Odds & Ends

A Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historical Research

July 1996, No. 10

Alabama Bound

Researcher-writer-publishers get sidetracked. (Perhaps even more easily than people without hyphens.)

Case in point. Last month's article was to have been on some aspect of the southern U. S. Instead, it turned into one about some of those who interpreted the South, without benefit of firsthand knowledge. So, Odds & Ends will linger in the U. S. for another month not only to visit the region but to meet the residents. The residents of the 1930s.

During that time of mass unemployment, social upheaval, and the flowering of government-agency acronyms, the Works Progress/Work Project Administration (WPA) sent cadres of writers, mural painters, photographers and archivists throughout the U. S., documenting who we were. Walker Evans photographed the Dust Bowl. Thomas Hart Benton and other artists created their murals in schools and post offices. Correspondent Ernie Pyle talked with aircraft workers in California, as the nation geared up for a possible war. Writers created guides to the states and regions of the country, guides that still sell well today. And still other writers, many of their names forgotten to all but the most serious students of history, roamed across the nation in the largest oral history exercise ever undertaken.

Their results are compiled in the Library of Congress American Memory Internet site.

Once there, you can search the collection by keyword - look for 'canals'; for 'Kilroy' (he was there); for 'hobo'. Or for 'Alabama', which I did. I found nearly thirty articles, far too many to summarize in a single article. One of the documents states, "It is people who have built and lived in a home that really makes its interest,...." The same is as true of regions as of homes, and the early builders will serve as our focus.

To those interviewed, the pioneers were often only a few generations distant and their stories had been handed down orally in unbroken threads. Even the broken threads were important. On March 20, 1939, Mary Gilchrist Powell, herself a WPA supervisor, and a descendent of British general James Wolfe of French and Indian War fame, recalls to interviewer "MS", herself as a child asking, "Oh! tell me again Mammam [Grandmother] about my uncle who won the battle of Quebec long long time ago." And thrilling to the story of how the general, the night before his death on the Plains of Abraham, mentions to the officers around him Gray's recent poem "Elegy In A Country Church Yard", and quotes the words, "the paths of glory lead but to the grave."

"Gentlemen," he says, "I would rather have written those lines than capture Quebec." And Mary, grown now, repeats the tale to the interviewer.

But closer to Mary's time were her great great grandparents, Thomas Jefferson Woolf and Levicy Cook. She listens avidly to the tale. Of Thomas rescuing Levicy from Indians, of their courtship in a frontier blockhouse and of their trek from Virginia to Alabama, carrying a tiny son "papoose style", a son who would one day become local Probate Judge James B. Woolf. And so Mary's thread goes on, spread by oral tradition. (And now, by Internet.)

Or hear 71 year-old farmer John R. Estes, talking to "R.P.T.", on March 21st of the same year.

"I was born tho' on my grandfather's plantation 'bout four miles from here at what they called old Martin's ferry....Yessum, my grandfather Marius Martin was French and that ferry was named fer him, that's how come it sounds different from the way you call it. Yes, he wuz French all right, an him and his brother come over here on a boat when they wuz little fellers.

"I've heered her [Ma] say when they come to Alabama in the early days they come in a covered wagon, en that little chair over there come right with em. They were 'mong the first to cross the river, the [1st?] white settlers round here, and they had to build a raft by tying poles together so as to cross the 'Bigbee [Tombigbee River]".

He tells of the family slave, Lewis: "if old Lewis Martin ... had lived I'd have as much as any-body the rest of my days."

When the Northern troops neared the area during the Civil War Estes' grandfather, a prosperous land speculator, gave Lewis an iron pot containing $150,000, with orders to bury it somewhere on the plantation. The grandfather had suffered dementia from the strain of wartime and soon died. A long time afterwards Lewis, on his deathbed from an infected tooth, sends for the young Estes, planning to reveal the location of the buried money.

"...but when I got there Lewis was as dead as a door nail. His wife wuz so skeered she couldn't recollect nothing he had said, jes 'a white oak', she kept mumbling and that was all. Well we looked fer a long time but didn't no body ever find nothing. T'was too much territory and too many white oaks."

Estes knows the history of the area in a way too few of us still do:

"Yes, sir, right up there where old Jim Jones lived stood the old Fort Tombecbe as she was called, built by the order of the Governor of Louisiana, Bienville, and it says on the monument whut is true, I know. "Here civilization and Savagery beheld the Glory of France."

"Yes, sir, I wuz right there the day they unveiled her. Fact is, I barbecued every bit of the meat fer the dinner, en hit wuz about ez good a barbecue ez I ever et, if I do say so myself. Heflin wuz the speaker en he's a good 'en, but I ain't never voted fer him yit, en never will fur ez that goes."

Estes' salty comment on the speaker Heflin, reveals the earthiness and half-conscious humor natural to the interviewed Alabama residents. And many reveal themselves to be natural storytellers. They know how to tease the listener and leave them wanting more.

"Horever another morning they all went down there to try to kill the alligator, that is, all the men did, but she went along. But I will tell about that some other time...Well, sometime, if you want me to I will tell you about the 'Coon hunt, and when the Red Bird got into Uncle John's pants and bit him on the belly, and when the rattle snake got after him, and lots of tales like that which grandmother has told me of what happened when she was a little girl a long, long time ago. [Told to George S. Barnard on December 2, 1938 by "A LADY OF THE DEEP SOUTH".]

