Volume IV, No. 2, Winter 1976
A VISIT WITH ESTHER AND JOHNNY STARNES
Edited by Lea Ann Sutherland Photography by Doug Sharp
Interviews by Jenny Kelso and Lea Ann Sutherland
On our visits with Johnny and Esther Starnes it seemed as though we went back in years to the time of hardships and country pleasures. Johnny, in his 104th year, and Esther, in her 82nd, shared with us a portion of their lifetime experiences of living and raising a family in the Ozarks. When Johnny is speaking we will use [this type.] When Esther is speaking it will be in [this type. ]
What do you think made you live so long, Johnny?
I don't know. Hard work I guess and trust in Jesus to let me live as long as He will. I always
depend on Jesus for my life. He's all that I trust. I like to talk about Jesus Christ and about his nice
home that He's got. I dreamed I was in heaven. And there were tables about a quarter of a mile
long and there was a thousand million people. And I went to shaking hands, oh, I guess for half an
hour or so. They were the happiest men I ever saw. I tell you I never was in such a place in my
life. Then I waked up. Jesus sure got a pretty place.
Have you always had good health?
I wasn't broke down until I was ninety-nine. After I was ninety-nine I couldn't do nothing. Before that I guess I was just about as stout as any man there was in the country. I'd take a log and just pick it up and throw it on my shoulder and walk--and make a seven by nine tie out of it. I built chimneys. I'd pick up these big rocks, oh, two foot, they'd be eighteen inches thick, put them on my shoulder and walk a ladder up to the top to build them rock chimneys.
I worked with these big railroad ties. Aw, they was twenty to thirty feet long. The man I was working with said, "Johnny," he said, "you can't move one of them." He said, '!It'd take seven or eight men to handle one of them." I said, "They wasn't men. I can pick one up." He said, "Aw, don't you try to. It'll break your back. That thing'll weigh a thousand pounds." Well, I kept a-working. I got my fingers under the edge of it, and lord, I just raised it up that-a-way. Boy, I never seen a fellow look as funny in my life. "Why," he said, "They ain't a man in this country that can do that."
Did you used to sell railroad ties?
Yeah, I've hauled ties to Lebanon and I didn't get over fifteen cents a piece. I've made enough ties to run from here to Lebanon. I'd haul them in wagons with horses or mules.
How did you make ties?
Just score them and hew them with a broad ax. I'd make ten, haul them up to Simpson's Store and sell them. I'd make ten more agin noon. And load them up and haul them to the river and bank them ever-one till I'd have 500 on the bank. We banked them in them days. I've made as many as 500 a month. Every month. I'd get out of a morning and by noon I'd have a load made. I done that a long time. They would haul them down here on the river and float them. They took them down, eight or nine, fifteen to eighteen hundred in a day. They run them ties down the river in a raft. You nail them together. You make a stern at the end of the raft where you can put you a pole down in that-a-way and drag on the bottom. A raft would be a-way down the river and evertime you'd make a bend around the river, set that pole and that raft would just swing out. It's funny how they love them waves. I took out two of them and that's all I wanted to take out. I run two and it took me three days. I made $95 on the first raft and $125 on the other. I just picked up ties along the river where they was lost and they give me twenty-five cents a piece for all I'd bring down.
Did you work in the timber on anything else?
Heck, I used to make 600 fence rails a day. And I'd make from ten to fifteen hundred boards a day and stack them. I made seventy-five thousand for Robert Brownfield. He built that big barn that covered pretty near an acre of ground. Boy, I had a stack of boards as big as this house around and up. See, I laid them boards one way and laid the others that-a-way. When they get up to fifty feed you got 300 boards.
Did you cut your timber off your own land?
No. I just cut it off anywhere I wanted.
Did you build your own barn?
Yeah, I built that barn up there when I was ninety-nine. That was the last work I did. I lacked just one of being a hundred. I built that barn up there that year. My son, he helped me build it. Have you ever looked at it? It's a pretty log barn. It's a good barn. I've got a good pine loft in it.
Back when I was a boy they didn't have houses like they got these days. They never had nothing only just old log houses. They just cut down logs, notch them, then they take a broad ax, put a scaffold along where they could work and they'd start at the top and then they'd just heave them sides all down straight
How old were you when you bought this farm?
I was eighteen or twenty, I guess. I bought this farm from Dad. Give him $500 for it way back yonder for this forty acres.
