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September 16, 2003

Alabama Roots

The following memories were dictated by Iva Ella Harris Wright, Ngnat's greatgrandmother, into a tape recorder beginning on January 8, 1998 when she was 84 years old. They've been floating around on various floppy disks in the years since then. I figured having them here and available is preferable to storing them on what will likely become an obsolete medium in the next few years. With the exception of some minor editing, her words exactly as she spoke them.

My baby years were spent in a little farming community called Horton located on a fertile plateau atop Sand Mountain in the Northern part of Alabama. My parents, James A. Harris (or Jim Harris he was called) and Ella Jolee Hayes, had been married thirteen years when I came along Their first two children--little girls--died. One was stillborn. The other, Gertrude, died of pneumonia when she was nine months old. The two boys came next, Floyd and then Alvon. The next child was a girl, Vivian. I came along two years after Vivian.

My mother and father had only been married for three months when my mother's grandmother, Sally Gibbs, came to live with them. She helped to care for all of us as we were growing up and was just like another mother. We called her "Mammy" and we loved her dearly. My earliest memory is of Mammy holding me and changing my diaper. I can remember looking into her face, seeing the expression on her face. It is hard for me to believe this, but surely it must have happened. I probably was a hard child to potty train. She told us stories and she rocked us to sleep . It was always a good warm, secure feeling sitting in her lap.

My daddy worked across the road at his father's general store. His father, Andrew McDuffy Harris was known affectionally all over the area as Uncle Mac. This was the only store in the whole area, and beside the store was a cotton gin. There was a saw mill in the area too, but that was about all there was there except farm land and a couple of churches. The Post Office was inside the general store and my father was the Post Master. Our house was just across the street from the store, and besides caring for the children, Mother fed the traveling salesmen who came to the store on occasion. They were called "drummers" back then. When they came, they always made it a point to eat their meal at Mother's house because she was well known for her ability to cook. Sometimes my father would even take some of her biscuits to the store to put on display to show what his brand of flour could do.

One evening before I was born, the whole family went to spend the night with relatives. This kind of thing happened often in those days. And while they were gone, their house burned to the ground. The next morning all they found there were ashes. Everything they had was lost. But with the help of neighbors, another house was erected on the same spot.

When I was around three years old the decision was made to move to the nearby town of Boaz, which was ten miles away, because there was a school there which the boys could atteend. It was a well-known school, John Snead Seminary. It was started and operated by Dr. and Mrs. Elder. He was an ordained Methodist minister. He had lived in one of the midwestern states, but his health was bad and it was suggested that he move to the South for his health. When they got there, they found out there was no high school in the area at all, so they began one and took in students in their own home and took care of them until they could build a place to house them. The school grew rapidly and was soon widely known.

During this time World War I was being fought, but our home was untouched by it. We lived for a while in a large two-story white house that we called the "Big House" because it had a full basement and a large upstairs. Now, the upstairs was scary to us. One day my older brother put a sheet over himself and stood at the top of the stairs when he heard my sister coming up them. She fell all the way down because she was so frightened. Mother had a big garden out back and we had a large pasture where we kept a cow. These were good places for us to play. One afternoon my mother missed me. She looked and looked and couldn't find me and was so worried. Later someone found me fast asleep on one of the big featherbeds upstairs.

Mother always had lots of flowers where ever she went. At the "Big House"she had a big circle of "pinks" (or carnations as they are called today) in the front yard, and it was a place we always remembered, especially for one reason. Vivian left her doll out in the yard one night and it rained on the doll. The doll had to be buried, so we put the doll among the carnations.

One day my daddy helped Floyd and Alvon build a rabbit hutch down in the basement. They were very excited about it, but when it came time to take it outside, they had made it so large they couldn't get it through the door. They had to tear it down and put it back together again outside.

After my younger brother Wallace was born, we moved to another place, another part of town, to be closer to the elementary school. We had to walk to school and Dad was always trying to find a place close to school for that reason. One winter day shortly after we moved there, I was standing in front of the fireplace. I was about four years old then. Floyd was standing at the window watching children go by when my dress caught fire, the tail of it, and the flames were going up my back. Floyd jumped all the way across the bed and came to my rescue. He was fighting the flames to keep them out of my face when Mother arrived and smothered the blaze. What really saved me from being badly burned was my wool flannel petticoat.

