Thursday, December 23, 2010

Keeping Christmas All Year Long

To faithful readers everywhere, my wish for you is that the joy of Christmas may follow you throughout 2011.

What may we do to renew the spirit of Christmas daily so that the joy we know at this season may truly follow us the whole year through? Here are some suggestions.

Build memories that last. When I think of Christmases past, I revel in a world of memories that build joy upon joy. Some of my childhood memories of Christmas are a little dim now, but if I try hard I can recall them, and they still fill me with joy unspeakable.

I remember how we went to Grandma Sarah Souther Dyer’s house. It was quite a production, just the going. And once there, we had cousins galore to play with, and a Christmas meal that was tasty and inviting. Here’s how we went: Daddy hitched our two farm mules to our farm wagon and put the seat at the front of the wagon on which he and mother sat. Then back of them in the wagon bed, warmed by black irons heated and wrapped in blankets, and with our warmest coats and woven woolen blankets shielding us from the winter’s cold, we children rode. We journeyed the four miles over a country road to Grandma’s house. Nightfall came after we arrived, and I recall one night that scared us half-out-of our wits. About this story, here, briefly, are the details.

Whether it was Christmastime or not, I do not recall. But perhaps it was, for we had roaring fires in the fireplaces in three areas of the old house at Grandma’s. The house was built first as a cabin in 1850 by Grandma’s father, and then added-to as the family grew and needed more space. There was a fireplace in the “front room,” known also as “Grandma’s room,” where she sat in her little chair by the window that looked out upon the tallest mountain in Georgia—Brasstown Bald. She looked frequently through that window expecting “company” to come along the road and visit her. She lived to be almost 102 years of age and through the years welcomed many visitors. On the particular winter night—Christmas or not, I don’t remember—her fireplace glowed, as did those in Uncle Hedden’s family’s “front” room—and one in the kitchen fireplace in the ell that had been added at the back of the old house. But the fire in Grandma’s front room fireplace was too lively, and the chimney soot caught fire. Talk about fast action! Buckets of water were poured down the chimney from the roof by all the men present. Their quick action enabled them to put out the soot fire and save the house.

Then came the nighttime task of bedding all the children present (Uncle Hedden’s who lived there and visiting cousins from far and near). Quilt pallets were made on the floor, for there were not nearly enough beds to take care of the crowd gathered at Grandma’s house. We cousins talked and told stories, warned frequently by the adults that it was time to be quiet and go to sleep. With such excitement in the air—and especially that of the near-disaster of a chimney fire—how hard it was to relax and sleep.

Christmas is made dear by building memories. Perhaps even now you can think of many memories from you own Christmases that will bring joy to you as you recall them. From childhood to my young adulthood there were many highlights. One was Christmas, 1949, December 23, when my husband and I had a near-Christmas wedding. Then there were our years of ministry together, he as pastor and later director of missions, and I as a teacher. Such Christmases as we enjoyed in the communities where we lived and worked could make a book-length tome of truth stranger than fiction. This year marks our sixty-first anniversary, a life together of many joys and sorrows as well. But nothing has accrued on the side of sorrows that we have not had the grace and strength to bear, even now in his long illness.

And so it is with life. If we keep the joy of Christmas in our hearts all year long, we will anticipate the best. If we remember the best parts, we will have a garden blooming in December, even in the cold and snow. Someone has aptly stated, “God gave us memories so we can have roses in December.”

Add to good memories that cheer the heart the spirit of giving and gratitude for gifts which can be solid fabrics for warming every day of the year. And with these thoughts active and alive, we can have Christmas all year long!

c 2010 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 23, 2010 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reece Caught the Essence of Christmas with Certain Poems

December. We celebrate Christmas. The air is full of Christmas carols coming from every store, television set and radio, from church choirs and ordinary people caught up in the spirit of the season. Some of the carols are sacred, some secular. Every year some new ones make the rounds, but if your preferences are as mine, you still prefer hearing the old ones, like the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by American pastor and poet, the Rev. Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), with music by Lewis H. Redner. Or choose the much older “Silent Night” written by Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) with music first composed by guitarist Franz Gruber (1787-1863) because the church organ was broken. How thrilling is the true story of how World War I was stopped on a Christmas Eve as German and allied soldiers, all caught up in the spirit of the season, stopped their fighting long enough to sing together on the battlefield that inimitable carol, “Silent Night.”

