Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Feed sack dresses and flour sack shirts were everyday wear at this school in the 1940's, even into the early 1950's. Talented mothers could turn an empty ten, twenty or fifty pound bag of food into shirts for the boys and dresses with matching underpants for the girls. 

Dry goods came in cloth sacks, not the sturdy paper packaging of today. Chicken feed. Flour. Salt, too. When the sack was the smaller size, there wouldn't always be enough material to complete a project. If the housewife waited for the next delivery, the pattern on the cloth was often different, yet she usually didn't have enough money to purchase the larger size. Talented as they were, these seamstress-mothers still needed enough matching material, so they went looking. They bargained with other housewives to swap materials. One grandmother had a little business on the side. She purchased solid materials and kept on hand to add collars and trim for a dress for her neighbor's daughter or a shirt for the son. 

The most popular man in the county was often the mercantile delivery man. He sometimes carried sample swatches of the sack material as he went around the community delivering the orders and taking orders for the next week.
I know that because I talked with his son who tagged along with him making deliveries those seventy years ago.

And I know it because I talked with the now-grown children who watched their mothers bargain with him and then wash out the chicken feed and scrub away the flour labels. After all these years, the memory of these dresses brings a pride to some, a humbleness to others.

The stories I catch often come accompanied with tears, but only once did I see a glistening of a tear over feed sacks. It was from a lady who as a second grader had proudly worn her new dress and matching bloomers to school one day, another school, not Pilot Mountain. On the playground her dress flew above her waist and everyone (including the teacher) saw that her bloomers matched her dress and laughed (including the teacher) at her for wearing feed sacks. Her family later moved into the Pilot Mountain School district and first thing she noticed: that's what everyone else wore. She had found a place in the world where she could be welcome and comfortable in her own skin, even if that skin was covered by feed sacks. Every child needs a Pilot Mountain.

Catch of the day,


Monday, September 20, 2010

If you think dresses from the 1950's were only for fun and fancy, think again. I found an example of how practical they really were in my storycatching at this schoolhouse. It's a long roundabout story, so stay with me here.

As I've mentioned in a previous blog, the bathrooms were outside, behind the school in a most inconvenient spot. After three or four years of children hurrying outside on rainy days, frigid mornings and bug infested sweltering afternoons, construction finally ended on the indoor bathrooms. The girls were delighted. Boys less so since their new indoor facility never had any heat, took away from their freedom to run up the hill, and diminished their chances of collecting wooly worms to throw at the girls.

But for the girls, this was as close to heaven as they had ever been. Well, except for one thing. In the old privy, there was privacy. One hole, one girl. In this new fangled "rest" room, the toilets were line up, side by side, no partitions, nothing private.

Enter the newest dress fad: the full skirt, how convenient. The girls soon connected the dots. They would bathroom in pairs, one girl standing in front, facing away for modesty, of course. She'd fan out her skirt, as if she were giving the onlookers a giant curtsey. Fashion design for the practical.

And the designers in New York thought they were giving the world an elegance.

Catch of the day,


Thursday, September 16, 2010

One story I've caught over and over from former students and teachers at Pilot Mountain School is what I'll call the "black olive episode." These apple-blackberry-corn-and-potato children from the rural South Mountains had never heard of black olives, much less tasted one. Government surplus, they'd heard of that, but black olives, no.

Sometime back in the 1950's, the weekly government surplus delivery began to include gallon cans of black olives. The first black olive days, the lunchroom ladies dutifully placed three olives on each plate. I don't have to imagine the response, because sixty years later, every person who told the story could describe in detail the expressions on the children's faces. It didn't take long for the olives to serve a secondary function, akin to table football or finger soccer. One teacher said she spent more time with discipline over the black olives than any thing else in her entire career.

A creative principal held a contest to see who could eat more olives than he could. That worked for a day or two until he couldn't eat another single one, but it did manage to get some brave students interested in at least tasting them. For the most part, wise students figured out how to get around the olives and still be a member of the daily "clean plate club."

They stuffed them in their empty milk cartons when the teacher wasn't looking.

Catch of the day,


Monday, September 13, 2010

Jump board. Jump plank. Call it whatever, but it's a game children of the 1940's played at school. Picture this, a seesaw with a child standing on one end, another child climbing a fence, tree, anything high enough to jump off and land on the opposite end and send victim sailing through the air. Clowns in a circus made it famous. Children with no other playground equipment made it fun.

No one ever broke a leg, not that anyone has reported to me. One girl said she fell into the open pit the school was in the process of digging for a new outhouse location. She skinned her leg, the teacher didn't blink. So she cleaned herself up and went back for more.

Catch of the day,


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Let's get one thing clear right up front. There are two Pilot Mountains in North Carolina, three if you count the one that was the scene of a small plane crash where the pilot was killed. It's called the pilot's mountain, not on any map, just a local thing.

The other two were named hundreds of years ago when they were landmarks, both of them, for the early settlers. They stand alone, each of them apart from nearby mountains. Distinguished.

Of these two, one is quite famous, thanks to the Andy Griffith show and fictional Mayberry. Barney was often going to Mt. Pilot to hang out and this was where the writers were sending him (add a fictional town):

Beautiful. Majestic. Visible from Interstate 77 on the North Carolina/Virginia state line. Travelers can't help but notice.

But that's not the Pilot Mountain of the schoolhouse this blog is about.

This one is:

Travelers can see it from Interstate 40 in North Carolina between Morganton and Marion, but probably no one ever notices. And only in winter when there are no leaves on the trees lining the interstate.