The family was just getting established when my mother's brother Wesley came from Arizona. He told them of the great success he was having raising cotton there with the help of the Indians on the reservation. With much persuasion, he talked Mother and Dad into moving there. It was the same old "go West and get rich quick" story. It is still hard for me to believe that they did such a thing, but my mother must have had a great desire to be near the members of her family who had moved to the Western states.

The trip to our new home was quite an experience. My father sold everything--our home, car, cow, furniture--everything but the clothing, the bedding, and the pots and pans. They were packed, and food was prepared for a three-day trip on the train--plenty of fried chicken and biscuits, I remember. Our family almost filled up one whole coach of the trian. Besides our family of seven, there was Mammy, my father's sister Ellen and her husband Jack and their four children. We children found the train to be very exciting. The long aisle was a perfect place for skipping and running, but Mother said, "No running." Then we needed a lot of water after we discovered they had cute little paper cups to drink from. Of course, we enjoyed eating our own food on the trian, but when the porter came through with all his wares, they had a great appeal to us. Mother did not allow up to beg for them, however.

The first night we were having a little difficulty adjusting to our beds on the pullman car. Mother had to go to the bathroom during the night, and she bumped her head on the upper berth. So all the rest of the trip, she nursed a big black eye, which was an emarrassment to her. My sister met a little girl her age on the train, and they played together. The little girl said, "I'm a Catholic. What are you." My sister, who know nothing about being a Catholic, replied proudly, "I'm an American!" Our horizons were beginning to expand.

When we arrived in Yuma, Arizona, we were taken to our temporary home on the edge of a large Indian reservation. Our house was an adobe hut with only two large rooms and a screened porch Most of the cooking was done outside. I remember Floyd carving some toy furniture for Vivian and me from some adobe clay, and Wallace recalls boring a hole in the wall of one of the huts with his knife. It must have been fun working with that adobe clay. We were reminded that we were to stay there until the cotton crop was gathered, so every day we were with the Indians, and I never shall forget what an experience that was for all of us. When the Indians came for their pay or for any other reason, they never knocked or called. They just sat down on the ground and waited until someone saw them. It was really scary for us.

After the crop was gathered, we moved to a farm not far from Yuma. There we had a big white house surrounded by a screened porch and with big cottonwood trees in the yard. My dad and the older boys started learning about irrigation farming. Mother cared for her cow, the chickens, and the children. Nearby was a two-room schoolhouse where I started as a first-grader. Each room had four grades with one teacher. Since I already knew my ABC's, the teacher moved me to the second grade row. But that was a mistake. Each day I dreaded the thought of having to compete with the children who knew more words that I did. And when the song, "Good Morning to You," was sung each morning, I was always so upset, I could hardly keep the tears back. Fianlly Mother talked with the teacher and asked her to put me back where I had been before. I was very happy to be back in my old seat.

The most memorable thing about that first year was the the the closing of school. We had an outdoor drama. I was chosen to be one of the fairies. Oh happy day! Mother sent me to a neighbor's house to get my long straight hair rolled up on strings. For the first time in my life, I had long, lovely curls. I was dressed in a pink crape paper dress with frilly pink socks to match. Since the program was held outside, and we had no lights, all the people turned on their car lights. We sang and we danced, but alas, my nose started bleeding and ruined my dress. So ended my stage career. What a pity.

That was when we decided to go to California to visit relatives. This meant having to cross the Mojave Desert. At that time in 1920, there were no roads of any kind across this desolate expanse except for a few plank roads over the sand hills. We were accompanied by Aunt Ellen and Uncle Jack and their family. We traveled in our T-Model Fords, one of which kept breaking down. It took us several days to get across, following occasional tracks and scattered bones along the way. At night the adults slept on the ground and the children occupied the cars. My most vivid memory was the heat and the fact we could not go barefoot. The sand was much too hot to walk on. I was also afraid of snakes. Our last day, we gave out of water, and everyone immediately became very thirsty. We kept going until we came to the first little settlement sometime during the night. I think it was Palm Springs or River Side. I am not sure which.

