Memories Along Clinch River
Written by Mrs. Virgie Brewer Perry of Sharp's Chapel, Union County, TN
Before Norris Lake came and covered the land
where the earliest settlers chose to acquire land along the river for its
transportation purposes and its fertile river banks to grow corn: The all
important corn. Corn was so important, not only for its food value to feed a
family: It had to feed the farm horses that plowed the long river banks, for
tractors hadn't yet come to the Valley. Corn was topped just above the ears
of corn and blades stripped for fodder, nubbins to feed the cows that
furnished milk. Cornbread and milk filled lots of stomachs before bedtime.
Corn fed hens that produced eggs, not just a staple for breakfast they were
used for baking and delighted children's eyes at Easter. Corn not hay was
used. I can't remember one hay field. Wheat must have been grown, but we
didn't. Upper land with nature grown grass, forage pasture helped feed farm
animals. It was a different way of living back then and it's gone like the
land Norris Lake covers.
My father Willard Brewer was a worker and good manager: a Man whose one job
was to take care, provide for his family. Carpenter work was his trade handed
down from his father Nicholas "Nick" Brewer. Many a barn or house plan was
drawn out on the planks of our porch and washed away the next time the porch
was scrubbed with Red Seal Lye.
Not just carpenter work, Dad had other trades. He had a great love for
fishing Clinch River and my earliest Memory is waiting down the leaf covered
road for him to come from the River where he had gone to trace his lines. He
was so pleased to find me waiting to see his catch. He was such a good father.
When he married my mother, Relda Beeler, they became renters, but his goal
was to own land and have his own home. He saved money and managed to buy 20
acres with an old shot gun house for $75.00. One of Mom's brothers said he
would have rather had a Victrola (one of the first record players). Dad chose
land and being a carpenter he could turn that small boxed house into a
I rode in the jolting, horse drawn wagon with him, to and from the place,
there were cherry trees and I loved the cherries we picked.
Once when we were there I cut my bare foot badly on a piece of broken glass
and I remeber how he tried to stop the bleeding. He was reassuring and funny.
When he found a scrap of none too clean cloth in the old house to wrap my
foot he told me it was one of Granny Burnett's dish rags.
He bought the land from Jeamsy and Cleatus Burnett when they moved to Big
Valley. It was up a hollow on the south side of Big Ridge. We never got to
live on the land Dad bought, his mother and father asked him to move and take
care of them because Grandpa was no longer able to work. Back then there was
no Social Security for the elderly, crippled or disabled. One of the children
was chosen for the responsiblity. Out of eight children Dad's parents chose
him because Relda (my mom) could "get along" with Dad's crippled sister Ina.
She had spinal meningitis when she was 3 or so years old. Mom had more wisdom
than anyone I have ever known to lead us through good times and bad.
Grandpa and Granny no longer owned a home and Dad's boxed, shotgun house
wasn't big enough to house so many people, also back then the one who kept
their parents had the rest of the family coming and going, which was great
for the children, I got to know them all. Dad's life plans changed and being
the kind of person he was he took the next step forward and that was renting
a big log house to house us all. Actually it was two seperate houses with a
dog trot (porch) to connect.
One part was for his 20 year old sister, though on crutches she was active
and pretty and was courted by nice young men. She chose to not marry. Her
house wasn't accessible to us children, maybe on rare occasion (If) we used
our best manners and that was mostly sitting in a straight back chair in the
middle of the room. Ina was very musical and we heard old time organ playing,
singing coming from her house. She taught one of her brother Millburn's sons
to play guitar, because of her crippled arm she couldn't chord a guitar, she
would set in front and direct when and where to change chords.
We moved and settled into the big log house just above the old 33 Bridge
that crossed Clinch River and was one of the most beautifully located places
on the river. For the first time I was actually seeing the Clinch River,
always before it had been an imaginary place. Someplace where Dad went to
catch the great strings of fish. I must try and describe this exceptional,
magical place and its not going to be easy. Oh how I want bring back the
sights and sounds (Life) along the River where I moved to when I was 4 years
old. It was known as the Dick Cook place but it had been sold and Dad rented
the house and Clinch River farm from brothers Everette and Herbert Needham
for $25.00 per year, such a small amount in today's world and so much back
then. One long river bank we tended- corn rows ended at the base, abutement
of Clinch River Bridge. (South side toward Knoxville).......
You looked out or up and there was the bridge. Young as I was I could thin
corn and chop weeds in someone else's row. Very few cars passed the ratty
bridge. About the greatest sight passing was the Middlesboro bus that went
down mornings and came back evenings.
Once a car stopped, a man with a camera aimed it right at us, took a
picture and went on his way.
The log house was built on a hill that extended way out and we had a
scenic view you wouldn't believe. We could see far beyond the bridge down the
river and all the way up the river to where 33 Highway came through Gap
Branch. By the poor farm where people were kept when they became too old,
disabled and had no family. It was notable that we lived right in sight of it
when Dad was standing between three people who might have become members of
the poor house if they hadn't had family.
Dad was a barber too and a man called Bob walked from the poor farm to our
house to get a hair cut. On Bob's leaving Dad would give him a big, red
handkerchief to keep the tobacco juice from the corners of his mouth-it
didn't do much good, the next time Bob came without a handkerchief.
Next down the river was from the poor farm was John Graves. He lived in a
big white house on the hill overlooking 33 Highway. His farm extended across
33 to his river bottom land. His house was almost facing ours across the
river on higher ground. One of my first puzzling questions was how could I
sit in our house, look out the door and see such a big thing as John Graves'
house because the door wasn't as big as the house.
Next down from John Graves on 33 Highway was The Store. The Store was such
an important place in a neighborhood and always a hub of activity where
people lingered, visited and exchanged news. When a burst of loud laughter
echoed up and down the River, across to our house, someone would say, "That's
Osber or Winslow Ousley." Isaac Cook ran the store and Wash Russell and his
son John after Isaac.
The store was in the bend of 33 Highway before it turned south to approach
the bridge... I have been there twice when the lake was low enough to see the
wide, vacant gap, bridge and spans gone: Just the remaining concrete columns
standing as stark, silent sentinels to the past.
