The Combs’ Kids at Elephant Farm Reunion - 1967 The Combses 1967 Reunion at Elephant Farm in Boliver, Missouri, USA
Claudius Gallio, Floyd Everett, Martha, Julius Coetta, Rufus Edgar, and Laticia May. (Not shown: Nancy Adeline and Iris Laticia (deceased)

Chapter 1 - One hot July day


Dear Susie[1], my first granddaughter,

You know I had a birthday about July the first this year and I was thinking about some of the things that we didn’t have in those days. You mentioned you ’d like to have some of my thoughts on old times, and I thought I would tell you about the most important day in my life, that was on my first birthday. One hot July day when I first came into the world, yet we had a fire in the fireplace all day long, although it was very hot. The reason was that my mother [2] didn’t have any cook stove of any kind, but cooked on the open fire in the fireplace. In order to do that you had to be quite an engineer in several respects. One is the control of combustion of the wood and the other the kind of wood, and the size and shape that it was cut into. you would use in order to get the cooking doneThe instruments of the cooking in those days were very few items -- the mainest were the big and little skillet (Dutch ovens, I believe), big and little and middle kettle. And the cutlery consisted of the big case, little case, old case, which were homemade knives. All the utensils were named. They lasted for years on end.

I thought a lot of Mother and saw the things she was lacking and was determined to furnish her better things as days went by. As I said, she cooked on the open fire which caused much stooping, reaching over the hot fire. Very inconvenient! Mother at this time was the mother of seven children to cook for. In order to prepare food for them, sometimes she was cooking dinner while she cooked breakfast. Kept the thing going most of the time. If fire went out, she had to go to neighbors to borrow some. If you couldn’t do that you had to manufacture some. We had no matches. We had two things to start a fire with. One was flint and steel. You hit the two together and that made sparks.

You had to have very combustible stuff to catch the spark in order to build up to the point of a blaze and then you had a fire. Then you could set firewood on it, and go from there. Or we had two sticks and a string. We made a very fast motion between two pieces of wood which would set it on fire in time.

I remember we didn’t have any screens in those days, no windows, and no window glass. We had windows, yes, but nothing over them. The only one we could use for opening or ventilation, was a sliding door set in wall. We could slide it open and we could slide it shut. No glass and no screens, I guess screens wasn’t invented in those days. We lived and competed with the flies, yellow jackets, stinging bugs, and stink bugs and other flying critters for what grub we could get.

They of course had very good sensitive organs and they can detect when the table is set. So, they would all be there in quantities.

I just like to mention a few things that my mother didn’t have, ’though they might have been invented and available in some of the cities, they were not to be had in the country where we lived. (I was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Appalachia. )

They didn’t have electric lights, or electricity therefore no appliances a’tall. For light they used a tallow candle,a few years later they used coal oil lamps.

Mostly we just used rich pine knots or split pine where the rosin would settle in a dead pine log or stump. We would split that up into small pieces anduse that to light upthe hearth and to read by. I can remember my sisters reading to me the stories of the Old Testament by pine knot light. in the winter evenings. I can remember those stories until now.

We had no running water in the house. A little crick run nearby and a spring not too far awaywhere we got our drinking water and cooking water and it was used in edible stuff. For washing we had a crick about 20 steps from our back door. We called it Spout Branch. It had a little dam in it. -- and two boards nailed together and came down and had room under the spout fora bucket below it, so we called it Spout Branch. The source of most of our water for washing, etc was the Spring nearby. We had no bathtubs, no toilets, and no inside or outside toilets. We had no hot water, except what we would heat in a kettle on fire. This we had to carry water buckets and heat in kettles full. Took a while to take a bath on Saturday night. We have to take turns in the washtub and heating the water. We lined up with oldest and ended with least.

We, of course, had no refrigeration and no candles. Me being the baby, had to dependon my mother. I soon found out that my very life and existence depended on her. I determined that when I got bigger I would do something nice for her.

