Thursday, December 18, 2003

Good Old-Fashioned Christmases

For all of you who have become faithful readers since July 31, 2003 when “Through Mountain Mists” first appeared in this paper, Happy Christmas. Go with me on a personal journey to Christmases Past. May this odyssey through the mists to a simpler time bring to your mind remembrances of good Christmases of decades ago.

When I was a child I did not give much thought to what went into Christmas except for my want list and a special time of year that seemed a long time in coming. In retrospect, I can understand how hard it must have been for my parents and other kin to provide a good holiday season from the want and penury often experienced during the days of the Great Depression and World War II.

Christmas celebrations hinged around the local school and church. I went to a two-teacher country school, Choestoe, and there in the “little room” (primer through third grades) and the “big room” (fourth through seventh grades), preparations were made by our diligent teachers to make our school Christmas program a special time. I went to the “new” Choestoe School, a building erected in 1936 just in time for me to begin first grade there. It had the unusual feature of a removable partition between the two classrooms, and for special occasions like the Christmas play (or the commencement program at the end of the school year), the partitions were taken down and one large room was formed with a movable stage set against the windows on the north side of the building. There, after days of rehearsing, we performed our Christmas recitations and pageant to a packed house of parents who came to proudly own their children who were in the limelight. I remember some of those teachers who worked with us: Mrs. Mert Shuler, Miss Mary Dyer, and my own sister, Mrs. Louise Dyer, with the primary groups; Miss Opal Sullivan, Mrs. Florence Hunter, and Mrs. Bonnie Snow with upper grades. There were others, of course, but these were teachers for various years I was a student at Choestoe School. We “drew” names and got an inexpensive gift for the person whose name we drew. My gift usually came from my Grandpa Bud Collins’s country store, or else my dad, J. Marion Dyer, would make a trip to Blairsville to “buy Christmas.”

The larger boys had been to somebody’s woods and cut a pine tree, and part of the preparation was making colored paper chains to decorate the tree and stringing popcorn the teacher had brought from home. There were no lights to illuminate the tree, because Choestoe School did not then have electricity. How the teachers managed to get small gifts for each of their children on the meager salary they drew is a mystery to me. I remember pencils with our name imprinted, a pencil box, and small paper bags with candy and an orange or apple. We went home from the school Christmas program feeling good from our performance, the accolades it brought, and our little gifts.

The church Christmas program was not much different from that at school except that our pageant was always a reenactment of the Christmas Story from Luke and Matthew. How all the girls longed to be Mary or angels. If not selected for these parts, we were in the choir to sing Christmas carols or had a special poem to learn and recite. To forget lines, either at school or at church, was an anxious fear. If it happened, we were embarrassed. At church as well as at school, we drew names for giving gifts, and we could expect a bag of goodies from our Sunday School teachers at church.

I cannot remember Santa Claus ever appearing at any of my childhood school and church programs. Maybe some areas had this jolly old Saint Nick, but we did not at Choestoe. Perhaps it was too hard to come by a red suit back then.

At home, our Christmas celebrations were simple. We children could expect one gift from Santa and some candy and fruits in our stockings “hung by the chimney with care.” At Christmas oranges were a once-a-year treat. Dad also purchased boxes of stick candy--peppermint, licorice, and horehound. We sometimes had the rare treat of “cocolate drops” or Hershey’s kisses.

I can remember the Christmas when my little brother Bluford got a “Radio Flyer” wagon as his major gift. Earlier, when I was five, I got a beautiful China doll I had spied pictured in the Sears-Roebuck catalog. I yearned for that doll with a passion and wrote more than one letter to Santa requesting it. Although I was only five, that was the same Christmas I learned that Santa had a very special helper in my father, because on the box the doll came in was his writing: “To Ethelene from Santa.” He must have forgotten that I already knew how to read, even though I had not been to school. I knew it was he who had labeled my special gift. I kept the knowledge of Santa to myself for at least three more years, fearing that if I let the secret out I might not get the Christmas gifts I yearned for.