Before I was 5 years old I walked alone across the bridge. Granny used
snuff and if Granny was out of snuff I was sent to the store. I had bad
dreams about the bridge, it had holes in the wood floor and rattling boards.
I could see a long way down, in the way of fearsome dreams the holes were
bigger and more of them. I would wake up scared until I realized I was safe
in bed. I never mentioned the dreams, I enjoyed the trips. Once, when Wash
and John saw a bad storm was coming, fast, up the River Valley they urged me
not to start back home until the storm was over, but true to what I had been
told- "Go straight to the store and straight back," I started home. When I
was on the approach to the bridge the wind was already tearing at me, I heard
granny's desperate, eerie voice- "Virgieeeeeee g-go BACK!!!" She was waving
her apron high in the wind... "GO BACK!!!!!" It was said Granny had a voice
equal to her father, Chris Keck's, even against the wind it reached me,
eerily and I started running back. John Russell met me. As the River storm
roared around the store, inside I was treated like a Princess, sitting on a
nail keg, drinking an orange pop.
Crossing to the South side of the bridge was "the cut," where an unpaved
road turned left up the River Road on our side. The first house from the cut
was Edgbert and Lucy Wyrick or Warrick. Walking people don't take roads they
make short cut paths and that's what we did, close to the bridge we turned
through a bushy field and came out close to Edgbert's house. It was a big
weather-boarded house with a high, off the ground latticed porch. It was
there we turned on River Road that wound toward where we lived. But first you
came to Dick Cook Creek, a clear, cold mountain stream-just past the Creek
was a well worn path to the spring where we carried household water and kept
our milk and butter in the Spring House. The spring was also used by another
family so we often met there. These children liked fresh, skimmed cream. I
didn't and it bothered me that I didn't like fresh cream too. The skimmed
cream was kept in a big crock. When it was full and 'turned' just right it
was put in a dash churn and someone had to churn the dasher up and down until
butter formed, then it was lifted out, rinsed, salt added, molded in special
molds-usually with a flower design on top. Butter was a staple.
On Dick Cook Creek bank is where we did the family wash. The only bad
thing about wash day-my job was to wash "Hippins," Now called diapers, no
disposables back then-but all the other good things made up for that chore.
Grown ups and children headed for the wash place loaded down with sheet-bound
dirty clothes and things needed to be transferred each time. Only a bottoms
up big kettle, tubs and string, long wire clothes lines were kept at the wash
place. a fire was built under the water filled kettle, they boiled everything
they could for sanitary reasons and every woman along the River wanted it to
be known she hung out White Washings. Bluing was added to the rinse water
because it was known to add whiteness (which was a puzzle to me). Last after
the bluing rinse everything starchable was was run through home made starch
and hung on the lines in the sun to dry in the sun. Summer outings like that
didn't seem like work, playing in the creek was fun, made for children, under
the huge Sycamore trees. After a good creek scrubbing we too were sparkling
clean going back to the house...
In winter time washing was done at the house in the big kitchen, clothes
boiled in a big tub on the wood stove which made a steamy, pungent lye soap
smell escaping all over the house. There was no mistaking wash day as soon as
you entered the door. Water for washing was caught in rain barrels placed
along under the eaves of the house, in summertime wiggle tails were a problem
in the rain barrels. Winter time they put broom handles in the barrels to try
and keep the wooden stove barrels from freezing and falling apart.
I can still remember the cold winds sweeping up the river, swirling your
dress or coat tail causing you to hurry to get where you were going. The
sight of broom handles frozen in rain barrels to us told the temperature more
than any thermometer.
...Funny I didn't remember the house had 3 large rock chimneys until years
later when the lake was low enough (finally) to walk out on the hill and I
saw 3 heaps of crumbled chimney rock... Standing on the hill the very wind
blowing, spirit filled echoes of the ones no more... Never before had past
memories crowded in so closely ... and the loss, eerie... I stood, eyes
closed, absorbing ... feeling ... searching ... picturing ... the River winds
had been brisk, strong-alive! The wind from the lake was soft on my face,
softly urging me to feel for all the ones gone on ... back, back to what?
Moccasined feet had silently, nimbly followed trails to the River. Camped
on the very hill where I stood? The strong men who fell the long, tall trees,
hewed, notched and shaped the great log house? Erected the huge rock
chimneys? The other children who had ran free and happy where my feet had
gone? In my mind, inner being was an assuring whisper, "I'm here to
remember"... I shivered out of the trance to what was left; desolation,
silence, rubble and rock. A fast boat coming up the lake severed silence
middling the Lake where Clinch River once ran free... I watched it go out of
sight ... waves rippled from the boat's path-wider and wider-washed up gently
at my feet... I walked to the pile of rocks that had been the fireplace
chimney in Ina's place. Next: The kitchen chimney fireplace which we never
used except for the stove pipe to the wood burning cook stove. The fireplace
in the living room was huge to keep us warm. Great stacks of wood were ricked
outside and carried in as needed. Special back logs to heave in place by a
strong man (My Dad) to hold heat through the cold nights, smolder through the
days until the back log had to be replaced, wrestled into place. I tried to
be on hand for that event. It was fascinating to me.
Down to the right of our house was a deep hollow and up the opposite hill
to ours was another house, our closest neighbors, Emerson and Carrie Cook. A
big weatherboarded two story house and their children Brian, Lois - older
than me, Earl, Lena-close to my age, Ralph and some younger children... They
were good neighbors, none better. They milked cows and had a milk separator,
I don't know much more than that except seeing Carrie pour in milk and
watching it come out two spouts in containers. Even then I knew Carrie used
perfect English. Grandpa, Nick Brewer, had his own dialect and ours was
filled with that (as you are sure to notice). They were the family that
shared the Dick Cook spring with us.
Milton and Mindy Cook lived next farm up the River. I just remember
passing and knew they were old and kept to themselves. Across the road from
their large weatherboarded house was a graveyard and I was told their son
Rector, who as a young man drowned in the Clinch River, was buried there.
John and Mrs. Munsey lived on the right in the curve of the road. I just
remember seeing "Miss" Munsey and the children in passing and of course you
always spoke to everybody in a friendly way.
