What was my grandmother's childhood like?
October 9, 2006 8:44 PM   Subscribe

What was my grandmother's childhood like?

My grandma, Hazel May, was fond of saying that she grew up "on a farm in the hills of Eastern Kentucky." She was born in 1903 and had six siblings; all her brothers went to World War I.

I'd like to know more about what it was like to grow up in the hills of Eastern Kentucky at that time. About all I know is that, for her, Eastern Kentucky meant "bumpkin;" she met my grandfather while he was in pharmacy school in Memphis, and they moved to Chicago, where they spent most of the rest of their married life.

Unfortunately Grandma Hazel passed on before I had the wit to ask her about her early life. What book, website or documentary could I check out to learn more?
posted by ikkyu2 to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Where in Eastern Kentucky? What social class? Do you know what her parents did, and whether they lived in a town or out in the county? Those could make a very big difference.

This earlier post might have some starting points for you. Then there's a book called Growing Up Hard in Harlan County, although it's from a male perspective, and there's some other stuff that I can look for tomorrow. Maybe try Jesse Stuart for fiction.... If you know the county she was from, you might want to check for a historical society website - they may have old pictures or documents or descriptions of what life was like at certain times.

It's probably not really useful for me to type my own grandmothers' stories in here as an answer.

(from way back in the hills myself)
posted by dilettante at 8:55 PM on October 9, 2006

Deliverence, Coal Miner's Daughter, the Beverly Hillbillies

Seriously though, you could listen to some old bluegrass or check out some of the photos that were taken by WPA/FSA photographers (Ben Shah, Russel Lee, Walker Evans and Marion Post Walcott among others) in the 1930's of Eastern KY and surrounds. I know they are all a little later than 1903 but life changes pretty slowly up there.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:58 PM on October 9, 2006

Check Libray of Vongress' Ammerican Memory collection, you may find diaries from the area and era that wil;l provide some info. My granmother was born on an Oklahoma farm in 1909 and lives with my wife and I. Her stories are amazing.
posted by buggzzee23 at 9:21 PM on October 9, 2006

One of my sisters in law is history chair at a midwest university, and she has written a number of well-regarded books about the lives of rural women - it is the wrong region and the wrong era for your question, but my point is if you looked into the history departments of Kentucky universities I bet there are other professors doing similar regional research. While I deem my relative's books have a good reputation in history circles I don't think they are the sort of thing you would find looking in ordinary book sources. But they get into the real specifics of the quality of daily life as well as the impacts of major historical events and trends, so I think scholarly research of this sort might get you the sort of information you want.
posted by nanojath at 9:29 PM on October 9, 2006

no electricity ... the only transportation one had was your feet or a horse and carriage ... she probably went to a one room schoolhouse, with a bunch of grades all mixed in together

lighting at night would have been provided by kerosene or coal oil ... it's probable that a wood stove(s) was used to cook the meals and heat the house ... if you needed to go to the bathroom, you went outside to the outhouse ... it's likely that you used either a sears catalog or similar thing, or leaves to wipe with

the day started early ... cows want to be milked at 5 am, more or less, and you're not going to change their minds about that ... if you wanted butter, you'd have to put it in a butter churn and churn it yourself ... you would also have chickens, possibly a few pigs, a garden, and a couple of horses with a plow ... you would also have a couple of semi-feral barn cats to catch mice ... (if one of them had a litter you would take only the ones you needed to catch mice with and drown the rest in a bag, possibly in a horse trough ... cruel, perhaps, but every mouth on a farm has to be fed and has to do something to earn that food)

there would probably be alfalfa and corn (or wheat) ... alfalfa's for the horses ... corn and wheat would go to the mill at harvest

most of the food you grew would go to feed the family ... some of it would be used for barter at the general store so one could get cloth for clothing and other necessities ... needless to say, every stitch of clothing was sown at home on a manual sowing machine

the doctor and the veternarian would both make house calls, but something had to be pretty wrong for them to do so

you may have had an ice box ... there are ways to make and keep ice if it gets cold enough ... the ice house would either make it in winter and insulate it with sawdust to keep during the summer ... and although i'm not sure how widely it was done, there are other ways to make it, as long as it gets down to 50 at night ...

