Life in the Delta in the 1920’s

Written by Edna Liggin
February 8, 1990

When the flood waters of the Mississippi River came in May of 1927 that was the most historical event of my life on a farm in Franklin Parish. It covered my father’s field as backwater.

On morning I crossed the drainage ditches to take my father his 9 a.m. coffee to the field in which he was plowing. Water was backing up in the ditches as I returned home. (Our fields were ditched instead of terraced as in the hills.) Soon all the fields were covered, but it never reached our house. The back-up water came from Turkey Creek. Our house was on a part of Macon Ridge.

However, the town of Winnsboro went under. Later, my mother sold many vegetables from her garden to women from Winnsboro. When our daily newspaper resumed coming to us, we read about Charles A. Lindberg flying solo across the Atlantic ocean. It was the big human interest news of the decade. Our daily newspaper must have warned us the flood was coming, for I do not remember being surprised that it came.

I suppose Christmas was a the head of the list of annual occasions for family celebration. In these years when I saw the five o’clock afternoon passenger train going south, with the lights all on, I knew Christmas was nigh.

As cedars and pines were scarce in our part of Franklin Parish, our tree was a holly. We strung popcorn for decoration. The joy of waking up on Christmas morn and finding our stockings bulging, and gifts under the tree, with our belief strong and positive there was a Santa Claus, surpasses all other childhood joy. Long before daylight, my sister, Bertie, and John, my brother, and I made a dash for the mantle to get our stockings. Later my father built a blazing fire in the fireplace and we opened or examined our gifts.

What did a poor farm child get in the 1920’s? My sister, Bertie, and I always received china dolls which broke when dropped. My brother, John, always got a little red wagon full of fireworks. The fruit, raisins, and candy were a treat that we soon sampled. I do not remember our parents ever giving each other gifts.

A big holly tree all covered with real lit candles was the featured decoration for the Chase Grammar School, but I shudder to think how the Fire Marshall would regard this today. We all attended the nightly Christmas program at school, and every pupil got a gift.

On Christmas Day itself, we all loaded up in the wagon, and crunched over frozen mud holes to Grandpa and Grandma Matthews. A big baked ham scored with cloves was always prepared by my grandmother. She cooked differently from my mother. She always rolled her biscuit dough and cut them out for baking. She made a sweet tomato sauce I have never been able to duplicate. I do not remember ever receiving any gifts from these grandparents.

Another holiday that stands out in my mind is Fourth of July which we also celebrated at the home of the grandparents, Sam and Mary Matthews. There in the front yard shade we hand-froze three gallons of ice cream, vanilla, lemon and chocolate, crushing our own ice–a hundred pounds in a tow sack. We ate ice cream until we could eat no more!!! “Oh, boy” was my favorite by-word, and I used it often on this occasion one year.

Mostly what I remember about Easter was that at an early age, I caught my mother dying eggs with scraps of cloth (all material faded in those days).

My birthday was always a time in which my mother showed off her skill as a gardener, in that by June 14 she had fresh butter beans, corn and tomatoes, newly raised chicken fryers. We always had ice cream. A class-mate, Neily Chase, now a Mrs. Roach, and a retired school teacher, was one day younger, so for two consecutive days, I ate ice cream.

As regular as clockwork we has a summer revival in the Chase Baptist church. This church, a one room building, was adjacent to the Chase Grammar School. It would be filled for the revival services. When twelve years old, I realized my need of being saved, and in due time I was baptized in Turkey Creek.

My mother, reared in the good Baptist tradition of feeding the preachers (her family housed them, too) always fixed a meal. Our table would be loaded, and I remember always she fixed salmon croquettes. How I feasted when the preachers came.

My mother, Laura Tabor, was no stranger to Chase Baptist Church, attending when she came from the the hills to live in the home of her aunt and uncle, Pratt and Bertie Butler. She’d had some music teaching at home as a girl, so she became the organist for the church. In those first days the big dances the young people enjoyed did not threaten the structure of worship, but once a certain preacher came to Chase Baptist Church, and the dances ceased.

