Even though as an adult I have become a big city-dwelling professional, I grew up on a farm at Burke--actually several farms around Burke since my parents, Elroy and Gertrude Murrah, were in my youngest years tenant farmers. We lived on farms rented in succession from Miss Ina McCall, Sally Treadwell Pigford, Mrs. I. D. Fairchild, and Uncle Bob Weisinger before purchasing my grandfather's old farm northwest of Burke. My parents had earlier owned small places at Burke and then Diboll, they were forced to rent to have access to sufficient property to seriously farm for a living.
By the the 1950s, most farmers who grew row crops, such as cotton and corn, had wisely left the business. The large mechanized farms in West Texas had doomed the small time family farmer,and most had left for industrial jobs in Diboll and Lufkin. Others were lured to refinery and chemical plant jobs that opened up in Houston after World War II.
Some at Burke, such as Hillary Thigpen, had mechanized and survived by specializing in growing hay for sale to Burke area cattlemen and raising hogs. Others such as Roy Treadwell had not only mechanized but also moved mostly into the cattle business. A few, like my uncle Hubert Murrah, enjoyed the farm life enough to continue to grow corn or hay part time for their own cattle while working industrial jobs.
A very few like my father loved farming so much that he stuck with it almost to the bitter end, hanging on until about 1955. The only Burke farmer to outlast him was probably Theodore Graham.
The Murrah family farming experience in the early 1950s was a throwback to an earlier day. The farm was unmechanized except for a truck and was woefully out of date by any measure. As such it probably provides a unique view back in time to the typical methods of farmers in early Burke.
On the McCall and Treadwell farms, Elroy grew cotton and corn and raised cattle for sale. By the time of the Fairchild farm, he had ceased growing cotton but continued growing corn for his cattle. By the time we moved to the Weisinger farm, his agricultural endeavors were restricted to raising cattle for sale. When we bought the Johnson farm, Elroy continued only raising cattle, although he did rent part of the farm to Theodore Graham to grow corn on shares.
Wherever they lived Elroy and Gertrude grew large gardens and preserved much of the resulting peas (purple hull, crowder, cream), green snap beans, butterbeans, corn, okra, and tomatoes for winter by canning (jars and cans) and later freezing. I remember spending many a summer day sitting in the yard under a big oak or chinaberry tree with my mother, aunt, cousins, and neighbors shelling peas and butterbeans for canning. For a number of years the Murrahs grew large crops of turnip greens, peas, and beans and peddled them from their pickup in Diboll. They also grew turnip greens, cabbage, onions, and peppers for immediate use and potatoes which they stored for winter in the sand under the house. In the fall we always put in collard greens, which hardy enough to produce well into the fall. A couple of years we even grew sugar cane and had it made into syrup by Grady Whitehead at his mill at Fairview.
Gertrude also loved to pick wild dewberries and blackberries in the spring and early summer. Dewberries were smaller and came in earlier than the blackberries. They always seemed to grow best on fence rows and railroad tracks. She always picked enough to make several berry cobblers, still one of my favorite desserts, and to make berry jelly.
When we had pair and fig trees, she always put up plenty of preserves. She would put pair slices and whole figs in a big, deep pan along with suger and water and boil them until they made a thick syrup. They were then ready to be put in jars and sealed.
My parents made extra cash by peddling vegetables from their pickup to African-Americans in Diboll. It was a perfect marriage of necessity--we had fresh vegetables from the farm that they could not grow on their tiny lots in town, and they had cash from work at the sawmill.
I have spent many an hour riding in our '51 Chevy pickup down the dirt streets of this shanty-filled part of town, my mother yelling from the window, "Purple hulls peas! Turnip greens! Butterbeans!" over and over. Her big, jolly laugh and gift of gab made her the family marketeer. She learned the trade from her parents, Frank and Florence Johnson, who had also peddled in the same area.
Because of the peddling my mother developed many friends in the black community when Southern society was still segregated. My first gift when I was born came from Miss Cora Nash who lived there and was considered a community leader. When we went shopping in Diboll in later years, she often met her former customers and would always stop and talk and share a laugh with them. When my mother passed away, there were several who still remembered her and visited the funeral home to pay their last respects. Meeting those fine people and seeing the hard life they lived undoubtedly helped shape my lifelong belief that all people are the same and should be treated with dignity and respect and given the same opportunites. My mother's example of looking beyond wealth and status, or lack thereof, and color and into a person's heart was an example that I have tried to follow.
Farming the old fashioned way meant living in old fashioned farm houses. In some cases we lived in still habitable houses built before the turn of the 20th Century. I later discovered that the Treadwell house had been inhabited by my great-great grandparents Bill and Bettie Johnson many years earlier.
