Ed (W.A.) Lewis of the Etowah Historical Society brought a booklet to the Vagabond about someone from the Dwight Cotton Mill Village. It is called, “A USA Mill Town Saga of the 1900’s.”
Eugene Livingston wrote what he remembered about the times, hardships, laughter and love shared between two families, Jim and Ester Livingston and Roy and Betty Emery as they lived in the early 1900’s.
Mr. Livingston’s recollection of the times and events that happened in the mill villages of Alabama City and Lupton City, Tenn., as well as the other places mentioned, will captivate your imagination and make you laugh and cry. It will also take you back in history to the good times and the hard times and perhaps stir the memories you may have of your own families of years gone by.
“This is one of the funniest stories I ever heard Uncle Claude tell. As the story goes, when Uncle Claude started to go to Gadsden one day, a big, heavy black woman with a small boy got on the street car and went to the back seat, as they were required to do.
“At this time in the early 1920’s, black people were also not allowed to eat in restaurants or drink at public water fountains. They had to go to the back door of restaurants to eat. They were not allowed to work in the mill. They could work outside the mill. They had a special part of the town in which they lived. They were required to go to the back of trains, busses and street cars. They started filling up the seats from back to front. The white people started at the front, filling seats to the rear. If a white person got on and no seat was available, then a black person was required to get up and give the white person his seat. Street cars had two seats on the right side and two seats on the left with an aisle down the middle. If one white person got on, two blacks would have to get up and let the white person sit down. Even though one seat beside the white person might be available, the black person had to stand up as no blacks could sit beside a white.
Another thing that was very common at this time, very few babies nursed a bottle. Women’s dresses were made so they could be unbuttoned so the baby could nurse the mother. It was a very common sight, to see a baby nursing on a bus, street car or in a store. If the baby was hungry, it would be allowed to nurse.
Now getting back to the woman and the baby. The little boy was just big enough to walk good, and he was very restless. The woman was trying to keep him quiet so as not to get the white folks riled up. She knew the conductor could stop the car and put her off if he wanted to, but she was getting very frustrated at trying to get the baby to nurse as he did not want to nurse.
Raising her voice, she said very loudly, ‘If you won’t take dis here thing, I will give it to the conductor.’ Uncle Claude said that by now everyone in the car was listening and the whole car just exploded with laughter – that was everyone except the conductor and he was mad as a hornet. He was muttering about the fact that he didn’t want the d*** thing.
After Uncle Claude left our house, he would wander off to Wall Street, and then back home. Everyone at home would already be in bed, but Uncle Claude never went to bed before midnight. Then he would get up at four o’clock in the morning and make a fire in the cook stove. Aunt Beula would then get up at five o’clock. They all ate breakfast at six and Uncle Claude would be at work in the mill at seven o’clock. He operated machines called ‘Slubbers.’
We moved to Lupton City, Tenn., around 1927. We had not been there very long when one day we got a telephone call informing us that Uncle Claude had suffered a heart attack and was dead on the sidewalk on his way to work. We were all very sorry to lose Uncle Claude.
I recall that Aunt Maude and Uncle Bea Obar lived on Wilkerson Street, which was on the north side of Alabama City, about one and one-half miles from where we lived, so I didn’t get to see them very much. The first time I remember Aunt Maude was before I could walk, she would pick me up and carry me around in her arms. The next thing I remember about Aunt Maude was when they moved into the house on Wilkerson Street. At that time, if you saw an empty house and needed one, you would just go to the front office at the mill and ask for it. If you were the first to ask for it, they would say yes and you just moved in. The rent for a company house was twenty-five cents per room per month.
The first thing anyone did before moving into a house was to take their cast iron wash pot to the house, fill it with water, build a fire under it and scrub the house with the boiling water.
Not everyone, but most people, were very nasty. They would lie in bed at night and smoke cigarettes, dip snuff and chew tobacco and spit on the walls and floors. I have seen some who did all three at the same time. So this was the reason for having to scrub the house before moving into it. Not all houses were this way, but most were.
Most of the houses were four rooms, no closets, just four rooms. The floor was just wood planks about four inches wide. Some had cracks between planks. You could see the ground. This came in handy if you wanted to sweep or scrub the floors.
As mentioned earlier, there was neither electricity nor plumbing or telephones. Most people never heard of the telephone. There were lots of children born to most families, so the houses had two beds in each room.
Now as to bathing and washing clothes, the only way we had to wash our bodies was in a wash tub on Saturday nights. To wash clothes, the things necessary were a cast iron wash pot, which held about thirty gallons of water; a rub board, two galvanized iron wash tubs, which held about twenty gallons each, and a bar of lye soap. This soap was used for everything. When I was in the army, I used this soap to bathe, wash clothes, hair, face, shave, wash my shoes and brush my teeth.
