from Moonshine and Mountaintops, A Living History of Northeast Tennessee
The Rag Man and Red Wing Boots
By John E. Hackney of Glendora, California
After I read your letter I sat on the back porch steps for a long time revisiting in my memory the people, the peaceful rolling country land, the smells, the sounds, and most of all the adventures of my youth. I do some of my best thinking sitting out there on the porch steps watching the crows and the squirrels chatter and carry on.
The following is a collection of random thoughts of growing up in Eastern Tennessee. I thank you for the opportunity to revisit my youth and my wonderful memories.
Yesterday I celebrated my 78th birthday. I was born just as the Great Depression was moving into full swing. Like many, I was born at home due to the lack of money and health insurance to pay a hospital. Few, if any, working class people had health insurance.
It was common practice for a midwife to accept home-crafted good and homegrown food for their birthing service. The majority of folks in rural America bartered or traded to provide what was needed at home and even fewer had cash money. And many wanted silver, not paper money. I remember my grandfather carried a little leather pouch for silver coins, no paper.
What we lacked in material things was made up by families helping one another. We went to town together, harvested together, worshiped together, all of the good and sometimes bad together. I remember harvesting wheat and straw as a major storm was approaching our area. If the storm drenched the crops, they would spoil or become sour. On this occasion and many others the neighboring families, men and women would turn out to help harvest the crops. The women provided the food and the men worked in the fields from morning until dusk. Each of us had a job and no one ever complained. We went from farm to farm doing our job and working with our extended family.
There were few, if any, jobs in eastern Tennessee during the 1920s and my father migrated to Michigan along with other young men to seek work. The Midwest was supposed to be full of jobs. The auto industry was part of this “land of opportunity” and for a while, there was work and plenty of it. They wired money home to their families. As the Depression deepened, it became obvious to all that there was little future in finding short-term work in the Midwest and in the auto industry. The auto plants were closed. For then at least there was no work. The dream of every young man was always to save enough money to buy land at home in Tennessee and then return home. Such dreams! They say that you can live on 40 acres! Few of these young men, if any, returned with such money. You could buy 40 acres for $40 per acre if you had the money. Thank God, dreams are hard to die. It was 10 years before most people could live their dream and then World War II changed everything again.
Many areas had never recovered from the depression of the 1890s. Now it seems hard to believe some areas were still impacted by the Civil War as well as recovery from World War I. Many young men did not return from the war. These losses of manpower made recovery slow or non-existent for some areas.
In 1938, I became aware of an old man with a mule and cart going down the alleyway behind the house. I ran into the house yelling for my mother and my aunt, “Oh don’t be afraid, he’s just the rag picker (or chimney) man and tell your dog to shut up!” The Rag Man had a big, black farm dog. And he would stand in the cart and “announce” their arrival by barking as the Rag Man rang his bell. I sometimes followed him for several blocks with the older boys, not getting too close and watched him going through the boxes of discards. Some of the older boys would throw rocks and then run with the big black dog nipping at their heels. When they were gone from the chase, the black dog would trot back with his head held high, receiving praise from his master.
He came down our alley in the spring, summer, and in the fall before the holidays. He was a tradition. He would always stop at our house. Here he fed and watered his mule and the big, black dog. He was fed by my mother and my aunt.
Traditionally, my mother and my aunt would hurry out to see him carrying heavy boxes of food and clothing. On these occasions, my granddad spent time talking to him in their family native tongue, which was High German. His four oldest boys had died in the First World War and he provided a home for his wife and two girls. Up until the time I moved away from home to start my own family, I always waited for the Rag Man to come and we would load him down with small gifts for his family. A true holiday celebration!
Being the youngest of the family’s children, I was the last in line for new clothes. Jackets, sweaters, and shoes were always a part of the clothing to be tried on before being packed to go home. I always knew I could expect payday overalls, with buttons missing, and sometimes old brown knickers! I can still remember my first pair of new, long jeans from Sears & Roebuck and getting rid of the knickers! A day to remember, a rite of passage into almost being a teenager.
Most of the older boys had lace-up boots that came halfway up the calf. They wore red top wool socks. Some of the boys tucked their pants legs into their boots. The left boot had a snap top knife sheath and knife! I knew that no matter how hard I wanted a pair of these boots I would need to outgrow my present boots first.
Sometimes after supper on a warm, summer evening the whole family would walk up town to cool off and have an ice cold fountain drink. As we passed by the dry goods store, I would look longingly at the Red Wing boots in the window. They were still there and they were my size! No one was interested in looking at them except me and my plea to go inside and try them on was answered with, “No, you cannot try them on and don’t ask again.” Our summer visit in Northeastern Tennessee that year ended too soon and I knew the boots were going to the “end of summer” sale according to my Aunt.
