Building Our Worlds Again: Preserving Rural Stories and Culture

I recently had the immense honor of being a guest teacher in a rural classroom in Arkansas (thanks, Zoom!). And it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. My lesson was a writing workshop on folk writing and how we can use family stories to inform our writing across genres and disciplines. 

This lesson was partly inspired by Keith Roysdon’s recent piece in The Daily Yonder about his family’s migration from East Tennessee to Muncie, Indiana. Growing up just north of Muncie in a tiny town and having close relatives from East Tennessee, I was struck by the similarity in our experiences and stories. 

These two experiences together sent me searching for a piece I wrote a few years ago for a Midwestern Literature course I was taking. For that project, I sat down with my Uncle Leroy, Grandma Jean, and Aunt Liz to ask about their memories of the move up to Indiana. It ended up being sort of an oral history project, and I’m grateful for it because even though my Grandma Jean is gone now, I still have her voice as she interjects and offers her own two cents during the conversation. 

One of the things that feels really striking to me even now as I go back and read and listen is the move, need for it, and the way place is discussed throughout. One major assumption that a lot of folks make about rural people is that they have always been where they are. And that’s true for some, but as my family’s story and Nora Shalaway Carpenter’s story “Close Enough,” in the Rural Voices anthology demonstrate, you can still be rural in a place even if your family hasn’t always been there. And sometimes figuring out who and how you are in that different rural place requires you to build your world again. 

So, in the spirit of that, especially as I’m still navigating how to be rural in this subdivision surrounded by corn fields that are quickly becoming more subdivisions, I thought I would start a series where I share some of my favorite parts of that piece. 

Here’s the first one. 

Family Stories

My Dad’s side of the family is chock-full of storytellers, and I’ve always been a sucker for a good story. Whether it was around the holiday table, at the August family reunion, or cozying up to a well-constructed campfire on a clear and cool autumn night, there was always a story to be told. There are a few favorites that are often repeated, but they never lose their charm, and there are always new ones to be added to the mix. We constantly make new and strengthen old connections to one another and to our heritage through the stories we tell.

When my grandpa was diagnosed with cancer, my dad and uncles had a ‘boy’s day’ where they spent time trading stories in honor of the recognition that he was on borrowed time. Expressing his pride and awe of the fact that Grandpa Bob worked for one company, very seldom missing work even in sickness, for 43 years, Dad asked him how a person could do that. 

Grandpa, as he often did, responded with a story. The story went like this: 

Leroy and I were helping Mom clean the kitchen in the shack of house we were livin’ in. We were sweeping the dirt floors and moved the cookstove out to sweep around it. Well, in the process of moving the cookstove, we found a piece of cornbread that had escaped a meal at some point. We didn’t know how long that piece of cornbread was there, how dirty it was, or how bad it tasted, but both of us were so hungry that we literally and physically fought over who was gonna get to eat that piece of cornbread. That’s how bad things were. That’s how hungry we were. That’s why we moved. And that’s why working at Dana was such a good opportunity. When someone gives you an opportunity like that, you never know when it’s gonna end, so you just keep doin’ it in the hopes that it doesn’t end. It wasn’t a bad life, but it was a needy life, and you did your best to sacrifice for your family so they didn’t have to live the same needy life that you did. 

With that story in the back of my mind, I sat down with my Grandma Jean, (Great) Uncle Leroy, (Great) Aunt Liz, and my dad a little while ago. I asked Uncle Leroy about his upbringing, and this is what he said:

Well, I was born on Knox Street down in Knoxville, Tennessee, and my earliest memories of Dad was of him a-walkin’ down the dirt road headin’ towards Bearden—him and about 5 or 6 other young men goin’ to join the army in probably ’bout ’43 or somewhere around through there. I just barely ‘member it, so I must’ve been ’bout four. He went into the service and Mom got her a job working at a factory making threads—I forget the name of that factory now. And she left us alone quite a bit so we had to run ’round town there ‘n’ get in trouble. And we stayed there until Dad got out of the service. 

And when he got out of the service, Mom had the house paid off, but he borrowed money on it and bought him a pick-up truck and started cuttin’ wood, puttin’ a big ol’ belt around the back tire and hookin’ onto some of the big saw blades. I remember him cuttin’ it, puttin’ it in the back of the truck, and sellin’ it, but he couldn’t keep up with the payments, so we lost that house. So, he bought a little bit of land over in, I forget the name of that town… Anyway he built that house and then sold it and built a house up there where Pop used to live, up about four blocks from where we used to live, up next to the cemetery. He built that house, then Pop sold his house, and then bought 80 acres down in Coalfield, Tennessee, and that man he bought it off of, he had five acres next to that, so he traded Dad five acres for that house there in Knoxville, and that’s the reason we moved to Coalfield. 

