Life in the RGNS Farm Family Program


I was four years old in 1946 when Clarence and Anne Thurmond moved our family to the Rabun Gap Nacoochee School farm. Dad had just been discharged from the Army. Jobs were scarce in Rabun Co., GA after WWII. He and Mama were familiar with the Farm Family program. Both had lived and worked on the school farm in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s when their families were in the program. They felt they could best provide for my sister Annette, my brother William and myself by joining the program. RGNS was a high school with both boarding and community students. Boarding students were required to work at various school jobs. Some were on farm crews, some had dining hall duties, others worked as janitors or helped in the business office. The school was situated on 1,800 acres in the mountains of northeast Georgia. Part of the land was used for the school campus; some was used by the school to grow beef cattle, dairy cattle, hogs, apples, corn, hay and garden vegetables for use by the school; the balance was divided into small farms for the Farm Family program. Families approved for the program were provided a house and barn and acreage suitable for gardens, livestock, hay and row crops. In return the families paid rent to the school in the form of sharecropping; e.g.: The school got one-half the corn and one-third of the hay grown by the farmer. The farmer had to sign a yearly contract pledging to work hard and faithfully to fulfill the contract. Some of the tenets were that children be raised to be well behaved, they were to apply themselves in school and homework, everyone was to go to church on a regular basis, no alcoholism or behavior that would reflect badly on the school. Our first house was old and rough. It was built on rock pillars with no underpinning. The inside was unfinished with the wall studs showing. Heat came from a wood fireplace and a wood cook stove. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing.  The outhouse was a one-holer with a catalog for paper. Weekly baths were in a round galvanized tub with water drawn from a well and heated on the cook stove. The barn was as old as the house only more sparse and forbidding. In 1948 the school built us a new house and barn with electricity and hot and cold running water. In 1951 a dairy barn was built and we started milking cows and selling milk to Sealtest Dairies in Asheville, NC. Before getting into the dairy business the only income came from produce farming. Dad raised and sold cabbages and green beans. Cabbage in a green mesh bag with a drawstring top; beans in a wooden slat bushel hamper, round and tapered from top to bottom held together with bands of wire and capped off with a flat disc of slats. I don’t know the price he got but it wasn’t much. That small amount was used to buy what food he and Mama couldn’t raise; fertilizer to produce better crops; and shoes and clothes for three children. A bit of the money was saved for his dream of his own farm.

 

 I remember a man coming to make a deal with Dad for his cabbage. Dad used his pocketknife to cut a nice head and gave the man a piece to taste. He gave me half the cabbage and I sat there and ate it all. Nothing ever tasted better or sweeter to a boy of eight. (Or a boy of sixty-eight) I stretched out on the ground in the warm sun and slept for two hours. Dad always kidded me by saying: “Give him a cabbage, he’ll go to sleep.”  In later life I had people tell me they remembered picking beans for Dad. Almost all said that the few cents they got per bushel was the first spending money they had as teens.

 

Life was hard but there were fun times also. One day Dad came in with an old bicycle in the mule wagon. It had no fenders, a loose chain and bad brakes. My brother William claimed it and being unable to ride, promptly plowed into a sticky hedge bush. He wouldn’t give up or let me try it. Two hours and many scrapes, scratches and bruises later he made a circuit of the house and I finally got my chance. I didn’t achieve success as quickly as he did. Rickman Creek ran through our farm. It served as a playground, a swimming hole and a summer bathtub. Once when Dad was planting corn, I saw a large trout in the creek. I told Dad about it. He cut an alder pole, made a hook from a fertilizer tag staple and tied the hook to the pole with a length of sting from a fertilizer bag. I baited the hook with a grasshopper and caught that trout. Mama fried it for my supper. Some things that happened were downright funny. Two had to do with our mules.

