Volume IX, No. 2, Winter 1981
A VISIT WITH JIM CHASTAIN
Edited by Gina Jennings
I never was born. The buzzards laid me on a stump and the sun hatched me! I'm eighty-three years old and I spent the most of my life in Laclede County. I was born in 1897 on December 15 in the Hazel-dell District. They told me that there was five or six inches of snow, ice and sleet on the ground that morning.
The first thing that I can remember, me and my brother next to me were playing out in the yard. We were out here playing and we both had dresses on. When you were about four years old, maybe something like that, you had pants. They was the kind that only came to the knee. They'd buy you a pair of shoes about the first hard freeze. The rest of the time you went barefooted.
There was three boys and two girls in my family. I was the oldest, so the others could throw rocks at me if they didn't like me. My brother next to me was Alfred, next one was Earl and then a sister, Opal, and my sister Bertha.
Our family made a living by going out to the fields with a double shovel and a single shovel and plowing the ground up with a turning plow. We planted corn, oats, wheat, turnips, potatoes, cabbage, parsnips and all of that kind of stuff.
We had peach, apple and pear trees, and we took the fruit off them. We also had seedless peaches in every corner of the fence. My mother made peach butter, apple butter and wild blackberry preserves. We dried the peaches and apples out on the slope of the house or on two trestles. We picked persimmons and my mother cooked them, took the seeds out of them and mashed them through a culler, took the peeling off of them and made persimmon preserves. We went out in the woods and gathered grapes and made grape butter, jelly and canned grapes.
We got our water from a spring. It never even once dried up. You couldn't take a scoop shovel and dry it up, either. Now they don't even want to drink out of a spring or anything. That's the purest water on earth. We kept lard, milk and butter in a spring branch in a box, the water running through that spring.
We butchered our own hogs so we had meat. We had meat in the smokehouse smoked with hickory wood and a little sassafras.
We had always put out a cane patch and my daddy made molasses every fall for other people. We had a fifty gallon barrel of sorghum, or molasses, whichever one you wanted to call it. We had a fifty gallon barrel of kraut and a fifty gallon barrel of cucumber pickles.
We ate hickory nuts and walnuts, black walnuts. A lot of people calls them butternuts and then the black walnuts. We ate them and then we got chinquapin acorns. We got that and parched it on the stove hearth and eat it like popcorn. You put a little bit of ashes in the bottom of a stove hearth, and you put them acorns in there and a little bit of ashes over them just enough to cover them. Then you rake live coals out on them and let them cook. You take that outer burr off, but let the shell stay on. After they're roasted, they tasted awful good to a kid in them days. Might not want to eat one of them now.
Also, you could take that burr acorn, and if you knew how, you would take a knife and you could make the most beautiful basket that you ever saw in your life. You turn the acorn upside down and leave that fuzzy hull down here. It has a little hull around the top of it. Cut down on each side and cull it out and dig that out of there, and you've got one of the most beautiful baskets you ever saw in your life.
We fenced the corn crop or the hay crop in and everybody's cattle out. They had bells on them and they turned that cow out and in the evening when you got ready to go hunt the cattle, why you walked out in the yard, and you listened and you heard that bell, and you knowed that bell and then you went to it. Then, when you come back home, why, you throwed some tobacco stems on some live coals out in the yard, and you stood over them and smoked the seed ticks off of you. That's the way that went.
One time there were some friends come to our house and brought two boys. We had a big pet lamb we'd raised on a bottle, and he was over where a slat fence was. One of the boys said, "I bet if you put a red rag on your head, and you'd get out over there and shake your head, that sheep'd put you out of there." I said, "You don't have to do that, just climb over in there and see what he'll do." "All right." He climbed over into this pasture where this sheep was. When he got so close to this old sheep, that old sheep he just stuck his old head down, right down like they would and his ears pinned back, and he said, "Maaa, maaa," and wham, he took off. That boy jumped and just as he got to the fence, the sheep hit him.
He hit him with his head, and the boy just went on through that fence. It just took the slats off. That's how people learn. That's how they learn those things.
When I was a little boy they had mills all up and down the river. At Pease Mill, they had a mill that grinded wheat and corn. Then there was the Sharp's Mill. They ground wheat and corn there with water. Then the next one was the Orla Mill. That's the mills on the Osage Fork River. This one at Bennett Spring, as you call it now, we called it Brice Mill. Dr. John B. Atchley and his brother Freeman run it for years and years. You could go down there at the mill, get your corn ground and fish out there at the spring branch or anyplace you wanted t0. You didn't have to have a license or anything. They were trout, suckers, perch and the fish with the name of bream.
My dad and two or three neighbors, they just wanted to go somewhere. You just didn't get to go much of anywhere then. They'd load up just so much wheat for each one of these neighbors. They loaded that wheat up in a wagon with sideboards on, put bows up and wagon sheets put back so far. They took food with them and they went to Bennett Springs. Well, they left down by Orla about four o'clock in the morning. Then at one or two o' clock they'd be down at the mill. They pulled up and if there was room in the mill, they could pull up and unload the grinding, they called it, there and put their name on it. Then the mill run day and night. Maybe after the next afternoon they'd go in and ask if they're ready. They went to get the team and wagon and drive up to the platform, load the stuff in with their name on it, get on it and get home at maybe midnight. You see it was an outing for the men.