We built a log cabin there, you might say, with dirt floors, out of pine, and we worked together to mix up the clay and dob it in the holes. Got some boxes to put on the inside to cover it up, and flat tar paper roof with a stove pipe stickin’ up. Then later on we got some slabs to put in there.

I guess I was in the third grade when we moved down there and we stayed down there til I was in the fifth, and then we moved up here when I was in the sixth grade, so about 3 years we spent down there, and it was pretty rough because Dad had to drive from Coalfield back over to Knoxville ’cause he was under this gov’ment deal where ya work on the roads. So he’d work on that and when he got through with that, he’d take trainin’ at school there to be a carpenter, to build things. So, he’d drive from Coalfield over there and then he’d come back on the weekends, and we’d have to work there with Pop on the farm through the week while Dad was gone. Of those three years there, I remember one Christmas that we boys hung our stockin’s up and Mom was cryin’ ’cause she didn’t have anything to put in ’em. And her neighbor come down and brought some apples and oranges. And I remember that. 

But we was… we had plenty of chickens to eat. That’s the reason Bob didn’t like to eat chickens too much. I just finally got back to where I can eat chicken. We’d go hunting, eat squirrels, and rabbits and stuff that we’d catch like that. But Mom said she got a letter from Wilson Hubbard, says there’s a farmer up here that wants somebody to work for him, up Sharpsville if you wanna come up. So, Mom says we’re goin’. Soon as Dad come in she says we’re going to Indiana. Now, ’bout two or three days before that, I was sittin’ down below a big ol’ trussel there with a train goin’ over. And I was with a horse plowin’ down there, sittin’ in the horse’s shade rollin’ a cigarette, smokin’ it, watchin’ the train roll by, wonderin’ what’s comin’ next. ‘Bout a week later, we was in—I think it was—a Nash with no back seat in it. 

Wilson come down and we loaded up his car and our car and we rode in back, and I think Bob sit on an ironin’ board back there. That’s when we come up here. That was in ’52 and he worked for Spears there for two years and then Dad got cancer and died. I think Bob was ’bout 17 at the time. He was in his last year of school. He would work some and go to school some. He finally made it through the last year and during that time, those two years we was workin’ for Neville. Neville offered to send Bob to college if he wanted to go and Bob said no. So he got him a job workin’ down here at the Perfect Circle [factory] and that’s where he got his job, Neville gave it to him. So, Bob was the head of the household mostly there for a couple years there, and maybe more than that. And when Dad died, we moved over here, and I started going to school at Jackson Station. And we lived there for about a year or so and then moved out on 28.

We were all working after school, so we didn’t have time to get involved in school activities. They tried to make us stay at school and help with the ballgame and sell stuff, and Mom went up there and talked to ’em. And told ’em that we don’t have time for that, so after school I’d go out to milk cows (and before school too). We’s all working and trying to keep the family together, and Mom’s main concern was that the gov’ment might take the kids away from her. And that was on her mind all the time, so she was out working at D.A. Murray’s—they made cords. The whole family had to work together.

In ’58 I graduated and I couldn’t find a job, so I just went in the service, so I could have some money to send home to Mom. It worked out that way. Eugene did the same thing; Dallas did the same thing; so that’s the way the family kept-a-goin’. We moved up here because that’s where the money was. We was starvin’ down there. 

Dad was only 39 when he died. We was a strugglin’ family at that time, ‘specially after Dad died, so it was a rough gettin’-along. We had a lot of help of course. Soon as Dad died, there was some church activity goin’ on. Brought us some food over and different organizations and things. But I think the veterans bought the ground and put him in the ground for us. Then Mom later on ended up right beside of him. And when Linda died, they all buried together up in Sharpsville. 

But that’s basically the story. Lot of people had those stories growing up, but that’s the reason Bob appreciated when he got him a job he had to hang on to it. He had to sacrifice freedom and a lot of things that he wanted to do, but he had responsibility not only of us but of Jean when they started havin’ kids. In fact, he had 2 or 3 jobs there for a while at one time. He knew the responsibility of family. You have to give up a lot in order to fulfill your responsibilities. That’s the same way with me when I got out of the service, I couldn’t find a job and thought that I was gonna have to go back in, but then I finally got called to General Motors. I don’t like working inside, but that’s where all the benefits was, that’s where all the money was. And so, you go inside and work inside and come out and be glad to be out, but you have to make sacrifices for yourself and for your family. 

It is through these stories that I came to know who I am from. They are how I came to appreciate and be proud of our work ethic, how I learned to live in appreciation of the time and worldly possessions I have today, and how I came to enjoy and value the natural world. From Southern fields and furrows, Tennessee hills and hollers, to Indiana factories, who I’m from worked hard to build the world for me. 

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