In 2002 I wrote an article for the Marion County Arkansas Genealogy Site. The article was titled, J.C. Cheek’s Roots in Marion County, Arkansas. The story also appears in my series of short stories titled “Digressions of J. Charles” with the title of A Boy Named J.C.
Digressions of J. Charles
A Boy Named J.C.
© August 2002
J. Charles Cheek
I was born in 1932 on a leased farm in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. It was about six miles south of the town of Yellville, Arkansas. There was a lot of space for a boy named J.C. to run barefoot. In fact the whole community of Cowan Barnes was barefoot country for the kids. Not a piece of broken glasses anywhere that a young boy could romp upon. My cousins and me romped, scampered and wrestled most every square foot of Grandpa and Grandma’s 275 acres.
It was especially fun to climb barefoot up near the top of a small hickory tree then sway back and forth and feel the rebound strength of the tree. Then jump way out feet first while still holding onto the flexible hickory. If all is well the friendly hickory tree slowly lowers you to the ground. If all is not right its just another big sway out and the only thing to worry about is holding on during the slingshot rebound.
One day, my cousin Ray and I got the brilliant idea that doubling up on a larger hickory just might double the fun. So we picked out a hickory about six inches across and he shimmied up the tree right behind me. Near the top we both began the swaying together until I yelled, “Now, jump!” It was a wonderful sensation as that ‘old hickory bent slowly and lowered us toward the ground. About five feet above the ground Ray let go and the hickory began its return to the upright position. I hung on tightly as the slingshot effect tried to launch me into the air. As the whipping tree went past vertical I thrashed out with my feet and legs and just managed to hook a heel around the accelerating tree. The tree whipped back and forth several times and beat me up against it every time it went past vertical. I didn’t try that again!
Each spring, Ray and I would start asking to go barefoot on the first sunny warm day, which usually occurred in mid February. “Why can’t you kids remember what I told you yesterday and the day before, June 1, you can take off your shoes for the summer,” said Grandma, “Now get outta’ here before I switch ya.” Grandma always threatened to switch us but rarely did. However, when grandma was mad enough to use a switch she sure could make it sting.
I don’t remember what caused grandma’s ire but one day she decided to switch me and I ran and climbed the big persimmon tree up by the cow barn. Grandma stood at the base looking up and shaking the hickory switch at me. “J.C., now you’re really gonna’ get it when your dad gets home and I tell him what you did!” And boy howdy was grandma right on that one. I decided right then that I’d rather be switched by grandma than my daddy. Somehow grandma’s words had more meaning after that. That’s the last licking I ever got from my father and grandma too. At least it’s the only one I remember.
Being a country kid in Arkansas during the summer was a study in motion. We would ‘spin our wheels’ in the dirt roadway by running in place with our bare feet kicking back the dirt behind us. Any adult trying that would end up in the emergency ward with cut, bruised and bleeding feet. The emergency ward for us was grandma’s kitchen where she administered the wisdom of the pioneer woman.
One day my grandfather took me with him as he went into the woods to cut some firewood for the winter stock. I must have been at least six years old because that’s the age grandpa used as the threshold before we were allowed to use a double blade ax. Grandpa finished cutting his tree into and yelled, “Timber!” I threw my ax and started running and promptly fell upon the ax and it nearly cut through my right thumb just below the first joint. Grandpa held my thumb tight and we hurried to grandma’s emergency room. Grandma wrapped the thumb tightly with a clean piece of rag and then applied a good dose of pain killing hugs. I can still remember that thumb throbbing. It throbbed for days. A nerve is permanently relocated to just below the skin and, some 50 years later, on very cold days, that thumb gets numb and reminds me of grandma’s healing ways – switches and hugs.
Grandpa had an uncanny way of predicting the weather. I would be out there in the field following along in the plowed furrow and grandpa would say, “We better head for the barn, there’s a heap of rain heading our way soon”. He would unhitch the Missouri mules, Pat and Mike, from the plow and we would head for the barn. There in the barn as grandpa started taking off the mules’ harness, it would start to blow and rain. Sometimes the sky just opened up and poured out the rain like water gurgling from an upside down jug. When it was the ‘sky falling’ type of rain grandpa would hurry us off to the house quickly so we could get across the creek before the flash flooding began. It was very important to be on the right side of the creek during or just after a rainstorm to avoid the flash flooding. Also, Grandma’s warm kitchen was on the other side of the creek from the barn.
