Written by Walter Thomas Lee in 1949
Reprinted from Hood County Genealogical Society Newsletter dated November 1994
Walter Thomas Lee (1876 – 1957) kept a journal of his articles during his lifetime, and he used his journals when he wrote his autobiography as a legacy for his family. In 1986, his nephew, Jean D. Baker, retyped the book for publication under the title Chip, Butter and White Oak. Following is an excerpt from the book:
A drought continued into 1886 and the settlers in that section of the state were having to employ all the lessons learned from the hard knocks of long pioneering. During the previous three or four winters there had been some rain and more snow than usual but by the middle of May the blistering sun, the withering winds, and the stifling dust had destroyed all but those early plants that matured before that time. During the winter of 1885 – 86, my parents had been pessimistic and had planted nothing that would not mature before June 1. This limited them to such things as usually grow in vegetable gardens, such as beans, onions, potatoes, sweet corn, turnips, black-eyed peas, etc. Some of these are not considered as early vegetables, notably potatoes, but they did become edible before the time of drought came.
This food was preserved in the traditional ways, and such was the way my parents prepared for the hard times that came in the summer and autumn of 1886. Thanks to all these precautions, I cannot recall a time when we did not have plenty to eat. Sometime the diet was rather monotonous, owing to our living so far from the source of supplies. Nevertheless, even I could see that my mother and father were not happy as they had been in times past. They no longer entertained us with their singing. In my earlier childhood it had been my greatest delight. They did not have a very extensive repertoire but that did not bother us. Night after night I could laugh at “Little Brown Jug,” “Arkansas Traveler,” Climb Up The Golden Stairs,” or thrill to “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean,” or “Dixie.” It did not matter if I transformed the old hymn “Consecrated Cross I’d Bear” into “Consecrated Cross-Eyed Bear,” for the words meant very little to me.
I took this solemnity for worry over the “hard times” I heard of so often as we were working like ants to lay up a store of food for winter. It was not until many years later that I learned it was the result of a fading dream, a dream of riches gathered from the cattle ranch that never materialized. Not long before her death, Mother told me that those were really the happiest days of her life. “So long as there were little hands clinging to my skirts as I went about my work, I could sing for pure joy.”
In addition to the items of food I have mentioned, we always had plenty of milk, butter, eggs, and chickens to fry, stew, or bake. In the matter of clothing, however, the problem was not so simple. They were cheap but it took hard cash to get them and “hardcash” was not easy to get. That summer my father worked at whatever kind of work he could find, consisting generally of building chimneys, carrying the mail, dressing millstones. The latter is now a lost art to us. The old stones used since the dawn of civilization have now been superseded by the “patent” or “roller” process of milling.
Sometime during that summer my mother announced that we were getting close to the bottom of the flour-barrel and my father prepared to go to Granbury to purchase more. He had his team hitched to the wagon and was about ready to leave when Dr. Rodgers drove up in his buggy with his surveying instruments by his side.
“Howdy, Green, where do you think you’re going?” he asked.
“I’m going to town for flour and meal. We’re about out.”
“Can’t you put it off for two or three days? I have some surveying that will take about that long and I can’t do it without your help.”
“It looks like you will have to this time. Polly says she is about out of flour and meal, and with all the mouths she has to feed, when she says that – well, it’s about time for me to get busy.”
“You have two big boys there,” Dr. Rodgers said, pointing to Billy and Ike, “why can’t they go and get the flour and meal?”
“Well, now, that’s an idea,” my father said; “what do you think about it, Polly?”
“Of course they can,” Mother replied.
“Can I go too?” I asked eagerly.
“No,” she said firmly.
I burst into tears. There was nothing, I thought, that could possibly compensate for the loss of that trip.
“No, Walter, you will have to stay here and protect me and the children. You are a big boy now and will have to be the man of the house, now the others will be away.”
Instantly my tears ceased and my chest began to swell with a newfound pride. Never before had I been called a man in what I thought was a serious opinion of my mother. Always before it had been Frank, then Billy, then Ike, and now ME on whose shoulders would rest the awesome responsibilities.
Inasmuch as it would take a day to drive to Granbury and one to come back, they were given permission to spend one full day with Frank, who, I believe I have said, was working in the County Clerk’s office.
As to what happened on that trip, I must take the story as Ike related it to me, plus what I was able to gather from conversations I heard later. They had been given enough money to buy 100 pounds of flour and the same amount of meal, which cost about $3.00 in those days (about 10 pounds of each at the prices prevailing in 1949 as I write this.) They arrived in Granbury late in the afternoon and the first thing they did was go to the courthouse to see Frank. He invited them to spend the night with him, which they did after putting the team and wagon in the wagon yard.
The next morning they went to the store to buy the flour and meal. They were told that there was not a pound of either to be had in town. The local mill was closed down because it had no grain to grind and poor prospects of getting any. In alarm they went to see what Frank would advise. Before he could answer, he said he would have to talk to the County Clerk. When he came back, his face was wreathed in smiles.
“Come with me,” he said, and led the way to one of the court rooms.
There they saw hundreds of sacks of flour, corn meal, buckets of lard, and several stacks of salt pork.