But I want to write about some Christmas poems written by our Union County poet Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958). Some of them have been sung by autoharp artists but I am not sure the music for them has ever been published. If so, I am not aware of where the music or recordings of the Christmas poems-set-to-music might be secured. If anyone knows of the whereabouts of same, please let me know.

For this brief period, to honor “our” poet, let’s imagine we are listening as he sits near the chimney for warmth in his attic room in the small Reece farmhouse nestled along Wolf Creek in Choestoe. Wanting to pay tribute to the meaning of Christmas and the Christ Child whose birthday he and his family celebrated at nearby Salem Methodist Church, he wrote several Christmas poems. The first ones published in his books of poems appeared in his second volume, Bow Down in Jericho released by E. P. Dutton, Publishers, New York, in 1950. In this volume we read “Mary,” (p. 39), “The Shepherds in Search of the Lamb of God,” (p. 40-41), “The Adoration,” (p. 41-42), “Christ Jesus Had Three Gifts from Men,” (p. 43-44) and “The Pilgrim and the Fir Tree,” (p. 44-45) based on an old legend of the fir tree going to Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth.

“Mary,” of course, tells of the annunciation to young Mary of Nazareth that she was to be the mother of the Son of God. “She had no thought to be a bride/Of angel or of man.” Unsuspecting and surprised, Mary took the angel’s announcement to heart and willingly accepted her role as the Mother of Jesus Christ. And until his birth should occur in Bethlehem, “In Nazareth dwelt Mary mild, /She carded and she spun;/On Christmas Day she bore the child/Of God, His Holy Son.”

“The Shepherds in Search of the Lamb of God,” is a dialogue poem, with shepherds asking questions as they pursue their quest (after the angels’ announcement) to find the newborn Babe in Bethlehem. This poem could well be memorized and acted out by a group of men or boys dressed as shepherds, or, with the right music, would make another shepherd song. It ends with finding the baby and awe from the shepherds: “See, the cattle stand and nod/Close by the Lady’s feet.”/“Look, the little Lamb of God/Cradled where oxen eat! “Oh! Oh! Oh!”

“The Adoration” might seem by the title to be a poem about shepherds or wise men, both groups of whom were found adoring the Christ Child at or near the time of His birth. But Reece makes the main character of this poem a present-day little girl who thought about how she might adore the Christ child and bring him gifts. First, she wished to offer him a dress; next a girdle, followed by a little shoe and a shining coin. But finally she thinks it best to offer her heart, which can be a House where He can come to live. With this progression of gifts, Reece hits upon the essence of human giving to Christ, for He desires the heart of persons above all: “If my heart were a house also,/A house also with room to spare/I never would suffer my Lord to go/Homeless, but house Him there, O there,’/Homeless, but house Him there!”

“Christ Jesus Had Three Gifts from Men,” is the poetic story of the Magi from the East who came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In Reece’s lyrical rendering of the gifts he names them gold, an odor sweet, and a rare perfume, and interfused with the three gifts is the gift of grace, which of course is the intended gift Christ came to give. This is foreseen in the poem in the last stanza: “Then, ‘Wise Men, grace abide with thee,’/All in the stable where He lay,/’Redemption shall my one gift be/At Bethlehem on Christmas Day,/On Christmas Day in the Morning.”

When A Song of Joy and Other Poems came out in 1952, two more of Reece’s Christmas poems were published. “When I Think of Christmas Time” is a ten-stanza lyric beginning with Christ’s birth at Bethlehem and recounting major events of His life, including his death and resurrection. In both the first and last stanzas the poet celebrates Christmas, and he can do it joyously because he knows the victory: “Therefore let My Birthday be/A time of joyful jubilee./With the Host hosannas sing;/I am born anew to be thy King/On Christmas day, /On Christmas day, /On Christmas day in the morning.”

