“How time changes everything.”
This quote came from the lips of a fairly surprised man of around 80, my dear great-uncle Carl Ray, as we descended into the valley of his childhood.
It had been some four decades or better since he had been around the old home places where he grew into a man. The people who own it now (locals and good folks, thankfully) were kind enough to let us have free rein and roam for the day. I set it up with them and planned it out, nearly as soon as Carl made the suggestion that he would like to show me where the places were.
I have spent years recording and researching my family, and the best way is through the stories and recollections of the older members of it. Carl is my favorite source, as well as my closest friend and an all around good ol’ boy. Since my grandfather’s death, Carl is about my only link to a time I never knew, but he did, quite well.
Carl was born near Mt. Judea in Newton County, Arkansas and grew up poor, as his family had for generations before him. He recalled what we know as the ‘Freeman Store’ which his grandfather ran for a business, near the waters of Big Creek. We visited that site, amazed and grateful that the owners had fenced in the foundation and thus saved it. Carl pointed out the large rocks that were the pillars for the front porch. He recalled large trees nearby that people would hitch their wagons and horses to. Just down from that very spot, my great-grandfather lived in a tent after his marriage, since they were too poor to afford a home at that time.
Spring is coming here in the Ozarks, and we come upon the waters of the quick-flowing (this day) Big Creek, and Carl comments that he ‘Can’t move like I used to. Wonder what happened?’ as he grins and nimbly makes his way across, rock by rock. I stumble along clumsily behind, and have to have Carl give me a hand to steady myself as I jump across to a large tree root, to climb up onto a narrow bench above the creek. Here is the former home of my great-great-grandparents, George and Carrie. The home is long gone, but the rock foundation is still there, as well as Carrie’s beautiful Jonquils, just breaking out into bloom. We break off some branches from the spicewood trees nearby, to make tea from, and Carl recollects as he rolls back in his memory banks, of days long gone. He once set up steel traps as a kid there, despite George’s wishes, and caught George’s old housecat. Carl was horrified and released it, but it later lost a foot. He recalled everytime that cat would cross the floor at George’s home, you could hear the thump of its stub on the floor and George would say ‘See what you did, Carl?’ Carl said it was funny now, but as a kid it was awful to hear!
We wandered around and I discovered a BB gun and a bike fender, both bringing back memories for Carl. As we stood there, Carl took us back to 1951, the year Carrie died, there at the home place, of cancer. She was a kind, gentle woman, but tolerated no foolishness, as Carl readily recalls. He remembers when his father took him to a ‘picture show’ at Mt. Judea, costing a quarter to get them in. The first movie he ever saw! On the way home, they passed George and Carrie’s home around midnight and his father hollered ‘Mom are you still up?’ She readily replied ‘Yep! You boys come in and get some of this chicken off of the table!’ They walked in and each got a piece, eating it as they made their way home, further up the creek. Carl recalled up from the home was the headwater of the spring, where they kept their milk submerged, as no refrigerators were around at that time. Carl said he made a habit of sneaking up there and getting the cream off of the milk, until Carrie caught him and tanned his hide!
As we stood there, amongst the undergrowth and the beautiful flowers, with the warm Ozark sun shining down, I saw a man near 80 become a kid again. He rolled off stories, brought about the surroundings he once knew like the back of his hand. Decades had passed, but his memories were still warm as if they happened yesterday. He regaled me with story after story as we walked the grounds, me learning and him recollecting. That was truly a sight to behold. A man of the soil, the ‘Old Trapper’ as we call him, recalling his raising and how rough it was, but he survived and grew into a man. He learned much from his family, the ways of hunting, trapping, ginseng digging, and many other ways to make a living in the lean Ozark hills.
His father’s house still stands, and we drove to it just before we left. Carl leaned back and recalled more stories about hard times, good whiskey, and better people. Truly, my inheritance is a rich one, though my people were poor. They endured harder times than any have seen, and took it on the chin with a smile (and the occasional shot of ‘wildcat’).
As we left the valley and headed back, we made some more stops, but that was truly the highlight of the day, watching a dear family member of mine roll back in time to a time I will never know, but love. Nostalgic for a time I never experienced, but oft heard of. The warm Ozarks sun and warmer yet memories brought me to Carl’s side, seventy years ago, as we trod the rocky soil, stopping to see where Sherman Hicks had plowed his large field with horses, and hitched a ride in his wagon back down the creek.
We also stopped by where my great-great-grandmother found religion at the much celebrated ‘brush arbor’ built by a local preacher near the end of the old road. Carl recalled that people would come from miles around and hang their lanterns in the trees for light, singing hymns and celebrating ’til the early hours of the next morning.
Truly, it was a day to be remembered, and I take from it this and pass it to you. Remember your elders. Not just in daily manners and life, but make a point to reach out and spend time with them. You will be amazed at what you will learn from even a simple excursion such as this one. Countless stories are lost because people ‘get too busy’, and I am surely guilty of that, but do not let that be your excuse! Reach out, reconnect, and record it all.
Because as Carl said, “How time changes everything.”