On around the bend from Munsey's place and to the right of River Road up a
deep hollow was where dad's oldest brother, Wylie, moved his family on Pola
Cook's place. I stayed "all night" with Wylie's daughter, Ocie, lots of
times. Wylie had a second family. Fred, Zynn, Nila and Ocie's mother died
when Ocie was under 4 years old.
On simmer Sundays Wylie invited us all to eat watermelon. I can still
picture him cutting, slicing, juicy red melons. I watched because they looked
so-oo good, but like the sweet cream, I didn't like them. Wylie knew that and
teased, "I don't think the cantaloupes are ripe yet"... After teasing, last
he cut rich, golden cantaloupes and I had my fill of Wylie's "mush" melons.
I heard them say that Fred and Zynn hunted Copperheads and rattlesnakes on
the Mountains surrounding where they lived. We children were cautioned to
stay away from the sawdust piles because of snakes. But I wonder if they knew
the history of snakes in that hollow? Not long ago I was told the old log
house in the hollow, before the later house Wylie lived in, was burned
because of Copperheads. A man and his wife stayed one night and a half-After
the first night, the husband laughed at what his wife told him-NO she didn't
see snakes crawl out of the logs and crawl across the floor... The next
night, the wife woke Sam at 11 o' clock to see for himself ... they left
immediately and went to a neighbor's house (Tom Cook's) for the rest of the
night. They went back the next day to feed a hen and chickens. After killing
a Copperhead at the chicken coop, without going inside to get their household
stuff, they set the house on fire, snakes ran every direction. Lucy Cook was
telling me about it (just by chance) over the telephone, in March 1999. Her
mother and father, Sam and Louverna Cook, were the ones that moved out in the
middle of the night. Lucy said she heard her mother tell it many times.......
Pola and Sally Cook's house was past the beech grove to the left of the
River Road, they lived in a big, well kept, two story house. They had a large
family of girls and one son (at that time). It was said that Sally was such a
worker, her feet were never still.
The next farm up was Tom Cook's and as far up the River as I ever walked.
Tom owned Crossroads Store through Gap Branch over in Big Valley. He kept a
paddle boat (skiff) to cross Clinch River morning and back at night. Lots of
mornings a 10 year old boy set Tom across the River so he could use Tom's
boat to hunt mussels. Boat tied around his waist he hunted and tossed mussels
in the boat, opened and looked for pearls on the River bank until Tom came to
be set back across. That boy was Andy Perry, my husband. Andy never forgot
Tom letting him use his boat and trusting him to be there to set him across
at night. Andy only found one pearl to sell, but a man bought the mussel
shells to make buttons.
My Aunt Rona, Dad's youngest sister, married Tom Cook's son Russell and
lived near Tom. Rona was special to me from the time I can remember. Wherever
Rona was, I was there- a lot... Her only child, Genevieve and my sister,
Elretta were the same age. Russell operated his father Tom's sawmill in the
hollow where Wylie lived. When the sawmill was in operation the whine of the
big saw ripping through logs end to end filled the hollow and far beyond. It
was a big outfit hiring men with teams of mules to snake cut logs down the
steep mountain sides. Russell stood on the platform guiding the speed of the
saw, using glasses and wide brimmed hat drawn low to protect face and eyes
from flying dust. One of the workers was off-bearer who took outer slabs and
discarded them in a pile, Then waited to take the sawed lumber to stack in
neat stacks. The first Ivy and flowering Rhodonderon flowering bushes I ever
saw were growing on the steep bluff path behind Tom Cook's house going down
to the River. They cautioned us children not to pick any flowers, they were
poison. Genevieve said Rona would cook supper and they would sit on the
steps and wait for Russell to close down the mill and come home to eat.
The River roared after storms carrying refuse of every kind coming from
who knew where... It passed on by swiftly, at times like that high, swift
water, coming unexpectedly. Dad wasn't able to prepare for it and lost
fishing equipment. He taught me how to tie twine nets, using the big wooden
needle. He would tie in cross sections for the hoops and I did the body work.
He was proud I could help and I was prouder. Dad had a commercial fishing
license: Unusual in our area.
In his day, Grandpa Nick didn't mix in farming like Dad. While Grandpa did
carpentry work Granny and the children raised a garden, truck patches, but
carpentry wasn't a winter trade so they moved to Knoxville during winter and
every child old enough got a job in the cotton mills. Each spring Nick and
Rachel Keck Brewer moved them back to start over near both their folks in Big
Valley. Grandpa Nick boarded over in Kentucky when he helped build
Middlesborough. My Dad didn't like moving around, he wanted land and roots.
I've not said much about my Mother. Mom is hard to describe. I heard her
tell dad "we are a team," and that's what she was to Dad: Without working as
a team, the wagon won't go. With carpenter work Dad wasn't home all the time:
But Mom was. One of dad had to stretch a long-g way and we helped in every
way we could. Grandpa could feed the animals, do small things, get on his
knees in the corn crib, shuck corn for hours. He kept any eye on things and
we children were used to him sitting, quietly in a shade, whittling curly,
red cedar shavings, tiny and so small you knew it was an Art. I heard it said
when he was building a house he worked all day, after supper at night he
whittled, carved trimming for the house. Gingerbread?
Ina? Ina grew up with the shorter leg and little arm and hand, but the
other side of her was strong and she wasn't lazy. She couldn't work outside,
but she could cook better than Mom and Granny put together. If-you could get
her to let you have some of it. She didn't like children in the kitchen "In
her way... Tracking in and out" We didn't mind her scolding, she was Ina and
would come to help if you screamed loud enough, she would come grumbling
"what's wrong now?" If you hurt yourself and were bleeding, you didn't go to
Mom, she would pass out. Granny would help, but if she wasn't available you
went to Ina. There were no band aids. With children they prepared ahead.
Thumb, finger or toe stalls with strings to tie around the wrist or ankle.
You tried to shield, keep the stall clean, it usually had to last the
duration of your wound. I think Mom "got along" with Ina because Mom grew up
with brothers. Her only sister Lydia was born after Mom married. So to Mom,
Ina was a sister..............