Grandma had a very large kitchen range that burned wood at rate she expertly regulated to produce just the right amount of heat to fry the best chicken in Marion County. Fresh chicken every Sunday and I do mean fresh. Every Sunday after church Grandma would personally select two chickens and capture them with a hooked wire on the end of a long pole. Then she would wring their necks, pick the feathers off, remove the entrails then cut the chicken into pieces for frying. It was fascinating to a young boy to see those chickens running around with nothing above their bleeding neck. Of course she always made mashed potatoes. Gravy was made with the left over grease from frying the chicken. Hot corn bread was a Sunday staple also and grandma made enough to last all week.
Grandma had two big geese that pranced around the yard and hissed and chased Ray and I when we got near them. Whenever we complained to Grandma about those mean geese she would dismiss us with the comment, “You boys tease those geese.” One Sunday Grandma was outside with her chicken snare when one old goose ran up behind her and bites her on the rear end. She whirled around and caught that old goose by the neck and started twirling away on its neck. It was a struggle but she wrung that goose’s neck right there in the yard. You guessed it, we had goose for dinner that Sunday.
In the winter when the fireplace in the living room was full of coals, grandma would make cornbread in the big cast iron pot that hung on a metal arm that was swung in and out of the fireplace. That fireplace cornbread was several inches thick. Leftover cornbread is a tasty snack when crumbled up in a glass, soaked with cold milk then eaten with a spoon. A bite of raw onion dabbed in salt taken between every two or three spoonful is especially tasty.
Breakfast was fried eggs, fried bacon, biscuits, and gravy make from the bacon grease and flour. I can’t remember much about lunches. Maybe that’s when we had the pinto beans and corn bread that is still a tasty meal for me.
All that greasy southern food killed my great grandfather Cheek at the age of 93. Sylvester was his name and he didn’t want anything to do with the new fangled enclosed outhouse. He went into the woods above the house and sat on a rail laid across the V in the rail fence. “When it gets to stinking too much”, he’d say, “I just pick up my rail and move upwind”. Sylvester’s logic made a lot of sense at times, especially during the hot humid weather of summer when its a wonder that last years Sears catalog didn’t melt from the heat or dissolve from the smelly air swirling around inside the outhouse. I never did understand why it was a two-hole outhouse since it seemed to always be used by one person at a time. Surely, grandpa and grandma didn’t sneak out of the house late at night for a romantic meeting in the outhouse. Did they? Naw!
According to my father, Andy Cheek, great grandpa Sylvester left Georgia not long after the end of the Civil War. He said that the Georgia family enterprise was operated with the help of nine slaves. The operation consisted of a small cotton farm, a gristmill, and a general store. Without the free labor, the operation would not support everyone so the family headed west in a wagon train. They stopped in Northern Arkansas and homestead 160 acres in the Ozark Mountain area about six miles south of the small town of Yellville. My genealogical research does not prove or disprove the story handed down to my father. It does provide some interesting additional facts and speculations.
The father of my great grandfather, Sylvester Cheek, was Gasaway Cheek. Gasaway was born 26 November 1810 in the Spartanburg District of South Carolina. Sylvester’s mother was Teresa “Tessie” Pike. She was born 19 February 1812 in Greenville, SC. Gasaway, Tessie, and their children John, Sylvester, Amanda, and Rebecca appear in the 1850 Census of Forsyth County, Georgia. Tessie’s mother Sarah Pike, b 1775 in Virginia, was also living in the household at that time. Gasaway died 5 February 1867 and is buried in Georgia.
According to a note in the store journal of John Cheek, the family arrived in Yellville, Arkansas on June 1, 1870. By mid 1880s John operated a general store in Pyatt, Arkansas and Sylvester had purchased another 120 acres of land making 280 acres total. Later, he donated 5 acres of land to the Pleasant Ridge Church and Cemetery.
That Ozark farm had about 80 acres of fairly good farmland. The remaining wooded areas had a variety of trees, mostly hardwoods such as oak and hickory, although there was some small yellow pine and an occasional cedar. Down by the spring a very large oak tree shaded an area maybe 100 feet across that was the site of the annual hog harvest. “They used to use everything but the squeal” but it isn’t true. I can’t remember any use made of the hair that was scraped from the skin. Cracklins was the name of a tasty byproduct of boiling the hog fat and rendering it down for lard.
The pork products were kept in a small building, maybe 10 by 12 feet, that was known as the smokehouse. It had double wooden walls with about six inches of sawdust between the two walls. It was also used to store ice on the rare occasion when ice was available. The meat hung in this building was smoked. Maybe it was called the smoke house because Ray and I used to hid behind it when we rolled our own cigarettes from the tobacco we sneaked from grandpa and grandma’s stock of dried “twists” they stored inside the house. It was ‘hidden from us kids’ in a box under their bed. Isn’t it amazing that kids know where everything is hid but can’t remember that when they grow up and become parents and so they hide things from their kids in the same hiding places their parents used?