Your dad was a farmer?
Yeah. He farmed all his life. He farmed corn, wheat, oats, all kind. He sowed wheat. He'd sow sometimes forty or fifty and raise a thousand bushel of wheat. Why, I've stacked wheat--stacks taller than this house--be a thousand bushel in a stack--rick. Old man Ponds, he sowed his whole place in wheat. And I stacked it in a rick--a thousand, thirty-five bushels of wheat in it. Why, I never saw such a mess of wheat. I sowed and dad sowed a lot. I hauled up from his old place and I had a whole big stack. The lightning struck while it was stacked that-a-way and the green wheat oxidized. We pulled out a lot of it while it was a-burning. They said you can't feed it to cattle--it'll kill them. They said you can feed it to hogs. It won't hurt hogs. Now his young horse--he jumps over into the lot one time and got a bite or two and just dropped dead. That lightninged wheat killed him.
I saw you had some geese outside. Do you take care of them?
Yeah, I sure take care of my geese.
How many do you have?
Three. One of them is a-setting. She's a-setting there behind that little hen house.
Johnny has a time out with his geese. One was a-setting and the dog got some of the eggs out and sucked them. He used to pick a lot of huckleberries, too, and sell them. That was when there was such a thing. You can't find them anymore.
She used to pick two gallon a day.
I'd sell them for thirty-five cents a gallon. And now blackberries is four dollars a gallon. I could pick eight gallon of blackberries while I pick one of huckleberries. They ain't as big as the end of your little finger.
Do you still can and have a garden, Mrs. Starnes?
Oh yes. We've got a little garden out there and Johnny's got a little garden down yonder by the side of that one. Our youngest boy always breaks and puts them in and cans them for us. We can't do it now.
Is farming any different now, Johnny?
Oh, they don't farm nothing like they did back when I was born. When they had their horses, why they made big crops. Ever fellow raised 500 to 1000 bushel of wheat a year. Now they don't farm [raise any crops].
Did you ever use a tractor on your farm ?
No, just used horses. I had two team of horses. Work one awhile and I'd work the other awhile. I've farmed acres that's half a mile long of plowing--plowing and cultivating.
Do you think the horses did as good a job as a tractor would?
Oh, do ten times more, yeah. They don't do nothing now. Don't farm. In this area you hardly ever see a fellow take a tractor and go out on the farm to farm. Take my boy. He's got two down here and, by gosh, he never even farms at all. He's haying all the time.
Do you think machinery has helped people?
It just made a lot of lazy people. There was no lazy people when I was a boy. They all had to work. I've worked till I never got but twenty-five cents a day. Worked from sun up to sun down.
How'd you get along without cars?
If they got to go anywhere them days, they'd a-had to take it a-foot or ride a horse. I wouldn't ride a horse. I always took it a-foot. I run these old turkeys over these hills back and forth ever day till I was used to walking. Walking didn't tire me a bit. I'd start here and I'd to go town quicker than I could with a team. I've started from here and went to Lebanon in thirty-five minutes a-foot. I'd walk and I'd run, walk, run. I'd take the short way. It's quite a ways from here to Lebanon.
How far is it?
Eighteen miles by the road. I've started here at nine o'clock and I've walked to Mountain Grove. I walked six miles the other side of Mountain Grove.
How far is that?
When you were young did you attend school in this area?
I went to school down at Brownfield. It was an old log school. I didn't go over just about one month and I had to go to work and never got to go to school no more at all. Now they just had these old blue spelling books was all they had. And you just had to get up and spell.
Were you a good speller?
Yeah, I stayed the head of all of them while I went.
Mrs. Starnes, did you go to Brown-field, too?
Yes, I went to Brownfield School. I went to Bee Branch School, too.
Where did you meet?
Oh, I don't remember, it's been so long. At his house at a party I reckon.
How old were you when you got married?
Eighteen. He was thirty-nine. Now I'm eighty-two. We was married in 1911.
Eight. Five boys and two girls. One boy died when he was an infant.
Did you have a car, Johnny?
I drove, but I never owned but one. First cars that come in the country was them old Model T's. That was '15, '16 then. Robert Brownfield, he bought the first car. I thought he'd kill himself before he ever got so he could drive it. We didn't have nothing when I was a boy only horses and buggies and those little ole two wheel carts with a thing up on them. Boy, just get in one of them and just go a-kiting. I tell you people had a hard time when I was a boy.