Christmas holiday meals were interchanged between Grandpa Collins’ home and Grandma Dyer’s home, always with a large crowd of family at both places. Maybe my mother took food, too. I don’t remember. These were solid meals but not necessarily fancy. We grew turkeys for market, and at Christmas one was prepared for the meal. Wonderful country-cured ham was also a part of the meal as were the dried fruits and preserved vegetables from our bountiful harvest.

We had candy-pullings as community holiday parties. My older sister Louise and my older brother Eugene sometimes hosted these events with other young people from the community invited. The sorghum syrup, with baking soda added, was boiled to a certain consistency noted by letting a drop fall into a cup of cold water. Then the candy was beaten for awhile until it was cool enough to take in hand and pull and pull. The sorghum candy was twisted into sticks, and later cut. It was a tasty treat. Especially delightful were the popcorn balls made with the sorghum syrup cooked to candy consistency to hold the popped corn together. Roasted chestnuts, chinquapins, and peanuts added to the refreshments at Christmas socials in the community, and sugar cookies and gingerbread men were also enjoyed.

In that simple time we didn’t notice that we could not afford all the goodies displayed in the Sears-Roebuck catalog. To have one special gift and really appreciate it was treasure enough and to be surrounded by the love of family and friends was a true Christmas treat.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 18, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

A Brutal Murder, A Son's Promise, and the Truth: A Book Review of Blood Mountain Covenant by Charles E. Hill

James "Jim Washington Lance (1/31/1961 - 9/2-1940)

Blood Mountain Covenant: A Son's Revenge by Charles L. Hill
explores a century-old murder in Union County.

Many mists have fallen over Blood and Slaughter Mountains and gathered like a shroud along Wolf Creek as it meanders through Lance Cove in Choestoe District, Union County, Georgia in the 113 years since a notorious murder rocked the peace-loving settlement and set in motion a quest that has extended to the present time.

Questions about the dastardly deed lingered for decades in the minds of those who knew the Reverend John H. Lance, brutally murdered on February 17, 1890, and his body with his head almost dismembered, left lying beside Wolf Creek, his life-blood flowing away and mixing with the cold waters of the swift mountain stream.

Bereft of a beloved husband, a caring father, and a minister known for his unapologetic proclamation of Biblical truth, his wife, children, extended family, neighbors and friends gathered to comfort one another, to prepare the desecrated body for burial, and to attend to the details of the funeral at Old Salem Methodist Church.

The eldest son of the murdered man, James Washington Lance, hurt beyond consolation, made a solemn covenant not to rest until the perpetrators of the crime were brought to justice. Truth has a way of hiding. Sometimes it is concealed by those who tell only half-truths, and thereby can justify their stand. At other times truth is evasive, overpowered by personal agendas and veiled, as mountains are with thick mists and fogs, until a slant of sunlight, like truth with the ability to set free, penetrates half-truths and outright lies, making a straight path to lucidity.

Blood Mountain Covenant: A Son’s Revenge written by Charles E. Hill, grandson-in-law of Jim Lance, took up the torch seeking revealed truth. He left no stones unturned in his relentless pursuit of the answers to the murder of his wife’s great grandfather, the Rev. John H. Lance. He credits those who gave him valuable information and encouragement in the meticulous research and tireless hours spent in producing the book, recently released by Ivy House Publishing Group. The biography reads like a novel, and any interested in a story that has become legend in the mountains of North Georgia will thrill that Jacquelyn Lance Hill and her husband, author and retired pharmacist Charles E. Hill, relentlessly pursued the covenant, as did Jacquelyn’s grandfather, Jim Lance, until revealed truth shone through the mists of time.

The book depicts a proud and independent people. Though mainly dealing with the Lance family of Lance Cove, Choestoe District, the characteristics Hill so aptly captures as he introduces those who play important roles in the biographical account of a mountain man and his son seeking revenge, the book paints a picture of a place and a people who are solid to the core, as local poet and cousin to the Lances, Byron Herbert Reece, stated in his poem, “Choestoe”: “Yes, Sprung from the hard earth, nurtured by hard labor.” That describes the people there, and Hill shows them to be just that, honest to the core, dependable to the end, hard-working, hard-hitting, the salt-of-the earth.

