Rebuilding Our Worlds Again: Part 3

While interviewing the out-migrant teachers who participated in my dissertation study, those of us with children talked about the tensions we felt around how our kids were growing up differently than we did. That they were removed from rural living and their rural family members which meant that they didn’t have access to the oral history and family stories that had played such a crucial role in the ways that we constructed our identities.

None of us were quite sure what that meant for how we have related and continue to relate to our children. And it’s something that I think about a lot. My kids get to ride the tractors, drive the golf cart, take walks in the fields and down country roads, and sit around campfires when we visit my folks, but it’s not part of their daily lived experiences.

And despite the fact that growing up I craved to be one of the suburban kids who lived in a subdivision so that I could play basketball with my friends in the cul-de-sac and walk to their houses whenever Mom said I could, I still don’t know how to exist in one. I’ve never lived it (until now) and I’m still figuring out the cultural and spatial expectations of living here, which means that I can’t pass that onto my kids.

  • Sales people ringing the door bell despite our no soliciting sign,
  • being able to hear folks (and them hear me) talking/hollering in their yards,
  • listening to two stroke engines whine as everyone around me works diligently to have a perfectly manicured lawn devoid of any of the beauty of wildflowers and “weeds”

These are all still mighty annoying to me. I’ve walked through the neighborhood pretty much every day for the last three years and still don’t feel like I belong here, so my kids’ll probably end up teaching me more about suburban living than I will them.

This discomfort and my desire for my kids to have some sort of rural experience, understanding, and identity has led me to do my best to live as rural as I can where I am. We have backyard chickens that my oldest helps me tend to. We’ve planted a garden in soil that I don’t understand with varying degrees of success. We take drives through the country side during calving season so they can see them in the surrounding pastures. And I tell them the stories that I learned growing up about who we are. Throughout it all, I’m trying to reckon with the fact that I may not always be able to relate to them in a way I’m gonna wish I could.

And this is all to say that I wonder if my grandparents ever felt that way about their kids and whether or not my parents feel the same about me. In this particular case, most especially in terms of our different literacy practices and levels of educational attainment. For example, my Papaw would often say he didn’t understand what I do as an academic but that he was proud of me. He was a high school graduate but never attended any college. In a conversation with my dad recently he recounted how his parents neither encouraged or discouraged him from going to college. His dad was offered a free college education by the farmer he worked for and turned it down because he was the head of household after his dad died and needed to make money for the family. Several of my aunts and uncles never graduated from high school. Which doesn’t mean that they aren’t smart or literate – they’re some of the wittiest and wisest people I know and have made good lives for themselves. I’m no better than them with my PhD, just different. And maybe that’s true of me with my kids too – neither upbringing is better; they’re just different.

All of that brings me to the purpose of this post, which is to record my family history:

Recently, my Aunt De-Di (dee-dye) sent me some memories my Uncle Eugene (my Grandpa Bob and Uncle Leroy’s brother) typed up. We don’t know when he wrote these down – he said he doesn’t even remember doing it – but these stories span everything from the move up from Tennessee to Uncle Eugene’s time in the service.

They reveal the resilience of my family – their determination to survive and the way they supported one another in order to have that happen. I grew up with the saying, “you do for family,” and Uncle Eugene’s memories demonstrate some of the specific ways that has happened throughout our history. His memories also reveal how both farms and factories shaped not only how we worked but how we lived and thus who we are. So, without further ado, here’s Uncle Eugene’s recollections of how the Parton clan came to be who and where we are.

The Memories of Arley Eugene Parton

I was born the third living child of Nellie and Dall Roy Parton. My grandfather’s name was Tillman Logan Parton. My dad’s brother’s name was Arley Beecher. My mom named me after him and he named one of his boys Arley Beecher Junior after himself.

Tillman lived from 6/18/1884 to 8/27/1950. Arley Beecher, his son, my uncle, lived from 2/14/1921 to 4/24/1974. His wife Stella still lives on Knott Ave in Knoxville. They had nine children.

My oldest brother, Robert was born in Guyan, West Virginia on 1/11/1937 and Leroy next in the house beside Beecher’s on 2/28/1939, then me on 1/26/1942 at 3103 Knott Ave in Knoxville, TN across from Beecher’s in a house my dad built with the help of my grandfather, Tillman, on the lot they bought for $250.00 dollars after they moved to Tennessee from Guyan.

My memories of that place are few. Like being inside a tire and rollin’ down the hill in the back yard. Being under the house with Barbara, Beecher’s girl, about the same age (1 to 3 years) as I was. We were living here when Dad went in to the Army Air Force. When he returned, he sold the house. Pop (Tillman) lived up the street in a cinder block house by a church with wife Eula Lee and kids…I remember the church singing on Sunday nights. We then moved across the street besides “Ma” Whaley where Dad had built another house. About that that time I started school and still remember the book about Spot, Sally, Dick, and Jane and the ball.

I think I was in the 3rd grade when we moved to Coalfield, TN. After Tillman bought a place and moved there. Dad bought 5 acres and built a two-room log house on the hill above Tillman place. One room had the cookstove and a bed used for us boys. The other had a small potbelly heater and bed. He used clay from he creek to fill between the logs and cardboard to put on the inside. There was a small mine over the bank where he could get coal to burn. We used coal oil lamps after dark, no electricity. We did have a radio that ran on a big squire battery, but it wouldn’t play long because it stayed run down most of the time. Later he built a chicken house, hog pen, and a root cellar. We lived on the hill with Tillman in the bottom. We could look down and see his place and the train trestle. Also the place he kept his horse “Old Dan” that we used to plow the hillside. He kicked me one day when I tried to get up on him and I had a bruise for a week. I never tried to ride him anymore.