My father, Frank Matthews, must have fiddled for these dances, for he played. One of the most delightful ways to spend an evening at home was to coax him to get the fiddle out of a box, and to play for us. Today, a great grandson plays this same musical instrument. My father also played the harmonica. Alas, I never could even sing.

After the death of my brother Sam in 1923, my father became a Christian and was baptized in Bayou Macon. My mother began taking us to Sunday School soon after my bother John learned to walk the mile to the church. “I’ve got a bone in my back,” my mother told John. “You’ll have to walk.” So John trudged along. My mother taught the Card Class.

I do not recall how many county fairs we attended at Winnsboro, but one stands out. The evening before, I had bawled long and loud to go, so finally my mother gave in and consented to take John, Bertie and I.

I am not sure of how we went, but I did see my first airplane flying, and then on the ground when we got to the fair grounds.

I think my mother most appreciated the free examinations for children. “Why are her eyes so red?” the doctor asked about me. My mother had a ready true answer for that. She was dismayed to hear the doctor pronounce the tonsils of John and Bertie being “rotten”. There was not much chance of alleviating this “rotteness”.

I saw the “Death of Floyd Collins in a Cave”, the fat woman, and rode the Merry-Go-Round. Then somehow I became lost off from my mother and the other two. I couldn’t find them, but I did find a dime in my pocket. So I hiked down the railroad track to the Winnsboro depot. I had fare for the ride home, so I sat down to await the train.

I never thought of my mother being worried, but in her frantic search for me, she’d gotten a tip I was headed for the depot. I expect she vowed never again to take little Edna to the Fair!!

Now for the rumble seats! Some years we went to see our Aunt Bertie, now living in Monroe. Her salesman son, Sleigh Butler, would pick us up at night, stowing away we three children in the “rumble seat”. What a glorious ride! The coolness of the summer air, the stars overhead, then the lights of Monroe on the horizon.

As I got older, nearing my teen years, I sometimes went alone. My aunt and I would then ride the Monroe street cars, and go downtown to the movies on DeSiard. Of course, they were silent movies.

My aunt was addicted to Dr. Pepper, drinking them three times a day as the clock-face bottles recommended. She later died a terrible death of tongue cancer. Her table was always set in correct style with salt cellars at each plate.

Almost every year we had company from the hills, my mother’s sisters bringing their husbands, and babies in very long dresses. Once I dropped one of them, so terrified was I that I hid under the house. My Uncle Pratt Butler would come see us, but we were very frightened of him.

I was an active member of the 4-H Club, and attended rallies at the Winnsboro High School. For a treat on these occasions we attended a silent movie.

My mother, with her three children, too, visited in the hills with her kin, the high moment of the decade being the 1928 Tabor Reunion, held in the home of Ruth and Larkin Salley. This reunion triggered the 1988 one as a 60th Anniversary celebration. I do not remember the eating part, but I do remember getting with some of my cousins about my age, and going for a “joy” ride in someone’s Model T car. We felt wild and reckless as the teen years loomed just over the horizon.

Ruth and Larkin Salley met us at the Ruston depot, and we traveled in an ancient car north, with woods close to the narrow road. As we hit Bernice, we were on Cherry Street, Highway 167 was in the future.

Now that we have covered the Flood, the holidays, and the rumble seat, my memoirs switch to the paper dolls. These were cut from the Sears catalog, and all through the hot summer months, Bertie and I played with them in the nooks and crannies of the house. We were not aware of hot weather. We also played under trees in the pasture, making like keeping house. There was no chance in Chase for any kind of water play; no running streams, no ponds. Our cattle were watered from the hand pump. In the summer, the wash tub held water for the sun to warm that we might have a tub bath. In winter, in freezing weather, the nearby bayou froze over, and all day we played with the ice, breaking it and noting the designs underneath.