Do you think it was easier back then to make money?
Aw, it's easier today. Money just goes and comes now. People had to work back when I was a boy. There wasn't very much money in the country. I worked all summer and for the summer's work I got paid off in a gold piece--a fifty-dollar gold piece was big money then. It was just about the size of a half a dollar and a hundred dollar gold piece looked pret'neer as big as a dollar. Aw, they had awful hard times.
People don't work now like they did when I was a young feller. They got too many machines and things. Old Hoover, he wasn't no count at all. He just liked to starved people to death. Brought hogs down to three cents a pound. I sold the finest cattle I ever seen. Just got nine dollars a piece for them! Nine dollars is all I could get for them and then I had to take them to St. Louis. It was the awfulest time I ever seen! Coffee got to fifteen cents a pound and it costs you twenty cents a cup now. Well, coffee ain't worth anymore now than it was back in them days. Just more people now that use it what made it come up.
Did you think Roosevelt did a good job bringing us out of the depression?
Yeah, I thought a whole lot of him. I thought Woodrow Wilson was pretty good. That last president, by gosh, they fired him. Nixon. I voted him in.
Are you Democrat or a Republican?
Republican. Ail these Democrats, if they get in, they'll have a big war. Kill off all the young people. I've never seen one go in yet but what we didn't have a big war. I've knowed lots of presidents. I've seen Dick Bland get out on the streets and make big talks. He was an awful good man. Did you know Dick Bland? He lived in Lebanon.*
Were you in World War I?
No. I was in no war at all. I missed all of them. I was too old then. I'd have loved to of went, but I was too old. They wouldn't take me. I was forty-five. Thirty-two was what they took them in. Said I was too old. They cut me out.
Did you do any hunting and trapping when you were younger?
Yeah. I've started in at eight o'clock--hunted all night till eight o'clock the next morning. I went out one night and I caught thirty-five possum, fourteen pole cats and seven coons--one night. When we'd catch one--we'd take a big sack--we'd skin him, put the hide in the sack and go on. I used to turkey hunt. I killed hundreds of them.
How did you do that?
Get in after them when it was snowing. And when one'd fly up, I'd shoot him. I would shoot one a day and I had a little old dog. He wanted to take in after them and I wouldn't let him, so I followed plumb up over to that big spring going up over the hill. I got to the top of it. It was getting so dark I let him take in after it. Anyway, by gosh, he run it down into a big holler. He was in a big hold of water and I shot it. Boy, it was the biggest gobbler I ever seen.
Did you trap any?
I trapped in the winter. My son and I went with a feller once. He had his traps set all along the steep part of the bluff. He'd lay rocks along the side of the bluff. Them old bob cats, they'd come a-walking on them rocks. They'd step in them traps. I went with him one morning and he had five of them ole bob cats in his traps. We'd just walk along on top of the hill and got big rocks and we just come down on top of their heads. Killed them.
Did you also like to fish?
Yeah. Boy, that Johnny. Get him started on fishing and it's a sight on earth to hear him talk. Him and my brother used to go every night.
Are you a good fisherman, Johnny?
Boy, I just catch them. I just throw that old line out and reel them in. Throw a hook out there where they'll bite and give it a jerk. It's fun. Put a cork on it and that cork goes bob that-a-way-jerk.
Johnny likes to fish at the Adams Bridge. He sits on the bridge and fishes. I never could catch anything there. If he gets one two inches long, he saves them. I won't do it. I don't want to have to clean them that little.
Me and her went down below the bridge. I'd set my old hook and catch one and heave it over to her. She'd take it off. I'd throw it back, catch another. We didn't fish over half an hour and I'd catch more than what we could eat. I got them big old goggle-eye. I never saw them bite like they did.
Johnny's been wanting to go fishing but the river's been up so he can't. He don't have no business
down there, no way. I went down with him to that little pond to fish and I had to help him up--he
couldn't get up. And I turned him loose--I thought he could walk on. I looked around and he just
fell down the bank a-laying there.
Were you a good swimmer, Johnny?