There was a field and a creek behind his place where we would play. Also, we used to walk down the train tracks across two or three trestles to a blackberry patch and pick most of the day and Mom would make pies and can some of them or what we didn’t eat. I remember staying up all night at Tillman’s with him. I remember the rain on his tin roof, also melting crayons on the stove and making candles, of playing with Cora Lee in a tent we had made. Also playing under the train trestle, and Leroy riding me on the bike from on the hill down to Pop’s. And once in a while we would walk down the railroad tracks from school to home as the tracks ran right be the school.

There was a spring around the hill where we had to go to get water for baths and washing clothes. Baths were once a week. I remember playing in the water with some carbide we “borrowed” from Dad’s carbide light. We would watch it bubble and set it on fire to watch it burn. We would take off from home for the whole day and go up the holler to a family named White or just run around. Then we would get a whipping when we got home. Next day, we would go again.

I remember playing in the woods and swinging on a grapevine hanging from a tree. My oldest brother (Bob) broke his collarbone or something when he swing out and let go of the vine. We always made slingshots when we got a intertube to make it with. Dad had a shotgun. I remember his shooting a big black snake with it when it came in the yard. Also, I remember Mom and Dad having to go to Knoxville – I think to either have another baby or because Bob got sick and leaving us boys there and telling us to go over to another family who had some chickens and getting us one each. I got a little banty chicken, and Mom wasn’t too happy, said I should have got a big one. Anyway when I tried to pay the woman she asked what I had to trade, so I traded her a cats eye marble for the chicken. Some people are nice.

These were poor but happy times for us kids but Mom said they were her worst. Trying to find something for us to eat was a big job sometimes. Most of the time it was biscuit, gravy, and oats for breakfast and beans for supper with a big piece of fatback in it.

After Tillman died we lived there another year and 5 months. Dad had started building another house and had it more than half finished when we moved to Indiana on my 10th birthday. I was in the middle of 4th grade and went to Sharpsville School.

Wilson Hubbard Sr. who was married to my dad’s sister Helen got Dad a job with Lee Spears working on a farm and he came down to Coalfield and helped us move up here. The pay wasn’t much but we also got a place to stay…

Saturday night was going to the store night. We kids usually stayed home and listened to the Grand Ol’ Opry..trying to sell 50 baby chicks while waiting for them to come back.

There was a red barn behind the house where we would play in the loft, also a lane that went back to a patch of woods where we would go and just be kids. The woods and old garage are gone now but the house and barn are still there — I still drive by it once in a while just to see it. I remember Mom reading western books to Dad about the Hatfields and McCoys and cowboys. Dad couldn’t read all that well, but he loved for Mom to read to him.

Robert and Leroy, my two older brothers found their future wives across the road from us. They were our neighbors for a while until Dad died and we had to move. He died on 7/10/1954 only 2 years and 7 months after we moved here to Indiana…

Someone came up from Coalfield and bought our old place for $500 and Dad took some of the money and bought himself a .22 rifle and would shoot in the back yard. Mom was a good shot herself. There was now seven of us kids with Dallas, Linda, & Judy being born in Knoxville and Lois after we moved here.

I was 12 when Dad died, too young to really know what was going on. I remember Dad laying on a pallet in the front yard and having me rub his back. After he died, he was brought home and was placed in the living room in a casket until they took him to Sharpsville church for the funeral and then to the cemetery. We had to move then to Jackson Station about four miles from there. We were on welfare for a while till Mom got a job at D.A. Murrys (a factory). Mom said welfare was no good because they wanted her to keep track of ever thing [sic] we eat even how many biscuits each kid eat. So with her working and Bob working plus going to school, they kept the rest of us in school and eating. Bob kept going to Sharpsville because he was in his last year. The rest of us had to go to Tipton Schools.

There was a family lived behind us named Harris. They had some kids who we played with. Also a railroad that went over a creek where we would go and hang out. From there we moved to J.B. Oyler’s place about 3 miles east of Tipton. I think he wanted some cheap help on his farm which he got. We helped put up hay, plowing, weeding his fields for 25 cents an hour, cleaning out his chicken house. Also mostly Mom milking the cows. I remember getting snow in the winter off the chicken house and Mom would make snow cream. Of climbing a tree there, learning to drive, and getting my driver’s license. Taking Mom work and then picking her up after school, of getting the car stuck trying to get out to the road. Taking baths in a wash tub, the outside toilet. The walnut tree in front, me trying to burn an old mattress and putting gas on it and catching my pants on fire and getting a lot of blisters on my leg from it. Of us throwing knives at the ground and me spearing Larry’s toe with it

From here, Uncle Eugene moves on to talk about his time in the service, which is important because of how it connects to our social class position, but I’ll save it for another post.

These memories are priceless and I’d hate to think how many we’re missing because they were never written down.

Which is why I’m running a folk writing workshop at the Tipton County Library (where my parents grew up) during the month of June. If you’re a Tipton local, I’d love for you to join us.

Rural life is something that often gets misrepresented when folks on the outside of it write about it, make TV shows and films about it, and report on it in the news. Stories from rural folks themselves are sorely needed in all of these spaces, and I hope you’ll think about contributing yours.

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