I do not remember any fishing or eating of fish. What a delight to hit Union Parish and the Hog Pen and the wonderful fish fies, and Corney Creek, a stream in which we could splash.

Of course, I do not remember the birth of my brother, Sam, but snow was on the ground on March 9 when Bertie was born. I was sick, and vomited up red medicine on the snow. I was fascinated by my black-eyed, black haired sister, and thought her baby was so utterly charming that I regressed and tried to pattern all my movements after her. My father would toss her up and call her little Skeeter.

Two years later, I awoke before daylight, and found a new baby bedded down in the rocking chair in front of the fire place. A doctor was standing over him. “Shall I take him back and swap for a girl?’ he asked me. “Oh, no,” I replied nonchalantly. “We’ll keep him!” His name was to be John.

For seven years I walked the mile to Chase Grammar School, in all kinds of weather. A big wood heater would help us thaw out. I could already read when I started, but just for the heck of it, would walk up to the teacher and ask what was the word I pointed to. The school had no indoor plumbing. We used the marble system when we asked to be excused. Later, the girls privy became the scene of much discussions of the facts of life.

We had ball teams, and often burned effigies of those we disliked. We shot marbles in countless holes, and played Pop the Whip and Snap, or threw a ball over the school house.

My sister was very reluctant to go to school, and caused my mother many problems in getting her feet on the road to education. Often that fall my mother would hitch-hike to Chase on a wagon load of cotton bound for the cotton gin. I do not remember anything happening with John started.

In due time, I graduated and in my pink georgette dress with piquot edging, delivered a profound little speech. I suppose I was valedictorian. It was a momentous occasion, and that fall I would ride a bus to Gilbert High School.

That fall, in dressing for school, I held out with stubborn tenacity, to wear “teddies’ instead of my usual long handles, long stockings and black bloomers. I had to stand in the cold in front of a black church to await the school bus. As a result I took pneumonia.

Death had already come to our family in 1923 when Sam died of diphtheria. The doctor gave us shots but Sam soon died. My mother was filled with grief, and I felt I had lost my own personal playmate. Afterwards, we reflected Sam had cried all his life with an abdomen pain, and he was always fat.

Dr. Gill of Gilbert came every day as I fought through my crisis and the fireplace burned all night. I took many pills but of course penicillin was unknown. I survived the crisis but I lost six weeks out of school.

Soon my father was very ill with pneumonia, and having hallucinations. He only had one lung, having had a doctor plunge a knife in his back to drain an abscessed lung.

It seems only yesterday I heard my father take his last breath. He was breathing and then he wasn’t. He left a death wish under his pillow, that in case he didn’t make it, for my mother to go live with her people in the hills.

The wake and the funeral service were both held in our home. His body was afterwards carried in a wagon to Chase Cemetery. None of us went. There were no flowers. I was glad my father died a Christian. I remember thinking that some day I would see him again. That was almost sixty years ago.

Neighbors helped us. I recall a Mason jar of soup on the mantle.

When it came time to honor her husband’s death wish, and move to the hills, my mother sold the mules to pay the doctor bills.

In retrospect I wonder if two deaths in the family was not the ratio for poor farmers in the 1920 decade.

Before my survival from pneumonia, I had had several life or death encounters.  My first was with a sow. Barely able to navigate, I had crawled into the hog pen with my father as he fed the pigs. He didn’t see me, but the sow did. She had just taken her first tender bite when my mother screamed and my father snatched me up. Only a tiny scar remains on my elbow.

After Sam was born, in this same place, belonging to Claire Chennalt or his people, I slyly slipped off when my mother bathed Sam, and walked a log across a 10-foot deep bayou to my grandparent’s home. When she got Sam to sleep, she’d fetch me home.

However, we were all at this home when I crawled through a hole in the stable where a mild mule was kicking without pause. By the time my mother found me, and drug me out I was seemingly dead, and covered with manure. She sent my father for the doctor, but when they returned I was clean and sleeping soundly. The only wound I had was near the jugular vein.