While we were in California, we saw the Pacific Ocean and had our fill of the delicious peaches and other fruits they had there. Mother went with Aunt Lillie, Uncle Wesley's wife, to work for a short while in the canning factory that was near by and brought us beautiful peaches home. Evidently, Mammy took care of the family while they did that. I have often wondered about that. Anyway, we remember the good fruit, and another thing I remember, I had corn flakes for breakfast for the first time while we were there. They were so good. They were delicious. Strange to say, I can't remember anything about our trip back to Yuma. It must have been very uneventful.

But there were a few things that I remember that happened on our farm that I have to tell you about. Mother had lots of chickens including mother hens with biddies. One day there came a big rain, a cloudburst they called it. There were unusual in that area. Very little rain came during the summer. Mother rushed out to get the hens and bitties in their coops, but she was too late. Before long, every little chick had big wads of adobe mud on its feet. They couldn't even walk because their feet were so heavy. We had to help Mother catch everyone of these little chicks and soak the adobe clay from their feet. I know that must have been fun for us.

Often the Indians came by our house, walking or riding on their horses. The women had long black hair and wore long, full-skirted colorful dresses. We were told that they used the adobe clay to cover their heads when the lice became a bother. It sounds like a pretty good idea. We could not understand their language, but they managed to relay their desires to us in English. One afternoon an Indian man stopped his horse in our backyard and asked my mother a question. She replied that she didn't understand him. He repeated again what he had said, but still she did not grasp it. Then he began laughing. He jumped from his horse and picked up an egg from a nest and said "egg, egg," which is what he had been saying all along. Mother was embarrassed, but she sold him some eggs and he went on his way. I learned only one phrase from their language: " -------------------," which means, " The child wants water."

Another vivid memory comes to mind: An old man with full beard and long hair came riding into our yard on his burro one afternoon late. He asked permission to put his tent in our back yard that night. My dad let him stay. Now we children were very eager to know more about him and wanted to go to his tent, but we were not allowed to do so. During the night, we heard him reading in his tent and we wondered what he was reading. My father said, " He is reading his Bible." The next day he went into town, but he never returned. I n his place there came a young man in his place riding on the same burro. He was clean-shaven and he had short hair. Well, it was the same man, of course, with the excess hair removed. My dad said he was a prospector and had been living out in the wilderness area for many months panning for gold. He only came to town to get supplies now and then. My, what a life.

My father and the boys had a hard time adjusting to being awakened in the middle of the night to open the flood gates when it was our time to receive water from the river to irrigate the fields. Each farmer had to be ready to accept it when his time came no matter the hour. Someone had to watch to make sure no gopher holes broke loose and flooded the road instead of the fields. Water was a precious commodity. One thing the boys enjoyed was the easy fishing to be done in the irrigation ditches. All one had to do was get in the water and grab the fish as they swam by. Of course, now and then you might grab a snake instead of a fish.

This kind of life was so different. My parents became very homesick for their Alabama lifestyle. Besides, the price of cotton had hit the bottom, and there was no chance of making money raising it anymore. We were not going to get rich after all, so we packed everything once again and headed back to Alabama. The day we drove away, our little dog follow our car as long as he could. We cried as we waved goodbye. Surely Mother and Dad had done something to provide for that puppy dog. I hope so.

My father and mother never recovered financially from that trip. It was the adventure of their lives, but a financial disaster. Soon after we returned, our beloved grandfather Harris died, and Grandma Harris came to live with us. Mammy realized that two old people in one house was too much, and she went to live with some other kin. This was a very sad day for us. She was our second mother, and we loved her so much. Grandma Harris was almost like a stranger. She never showed any affection toward us, but lshe liked to tell us what to do. Poor Mother. Grandma Harris lived with us until her death in 1933. Mother's father, Grandpa Hayes (Thomas Bryant or T.B. Hayes) came to stay with us each summer during those years. He spent his winters in the warm Western states with his other children. We enjoyed hearing his stories about experiences there. When we went to church, the minister always called on Grandpa to pray. He would get to his knees and pray long and fervently. We really felt God's presence during those times.

