Thursday, November 27, 2003

Thanksgiving Long Ago With the Mary L. Reid Hood Family

The distinctly American holiday, Thanksgiving, is an important time for families. We gather to share a wonderful meal celebrating the bounty of harvest. Turkey and dressing are part of the main course, as are delectable vegetables attesting to the yields from cultivated gardens and fields. We recall blessings of the year and pay tribute to the long tradition of Thanksgiving going back to the gathering of Pilgrims and Indians in early American history. Indeed, we are so blessed, and gratitude abounds for our abundance, health, happiness, togetherness as families.

And well it should, for Thanksgiving Day is a day to count blessings. My personal philosophy is that every day is a day for giving thanks. But sometimes when we consider the hardships of our forebears, we can empathize with the conditions that were far from ideal.

Such is the true story that came to me recently from the pen of Claudia Carol Thomas-Alexander of Fayetteville, Georgia. She is an avid genealogist, and has compiled a book dedicated to the memory of her great grandmother, Mary L. Reid Hood and her seven children, the sixth of whom, Claudia Cornelia Hood Fair, is Carol’s grandmother from whom she heard the accounts of Mary Reid Hood and what she knew of Mary’s husband, Richard Jarrett Hood. Carol Thomas-Alexander was able to find another descendant of Richard Jarrett Hood to fill in the missing parts of her great grandfather’s life, and that we shall see as this story develops.

But I’m getting ahead in this account and must give details so that you may know why Thanksgiving in 1895 was such a sad time for Mary Reid Hood and her children.

Mary Reid was born October 19, 1855. Her parents were Levi Q. and Martha Ann Beach Reid. It is believed Mary was born in White County, Georgia. On December 12, 1875, Mary Reid and Richard Jarrett Hood were married in Union County, Georgia. Richard Jarrett, eldest son of William Jackson and Celia M. Turner Hood, was born in the Pendleton District of South Carolina in 1854. His family had migrated from South Carolina to Union County, Georgia.

It is not known just how Mary Reid and Richard Jarrett Hood met, but it may have been as he went through White County taking goods along the Logan Turnpike to trade in Gainesville, Georgia.

After their marriage in 1875, Richard Jarrett and Mary Reid Hood set up housekeeping in the “upper” Choestoe District around Hood’s Chapel (now Union Church) somewhere near the present Richard Russell Scenic Highway. Richard Jarrett Hood had a country store and the Choestoe post office at his home. He was known to drive cattle to Gainesville for sale and also to take a herd into South Carolina to market. On these trading ventures, he would bring back supplies to his country store for sale. Mary helped him “tend” the store and care for their farm.

Seven children were born to this couple: Sarah Ida (b. 1877); Laura L. (b. 1879); Zona Belle (b. 1883); Cora Lode (b. 1884); Jessie Mae (b. 1886); Claudia Cornelia (b. 1889); and Talmadge J. (b. 1892).

Claudia Cornelia Hood Fair (their sixth child) told Claudia Carol Thomas, her granddaughter, the fond memories she had of her father, Richard Jarrett Hood. As he prepared to leave on a journey in 1895 to take cattle to market in South Carolina, she recalls that he and her mother had a long conversation before he left. He took Claudia, his then six-year old daughter, into the store and picked out a pretty hat from the shelf with navy ribbon decorations. He asked Claudia’s mother to allow him to take Claudia with him on the cattle-selling trip, but her mother would not agree. Claudia Cornelia remembers that her father held her in his arms for a long time before he left, shedding many tears. She recalls how they watched him going down the road from their Choestoe home, driving the cattle. A sense of sadness fell over the family at this particular departure.

In the days ahead, they watched and watched, yearning for his return. But that was the last the family saw of Richard Jarrett Hood. Her mother told the seven children that he must have fallen into trouble, perhaps from robbers who stole the cattle and murdered him.

