Friday, December 21, 2007

The Country Store and Christmas

Before I begin today’s topic of the former Country Store and its part in helping people to celebrate Christmas, I have another correction to make. Setting the record straight is important to me. I appreciate so much Mrs. Shirley Summerour Brackett writing and calling me to tell me that she was a member of the Class of 1951, the last one from Union County High School to graduate from the eleventh grade (as was my brother, the late Bluford Marion Dyer). Shirley reminded me that there was not a graduating class in 1952, but in 1953 the first class graduated from the twelfth grade. I’m sorry for my “arithmetic” being off by a year, and my not allowing for the time needed to get that Class of 1953 through the added grade. Thanks, Shirley, sister of my classmate, Kathryn Summerour Bachelor (Kathryn and I were in the Class of 1947, four years before the twelfth grade was instituted).

Now to some thoughts on how the country store of long ago helped neighborhood people have a happy Christmas.

My best remembrance of a country store was one operated by my maternal grandfather, Francis Jasper Collins, better known as “Bud.” My first recollection of his country store was of a large, rambling building right on the road, now named Liberty Church Road. The outside of the store building was gray and weathered.

A set of scales sat on the porch. On these scales, my Grandfather and my maiden aunts, Avery and Ethel, who worked as clerks in the store, weighed the live chickens that country people brought to barter for goods. After weighing the chickens (in coops), and subtracting the weight of the coop, the clerks calculated how much “money” was available for trade. They turned the chickens loose in a pen lined and ceiled with chicken wire at the side of the store. There the chickens would be fed and watered until Grandfather went to Gainesville to trade them for a load of goods for the store.

I’m not sure when this old gray building was torn down and a new smaller store building built closer to the house. Seeing the old storehouse go seemed to me, even as a young child, to be the passing of an era. I loved that old store building with its long counters and all the merchandise that sat on the shelves to be purchased by people who brought chickens and eggs, tanned skins of animals, chestnuts, chinquapins, and sorghum syrup to be traded for “store-bought” goods. The barter helped them to get coffee, sugar, salt, baking powder, spices, shoes, and yard goods from which dresses and shirts were made by industrious housewives of the community. Men’s overalls, work shirts and socks were part of the inventory. And the glassed-in candy counter boasted chocolate drops, sugared orange slices, and peppermint and licorice stick candy in boxes or to be purchased for a penny by the stick! What an enticement this array of candy was to my young eyes! I can remember Grandfather reaching into the counter and getting a chocolate drop to give me, even if I didn’t have the penny to pay for it.

The “new” store had a front porch as well, with the usual scales to the left of the entrance door. The chicken pen was attached to the right side of the store, outside. In my young eyes, the procedures at the “new” store had not changed much. But the building itself was smaller, perhaps handier to the house so my aunts would not have such a hill to climb as they did getting to the old store when the cowbell, hanging outside the door, rang to announce the presence of customers (for the store was not open all the time, but just when someone needed its services).

I remember with fondness the time I was allowed to go to Gainesville in my Grandfather’s truck. Garnie Fortenberry was the driver for Grandfather Bud’s trips. My father, J. Marion Dyer, was going on this trip, and wonder of wonders, at age about six, I was allowed to go along, sitting on my father’s lap all the way across Neal Gap, by Cleveland, and on to Gainesville. The trip could be accomplished in a long day, before sunup until sundown, in the truck. Before the opening of this highway (129) in 1925, the trip by wagon over the Logan Turnpike and Tesnatee Gap had consumed a week’s time. But we were now “modern,” with a narrow paved road and in Grandpa’s faithful truck.

I had never ridden over Neal Gap before, nor had I ever been to the city of Gainesville. I was not prepared for how “car sick” I became that morning as the truck rumbled along the mountainous road. Dad told me to close my eyes and not watch the scenery that seemed to be moving as the truck chugged along, loaded with coops of chickens, cases of eggs and other items to trade in Gainesville as Grandfather bought merchandise to replenish his store. We stopped a couple of times along the way at homes of people my Grandfather knew. At Ravan’s on the south side of Neal Gap, and at another house south of Cleveland.

I shall never forget that day in Gainesville. While Grandfather and Garnie went to Parks Wholesale and other dealerships around Gainesville, my dad “showed” me the town. He took me to see my first-ever moving picture show. It was a western, the title of which I can’t recall. I thought the horses on the screen were going to come right out and run over us as we sat in the theater. Then we went to Woolworth’s “Five and Dime” store on the square. There we ate at the lunch counter, where I got my first taste of Coca Cola (I didn’t like it then!) and a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. Dad let me shop, limiting my purchases to $1, from the laden counters of Woolworth’s treasures. From the small amount of my allowance, quite a bit in 1936, I purchased a locked diary and pen for myself and a small toy car for my little brother, Bluford. When he got a little bigger, we could also both play with the set of pick-up-sticks that finished out my purchases.