My Mom had way of reaching a hand at the right times, like getting breakfast
which they both worked at to get the day started. If Ina made biscuits Mom
was there to work the oven door. They worked well together. Ina was happy on
the hill above Clinch River Bridge, she had her own separate house and snowy
white bed spread, which no child was allowed to touch. Ina was a gifted
person. She could cut a dress pattern oout of newspaper, use the pedal
machine. She tried so hard to prove there was nothing she couldn't do. Mom
was a team mate for her too. All my life I have wished I could be more like
Mom, but she was one of a kind.
In October to November the corn had to be gathered, hand stripped from the
dry stalks and brought into the crib. Wylie or Millburn would send a son to
help: One fall Wylie and Millburn came themselves... Mom, here is your Clinch
River Memory (as you told me)... Clinch River never carried such an echo up
and down its length as those three brothers working along the Riverbank
cornfield, competing, racing to beat each other end to end. The winner
whooped, cheering for the other two coming at him. Millburn alone had a voice
rough as thunder that would carry for miles-- 3 of them? Wylie, Millburn and
Dad had teasing, fun ways, and fast sure hands.
Winter times were hard to manage, especially late winter when food was
running low. There were no supermarkets. Through the summer canning was done.
Cold pack canning hadn't come or pressure cookers. Food was cooked open on
the stove and put in half gallon green glass jars with glass lined zinc lids,
sealed on rubber rings.
Sour Kraut making was involved (in more ways than one). The moon phase and
zodiac signs just right so Kraut wouldn't turn dark. Mom, Granny and dad (if
he was home) went to the garden early to cut tubs of crisp cabbage heads and
brought them to a good shade tree. The heads were clipped of outer leaves,
dunked in water, left there for crispness. We had a hand chopper, from a
Coupon Catalog and with one handle on a tin can, you might say, a chopping
good time was had by all. Children peeled cabbage cores to add. When a dish
pan full was pronounced fine enough, salt was added, mixed in... ooohhh it
was good that way. Then it was packed in half gallon jars so its own salty
liquid came to the top, zinc lids tightened, loosely, and placed in an
isolated dark nook where they kept a close watch on it as it went through the
"working" process (spewed out). In due time it was sealed to keep pale
yellow. Anyway in winter when a can of Kraut was opened it reminded of a
summer day of fun under the shade tree. (There were more ways to make Kraut.)
Before frost sweet potato vines had to be clipped, dug and carried to the
barn loft to dry. We never had much luck keeping them. We liked sweet
potatoes too much. Fried and/or a big pan baked to add butter. Irish potatoes
were dug and stored in a straw lined hole, underground. It was hard to keep
them all winter.
Around Thanksgiving they killed hogs. When the gun was taken outside:
There was stillness as all women and children waited deep inside the house.
One spot: If the aim was true a big hog would drop in its tracks, soundless.
One never squealed at our house, but yet there was relief when it was over,
each time. Busy days were ahead, fat had to be trimmed, rendered in a big
iron kettle, it took lots of stirring. Lard was poured into shiny new cans.
Sausage ground, seasoned, fried and canned, jars turned upside down for the
grease to cool on top. Why? Kept it fresher they told me. Meat salted, stored
on benches in the smoke house, hams hung. When company came through the
winter, they cut a ham. Some said: "If you run out of food go to Willard
Brewer's". The wooden eating table was covered with an oil cloth. The table
had to be long just for us, but when company came children had to wait for
adults to eat first. Why? I don't know, but it must have been respect for our
elders. In time Mom changed, she fixed us plates and we ate at the cook
table. There were no counters, sinks or running water. No bath tubs.
Through the summer we kept clean in Dick Cook Creek, running clear and
clean down the mountain, filled in between, "Don't go to bed with dirty
feet..." and "wash your face and hands before coming to the table." Wash pans
and galvanized tubs for winter. You avoided being doused in the big wash tub
if you could ... but at the end you got a warm bucket of water poured over
you. The kitchen would be warm and cozy.
Carpenter work was different before electricity. Wylie didn't farm as much
as Dad and Dad could go in and out of jobs with him anytime, but after corn
was laid-by, Dad packed his tools in the burlap sack and went on his own
job... If he rode a horse who fed it? So, he walked and stayed a week at a
time where he worked. That was the old way and he was treated like a member
of that family. Someone would be on the ground to hand up and maybe on top
too. Dad knew the setup before he went. Dad carried his tools: Hammer,
handsaw, big and little squares, plane, level, auger and bits, pockets to
carry the tools up the ladder on top. He would place his handsaw in the rack
on the porch banister to sharpen it before going on a job. Metal file on
metal, on and on screeching hurt your ears and probably the neighbors ears
too. He would be eager, looking forward to a job with new lumber. New lumber
in his hands compared to a dressmaker with the finest fabric. Squared
corners, rafters and roof pitch, how he loved to get them just right. When he
came home on the weekend he and Grandpa discussed how the job was
progressing. If there was a problem, they combined their knowledge.
We were outside more and used to it, thinly dressed by today's standards.
Inside all homes were drafty-no fireplace ever heated the rear of a big
living room, let alone the bedrooms. The warmest place was the kitchen
because the wood burning kitchen stove did the cooking to feed a family.
Breakfast over, dinner was started. They tried to cook enough for supper as
well, but always the stove had to be heated to add a "ho" cake or fry a pan
of potatoes. There were no refrigerators to keep food. In summer especially
food had to be cooked daily. It was GOOD. Spring and summer vegetables- a
hunk of meat in the green beans cooked in the big iron kettle, the ones left
over for supper were even better ... boiled corn on the cob or fried hickory
"cane" corn, lettuce with fresh green onions cut up in it, "killed" with hot
bacon grease. Milk and butter a long way from the house, that was children's
jobs, "Go get the butter" then it was "take the butter back to the
springhouse." Good as butter was sometimes you wished there was no such thing.
Toys? I never had a doll. I saw them in out of date catalogs Ina let us
use for cut outs on a cold day or if company children were there. Ina could
be helpful sometimes she let us build a playhouse in part of the kitchen. We
learned string games, Jacob's ladder, crow's feet, tea cup and saucer.
Summertime we were outside with 2 or 3 play houses. Hop scotch using a piece
of broken glass, rolly hole marble, jump the rope using a piece of plow line.
