When and why the tough get going

Published 2:52 pm Friday, February 26, 2010

She was a Butler, born in 1916. She and her family survived in a harsh isolated farm environment during the 1920s and ’30s in and around Whigham, Calvary and Cairo.

Mary Alice Butler Cullifer has written a book about those days, of her childhood with her parents, brothers and sisters, subsisting off the land, and ruled by a determined mother.

She will be telling her story Monday, March 8, before the Decatur County Historical and Genealogical Society.

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I have read her book, and I can report that it is a grim reminder of life in the rural South in the early 20th Century. From these tough times come tough people, deprived and uncomfortable at times, yet adaptable to their environment. They remember it with warmth and affection along with days of desperate and abusive tribulations, probably because they experienced little else, knowing neighbors experienced it too.

Did they need to know any difference and do we raise the same kind of people today?

Her book is called “Beacons,” and it is the story of her life from rural beginnings, through various jobs and four husbands, each in their own way adding to the final person she has become and exudes to her modern family. That she survived to her 94th year is testimony to common Southern tough beginnings, life-enduring rural hardships, developing the Southern character.

When she makes a presentation about her book, she is accompanied by her daughter, Faith. Mary Alice sits in a rocking chair, covered with one of the symbolic quilts farm folks made in the ’20s, and recounts her beginnings in rural Southwest Georgia.

She attends school in Calvary and Cairo, tells of favorite teachers, lessons to learn, playground games, bullies of the school yard and from brothers at home, lunch from tin buckets, lateness getting to class because it was a five-mile trek from home to school. (When’s the last time you walked five miles to anywhere?)

There are assigned chores at home she and her brothers and sisters had to complete each day or feel the switch of the peach-tree branch. There was wood to gather to fill stove and fireplaces. For light, wicks on kerosene lamps had to be trimmed daily, globes washed, fuel added.

Work and chores must be done each day, and if someone feigned sickness, mama would threaten with a dose of castor oil.

“Mama ruled with an iron hand,” she writes. “ Mama always kept a peach-tree switch standing behind the kitchen door. I never asked why she preferred peach-tree switches, but I am sure she had her reasons. Therefore, if we slipped up and did not complete our chores, we knew with certainty what came next. That switch was a dreaded reminder not to slip up. The consequences were stinging stripes on our legs and backsides that lasted for days.”

“We knew the meaning of freedom and the pleasure of space aplenty. We learned and never forgot how to commune with nature and to respect its many wonders and dangers. Those early years of freedom to roam the woods opened our eyes to the consistency of nature as it changed its gown from season to season.

“There was no telephone, radio or toilet in the house during those years, but we didn’t miss them as small children. It never occurred to us to question why we did not have those conveniences because none of the neighboring farms were equipped with them either. Modern conveniences did not come to the rural areas of South Georgia until the early 1930s,” she writes.

Mary Alice’s book is far from great literature. She is not a novelist, short story writer of considerable fame. But what she has given us in her book is a glimpse of early life right here in Southwest Georgia. It was a harsh existence, and they were harsh at times with one another. There is no romance of the ante-bellum South, no preaching political independence, or espousing conservative politics. This is tough rural subsistence on a family farm, dependent on good weather for a successful crop, but too in a country setting of dancing fireflies, and continuous drone of crickets, engrossed in a southern landscape in all its variety of lushness and harshness. Life on the farm was a supreme presence, losing sons to the great war, adding markers to the Butler family plot, yet surviving, growing tough of mind, body and character, living heartily well into their 80s and 90s.

Her book is of personal family history, poignantly told of the flawed and gallant characters that comprised her family. They are perfect and imperfect people, flawed and resilient, buttressed and thrashed by their environment, crop successes and failures governed by the weather. This is an honest and personal history and example of life not only of rural Georgia but representative of most of the agrarian rural South in its place in history.

Today, the South has changed particularly since the end of World War II. We have huge cities, suburbs, manufacturing jobs and skilled workers, huge farm conglomerates, interstates, shopping malls, super markets, fast food restaurants, a sameness where every small town is like that one next door.

In her preface to this book, Mary Alice’s granddaughter, Robin Ingram, writes that she is grateful that her grandmother has written this family history.

“You may hesitate to examine your past, or document your family history,” she writes, “until suddenly the oldest member of your family is gone and the opportunity to do so grows dim. I hope this book will inspire you to share your memories and family history with each other, for your own benefit as well as that of future generations.”

So here is your assignment from this lesson that Mary Alice and her granddaughter have given us and will present to the historical society. Now, today, begin your family history. Sit down at your computer, or typewriter, or legal pad in front of you, and write. To begin, set aside one half hour per day at a designated time, and let nothing disturb you. If you need help from a younger member of your family, get it.

It isn’t precisely important at this point enumerating in detail of who beget whom, but it should consist of those environmental and family factors which shaped your life, which shaped your character, which important historical family traits are important to pass along.

The history of Decatur and Grady counties is its people, how they lived their lives, subsisted, contributed, worshiped, married, raised families, divorced, plowed a field behind a mule, picked cotton barehanded, built a business from nothing, passed on.

With all its romance and warts, glories and imperfections, personal abuses, loving and caring moments, get it written. Do it for your children and great-grandchildren and theirs.

Jim Stone and Raymond Miles have written their personal histories for their families. Do yours before it’s too late, and save a copy for the historical society.