This trip was near Christmas, and Grandfather had remembered to buy some simple toys like China dolls and Chinese checker sets which the country folk could buy for holiday gifts. He also found a variety of hard candies for his glassed-in candy counter in the new store. There were also bags of oranges and mixed nuts which he would sell for Christmas treats.

It did not seem to matter at all to the children of Choestoe community when they awoke on Christmas morning to find their stockings containing an orange from the Collins country store and nuts like pecans and English walnuts not grown in the woods near their homes. Somehow, Santa had been helped along with his magical bag by stopping at the country store to replenish his gifts.

Overabundance was not a concept we knew in those days. But the necessities of life were somehow available, thanks to the efforts of persons like Grandpa “Bud” Collins who ran a country store. With the gifts received, we felt a deep appreciation and a sense of wonder and surprise. Little was much when love was in it.

May your Christmas be filled with joy transcendent and may 2007 bring you renewed hope.

c 2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 21, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The poor man's friend (A story of Christmas past)

The wind whipped around the side of the boxcar as Cyril Townsend jumped from the open doorway. He hoped none of the railroad workers at the Blue Ridge, Georgia depot would see him as he alighted. He had boarded the northbound train in Atlanta under cover of early morning darkness without benefit of ticket.

In fact, if he had been caught as a stowaway, he might have been immediately returned to state prison where he had spent the last three years of his life. He did not want another prison sentence, especially one not deserved. Because he would not turn state's evidence, he had been blamed for a crime he did not commit. Three years of convict labor was enough to do him for a lifetime. But then again, loyalty to friends was a long suit he wore with pride, even during the burning days of summer and the frigid days of winter as he worked on the chain gang.

The year was 1910. The time was December 24, Christmas Eve. Cyril Townsend had lost track of time, but he learned the date as he read the headline of the paper in the Atlanta depot. He was eager to get back to the mountains of North Georgia. Maybe there he could find refuge and some work that would help him to get readjusted to his freedom.

As he moved nonchalantly through the regular passengers that alighted from the train in Blue Ridge, he could not help but note their apparel, warm and appropriate for the winter weather that even now threatened snow. Most of them had trunks that were unloaded from the baggage cars. Black porters from the local hotels and some servants from the more notable residences in Blue Ridge were there with carriages to meet the travelers.

Others waited to board the train for its journey on to Murphy, NC and into burgeoning towns in Tennessee. "Coming home for Christmas or going away for Christmas," Cyril Townsend said to no one in particular. His main aim was to keep away from public notice and gain a little perspective about his next move.

He was hungry. And cold. What would he do for food? Steal again? He did not relish the recollection of stealing from a clothesline down in Georgia the overalls and shirt he wore or the coat he had found hanging across a seat in the Atlanta depot. He was too near home to risk arrest from stealing, a practice his upbringing had always taught him was wrong. Even the dire circumstances he had been in did not calm his conscience from the thefts he had committed.

He decided to go to the back door of the Blue Ridge Hotel. Maybe there they would have a handout of leftover food for a starved traveler. As he approached the rear of the hotel, he was met by a large black man. Dared he ask him for food? He hoped he would not get the porter into trouble by doing so. Cyril devided he wouldn't lose anything by asking.

"I've come a long way and I don't have any money to buy food," Cyril Townsend said. "Do you have any leftovers in the hotel kitchen that you could give to a poor, starving traveler?"

"We've just had a big banquet," the hotel worker said. "Wait a minute. Sit here on the porch and I'll bring you a plate."

Within minutes the porter returned with a steaming plate of ham and yams, cranberry sauce and beans, bread and hot coffee. Cyril Townsend bowed his head in gratitude and thanked the Lord for such provision. This act o fkindness was restoring his faith in mankind. Maybe life on the outside of prison wouldn't be such a hard road, after all. He thanked the porter for his kindness. After eating, Cyril decided to wander back to the railroad depot.

No sooner had he walked to the rail yard than he saw a farmer with a covered wagon. The farmer was unloading gallons of sorghum syrup onto a boxcar and still had sacks of grain in his wagon to unload. A clerk on the boxcar was keeping a record of the produce.