Children always find something to play, noisy and happy.
Christmas? We didn't expect gifts or put up a tree and No I didn't go to
the neighbors and see theirs and feel deprived. In the first place young
children in our family didn't go visiting much in the winter time and besides
I don't think most of our neighbors had a Christmas tree either. It was a way
of the times. Christmas Eve we hung stockings along the mantle and were up
early Christmas morning, excited to fine "Santy Claus" had been there... Our
stockings bulged with candy and fruits. We kept orange peels to try and kept
their smell. Oranges smelled better then, didn't they? Christmas was the only
time we had oranges.
Winter days were when women of the family put up a quilt... 4 staples in
the kitchen ceiling had strings hanging from tied in the quilting frames.
Patches of cotton were grown. Winter evenings cotton was lined in front of
the fireplace and everybody "invited" to pick seed from the cotton. Cotton
was carded to make rolls of cotton bats to be placed on the lining for
filling, then the decorated top pinned to it before they sat down in straight
back chairs to quilt in the warm kitchen. When they quit quilting for the day
strings were rolled around and frames, rolling the quilt higher than a man's
head, out of the way. I learned to use the cotton cards. Standing on the
floor I was allowed to quilt in the corner so bad stitches didn't show.
Birthday's were different too. Someone would wake you early... "This is
your birthday, you are a year older ... you are five years old and start to
school in August." There were no gifts, no cake with candles, no children
invited and today I do not think I was deprived.
Sounds carried along the River Valley. Dad said he could tell what farmers
knew how to handle horses plowing the long river banks. When an angry man
lost it, yelled, "I said gee not haw!!!!"... threw clods of dirt at the
horse. Dad shook his head, "reminds me of Pop, he couldn't handle horses
either."... He said that about his Dad?? My grandpa??
I knew a mare kept in the barn lot was going to have a foal... One morning
after spending the night with Ocie I came home to the excitement going on at
our house. A new colt already named Ted was in the barn lot and he was a bay
beauty. That wasn't all, I had a little sister also born during the night. I
knew a foal was expected, but not a bay, they just didn't tell children
things like that at our house.........
There were 5 children in our family... Fleeta, myself, Elretta, Rondie and
Katie... A hole in our family that will never be filled is Fleeta... Mom and
Dad's oldest child died with spinal meningitis when she was 5. For Mom, Dad
and me the empty space was there. I was 2 and a half when she died and all
through the years how I have guarded, kept the windows in my mind of her...
When Rondie was just a baby we went to a Union Primitive Baptist Church
association and dinner on the ground in Big Valley. The biggest crowd I had
ever been in and all strangers. Rondie went to sleep and Mom and some more
women laid him in a car. I can sill see that T-Model, I stayed with it,
sitting on a valley rock by the car. I was SO afraid that car would leave and
take my brother while Mom talked and visited ... of course it was Paris and
Mollie Graves' car, dad's cousin, Mom knew he was safe, but I didn't. I
guarded, no one was going to take my little brother...
None of us children were supposed to go near the River although I had been
up and down the river path with Dad uncounted times. I rode in the skiff
while he raised fish nets and traced his trot lines stretched across the
River, willow tree to willow tree. I made dough balls, one of the baits used.
They had to be mixed just right so they wouldn't crumble in the water. Dad
told me I could make them best-was that just his way to get me to make them?
We will never know!
Granny was 60 or so years old and active, she helped run the household, a
second mother to my Mother. On a July day, Granny made a blackberry cobbler
for dinner. Not long after eating Sunday dinner Grandpa became violently ill.
Then others became sick. Dad had gone to Wash Russell's store, I was sent to
get him. When Dad became sick also, that added to the question WHY? What was
wrong? Dad finally said, "I didn't want to say anything but that blackberry
pie didn't taste right to me..." He had hesitated, because his sister was
visiting that day and he thought she might have made the pie. No sooner than
the pie was mentioned, Granny put her hand to her mouth... That morning
cleaning and straightening in the kitchen: On top of a tall cabinet she found
a paper bad with some flour in it. Thinking it was flour they had taken to
the wash place to make starch and brought back, she had dumped it in the
flour barrel, and later made the pie. The bag held arsenic of lead ... later
they started tinting the arsenic pink. River neighbors came, someone went to
Dr. Palmer and he sent word, make everybody vomit quickly~ The raw egg
mixture to cause vomiting looked awful. I was all over the place. Grandpa
Nick was on the ground, near the corn crib, deathly sick. Granny was
frantic... In the confusion they missed giving me the egg mixture. At 11
o'clock that night I got sick. The poison stayed in my system the longest.
After that, I was what they called "sickly." Granny knew a lot about herb
doctoring, concocted and gave me terrible tasting medicine. I didn't know how
to tell them I was numb at night... My body felt like Salt. I have no idea
why I picked salt for the feeling I dreaded when I went to bed... Lots of
mornings I would be dizzy. Then I was kept in bed... Carrie Cook came. She
came to the door where I was in bed and I saw her just standing in the door.
She didn't say anything, she turned back and I could hear their voices in
another room. Carrie wasn't one to visit, she hadn't been to our house
before. I don't know how to explain, Carrie had a family of her own... I
didn't see her much, mostly when she was on her way to or from the spring.
With all the family around me: Our family, folks from every direction...
Carrie was right in there as one of my favorite people... When Carrie left
that day I would have been outside to walk a "piece" with her, for coming...
But I couldn't even sit up in bed I was so dizzy. I cried into the pillow so
no one would hear. Gradually I got better. Dr. Palmer was a friend of Dad's
and he went to him for advice about the family. Did they know more than they
were telling me?
I entered River View School in August when I was 5 years old. The Bridge
was about half way...
