Bertha Porter Burns…From the North Corner of Shiloh

Bertha Porter Burns
Bertha Porter Burns

Part One by Edna Matthews Liggin

This remarkable woman, who recorded her 90th birthday, October 24, 1974, living widow of the late M.V. Burns, country preacher, was born north of Shiloh. Her life has encompassed much, from a childhood in a well-established Shiloh town, teaching in a one-room country school, being the wife of a country preacher, and mother to six children. She now has the courage to live alone in her home in Bernice.

Her grandfathers, Robert Patrick and Tillman Porter, both came from Georgia to Shiloh in the 1850s, settling near Cornie Creek. James T. Porter, who was six years old when he made the trip, later married Sallie Patrick, and these were the parents of Bertha Porter Burns. A portion of the old Porter House, built by James T. when his family outgrew the first log house, is still being lived in today.

They moved into the new house in 1893, with children Bob, Bertha, and Littleton, and to be born later Jim, Wes, John, and Martin.  Then, just before Bertha was 21 years of age, a sister, Jewel, was born.

Today, Bertha Porter Burns remembers her father grew cotton on his farm.  She said cotton was ginned at John Tabor’s gin; her father and Capt. Robinson shipped it down to Old Trenton; hauled it to Stein’s Bluff, and shipped it on the steamboat Helen Vaughn. These annual cotton shippings were big events in the life of the family for it meant that the father would return with yearly supplies of food and clothing. We questioned her when she mentioned a 25 pound box of crackers brought by her father. “Why, we ate crackers and cheese for supper,” she told us, “and washed it down with buttermilk.”

Sometimes her father met the steamboats and bought a whole stem of bananas or plenty of green coffee. They raised all kinds of foodstuffs, had a big orchard, and frequently fished in Cornie Creek.  Near the farm were Grafton’s Ferry and Lowery’s Ferry, and as they lived on the Farmerville-Homer Road, the farm was not too isolated. Often passersby to Shiloh brought the mail, sometimes they went three weeks without mail.

Her education began at Mt. Sterling School, and she got there by walking three miles with her brother tagging along. Emma Tabor, she recalled as her first teacher, followed by Lee Kitchens, John Jones, and lastly, Dana Odom. After going to Mt. Patrick School, located nearer her home, she then attended the new Bernice High School for two years.

Now she was ready to teach. We asked her about this. She told us she took her examination in Farmerville, then taught at Mt. Sterling, Salem, and Mt. Patrick, these being church-schoolhouses as was the custom at that time in Union Parish. At this point, Bertha Porter was a young woman, filling an important role in life as a teacher, and soon to marry a young minister. Yet, more information was desired about her early childhood in Shiloh.

The preacher she remembered most of all was the Rev. John Everett, mainly because as a child she took his wife a mushmelon to their home back of Shiloh Cemetery. She and her brothers would trudge the three miles of dusty road to Shiloh and take Dr. Charley Brooks a gallon of honey to his office each year, also.

As a young girl, Bertha Porter was immersed in the Shiloh baptizing pool by Bro. J.W. Melton. The Rev. Pulaski Moore visited in her home. Each Sunday she went to church at Shiloh, and there she bestowed childhood kisses on two old ladies, Sarah Everett and Nancy Edmonds as they sat in their usual places.

At the Saturday monthly conferences, Mrs. Burns recalls, the same man confessed to overindulgence in spirits, saying he overloaded, and he would never do so again, yet he did. For each service the family traveled by wagon to Shiloh Church.  Some weekends they all got into the wagon and went across Middlefork Creek to visit her Grandmother Patrick’s uncle, “Alf” Fuller, at Fellowship.  Always a trip to Shiloh meant a chance to shop in the Shiloh stores for such stuff as candy, Hoyt’s perfume, foodstuffs, cloth, and household items.

One big childhood event Mrs. Burns remembers is the wedding of May Powell, adopted daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J.D. Hamilton, to Frank Cooper with the Reverend Cooksey performing the ceremony.

Many more memories could be added. However, soon after the new century began, a young preacher came to Patrick Church, near the Porter home.

In those days preachers spent weekends in homes of those members of the church who lived nearby and this Bertha Porter met Marion Van Burns. They were married December 5, 1905 in the front yard of the Porter home by the Rev. B.F. Nearl. The house and yard were filled with guests who had come from many miles around. A whole hog had been prepared, along with many cakes and pies, and after the wedding the many guests joined together in a big supper. Boxes of food were carried home by guests as was the custom after a wedding in those days.