I never did much trapping except with rabbit gums. My father was a trapper and one winter he took thirty-two coons and probably fifty muskrats besides skunk, possum and things.
I can tell you something I bet you don't know. There is only one animal that would eat a dead dog and that's a possum. That's the only thing that would, a possum would. They can smile and bite, too. They're like a kangaroo, because momma possum carries the little possum when it's born. She puts it in a pouch, her breast in there feeds it, and it stays there till it gets big enough to go on its own. I have found an old possum lots of times with four or five little ones in there. They didn't have any hair on them at all. They're slick, without hair when they were born. I've found them also when you'd open that pouch and look, every one of them would have a nipple in its mouth. The most I ever found at one time was nine. One of my uncles found an old possum that the dogs treed, and we didn't know what it was, so we chopped it out of the tree. It was a big old possum and there was nine little ones in that pouch, so we just took her, called off the dogs and let her go. We was smart enough that we didn't want to go looking in her pouch with her head loose, for she'd slam them tusks in you. They was about three-fourths inch long.
We tried to kill skunk. We hunted them with dogs or trapped them. The skunk blows that stink. If you grab him by the tail and raise his hind feet off the gound, he'll never throw it on you. When the skunk's tail flips back, it causes those organs to work. That throws the stink. I've seen them in the moonlight throw it about six feet. It's a yellow substance.
If you got hit, you went home and took all the clothes off that you had on--every one of them--took them out to the barn where you clean the barn out. You throw them in there and cover them up with manure and keep them there that night till the next night and then take them out of that and wash them. That lets the stink off of them. It was hardly ever in your flesh and that's the way you done away with it.
But if you catch a baby skunk and take that pouch that carries the scent off of him and throw it away, and put him in your barn loft, you'll never have a rat or mouse. They'll eat everyone that they can find. They make the best cat you ever saw. All you have to do is operate on them and take that pouch out.
I've seen lots of wild animals. I've been out in the yard early of a morning and watched the hounds bring a fox up the side of the hill, barking. There'd be a big tree fell down and that fox would jump on a stump, then jump over on the tree, go out that limb, back down, walk back up then to the end of that stump and jump just as far as he could, and then he'd run for about fifty yards. He'd stop, set up and listen for them hounds. Well, the hounds would come down trailing after him and then had to make all of them trails, see? Well, the fox rested while they was a-working.
I went to school all of my life in Newton School cause we bought a place, my folks did, about two miles and a half from the Newton School there. I could run from there to the schoolhouse through the woods on a trail.
They had box suppers when we first started out to school and they changed it to pie suppers. At Newton School in 1911 we had a big program there and sold pies and stuff to buy a bell. We bought a bell out of the money. They put that bell on a big oak tree, and I've got the picture of the schoolhouse and you can see part of that bell. There is one thing that I can remember real well when I look at that tree. I slipped out and kissed the school teacher once. I was about fifteen years old then. I was a big boy and awful pretty--had the prettiest hair, except I sold it back in the Depression days. You want to know what slipped that hair all off of my head? Making a living in 1929 or 30 right along there.
I went through the eight grades. I went in the front door and they throwed me out the back door, I guess about the eighth grade. Back then they didn't have A and B and so like that way. I went until I was thirteen, and then after I got out of school, for the next ten, fifteen or twenty years I learned a lot more than I did in school. That was experience, cutting big trees, making rails, splitting wood and cutting wheat with a cradle and digging sprouts and all of them kind of things--and being mean!
While I was growing up we played ball, went to a dance, occasionally, and went to somebody's house who had a mandolin, guitar and fiddle. We went to Sunday School and the biggest part of my lifetime when I was a kid we went to the Orla Baptist Church and then to New Hope and to Happy Hill. We also went to Fairview and McBride.
When I was thirteen years old, we had two horses. I wanted to go somewhere real bad one Saturday and my father said, "Well, I wouldn't ride the horse because they had been working all day and week and they're tired and they need to rest." I said, "Okay, do you care if I buy a horse?" He said, "No." "All right."
We had a man who lived on the farm next to us. His name was Nathaniel Finley. We called him Uncle Nat. I took up there a little bit over a quarter of a mile to Uncle Nat there at his home. I said, "Uncle Nat, I want to buy that pony that you got out there in the woods eating grass." He looked at me and said, "Do you think your folks would care?" I said, "No, they told me awhile ago if I could buy anything to go ahead and buy it." He said, "All right, if you will work for me for two months." That's fifty-two days in that time. "If you'll come here and work, you'll have three meals a day, a place to sleep and you work fifty-two days, then you can go out there, take that mare anywhere you want to. That big bell that's on her is mine." He said, "I want it back but until you work them fifty-two days, you turn her back out in the woods there with that bell on. Then when you want to ride here, anytime you want to, you can ride her." I went and got that mare. She was a little brownish buck-colored animal with a black mane and tail and she had a white streak in her forehead.