That first Thanksgiving without Richard Jarrett Hood was a sad time for Mary Reid Hood and her seven children. Ida was then 18, Laura 16, Zona 12, Cora 11, Jessie Mae 10, Claudia 6, and the only son, Talmadge, a little tyke of 3. Claudia Cornelia remembered that her mother fell into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. Jesssie Mae was sick at the time of her father’s departure and died of tuberculosis in 1902. Talmadge died in 1904, probably from leukemia. Claudia Cornelia remembers that her mother “died of a broken heart” on May 8, 1905. All three were laid to rest in the Union (formerly Hood’s Chapel) Church Cemetery in Upper Choestoe, Union County, Georgia.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Nov. 27, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

More Reflections on Byron Herbert Reece (Part 4 in Series)

Byron Herbert Reece’s advice to me (“Don’t hide your light under a bushel”) could have been reminiscent of his own case, for he had written for several years before his literary talents were discovered by Kentucky poet Jesse Stuart who summarily sent poems by Reece to E. P. Dutton Publishers in New York.

In my senior year of high school, under the leadership of my teachers Mrs. Grapelle Mock and Mrs. Elizabeth Elliott, I memorized portions of Reece’s long free verse poem, “Choestoe,” and gave it as a dramatic monologue at the Georgia Beta Club Convention in Atlanta. So Reece, in a sense, was the reason behind my life-long love for poetry. Many times since, I have given that same poem as a reading before groups.

Beset by tuberculosis which took his mother Emma’s life on August 30, 1954, and also afflicted his father, Reece suffered declining health in his last years of life. When he went to Battey State Hospital in Rome for treatment, the neighbors heard how he despised staying there. He left without permission and discharge after about four months of treatment. He headed out toward home, getting there before Christmas.

To help make ends meet financially from the farm work, he became a poet-in-residence, teaching terms at University of California at Los Angeles, at Emery University in Atlanta, at Young Harris College, and at the University of Georgia.

Over the decade of his most productive work, 1945-1955, when he published four volumes of verse and two novels, he was twice winner of the Guggenheim Fellowship for writers and won the Literary Achievement Award for Poetry. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, but did not receive it.

Reece's health broke under the triple demands of dirt farmer, college adjunct professor, and writer. What he longed for was the quiet atmosphere along Wolf Creek near Blood Mountain where he could pursue his writing career.

When Reece took his own life on June 3, 1958 at Young Harris College, my husband and I lived in nearby Hiawassee, Georgia where Grover was pastor of McConnell Memorial Baptist Church. We heard the news of Reece’s death with disbelief.

I personally went through a grievous period of “What If’s?” and “Why’s” Why had we not kept in touch with Reece? Why did he not let us know of his personal suffering?

My husband Grover had skills in counseling. I kept thinking he could have helped Reece. Did Reece not know that I, his long-time neighbor from Choestoe, could have given him a listening ear, helped him to find solutions? And so for several weeks following the poet’s untimely death, I had a sense of failure, of not having reached out enough to aid him.

The Byron Herbert Reece Society was formed to help increase interest in and knowledge of the mountain poet.

From that time on, I began to study his poetry and prose avidly. I made scrapbooks of clippings about him. Later, I would write articles about him, lead workshops on his life and works. I helped to launch the Byron Herbert Reece International Poetry Awards sponsored by the Georgia Poetry Society in his memory. I suggested that the Poetry Society’s anthology of prize-winning poems from members be named The Reach of Song to honor Reece’s memory. Through these means, the knowledge of and love for his works will grow.

When I served as state president of the Georgia Library Media Department, my husband Grover and I talked to Ken Boyd of Cherokee Publishing Company about his company securing the copyright from Dutton and the Reece books and republishing them. This republication feat, gratefully, was accomplished by Cherokee Publishers in 1985. That company had already published Dr. Raymond A. Cook’s excellent biography of Reece: Mountain Singer: The Life and Legacy of Byron Herbert Reece in 1980.

When my two children were growing up, I took them by the Reece homeplace frequently. I read Reece’s poems to them. Keith, having more of a literary bent than his sister Cynthia, became enamored with Reece’s words. Both he and I have written poems about Reece. We were honored to participate on October 14, 2003 in National Poetry Day at the state capitol to read Reece’s poems. I read “Invocation” and “Choestoe” and Keith read “Elbows on the Sky” and “Ballad of the Bones.”