it's very probable that you knew your neighbors quite well and went to church with them ... it is also likely that you may have been encouraged to get an education ... even going as far as college

any kid on a farm worked ... especially during summer vacation as there was a lot to do during the summer, which was the whole point of having a summer vacation ... it's also possible that some of the kids were let out during
harvest time

unless they were really destitute, they probably didn't feel poor as many around them would have lived the same way ... they had their land and they made their living from it

tragedies could strike ... not as many kids survived back then ... what are routine infections now could kill you back then ... mothers generally gave birth at home, or possibly the doctor's house

my mother grew up in the 30's on a michigan farm ... aside from locale and the addition of a model a, that's pretty much how she grew up ... her parents were both college graduates ... and all 9 of their children went to college, although not all of them finished ... (my mom got her mrs degree instead)

none of them ended up farming for a living
posted by pyramid termite at 9:36 PM on October 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well, I guess that she grew up on a farm in West Liberty county, outside a little town named Flores(?). Her folks owned the farm, which grew tobacco. She was educated in a one-room schoolhouse and then was the teacher in that schoolhouse for several years.

The fragments of stories Mom remembers makes it sound like it was a community with a lot going on. I personally grew up in an L.A. suburb; after living there for about ten years my family discovered that our neighbor from across the street had been one of Hazel's students in that little one-room schoolhouse.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:42 PM on October 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

and you asked for a book, didn't you? ... it's a bit on the dire side but wisconsin death trip is based on a book by michael lesy that is thoroughly fascinating, being mostly newspaper accounts and old photographs ... northern gothic ...
posted by pyramid termite at 9:47 PM on October 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

I recommend the novels of Denise Giardina for their historical depictions of life in southern Appalachia over the last two centuries. I especially remember enjoying a book called Storming Heaven.

Perhaps more about coal than tobacco, but definitely a landscape your grandmother would have recognized. Good luck in your search.
posted by macinchik at 9:50 PM on October 9, 2006

Not sure what her family did for a living. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, they were fairly rural/agricultural. Chances are, grandma had to go to the outhouse for, you know.... They probably had to pump water by hand and certainly had no electricity and probably no phone until she was well into her teens.

Probably had a lot of home remedies when people got sick; getting a doctor in a timely manner may not have been an option.

It's likely all the kids slept in one or two beds.

I'm just putting few things out there based on my wife's family's experience. Her mom & dad both grew up poor in the hilly areas of upstate New York, and my wife did get the opportunity to talk to her grandma a lot. They were quite close, so I've heard many of the stories as well.
posted by Doohickie at 10:06 PM on October 9, 2006

I would recommend calling (or e-mailing) a library in that area and asking if they can recommend books on what life was like.

BTW, there is a city called West Liberty, KY and it's in Morgan County.
posted by dgeiser13 at 10:07 PM on October 9, 2006

Best answer: You might enjoy Russell Baker's "Growing Up" as a remembrance of Depression era rural life, and the forces that moved many families off the land and into cities in that era. I also agree with dgeiser13's comment that the area best fitting your remembered details for where your grandmother grew up is near West Liberty, county seat of Morgan County. And I'll suggest that, if you haven't already, you explore the Kentucky Historical Society's Guide to Kentucky Oral History Collections for first narratives of Kentucky rural life.

Morgan County is coal country, on the western edge of Appalachia. Hard scrabble country, and the land is generally too hilly for more than subsistence farming, as the Google Maps satellite view of hills and hollows, and scarred hill tops shows. Tobacco is (and was) a common cash crop for families to make on limited acreage, but farmed the traditional way, requires intense manual labor, in every step of production. 4 or 5 acres of tobacco would have been a big job for even a fairly large family to handle, but could have been the best way for a coal miner to make additional cash, and most did so, as well as raising much of their own corn and vegetables. If they had any additional land and water, they might have had pigs, or maybe a cow, but in a hilly area, livestock is a luxury, as the forage is poor, and limited arable land isn't easily given up to raising animal feed.

