Tag Archives: American History

A Summer of Pilgrimage, Part II: The Old Home Place

I’ve talked a lot about my Cajun granny and the swamp, and about my seventeen cousins and our lives up in Jackson, but I’ve been hiding something from you. Something about the Scotch-Irish side of my family – my mother’s side. I know you are shocked and disappointed in me, but you will understand when I say one simple word…

Plantation.

In the years following the war, and you know which one I’m talking about, they tried to keep it going as one large enterprise. I know this sounds like a page out of the “Gone With the Wind” playbook, but go right ahead and picture women, old men, and children in tattered clothes trying to maintain a decaying house, a few livestock, and a garden. So a generation or two later when there were enough men, they divided up the land, gave each male member of the vast, extended family a chunk, and I mean a big chunk, because the original plantation covered a good portion of the county, and the family began breaking apart to run their own farms.

They used the lumber from the “out buildings” to build their own small farm houses. The big old plantation house was still standing when my mother was a child in the thirties, but after the war, and this time I mean WWII, they finally tore it down because it was too old and enormous and run-down and they couldn’t afford the repairs. They say there are pictures of it somewhere, but I’ve never seen them. The cousins and I used to hike back up into the woods for miles, all across Great Uncle Royce’s land, then Great Uncle Herbert’s land, etc., and go play around at the patch of rubble and dirt that everyone called “the old home place”. Then we would go to the creepy old family cemetery and hide behind the gravestones and scare each other.

My mother was the baby of her large family – she’s eighty now, and is the only one left of seven brothers and sisters. Some of the cousins are gone too. We don’t go “down home” that much anymore, now that almost everyone is gone. But for her eightieth birthday this summer, I took her down. Someone else, not even family, owns her Daddy’s little used-plantation-lumber farm house now, so we couldn’t go inside, and you can’t get down to the old home place or the family cemetery without a four wheeler, so all we got to do was drive by places – the farm house, her school, the church, and the general vicinity of the old home place.

Here’s a picture of the farm house where my mother grew up and where I played as a child. House is on the left; smoke house is on the right. There were also fields, gardens, pastures, a hen house, a well, an outhouse, a barn with a hayloft, etc. To the right behind the smoke house, one mule pasture away, is a clear, rocky creek that I used to swim in as a kid.

Farm

If you want to get a pretty clear image of what Mississippi looked like in the old days, you gotta watch “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, because they did a remarkable job of recreating the atmosphere. The clothes, the accents, the music, the food, the extreme, slightly ominous religiosity, the bizarre and deeply entrenched racism, the overall weirdness, and the look of the land itself – all of it is absolutely spot-on. Here’s a fine example…

I might have played this song before, but I’m playing it again because it was my Paw Paw’s favorite song. When the crops would fail, he would take the train out of McComb-city, as he called it, to New Orleans, about an hour away, to work on the docks and live in a Creole boarding house, sending money home each week. He loved trains…

My cousins and I used to spend weeks on the farm in the summer, helping to pick and shell peas and butter beans, canning vegetables and making jam and so on. The little Baptist church would have a week-long revival every summer, with a lot of singing and eating. We sang in “parts” – the men taking one part, the women the other. I would get mad at my cousins when they wouldn’t sing their parts right. I took it seriously, you see, and sang my part with all my might. Here’s one of the songs we sang over and over, “I’ll Have a New Body”, performed here by the great Hank Williams. The cousins and I would practice singing our parts while we were hiking to the old home place…

Mama is the little one.

Mama is the little one.

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