I helped cradle wheat, sow wheat and cut corn, wood, make rails and stuff like that till I worked fifty-two days. Then I had the pony to bring home where I could do what I wanted to with her. I had to take his bell off and put mine on.
Well, it went on and I seen that she was going to have a colt. The next spring one day I went up in the field where she was at and lying out there on its side in the sun was a beautiful little female colt. I got it up around and I seen that it was puny. Well, my granddad always give a lot of medicine to horses and people. I got the little colt up and the mommy and I led them across the field to my granddad which wasn't too far. I said, "Granddad, there is something the matter with this little colt." He looked at her, "Oh yes, take it on out there to the barn and I'll be out there in a minute." Granddad went out there and he knew what to do right there. He took care of the little colt, and it went to nursing its mother and from then on, it went to kicking up its heels and running.
I went to work for another neighbor, Bill King. Well, I needed a horse to ride again. I was going to work for them and I couldn't ride that mare with that colt following. I traded this mare and colt for a heavy built blaze face mare and drawed seventeen dollars to boot. That's the way it went in them days.
Bill and Ethel King's little boy and I'd ride this mare. Their house was back in this field perhaps a half a block or more. I'd come up to the gate out there on that mare on Sunday afternoon, and that little fellow, if he didn't see me, why Aunt Ethel did, and she'd say, "Jim's a-coming, Raymond." He'd shoot out of that house to open the gate and bring the animal through. He was just about yeah high. I'd lean over in the saddle and reach down and get his little hand and pull him up with me and he'd ride to the house with me. He died when he was about two years old. He was buried over in McBride Cemetery. I was over in there the other day and his little picture's on the tomb.
Then when I married, I went to sawing lumber and running threshing machines that you fed by hand and had slat stackers on it. I was a steam engineer. I was threshing wheat over the county and the people that did the threshing then, you had to put a tarpaulin underneath the front of the separator. That way you caught every grain of wheat and saved it.
I could go up there and blow that whistle on the steam engine. You reached up and pulled that whistle string. Little kids would come along down the road. There was a bunch of brush standing there and you'd come along down there and get just about even, and they'd a-looking up at you. I'd reach up and get that old whistle string. Whoo-ooo! Them kids would take off down through the woods just like a rabbit. I've scared a many of them.
Long about then the Depression hit. You did feel the Depression because you hauled a cord of wood to Lebanon for two dollars a cord and you give a dollar of it to get it chopped. Me and some other boys that had to have a living got a wood saw and sawed it up and hauled it into Lebanon. I cut saw logs, hauled them to the sawmill, got the lumber and then people would come and want a pattern for a house or for a barn. I hauled the logs, got the lumber cut and everything. I hauled it back to them and then they'd build the house. I owned the sawmill at that time.
I don't never want to turn back the pages. I don't want to go back and live back then, eight-three years and all that. I wouldn't want to. I often think back and I really think people in them days, back along in 1912 or 13, along in there, if a man needed fifty or one thousand dollars and he had a little farm out there, three or four cows and a few things, why, that man could walk down here in the State Bank, which was on the corner. They could walk down there and say, "I need fifty dollars," and they'd throw that money out there to them and a little note, and he'd write his name at the bottom of that and went on. Well, if he couldn't pay it all when it was due, why, he'd pay what he could, and he'd come back there and say, "I can pay twenty-five dollars on it." "Ohay, we'll just renew it," and he went back home and went to work. If they went down to my dad, Grandpa or your people, if they had a little extra money, why, they went down and said, "I need ten dollars," or what have you. He'd go get it and hand it to them, and they'd go on out there and they'd sell a calf, hog or a little wheat or something. They paid it back. They weren't afraid to risk it, don't you see?
Then I come out to Lebanon and got a job with Colonel Arthur T. Nelson and his son Frank. I worked fourteen years for them. Mr. Nelson had that Dream Village, a filling station, an eighty acre orchard and a nineteen acre orchard. I took care of all of them. I sprayed these orchards. We had two machines, and we sprayed out two hundred gallons of water in each machine. We sprayed ten of them machines a day. I was in that orchard for six years. Then when they put Highway 66 through there, he put me at the filling station and I stayed in that for six years.
I worked a lot of places, for the Greyhound line in '29, in several filling stations, and I went to San Diego, California in '39 and stayed for eight years.
Then I came back here to Lebanon. I went to work for Sheriff Francis Murphy as deputy for eight years.
I never had to go to war. I was just in war at home with my family is all! Well, you see, when I had to register for World War I, I wasn't very old. They didn't take me in that war. They settled the war and I was not very old. Then World War II, I was in California and I had a family and everything. I was old enough they'd put me in a different class. I didn't go. I was too young for World War I and too old for World War II.
My own kids, I got five. Juanita Southard, Farrel Chastain, Franklin Chastain, Jewel Shockley and Leo Chastain, and Helen, my step daughter. She is just exactly to me like one of my own.
I've been married four times and done just about everything I could do to make a living. I hauled milk for I don't know how many years to Springfield and everywhere and around. Now I'm tired and I don't do much. I can remember all those things a long time ago and the advice I would give to young people these days is work hard and be honest.
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