The second Christmas poem in this volume, “Since Christ Was a Lamb O,” is in the style of a short lyrical ballad with repetitions that pronounce blessings upon sheep, children, men, and Christ Himself: “Since Christ came to save O,/ To save O,/ To save O, /Since Christ came to save O,/Blessed are we all.”

In his book The Season of Flesh published in 1955, are four poems with a Christmas theme. “As Mary Was a Walking” which the poet terms “A Carol,” has fifteen stanzas in ballad-style quatrains expressing her rapport with fowls, cattle, even trees as she contemplates the mission of the Child she bore. The last chorus asks: “Could any maid soever,/Could maiden lent the grace,/Hearken such sweet palaver/And not a bole embrace?”

“The Gifting” is a four-stanza poem about the Magi’s gifts, and Mary’s gift of her Son. “In Palestine,” asks the question, “What did you see in Palestine?” and proceeds to enumerate the “stable low,” “the palace” of Herod, “kindness,” “cruelty,” and a margin as wide as the distance “’twist heaven and hell.” In “It Fell Upon a Winter’s Morn” is a first-person poem with a most unusual observation in which the poet dreams of Jesus’ blood being mixed with his own. He awoke to find “Bells rang upon the wintry air/And men began to say/And tongues of children to declare/That it was Christmas Day.”

From Reece’s attic room where he wrote these poems, perhaps in the winters of the 1940’s and early 1950’s, he gave them to the world to ponder in the books of poems bearing his name. Maybe you will find his books, now republished by Cherokee Press (if you don’t own them already), and decide to purchase them for Christmas gifts for someone who loves poetry and would appreciate and benefit from his master wordsmith’s artistry and insight. As for myself, I can never get enough of reading his poems. I recommend them highly for your own enjoyment and amazement. You will be awed, as I, by the depth and quality of his lyrics. So ring bells and declare, as the poet urged, “That it is Christmas Day!”

c2010 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 16, 2010 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Country Store—A Landmark Entrepreneurial Entity

Francis Jasper "Bud" Collins (1855-1941)
Owner of Collins Country Store

The country store was a part of my growing up years, for my grandfather, Francis Jasper Collins, better known as “Bud” Collins, owned and operated one. My family went to his store to trade for items such as coffee, sugar, pinto beans, and lard, if our farm supply gave out. Then there was the clothing and merchandise section where some of the simpler necessities of country living could be bought—cloth by the yard, sewing needs, socks, hose and underwear, men’s chambray work shirts, overalls, and even at times, utilitarian shoes, but not dress shoes.

The country store was especially useful at Christmas time. In those depression years when cash was hard to come by and most farm families depended upon what they could produce on the farm to keep their families supplied with the barest necessities, not much was purchased at the country store. But Grandpa, with Mr. Garn Fortenberry as the driver for his truck, would somehow manage to go to Gainesville with a load of live chickens, eggs in crates, and dried animal skins that had been bartered for goods at his store, and take the load to Carter’s Wholesale Company or another of the wholesale distributors to get in trade there what he could to bring back to his Country Store in Choestoe.

Families in the community kept up with which day of the week the Collins Country Store would bring a load from Gainesville to restock the shelves of the little store. Garn and Grandpa would often get back home just at nightfall, so the next day would be the best time to go for a good pick over the new supply of goodies. Near Christmas, there would be sacks of oranges and tangerines, these fruits from the warm clime of Florida, brought to our Choestoe hills to be the delight of children on Christmas morning as they found them in the stockings they had “hung by the chimney with care.” Rare nuts, too, like pecans (not grown in the mountains) and Brazil nuts and pistachios would be in boxes so that a pound or half-pound could be weighed out as families could afford them.

