Posts Tagged With: family history

Traveling to the Past: Farm Livin’ on the Ware Farm

Today in a bit I’ll be heading to the Ware family farm.  My grandfather bought the land in parcels, ending up with just over 140 acres of East Texas red dirt.  He managed to keep it through the Depression.

The farmhouse we have today — the one I’ll be staying in tonight — was only built in 1939-40.  Dad moved into it as a high school senior.  Until then, the family had not had a house with electricity, running water, or plumbing.  Neither of the two wood houses they lived in prior to 1940 still exists, but we know where they were.  The first was quite primitive, with a packed dirt floor, as I recall Dad saying.

The house they moved into in 1940 had three regular bedrooms and one small room that held a 3/4 bed; it also had a living room, dining room, kitchen, and a bathroom.  Family stories about the bathroom are quite funny.  Granddad, it seems, wasn’t convinced that it was hygienic to have the toilet so close to the kitchen, but Grandmother (who one of my dad’s first cousins refers to as “a progressive woman,” was determined to have it.  She won.  The bathroom was built, adjacent to the kitchen.  But Granddad built an outhouse and, I understand, used it for a while before he gave in about hygiene.

That house ended with the bathroom and kitchen — both had doors leading to a small porch that stepped down to the backyard.  However, after Granddad sold timber in 1956 or so, he built on an enclosed back porch, a small room for storage, and one more bedroom, large enough to hold two double beds and a crib.  That back porch enclosed the well that we used for water.  Though the well was connected to an electric water pump, there were times when we had to haul water from it by hand.  Only in the 1990s did we get “city” water.  That’s kind of funny, in a way — we are five miles or so out of the “big” town of San Augustine, which has a population of maybe 2500 people.  Only in the 1970s or 80s  did we get connected to the gas main — until then we had a propane tank.

This is the house now:


The farm is very much in the country.  I tell people it’s in San Augustine, but that’s not quite true.  It’s in San Augustine County, but it’s not in town.  It’s five miles or so out of town, in a tiny community called Bland Lake.  It’s country, clearly:


There’s a lot of pasture land now, and our barn’s still standing.  Sort of:


Both my grandparents’ families were from this area.  The Wares came to this area in the 1830s, just before the Texas Revolution.  Some other ancestors on that same side came about the same time.  My grandmother Ware’s family, however, were relative newcomers — they moved to San Augustine in 1900, leaving Barbour County, Alabama, for an area that friends had already moved to, and wrote back about.

San Augustine and Nacogdoches, Texas, have an ongoing disagreement about which is the oldest settlement in Texas.  San Augustine is also known as the point of entry for the border area between it and Louisiana (known as No-Man’s Land).  The town is also known for feuds along the lines of the Hatfields-McCoys.  With a violent past, it had its last shootout in the 1930s, and my aunt and grandmother were in town when that happened.  The problem was considered serious enough that TWOTWO — Texas Rangers were sent in to take care of it.

Granddad farmed with a horse and mules.  Only when he sold the timber in 1956 did he buy a tractor — and a new truck — and build on to the house.  The main crop was cotton, of course.  He also grew corn and potatoes and watermelon.  I can remember helping to pick corn and get potatoes.  I also remember getting in trouble for plugging watermelons with my older boy cousins — until Granddad put a stop to it, sternly.  He sold most of them for cash, another source of income.

Grandmother had her “truck patch.”  Most farm wives did.  Hers was, at its peak, pretty large.  I remember going up and down rows of peas and butter beans and other vegetables, sweating, with my little bonnet on that she’d made.  She always wore her own bonnet, long sleeves, and gloves — ladies didn’t get tanned, even farm wives.  She also milked and gathered eggs.  I loved to help with that — though I couldn’t milk worth anything.  Gathering eggs was much easier, and feeding the chickens was a neat chore.

My grandmother didn’t have a washing machine until the 1950s — and we still have it.  It was a ringer-type washer, and I was always fascinated by it.  We don’t use it, of course — but it still sits in the shed.

Dad and his brother and sister helped out, as farm kids did, and they’d laugh as they told us what it was like to run barefoot on the hot dirt as they picked cotton.  They’d tell us about using a kerosene lamp to read and study by.

By the time I was born,  none of the three kids was on the farm.  Dad worked for Sun Oil Company and lived in Beaumont.  Uncle James worked for Sun Pipe Line and lived in Louisiana, though he ended up in Beaumont as well.  My Aunt Mildred lived in Fort Worth, where she and her husband and two boys lived; she’d moved up there during World War II to work in a war-related plant, as so many did.  None of the grandchildren ever lived there either.

