Down on the Farm
Roaring Twenties and Depression Thirties
Day after day, the tall, spare farmer leaned on the board fence and searched the sky for clouds. In front of him, rows of corn were stunted, brown for lack of rain. He shoved his hat back on his head, exposing a strip of white forehead above a sun-browned face. No rain meant no crops. His shoulders slumped. His feet shuffled up the hot, dusty path back to the farmhouse, where I watched from the open door. My heart sank as I read the concern in his weary face. That man was my dad. . . .
When I was a boy growing up, Park Road outside Charlotte, North Carolina, was little more than a rutted dirt lane cutting across acres of farmland. Our white frame house with green trim sat back from the road and overlooked sprawling pastures dotted with our family's dairy herd, set against the tranquil backdrop of trees and low hills. There I was born on November 7, 1918, four days before the armistice that ended World War I and one year to the day after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
This was not the first house built on the site. A log cabin on acreage bought after the Civil War in Sharon Township, between the villages of Pineville and Matthews, was built by my grand-father William Crook Graham, a hard-drinking, hard-cursing veteran whose service with the Sixth South Carolina Volunteers left him with a Yankee bullet in his leg for the rest of his life.
My Aunt Eunice said the extent of her father's religion was to be an honest man. Fortunately, his wife, a God-fearing Scotswoman named Maggie McCall, influenced the character formation of their eight daughters and three sons by teaching them precepts and principles from the Scriptures. They all grew up to be deeply religious, and a number of their grandchildren became preachers—I being the first.
The first death in our immediate family was that of my maternal grandmother, Lucinda Coffey. Grandmother talked often about her husband, Ben Coffey, who had been badly wounded while serving with the Eleventh North Carolina Regiment, Pettigrew's Brigade, which led the advance on Gettysburg from the west on July 1, 1863. Shrapnel almost severed his left leg. While he was lying on the battlefield, a bullet grazed his right eye, blinding it forever. Doctors were forced to amputate his wounded leg some time later. On August 1, the company commander wrote a letter of commendation: "Benny was such a good boy; . . . a better soldier never lived." His comrades testified to his concern for spiritual values. I never knew him; he died in 1916 at the ripe old age of seventy-four.
When Grandmother Coffey died, I was in elementary school, and my sister Catherine and I were called out of school. The manner of her dying became a legacy of faith for our family. She sat up in bed and almost laughingly said, "I see Jesus. He has His arms outstretched toward me. And there's Ben! He has both of his eyes and both of his legs." She was buried among many other members of our family in the large Steele Creek Presbyterian churchyard.
For a child of the Roaring Twenties who reached adolescence in the Depression of the early thirties, rural life probably offered the best of all worlds. As Scottish Presbyterians believing in strict observance of moral values, we stayed relatively uncontaminated by the Great Gatsby lifestyle of the flapper era, with its fast dancing and illegal drinking. And being farmers, we could manage to live off the land when the economy nose-dived in the 1929 stock market crash, even though my father lost his savings—$4,000—in the failed Farmers' and Merchants' Bank in Charlotte.
Not that those were not anxious times. Yet it never occurred to me or my parents to think of the rigors of dairy farming as hardships. We all simply believed in hard work. The fact was that the South had never fully recovered economically from the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is strange to realize now, in light of Charlotte's present prosperity, that the region of my boyhood only sixty years ago was unbelievably poor.
In the Depression, our dairy farm barely survived when milk got down to 5¢ a quart. After the stock market crash of 1929, and the bank holiday that President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered in 1933 under his National Industrial Recovery Act, my father nearly went broke. At first he was confident that his bank in Charlotte would reopen, but it did not. He couldn't even write a check to pay his bills. He had to start over from scratch. It took him months to recover from the blow.
Yet business reverses never stifled my father's sense of humor. While he had cause to be melancholy or depressed, he was anything but that. There were down moments, of course, when the rains did not come and the crops did not grow, or when a prize cow died. But in spite of the hardships, he found much to laugh about. People loved to come to our place from all around the neighborhood just to hear him tell his jokes. His dry sense of humor kept us laughing by the hour.
Growing up in those years taught us the value of nickels and dimes. My father early on illustrated for me the merits of free enterprise. Once in a while when a calf was born on the farm, he turned it over to my friend Albert McMakin and me to raise. When it got to the veal stage, we marketed it ourselves and split the proceeds.
We were not out of touch with what was going on elsewhere, but our newspaper carried mostly local stories. Radio was still in its infancy. Once my father made his first crystal set, he tuned in pioneer station KDKA from Pittsburgh. We gathered around . . .Continues.