Grandpa had a candy counter on which sat a large four-sided glass case. Near Christmas that case had all sorts of delectable-looking confections displayed in open boxes. Peppermint, licorice and lemon stick candy were among the offerings, as were the ever-appealing chocolate drops. Maybe sometimes there would be a few boxes of chocolate-covered cherries, but these were few, as Grandpa knew not many among his country store constituents could afford a whole box of these delicacies.

He had some toys, but not a wide variety. Bags of marbles, cans of pick-up-sticks, checker-boards, Chinese checkers, a few dolls, and some miniature automobiles were among his offerings. Thinking about it now, these may have been “special orders,” since they were so few, requested by parents in advance for their children who wanted these items from Santa Claus at Christmas. I can remember on Christmas morning wondering if I had not seen something I received at Grandpa’s store earlier—and how did Santa Claus then get it to bring beside our fireplace for me?

The country store also provided school supplies: Blue Horse tablets writing paper and penny pencils. And before school was out at Christmas, we nearly always could find at his store a gift for the one whose name we had drawn at Choestoe School, and thus fulfill our obligation of getting the gift for that person to put under our school tree.

Going to the store was an adventure. Since most of the trade was in barter, we had to catch the chickens we planned to offer as barter and safely pack the eggs used in trade. If Daddy had been successful in catching rabbits in his “rabbit trap,” he might have several dried and stretched skins of rabbits to offer in trade. And we nearly always had sorghum syrup to take for barter, because he was the champion syrup-maker of Choestoe.

Looking back now on this way of life, we didn’t know it if we were poor, for we always seemed to have plenty of the necessities of life: food, homemade clothing, shelter. Our farm produced well, even in the depression years. And enterprising Grandfather, up until his death in December of 1941 (ten days after the infamous Pearl Harbor bombing that started World War II) saw that his country store was maintained. After his death, his daughters and sons discovered that Grandpa had many people “on the books” to whom he had extended credit when they were unable to pay for items they needed from his country store. Likewise, he had loaned money when people were in dire circumstances. And his philosophy was not to take an “I-O-U” for same, for he said if a handshake and a man’s word did not mean they would pay back the loan, a piece of paper was little assurance that a debt would be collected. Over many of them he had written, “debt forgiven.” Some, after his death, came to pay their long-standing debt. His compassion was extended through his country store.

At Grandpa’s Country Store the spirit of Christmas lasted all year long.

c2010 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 9, 2010 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Akins Hotel “on the Square” and the People Who Operated It

Akins Hotel on-the-square, about 1950
Perhaps many remember the days when the Akins Hotel “on the Square” in Blairsville operated in its heyday of receiving guests and feeding crowds of people in its dining hall.

Mr. Marvin Akins who owned and operated it, was ably assisted by his wife, Mollie Coker Akins. Both were hard-working, outgoing entrepreneurs, a step ahead for their time.

Mollie and Marvin Akins

The two-story, rambling wood frame building that graced the side of the square where Blue Ridge Street enters was demolished in the early 1950s. But for many years it hosted tourists, lawyers and judges coming to town for court weeks, and people who just enjoyed spending days in a mountain town with favorable climate, especially in summer months.

In 1912 Marvin Akins purchased land on the corner of the square. On the property was a log cabin. Enterprising Marvin and his wife Mollie decided they could take in guests and allow them to sleep in the cabin’s loft on straw mattresses. The arrangements certainly were not quality accommodations, but better than not having a place at all. Some of their first guests were peddlers who came to sell their wares to the few stores in town.

Interest grew and Marvin saw the need of expansion. Over the years he was able to add to the original log cabin. Soon the hotel was a two-story structure boasting twelve bedrooms, four baths (in those days it was not uncommon for guests to share baths “on the hall”), a commodious dining room and a kitchen where much food was prepared. Some remember that Mr. Akins also purchased the Carrie Butt Boarding House, also on the square, about 1920. Perhaps this accounted for part of the expansion of the Akins Hotel from the original cabin that first took in guests in 1912.