Monday was usually wash day for most people in Alabama City, and Tuesday was moving day. It would usually take a whole day for each one. They would build a fire under the wash pot right after washing the breakfast dishes, then carry the clothes out to the washing place, fill up the pot and two tubs with water from the hydrant located between each two houses. About seventy gallons of water were carried by two buckets full each trip. When the water began to boil in the wash pot, they would put the clothes in and boil them for about half an hour, remove one piece at a time with a stick and put it in the first tub. Then they rubbed the piece of clothing on the rub board with lye soap until it was clean. Then they put it in the other tub and sloshed it up and down a few minutes and twisted the piece by hand to wring out the water, then hung it on the clothes line which was a wire tied between two trees. All of this would take about half a day what with running back and forth into the house checking on the children plus fixing dinner for the school kids.
Cotton mill people had breakfast at six o’clock in the morning, dinner at twelve noon and supper at six in the evening, seven days a week. When Aunt Maude moved into the house on Wilkerson Street, she lived there the remainder of her life. At one time, our family (Jim’s), Aunt Maude’s, Uncles Fred and Claude’s families all lived on Wilkerson Street, This is about all I know about Aunt Maude and her family.
Now, about Aunt Minnie Livingston. She married a man named McDaniel. I don’t recall his first name. They had three girls; Lee, Willie and Lottie. McDaniel owned a grocery store and Jim worked for him when he was a teenager and not working in the mill. McDaniel did not live very long after their last child was born. He died from tuberculosis.
After Aunt Minnie’s husband died; she and her three children went to live with Grandpa and Grandma Livingston. Aunt Minnie’s daughters grew up and married. Lee married Will Fountain. I think they both died in Chattanooga, Tenn. Willie died in Gadsden, Lottie was found dead in her house in Alabama City. I don’t remember what year Aunt Minnie died. I think she was living on Forest Avenue in Alabama City. That is about all I know of Aunt Minnie’s family.
I know Fred married a girl named Edna Ashley, Her dad was a sign painter, one of the original kind. He was an artist. He carried his paints and brushes in the back of his buggy and hand painted the signs. Aunt Edna had a sister and a younger brother. I don’t recall her sister’s name but her brother’s name was Sandford, He was about the same age as Otis and me, Aunt Edna and Uncle Fred had two girls and two boys. Lillian was the older girl and Marine, the younger, Otis was the older boy, Joe, the younger. Mr, Ashley used to take Sandford, Otis and me with him when he went to paint signs. We would play around on the ground while he climbed upon the walkway on the signs dad painted. Sometimes it would take him several hours to paint one sign. He traveled by horse and buggy,
I remember when Uncle Fred lived on Wilkerson Street. We lived in one house, Uncle Claude, the next and Uncle Fred the next. Uncle Fred bought his farm while he lived here. The farm was located three miles outside Gadsden city limits. He paid fourteen hundred dollars for it and made payments, a few dollars a month, while working in the Dwight Cotton Mill.
When Joe graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force. He was a parachute instructor during the war. He retired from the Air Force after serving about twenty years. After retiring, he went to work at the rocket place in Huntsville.
I heard Joe died at this place. The last time I saw Joe was just before he graduated from high school.
Grandpa Livingston died at 91 Kyle Avenue in the early 1930’s. Grandma died a few years later at the same address.
All company houses were not underpinned. They were built on brick pillars about two or three feet off the ground. The chimneys were built on the ground and the houses built up around them. In the winter time, around the chimney was a good warm place for hogs, dogs, cats, etc. to gather to sleep. Since they had no stock law, all kind of animals roamed around everywhere. At this time, Uncle Fred was still living on Wilson Street. One night the hogs were gathered together under his house. They were exceptionally noisy that night, squealing and grunting. Uncle Fred just could not get to sleep so, cussing and fussing, he got up.
‘Dog-gone, them d*** hogs, I will fix them, I will throw some boiling water on them,’ he said. He always slept in one of Aunt Edna’s dresses. He went into the kitchen and got one of Aunt Edna’s largest stew pots and put some water on the fire to boil. This took about half an hour and Uncle Fred was getting madder every minute. If he had not been so mad, he would have gotten behind of one of the back pillars under the floor before throwing the boiling water on the hogs. But he did not. He just crawled up under the floor as close as he could to the hogs and threw the water on them. They exploded like a stick of dynamite. They went in every direction.
About 25 angry and frightened hogs ran over Uncle Fred, nearly killing him. They tore h*** out of Aunt Edna’s best stew pot. This made her very angry with Uncle Fred. He finally crawled into the house, bruised and bleeding. He could not go to work for a week. He had to stay in bed. The next day everyone in the mill heard of Uncle Fred’s scrape with the hogs.
Uncle Fred, as a boy growing up on Short Forest Street, as he put it, could beat h*** out of other boys in his neighborhood. He was a great fist-fighter, but he was no match for 25 angry and frightened hogs. He was always getting into scrapes like this.
The last time I saw Aunt Edna and Uncle Fred was at a nursing home near Camp Sibert at Attalla. Aunt Edna was so far gone that she didn’t know anything. Uncle Fred was in a wheelchair.
He knew me and we talked a long time. It was a very sad meeting. I knew I would never see them again. As a small boy, I had spent many happy hours with Uncle Fred’s family, and I knew this would probably be my last visit with them.
NOTE: Check again next week as we continue the story of Eugene Livingston and the Mill Village.