When young Marion Burns chose Bertha Porter for his wife he had been preaching for two years, being ordained at Center Point, Arkansas. He was destined to preach in many Louisiana and Arkansas churches, and all Union Parish churches (Baptist) except Bernice and Farmerville.

After their marriage, the young couple first lived at Oakland, Louisiana, and it was here Bertha Porter Burns faced with courage the first sorrow in her life. Their first child, a little girl named Azilea, died and was buried at Oakland.

Bertha Porter Burns
Bertha Porter Burns

In 1912, Shiloh Baptist Church called Marion Van Burns to pastor the Church, and so the move was made to Shiloh. They first lived in the Martin house, now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Brooks Mabry, and it was to this house many young couples came for Rev. M.V. Burns to marry them. “Brother Burns often said he got a lot of people in trouble,” was Mrs. Burns’ sly comment about the many marriage ceremonies he performed.

Later, they bought the Clark house in Shiloh, formerly the home of Shiloh’s first doctor, John R. Clark. It was here the Burns Family lived until they moved to Bernice in 1922.

Things were not so good economically in those years. Eggs were eight cents a dozen, cotton five cents a pound, syrup twenty-five cents a gallon. Cotton was the main source of income. Since the price of cotton was low, this meant the salary paid the preacher was also low. It was not until after World War I when cotton prices were higher that Shiloh was able to pay its pastor $600 a year.

“I remember Bro. Burns preached at Hico, New Prospect, Pine Grove, and Downsville during these years,” Mrs. Burns reported. “He used to leave at noon on Friday to go to Downsville, and if he missed the D’Arbonne Ferry, he pulled off his clothes, led the horse and buggy across the stream, then on the other side dressed and went on to Downsville. I never saw him until noon Monday.” In those days most churches only had preaching once or maybe twice a month.

The wife of a country Baptist preacher needed fortitude and courage in those early Twentieth Century years. Soon there were six children in the Burns family, four sons and two daughters. They continued to live in the Shiloh home until 1922, though his pastorship ended in 1917. He was called again to pastor in 1922, for that year only.

“Miss Bertha” remembers two high points in her husband’s pastorship. In 1913 he attended the Southern Baptist Convention at St. Louis, Mo., then in 1915, the Shiloh Church hosted the Concord Association, an event not duplicated until 1972.

Only one child, Taft, attended school in Shiloh. He and the others later attended Bernice High School. Four of these were later to graduate from college. The children were Taft, Young, Van H., J.L., Alice, and Mary Lou.

“Do you remember especially a certain revival?” was a pertinent question put to Mrs. Burns. The one she recalled was the one that disappointed her husband and her very much. Rev. Burns preached at Rayville late in December one year, traveling by train. Not one penny love offering was given him, which dashed the family’s hope for a little extra money for Christmas. He had to borrow money for his train fare. Yet, this was typical of the period in which he lived and the dedication to service of the men of God who served without being repaid.

Being a minister, Rev. Burns was called away from home for other things. His widow today recalls he conducted many funerals with Clinton Allen leading the singing. Also, many old wedding licenses have the signatures of Marion Van Burns, and as witness Bertha Porter Burns. Generously and courageously, Bertha Burns shared with countless people the life of her husband. She faced his weekend absences with courage, and with the help of her oldest son, Taft, she managed to raise a garden and keep the home fires burning.

The years went by and Bertha Porter Burns was at her husband’s side when he retired, after the children left home, and until his death August 7, 1965. Before he died he returned from time to time for special occasions to Shiloh, one of them being the dedication of the new church building in 1938. He was esteemed, respected, and beloved beyond measure.

Since 1965 this woman of courage has lived in her Bernice home, alone, yet still able to attend church at Bernice First Baptist. She visits her children, and often attends homecoming at Shiloh. Her life can be summed up in a quotation from WashingtonIrving…”A woman’s life is a history of affection.”

Bertha Porter Burns
Bertha Porter Burns

Edna Matthews Liggin will always be remembered as the official historian of Union Parish and the Book Mobile Lady. She began writing the Uncle Lige column in The Gazette in 1939. Over the years she wrote many articles about the Union Parish history, the people there and her bottle collection. In her retired years she enjoyed visiting the older people in the Union Parish community.

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