You could buy syrup in little buckets: A syrup bucket was what I used to
carry lunch: A biscuit with homemade jelly, ears of boiled corn, or a
tomato, apple when they were in season, sausage or ham in a biscuit, boiled
egg, a variety... River View was a typical country school of that time. A pot
bellied coal stove furnished (some) heat in the winter. The teacher came
early to fire up the stove, some teachers paid a small amount to some older
boy to build a fire. Our water was carried, by students, from a small spring
up the hollow, behind the school. A 2 gallon bucket with a dipper for ALL
students to use was on a table at the back of the school room. After dinner,
recesses-outside games of hop scotch, stink base, jump the rope, marbles,
baseball... hot faced children lined up to the water bucket all used the one
dipper to get a drink. Can you imagine? But the teaching method was
EXCELLENT. The teacher used the blackboard, did work before the whole school
which consisted of Primer through the 8th grade. What the class did on the
board was graded, discussed, making it possible for an interested student to
learn far beyond their grade.
When I entered school Lois Cook was asked to watch out for me. I admired
Lois (she was a lot like Carrie), Pretty, tall, slim, blonde, quiet,
Responsible. If she told me children on the way to and from school were not
supposed to crawl through the fence at Albert Cook and Isaac Cook's to get
apples, I didn't. Children were allowed to pick up apples that fell on the
roadside. We went by the rules. Even the boys that rushed ahead left some for
the rest of us. Mornings children arrived at different times but when school
let out at 4 o'clock there was a road full walking together because children
on out 33 Highway, past the cut, joined the River Bunch. Boys rushed ahead,
but not Wylie's son Nile. Nile was never too far away in case somebody said
or did something to me. When Nile was killed in a car wreck when he was 19
years old we grieved quietly together. Mom told me Nile taught me to walk ...
after his mother died Nile lived with us 2 years... Nile: My little red
headed protector: We walked Clinch River Road...
Passing Primer and First grade the same year, in the fall when I was 6 I
started the 2nd grade. None of the girls wore pants and when it was cold we
wore above the knew cotton stockings, an ugly reddish brown, it was either
that or black like Granny wore. With all the walking, holes wore in the
heels: Granny was a good darner, but I liked new stockings, without the holes
In winter time the children were in the roost and kerosene lamps lit when
we got home from school. Some children missed lots of days, but I didn't.
Carrie's children didn't miss days either...
The Road of Life has many turns. If we stick true to our turns we don't
have any regrets later. I do not have any regrets. Good people live along the
River, each family working, keeping a certain private distance, but when
trouble came to a family, they came, quietly: As they did for ours, twice.
You don't forget people like that in your lifetime... We are part of all we
have known. They are woven into the pattern of our life, some more deeply
Our family contributed. Being a carpenter and death came to a community
Dad and Grandpa Nick would work all night making a walnut coffin (preferred
back then) while women folk prepared cotton bats before the lining was added,
cooked food to take. Without embalming when death came: Next day burial.
Hard times came to River families as the Depression settled in. We would
know of tired looking people, with children, walking along 33 Highway with no
place to go, or maybe they were on the way to relatives: We hoped...
Along the River families handled having less in their own quiet way. I
know we wore more 'darned' long stockings and was instructed to make new fall
shoes last through the winter...
Young friars, hens for chicken n dumplings, were not bought at the store
and their heads had to come off, blood drained but not by Mom... It was done
at the chop block, or in a pinch, hurry - Granny could wring a chicken's neck
in a flash because it had to be done. If company came and without telephones
company was nearly always unexpected: They had to be included at mealtime and
usually overnight if they came from a distance. Corn fed, tree roosting, hens
didn't lay many eggs during the winter months, so if hens didn't lay eggs you
did without. In early spring they waited, anxiously, for a hen to 'set.'
Early 'settings' meant early frying chickens. Eggs were marked with a pencil
and as many eggs as a hen could incubate were hers. Eggs had to be marked for
often another hen would lay another egg in the same nest. Children loved to
gather eggs-but NOT from under setting hens. Most of the hens were vicious
and would wring a piece of flesh from an invading hand... When I said eggs
delighted a child's eyes at Easter, Oh, they did-but not in the ways of
today... In spring at peak time for hens laying eggs, stiff, woven cane
baskets held as many as 3, 4 or 5 dozen eggs kept in a cool, dark corner.
each morning a big platter of well done eggs (no over lights) were passed
around the breakfast table. A grown up would put an egg in a child's plate
then their own and pass the platter around the table. They did the same with
meats and bowls of gravy. No child at our house was allowed a "Boarding house
reach." On Easter morning was when we had scrambled eggs, two big platters,
one on each end of the table, fluffy and golden, all you could eat. Not only
that but a big pot of boiled eggs were already cooling, natural color
(brownish) didn't matter. You could peel and eat all day... A family's eggs
had to be shared, carefully because an adult carried the big baskets of eggs
to the store and traded for sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda (no self
rising back then) -- or eggs bought cloth for new dresses. Eggs were a source
of income ... one elderly man known to be tight with his money told his wife,
"If eggs go much lower than 2 or 3 cents a dozen I want to see more eggs
frying on our stove..."
Dad started growing 'clay peas' in the corn. Vines would climb up the
stalk and they would have to be picked and shelled. Pumpkins planted in
another corn field, after frost they were brought in, peeled, sliced in round
rings, hung to dry. Green beans strung on long strings to dry for shuck (hay)
beans and to me they tasted like a shuck-cow feed: BUT you didn't say "I
don't like that," you let the bowl pass on around the table, food wasn't to
be taken out and wasted.
Dried hot, red pepper pods strung and kept handy to flavor. They preserved
every way possible to have food through the winter.
Cane was grown to make molasses instead of using sugar. Molasses makings
were a social event. The cane had to be stripped and cut before frost. Over
time molasses tended to go flat. heated and with a dab of baking soda added
molasses turned foamy, golden and was a staple with biscuits or cornbread.
Breakfast brown sugar (Grandpa's favorite) was hard to come by.
Tubs of corn were brought in after supper, shelled and put in a clean,
thick meal sack. Women along the River wanted it known their meal sacks were
clean and white going to the mill. A 'turn' of corn was divided in the
middle, placed on the horse's back with the rider, taken to Wash Russell's
corn mill beside the store on the day he ground meal (usually Saturday). Meal
ground that way was coarser than what we know today. Oh all the ways corn
meal could be used to supplement a meal-Granny and Mom and Ina knew them all.
Early in the spring when Granny told me, "We're going sallet hunting" ...
it never entered my mind that there was a need for greens in our diet.
