Saturday, October 27, 2012

Down Home

Driving down to the Bend.
So that mule plow was something.  We didn't stop there, though.  We were in that southernmost corner of Illinois where my mother's family lived--her parents and their parents.  So after seeing places in Cairo that she remembered as a girl, we drove around the farming towns of Olive Branch and Miller City, along Horseshoe Lake where my great uncle was a parks officer, and finally down to the "Bend."

The place along Promised Land Road that my great grandfather Grace farmed.
A crossroads on the way to the Bend.
Just west of Cairo the Mississippi River makes a twist south then back north.  The resulting curve is shaped like a fang or a canine, thus the name Dogtooth Bend.  Deep in this Bend, my great grandparents lived and raised their family.  The land is flat, alluvial river bottom.  Just on the other side of those trees are the levees, but back in the 1930s there was just flat, open land all the way to the river.

Almost to the river, the hunt club and old house in the distance.
Floods were common.  Here's a photo from around 1937 during high water.  The Stevens family, my great grandparents and their children, are gathered on the porch while an uncle sits in the boat, their only way to get to dry land.
The Stevens family about 1937.
Here is the same house probably fifteen years ago, still standing.

Cousin Nancy in front.
And here's that house on our last trip.  The floods from a couple years ago have continued to do damage.
From the same angle as the flood picture.
The inside is nearly wiped out.
My cousin who owns the place now built this high embankment and put a hunt club on it.  During that last flood, the water was a few feet deep in the club.  Goose hunting has been a major tourist attraction for this area, particularly in the 1930s, when this area of southern Illinois was the goose hunting capital. Wealthy Chicago businessmen would come down for hunting parties.  My great grandfather was a guide for them and was a tenant farmer on this land.

From there we went to my aunt and uncle's place a little further north.  They have a new flock of chickens.  Rhode Island Reds.  Just like home!

And they have a new puppy, Cletus.  Cletus and Clovis got to get to know each other.

Clovis taking his turn at the wheel.

And a few pictures of beautiful Gunston Hall in Virginia.  I stopped at Dad's on the way home, and we visited George Mason's beautiful 1750s home.  Mason was the father of the Bill of Rights and extremely concerned about preserving individual liberty.  He drafted the Virginia Declaration of the Rights of Man, the first such statement that was later used in the U.S. Constitution and by the French for their Déclaration des droits de l'homme.

Gunston Hall, riverside, with 250 year old boxwoods.
A beautiful avenue of cedars leading to the family cemetery.
The avenue leading up to the house.
Rhode Island randomness greeted Clovis and I upon our very happy return home.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Alabama Plowboy

During our travels, Clovis and I headed a little north and west of Nashville to visit family in southern Illinois.  

Mom was born in Cairo, and we drove around there to see some of the changes.  It is an urban tragedy.  The downtown is devastated, many buildings torn down, barren main streets.  Here is an old theater Mom remembers going to as a girl.  Nothing showing now.

A short trip outside of Cairo and we arrived in Olive Branch, a very small town in a farming area near the Mississippi River.  We visited cousins David and Debbie at their restaurant, the Kozy Korner.  It was delicious!  Another cousin, Sheryl, happened in as well.

Debbie had found a couple old-timers for me to talk to about mule-plowing days.  They told us about a "plow" that happened to be going on just a few miles west at the edge of the Mississippi.  It was an incredible coincidence.  We had a blast.
View over the plow from the top of the levee.
Some Belgian mules (?) attached to a sulky plow.
Walking plow, the most basic you can get.
Some nice, big mules.
A walking plow with a round colter to create a clean, smooth cut.
Some beautiful and gigantic Belgian draft horses.
A mule foal. Mules are sterile and don't reproduce.  A horse and a donkey breed a mule.
My mule mentor, Kenneth, behind his team, Toby and Blaze.
Mom got behind the plow.
Cousin Debbie held Clovis.  He did not like mules or horses.
Here is a video of me plowing behind a mule!!

Here is Mom plowing!

Here is a little clip of a sulky plow.

And a longer video of Kenneth plowing.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Tennessee Valley Author (ity)

The cotton is being picked in Alabama.  There were fields full of it when I drove through the Tennessee Valley in North Alabama to do some research and readings.

Cotton fields outside of Decatur
I found time for some good barbecue first.

