I stopped in front of the old mill village house, now vacant, and studied it for several minutes. Its appearance hadn’t changed in the last 65 years. The front porch where I sat in a swing as a child was still there, along with the same tin roof that made music when it rained. It was a sad looking house. I could almost hear the clang of hammer on anvil at Mr. Thompson’s blacksmith shop at the corner of Jefferson Street. Memories flooded my mind. My dreams for the future, and much of who I am today were shaped inside those small rooms.
Around 1900, Athens Cotton Mill Co. constructed a spinning mill between North Jefferson Street and the railroad tracks to the east. They also built a brick water tower, a company store and dozens of cottages to house their employees. The mill closed in 1908, the brick buildings fell in disrepair, and the cottages were sold. The brick water tower continued standing over the ruins like the Tower of Pisa until it was demolished in 1969 by “Dynamite Atkins.” His first attempt failed, but the blast did blow out every window within a ½ a mile radius. Folks needing new windows for years got them and were happy about that.
In 1951, my grandparents, Robert and Edna Holt, left a hardscrabble tenant farm and purchased the mill cottage that faced a dirt street. It was a great leap forward for them. Raising 3 teenage boys was a drain on their meager income. Grandmother did seamstress work in the home, and Grandfather Holt worked as a guard at Redstone Arsenal and racked balls at Booth’s Pool Hall on Saturdays.
When I was a child I loved visiting my grandparents at the old house with floral wallpaper and a Gilbert Drug Store calendar hanging on a nail. It always smelled of Great Northern beans and turnip greens. Grandmother rolled out biscuit dough with a whiskey bottle, and meals were served in green dishes given away by Spur when gasoline was purchased.
Bronzed baby shoes sat on the living room table next to photographs of the three boys. Hanging over the mantle was an oval framed picture of Great Grandfather Holt wearing his Confederate uniform. During the winter, a scuttle of coal sat by the grate fireplace that belched out a pall of black smoke.
A brown envelope-size holder containing a burial insurance debit card hung on a nail just inside the front door. It was a busy household. Salesmen were constantly knocking on the door. The Watkins man sold fly spray, shoe polish, vanilla extract and liniment. The Standard Coffee salesman delivered his product in a brown paper bag, and the Olan-Mills representative always had a deal on family portraits. A Brown Service Insurance agent came weekly, collected a quarter from Grandmother and marked the debit card that hung by the door. Poor folks paid their burial insurance even if they had to go hungry. “They want to be sure they get a decent Christian burial,” Mama said.
Grandfather, who called me “Hambone,” slept with a .38 pistol under his pillow and poured his Standard coffee into a saucer, swirled it a few times to cool, then sucked it out with a loud slurp. He patrolled the house chain smoking Chesterfields, jerking light strings and switching off the TV whenever President Eisenhower appeared. “I won’t allow that Yankee SOB to speak in front of Grandpa who fought ‘em,” he said referring to the picture over the mantle.
The Korean War was ongoing, and neighborhood boys chose sides and we played war in the brick rubble of the cotton mill. Everyone wanted to be a G.I. Early afternoons, Grandmother ironed clothes, and demanded silence, while listening to her favorite radio soap opera, “Young Doctor Malone,” accompanied by organ music.
A couple of times after Mama left Daddy, we had no place to go and lived in the front bedroom and slept in the same bed. Late one cold January night in 1951, I was awakened by Mrs. Hattie Phillips, standing on the front porch calling out, “Robert——Edna.” I heard Grandmother get up and shuffle to the front door. Mrs. Phillips had just received a telegram from the War Department informing her that her only son, Billy Morgan Phillips was missing in action. Later, we learned he froze and starved to death in a Chinese POW Camp.
Following my marriage in 1961 to Carol O’Conner, and after my grandparents had died, the family offered to let us live in the house rent free. I was a full time student at Athens College and working 70 hours a week at McConnell Funeral Home, and barely getting by on $30 a week. We graciously accepted. After working all night, I sped home at 7 am., and while wolfing down toast and eggs, thumbed through a dog-eared Alabama Law School catalog, before rushing to 8 a.m. class.
I dreamed of becoming a lawyer, and not a paper shuffling lawyer, but a criminal defense lawyer like Clarence Darrow and representing the underdogs – the poor, penniless, and defenseless people. For the Defense, a book about Darrow’s life, was my bedside companion.
There were other fond memories. Carol found an orphan baby rabbit, which she placed in a cardboard box and vowed to raise it. Her vow ended about 2 a.m. when the squealing of the rabbit nearly drove us crazy. We got out of bed and drove the little critter to the country and dumped it. Then she worried for days about its welfare.
On a hot August morning in 1963, Carol and I loaded our few possessions into a U-Haul trailer hooked behind an ancient 8 cylinder Buick that I had purchased for $350, and drove away from the old house. We were excited. I had been accepted to the University of Alabama. Later, the fenders on the Buick rusted and fell off and the transmission died. But my dream finally came true in 1967 when I was admitted to the Bar.
In November, 1968, we moved back to Athens, and I hung out my shingle in what was once Booth’s Pool Hall, where Grandfather had racked balls. My passion for representing underdogs was soon replaced by reality. They had no money to feed themselves, much less my new baby and pregnant wife. Afterwards, I began representing all of the “Big Dogs” I could and my life improved.
As I sat in my truck looking at the old mill house and ruminating about the past, a woman walked nearby and looked at me suspiciously. I had the urge to tell her I had returned to the old house where I first learned to dream. If a young man can’t dream, he has no future. Instead, I drove away.
It makes no difference where we come from. What counts is where we go.
By: Jerry Barksdale