The Byron Herbert Reece Society is an organization that can perpetuate the memory of our mountain poet and instill in present and future generations a love for his poetry and prose.

Plans are in the making to turn the Reece homeplace and farm into a cultural and interpretive center. When this goal of the Society becomes a reality, there on the banks of Wolf Creek under the shadow of Blood Mountain on soil that knew the toil of poet/farmer Reece, people will again hear strains of his poetry and be inspired by the atmosphere he wove so adeptly into his literary works.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Nov. 20, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Some Personal Reflections on Byron Herbert Reece (Part 3 in Series)

Bud Hill of Hill-Vue Farms, Blairsville, first contacted me about the newly-formed Byron Herbert Reece Society. Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from Dr. John Kay of Young Harris College, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Society. He invited me to serve on the Society’s Advisory Board.

Those with an interest in Reece and his works and the purposes of the Society may go online at to learn more and get a form for joining. This first year, 2003-2004, is the charter membership year.

In the membership application, I was invited to give some reminiscences about the poet and why I was interested in supporting the aims of the Society and perpetuating his works. Following are some of my comments:

Up until (and after) Byron Herbert Reece’s first book of poems, Ballad of the Bones, published in 1945, Hub Reece, as his family and friends called him, was a neighboring farmer close to my father’s farm in the Choestoe District of Union County, Georgia.

True, we had sometimes read an occasional poem by Reece published in the Union County newspaper in the early 1940’s. I knew, too, that he was two years older than my sister, Louise. One day at Union County High School, both of them missed the afternoon bus. They walked together the entire eight miles southward along Highway 129 from school to their homes in Choestoe. They were near dark or after getting home and my parents were greatly concerned about Louise. However, they took her word, and Hub’s, who accompanied Louise to her house, that they had been busy with a project after school and had simply “missed the bus.” There were no telephones in Choestoe in those days so they could call home explaining their dilemma. In the vernacular of the mountains, their only choice was to “foot it home.” That they did, with Louise having Hub as her companion and protector on that long walk.

In 1945, something happened to draw our attention to neighbor Hub Reece. The Atlanta Constitution, to which my father, J. Marion Dyer, faithfully subscribed, began printing reviews about Hub’s book, Ballad of the Bones. None other than the noted editor, Ralph McGill himself, wrote columns praising the “poet of the mountains.”

Some of the articles we read in The Atlanta Constitution were not as complimentary as those by Mr. McGill. Reviews in the Sunday paper often implied that this mountain man might have plagiarized his poems. With such ability evident in the poems, and yet from one so limited in formal education, it was not likely, the critics wrote, that he could have produced poetry of the caliber of that bearing Reece’s byline. However, we at the Dyer household knew the integrity and honesty of the Reece family, our neighbors. The poet would never pass off as his own something he had copied from someone else.

Farmer-turned-poet, Byron Herbert Reece gathering corn on his Wolf Creek Farm, Choestoe, Union County, Georgia, about 1946.

We had in our midst not just a neighbor farmer, someone I had known all my life, but a literary person of notable stature, receiving both accolades and criticism. From then on, we, his neighbors, stood in awe of him, viewed him in a completely different light. A genius lived among us and we were proud to know him. Yet he continued as humble and unaffected by the acclaim as before his national debut as a literary figure of note.

When I visited him with my high school teacher, Mrs. Grapelle Mock, to interview him for the school’s page in our local newspaper, I approached him with a sense of awe and shyness even though I had known him all my life. Now he was more than a neighbor with whom we passed the time of day, talking about crops, the weather, the health of his parents Juan and Emma Reece, or commenting on World War II (as we had during that conflict and when my brother Eugene lay critically injured in a hospital somewhere in Italy). Now Reece was somebody—a famous person. He had climbed in status through the words he penned from lowly farmer to literary giant.

He never let his fame go to his head. He remained humble and reclusive, preferring not to be in the limelight. In that interview, I shyly told him that I liked to try my hand at writing poetry. I had recently presented my first sonnet and another lyrical poem in my high school English class. His advice to me, a teenaged aspiring writer, was biblical and fitting: “Don’t hide your light under a bushel,” he said.