While I am on the subject of what we didn’t have, I might mention we didn’t have no roads, except mainest arteries, we had no concrete, or method of paving any roads even in cities. Our Transportation was either a wagon which had 4 wheels, or a cart which had 2 wheels. And in most cases they were pulled by oxen, make about 2 miles per hour in a day. Short distances they could make 4 hours per hour We lived 24 miles from nearest town. Mt. Airy, North Carolina. And it would take 3 days there and back. We only went once a year. We would go part way the first day, and the second day we would go on in to town and do the shopping. We would get started the next morning and we would get about two-thirds of the way to home. And then we would finish up the next day. So if we needed a loaf of bread, we would have to bake it.

Speaking of bread, I don’t think we ever had anything but cornbread except once or twice a year. I was about thirteen or fourteen years old before we hadmuch wheat bread of any kind. Sometimes we had a rarity of biscuits. Most of the time we had corn pone and it was made from corn meal, fresh ground, and salt and water. No eggs or shortening or nothing added. Dad was always happy when he could raise 52 bushels ofcorn a year for bread. That would be a bushel for each week. That would be adequate for our bread. We had no radios, or TV’s, or automobiles, or planes, or rockets, or tape recorders or so many of the modern conveniences. We didhave pretty good trains where they could get to you, but we lived in the mountains and no trains there yet. We lived in what they called the flat (track?) woods there were train transportation and working pretty efficiently in those days.

Sometimes we had grated bread. That was when the corn was just the right hardness. We had tin we had punched full of holes, and we could use the other side to grate corn. You could also grate your knuckles. We made the meal by rubbing the corn over this tin with the rough side out. By rubbing this corn you could make meal, and sometimes a whole kernel. It made best bread I ever ate according to my recollection. Use that and butter and it made a very delicious meal. Often tell people when I go visiting and they want to pile my plate full of food, “No, just one thing at a time.” When I was a boy I had only one thing to eat at a time. So I learned to eat only one thing at a time. And I haven’t got over it yet. That is where I learned it at. There wasn’t a lot of variety, as we think we have to have now a’ days.

I think I was 8 years old, when we got mother got her first stove and first coal oil lamp. Of course the others helped me a lot, or I wouldn’t have been able to get it then. All of us children, and then another sister was added five years after me. May [3] was born, blue eyed, and she was my main palall of my life. We all worked together to achieve the modern conveniences as they came along and as we needed them. Our house was a one room log cabin. I guess its dimensions would be about 18 x 24 feet. We had Three full beds and then a trundle bed. It is one that you can roll under the big bed. Sometimes when I slept on a pallet, a bed made up on the floor, and there were no partitions. It was good manners to look at fireplace when people were going to bed. We became artists on handling our clothes so we never appeared naked.

We had 160 acres of land in the mountains that if we farmed out flat would be 200 acres. We had plenty of wood, of all descriptions It was virgin wood that had never been cut over for any purpose. We had plenty of wood for building and for firewood, and for different uses. Practically everything was made from wood, tools and all. My Daddy [4] could make a little money making shingles. He would split the shingles out of straight grain chestnut and then he would taper themand smooth them with what we called a draw knife. Each one was made by hand, shaped almost perfectly. They would last in that wet country for 50 years. He could sell them and make a little cash money. We didn’t have too many of cash crops in those days. We had lots of fruits, that we could sell some of it,peaches, apples, pears, cherries. We could never sell all we had, but we could sell a little of it. Food and clothing were our main objectives. We had no desires to gain a lot of wealth or property. Necessities were the main aim for those days and made for considerable happiness.