It should be said here that Grandpa and Grandma Hayes (his first wife Savannah Gibbs Hayes--my mother's mother) were very devout Methodists. They gave the land on which the Oak Grove Methodist Church at Horton was built and the land for the cemetery also. They say that Grandma Hayes was a "shouting Methodist." There were many "shouting Methodists" back in those days. I have been told that she would shout until her long hair fell down and all the hair pins shook out of her hair. She was the first one to be buried in the cemetery beside Oak Grove Church on the land they had given. She died of pneumonia at the age of twenty-five leaving four small children--two girls and two boys--Sarah, nine; my mother, Jolee, seven; Wesley, five; and Russell, around one year old.

Soon after her death, Grandpa married a widow with five children. This was only a marriage of convenience. He needed someone to care for his children, and she needed a home and a livelihood. She was not very good to the children. My mother said. that she took their very good feather bed and put it on the bed of her own children. Then one very cold day, my Great-grandfather Gibbs (Savannah's father and Mammy's husband) found little Russell, the baby, crawling out in the road without any kind of clothing except a thin shirt--no diaper. He took the baby home with him and kept him, and he never let Grandfather Hayes have the baby back after that. This wife died not too long after they were married, and out of necessity Grandpa Hayes married again. This wife died in childbirth soon after. Once more he married, only to lose this fourth wife a short time later. Back then many women died very early. They died from tuburculosis or pneumonia and in childbirth. People didn't know how to handle those things back then.

The last wife, his fifth wife Connie (called Coonie) outlived him, and they had six children together. This made a difficult childhood for my mother and her sister and two brothers. They had four stepmothers. When Grandpa Hayes became too old to work, he spent his time with different children. And Grandma Coonie lived with a daughter by a previous marriage.

Since we always had old folks living with us, we had lots of company, especially during the summer. Carloads from the Western states always came to see us and to see Grandma and Grandpa and all the relatives scattered around in Alabama. We were always having to give up our beds for company. It also meant having to wash piles and piles of dirty dishes. We seldom went anywhere. People always came to us. I recall only one picnic that we as a family had at the Tennessee River. We were allowed to go see our cousins, on rare occasions during the summer, but as a family, after that big trip out West, we seldom went anywhere.

When I was eight years old, my daddy and a relative went into business together and purchased a general store in nearby Albertville, five miles from Boaz. It proved to be a very successful venture. They also bought two big trucks called "Rolling Stores," to take merchandise to outlying areas. These trucks had many sections built into them, and they could take almost anything to the those people who seldom got to town--even dress goods and wares like that. Things were fine until Dad discovered that his partner was living a double life. Daddy could not tolerate this, so he sold his part of the business. Many people had purchased goods and charged for them (That was done a lot back in those days) but most of that money was never recovered, so Daddy went back to Boaz and started working in the Post Office.

Soon after that, Mother and Daddy had a big surprise. Another little boy arrived. They had no idea they would have another child. The care of this child was too much for mother, so I was kept out of school for a year to be Mother's helper. I was eleven-years-old and enjoyed being out of school. But the next year, I was left behind, and my classmates were eighth graders. After the first month, the principal came to me and said, "Iva, I think you can go on ahead with your friends because you have made all A's." I was so pleased.

By this time, Floyd had gone to Birmingham to become a barber, and Alvon had completed high school and had a job in a bank in Gadsden. Wallace and I spent a lot of time playing together. I was still a child but I wanted to be old enough to do things my sister was doing. I was not a child and not a woman.. Wallace and I and our friends played a lot of games like ante-over, marbles, hopscotch, jump the rope, swinging, doing tricks on the acting pole, making secret caves, building play houses, and dodge ball. A little later when we had access to a tennis court, we both enjoyed tennis. Those were happy times.

My high school years soon began, and I, along with my friends, found the beginning of each year very exciting. The dormitory boys and girls moved in then, and we started thinking about the possibility of making new friends--maybe a new boyfriend. Our days and nights were filled with all sorts of activities at church and school. Mother saw to it that we were given a chance to expand and grow. She stayed home so that we might have every opportunity. One of the things I enjoyed most was the Glee Club. We had to practice at night in the girls domitory. That meant I would haveto walk there alone or have my brother Wallace go with me. Bless his heart, many time he went very reluctantly. I was the only girl who lived out in town to be a member of the Glee Club, but I was determined. I wanted to do it so much.