[Next week: More personal reflections on Poet Byron Herbert Reece.]

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Nov. 13, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 6, 2003

Poet Jesse Stuart Assisted Poet Reece (Part 2 in Series)

The Prairie Schooner, literary magazine of the University of Nebraska Press, published Byron Herbert Reece’s poem “Choestoe” in the spring issue, 1944. But it was Reece’s ballad, “Lest the Lonesome Bird,” published in that magazine in 1943 that caught and held the attention of poet Jesse Stuart of Kentucky.

Reece, who was still feeling the blunt of rejection for World War II enlistment because of what he termed a “nervous tic in his face,” was feeling lonely and isolated on his Choestoe farm. It was amidst this loneliness, his care for his sick parents, and the heavy farming duties that he received a letter from Poet Jesse Stuart inviting Reece to send him more poems.

Form a picture of another Appalachian poet sitting on a potato box in the combination store/post office in Kentucky, oblivious to those milling about him, reading a sheaf of poems that Reece sent him and recognizing the genius and ability of the poet.

Stuart later stated that he considered “The Ballad of the Rider” one of the best ballads he had read by an American poet. Commenting on the ballads and short lyrical poems Reece had sent him for evaluation, Stuart stated: “He hadn’t written just so many meaningless lines but he had written lyrical ballads with beauty and power. He had written poetry akin to the sixteenth and seventeenth English and the early Irish poets.” (Quoted on p. 36 in Raymond Cook’s biography, Mountain Singer, 1980).

Published poet Jesse Stuart of Kentucky introduced Reece's poems to publisher, E. P. Dutton of New York, and thus assisted Reece to have his first book, Ballad of the Bones, published in 1945.

Stuart asked Reece if he might take the ballads and poems to his own publisher, E. P. Dutton of New York. Reece granted his permission, although with some doubts as to the outcome, as noted in a letter to his friend, Phillip Greear: “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” (Cook, p. 36)

Poet Byron Herbert Reece was mowing hay on his farm when three advance copies of Ballad of the Bones arrived from publisher E. P. Dutton on Reece's 28th birthday, Sept. 14, 1945.

Dutton Company did accept the poems for publication and tried to reach Reece by phone, but there was no telephone at the Reece farm. The announcement came by letter. He completed another long poem in November, 1942, “Ballad of the Bones,” based on the account in Ezekiel 37 from the Bible. He showed the ballad to his mother, Emma. She got a ride to Blairsville and took the ballad to Charles Bartholomew, editor of The Union County Citizen. Emma had commented to her son, “It’s something!” Bartholomew said to Reece’s mother: “It’s too wonderful to be true!” (Cook, p. 40)

The new ballad became both the title and the first poem in his first book, Ballad of the Bones, published by E. P. Dutton. On his twenty-eighth birthday, September 14, 1945, he received in the mail three advance copies of the book. He was mowing a hay field when his mother called him to the house about 11 a. m. He was pleased with the book and showed his parents that it was dedicated to them.

In the afternoon, no doubt with a lighter heart, he went back to his task of mowing. In November of that year the book was released by Dutton and immediately met with national acclaim. Poets such as William Rose Benet, John Gould Fletcher, John Hall Wheelock, and Alfred Kreyemborg praised his depth of perception and lyrical acumen. The book sold well, in first and second printings, and by January, 1946, Dutton had produced a third printing.

He was on his way to fame as a poet. Dutton published three more volumes of his poetry: Bow Down in Jericho (1950); A Song of Joy (1952); and The Season of Flesh (1955).

Working also in the novel genre, Reece produced two novels published by Dutton: Better a Dinner of Herbs (1950) and The Hawk and the Sun (1955). In ten years from 1945 through 1955 his publication number for books totaled six, an achievement of note for any writer and especially for a farmer-poet in Union County, Georgia.

[Next week: More on the life and times of Byron Herbert Reece, Part 3]

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Nov. 6, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.