We had no available cloth, manufactured cloth. My Mother raised the sheep, sheared the sheep, washed and carded the wool, spinned the wool, either weaved into clothes or knitted into clothes. That was quite a process. It was extremely durable and keep you warm. For summer clothes we had linen -- raise flax, tackle the flax, comb the flax, spin the flax, and weave it into cloth -- finer clothes. Of course the linen that was not treated so carefully was called Tow. It didn’t have bark out of it. She wouldmake shirts out of it. You had to have a good nervous system to wear them because of the bark stickin’ your eyes would stick youand rough you up and if you were very nervous, you couldn’t get along with it, but that was our durable everyday wear. Linen went to finer clothes very durable and could be very pretty. For cotton clothes we had to raise the cotton, pick out seeds out one at a time by hand, card the cotton, get it into rolls, spin, weave it into cloth by hand, to make garments desired out of it. Women in those days had a lot of time to visit in those and take care of sick, visit the neighbors and seemingly had more time than the present push button age.

For our mattresses the most popular material was corn shucks split up into smaller pieces by hand, put loosely into a tick for a mattress and they were more durable and would last 2 or 3 years before they would get such big lumps in them you couldn’t stand it. Also used moss, wheat straw (scratch you at night because of the beards), oat straw (be kinda proud of) and we also used leaves from trees in some cases.

For sweetening we used mostly sorghum molasses. We could grow the sorghum, cut it, strip the leaves off, and grind it, we had a oxen powered chain mill, we would run the stalks through three rollers and squeeze the juice out. And then we had to use an evaporator, a big tin pan with partitions in it. We put it on a fire, and it would evaporate the water out, and at the same time we had to spin it to get all the impurities and by products came to the top when you start to heat it, and then increase the heat and with gravity it would go through little doors (evaporated partitions), and it went through 8 partitions very slowly. When the bubbles were the right size we knew that it was done and would be clean and pure. We had a little maple sugar but we had a very small quantities, and it was very tedious to make. I was a grown man before they discovered the formula for making granulated sugar. It was made out of beets or sugar cane. It made the crawly sugar and it started moving, it wasn’t quite dry. It was about when I was 20 years old before I saw granulated sugar.

In my early days, it was common among the middle class and poor that you only had one pair of shoes a year. And that pair was made by local cobbler who served from 15 to 18 families. Every community had had a tan yard, and various animals were taken to the tanner yard, and he would tan them. The tanner would tan them in different forms of leather. Mostly it was cattle hides that were tanned with the hair off to make shoes. Any one of importance had his own last. He go to the shoe maker and have him make him some shoes. It would take a day or day and a half to make a pair of shoes, all hand made. The soles were on tags made of maple and were sharpened on one end. They would eventually come loose when they would be dry and then west and dry again as we wore them through the season. If they wore out before a year was over we would patch up the holes with what we called toe rags to get through spring. Of course the wealthy had more than one pair. It was custom. The shoes were made straight so you could wear them on either foot. You were supposed to change them every day so you would wear them even. If you were running and jumping a lot, you would wear the outside off the soles first. If they got to wearing uneven, you would wear the same shoe on the same foot until they were even again. It wasn’t long before they individual shoes for left and right feet. The cobbler was seldompaid money, he made shoes and we raised taters and corn and necessitites of life, and we paid him with some of the things we raised, and he made our shoes. That was a good system. He didn’t farm, but made our shoes, and we paid him in edible products and other things like cattle that we raised. That is where you get “Butcher, baker, the candlestick maker,” I forget how the rest of it went. Everybody did trades in those days.

Daddy was known for best ax handles in the country. He could make ax handles from six second hand hickory. Supposed that you could break them. Of course in those days the black smith was one of the prominent men of neighborhood. Everybody depended on him to repair anything made of iron and steel and many times, wood. He was depended on by the whole community. And again, he was paid with home products that he could use. He did all the Horseshoeing, making chains, walking plows that they used in the mountains - generally just one furrow plow,In the flatter country they used double shovels, just turn the land on top a little bit, that was all the plowing we did. Bull-toned plow made the furrow so we could plant the wheat and oats and buckwheat and flax, and stuff like that we sowed broadcast. If we had small seed we mixed it with dirt to get the right proportion, or sand. Andturnips for instance, we mixed a few seeds with sand, so we could see where we was going, and not get it too thick, evenly scattering it. We had no drills.