Morgan County was (and is) historically something of a moonshiner's enclave. The rough country of the area makes it easier to hide stills, and the history of the area is heavily intertwined with whiskey culture. I say whiskey culture, because it's my observation, from years spent in middle and east Tennessee, and North Georgia, and many, many trips through Kentucky, southeastern Virginia, western North Carolina, and southern West Virginia, that there is a recognizable sub-culture of Appalachia, through which the uniting generational and community thread is the production and distribution of whiskey. In small communities, even people who had nothing directly to do with the production or distribution of moonshine, often participated or benefited from ancillary activities of supplying ingredients and materials, or services, to people who did. So, the moonshine trade bound the whiskey culture together in deep and subtle ways, and those who left sometimes remembered it as something too difficult to fully understand or explain.

Now I'm not saying your grandmother or anyone in your family was a moonshiner, but to understand the world she might have remembered, you have to understand the insularity and the secrecy that whiskey culture relied upon. Stranger danger had a different meaning to these people than it does to us, entirely. Family and trust relationships necessarily worked differently in such areas, because of whiskey culture. Cash, credit, and ideas about money that was legally unexplainable were also deep woven threads in community in such areas. So, keep it in mind, and give it some thought, as you explore your family history, if this is the area you agree they may actually have inhabited. Although you'd have to seek permission from the interviewer to listen to the materials, some of the KHC's oral collection on moonshine might be of interest.
posted by paulsc at 11:48 PM on October 9, 2006 [2 favorites]

Listen to some of the music of a guy called Jim Ford -he grew up in Harlan country and wrote about it. The track actually called "Harlan Country" as the one I heard originally. Its a great song - he was writing about his childhood in 1969.
posted by rongorongo at 2:31 AM on October 10, 2006

One aspect I have not seen mentioned is religion. Your grandmother's family probably attended church every sunday, and may have followed that with a picnic with friends and family afterwards if the weather was nice.

Often times, neighbors got together depending on the requirements of the harvest or farming. For example, in Southwest Virginia, where my people are from, they would gather to make molasses or applebutter and would help each other out when time came to bale hay. My great-grandfathers both raised tobacco and a lot of places in the region that traditionally grew it, still grow it. If you have the chance, try and drive down and look at a field. My father helped his grandfather plant tobacco once and told me it was one of the most backbreaking jobs he'd ever undertaken.

My great-grandparents were slightly different. One purchased a truck in the 1910's and eventually began a merchanting business by driving into coal towns with fresh produce and farm products. Another never owned a vehicle his entire life (he died near 1980) and either used farm animals or friends to help him when he would require some form of horsepower.

Regardless, be proud of your grandmother's life and your farming heritage. Its not easy being such and takes strong people and strong minds to make a living off in it.
posted by Atreides at 6:30 AM on October 10, 2006

It may be interesting to see them on a census and see who their neighbors were, where they came from, and what they did for a living. It doesn't tell you a ton about what life was like, but it does help set the scene.

The 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses may be helpful. If you need help with this, my email is in my profile. I spend a lot of time looking up census info for my own genealogical research.
posted by jdl at 6:51 AM on October 10, 2006

I know it seems a little '60s-'70s, but take a look at the Foxfire books if you can get your hands on them--I picked up Foxfire 1 last weekend (after a childhood of always seeing the series on my parents' bookshelf, but not knowing what it was) and got utterly hooked. Descriptions of mountain life from other people's Appalachian grandparents.
posted by paleography at 8:28 AM on October 10, 2006

Reminisce Magazine is slightly more modern than your grandma's life, but offers lots of photos and stories from America throughout the century, including letters and stories of those who remember it. I find it fascinating.
posted by GaelFC at 10:36 AM on October 10, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you everyone, for all your wonderful replies.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:06 AM on October 16, 2006

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