Feed Sacks, Old Junk, and the Lady of the House
by Billy P. Hall
As it says in the King James version of the Bible, she was “with child.” The flowery-print homemade dress, made with chicken mash feed sacks and tied in the middle with a belt made out of matching material, bulged outward, stretching the fabric to the breaking point.
In 1948, most poor folks (and most people fit that description) raised chickens and hogs for food. In a mostly agrarian society, most folks around Winnsboro still clung to the lifestyle they grew up with. Many could recount the hungry times during the Great Depression and it was a life-changing event for many of them. Genesis 12:10 says “… the famine was grievous in the land.”
The men salvaged every worn out piece of farm equipment, never thinking of selling it for scrap or hauling it away, but carefully storing it near the house against the day a part would come in handy. They would quote as if from the Bible, “waste not … want not.”
Above ground cemeteries of rusting, worn-out hay rakes, plows, turning discs, along with other implements, whose use had long been forgotten, were common in Northeast Texas. Some had been stripped for usable parts, the bits and pieces of their dismantling littered the ground. Tractors and gaping hulks of old cars were lined up neatly, tall grass growing between them, interspersed by refrigerators with open doors and washing machines with their motors missing. Tricycles, wheels long ago used for some other, more pressing purpose, children’s wagons lying on their sides, tongues at a crooked angle, and other one-time prized possessions, used up and discarded, had a special, final resting place of their own.
Items were grouped, reflecting to the passing traffic: these were used by the farmer, these by the lady of the house, and these by the children.
You could almost gauge the wealth of the family, year by year, by their discards. In good years, when crops were plentiful and prices were good, this ritual of displaying the worn out items in a field near the house signalled to the community that they had “fallen on good times.” The newest old items were carefully placed in front, closest to the road. When you saw new additions to the discard pile so boldly displayed in this last resting place, it was a signal that some new, sophisticated appliance had been purchased.
Naturally nosy neighbors kept a close eye on these depositories and were quick to casually “drop in” so they could get a first-hand look at the affluence of their friends.
Over a glass of tea or cup of coffee, they would congratulate them and then listen while the ladies would remonstrate that they “didn’t really need that new piece of equipment, but you know how Nate (or Ted or John or Bill) always has to have the latest thingamagig.” In this way, they could always blame it on a character flaw in their spouse rather than greed on their part.
It was considered to be in bad taste to flaunt your wealth, so you went to great lengths to attribute this show of wealth to some other reason. In the King James Bible, Luke 12:15, it says “a man’s life consisteth not of the things he possesses.”
There was an unwritten law that you never wanted to hurt anyone’s pride, or be too proud, because the Bible also said, “Pride goeth before a fall.” The country folks had a saying, too, “You never rise so high that you can’t fall.”
Coming out of the Great Depression, anyone over thirty years of age knew how much people depended on each other and would tell and retell stories about neighbors helping neighbors. Although hunger was relatively unknown to us, their children, only one generation removed, we listened with great interest to these tales while they made a wish that we would never have to live through such times; Isaiah 49:10 “They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them.”
We listened as they recounted times when rabbits and quail and squirrel, deer and other wild game supplemented their meager diet. One of the staples that fascinated us was a dish that later became renowned as Hopkins County Stew. The recipe called for equal portions of beef, pork, and squirrel; you could substitute squirrel for either pork or beef, but you couldn’t substitute for the squirrel.
They depended heavily on food they grew in gardens and eggs, chickens, butter, and milk that they could get in their own back yards. It was a common practice to swap what you had to someone for what you needed, so bartering was a way of life. With little or no money, most folks were able to obtain what they wanted through this system. If your chickens or cows produced more than your family could consume, then those eggs or milk or butter were used like currency.
If you were really lucky, you had eggs or butter to take to town to sell to the grocery store where you could use the money to purchase other things you could not grow. The King James Bible in II Kings 4:7 says, “Go, sell the oil and pay thy debt, and live thou and thy children on the rest of it.”