 

My favorite: Ol’ Alec was a slacker, smart and stubborn. But then Ol’ Alec was a mule. His mate Bob caught all the heavy loads. Whether they were hitched to wagon or hay rake Alec would gradually ease up on his chains so that Bob was doing the pulling with Alec merely strolling alongside. It was a constant battle slapping Alec with the reins or prodding him with a stick just to keep him tight against the traces and doing his share. I saw him get in a hurry just a couple of times. Dad was plowing corn with Alec and a spring tooth plow, scratching in the laying-by fertilizer. A thunderstorm came up over Smokehouse Knob and swept down into the valley. By the time they got to the end of the row it was raining hard with lightning and thunder at full pitch. Dad unhitched the plow, tucked the reins under Alec’s harness, slapped him on the rump and watched Alec race alongside the creek to the bridge. A scared mule making a run for the barn in a thunderstorm didn’t have time to contemplate the dangers of a wet wooden bridge. Ol’ Alec simply disappeared in a clap of thunder when his hooves slid out from under and he sailed into the creek. By the time Dad got to the bridge, Alec was standing up, shivering a bit, soaking wet, unhurt. Dad laid down on the bridge, got a hold on Alec’s bridle and led him out of the creek, through the bushes and up the bank. He turned him loose but Alec didn’t break for the barn, just plodded along beside Dad. Seemed to be a bit embarrassed by his fall into Rickman Creek. The sun was shining by the time they made the barn but Dad didn’t take Alec back to the field, figured that Alec deserved a break from his trials and tribulations.

 

The second one is funny only in retrospect: On that hot, dusty afternoon I was wading in the creek and running through the hayfield, barefoot and shirtless. Being only seven years old I was too little to help with the haying but I liked to watch Uncle Pledger and my brother William stack the hay around the pine pole that Dad and Pledger had planted in the ground. It was also fun to run alongside the mules as Dad raked the cut hay to the stack. The two-wheeled metal hay rake rattled and clanked, bouncing over the clumps of grass. Dad sat in a cloud of dust as he drove to and from the haystack all the while trying to keep Alec from slacking off. Pledger was on the haystack to cap it off, must have been five or six feet up. William was forking the hay up for Pledger to place and tramp down. I was running with the mules when the bumblebees attacked. They ambushed us from underground. In seconds the mules and I were swarmed by black and white demons that had burning stingers for tail guns. I ran screaming toward Pledger and the haystack, slapping at the buzzing insects around my head. The mules broke and galloped willy-nilly across the field with Dad holding on for dear life, pulling on the reins and yelling “Whoa”! Pledger threw down his pitchfork, vaulted off the stack, grabbed me up and ran into the shelter of a nearby cornfield. He finally got all the bees swatted off me and my yowling reduced to pitiful moaning and sobbing. Dad got the mules reined in after a not-so-joyous ride around the hayfield. I had ten or twelve stings and a swollen face and shoulders for a couple of days. I remember Dad saying that Ol’ Alec had no problem pulling his weight with those bumblebees urging him on.

 

That same field was also the scene of a childhood tragedy. A stray, black feist took up with our family. I thought he was the best dog ever and claimed him for mine. We were always together except for the house. Blackie had to stay outside. He was a ratter, loved to catch mice and rats and sometimes snakes. Someone from the school was plowing our field with a tractor. I was watching the plowing, Blackie was watching for field mice. The tractor finished a furrow, lifted the plows and made a turn to the next furrow and ran over Blackie. Mercifully he died instantly and was buried there in that black loam.

 

Speaking of rats reminds me of Esco Pitts and a rat killing. Esco was a handyman for the school. Could drive a tractor, run a pipeline, wire a house. Whatever needed doing, Esco could do it. Esco was helping with the razing of our old house and barn after the new ones were in use. The barn had been cleared except for a pile of corn in the corncrib. Knowing that the pile contained rats we prepared with sticks and dogs hoping to kill as many of the pests as possible. Esco derided our preparations, said the way to do it was to “Just ketch em with your bare hands then squeeze em to death right quick like”. Well of course he had to put up or shut up. The corn pile was pushed over and rats ran in about 12 different directions. Up the walls, across the floor, between legs, rats everywhere. The dogs were pouncing and shaking rats, William and I were flailing with our sticks, Esco was grabbing at rats and Dad was about to fall over laughing. Surprisingly Esco caught one and squeezed it to death in his hand but suffered several bites before he subdued it. Esco had a way with honeybees. I saw him catch a swarm of bees that were hanging off the back of a trailer. He simply closed a tow sack around the teardrop shaped swarm, shook the sack a bit and the bees dropped into the sack. There were several bees still on the trailer. Esco raked them into the sack with his bare hand. He wasn’t stung even once.