Later, we moved to a house beside the railroad track, that ran parallel to the Rayville-Vadalia road, at that time just a dirt road. I became fascinated with picking flowers on the railroad. Once my father was plowing across the track, and my mother and I were taking him water or coffee. A slow freight approached. “Wait”, said my mother. “I will,” I said, then darted across in front of the train’s cowcatcher. It came as a shock to me when she borrowed a plow line from my father, and took me home, using the rope on my legs all the way. Needless to say, I did not dart anymore in front of trains.

I remember Bertie receiving a smart slap from my mother for dropping cup after cup of blackberries and cream, and breaking the cups.

As the oldest child, I was the official sent out one. Twice I was sent out in the night, through the woods, to get a neighbor to fetch the doctor for my sick mother. Once, when my mother and John did not return by dark from searching for lost mules, my sick father sent me after dark to a neighbor names Nesbitt for him to come help. I crossed over the cotton fields where I was often observed standing on my head and walking on my hands instead of picking cotton. By the time Mr. Nesbitt and I got back to my house, the mules were back home, and my mother and John okay. One of the Nesbitt girls, Marjorie, was my best friend.

My daylight going forth involved peddling eggs to stores at Chase, and sometimes vegetables. My mother always allowed me a nickel for myself, and I hung over the ice box full of soda pops, trying to decide what to choose. If I bought candy, I was supposed to take it home and share.

My father was a great humorist and I was a trifle obtuse. When he sent me to the store for fifteen cents worth of monkey wrench seed, I didn’t catch on he was pulling my leg. The storekeeper solemnly said he was fresh out. It was some time before I caught on.

As I reflect back on my parents and grandparents, I see that both had widely different backgrounds. Sam Matthews was part of the Matthews clan that raised cotton together,  and for years after the Civil War these Matthews farmers raised cotton on two old plantations south of Natchez. These were the Grove and Fair Oaks. They lived in the houses. My father was born at Fair Oaks. He was still in his teens when they came to Chase in the early 1900’s, to raise cotton on the rich land that produced a bale to an acre.

On the other hand, Sam’s wife, Mary, my grandmother, had a father who was an actor on a Mississippi showboat (he was kidnapped). She was left an orphan at an early teen age, and was cared for by several Natchez families. She was educated in the Catholic school, and no doubt attended the Catholic church. She was 26 when she married Sam Matthews. Many of the children born to them died as infants.

My grandmother’s life as a youth in Natchez included climbing a tree to see a Yankee gunboat shelling the city during the Civil War. Then she made the move to Chase and was appalled to see the muddy streets of Winnsboro, and the men sitting with sock feet, propped up on the banister and they sat on the galleries.

My mother herself descended from cotton farmers, who farmed their large acreage near Louisville, Mississippi. Her father operated an 800-acre farm in Union Parish including cotton. For generations back the Tabors had been southern Baptist. She was baptized into Mt. Patrick Church.

I remember how vital to us was the communication we had with the world outside through our daily newspaper. At the age of nine I began to read all of this Monroe paper, each issue had a chapter of a romantic novel. I read “Flapper Wife”. The paper had little cartoons called “Flapper Fanny”. It was the flapper age. Women wore shorter skirts and bobbed their hair.

I read all my father’s pulp magazines, and when I entered Gilbert High School, I read the entire library in one year, reading at home by coal oil lamp. We used coal oil extensively, dashing it on kindling to start fire. We had no thought for its explosive quality.

It was from the newspaper we watched the political rise of Huey P. Long, glorying in his promises for free school books, free hospitals, free bridges and experiencing the cessation of paying poll taxes. The paper told us about the burning oil crater in Alto, Louisiana. Everyone wanted to go see this fire.

We were on the brink of a new age of technology and it was exciting to be growing up in this new world. There was as yet a curtain between us and the coming decade of depression, and the terrible Second World War. Death struck twice in our farm home near Chase, Louisiana. We moved out in 1930 never to return to live. “Whence was to come our help?” From the hills.

 

 

 

 

 

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