I was born at the very foot of Blue Ridge Mountains, which is in Appalachia where all the poor people were supposed to live, but contrary to some reports, they were about the happiest people I ever knew and they have the things they want, they don’t want in many cases the many things that we have been taught to want.

Mostly we was dependent on the other for such things as we didn’t. We had bountiful fruit. People from east of us, out in the flatwoods, they called it, couldn’t raise fruit very good, but up in the mountains it grew abundantly so we could trade our fruit for some of the products we needed. Cotton couldn’t grow in the mountains, so we traded some things for cotton.

One thing my Mother did very well was weaving. Some how, some way we got hold of a loom. A loom was what they manufactured cloth with and this one was totally hand and foot operated. She could weave flowers, stripes or checks or patterns or even roses, on her loom. The loom consists of beam or beams and combs and cards and treadles and shuttles. Many things I can’t remember. But I remember many nights of her running loom until midnight or after. I think a standard day of work which was 12 hours a day I think she could, could weave 1 yard of cloth, And maybe a little more if it wasn’t complicated. But in weaving flowers orpatterns it was more tedious and would take longer. She could get quite a bit of money from people living in cities east of us. She could weave the most beautiful linen cloth with leaves and flowers in it,The fine table cloths or fine dresses and stuff like that. If you never tried it, it is quite a complicated mess to even weave stripes. Stripes are the easiest to make, made up of different colors of bindings on the beams and if you want to weave checkers, you weave bindings on the beams and what ever you call it. You have to put in fillin’,put it in a shuttle, four or five inches long, and 3/4 inches thick, and all make out of dogwood in those days,and you would slide it through the cloth a yard wide, and then go the other way, and if you want different colors you used another shuttle and go through so many times, then you change colors and go so many times, and you work the treadle with your feet. And you would push one down, and it would push down a color, and push down another. Had to have a very good memory and good coordination to weave very fast, anybody can do it slow, but and weave a foot but to get any amount of it you had to be very good at it. Mother was very good. There was quite a demand for her weaving. I would give $5 a yard for it now. And some of more than that.

Spinning was quite an art, too. You had to card the wool or cotton and make it into fluffy rolls anywhere the size of a lead pencil or the size of my thumb according to the size of the thread you wanted to make. Spinning was simply twisting, you had to bring thread across a small steel rod at a high rate of speed and run that with your foot, and then as it came off you go a long way with it, at the right speed to get the right number of threads per inch. Then you had to double the string, Twist two threads together. Keep them from untwisting. They work against each other but you did not twist together over three stands twisted together to make a thread. I don’t think any of us could do it with out a lot of training, we would have one thread bigger than the other, or loose in one place and tighter in the other. One doesn’t work. It was quite an art to spin the different materials, that was about all we had to make things out of, the most prominent was wool, and then linen, and then cotton.

Cotton was the best and more popular in the south where they didn’t need the warmth, and then wool. Where we lived it was wool, linen and cotton. Those were the three materials we used to make all of our clothes.

As time went on we got more and more conveniences for my mother and we thought we was making life more easier, for her and then other jobs would appear and up until the present time I don’t know whether the housewife’s job isany easier then or not. One thing I know am sure of is they know how to raise babies better than when I was a baby. In those days I had a great dread of diphtheria and now it is wiped from earth. With vaccine it is entirely eliminated. Dysentery was another thing, and we had nosanitation and knowledge of germs and how to fight them. They hadNo screens. A disease could spread very rapidly. Now we detect the germs and our children are much healthier and many times much less loss of life in childhood. They have more complete diets than they used to have. And the food is scientifically mixed. In those days there was No baby food, except from Mother’s breast milk. And sometimes the mother was diseased or had malnutrition or many things could keep the Mother from furnishing the milk the baby needed. And now they have formulas that do a very excellent jobs, along with sanitation and germ detection. And now we have almost perfect babies which I am very thankful for.