Christmas that year (1942) was good for our family but still very difficult for our Tennessee relatives. We had our Michigan Christmas early and then we packed the big car with food and gifts for everyone and headed out for Tennessee. After all of the Christmas gifts had been opened there was still one box under the Christmas tree. The tag read,” For John, From Santa.” You guessed it! My Red Wings were in the box! It turned out to be a very special holiday for our family.
I eventually outgrew my Red Wings and they became hand-me-downs. I loved those boots. In the early 1950s I bought another pair of high top Red Wing boots and wore them while working outside for many years. I still have them in my closet. They serve as a reminder of good times, bad times, and family.
As a young boy from the Midwest I looked forward to summer time and wonderful family visits to Eastern Tennessee. This was a country of rolling hills, brooks, luring trails, and wild things! My grandmother and grandfather had rules that every one of the children were expected to obey, especially young boys who were looking for adventure for instance. “Remember the rules when you go out the back door! Don’t go alone and tell someone where you are going. I was the youngest of the boys and the others tended to treat me as a tenderfoot. One afternoon we decided to go walk on the bridge. This was forbidden territory. The bridge was about 40 feet above the river and we were way out on the bridge when we heard the train approaching from behind us. We knew that we could not outrun the train and so we crawled onto the support members on the underside of the bridge and held on for our lives. Much to our amazement the train stopped on the bridge and in order to get off we had to crawl under a parked train on a bridge with steam shooting out at us and every inch of us was soon covered with train soot. It was just about dark when our parents arrived at the bridge. The other kids waited as long as they could hoping we would appear before telling the grown-ups what had happened. When they did tell, everyone ran to the bridge. They were just in time to see us emerge from under the bridge. We were ok! We looked like a couple of raccoons from the train soot. It was a quiet walk home, very quiet. I guess our parents were just relieved that we were ok. The bottom line is that we were not allowed to leave the house for a long time. I guess you would call it “house arrest.”
The railroad tracks ran east to west parallel to Interstate 40 alongside the Harriman River. It is important to note that this river overran its banks every year until the Tennessee Valley Authority built dams in the late 1930s. The family lived south of the river and the railroad tracks. During the “wet months” trains loaded with coal would travel up and down the river. On occasion a railroad car would lose a part of its load on the banks of the river. In the “dry months” of summer the kids would harvest the coal from the spills under the railroad bridge and store it away for winter months. The kids receive 25 cents per bag. This was very risky business and, again, something we were not supposed to do. Along the banks of the river there were numerous hobo camps. The hobos collected coal and traded it for corn meal at the grist mill. My grandfather ran the grist mill, which was located on the south side of the bridge. We children were terrorized by these men who chased us and on occasion my grandfather would call the railroad police to tend to the hoboes, which usually meant that church groups would come and feed and offer shelter from the weather.
Exploring open box cars was always an adventure. You were liable to find anything a hobo or kid could drag on a board. One afternoon on the way home from town we walked down by the railroad tracks to check out an open car sitting at the platform siding. Something was moving around inside the box car. Some of the less than brave kids double dared us to go inside—well; now we had to go inside, noise or no noise. Once we were inside we were in darkness that went from some dim light to total darkness. Some of our chums who stayed outside thought it would be fun to close the side sliding door. With effort they pulled the side door closed with a very loud bang and then from inside we could hear the spooks running around banging into us and talking to us in some spooky language. Needless to say, we were screaming and we knew the furry, smelly beasts in the darkness would get us for sure.
The kids on the outside started screaming as well and ran for help. Some work men from the railroad ran over to the box car to check out the source of the blabbering noise from within and the screaming kids! By now other people were gathering and everyone was yelling and screaming! A workman opened the heavy side door and the noise lessened. And then the “dragon slaying” train workman herded out three dairy cows and three totally frightened little boys.
Needless to say the boys enjoyed their ice cream reward and attention at the dairy. Slowly they recounted their version of what happened at the box car, their story changed, and they were self-made heroes. At least for that day. For years afterward I would smile whenever I saw a freight car sitting at a siding.
During World War II there was a lot going on at government facilities such as Oak Ridge. Other nearby facilities were occupied in support of Tennessee for the war effort. One such facility was the Real Silk plant in Rockwood, Tennessee. Prior to the war effort the plant manufactured ladies’ apparel. I never did find out what the war effort provided but it was classified top secret. The Army built an 18-foot chain link fence around the building and a one-mile long runway. Small military planes would land there quite often and we would run over and look through the fence. There were soldiers with guns everywhere and people shouting orders.
Toward the end of the war we had some real excitement when a two-engine military bomber crash landed on the runway. My aunt and uncle lived at the end of the runway and watched in horror as the plane attempted to stop and finally stopped just short of their kitchen window. The only damage was to some fence. It took some time and effort for the Army to dismantle the bomber and take it away.
The Army stood guard 24/7 until the bomber was gone. Years later I visited with my aunt and uncle at their home and every time my uncle would insist that we walk all the way around this “secret” facility, which has remained closed, all of these years, with lights burning inside.