The women would buy sugar and coffee and flour and cornmeal, which were the staples of life in those days. Although they were usually good seamstresses, store-bought cloth was a luxury they could not afford very often. Proverbs 31:13 says,”She seeketh wool, and flax,and worketh willingly with her hands.”
There should be a statue erected somewhere for the man who saw this need and did something about it. Since most people raised chickens, they always were able to afford chicken feed, usually ground up corn, maize, oats and barley that had a very short name, “Mash.” This ground up roughage was fed to baby chicks fresh out of the incubator until the day they provided Sunday dinner for some lucky family.
Someone, knowing the Depression days’ mentality of saving every piece of string and reusing every piece of wire, fell upon the idea of bagging chicken mash in a material with a floral print on one side. Needless to say, other burlap-wrapped bags did not sell from that day forward. The women folks began to take full responsibility for the feeding and raising of the fowl while the menfolks worked in the fields. They became extremely jealous of this duty and carefully protected their right to pick out the correct pattern that they needed to complete a dress or smock and sometimes the drawers worn by their children.
Most of the time, however, the percale print found on flour sacks was used to make under-drawers, due to it being finer and softer than feed sack material. Bags of chicken feed weighed 100 pounds, while flour was in 25 pound bags, with smaller, daintier flowers imprinted; of course, flour sacks were more desirable and feed sacks more plentiful. “She looketh well to the ways of her household and eateth not the bread of idleness,” Proverbs 31:27.
A new kind of exchange was born at the grocery/feed store, where you could bring in any sack material you did not want and replace it with one you did like for the nominal sum of ten cents. This became the first order of business for women who came to town with their husbands on Saturdays. The men would involve themselves in other activities while the women sold eggs and butter, shopped for food, and picked out their favorite shade of chicken mash sack.
The boys who worked on Saturday always dreaded this customer because she would invariably pick a bag near the bottom of the stack. After unstacking fifteen or twenty bags (to get the one she wanted) and then re-stacking the rejected bags, the next customer always wanted another bag on the bottom. This went on until everyone was satisfied and triumphantly paid for their purchase, leaving the sweating boys to load their hard-won prizes in their husbands’ trucks.
After dropping the womenfolk off at the grocery store, the men would go to the farmer’s market located near the store where they would sell any produce they had. After disposing of that task, they would go to the domino parlor where several tables were always in use for a favorite game called “Moon” or regular dominoes. You could hear a voice bawl, “I shoot the moon!” or “Gimme fifteen points,” while others were laughing about some new joke just told. Betting was common and “two-bits a hickey” was the normal bet. Rough talk and bursts of laughter were all it took to attract men who lived most of their days in solitude working the soil or tending to animals.
Amplified sounds of the so-called Street Preacher could be heard on street corners as they berated their listeners with a “fire and brimstone” sermon. Some of the more irreverent scoffers would say something cute like, “Old preacher Dan says Jesus is coming back again … and is He pissed” while the others laughed and slapped their legs. These same men would say “Amen” on Sunday when their preacher would read from the King James version where it says, “Do not sit in the seat of scoffers.”
A little moonshine was passed around while they squatted on their haunches and spit into the street, catching up on the latest gossip by word of mouth, because many of these hard working men could not read.
Working at a grocery, I had seen a large variety of personalities and prided myself on being able to discern a lot by just looking at a person. There were four or five wealthy and respected farmers and ranchers whose wives would come to town once or twice a month to shop. When they were finished, the man of the house would produce a large checkbook, supplied by the bank to good customers, and pay with a check.
Knowing me, they would ask me to fill in the amount due in their checkbook, then with gravity and great care, make an “X” on the signature line. I would write their names beside this highly individualistic letter and print “by Billy Hall” underneath it.
This was always accomplished without calling any undue attention to the fact that they could neither read nor write. They would then ask me to enter that purchase on the record sheet under the checks. After accomplishing this under their watchful eyes, with satisfaction, they would close the large checkbook, with a flourish, and head up, dignity intact, they would stride toward the front door with their purchases, wives trailing in their wake.