THE BLACK MARE, SQUEALING PIGS, TWO KIDS AND A DRY CREEK BED
My father owned a sleek black mare that was kept in the upper pasture just south of the house. Each day, while dad was at his WPA job, grandpa would lift Ray and me onto the back of the black mare and she would automatically walk down a trail beside a dry creek bed for about 200 feet to a stock watering trough on the main creek. I was, naturally, being older than Ray, the front rider and imagined that I was in charge of the mare since I held onto the bridle reins. Ray, of course, was just along for the ride and didn’t have the heavy responsibility of guiding and controlling that mass of sleek black horse muscle. Lucky for him that he was hanging onto me tightly or he might have missed the acrobat flight into the sandy creek bottom that so entertained grandpa. When a group of pigs had come squealing out from behind the rail fence around the barnyard, that mare jumped forward and sideways. Ray and I failed to make the same movements as the mare and landed in a heap on the sandy creek bottom. We wailed and fussed in the sand while, back up the trail, grandpa stood bent at the waist laughing uncontrollably. I don’t remember ever riding that black mare again. In fact, I have never trusted horses since then. Who can trust an animal of that large size that is afraid of a bunch of little squealing pigs!
My second most memorable experience involving horses occurred, some 40 years later, at the airport bar in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Sitting at the bar killing time waiting for the late arriving flight, a cowgirl type on the next barstool starting telling me about her wonderful and fulfilling life with horses. She trained them or something. I quit listening as soon as she said the word horse. On and on and on she went praising the many wonderful things about horses. Finally, I turned and looked her right in the eyes and said, “My experience leads me to believe that there is only one thing dumber that a horse – a Brussels sprout!” It worked; she quit talking and left me alone. I was quite proud of my relatively subtle approach since my first impulse was to just say, “shut the hell up!”
Horses were once useful beasts that provided transportation and labor in the fields where food was grown, including the food eaten by the horses. Now about the only purpose of a horse is for impressing first grade students during ‘show and tell time’. Some engineers still know that, in the days when horses were just starting to be replaced by tractors, the average workhorse could lift 550 pounds one foot in one second and that became the definition of a horsepower. OK, so a Brussels sprout can’t lift that much weight but it tastes slightly better and it doesn’t talk incessantly.
HUNTING SUMMER SNACKS WITH A SALT SHAKER
Grandma’s garden was the summer snack bar for us kids. When we wanted a between meals snack, grandma handed us a salt shaker and sent us off to the garden to eat tomatoes. Grandma’s only rule was, pick one tomato and eat it before picking another. It never occurred to us to throw tomatoes or any other food item. Somehow we sensed the importance of not ever wasting any food. Why do so many people think food fights and other ‘pie in the face humor’ is funny? Why?
PAT AND MIKE, GRANDPA’S MISSOURI MULES
Grandpa’s Missouri mules, Pat and Mike, were as large as most horses. Those mules pulled a plow that was guided by grandpa as he held the plow handles in his hands. The reins that guided Pat and Mike were looped around grandpa’s neck. Once the first furrow was plowed the mules walked in the proper alignment for plowing the second furrow. Grandpa yelled out “gee” and “haw” to instruct the mules to go right or left and the tone, inflection, and loudness refined the message.
Both Pat and Mike were dark brown, almost black, except for the white foamy froth that formed when they were working very hard pulling a heavy load. Grandpa and I, sitting in the wagon seat, could hear and smell how hard the mules were straining. The heavier the load and the harder they strained the more the mules used ‘aft burner’ assisted pulling.
POSSUMS, SQUIRRELS, HUNTING HOUNDS AND BARN CATS
Those Ozark woods had a lot of wildlife that allowed the men folks to put some meat on the table while participating in the popular sport of hunting. Most every farm family had a couple of hunting dogs and several barn cats. The dogs and cats were never allowed inside the house. The dogs usually had a doghouse and the cats usually lived in the barn. Dogs were fed table scraps but cats, except for some occasional surplus milk, were left on their own to survive by hunting mice, moles, snakes, birds and other small varmints.
Grandpa had two large hunting hounds that were trained to tree squirrels during day hunts and tree possums during night hunts. The gun used for shooting the treed squirrel or possum was a 22-caliber rifle. Grandpa had a small pump 22 that I greatly admired and he promised to give to me on my 10th birthday, after which he would take me along on the squirrel hunts. Sadly, I never got to go squirrel hunting with grandpa. At age nine we moved 2500 miles from Arkansas and I didn’t return for 50 years. Maybe grandpa gave the squirrel gun to Cousin Ray when he turned ten; I hope so.