 

Esco had a neighbor, Uncle Virgil, who could conjure warts. Uncle Virgil smoked a pipe. Not just any pipe, a genuine briar that was as old as Virgil himself and looked it.  The stem bent over his lower lip, swooped down to his chin and flared out into a bowl that was worn smooth in places by Virg’s callused fingers. The inside was charred and thin from fire and scrapings, the rim burnt by matches, scarred from being rapped on posts and rocks. He looked like a gnome with his battered felt hat cocked on the back of his thinning gray hair, chewed pipe clamped in yellowed teeth, faded blue overalls over a plaid work shirt, short legs barely reaching the ground, beat up high-top work shoes that had seen better days. He wasn’t really my uncle. Everyone called him uncle. Virgil smiled as he took my small hand. His wrinkled face seemed to become smoother as he examined the wart on the back of my hand. He took his glasses from his overalls, bent down and peered more closely. He smelled of Prince Albert tobacco and Aunt Sally’s strong black coffee. “How long has it been there?” he asked. “Three weeks, a month… I don’t know.” “Is it sore?” “No, just itchy.” He took a puff on his pipe, lifted my hand and blew smoke over the wart. He bent his face over my hand and mumbled unfamiliar words while gently rubbing the wart with a rough thumb. Another puff of pipe smoke completed his conjure; a tousle of my hair sent me off to play with Aunt Sally’s cats. “That should do it,” he told Dad. “Come back in a week if it’s still there.” But we didn’t go back. The wart dried up and dropped off in five days. Each time I smell pipe smoke I think of Uncle Virgil, look at the back of my hand and wonder, “Did it really happen?’’ and then knowing that it did, “How the heck did he do it?”

 

Through all the hard times and the fun times Dad held to his dream of his own farm. The dairy operation enabled Dad to realize that dream. It brought in money, cash money that was saved for a down payment. It bought a new Chevrolet pickup and a used tractor and equipment. Sadly the mules were sold. In 1955 Dad bought a beautiful farm in Wolffork Valley and built a dairy barn there. When it was ready, we drove the cows three miles to their new home. That night we milked the cows in our own barn; slept in our own house and wakened the next morning, living the dream that Dad had envisioned. That dream was fulfilled because of the opportunity in the Farm Family program. Dad continued to live his dream till the end. Several years before he passed I spent a couple of hours walking the farm with him. I later wrote these words:

 

Autumn Walk

 

Autumn leaves spiral down,

Shades of red and gold

Swirling in hued depths.

White-cold clouds harbinger winter’s advent,

Wood-smoke curls low on the land

Bearing odorous memories of

Childhood past.

 

He leans on his stick to

Survey the hilly pastures and

Dark bottom lands.

A breeze ruffles his white-cold hair, the

Lowering sun shimmers in the grass and

Flames yellow-hot on the

Mountain-tops.

 

Thirty four autumns have passed with

Him and his land, autumns of

Hard work and satisfaction.

The land remains unchanged,

The body and the buildings

Slump and lean where pushed by time’s

Relentless passage.

 

A broken arrowhead is unearthed and

Pocketed to join a pot of

Similar treasures.

What primeval hands shaped those edges?

Could it be that this land was

Loved and revered by

Other ancients?

 

The valley sinks into shadow as

Eastern mountains stand pale

Purple in the gossamer twilight.

Moments become ages as

Quiet stillness pervades.

He calls to his dog and they move

Toward home.

 

For Dad, August 1998

 © J. Harold Thurmond

 

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