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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John W. Snipes, September 20, 1976. Interview H-0098-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Community interdependence in rural Chatham County

Snipes describes the community of his childhood. He remembers corn shuckings and candy pulls, and as he does so reflects on his community's self-reliance and interdependence. For example, his family relied on help from on Emeline Cotten, a black woman who lived on land bequeathed by Snipes's grandfather. There were few doctors in the area, and Cotten filled this need, delivering babies and administering home remedies for ailments. Snipes remembers some of her curious treatments.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John W. Snipes, September 20, 1976. Interview H-0098-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

BRENT GLASS:
How about any kind of times on the farm where a number of farm families would get together for corn shuckings or…?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
That was an annual affair in the fall. About the time of the frost they'd get up the corn in big piles and have a big dinner and have a neighborhood corn shucking. That was a common custom back up until fifteen or twenty years ago. They don't do it any more 'cause they've got these combines and pickers and all to pick it in the field and shuck it in the field. But that was a big occasion, those big old corn shuckings and cutting frolics. Everybody used a wood stove, and in the spring before the sap riz they'd go out and cut down maybe an acre of pine and split it and stack it up for stove wood for that summer. And they'd cut it before the sap riz in the spring, maybe early March or late February. And it was a much better grade of stove wood than it would have been after the sap started to rise.
BRENT GLASS:
How about sorghum? Did they raise sorghum?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
They raised their sorghum. And they'd take a forked stick. The stalk standed up like this, and you had to get that old fodder off of there. We'd take a forked stick and just beat right straight down, and it'd knock off the fodder on each side, you see. We just beat the fodder down on the ground so that you'd get to the cane stalk. Then you cut the top of that cane out, and then you carried it to this mill. And they had an old-fashioned grinder with a long pole and these cogs in here. You stuck that cane in there, and the mule went around about a thirty or forty foot circle, and that turned that. And that squeezed the juice out. Most of them cooked it in the neighborhood, sometimes on the same place, sometimes they'd cook it one place or another. They cooked their own cane sorghum. You stood there continuously and skimmed off that green. The stalk would cause a green scum on it. And then they'd put it up for wintertime.
BRENT GLASS:
Did you ever make candy out of sorghum?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Oh yes, the old-fashioned pulled candy. [Laughter] That was about the only courting anybody ever got to do then. They'd have a party and cook pulled candy, and the girl on one end, you know, and you on the other. I don't reckon it was clean; I think it was nasty. They'd drop it and just pick it up and keep on pulling it 'til it'd get tough, you know.
BRENT GLASS:
Now what was this: you'd make the candy and have a candy pull?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Yes sir, you'd have to pull it. And you'd just keep pulling it and just lap it back and pull it out, and lap it back and pull it out. One'd have a hold of one end and one a hold of the other. You'd have about a two foot rope when you stretched it out. Then one'd take both ends and you'd pull again; the other one'd take both ends and you'd pull again. And they made the candy that way. They made about everything they eat. They knit their own stockings, and the men did their own shoes and everything. Weren't no money. Long about 1905 cotton was five cents a pound. My grandfather on my father's side run an old post office up there at old Kilgo. He used to run a blacksmith's shop that pulled teeth; let me bring you the box. [interruption] This plucker come here from England about 1824.
BRENT GLASS:
What are we looking at here?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Tooth pluckers.
BRENT GLASS:
Oh boy!
JOHN W. SNIPES:
[Laughter] Cold steel! And up until I was married the only dentist I ever went to was my father and grandfather. And they'd get me down and put their fist in my forehead and not put nothing on it, just reach in there and get the tooth. And it'd be me and them 'til they turned me loose. [Laughter]
BRENT GLASS:
Boy! That's quite a thing to save. I would save that if I were you. That's really something. What about a doctor? Was there a doctor when you got sick?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
There was nine of us young'uns, and I believe about six of them were brought into this world by what we called the old granny-woman: old Emeline Cotten, my old black mother.
BRENT GLASS:
Would you know if that's C-o-t-t-e-n or o-n?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
That's right, C-o-t-t-e-n, Cotten.
BRENT GLASS:
Now who was she?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
She was a neighbor. They had a little piece of land. I believe my grandfather give them about twenty-five acres, and they had a house there right adjoining the place up there at my father's.
BRENT GLASS:
On the Snipes'…?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
She brought, I believe, the first six all into this world. Then we had an old dokey doctor, old Dr. Mann. There was two of them brought into this world by old Dr. Mann in a horse and buggy. And he drank. He'd come down and he'd come about half shot. Then the other was later on in 1916; they was getting a little bit more civilized then. [Laughter]
BRENT GLASS:
What can you tell me about Emeline Cotten? What do you remember about her?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Old Emeline Cotten, she had one son Tom Cotten, and he married… his wife was named Effie. They done a lot of helping in hog killing time about drying up the lard and cutting out the meat just right and fixing the sausage and fixing the lard just right. They cooked that fat and made the lard, and strained it and all such of that. And that was all left up to Emeline, Tom and Effie. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
BRENT GLASS:
We were talking about Emeline Cotten.
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Old Auntie Emeline, she done all of the grannywomen jobs in the neighborhood at that time. There weren't no local doctor in what you might say the early nineteen hundres when Marvin in '96, '98, '99 and 1901 and 1904. There wasn't no doctor in miles and miles of there.
BRENT GLASS:
So she would deliver the babies?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
She delivered all the babies.
BRENT GLASS:
Would she do anything else as far as health care was concerned?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
No, nothing else so far as health was concerned. If you had the measles and couldn't break out she'd get some sheep balls and make a tea and she'd make you break out. That was the old remedy: sheep balls, then boil it and drink that sheep ball tea [Laughter] and you'd break out or die on it. [Laughter]
BRENT GLASS:
When you say sheep balls you mean the… ?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Manure, the manure.
BRENT GLASS:
Oh really?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Yes. You'd go to the barnlot. It was principally grass, you know, sort of like a rabbit's, balls about like rabbit balls. And [Laughter] I'd of rather had the measles than to drink that sheep ball tea.
BRENT GLASS:
Yes, I would think. And that was one of her remedies?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
That was one of her remedies. And they'd kill a mole and cut off its foot and tied a string around it, and tie it around your neck when your baby's cutting the teeth, you know. And them old superstitions…. Of course now we I reckon are more enlightened now than we were then. But those old home remedies, we all lived anyway. [Laughter]
BRENT GLASS:
Well, did people pretty much go by them and believe in them?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Oh, absolutely believed in them. A baby couldn't cut teeth without a big mole's foot tied around his neck, and he wore it there like a locket. Sulphur and lard for itch.
BRENT GLASS:
What's that?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Sulphur and lard for the seven year itch. Everybody had the itch and lice, you know, long about then. Old Auntie Emeline would take some hog's lard and some sulphur and make a sulphur and lard for the itching. We all went to school in a long old one-room schoolhouse with a big pot-bellied stove in the middle. Well, didn't nobody ever get no higher than the eighth grade or ninth grade, nohow; they were through then anyway. And they just had one teacher, and all in the same room. And in cold weather when we all got hot you could get around that old stove. You could tell whoever had the itch 'cause you could smell that lard, [Laughter] you could smell that sulphur and lard.
BRENT GLASS:
What did they do, rub it on their chest?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Well, they'd get it between the fingers, you know; the seven year itch would get between the fingers. And they'd be a'scratching. They'd get close to that stove and you could smell that sulphur and lard; you could point out the ones that had the itch. They was ashamed of it. They wouldn't let you know they had it, but you knew who had it by smelling them. It was right amusing.