A CENTURY OF LABOR YIELDS ONE DOLLAR PER ACRE
After Grandpa died in 1947 Grandma offered the old homestead to her sons who had all moved far away from Arkansas. My father and his two brothers, Dorsie and Irvin, lived in the state of Washington. None of them wanted to move back to Arkansas and none could afford to buy the place and hold it. Grandma sold the whole 275 acres for $2500 including all the buildings and other improvements. When my father read the news in a letter from grandma, he put his head in his hands and cried. His brothers probably did the same when they got the news.
UNCLE JOHN WOOTEN AND THE TEXAS CATTLE DRIVES
On my mother’s side of the family, her father, John Wooton, was generally known as Uncle John Wooton. He was of course my Grandpa Wooton to me. In the early 1940s he lived in Rush, Arkansas with a son known as Babe Wooten. Babe was of course my mother’s brother. Babe was constantly worried that his son, Loranze, was going to hurt himself. He was always yelling out, “Loranze, you stop that before you hurt yourself”. Ironically, Loranze died in 1985 near Pea Ridge, Arkansas from an auto accident.
Grandpa Wooten had been a real Texas cowhand. He used to make cattle whips from the freshly stripped bark of willow or hickory saplings. Saplings were cut near the ground with one stroke of an ax. The portion left protruding from the ground was known as a ‘stob’. “Loranze, stay away from where we cut those saplings, you’ll ‘stob’ your toe”. Anyway, those whips were several feet long and in the expert hands of grandpa Wooten, they snapped and cracked through the air. It was easy to imagine the cattle herds as they moved over the plains from Texas to Nebraska.
THEN AND NOW
Sitting here typing on my computer keyboard, it seems hard to believe that my family and I once lived in one of those shack houses that still stand along the road in ghost town of Rush, Arkansas. It is a drastic contrast of life in 1940 rural Marion County, Arkansas and the technological life in 2002.
At the time of my mother’s death in 1938 Dad was working five days per week as a timekeeper for the WPA on a road building job. During his spare time he ran a trap line and had a crop of sugar cane to tend. He tacked the animal skins to the side of the chicken house to dry. I expect we ate the possum and squirrel meat.
Previously, Dad had been a schoolteacher in a one-room schoolhouse called Number 14. It was located about six miles south of Yellville in the community of Cowan Barens. He had obtained his teaching certificate by correspondence from the University of Arkansas. Years later when we lived in the state of Washington his former students would come to see him and talk of his strict discipline enforced with a leather strap. He taught first through eight grades; girls on one side of the room and boys on the other. Even during recess while playing outside the girls and boys were required to stay separated. According to my Aunt Eva, Dad’s younger brother, Irvin, would often sneak over to the girl’s side. I guess that is where Irvin and Eva first fell in love. Although he never mentioned it, I think Dad regretted quitting the teaching profession. His life was filled with hard manual work for many years afterwards.
Our neighbors in Rush were Aunt Virgie Setzer, her daughter Berlys and her nephew Edward “Junior” Estes. My new stepmother was Maude Bundy, a widow whom my father had married two years after my mother’s death from a heart attack. Two of Maude’s four children were still living at home.
I don’t recall the name of the family that ran the General Store and Post Office. A widow lady we called Mrs. Lyons lived near the Store. She owned the defunct mine near her house and she had the nicest house in Rush. Mrs. Lyons was a cat lover and she had dozens of them.
As previously described, my grandfather Wooten and his family also lived in Rush.
There were some folks who lived “up Rush Creek” but I don’t recall their names and I don’t know how many families. In total, maybe a dozen families lived in the Rush area. A few years later it was a ghost town.
My stepbrother Joe Bundy, stepsister Billie Ruth Bundy and I attended a one-room schoolhouse that was located about a mile up Rush Creek. Although I don’t remember specifically, the total number of students was less than twenty.
I have no recollection of how we kept warm in those shacks during the winter other than a lot of wood had to be cut and stored for the winter season. What a contrast to our life today with thermostatically controlled heat and air conditioning, microwave ovens, television, and of course the magic of computers and the Internet. I remember some good times back then but I definitely don’t want to go back and do it again. I like my computer, the Internet and all the other modern conveniences.
E – N – D
 Mr. Cheek has written dozens of short stories under the general heading of Digressions of J. Charles. He is also the author of the novel Stay Safe, Buddy – A Story of Humor and Horror during the Korean War,300 pages, Publish America ISBN # 159286631X