I had seen her getting out of the stripped down truck of a pulpwood hauler. With great difficulty, one hand holding her stomach, she eased off the high step of the truck. Keeping her balance with the other hand, she smoothed her simple, rough dress and stood erect beside the door, breathing hard with the effort. After smoothing her hair, clean but obviously never “done” professionally, she walked slowly, but with great dignity, down the sidewalk to the front door of the store.
Her pregnancy was advanced to the point where it appeared the baby could come at any time. However, she did not want to miss this trip to town. Someone held the door open for her and she entered the store, eager to make her purchases. After a week of mind-numbing chores around the house, set back in the woods with no nearby neighbors, this was a real opportunity for her. She was only the poor wife of a pulpwood hauler, but straightening her back, she held her head high and, with an imperious glint in her eyes, she determined she was as good as anyone in town.
Despite her feedsack dress and old, cracked shoes that had a slit on one side exposing one toe, she exuded such poise and dignity that you were compelled to address her with the proper “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Ma’am” usually reserved for the richer ladies of the town.
Her language was backwoodsy, and with little or no schooling her vocabulary was limited, but her voice was clear when she spoke. Not unlike other girls who married in their teens, she’d had to quit school to raise a family. Girls married young and died young back in the piney woods, part of the Big Thicket that extended from just north of Houston almost to Texarkana.
There was a saying, repeated by the townfolk, that the pulpwood haulers kept their women home by keeping them “barefoot and pregnant.” Most acquired a tired, beaten look after a few years because life in the woods was not easy. After a few children and a few years of extremely hard work in an environment that demanded sunup to sundown toil just to survive, they aged quickly.
After making the trip in a bouncing truck, she entered the store and immediately began to gather her “bill of groceries.” I watched her make her way slowly down each aisle, inspecting every item with great care before depositing it in her basket. The loaves of “light bread” were carefully squeezed to determine freshness; asking a passing clerk, “Is this the freshest you have?” After being assured that those had been delivered only that morning, she made her way to the meat counter, where I waited.
Critically examining the meats displayed there, she demanded in a strong voice, “Give me two pounds of your very best Bologna.” She said this very precisely, sounding the vowels separately, “Bo-low-nah.” At first I was tempted to laugh out loud, because everyone I knew simply called it “Buh-loney,” but something about her demeanor stopped me. Living in the country, this was an unfamiliar purchase for her.
No more than seventeen, she was married, pregnant, and poor, in a strange position as “lady of the house,” and doing her best to act as if she did this sort of thing all the time. I became aware that this was probably her first trip to town in her new capacity as wife and mother-to-be and she was “putting on airs,” mimicking someone she had seen.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said loudly, almost clicking my heels together, and quickly went to the walk-in cooler, where I retrieved a new roll of bologna (although there were some smaller pieces in the display case). With a sharp knife in my practiced hand, I carefully cut off a portion and weighed it. Nesting it on a piece of sparkling white butcher paper, I displayed this piece of Bologna for this girl/lady as if it was our finest T-bone steak.
“Thank you, that’ll do very nicely,” she said, after thoroughly inspecting what we laughingly referred to as “boneless round steak.” I resisted the impulse to call it that and, under her watchful eye, wrapped it very carefully, put the price on the paper with a grease pencil, and handed it over.
When she finished in the grocery store, she made a trip to the feed store room. She emerged sometime later clutching two or three feed sacks. These would provide a new dress for her with some material left over that would make something for the new baby.
After paying for her purchases with the same care with which they were selected, she walked back to the parked truck. Huffing and puffing with the difficulty, she climbed aboard and sat, patiently waiting for her husband. He came out of the domino parlor, laughing about some joke just told, jumped up the high step, and cranked up the engine.
With a clashing of gears and more than a little oily smoke, they ended her first trip to town in her new position as lady of the house and, for me, a memorable event.
All in all, it went very well.
Billy P. Hall was born and raised in Winnsboro, Texas. His tales are remembrances of people, events and thought processes going back to 1933, including this recollection about an event at W.T. Brookshire Grocery and Feed Store, where he worked during high school.