The Treadwell, Fairchild, and Weisinger houses were built on blocks and used unpainted vertical siding. They also had corrugated sheet metal roofs, which we always referred to"tin" roofs, although they were in fact zinc-coated steel.
While these houses were substandard by today's standards, the author values having lived in them. The block foundation provided a cool shaded place to play on hot summer days. In the winter the dry sandy soil provided a place to store potatoes. The author remembers going under the house at the request of his mother to fetch potatoes for supper. When it rained, the metal roof made a sound that is both harsh and indescribably soothing. There was nothing better than sleeping late on a rainy day in a tin roofed house next to an open, screened window.
Outdoor privies were the most unpleasant part of living the old fashioned way. They were smelly, cold in the winter, and there was always the fear or spiders lurking just under the seat. That was not an unreal fear in East Texas where dangerous black widow spiders were common in old buildings. I won't even go into the unpleasant task of cleaning them out.
The Murrah farm was a farmer-stockman operation. Elroy Murrah raised cotton, cattle,and vegetables as cash crops and corn to feed the cattle. He had served in Japan in the post-war occupation forces and returned home to farm. He used the G. I. Bill benefit to attend an agricultural school at Lufkin. At the time the family lived just north of Diboll and had only a few acres to farm. In order to qualify for the program, he had to have more land under cultivation. That's when the family moved to Miss Ina McCall's farm northwest of Burke, and he put in his first "large" crops, mainly cotton and corn.
It is the recollection that Elroy's goal was a bale of cotton to the acre, and one year he sold $1100 of cotton. The money from the crop was used to pay off the crop loan to the bank and buy seed for next year, leaving little cash to spend in town.
The motive power for the plow on the Murrah farm was a pair of mules, Old Rock and Rhody. They were harnessed in tandem with a bridle and bit for the mouth, a collar, a wooden yoke overlying the collar, trace chains connecting the yoke to a singletree attached to the l=plow beam. The bridle had blinders on each side to block the mule's vision to the side. Mules tended to skittish, and the blinder prevent them from being startled by any movement to their sides.
The mules towed a "turning plow" to break and aerate the ground, a "middle buster" to make rows, and a "Georgia stock" with a winged sweep for cultivating the crops after planting. The turning plow and middle buster were all steel except for the handles, but the Georgia stock had a wooden beam. Corn and cotton were planted with an Avery brand planter. A notched wheel on the planter turned a slotted plate under a seed hopper to drop seeds as the planter proceeded down the row. The planter had a narrow steel wheel on the front avoid packing the soil a share to dig a furrow, and a wide, concave-surfaced rear wheel to lightly pack the soil over the seeds.
The mules were controlled with "plow lines", or reins, made of rope connected to the bits and looped around the farmer's shoulders. The farmer would guide the plow with the handles. The mules were trained to require little directional control via the reins and to respond to directional commands from the farmer. The farmer would yell "Gee!" or "Haw!" to go right or left, respectively.
The author recalls many days following his father down a furrow as he plowed the field. The earthy smell of the freshly turned turned soil and the grub worms that the plow often revealed are still vivid memories.
Cotton had to be protected form several pests. Angelina County is uniquely infested with crawfish which burrow in the wet ground and build mounds. When the young cotton plants had just burst from the soil, crawfish would emerge from their holes and night cut them down. To combat the crawfish, Elroy would go into the field at night with a carbide-powered headlamp and capture the crawfish, storing them in a washtub. The author remembers tubs filled with angry crawfish which would menacingly point their opened claws at you if you got too close. They could easily be handled by grabbing them behind the claws, and their pinch was not too painful if they happened to catch you. We would take the crawfish away from the farm and dump them where they could not harm the cotton. Some combatted crawfish by dropping a carbide pellet down the water-filled hole and igniting the resulting gas with a match.
Cotton farmers also had to fight the dreaded boll weevil, which is the larva of a moth that lays its eggs in the cotton boll. When the larva hatches, it consumes the immature cotton before the boll opens. One year we hired a crop duster airplane to spray the young cotton. The biplane raced back a forth across the field only a few feet above the cotton plants spraying a foul smelling insecticide. At the end of the row the plane pulled up sharply to make a quick turn. The maneuver was essentially a hammerhead stall, a very dangerous maneuver at low altitude. That year the insecticide did more harm than the boll weevils. At the end of the rows where the spraying stopped as the plan made its turn, the cotton production was much greater than in the remainder of the field. It may have been this bad crop that finally convinced Elroy to give up farming and take an industrial job.
Cotton is now picked with giant machines, but in the 1950's we still picked it by hand. Every year we would hire pickers to pull the fluffy cottion from the bolls. Many times we would go to Lufkin and hire people on the spot and take the back to Burke in the pickup.