"Hello," Cyril said to the farmer. "Could you use some help transporting your goods to the boxcar?"

"As a matter of fact, I could," the farmer replied. "Grab these and begin to tote," he said, pointing to the produce remaining on the covered wagon.

The two men worked, soon warming to the job in the cold December wind. When the task was finished and the farmer had settled with the clerk on satisfactory bill of lading, the farmer turned to Cyril Townsend.

"You leavin' on the train?" he asked.

"No. As a matter of fact, I came in on it." The farmer didn't need to know that he, Cyril, was a free-loading passenger, fearing all the way from Atlanta that he might be discovered in his hiding place in a boxcar.

"Where ya headin', then, on Christmas Eve?" the farmer asked.

"I was hoping to go to Blairsville, Georgia," Cyril Townsend said. "I used to live in a community near there several years ago."

"Well, climb on board," the farmer said. "I'm going there as fast as these mules can take us."

Again feeling gratitude well up in himself at his good fortune, Cyril Townsend climbed into the wagon.

"My name's Thomp Collins," the wagoneer said. "And who might you be?"

"I go by the name of Cyril Townsend," the hitchhiker said.

"Pleased to meetcha," Collins said. The two men did not talk much as the mules drew the wagon along the narrow road that ran from Blue Ridge to Morganton, through Hemp Town, and on toward Blairsville. All the while Thomp Collins was trying in vain to remember where he'd heard the name Cyril Townsend. And likewise, Cyril Townsend was trying to recall if he had previously known Thomp Collins.

The rhythm of the wagon over the bumpy road did not deter Cyril Townsend, tired as he was, from falling asleep as they traveled. He awakened after a long nap when he heard Thomp Collins saying "Whoa," to his mules. Cyril took in the form of a substantial barn in the dusk, and a short distance away on a rise a farmhouse with lights at the windows.

"Welcome to my place," Thompson Collins said, his hand extended for a shake.

"But I did not intend to come all the way to your house and make a nuisance of myself to your wife and children," Cyril Townsend protested.

"It's Christmas Eve," Thomp Collins said. "Come and share our Christmas Eve meal with us. Susie, my wife, always has plenty to spare. And besides, I think you and I have something to talk about."

Cyril helped Thomp stable and feed the mules. All the while Cyril felt a bit uneasy. Would this man know about his trial and sentencing? After all, the trial did take place over three years ago in Union County. As he pondered these questions, his tired body seemed somehow to be drawn to the warmth and welcome of the nearby farmhouse. What did he have to lose from sharing a Christmas Eve meal?

At the house, Thompson Collins introduced his wife Susan and his children to the stranger. The children, polite and quiet, were named Roe, Virge, Joe and Bob. "And at Christmastime, we always remember our little ones we lost at an early age, and we've placed a holly wreath on their graves at Old Choestoe Cemetery," said Susan Thompson. "Their names were Avery Cordelia, Charles Luther and Mary Rebecca."

The Thomp Collins family did not seem at all surprised that a wayfarer would share their Christmas Eve meal. Thomp showed Cyril to a side room with a small bed, and asked the older children to bring him a basin of warm water and fresh towels. Thomp himself laid out clean clothes of his own for Cyril to put on after his bath.

Refreshed and clean, Cyril rejoined the Collins family. Soon they were seated at a table laden with good food from the garm. All bowed heads while Thomp asked the blessing. While they ate, the question Cyril feared came.

"Are you returning from prison?" Thomp asked Cyril.

"Yes. Is it that obvious? How did you know?"

"All the way from Blue Ridge to Blairsville, as you slept, I kept thinking that I knew the name, Cyril Townsend. Then I remembered that you had taken the rap for some of your friends and were imprisoned even though you were not guilty of the crime for which you were charged. Your case is similar to mine," Thomp Collins continued.

"Back in 1875 I would not turn state's evidence. I was sent to Federal Prison in New York. Upon my release and return two years later, after a long, hard journey, I told Susie that as long as we had a house and food and clothing to share, we would never again turn anyone in need away from our door. That is why you are welcome tonight in this house and at our table."

"Neighbors call my husband 'The Poor Man's Friend,'" wife Susie Collins said. No matter the need, whether at Christmas or all year long, he is quick to respond when he meets someone whose pain and suffering he can relieve."

That night on the clean bed in Thomp Collins' house, Cyril Townsend resolved that as soon as he was on his feet again, he would adopt the same motto as that of Thomp Collins: "The poor man's friend," and seek to make it his life principle.

c 2007 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 20, 2007 in The Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Miracle of Brasstown Valley: a Book Review

Governor/Senator Zell Miller has done it again. He has written his seventh book, and has managed within its pages to turn history into a page-turner.