The murder was all about moonshine liquor and those who owned the still believing that the Rev. Lance reported them to the revenuers, resulting in the downfall of their income-producing business. Unable to accept that Rev. Lance and his family, although despising “the devil’s brew,” would not report their neighbors, the minister was ambushed, killed and his murdered body left beside Wolf Creek.

Jim Lance, eldest son of the murdered man, had the major responsibility of securing lawyers, Virgil Marion Waldroop and William E. “Buck” Candler, for the prosecution, and for contacting various witnesses who in some way could give testimony in the trial. Lawyers for the defense of Frank Swaim and his younger brother, Newt, were Carl J. Wellborn, Jr. and M. G. Boyd. Presiding judge over the trial was Carl J. Wellborn, Sr.

After a trial that drew crowds of people to the Union County court house in April of 1890, Frank Swaim was convicted of the murder of the Rev. John H. Lance and given life imprisonment at hard labor. However, he received a pardon after serving thirteen years, with the appeal based mainly upon conviction from only circumstantial evidence. Following Swaim’s release, he went west. In 1925, an article entitled “A True Story of the Georgia Mountains” written by Swaim’s defense lawyer, Carl J. Wellborn, Jr., was published in the Atlanta Constitution. That gave rise to the belief in the “death-bed confession” of Fed Cannup, accessory to the crime. How Hill unravels the fabrications and half-truths of the article published as truth shows his mastery at research. The book moves with both passion and compassion, until the reader can hardly wait until the mystery is unraveled.

Charles E. Hill has accomplished a masterful job in his book. The dialogue, though imagined by the author, is authentic to the mountain vernacular speech. His descriptions of places and depictions of people are true to the setting and the independent spirit of the mountain people. Revenge is not an easy theme to treat. Neither is a century-old murder committed long before the days of DNA and other forensic evidence led to easier solutions. But Hill has accomplished what Jim Lance stated in his 1890 covenant: “It is our job to separate the chaff from the wheat, the true from the untrue, and it will be done.” (p. 154)

I highly recommend this book. If you love the land and the people, as do I, you will eagerly read Hill’s account of the characters appearing in the pages of this true story. You will check historical documents and the resources he lists to see the relationships of those playing a role in the drama. The book is valuable for an authentic historical view of the turbulent times following the Civil War and of how people coped with the hardships of daily living as well as the trauma of a violent and inane murder. You may even want to find the location of Reece Fields and Lance Cove, and wander beside Wolf Creek as its waters still flow swiftly to the Gulf, their message over the rocks echoing the Biblical axiom, “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord.” (Heb. 12:19b; Deut 32:35a). And sometimes God chooses time, the right time, to see that vengeance is wrought, even if more than a century after the fact.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 11, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 4, 2003

Whatever Happened to Richard Jarrett Hood?

Three of the seven children born to Mary Reid Hood and Richard Jarrett Hood: Claudia C; (the mother, Mary, seated); Talmadge J.; and Cora Lode Hood. Jessie Mae died in 1902. Ida, Laura and Zona were not present when this family picture was taken.
Last week’s account of the Mary L. Reid Hood family noted that Mary’s husband, Richard Jarrett Hood, left on a cattle drive from Upper Choestoe to South Carolina sometime in 1895 and was never heard from again by his wife and seven children.

Carol Thomas-Alexander, a great granddaughter, persisted in finding the facts and, together with the help of other kin, has solved the mystery of Richard Jarrett Hood.