Then hoofed it down to Decatur, Alabama, for some great events.  First, I spent time with the amazing Suzie Wiley of WYAM TV-51 in Decatur.  I got to appear on Valley Talk and then on Talk of the Town with her and co-host Derrick Shull.  WYAM is going to be a regular stop, I hope.  They are absolutely wonderful people.

Eric, Suzie and Derrick in the studio
Me, Suzie and Derrick right after Talk of the Town.  What a great time!

I read at the Decatur Public Library and was met by this wonderful group of ladies.  It was a great evening!

My wonderful welcoming committee at the Decatur Library
Clovis and I spent time in the beautiful cypress forests along the Tennessee.

The Wheeler Wildlife Refuge
Clovis loved walking along the river.

The Tennessee River at Wheeler Dam.
I wandered around beautiful and historic downtown Decatur.

The Old Bank
The depot-Decatur was an important river and rail hub through the 19th and early 20th centuries
Downtown Decatur.  Calm now compared to its wild riverboat days.
And I got to do a lot of research about life in the area in the early 20th century, particularly the 1930s.  I went to Oakwood University in Huntsville, where I researched academic life at the historically black Seventh Day Adventist college, founded in 1896.

Moran Hall, c. 1938
East Hall, c. 1909 
In Decatur, I spent time with John Allison and Libby at the incredible Morgan County Archives.  Decatur in the early 20th century had an important African American community.  Churches were important centers of community.  With little support from the state, black communities often supported their own schools.  Black leaders in Decatur were part of an important and politically active professional class.  Some of the Scottsboro trials were held in Decatur, and these black professionals testified regarding their jury participation (that there was none).  This led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision (based on the 14th Amendment) that required due process and equal protection for all, regardless of race.  In 1935, the first African American since Reconstruction served on a Huntsville jury.

The First Missionary Baptist Church on Vine Street in Decatur, completed in 1921, designed by African American architect W.A. Rayfield.
In 1935, an integrated audience, a rarity in Alabama at this time, came to the Princess Theater to hear Dr. George Washington Carver, head of the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute, give the graduation address for Decatur's African American High School.  Carver's address was entitled "Great Creator, What is the Peanut and Why Did You Make It?", the Decatur Daily noted, and said, "the somewhat homely subject provided a medium for one of the most astonishing and revealing addresses every heard by a Decatur audience.

The gorgeous Princess Theater in downtown Decatur, illuminated.
 Here's a car from the period sitting by a "meat and three" in Huntsville, as if to help the mood.


 Here's a great ad from the Decatur newspapers of the 1930s.


And then it was back to Nashville to hear Mom give a great history tour of downtown Nashville.  A passion for history runs in the family!

And a lovely view of the Tennessee state capitol across the bicentennial mall.  I learned that this was a William Strickland building, Philadelphia architect and designer of the Athenaeum and the Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Athens of the South

I was in Nashville this weekend.  It is a city that I love to visit.  I have family there, and it is a beautiful city with a lot of culture in a lot of different directions.  And it is a city with a great book tradition--including one of the oldest book festivals in the country, the Southern Festival of Books.  I was thrilled to participate this year.

Nashville takes its "Athens" nickname (one of many) seriously.  There are colonnaded buildings absolutely everywhere.  Here is the new, state-of-the-art symphony hall (2006).

Here is Mom with our wonderful tour guide in a gallery inside the symphony hall.

Here is a unique and very beautiful Egyptian Revival church from about 1849 in the heart of downtown.

Here is the setting for the Southern Festival of the Book.  Could you ask for more?  Amazing.

Yes, you can ask for more.  And you'll get it.  How about this for the location for book signings?  Absolutely spectacular.

I did a panel with a great moderator and a fascinating discussion partner--Kathy Hepinstall, who also has a great blog.  Her new book, Blue Asylum, takes place during the Civil War and focuses on a sane woman committed by her husband to an asylum on Sanibel Island, part resort, part madhouse.  It sounds like a great read!

Clovis hit the bottle pretty hard while we were in Nashville.  I guess he thought since we were in Tennessee, he should drink local.

He made a new friend, too.  A very pretty poodle named Checkers.

Here's Clovis being somewhat contemplative on our drive down.

Here is a very nice family portrait my cousin took last night!

Tomorrow, I am so excited to head to Alabama for some events in Decatur, including appearing on Valley Happenings with the wonderful Suzie Wiley early Tuesday morning and then a reading at the Decatur library Thursday evening!