The pickers would bend over to reach bolls on the short stalks and stowing it in a long canvas sack secured by a strap over the shoulder. When the sack was full, the picker would take it to the edge of the field where Elroy had parked the truck. He weighed the cotton on a balance beam scale hanging from a tree limb and record the amound for the picker. He the dumped the sack of cotton into the pickup bed, whose capacity was aaugmented with side frames. At the end of the day the pickers were paid by the pound.
It was important to pick the cotton the bolls rather than "pulling" the entire boll. Picking required more time and effort than pulling, but pulling reduced the value of the cotton because it included worthless debris that had to be removed at the gin at greater expense . Cotton was occasionally "pulled" instead of picked when speed was more important than cleanliness of the cotton This usually occurred with the the last picking when there was little cotton left in the field.
One cotton picking season we hired a related family--father, mother, and daughter. The daughter did not want to put out the extra effort to pick the cotton and instead pulled the entire boll. He parents made her empty her bag in an old house we were using for storage and pick the debris from the cotton.
I was old enough to pick a small amount of cotton. When I was young my mother made me a miniature cotton sack from a flour sack. I don't remember being paid, although I can't remember picking much cotton either. Later when I was older I picked cotton for other farmers for extra money.
When the truck was filled with cotton, we drove to the cotton gin for processing. Burke and Lufkin originally had cotton gins, but by the 1950s, they were all out of business. The only operating gins were at Huntington and Nacogdoches. We took most of our loads of cotton to Huntington since it was closer.
A gin were a fascinating place for a young boy. The farmer drove his truck under a covered area, and a gin worker would vacuum the cotton from the truck with a long tube that extended up into a network of ducts. The worker guided the tube back and forth slowly lowering the level until all had been removed. Inside the gin building rows of machines with rotating fingers separated the seed from the fiber. At the rear of the building the fibers was fed into a compress which compacted large amounts of cotton in 500 pound bales, wrapped them in burlap, and secured them with metal straps. These bales were shipped by railroad to textile mills on the East coast and perhaps abroad. It always struck me as odd that the gin workers were often missing a finger, lost probably in one of the myriad of combing and separating machines inside the gin building.
The gins produced large amounds of cotton seeds which they stored in an adjacent building. I recall climbing and sitting on these piles while waiting for our cotton to be ginned. The seeds themselves were a valuable source of oil and protein. It was not uncommong to feed cotton seed meal to cattle.
For a time we had a milk cow to product our own milk. Gertrude Murrah did most of the milking. She would herd the milk cow into a stall in the barn and distract here with dairy feed. She would sit on a stool and tap the cow on the front of her back leg, commanding "Back your leg! Back your leg!" to gain access to the udder. She would set a bucket on the ground under the udder, squeeze the cow's teats, and milk would spray into the bucket. If the cow moved or resisted being milked, Gertrude would shout "Sah!, Sah!". Sometimes the cow would eat bitterweeds and that would make the milk bitter also.
I do not recall making butter on our farm, but my grandfather did. My great grandmother would sit in an old straight chair moving a dasher up and down in a churn filled with milk that had been allowed to sour. This would separate the butter fat, which was molded into cakes of butter. The remainder of the mild from the churn was buttermilk, a treat for some as a drink and an essential ingredient in cornbread.
We also had chickens on the farm and produced all our own eggs. Our chickens were were kept in a chicken house, but they were not fenced in. They allowed to roam freely around the farm and adjoining woods. The chickens's diet was diverse, and the eggs from such hens were much richer and more flavorful. Eggs from what later became known as "free range" chickens were called "yard eggs."
Hauling is a major function on a farm. Most of our hauling was doine in a 1951 Chevrolet 1/2 ton pickup truck. It replaced a 1941 Ford pickup that finally died in the early 1950s. Once on a trip to visit Uncle Chester Murrah at Peavy Switch, a fire started in the battery compantment under the driver side floor. Elroy put the fire out with sand from the road. By adding cattle frames we could haul a cow to auction or a load of cotton to the gin.
Horse drawn wagons were almost extinct by the early 1950s, but I remember on one occasion riding in a mule drawn wagon from the Treadwell place to the Cedar Creek bottom northwest of Burke.
The Murrah farm usually had 20-30 head of grown cattle of mixed breed and a Hereford bull. Each year we sold a crop of yearling calves (pronounce "yurlins"). Once a year Elroy would corral the young bull calves and "fix them", a polite word for castration, for which we used a stockman's knife sterilized with alcohol, a skill which the author never learned. The calf would be roped around the neck and the rope tied to a post. Then a sceond rope would be tied around the back legs to stretch out the calf on its side. It was the author's job to hold the rope tied to the calf's rear legs.
