-type coat and patched pants that he pulled far above his waist which only emphasized his diminutive stature.  It also resulted in the hem of his pants being inches above his too-large shoes.  His wife, Dora, always accompanied him.  She was poorly clad, but always wore a dress (as did all women in those days).  Her hair was enclosed in a do-rag. 


                        Stocklaw became well-known during the Great Depression (which was well before my birth), because he generally refused to accept relief like most needy folks.  Big Jim  Folsom who later became governor, was in charge of disbursing relief in Marshall County. Following Stocklaw's death, he reported to the editor of the Advertiser-Gleam that he actually did accept relief one time, but insisted on repaying it.  There was no procedure for paying back relief, so when Stocklaw bought in the money they bundled it up and mailed it to Washington with the hope that it would somehow find its way back into the US Treasury. 


            Stocklaw preferred to make his own way in life and succeeded in doing so.  He had a farm about four miles from Guntersville in an area called Polecat Hollow. It was not an economically viable farm, but he managed to find a way to eke a small amount of income from it, mainly by selling pine kindling.  The pine, rich with resin, was used to start fires in home stoves and heaters which were universal in those times long before modern heating and cooking systems.  He arranged the kindling into bundles for which he charged a quarter.  Many admired him for declining relief and bought from him regularly.  He and Dora came to town early on Saturdays, so he was already there by the time my family arrived.  There are conflicting reports with some claiming he brought the kindling on a two-wheel cart pulled by a bull and others who insisted that he used a wheelbarrow.  There are claims that he pushed the wheelbarrow down the mountain with Dora sitting atop the kindling and then she pushed him back in the afternoon.  Having used a wheelbarrow myself, I doubt that story and tend to accept the bull and cart version.  Yet, I don't know which, if either is true.  I did see and hear him still selling kindling in the 1940s, long after the Great Depression had ended. 


            I remember his trademark imitation of a train whistle to announce his presence and his repeated call of "Kindling, k-i-n-d-l-i-n-g" as he sought buyers.  He stood on the sidewalk and called out to attract attention. 


            I have heard that he sometimes sold sassafras roots to use in making tea, but I never saw him doing that.  It could easily be true as many people enjoyed making that type tea.  We drank it very occasionally at home, but we dug our own roots. 


            There are reports that he sold "poke salat" in the springtime.  Polk is poisonous at every stage in its growth, but by repeatedly boiling it and pouring off the water, it can be rendered safe.  The only way to get poke was to gather it from the woods and it is highly likely that the plant grew on Stocklaw's mountain property.  We lived atop nearby Sand Mountain and it certainly grew there.  At my father's insistence, we gathered and cooked a couple of bathes each year.  That Stocklaw sold poke is believable. 


            In the 1940s I saw him many times as he raised money by preaching on the courthouse square.  He had an advantage over the other itinerate preachers due to his local fame and due to the assistance of Dora.  Before he would begin to preach, Dora sang a gospel song to draw people to her husband's location.  As a crowd gathered, she moved beside him and keep singing.  It was stiff competition for the other self-appointed ministers.  She then gathered up the coins tossed to Stocklaw as he called out "Just silver" to discourage pennies.  When enough had accumulated to pay for their dinner (lunch to most of the world, but always called dinner back then),  he abruptly stopped preaching and the couple went to buy a modest meal. 


            Another source of income for Stocklaw was by his own singing.  Jokesters paid him to sing to unsuspecting friends.  He followed the person and continued singing until, in embarrassment, the victim paid him to stop. 


            Stocklaw and Dora's house was well off the road and alongside the railroad track.  It was not accessible by automobile, but that didn't matter to them since they owned no vehicle.  I never saw the house, but found an account of a visit to it by Clodessa Kitchens and I quote her words below:


            “On a hot summer day in the late 1940s several young people, including myself, went on a visit to their home.  We walked the railroad from Rayburn Switch to a spot near their home, and then through the woods from there. When we arrived they seemed very happy to see all of us and asked us into their small home. We went as far as the door, but didn’t enter. They had poured a concrete floor in the house and it was very uneven since they hadn’t leveled the ground before pouring it. The floor was bumpy with many high and low places. They had walked on the concrete in their bare feet before it dried and their footprints were all over the floor.  They were very hospitable. Stocklaw got a dipper and rolled his pants legs up to his knees. Then he waded out to the middle of a stream that ran in front of their house to get us a drink of good cool water. We were all very impressed with their hospitality and how nicely they treated a group of young people.”


            I was fifteen years old when reports of Stocklaw's death appeared.  He and Dora quit appearing in town which led the Guntersville Police to investigate.  After driving as close to his house as possible, they walked in to find him in bed, cold and stiff.  Unaware that he had died, Dora was attempting to feed him.  It appeared Stocklaw had been dead for a few days, but the date of his death remains unknown.  Authorities had to carry him on a stretcher nearly a mile before they could reach their truck on the road. 

Dora lived alone for eleven more years, although she placed an advertisement in the Advertiser-Gleam seeking a husband who should be tolerably good looking, have a car and preferably be from Birmingham.  There were no takers. in 1966, she moved to the Sand Mountain Nursing Home where she lived until her death in 1968 at just under seventy years of age. 


            Although Stocklaw and Dora have now been dead for decades, they are still fondly remembered by those old enough to have known them.  They were truly a one-of-a-kind couple. 

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A true story of a unique Alabama hill couple.