Searching creek banks, river bottoms for wild sallet. Nobody in our family
said greens or landcress, it was Sallet. I especially like the homey names of
plants Granny taught me to recognize, Narrow dock, speckled Dick, woolly
britches... Granny didn't like polk so we passed those plants slyly between
us... We picked, rambled and talked, talked and talked-or I did, I had Granny
to myself. Sunny days in January, which they called June in January, they
sowed large beds of curly lettuce, under canvas-set out onion sets, planted
cabbage sees to have early plants. They knew all the early, hardiest
I had been out under a tool shed trying out a Mystery Ocie taught me, If
you bent over a doodle bug hole, said to the cone like, inverted hole,
"doodle bug, doodle bug your house is one fire, come out come out... soon a
wiggling motion would start in the very pit-bottom of the hole until you
could see the tiny, sand colored back. Why?
I was sitting under the edge of the porch asking myself, why would a bug
believe its sandy hole was on fire? Granny and Grandpa came out the kitchen
door onto the back porch, sat down. There! I would ask them, they would know
about the doodle bug mystery. I was half up when Granny said to Grandpa, "I
think Willard is just about out of money." Not knowing the full meaning that
The Depression was about to cripple us on the bank of the Clinch River. It
was Granny's worried tone about Dad... I crawled around to a chimney corner,
drew up my knees and cried so no one would hear me. Dad was more serious, he
didn't laugh as much, a load was on him with so many people depending on him.
People didn't have money to spend and building (carpenter work) was an
expense to be cut back first.
Crippled? Yes-But, Dad had one talent left: The fish in the Clinch River.
Fishing was something he dearly loved and never had enough time, now he did.
He went Forward. He made more twine nets and I helped, up and down the River
path I was at his heels to raise nets and trace trot lines. Early, Dad taught
me to not take hold of drooping willow branches along the River bank as the
skiff moved under them. He told me Fleeta caught a limb and was yanked out of
the boat and he had to pull her out of the River. How do I say? Each time the
boat slid along under the willows and swinging limbs brushed my face...
Fleeta was with us, in Memory.
I'd sit on the chop block in the woodshed and watch Dad making more fish
boxes to hide along the River banks to hold fish he caught.... Tracing a line
he could tell far ahead he had a 'big one' on. I knew to sit very still as he
worked his way to it. Happy at landing a big one he would say, "You bring me
Ever since Dad had a license to sell fish he had customers who liked fish
and would come when he sent postcards to let them know he had their favorite
kind. Two of his best customers lived in Big Valley, Dorothy Graves and Osber
Ousley. Dorothy was fascinating to me, for many reasons, and I tried to be on
hand every time she came. She was the first woman I ever saw wearing pants, a
tan shirt belted in to matching pants. Pants were much more practical when
she rode her big, black horse so far to get the fish. Dorothy was impressive
to my eyes and ears as she set on the porch and visited. She lived in the
section of Big Valley where Mom was raised and they had gone to school
together. Whether she had news of Grandpa (France Beeler) and Mamaw (Tilda
Burnett) or not she had other news. Dad had hand held scales to weigh fish
and it was his way to weigh them before a Customer, then they were loaded in
burlap (grass) sacks and placed carefully across the horses sides. There was
danger for Dorothy crossing the Bridge, if a fin stuck or something spooked
the horse. The horse couldn't take short cuts through the fields and it would
take her a long time to reach the Bridge. I would go sit on the hill and
watch for her to cross the Bridge... straight on by the store toward River
View School where the road turned down the River a long way before to cross
Big Ridge. Watching her go out of sight just past the store was sad. Before
we moved to Dick Cook place we had lived near enough to cross Big Ridge and
walk to Grandpa and Mamaw Beeler's. I missed them and Lydia that was 2 years
older. If I ever got to go again would Mamaw have a can lid of brown sugar as
Osber Ousley drove a sporty fliver that hauled enough for his fish to fry
and more left to share with his friends in Big Valley. He was a good customer
in every way, and that big laugh of his rolled toward the store from our
hill... echoed up and down the River.
Not only did Dad sell fish, he fed them out, people (folks) came from far
and near to eat fish at our home. They were cleaned, cut up outside (no
filets), when a dishpan full was delivered to the kitchen... "PHEW," Ina
would snarl her nose, throw up both hands, but she would help salt, roll them
in meal and fry them to a crisp, golden brown. Platters of cornbread would be
ready for the table and coffee for the adults. We children were taught early
to pick bones from our own fish, "your eyes are better than mine..." we were
told. We didn't say anything, but it seemed odd to see a parent picking bones
for a big child afraid they would get a bone in their neck, when a piece of
cornbread would dislodge it...
When "Bill" was there, along with the fish Dad would bring in a pan of
fish eggs and in an aside voice would remind the cooks, "Fry these eggs or
you will never fill Bill"... Fish eggs were richer, more filling. To me it
was festive, not realizing fish was a Meal when food was scarce. Dad was a
generous, caring person: Food was scarce for a lot of people. Dad fed out and
gave far more than he sold.
Some families ran a year long credit account at the store. Dad didn't. His
credit record was excellent and he worked at keeping it that way. Sometimes
he would buy winter shoes until tobacco sold before Christmas.
There was a tobacco barn on the 20 acres Dad owned. I wasn't part of the
handing off, but Wash Russell would haul it to market, a Knoxville Market.
Dad seemed to always know a floor manager and he'd come home describing to
us, "at first my baskets were placed under a leak in the roof, but I saw Bill
and he had it moved." Other remarks that he was confident it would bring top
price. "It looked good under the sky lights..." and "hoped the sun would
shine on sale day". I went to a quiet place to wonder about 'skylights'? On
sale day Dad came home carrying a market basket full of bananas. "I went down
on Market Street and asked about over ripe bananas..." He knew bananas
wouldn't last long enough to spoil at our house.
Dad would be wearing buckle overshoes, creased, best overalls ... his
heavy blue denim jump jacket, all the many pockets filled with goodies for
his children. Tobacco prices kept going down to near nothing, five cents per
pond, but on sale day Dad brought home the basket of bananas and goodies for
his children. Santy Claus never failed to come, our stockings bulged on
One Christmas Eve a small cousin "Billy" came. He was so little to have
walked so far on his own in a wet, slushy snow... wet soggy shoes and no
socks. Because of "Billy" I didn't feel right hanging my stocking on the
mantel... but next morning I couldn't believe my eyes what Santy had done...
