New Year’s Day seemed a good time to go rummaging through a box of memorabilia my brother, Steve, had packed up for me from things left in our mother’s house. I had asked him to save a few things for me when he and my sister held an estate sale last spring.
I was particularly interested in one or two of the hand-made quilts that kept us warm in some pretty cold South Carolina winters. And I had asked, if my other siblings didn’t object, to keep Mother’s butcher knife. It’s older than I am, possibly hand-made by my grandfather, who was a pretty good blacksmith as well as a farmer.
I collected the box back in the fall, when we had our sibling reunion in Spartanburg. I brought home three fairly well-preserved quilts and a box of “stuff,” including the knife. Yesterday, growing weary of football for a bit, I started sifting through the box and uncovered several treasures, including my high school commencement program (I actually am a high school graduate as my name in the list of graduates will prove).
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I also found a certificate from a defensive driving course I took during basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky. It is safe to ride with me since I have a certificate from the U.S. Army.
I found copies of my mother’s high school newspaper, for which she wrote (acorns don’t fall far from trees); Christmas cards she and Dad received back in the ‘50s; pictures of people I don’t know, and the owner’s manual for a heat pump my dad had installed sometime in the 1970s. My mom never threw anything away.
But the best treasure was a newspaper clipping, yellowed and ragged with age, from 1948, the year before I was born. The Greenville News reported on a devastating hail storm that roared through much of Anderson County, destroying crops, barns, livestock and a few homes. One of the farms hit was my grandfather’s, Capers Griffith, of the Slabtown Community (It’s a real place).
The story included two photos of our grandfather’s farm. A cotton field and a corn field looked like a flail mower had run through it—if they had flail mowers back then. The reporter, Henry Johnson, wrote: “On the Capers Griffith farm, 14 acres of cotton and about 30 acres of corn were completely destroyed….” That would have been a devastating loss to my grandfather. I think his total farm was less than 100 acres, and a good part of that was in pasture.
The loss was a hard one to take, according to the article, since many farmers were expecting to make as much as a bale-and-a-half of cotton per acre. That was a lot of cotton back then; it was all dryland, hand-picked, and, in my grandfather’s case, worked by a pair of horses.
Johnson also wrote: “Only two or three farmers in the entire area carried crop insurance.” I doubt that my grandfather was one of those.
Farmers reported hailstones as big as their fists and “holes in watermelons made by the stones that looked as if they had been made by a baseball.” Chickens, cats and rabbits “were found beaten to death by the hail stones.
“H.N. Smith (no relation as far as I know) counted his 20 acres of cotton as a total loss. ‘It can’t be helped,’ he said.”
Several things struck me about this article. One was that my mother had kept it for 65 years. Another was that I wish I had seen the report and the photos before my mother passed away so I could have asked her about how granddaddy got through that. He was still farming when I came along and continued to do so until the cancer that finally took him made him too weak to farm any longer.
It would have been interesting, too, to have asked him about it, before he passed away in 1965. He, like the other farmers in the area, was resilient. He probably had that same philosophy expressed by Mr. Smith: “It can’t be helped.” They had farmed through and survived the Great Depression; they had endured shortages and hardships during World War II; they had seen hailstorms before, had witnessed crop failures and somehow always managed to pick themselves up to plant another crop.
I was also struck by how little things have changed on the farm in 66 years. Oh I understand how much has changed—technology, varieties, knowledge about soils and nutrients—but I also see how similar farmers I meet and interview today are to my grandfather and to his neighbors who were hammered by that storm.
Ellison Capers Griffith lost most of the 1948 crop. His farm was small, but it furnished him a living. I know farmers who have lost much more acreage but about that same percentage of their year’s income. It’s devastating to lose 45 acres or 4,500 if that’s what your livelihood depends on. I don’t know what steps he took to recover. I know that by the time I was old enough to observe, he was no longer planting cotton but still raising some small grain, corn, bell peppers and vegetables. He persisted.
When my grandfather was alive, I had no notion that I would one day follow a career focused on agriculture. If I had, I would have asked more questions, observed more carefully and tried to soak up as much of his ideology as I could. Perhaps some of it came along through his DNA. I’d be a complete failure trying to make a living farming, but I am constantly awed by what farmers do, at their resilience, persistence and doggedness when things turn sour.
We often teased our mother about all the things she stuffed in drawers, closets and every nook and cranny in our small house. She always had the notion that she might need something one day. I’m glad she kept this clipping. Somehow, I just learned a bit about my heritage that I didn’t know before.
I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I intend to find a way to preserve this piece of yellowed, raggedy paper. I want future generations to know what stock I came from.
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