The cows grazed on grass in the fields in the spring and summer. The field were mowed yearly with a Ford 9N tractor and rotary mower known as a "bush hog" to keep down weeds and pine saplings. In the winter when there was no grass, we fed the cows daily with several bales of hay from the barn. We'd haul the hay to the field and then break it up into small slices for the cows.
Since we did not grow hay, it had to be purchased from producers such as Hillary Thigpen or Bo Lee. They would cut the hay grass with a tractor-mounted sickle cutter. After the hay dried, it was raked into windrows with a tractor-mounted rake. Then a baler followed the windrows scooping up the hay with metal fingers and compressing it into square bales that weighed up to 50 pounds. We would pick op the hay in the field with our pickup. We would put four bales in the bed of the truck, then stack two double rows of eight bales end-to-end crosswise of the truck,a nd then two lengthwise on top, for a total of 22 bales. The author remembers riding on top of the hay on the way home.
When we arrived home, the author would throw the bales to his father in the loft of the barn. Getting the bales up to the loft got harder as the stack got smaller.
Running cattle meant having good fences. It seemed that we were constantly building fence on the Murrah farm. Some times Elroy would take vacation time from work to build fence. We would dig post holes with a hand-operated post hole punch and pack the dirt around the post. Corner posts were much larger and required larger deeper holes and braces. For corner posts we would pick up used railroad ties when the railroad installed new ties. No one ever asked; it was just understood that it was OK to take the old ties. The farmers got fence posts, and the railroad did not have to haul off the old ties.
The calves were usually sold at an auction barn. At first the nearest cattle auction barn was Patton's in Nacogdoches, but later the Lowery brothers of Huntington put in Lufkin Livestock Exchange on Highway 69 near Homer. We would put the cattle frames on the Chevy pickup and load several calves though a loading chute, a narrow ramp that let the calves walk up into the bed of the pickup. Some were not pleased to be so confined, and the author recalls once when a grown cow reared up and despoited her front hooves on the roof of the truck. Some times we would borrow a trailer, which was a much better way to do the job.
Calves were sold by the pound at the auction. That made listening to the market reports on KRBA and KTRE radio stations in Lufkin crucial to sellng at the right time to make money.
The auction barns usually had an entry foyer with an office on one side for settling transactions and a "greasy spoon" cafe on the other. Some of the best hamburgers the author ever had were bought at an auction barn cafe.
The next section was the semicircular sale "ring" and auditorium. The cattle were paraded usually one at a time through the ring, defijned by a fence made of welded steel pipe, and the auctioneer sat in an elevated booth behind the ring. One man representing the auction barn controlled the entry door, and with snap of his whip on the animal's hide he would start the bidding. Presumably the barn would buy the animal at that price is no one else bid on the animal. Usually before the bidding was complete, the animal was hustled out a door on the other side of the ring to the corral area in the rear of the barn.
The serious bidders, the professional cattle buyers, sat in chairs at the edge of the ring, often with their cowboy boots propped upon on the metal rails of the ring. Other bidders and lookers sat in stepped stadium-style, semi-circular seating wrapped around the ring. Bids were made by hand signals, often very subtle ones. The cattle buyers tried to hide their bids from the competition and often bid with a only surreptitious flick of a finger. Young kids such as the author were usually warned not to make hand motions visible to the auctioneer. Make the wrong move, and you buy a cow!
Near the exit door there was a sign stating, "No POs after cattle leave ring." Clearly it meant that a sale could be vetoed only while the cattle were in the ring, but the origins of "PO" was a mystery to the author. Ony later did he realize that it probably means "pull out". The irony is that the animal was usually out of the ring before the bidding was complete.
Occasionally a very wild animal would be brought into the ring sending the two men in the ring scrambling behind barriers or up the fence.
The animals were loaded an unloaded at the rear of the barn and and tagged with stickon numbers. They were held in a series of holding pens all under the same roof as the sale ring. Animals were segregated into pens by type: yearlings, grown cows, bulls, horses and mules, pigs, and even goats. Between the loading area and the sale ringt was an elevated walkway above the pens, which privided access to the ring from the rear and permitted buyers to view the cattle before they were sold.
Every farmhouse--and houses in town before modern construction--had a little building behind the house, often down a path behind the garden. This was the legendary "privy" or "out house" where people responded to the call of nature. The privy had a seat with a hole cut in it over a pit. East Texas is know for spiders of all kinds, including the poisonous black widow, and they liked to live in dark places like the underside of toilet seats. Everyone feared being bitten by a spider while sitting on the toilet seat. Every privy had a copy of an out-of-date Sears catalog for reading and for use a s toilet paper. Some people were known to use corn cobs for the same purpose. They apparently were remarkably effective, but they were a little hard on tender parts of the body, which is likely the source of the phrase "rougher than a cob".
Every year or two the pit had to cleared out and the contents buried. It was a smelly job and not for one who was tender of stomach.