Grandmother died in 1962; Granddad died a couple of years later.  Yet the farm remains in the family.  For Dad and his siblings, this was home.  For us grandkids, it’s not home, but it’s special.  We spent many hours roaming the pastures, playing in the ditches and barn, and wandering where we weren’t always supposed to be.  One of my earliest memories, in fact, is here — when Dad was in the hospital in Beaumont for goiter surgery, I was at the farm with my grandparents, and feeling very lonely.  I can remember lying in bed in the fireplace bedroom, looking out the window at the pasture, and crying.  Granddad came in to hum to me and comfort me.  I was, at the time, probably 3.  This view is close to what I remember, though it’s in daytime, not night:


Over the years, we’ve worked on making the house safe and comfortable.  We get together several times a year there, working on one project for three days or so each time.  It’s work time, but also family time.  We take turns being responsible for meals, and we sit around at night and talk a lot.  And laugh a lot, too.

Though it isn’t a working farm, we lease out pasture to a cousin’s husband; he runs cattle on it.  Since he’s there every day at least once, we are comfortable knowing that someone has an eye out for us.  If he doesn’t look at things, another cousin (who lives just down the road), drives by and keeps us informed of any activity, especially related to oil or gas-related lease information; he’s the county surveyor, too, as his dad (my dad’s first cousin) was.

It’s a small county, after all.

This weekend is the weekend of the Richards family reunion.  Grandmother Ware was a Richards; her father began the reunion tradition.  Until this year, it was always held on Labor Day weekend.  Now, we’ve moved it to October, when it’s a bit cooler.

There were, I think, 12 Richards children — my dad had something like 35 first cousins just from the Richards side.  Grandmother’s last sister died in 2010– at 104 1/2 — and she wasn’t the youngest.  Now the first cousins are the eldest, and I’m in “the younger generation” in their 60s.  Of course, there are a lot of our age- group’s children and even grandchildren by now.  It’ll be interesting to see how many turn out tomorrow; attendance numbers have fallen over the years.

When I hit the road in a bit, I’ll be driving for three hours or so, with one stop to rest my legs a bit.  I don’t take the same route we always traveled, though — that route takes me on two-land roads, twisting and turning through Louisiana and Texas.  Instead, I head up to North Louisiana to Many on a four-land road, much improved.  At Many, I take my break, then head west over Pendleton Bridge into East Texas, and finally take the two-lane road to San Augustine, out of it, past the small church and cemetery where Mother and Dad and Phil and other family members are buried, and then turn left on a farm-to-market road to the farm.  I’ll unload the food I’m bringing for tonight’s supper and for tomorrow’s reunion.  I’ll unload my small suitcase and put it in the fireplace bedroom that Dad always used.

It’s not that far, in miles, but it’s a long trip in memories and laughter and tears.  I can’t wait.

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Tell Me the Story About. . .

When I was still teaching, I had a writing prompt that I used for any writing class– I’d ask students to write what their earliest memory was. From that, we’d talk about our answers and about the nature of memory. Did we really remember on our own, I’d ask, or did we “remember” because we’d heard about something for so long? Our discussions were wide-ranging and interesting.

The nature of memory has intrigued me for many years. In two families of storytellers, I grew up hearing family stories. Now that my parents and grandparents are dead, my sister and I often find ourselves wishing we had one more opportunity to ask questions of them. Just what would we hear? Would those stories confirm or refute what we ourselves remember?

Obviously, perspective makes a difference. I mean, my sister and I — though 7 years apart in age– experienced some of the same family events. Yet, if you talked to us, you might think we had not.

Recently, my cousin DD (her mother was my first cousin) has been eager to get together with me, my sister Kay, and her Aunt Carolyn (her late mother’s sister and my first cousin). She’s curious to hear more about her great-grandmother Ella (my maternal grandmother), my mother, and my family. Her grandmother (my mother’s sister) died a few years ago. That means, as Carolyn and I have discussed, that the two of us now are the “eldermothers.” We now are responsible for passing on the knowledge and the memories.

When my mother was alive, we could ask her about the same things her sister talked about, and by comparing their stories, we could analyze what happened or probably had happened. In our family, it was common to embellish stories, to soften stories, to invent — whether out of a desire to hide truth or embarrassment, who knows. My grandmother Ella was quite a colorful character — married four times and an independent businesswoman, her Irish/Cajun/Catholic family often found her both a rock and something of an embarrassment. To be fair, consider her time and its standards: she was born in 1908. Divorce was not common and was something to be ashamed of.

