A Long Journey Short

The Alabama Humanities Foundation will sponsor a traveling exhibition called “Journey Stories” in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution beginning June 25 in Jasper. This post is the first in a series that will highlight our own personal journey stories. Our stories may include how our ancestors traveled from far away lands to come to America, or it could be about a memorable family trip to anywhere in the world, or perhaps it’s a story about our first car or train ride. Anything that includes travel and transportation can be considered our own journey story. If you would like to submit your own journey story, please email Jennifer Dome at: jdome@ahf.net.

By Bob Whetstone, AHF board member

Not all journeys are measured in miles; some may be short on distance but long on experience as evidenced by the great early 20th century migration of East Alabama dirt farmers from their cotton fields into the towns where cotton mills promised secure wages. This is one journey story that has strangely slipped through the cracks of recorded history. Beleaguered crops suffering from searing droughts, boll weevil infestation and poor soil management, leave the tenant farmers and small landowners no choice. They bundle a few possessions and their families in wagons and move into mill-owned houses. Though the work is demanding, these former farmhands collect regular wages for their dime-an-hour labor.

In the 1920s, my own grandfather packs his wife, nine children and sparse household goods in a wagon and drives his mule the short distance from Cow Pens to a mill village near Alexander City. The following passage from my novel Grave Dancin’ (published by Lulu Press, 2008) describes the family’s bold journey as they emerge from generations of farming and enter the industrial revolution of the New South:

(Obie, the eldest son, narrates what happens the day after his father announces they will all vacate the tenant farm immediately.)

“The next day I fetched the mule from the barn and led it to the wagon shed. Untangling the traces, I looked down at the borrowed house that had sheltered our family for five years, a curiously constructed two-piece shack of weathered pine pieced together with pegs and nails squatting on low pillars of stacked sandstone. It was about as crude a coat of protection against the elements as our family could ever wear. I looked forward to moving into a neatly painted house in town protected by shade trees with a front porch and a swing hanging from a large oak limb. I led the mule down to the wagon, hitched it and called out to everybody to load up. Our new house was waiting and I was in a hurry to get on the road. I laid a board across the sides of the wagon where I could sit and drive the mule. After loading the wagon with sheets, quilts, clothes and a mattress, we lifted the young’uns up to my stepmother, Desser. A few pots and pans were stuffed behind the dry goods along with sacks of canned fruits, vegetables and jelly.

After boosting Annie Bea and Heddie up, I turned to help Christine and Mamie. They backed away, refusing to ride on the wagon. Christine lifted her head high and declared, ‘I’m walking with my head high and eyes open, not that I’m ever coming back here, ever!’

I loosened the reins. The mule strained to pull the wagon up the rise. Christine and Mamie trailed behind singing, but the clatter of the wagon covered their words. Daddy marched in front of the mule like a proud Andrew Jackson leading his battle-scarred troops to glory land.”

My sharecropper grandfather’s decision to embark on that journey altered significantly the paths of his sparsely educated offspring. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this new environment would ultimately lead to more promising futures for his children and grandchildren than they could have ever imagined—steady work, better schools, wholesome leisure activities and an ever-expanding bounty of opportunities.

My family’s experience represents only one of thousands of “Journey Stories” that comprise a tapestry of the colorful, complex history of this great nation. Many similar stories highlight a special traveling exhibit compiled by the Smithsonian Institution and sponsored by the Alabama Humanities Foundation. The Museum on Main Street exhibition “Journey Stories” opens at the Bankhead House and Heritage Center in Jasper, June 25, for six weeks, and then opens in Alexander City on August 10. Visit www.ahf.net for more details.