British soldiers camped nearby during the American Revolution, easy for them to use the pilot to find the camp after a day of searching for revolutionaries. The overmountain men marched by it going to the Battle of King's Mountain and again on the way home after a hard earned victory. It was their guide to follow, their north star so to speak, to march between the pilot mountain and the ridge of mountains to its east. During the early 1800's it was the scene of a gold mining enterprise. Now it's a sleepy hump sitting there so alone, apart, the landmark where travelers turn north, west, or south. Sturdy. Dependable.

It's a good name for a school that was apart, sturdy to the community, dependable to the children.

Catch of the day,


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Some schools have skeletons in their closets waiting for us storycatchers to find.
Maybe the skeletons are best left where they lie.
Or, maybe not.

Yesterday I met Frankie through my research. She'd been on my mind ever since a person I was interviewing bowed her head and whispered the name. Frankie. Then I heard it again from someone else. And then again.

Pilot Mountain School had a Frankie. A hundred years earlier there was another Frankie, not too far away. Frankie Silver. She killed her husband, supposedly. She paid the price at the gallows. She became famous. Infamous. Sharyn McCrumb wrote a book about her. There was a ballad about her.

Oh! Lord, what will become of me?
I am condemned, you all now see,
To heaven or hell my soul must fly
All in a moment when I die. . . .

Recognize her?

Same county, Bloody Burke, it's been called. This 1959 Frankie, Pilot Mountain lunchroom lady, also killed her husband. She bought the gun, took it to school and showed it to the other cafeteria workers, but never hinted at what was to come. She loaded the gun. There. At the school. She went home and killed her husband.

Then she killed herself.

She had written a suicide note four days earlier. I saw a copy of the note. Chilling. She planned the murder for two weeks. Left instructions. Denied the gallows. Denied the spectacle of a trial. Did she know about the other Frankie? Did she sing that verse of the ballad all day that day, cooking and serving the children and thinking of murder?

She didn't leave behind a ballad in her honor. She didn't leave behind a novel told by a gifted writer.

She left behind sorrow. Children who couldn't comprehend and teachers who couldn't explain. Over fifty years and still they can't tell the story without whispering.


Catch of the day,


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I found a few samples of 1950 eighth grade poetry that I must share with you. I was interviewing a man when he slipped a small memory book out of his stack of papers and proudly showed it to me. It was bound with a plastic spine and small enough to slide into a back pocket. The front half was made up of pictures of his class, about six to a page. But the back half was blank, with room to write notes or autographs or poems. And write they did. Sixty years later, fun to read.

Ah, the stuff memories are made of...

There are styles that show the ankle,
There are styles that show the knee,
But the style they wore in the Garden of Eden
Is the style that appeals to me.

When you get married and your wife has twins,
Don’t come to me for safety pins.

When days are dark and friends are few
Remember me and I will you.

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece we need not mention,
For since they wear their skirts so short,
The calves get all the attention.

When you get married and live down south,
Remember me and my big mouth.

One not so poetic young man:

When you get married and live down south,
Me and my big mouth will always remember you.

If you get to heaven before I do,
Bore a little hole and pull me through

And my favorite:

If you see a possum climbing a tree,
Grab him by the tail and think of me.

Catch of the day,


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Welcome to all the new friends I've met at the virtual BBQ on Karen's blog, still going for those of you who want to join. Awesome what technology can do.

Speaking of technology, in my research yesterday I uncovered quite a catch. The newspaper was bragging about the latest telephone technology, the dial, that was about to be installed in Burke County. No more talking to the "number please" operator. This was 1957, not all that long ago, I'd think. Generations ago, technology wise, though.

The schoolhouse finally got a telephone, but there was one snag. It was on a twelve party line. Imagine talking with the principal with eleven other households listening in. One thing, though, not that many parents had telephones in their homes to make the calls anyway.

Catch of the day,


Friday, September 3, 2010

I added Shelfari to my blog today. Check out my bookshelf at the end of the column on the right. I started with six books, experimenting here, so I'm holding back. One I'm currently reading, one I hope to read and the others I've read, The Lace Dowry just yesterday. Six on a shelf looks a little sparse. Reminds me of Pilot Mountain School and what I heard in my interviews with the early children. Sparse.

There was no library at the school at first. No money. The few extra books were kept in the classrooms for children to read when they finished their work. But these children weren't deprived. They did go to the library once every other week as a class. More exact, the library came to them - in the back of an old delivery truck converted to the most wonderful invention they could imagine, a bookmobile. After the war around 1946 or '47, the county purchased a government surplus vehicle and converted it into an even larger bookmobile. The school system found this delivery service cheaper than actually establishing a library on the campus. At least it was a start.

Catch of the day,


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Shoes? Students didn't wear shoes to school in the 1940's at Pilot Mountain School, not until cold weather hit in October, at least. For the most part, children had only one pair of school shoes and a second for Sunday if they were lucky. The everyday pair had to last a whole year and if it wore out on the bottom, tough. They made it through the year by patching the soles with rubber from bicycle tires or stuffing the holes with cardboard.

I helped my granddaughter get ready for school this morning. She was determined to wear her tennis shoes, the silver pair, not the brown soccer pair, not the pink pair and certainly not the clogs. Times have changed.

Catch of the day,


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Teachers in the 1950's were just as amazed at what their students told them as teachers are today. One Pilot Mountain first grade teacher during social studies lesson on community helpers and fathers' jobs heard the following discussion -

Child one: My father makes liquor for a living.
Child two: That's funny. His father works for my father, but he makes whiskey for a living.

Thing was, the teacher already knew what their fathers did for a living. Children of the moonshiners were the ones with the new shoes and the new clothes. Didn't take long for a teacher to recognize this.

Catch of the day,