Our family never had a car in those years. A lot of other people didn't have cars back in those days. Our Epworth League at church proved to be very good training for me and Vivian. There I learned to speak before a group and express my faith and take responsibility. I was even asked to teach a class of primary children in my senior year, and I enjoyed it. It was then that I began singing in the church choir. One of my former teachers said she would help me learn to sing alto if I would sit beside her. I am thankful to her to this day for that.

I wanted so much to play the piano, but there seemed to be no money for lessons. Then a blind musician, who still owed my father money, offered to pay his debt by teaching me. He agreed to come on Saturday mornings in time for dinner. He knew about Mother's cooking. Some time before this, my brother Floyd had bought the family a self-player piano. Oh, it was the pride and joy of the family! I am sure my mother and dad soon wished it to be somewhere else. We kept it going constantly. It caused us to become a singing family. We were always so happy to have our older brothers home for a visit. There was a downside to that, however. I remember well one time being given the task of ironing the dress shirts for my brothers and dad--twenty-one starched white shirts, to be exact. Back then girls were taught early to wait on the men of the family. I was thirteen or fourteen years old at that time.

As I grew older, I was becoming more and more involved in the work of the church. The Epworth League was the name of the Methodist youth organization then. Each summer, the Epworth League had an institute held in our home town on the campus of Snead Seminary. We also went to Tennessee Wesleyan College for a week of study one summer. These things were very helpful to us in years later. When Vivian finished high school, she went to school at Tennessee Wesleyan College and was graduated from there.

My high school days were a happy time in my life. One of the things I had an opportunity to do was to be in some operattas. Also I competed in oratorical contests. I was not very good at it, but I liked to try.

I had plenty of boy friends--some I did not think much of. One of these boys was crippled. None of the girls wanted to date him, and so I did because I felt sorry for him. I didn't like being with him--not because he was crippled, but because he was so very boring. He just bored me to death. There was another boy I recall who was so handsome he thought he was Clark Gable. He was too overpowering for me. One young man who meant a lot to me--not as a sweetheart, but just as a friend--was Aubrey Thompson. We spent many happy hours together talking about our thoughts and plans for the future. He wanted to be an inventor and would tell me all about things he wanted to invent. We went on picnics together, and we were involved together in many things at school. During my senior year, a young woman named Grace Burdashaw came to our school. Grace and I became bosom buddies. Later, when I gave birth to my second daughter, I gave her the name of my friend. My friend Grace and my friend Aubrey later fell in love and were married.

I had planned to go to college when I graduated from high school, and I knew where I wanted to go. My plans all fell through, however, because of the Great Depression. My parents had no money to send me to college. There were no scholarships then, and there were no jobs available for girls either. I was certainly in a state of mental depression because of this letdown. Vivian, by this time, was doing well. She had finished her college work and was teaching in Horton.

At this time in my life, I became aware of a new young man in town. His name was Carl Wright.

Mamma made more tapes. I'll have to see if they've been transcribed as well.

Update: The second entry in these memoirs may be seen here.

Posted by Bigwig at September 16, 2003 10:55 AM | TrackBack
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Very interesting! Seems like they had all the fun (and all the hardships) back then.

Posted by: Fran at September 16, 2003 02:08 PM

Thanks for posting that. I enjoyed ereading it again. Sorry I haven't had a chance to transcribe any more. It is very timeconsuming. Do you think some of that software that allows the computer to type as you speak might work for that?

Posted by: Yomamma at September 16, 2003 07:47 PM

Boaz. Yup. Know just where that is. Nawth of Buminham.

Posted by: fredf at September 16, 2003 08:47 PM

Very interesting. Both of my grandfathers wrote out their memoirs. It's important to know your history, and everyone should encourage their parents and grandparents to do the same.

Thank you for sharing this.

Posted by: Michael at September 17, 2003 11:21 AM

My great aunt & uncle: Andrew McDuffy Harris married a Mary Frances Blanton (Mary is daughter of Asbury J. Blanton/Elizabeth Jane Speer. Mary b.1848 d.1933). In addition to son Andrew A., do you have any info on the other children of said union, if any? Or any other information you wish to share would be most welcome.

Posted by: L. Blanton at January 4, 2004 05:11 PM
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