"Billiy's" shoes were the center piece. Shoes all dry and tucked inside, new
socks, fruit-apples and oranges never looked so bright to my eyes. I knew
that Christmas morning what the girls at school had told me was true. Parents
were Santy Claus... Dad and Mom were the ones who knew "Billy" came and it
was their way to include him as one of their own... and reaffirmed a 7 year
olds belief: I had the best parents in the world.
Creased overalls? Oh yes, by flat irons heated on the woodburning stove.
No matter if it was only blue chambray shirts and denim overalls, Dad wore
creases in his overalls. This showed he was cared for at home and he had that
to show as assurance wherever he went. If he wore patched overalls to work on
a job the perfect stitching was noted by others where he stayed. Dad was
quite famous for his patched overalls. This was mentioned to me many years
Rumors were flying: Talk of Norris Dam. The changes that it would bring to
the Clinch River families were TOO TERRIBLE to comprehend ... so they talked,
dismissed, denied: Comforted each other, "Water will never back as far as the
Foremost for Dad and Wylie was a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp was
going to be built on the hill overlooking John Miller's and Fall Creek, not
far from 33 Highway, past the cut. Dad and Wylie rushed to apply for a JOB.
Both were hired, promptly... Children know things without being told and I
saw the changes in Dad and Wylie. Wylie came walking down River Road taking
the longest steps I ever saw, Dad would join him on the road. Dad's strides
were just as long as Wylie's. They were both tall, lean, long legged...
Walked well together, took pride in their work. Every dime Dad made was used
for the support of his family. Plus: Dad had a unique way of bringing
knowledge home to his children and a whole new way of life was opening up at
the CCC Camp, Captain this and Lieutenant that... The ones in charge of the
camp were also dad's bosses and they knew their business which dad admired.
Young men were arriving from all over the United States, lots of city boys
who had never known country life, let alone lived it, lived in tents.
Barracks had to go up to house them as fast as possible. Oh the hustle and
bustle that inspired and being part of such undertaking was just what Dad and
Wylie thrived on. Dad described the tables of FOOD spread out. More food than
he had ever seen, cooked by men. "Good cooks," Dad complimented...
He described the clothes and cloth hats issued and worn by the boys. The
tools loaded into canvas topped, lumbering trucks that could go crawling over
and around hills where no truck had ever been. They took big water coolers
and stacks of little white cups. The first individual drinking cups came to
I thought of Dad's description of food on the CCC Camp tables when I was
told, years later, what few people know: The Mandate that came down from
Washington, DC: "Feed My People... these men have been on starvation diets
too long and don't work them until heir strength is rebuilt..." A United
States President's Decree reached to the banks of the Clinch River. Dad's
awesome delight at the sight of all the food told me more than anything the
struggle it had been for him to keep food on the table... In Honor of Dad
doing that, I must say: "Nutritional Value may have been out the window, but
I was never hungry... but he and Mom might have
I didn't realize what a dark time the Depression had been for my Mom
until the sunny, fun came out in her again. She bought a new dress or two and
a pair of new shoes. When she put on the new dress and new shoes, her eager
children gathered around... "Mom, where are you going?"... "I'm going to New
York..." Who among us even knew where New York was?? A wail would go up, "Mom
we want to go too!!"... "Well, come on then, get the water buckets to leave
at the spring... we'll go by Lucy's, through the field and by the store..."
(You left water buckets to bring back household water no matter where you
were going). ... Water buckets allotted for each size, banging, swinging we
were on our way, happy to have Mom's permission to go with her.
With Dad working, The Store was no longer a place to avoid. Mom spent
money carefully and we were not indulged. Usually a nickel's worth of candy
to share among us. There was never a complaint when the trip always ended at
the store-You were worn out from a trip that far with Mom, she went like a
racer and didn't alter that pace much for her children. She would reach down,
hoist a small one on her hip and step on the heels of ones big enough to know
not to lag behind. If she went out of sight (ahead) that would be your bad
luck... When she said, "My legs might not be as long as Willard's, but I can
keep up with him," Dad just grinned.
Dad was a keeper of secrets... Mysteries... Places he worked and stayed
old men who knew ancient lore passed down only to the reliable ... talking
late into the night, they found Dad trustworthy...
TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) land surveyors came to Dad's 20 acres
early and he accepted the $500.00 (Five Hundred Dollars) check. I left Clinch
River when I was 8 years old and being a first family to move nothing about
Magical Clinch River had changed and I believed people when they said, "Water
will never back up as far as the Bridge."
Until he could find land to buy Dad moved us away from what was happening
to families with big farms along Clinch River. We moved to Katie Myers Ridge,
Big Sinks area in lower Big Valley to a little rickety house on Jim and Kate
Johnson's Place (Kate was Dad's sister). It was a tiresome move and everybody
worked frantically to get the house in some kind of order to eat and sleep.
(Ina's bed, with the snow white bedspread was in the corner of a room with 2
more beds)... Dad had moved us away from the heartache happening to families
along the Clinch River, but he went back and forth. Wylie moved temporarily
into the log house we had left and Dad stayed with him, Monday through
Friday, to help take down houses: River Families: Neighbor's Houses... That
was the one thing he didn't bring home to share with his children.
... From Katie Myers Ridge I saw Norris Lake come, backing up Powell River
side... It was a lonely feeling to know water had come, covered Clinch River
... The Wise often live and die quietly: Later their wisdom is proved when
what they left behind endures beyond the grave.
... I didn't know families moved from along Powell River. But, sorrow was
left behind there, too...
... I felt the soft, spirit filled winds blowing on my face as I stood
looking at the still, silent water...
... My one desire in writing this has been to leave something of the Early
Ones I knew to start the Journey of life that has been mine. Something they
left with me (in trust) to pass on... May 24, 1999
|1935 TVA Index Map. Approximate locations told in Mrs. Virgie Brewer Perrys story - Memories Along Clinch River
* Move mouse over image to view a modern map.