So sometimes the stories grew up to obfuscate the reality that was distasteful or embarrassing. Later, when times had changed and people regarded divorce and remarriage differently, it was easy to see the lingering condemnations of the past.

A common event, at various times, found one person pretending to be another (via a letter) in order to elicit information. The results, though, weren’t always what was anticipated. Thus my Aunt Dottie once pretended that she was my mother when she wrote to my mother’s biological father’s family — to let them know what they’d missed by never connecting with mother and her children. And my grandmother wrote to the Veteran’s Administration to get my biological grandfather’s WWI war record — only to discover that he had actually abandoned her (and my mother) rather than having disappeared and “died” (as his family continued to tell her). Grandmother was in her 70s at the time, and I think that broke her heart, even though she’d been 18 when that happened, and had married twice more and had a fine life.

Since part of our family’s heritage is Irish (my great-great-great-great grandfather immigrated to New Orleans in 1851), I sometimes refer to the “Irish-drama-queen” tendency in our family. Telling stories? Just as natural as breathing.

Sometimes Carolyn and I discuss what we grew up hearing. Between us, we try to re-construct a reality. Perhaps, though, it is just as correct to say that we construct a reality.

Only yesterday I was reading an article in the New York Times. As John Leland noted in that article, “Memory is a tricky thing: subjective, malleable to the needs of narrative or the fog of time. Some linguists believe that preliterate societies used myths to preserve their collective memories, and it seems possible, or at least poetic, that the style of memory is toward constructive story-making, not simple retention. We remember the stories we tell about our lives; we invent our lives in the remembering.”

Leland’s words struck me so much that I cut and pasted them into a note to myself. As a teacher of literature, I’ve always held with the notion that narrative is the most basic mode of writing. That urge to tell a story — our own stories, those of others, whatever — is perhaps intrinsic to human nature.

And long before we had written language, and thus written literature, we had oral traditions. History and literature and sacred texts were transmitted over time by word of mouth. Only later were they written down and even made standard.

As someone for whom Southern American literature was a speciality, I found myself responding to much of that literature with a kind of unconscious recognition. Thte patterns of speech and very narrative structures of Faulkner and Welty, among others, were part of what I knew from experience. The jump from my Granddaddy Ware’s front-porch stories to Southern authors’ short stories and novels was natural.

Stories could be repeated — and even were requested — as we’d sit there as time passed from day to evening. We knew what was coming, anticipated the known conclusion. Yet we continued to listen, to request, and to enjoy. The person telling the story might vary it to some degree each time, but the “truth” of the story didn’t.

My father, for example, could tell the same stories over and over, and each time was fresh. He’d pause at times, with what I came to recognize as a sense of timing. Whether that was conditioned and learned or inborn, I’ll never know. But I know that he could tell a story. Just as his father could. And other members of the family could and still do.

Soon I’ll meet cousins and my two aunts in East Texas for this year’s family reunion. There will be stories, believe me, many I’ve heard before. But I listen every year.

All too soon, I know, my generation will be the elders. WIll we be able to continue those family stories, those collective memories?

In part, I think, that’s why I write. It’s a way to process memories as well as to consciously construct a narrative. To re-create and to capture as well as to create.

Certainly I like to think it’s more than just my liking to “talk,” though Lord knows that’s true too. I can “talk” to the page as I talk to my cousins or to friends — but writing is more consciously constructed.

Passing our stories along becomes more important as we grow older, as we gradually become the elders of our families.

Trying to keep family units viable and active doesn’t mean being static. Stories of the past anchor us, help us know who we are, where we come from.

But family stories also reflect what we ourselves go through, what experiences we share. Telling those stories is equally important. Just as a family is a dynamic, changing entity (and as individuals we too are constantly evolving and growing), then our stories must grow, must add to the stories we inherit.

Soon I’ll be meeting with my cousin DD and Kay and Carolyn as we sift through family photographs and collectively capture the stories of my grandmother Ella and her family. Soon I’ll be joining my Ware and Richards cousins on the front porch of the farmhouse my Granddad Ware built.

Time to talk, to tell those stories, to consciously talk about what versions we know, and to make our own stories.

Some of those stories will be sad, to be sure, but many will be funny as well. We’ll learn new things and cement what we already know. There’ll be tears at times.

But there will also be laughter.

Can’t wait.

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