I gratefully received a copy early as a Christmas gift from a very dear friend. I want to recommend that you go out to a nearby bookstore in these days remaining before Christmas and either purchase a copy for yourself or get a copy as a gift for someone special. You will be glad you did.

The Miracle of Brasstown Valley is the story of the founding of Young Harris College in 1886 by an itinerant Methodist preacher, the Rev. Artemas Lester. But it is more than history, more than a realized dream of Lester whose life was touched in a unique way, both by his calling and his mission. Through his keen imagination, the Honorable Zell Miller has brought to life people, places and events in the mountains of North Georgia. He gives us a front-row seat to happenings as if we are there. Sharing Miller's love for history, and being mutually tied, as he is, to some of the same places and people who make up the colorful pages of this book, I find it a privilege to recommend his book to your reading.

In his foreword, Mr. Miller states:

While all the people, places and most events are real, in some instances I have filtered their undocumented words spoken long ago through my imagination. So be forewarned: this history is not pure and perfect; it's padded. But, as we say in the mountains, this is 'pert near' how it all happened." (page 4).

Getting it 'pert near' right is good enough for me. Not only does the book give the history of the founding of the college in the mountains, which has stood as a shining light for students educated there since 1886, but within these pages we get lessons on geology and theology, politics and religion. The people of yesteryear, whose names are well documented in family histories, in county records of land holdings, in church and cemetery records, in stories of their deeds passed on from generation to generation are mentioned in the book as Artemas Lester makes his way from Yatesville, Georgia, where he was born, to Brasstown Valley in Towns County, Georgia, learning what he can from residents he meets along the way. He wants to know about the land and the people, the sturdy stock who have taken up residence in the mountains. The literary technique is a travelogue. The impact is that of having been there, experienced that.

In the pages of Miracle we meet people who have a role to play in the background of Young Harris College's founding. The itinerant Union County preacher, the Rev. Milford G. Hamby, was responsible in part for the conversion of Artemis Lester in a revival at far-away Yatesville, Georgia. He heard the young man's dream and set him on his way toward the north Georgia mountains.

We meet William Jasper Miller, better known as "Bud," teacher at Hood's Chapel School in Upper Choestoe. Artemas Lester observed this country school teacher's methods in action and thought them good. He also heard that Bud Miller planned to take unto himself a second wife, Jane Malinda Collins, following the death of his first wife, Florence Edmundson Miller. Jane Malinda's ancestors were the first Choestoe settlers, Thompson and Celia Self Collins, her grandparents. She was a daughter of Francis and Rutha Nix Collins. With this background, Jane would be a good step-mother for Bud Miller's six children, left motherless by his first wife's death.

We see Artemas Lester's first view of Track Rock Gap as he travels from Dahlonega to Brasstown Valley.

We meet Widow Nancy Louise Haynes Stephens Sanderson, whose help in establishing the school in Brasstown Valley ranged from knowing the right people for the Rev. Artemas Lester to see to loaning him her horse and buggy in which to travel, and making available the abandoned store building where the first classes opened in January, 1886.

This book is full of mountain lore and culture. It is a book about a dream and the price one man paid to see it fulfilled. It is about moving on, even before the school Lester worked so hard to establish, was fully functional.

The book expresses appreciation for a solid way of life and for the faith that seeds planted will eventually sprout and bear fruit. Credit is given to many people who figured prominently in the founding of Young Harris College. You will meet them in the pages of this book, and rejoice that they were faithful to fill in the gap in their years of service. To name them all would take away some of the mystery of your meeting them for yourself in the book's pages. Prominent among them, however, besides the Rev. Artemas Lester, were the Rev. Marcus Hale Edwards, the Rev. Joseph Astor Sharp, Young Loften Gerdine Harris for whom the school eventually was named, and many others, presidents, professors, supporters.

Governor/Senator Zell Miller and I trace our roots back to Thompson Collins and other people who, although not well educated themselves because of limited academic offerings in those pioneer days, wanted a better way of life and accelerated opportunities for their children and succeeding generations. It was on this principle that the Rev. Artemas Lester set about to found the school in the mountains that became Young Harris College. Mr. Miller's chronicle will make you proud to be of sturdy mountain stock.

He has Artemas Lester asking Teacher Bud Miller this question:

"Where do they (the students) go when you've taught them all you know?"
Bud stared straight into his friend's eyes. "Ah, that's the question. You tell me."