The Akins Hotel was known for its good meals, and people often sought out “Miss Mollie’s” good cooking in her hotel dining room. A faithful worker in the hotel kitchen, and also assisting Mrs. Mollie with laundry for the hotel, care of the Akins children, and cleaning was Eliza Trammel, a black lady who worked for many years for the Akins family. Meals were generous, and by today’s standards, extremely low-cost. At one time they advertised “all you can eat for 25 cents.” I can recall eating in the dining hall and enjoying the quality and taste of the food. In 1944, as an “under classman” at Union County High School, I was selected to be one of the servers at the school’s Junior-Senior banquet held at the Akins Hotel. That gave me as a teenager opportunity to see the facility decked out for a special event for Union County High School students.

But the hotel business was not the only work Marvin Akins was engaged in. He once carried the U. S. mail between area post offices, Blairsville to Hemp and on to Blue Ridge, and other routes were from Blairsville to Caldwell Post Office at Track Rock, to Young Harris and to Hiawassee. Since these were station to station deliveries, his responsibility was getting the mail sacks to their locations, not delivering personal mail to individuals. He used his faithful mule and wagon to carry the mail on these routes.

He opened a barber shop and shoe repair shop in a portion of the old court house. He also operated the first mortuary in Blairsville, using an area behind the hotel for a funeral home. That humble beginning was the birth of the Akins Funeral Homes that his sons continued with and expanded at Blairsville and Blue Ridge. He also served as county coroner for a time. And in keeping with his father’s start in the Akins Hotel, the noted Milton Inn was founded and operated by Marvin’s son, Bonnell.

Their family and friends loved to hear the story of how Joseph Marion Akins and his sweetheart, Mary Elizabeth “Mollie” Coker eloped. It took them two tries to accomplish their goal of “running away” and getting married. The first attempt was foiled, but on the second try, their prearranged plans worked out. Marvin went to Bethel Methodist Church on Track Rock Road one bright Sunday in the fall of 1906, riding in his buggy drawn by a prancing horse. He helped Mollie in, and away they went to the home of a Rev. Jones who married them. That was October 21, 1906, Marvin’s twentieth birthday. Why they felt it necessary to elope has not been told. Maybe they were adventuresome, and certainly romantic—rather than parents being opposed to the match. At any rate, their marriage was solid, and both were hard workers. To them were born nine children, seven sons and two daughters: William Randolph, Benjamin Edd, Erwin Bonnell, Mauney Fred, Patrick Henry, Joseph Marvin, Raymond Douglas, Sarah Elizabeth and Mary Sue.

Joseph Marvin Akins’s great grandfather, John Akins, was in Union County by the time of the 1840 census. John Akins, born about 1795 in South Carolina, died November 27, 1863 in Union County. He and his wife Sarah (maiden name unknown, born 1810 in North Carolina, died 1875) were buried in unmarked graves in the Harmony Grove Baptist Church Cemetery, Union County. Joseph Marvin Akins’ grandfather (from whom he received his first name Joseph) was Joseph G. Akins (05/25/1926 – 07/13/1863) who married Mirah Flowers. Joseph was in the 6th Regiment of the Georgia Calvary Volunteers, Company F, during the Civil War and lost his life in the war. He was buried at the National Cemetery, Cumberland Gap, Claiborne, TN. Marvin’s grandmother, Mirah, continued to live on in Union County and was buried at Harmony Grove Cemetery. Joseph Marvin’s parents were Benjamin Calip Akins (07/21/1858 – 12/31/1933) and Rossie Lindy Fields Akins (10/22/1865 – 05/09/1898). They were interred at the Harmony Grove Baptist Church Cemetery.

Joseph Marvin Akins (10/21/1886 – 05/04/1971) and his wife, Mollie C. Akins (02/15/1888 – 10/22/1967) were laid to rest in the (New) Blairsville Cemetery. They were blessed with long and productive lives.

c 2010 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 2, 2010 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.