Oh yeah. Back when I was a boy I'd go see a girl over on the Roubidoux. There was going to be a big to-do over there. We went to the river and it was just from hill to hill--flooded. I swim out about as far as here to the wall, I guess, to get to the boat. That boat had been chained to a tree on the bank, but now the lock and most of the chain was covered with water. Just the boat a-floating on top helt by the chain. I caught a-hold of the chain and put the key in my mouth and swum down that chain under the water and unlocked that boat where it was tied to the tree. I was swimming trying to get the boat out. A feller run and got a long pole and reached it out. I caught a-hold of it and he pulled. In that boat we went plumb across them farms. Plumb up on the hill. The river had a sixteen foot rise on it. We got over there and stayed over there two days and come back. The water had run down and we had to carry that boat for about one hundred yards to get to the river. In the high water we had went plumb across the bottom, plumb up on the hill before we could get across.
I didn't mind it them days. I was like a duck. At Brownfield we took a twelve inch plank and put it out over the edge over twelve or fourteen foot water. We'd run out on that plank and just turn somersaults over in that eddy and swam out.
Did you used to gig in the winter?
One time I was gigging. Ice was about a foot out. They was some big logs down in the water, oh, I guess it must have been twelve foot of water. I was standing there and ever time I'd look a big ole carp would come out from that log I just got down on it, got it in my boat. It was so cold I built up a big fire and evertime I'd kill a fish I'd put my gig handle out over that fire. The ice just froze on the gig handle till I couldn't hold it. I stayed down till I'd killed seventy-five pounds of fish, all I thought I could carry home--and I come up and landed the boat and strung them carp up. I had a wagon way up on the hill. The ice was froze about an inch all over the ground just as slick as it could be. I drove nails in my heels to walk on to keep from slipping.
Were winters longer and harder?
Oh, yeah. Winters ain't nothing like they was when I was a boy. I've cut through ice two feet deep with a chopping ax. Take a saw then. I'd saw a place out about ten foot before I could push that ice back there.
Another time I went to town with ties loaded on a wagon, and boy, it set in to raining all the way into town and all the way back. I started back, well, it turned so cold. I had a big quilt and I spread it over me and that nice quilt was just solid ice. Boy, I just froze pert'neet to death.
Johnny froze so near to death he couldn't eat his supper. I brought it in by the stove and he couldn't eat it.
It was cold then. We ain't had no weather anymore.
Were there a lot of dangerous animals in your days?
Johnny was coming from town one time and it was after night. There was some kind of varmint that came after him. I told him, "Well, he smelled that meat you had on your wagon. Why didn't you throw it off and let him eat it?" and he said, "Well, I was afraid he'd come back for more and I wouldn't have it."
They used to be bears and panthers and everything else. I didn't like to fool around with them old bears and panthers. Take them panthers, they got a little old chuggy head, neck about six inches long--oh, a long slim body--boy, they're sure bad. Down here Johnny Kincheloe went to church one night. Him and Willie saw one of them panthers way back and they jumped on the back of the horse. Tried to get them. Golly, he just turned around with his pistol that-a-way and emptied it. And, by gosh, the panther was a-laying down in the road the next morning. They just run home. They was too scared to ride. They just turned the horses loose in the lot and run to the house--never took the saddles and bridles or nothing off of them.
You said you used to bee hunt. What would you do when you found them?
Cut the tree and get the honey out.
Weren't you afraid of getting stung by all the bees?
Heck, I just raked them off. I didn't care for them. They was a swarm of them settled up there by the mulberry tree in the front of the house. I come up there to shake them off and they just covered me up. They picked out forty-five stingers out of the back of my neck.
Johnny was plowing down in the lower end of the field and the bees swarmed and I hollered at him to come and help put them in the hive. He'd took his top shirt off, just had his knit shirt on wringing wet with sweat, and you know, when he walked up there the whole swarm just settled on his back. He said, "Get them off of me. They're stinging me to death." I got some insect repellant. I just scraped every one off. They never stung me at all. Cause he was so hot, cause the queen settled on him--that's the reason they swarmed.
Why I just took and picked them up by handfuls that-a-way and put them in the gum.
Mrs. Starnes, what do you like to do?
Oh, I like to cook. I made some apple pies yesterday. I love to cook if I was able, but half the time I'm not able to. Here's a little rug I made out of light bread wrappers. I never go to town but once a month. That's all the going I do. I like to stay at home.
Johnny, now that you aren't as active as you used to be, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Well, I fish when I get a chance and feed my geese when I feel well enough. I nap quite a bit, but,
mainly I dream about Jesus.
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