Back in the days when this was new ground you had to cotch a b’ar ef you wanted to keep warm.
Yessuh, my pappy knew this country when she was somep’n. He come over the mountains from South Ca’liny with his pappy, my gran’pappy, and gran’maw, when he was jus’ a boy. When they decided to ‘light here a spell, this wasn’t overrun with folks like now when you can’t go two whoops and a holler without runnin’ into a cabin.
Man in a wagon pulled by oxen in Fort Payne, AL, circa 1880-1889.
Back in them days it was a good ten-mile to the nearest folks, lessen you count Injuns, which pappy said nobody did back then, ‘cept when they got to drinkin’.
Pappy says times like that was when dead Injuns was surely the only good Injuns. But gran’pappy didn’t wait for ‘em to git good. He used to take gran’maw and pappy and the other kids down to a cave a short piece from here and hide out till them Injuns sobered up. Other times, pappy says they didn’t have to trouble with the Injuns. They didn’t get no help from ‘em neither, and that was a time when gran’pappy sure needed help.
He brang a load of truck in the kivvered wagon they rode from South Ca’liny here and he had young steers on the front end fitten to work when piled high with a plow, and hoes and axes and such like tools, along with cotton and corn and wheat seed. What little room was left, pappy said they shoved in some household things, but not much. Pappy said he was real sorry that they hadn’t put in more kivvers until the time come when they cotched the b’ar.
Leastways they didn’t have no trouble finding logs to build ‘em a cabin. Pappy says the trees was so thick you had to squeeze between ‘em, and they just took their pick of big fine logs to cut and peel and notch to build the cabin. Whilst it was building they slept in the kivvered wagon and tried to get the Injuns to help out. A few friendly ones would work now and then, but they warn’t worth a lick, pappy says. He claims he and gran’pappy did most of the the building and scratching up a little patch of dirt to get some seeds in.
Grinding cane and making syrup in DeKalb County, circa 1880-1889.
They come along here in the Winter time and pappy says the frosties in them days was like a light snow it lay so thick on the trees and rocks. Took two or three hours atter good sunup to melt it off, so he says you just naturally humped yourself a-working to keep from freezing to death. They got a good patch cleared up by the time frost broke and got in planting of all them seeds they brang and some millet seed the Injuns give ‘em.
They made fine crops and things rocked along thataway for two year and pappy says they fin’lly got along to building another room to the cabin. About that time some neighbors moved in, not more’n five mile away, and he says gran’pappy was afeared for a while things would get crowded. But they help the neighbors r’ar ‘em up a cabin and got to visiting around frequent, much as oncet a month or so.
The second Summer gran’pappy laid out to make him some sorghum cane and got in a right good crop. That there sorghum just about saved ‘em from freezing to death pappy say, ‘cause even with some blankets gran’pappy had traded offen the Injuns and gran’mammy biled in lye for going on a week, it was pretty cold that second winter.
We knowed there was b’ars up in the hills. They come down in the corn, but gran’pappy didn’t mess around with ‘em none. He was right handy with his rifle but he didn’t put faith in it against b’ars. Anyhow, this Summer he really turns out some fine sorghum cane and when the steers git through grinding he had a sight of syrup.
Pappy says the kids had all the long sweetening they could hold and gran’mammy filled up all the big gourds, what she had done scraped and washed during the Summer, to lay by a store for the winter. Even then there was plenty left over, so gran’pappy traded off with the Injuns for a keg that they’d had whiskey in on one of their big drunks. Gran’mammy talked with him a long time about the evils of drink and putting sweetening innocent chillun would eat into a barrel where rum had been, but gran’pappy convinced her that sorghum was strong enough to lick any rum. So they filled up the bar’l and set it out in the store shed where they was hams and bacon and the chickens roosted when it was cold.
One night atter ‘simmon time and when the wild turkeys was a calling down in the holler, they all come wide awake, pappy says, with the biggest racket out in the store shed anybody ever heard.
Gran’mammy yelled ‘Injuns!’ and started packing up to get down to the cave, but gran’pappy said ‘Twarn’t Injuns ‘cause nobody yelled. So he gits his rifle, pappy gits the axe and afterwards, ‘cause they didn’t notice then, they found out gran’mammy come traipsing atter ‘em with her sedge broom. She made that broom herself, too; cut a straight hickory sapling, scythed her down some ripe sedge and tied it on with cotton thread she spun herself.
Anyways the three of ‘em git on out to the store shed where the chickens is a squawking and there’s a beating and a thumping and a sorta groaning going somep’n awful. The door burst open and out come a big black thing with somep’n on its head. Gran’pappy fired and missed.
’Hit’s a b’ar,’ he yelled, and pappy says he went in a-swinging with his axe.
‘Don’t you tech that b’ar,’ gran’mammy yelled at him. ‘We needs that hide.’ With that she just naturally laid into that b’ar with her broom, pappy hopping round trying to git in a lick with his axe without cutting the hide, and gran’pappy hopping fust on one foot and then t’other, to keep his toes from freezing in the deep frost, while he tried to load his gun.
What with gran’mammy a whooping him with that broom, pappy a-yelling and gran’pappy cussing a streak every time he hopped, that b’ar was just plumb skeered to death, I reckon. Anyhow, pappy says he r’ared up on his hind legs and started slapping at that bar’l trying to git it offen his head. By and by he slaps feeble-like and in about three-four minutes he just rolled over on his side, dead. That long sweetening had just choked him to death.
By the time gran’mammy got through scraping and curing his hide they sure slept warm that winter, and all his sinews made good strings for fixing up the plow drags for the steers next Summer, so gran’pappy was able to git in a fine crop. So did the neighbors, and there was cornshucking frolics all that Fall. Everybody went in together and after the corn was shucked, there was eating as was eating!”
Written by Margaret Fowler in 1937 for WPA Alabama Writers’ Project, “Folklore of DeKalb County”