“The first thing tomorrow morning,” Frank said to Billy, “Bring the wagon up to the side of the building and we will put your flour on it and you can go back home and tell the folks you have done the impossible.”
“How’s that, Frank?”
“Never mind now, but you will be able to take back everything you came for, even if there is not a single pound for sale in town.”
Ike said that he and Billy were greatly puzzled by these cryptic remarks but right after breakfast they drove up to the courthouse and the County Clerk came to help load the sacks. He and Frank loaded four 50-pound sacks of flour onto the wagon and Billy said, “But I have money to pay for only two sacks.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said the County Clerk, as he dumped a 100-pound sack of corn meal onto the wagon. Billy proffered the $3.00 to him but it was refused.
“We’re not through yet,” he said as he went back for another sack of meal. Even that seemed not to be all as the official and Frank went back into the courthouse. They soon appeared with two sides of salt pork and a 10-pound pail of lard. Again the money was offered and again it was refused. “I’ll write a letter and tell the folks how it is,” Frank said. The boys waited in considerable bewilderment until the letter was ready and then drove off for home.
In the meantime, I was thoroughly enjoying my new role as protector of the household. My mother got more work out of me in those three days then ever before in the same length of time. Looking back through the more than 60 years, I believe I see a moral that might be useful to parents. Give the children some responsibility and praise instead of scolding and in most cases the kid will respond favorably.
My father returned from the surveying expedition an hour or two before Billy and Ike arrived. He was much concerned lest something might have happened to them and was the first one to see them coming through the gathering twilight.
“Pull up to the door,” he shouted, “and I’ll help you unload. What luck did you have?”
“I think we had better luck that you can imagine,” Billy answered, “we got more than twice as much as we went after and two sides of bacon and ten pounds of lard. An’ that ain’t all. Here’s your three dollars.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you see, there wasn’t a pound of flour or meal for sale in town but Frank’s boss had stacks and stacks of it.”
“If Frank’s boss had so much, why couldn’t he sell it?”
“I don’t know just exactly, but it seems it is to be given away to needy persons.”
“To needy persons! Do they think we are objects of charity? Why did you take it?”
As my father said these words, his voice was rising to a pitch of anger I had never heard him use when speaking to or about one of the family.
“We will just have to take it back. I can’t deny that we need more flour and meal but we have bacon and lard of our own. Furthermore, weevils will get in the meal before we can use it up.”
“Frank said it was all right and that his letter would explain it.”
“Let’s see that letter. I don’t believe there is anything he could say that wold change my mind. I know I’m far from being a rich man but I have never been an object of charity and I don’t want the children to grow up with this disgrace hanging over them,” my father said, as he took the letter out of [an] unsealed envelope.
Dear Ma and Pa: I am writing this to explain some things about the flour and meal that I did not take time to tell Billy. You know all about the crop failures of the past three seasons. Well, there are several counties that are in the same fix. Some time ago there was [a] man from the Red Cross to see what the conditions are. He want back to Saint Louis and reported that all of Hood County was in a disaster area and the Red Cross was shipping two carloads of supplies to be distributed where they will do the most good.
The Red Cross is a national organization, supported by voluntary contributions. Its purpose is to render assistance in case of such disasters as flood, cyclones, fires, crop failures, and any widespread misfortune. It is in no sense a charity but more like it is your own little settlement when everybody comes to the assistance of a neighbor if his house burns down.
My boss has been appointed to supervise distribution of the supplies. We are now writing letters to be posted in every postoffice in the county advising the people how they can get their quotas. We did not expect to begin giving them out until all had been notified but as Billie and Ike were here, there was no reason why they should go home without their share. The amount is determined by the number in the family. I know how independent you are and if you do not approve of what we have done, please do not blame Billie and Ike for I alone am to blame.
Your loving son,
That letter was read aloud several times in my presence and while I did not understand the words and I do not claim the above to be a verbatim copy of the letter, I did get the sense of it, however, and believe I have reconstructed it in something of the manner Frank may have written it.
“What do you think of it, Green?” my mother asked.
“I still don’t like it. It still looks like charity to me.”
“I want charity no more than you,” my mother said, “but Frank’s letter puts it in a different light. The children have had no hot biscuits in a week and I have held up supper till now, expecting to have flour when the boys got back. Now I am going to open one of those sacks and make a big panful of biscuits.”
“All right, Polly, when you put it that way, but right now I feel as if the finest biscuits you ever made would choke me,” he said.
The flour had been packed in sacks on which was printed a flamboyant red and black checkerboard. We kids were looking forward to having one of them on which we could play the game.
A week or ten days later those checkerboards began to appear on the clotheslines of nearly every family in the neighborhood. My mother and Sallie saw to it, however, that none of our sacks went out on the line until every vestige of the tell-tale checkerboard had been eradicated. Still later it was not an uncommon sight to see a boy wearing a shirt on the back of which appeared the outlines of a checkerboard.
As the weeks went by, the “disgrace” of his having been unwittingly an object of “charity” seemed to weigh less heavily on Pa’s mind but he continued to speak of it occasionally as his “skeleton in the closet.” I might have been alarmed at such gruesome words if I had not already become familiar with his frequent use of picturesque figures of speech.