She writes in her Hood family history book: “There were many theories about his disappearance. Mary thought he had...been murdered, which is what she told her children...There was conversation in the community that a local resident in South Georgia had seen him, but nothing was ever proven from this sighting.”
Mrs. Thomas-Alexander tells how Elbert Carlyle (E. C.) Sanders (d 2002), a newspaperman, editor and owner of The Rockmart Journal, until his retirement in 1980, made a trip to Blairsville in the late 1980's seeking information about his grandfather, Richard Jarrett Hood, who died in Pembroke, Georgia in 1932 and was interred at the Beulah Baptist Church Cemetery there. It seems the most Mr. Sanders knew about his grandfather was that he had lived in Union County, Georgia before relocating in South Carolina and then moving to Pembroke, Georgia.

E. C. Sanders talked to Dexter Fair, a son of Claudia Hood Fair. She was the six-year old child Richard Jarrett Hood seemed most reluctant to leave behind in Choestoe when he left in 1895, never to be heard from again by his family in Union County. No record was made of the conversation between Fair and Sanders, both, as it turned out, grandsons of Mr. Hood. However, in 2000, Carol Thomas-Alexander made contact with Mr. Sanders in Rockmart and proceeded to unravel the mystery of Richard Jarrett Hood’s “double” life.

When Hood left Union County, he evidently had no intention of returning. He ended up in Barnwell, S. C. where he married Eudora Cave about 1893. He and Eudora had one child, a daughter, whom he gave the same name as his beloved daughter back in Union County. The South Carolina daughter, Claudia Cornelia Hood, was born September 18, 1894. Evidently, without benefit of a divorce by Jarrett from his Union County, Georgia wife, Mary L. Reid Hood, he had married in South Carolina and a child was born to him and Eudora before he officially left Choestoe.

From South Carolina, the Hood family moved to Pembroke, Georgia. There Richard Jarrett Hood was a sawmill operator and active in local politics, serving as a Justice of the Peace and mayor of the town for two terms. When Georgia Power was ready to string lines for electricity to Pembroke and the surrounding area, Richard Jarrett Hood was active in bringing this forward step to the small town.

Mr. Sanders told Carol Thomas-Alexander that his grandfather never returned to North Georgia nor did any Hood family members ever visit them in Pembroke. No mail was exchanged, but he remembered a Mr. M. D. Collins visiting the Hood family in the late 1920's. (This person, as we know, was Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins, noted Georgia educator state superintendent of schools for 25 years, and Choestoe native).

Mr. E. C. Sanders told his newly-found cousin, granddaughter of the Union County Claudia Cornelia Hood Fair, that his grandfather, Richard Jarrett Hood “was not a happy person and seemed to have a distant look on his face...which he thought was guilt that went to his grave with him.”

The one child borne by Hood’s second wife, Eudora, was artistic and musical. She played the piano for the United Methodist Church in Pembroke for over 60 years and was a noted piano teacher, director of school choral groups, and played for civic events, funerals, weddings and community and church programs. She married Henry M. Sanders, a printer and typesetter for The Savannah Free Press and they had five sons, Elbert, Marion, Robert, Jimmy, and Gene. This Claudia Cornelia Hood Sanders lived to the ripe age of 90, dying January 20, 1989. She was buried in the Northside Cemetery, Pembroke.

The Choestoe Claudia Cornelia Hood (April 8, 1889-Sept. 10, 1958) married John David Fair (1874-1936). They had seven children: Annie Lee, Jessie Mae, Charles Winford, Fannie Bell, Clifford Leon, Eurah Vee, and William Dexter. Their fourth child, Fannie Bell, was Carol Thomas-Alexander’s mother. Carol writes of her grandmother Claudia: “She was a quiet, composed, well-mannered person, a devoted mother and grandmother...Her creative nature enabled her to be a great storyteller, a wonderful clothes designer, an excellent seamstress and a writer of poetry, among many other gifts.” John and Claudia Fair were interred at Providence Methodist Church Cemetery, Union County.

E. C. Sanders remembered his mother, the other Claudia Cornelia Hood Sanders, as a loving and giving person, one who touched countless lives with her music, her ready smile and her Christian influence.

The adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction” is certainly borne out in the Richard Jarrett Hood story.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 4, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.