School is another thing that is advanced through the years. When I first went to school they had a one room log school house that would accommodate about 50 pupils. A blackboard was on wall where the 1st grade through seniors, could see all that was going on. I can remember sitting and watch the teaching of grammar, and diagramming and I didn’t have the least idea what it was or what it was for. The seniors had to listen also, or try not to listen, to first graders recite our ABC’s and spell abad and adab ab rat, 2 or 3 letter words. Anyhow the stress was on Reading, Writing, and ’Rithmetic. The old-timers figured if we could read and write and figger we was set for life. And we bore down on those subjects hard. Most of us learned to write, by hand, penmanship better than they do today, much better. Made us learn four Arithmetic and the principal parts, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and fractions, they made us learn that in pretty good shape.

And reading and writing, we were taught to spell better bore down on spelling. Wish today they would emphasize those 3 things along with all the other things they have. Of course now we have typewriters and dictaphones and all that stuff to relieve us of tedious work, and at the same time we need to have the ability to write plainly to express our selves and calculate problems without a machine and it would still be useful to know reading, writing, and ’rithmetic than they are teaching in schools today. Calculators.

On this cassette, tape recorder, I can’t see the wheels a-turning and I can’t tell how much tape I’ve got, so that is one improvement that I think they made backwards, they should have some kind of warning system or some system so you know how much tape you have left. I can’t see no wheels turning or see the tape, so I may be talking into thin air. This tape is liable to quit in the middle of a sentence because I can’t tell how much tape I’ve got left.

Along in the late 18th century, there was a great migration from east to west. They invented the Barbed wire, windmills, steam engines, so we could begin to live in west and Conquer distances, and to Farm prairies. and to Mine forests. So there was a big migration from the East, especially East of the mountains, to west of the Appalachian chain, and people were moving westward in great numbers. They had put the Indians into a different territories by a treaty so it was safe to come West. My Oldest brother [5] came out to Texas and Oklahoma in late 80’s and seen what the West was going and came back east and persuaded my father and mother to move west.

So they sold off there for very little sum of money. The timber I would say now would be worth now $2000 an acre, and we sold timber and all for $4 an acre. That was in 1900. We sold out there and some of my older brothers and sisters had married off except Marthie[6], and my baby sister, May, and me. The rest of us came west in late fall of 1900 three days and three nights on the train from North Caroliner to Southwest Texas. So we made that change, and that is another story.

Maybe some of these days we can say some of the things that happened to me in 1900 to 1906 and 1910 and 1916 were some prominent dates in my life.

I will try to say some of that in a later tape, maybe.

1900-1905, 1910, 1916 -- Prominent Dates.


[1] Susan (Combs) Gossard, daughter of Jay Everett Combs.

[2] Mathilde Jane (Burrus) Combs, born 12 September 1849 in Dobson, Surry County, North Carolina. Died 1 October 1932 in Dodge City, Ford County, Kansas.

[3] Laticia May Combs, born 3 May 1893 in North Carolina. Died 12 September 1977 in Louisiana. Married Wilburn J. “Burnie” Ensminger.

[4] John William Combs, born 28 August 1848 in Union Hill, Surry County, North Carolina. Died 12 October 1905 in Merkel, Taylor County, Texas.

[5] Claudius Gallio Combs, born 12 September 1875 in Mt. Airy, Surry County, North Carolina. Died 15 July 1970 in Phoenix, Maricopa County, Arizona. Married Rhoda Salisbury on 28 December 1904 in Jester Township, Greer County, Oklahoma.

[6] Martha Combs, born 9 September 1884 in North Carolina. Died 4 November 1974. Married Hugh F. Ensminger (The brother of Burnie Ensminger, who married her sister May).