We hear more from several dozen inhabitants of the state, black and white. We also get testimony, both implied and stated, regarding the WPA's methods and even the project's office routines.

Editing an August 18, 1939 session with retired black farmer Isaac Grove, the interviewer tries to capture Southern black dialect. Back in the office the editor makes his own handwritten corrections, differing on the spelling of the dialect phrase meaning 'I am'. The result is the following piece of bureaucratic jargon, clear in its meaning (with a little study), but definitely impeding us as we view the files.

"{Begin deleted text}I'se{End deleted text} {Begin handwritten}{Begin inserted text}I's{End inserted text}{End handwritten}" repeated over and over again, along with like corrections, until it becomes almost impossible to pick out the original words of the interview. But persevere, the rewards can be great.

The most delightful piece in the Alabama collection is a humorous look at a WPA field office (titled Gluemania) by an unnamed file clerk, obviously a spiritual ancestor of humorist Dave Barry.

"For nigh on to three years I have been everything from gem clip picker-upper to forty-inch envelope licker. I've licked so many envelopes that I can't eat dessert without first decapitating it to look for an enclosure."

"The blond [typist] is very enthusiastic and explosive. Every time I am comfortably
seated, she yells for gem clips, carbon, or onion skin. I deliver the supplies and she wants to know my opinion of her date of the night before and I finally escape after guessing how much beer he can drink before he passes out. She can drink 1 1/2 gallons."

" I glance bewilderedly over the mountain of copy on her [the State Director's] desk; then blindly I point to where her [misplaced] glasses MUST BE under Industry, Commerce Labor which is under Negro Life which is under a fossil paper weight weighing seven pounds, a flower pot filled with some of the draftsman's flowers, and two dozen blue pencils that need sharpening...While clearing these from the desk, the upheaval discloses the hat, coat, and overshoes; a 1936 calendar; a pass to "The Birth of a Nation"; and a copy of the first bulletin on the"American Guide"."

And so it went, in Alabama, in the late thirties.


A search of Eagles Byte chronologies on the code "sth - South" (turns up the following events for 1930 and 1931:

Feb 27
Actress Joanne Giognilliat (Joanne Woodward) is born in Thomasville, Georgia.

Apr 3
Florida Governor Lawton Chiles is born.

Sep 23
Blind black singer-pianist Ray Charles Robinson is born in Albany, Georgia.

Nov 4
Mother Catherine's Manger in New Orleans is completed.

Dec 31
Folksinger Odetta (Odetta Holmes) is born in Birmingham, Alabama.

1,000 pieces of silver are found in Avoyelles Parish.

The symposium I'll Take My Stand is held.

The Great Smoky Mountains, on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, are added to the U.S. National Park System.

Renovations to Memphis' Custom House are completed.

Longtime resident Katherine "Kate" Magevney, 88, dies in her Memphis cottage.

The Mariners Museum opens, outside of Newport News.

Drought strikes Arkansas.

Jan 9
The Jesuit order purchases Louisiana's Jefferson College, turn it into a retreat.

Feb 3
The Arkansas state legislature passes a motion to pray for H. L. Mencken's soul. He had called the state the "apex of moronia".

Mar 25
Nine black teenage men are removed from a freight train at Paint Rock, Alabama, and jailed in Scottsboro, charged with raping two white women. The defendants will be known as the Scottsboro Boys.

Mar 27
The first shuffleboard championship is held, in St. Petersburg, Florida.

May 31
Opera singer Shirley Verrett is born in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Henry O. Flipper, first black to graduate from West Point, retires from his job with the Interior Department and moves to Atlanta to live with a brother.


You were asked to identify the traditional character names of the two "endmen" in a minstrel show. Many of you came up with the name of the first - Mr. Bones - so named not because he was skinny but because he played the bones. But the second name proved elusive. Finally Maine reader Barbara McPheeters correctly identified him as Mr. Tambo - because he played the tambourine - as well as identifying Mr. Bones.

I'm looking for the city and country where the Confederate raider CSS Alabama was launched, in 1862.

EB SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY (more detailed versions available)


June 8
Harry Hearder, former Professor of Modern History at the University of Wales College of Cardiff (Europe in the Nineteenth Century, 1830-1880) dies at he age of 72.

June 16
Art Historian Mahonri Sharp Young (George Bellows; American Realists: Homer to Hopper) dies at his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y., at the age of 84.

June 17
History of Science scholar Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) dies at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the age of 73.

Jul 4
A 12th-century copper gilt casket said to have held remnants of murdered archbishop Thomas a Becket is sold for 4.18 million pounds ($6.51 million) at auction In London, to Canadian collector Lord Thomson of Fleet.

Jul 11
Following a public outcry over national antiquities leaving England, Lord Thomson of Fleet withdraws his bid for the Becket casket, to allow the National Heritage Memorial Fund to purchase the chest.

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I hope you've enjoyed this issue of Odds & Ends.

Christmas isn't THAT far off. Consider an Eagles Byte gift timeline for the history lover on your list, or for yourself. For further information and prices,please e-mail me. More details next month.

David Minor


© 1996 David Minor / Eagles Byte