At Christmas, this book will be rich reading as you discover and rejoice in the answer.

c 2007 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 13, 2007 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Country School and Christmas

My first seven years of school were spent at Choestoe School, the two-room "new" building that replaced the old two-story faded gray structure that had stood for many years on the same spot.

My primer-first grade class was the very first to occupy the new school building in 1936-1937. We were proud of the smell of newly placed pine lumber that ceiled the inside of the building. We were fascinated by the removable partitions between the "lower grades" room and the "upper grades" room. And on special occasions, that partition was removed, a moveable stage was put in place, and all we young scholars who studied in grades primer through seventh grade were ready to perform on that stage before our parents and others in the community. Christmas was one of those times.

In my growing-up years, Christmas was a very special time. Compared to the glitter and commercialization of our present age, what we enjoyed and considered special treats would be meager, indeed. But we celebrated in our own way, and within the walls of that two-room, two-teacher country school much joy emanated to the whole community.

Remembering, the first item on the Christmas preparation agenda was "assigning of parts." Our teachers- in this case, Mrs. Mert Shuler Collins who had the lower grades, and Mrs. Florence Jackson Hunter, principal and upper grades instructor, were the teachers in charge.

They drew from their magic cache of Christmas program materials- whether written by themselves or from some "Christmas Celebrations" book- "parts" were assigned to every child in their care. No one could be left out of the glorious Christmas program.

The upper grades had "the play." This was a mini-drama, much rehearsed and prepared with necessary make-do costumes and props. Each child memorized lines until they became a part of his/her repertoire. The play was a little slice of life, teaching character traits of hospitality and generosity and decrying selfishness. It was an honor to be chosen for a part in the school drama and each actor/actress took seriously the part assigned.

The lower grades had the usual acrostic in which each child held letters spelling out messages like C-H-R-I-S-T-MA S C-H-E-E-R or H-A-P-P-Y H-O-L-I-D-A-Y-S.

The two lines of the poem forming the acrostic were all the little ones had to memorize. They were taught how to hold their letter straight, so that the visitors could readily read the message they spoke about. Those who could handle more than a two-line recitation were given longer poems, or a story about Christmas to recite.

All the grades together practiced singing Christmas carols. We didn't have a piano at the school, so the "tune" was formed by listening to a tuning fork held gingerly by one of the teachers and blown upon to give the proper pitch for each carol. We sang with gusto and joy, albeit it not always in tune. It wasn't perfection of performance but melody and message for which we strived.

Then came the drawing of names. This was when each class exchanged names, and the responsibility lay with the student to bring a present to the person whose name was drawn. What about some of the very poor children who might not be able to afford to buy a present?

Looking back, I see now that we all were "poor," monetarily speaking, but we didn't know it for we had food, clothing and shelter. Somehow, my parents, and those of other students, managed to get a meager gift for the "name drawn." I wasn't aware of what went on behind the scenes then, but I've learned since that the teachers always provided "emergency" gifts for any who were not able to get a gift for their "name drawn" person. That way, everyone in the school was assured a gift.

The week before school was out for Christmas, and the day of the big Christmas program, we spent much time and effort making decorations. The older boys went to the nearby woods and cut a well-shaped pine tree for a Christmas tree. In our "art" classes, we had been making colored paper chains to decorate the tree. We also strung popcorn and holly berries. We made snowflakes, cut from paper and fastened them to the tree. Our school tree would not take a prize in beauty in a decorating contest. But in joy of creating something which we thought beautiful, our room decorations rated high marks, indeed. Each window was decorated with a construction-paper candle, snowman, or laughing Santa. Our school house was ready for visitors.

Then came the day of the big performance. We had the two rooms, now opened into one large one, set for our visitors, our parents and others in the community. A sense of nervous anticipation pervaded the students. Could we pull off this program and please our teachers and our parents?

We had no need for concern. Whatever we did was appreciated and applauded.

And when it came time to distribute presents, whatever we received brought smiles and pleasure. A bag with an apple, an orange, some wrapped candy kisses- and pencils, always pencils with our names on them- came from our teachers. The play, the recitations and the caroling all went well. The wood heaters had put out too much heat with the school rooms overcrowded with people. But everyone left happy and elated.

Christmas had come again to Choestoe School. And we had been a part in bringing the happiest of all days of the year to fruition. If snow would only fall on our walk home from the schoolhouse, it would be of all times the merriest, with each snowflake a smile from heaven to earth's brown sod.

c 2007 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 6, 2007 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.