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Lifestyles of the Past and Present in Bethesda
Genealogy & Local History eBook

Lifestyles Cover

Prepared by Hugh Keedy and Jessie Bennett
Co-directors: Bethesda Museum

Billy Alexander
Jessie Bennett
Franklin Bond
Leo Bond
Lola Bowersox
Cleo Grigsby
Agnes Hargrove
Hugh Keedy
Annie Lou McCord
Bessie Mosley
Lester Mosley
Jean Sanders
Joyce Smith
Ruth Taylor
James Trice
Jerry Watkins
Bill Wiley

Interview With Billy Alexander

[Jesse: Just tell us something about your life as a little boy and later.]

Well, I guess that would be pretty interesting, about my being born. Yes, I was born in Bethesda, at home. The story that I was told was that my daddy knew that I was fixing to come, and he went up to get Dr. Eggerston to come over. Dr. Eggerston was gone somewhere. He rode on over to Arno to Dr. Grimm. Dr. Grimm was gone. I may have told it wrong, because Dr. Core was probably the first one he went to. He was gone. The word was out though, and when my daddy and the doctors all got there at the house about the same time, I was already in the bed with my mama. Ha! I was already there with my mama and we had three doctors. I was born in 1921 in the house that burned when lightning struck the house in 1973. [ A new house was built on the same site.]

I started to school at seven years old, in the building that was burned up here. My sister went to school in the old building down where the store is now. My first year was in the building that burned. I was there at the function or play of some kind that was going on the night it burned. The Delco lighting system sitting right beside the school caught it afire. It burnt and I spent my eighth grade at school in the old Methodist church that was torn down [where the Masonic Lodge is now]. They had high school at that time in the white house on top of the hill up yonder, where Harry Grigsby did live. That was where the high school was while they were building the new school.

I grew up on the farm and we raised all we eat. I grew up through the thirties and it was a mega thing as far as money was concerned. But, it was a happy time in my family. We worked hard and everybody had to do their share, but I never did go hungry. We always had plenty to eat. I did what I was supposed to and worked hard. My daddy rented a lot of land around Bethesda and with the mules and this and that and the other we farmed it. We never did go hungry through those thirties, but sometimes I think now they were better years than we have today. We didn't have the conveniences then we have now. We had to work hard, but we didn't have to have the money we have to have now.

On the farm my mother kept chickens. She did all of the feeding and this and that and the other for the chickens, and they were her spending money. I've carried her eggs to the Bethesda store lot of times to sell them and get sugar and other things we couldn't raise on the farm. The price of them was real cheap. I'd like to go out in the yard right now and get one of her chickens and eat it. They don't compare to what we have now; they were fed corn and were raised right there on the farm. The feed you feed them now makes a lot of difference.

We didn't have a dairy farm in the sense of what you would call a dairy farm today, but it is amazing the changes that have been made. Back in my early days we kept anywhere from eight to ten or fifteen cows and milked them. We sold same milk to the cheese plant and separated the cream from some. I remember doing that in the earlier days. I've got the old separator at home on my back porch. We used to separate the cream and feed the whey to the hogs.

We raised tobacco as the cash crop. The other crops we raised were mostly to feed the hogs and cows. Today you have to buy gasoline for your tractors; then you had to raise corn for your mules. You'd be surprised at how much corn it took to feed the mules through the year.

And, this might be interesting. My daddy was a coon hunter; he loved to coon hunt. Him and Mr. Orr Chrisman did a lot of coon hunting together. He coon hunted all through the winter months; caught possums, skunks, coons, and other wildlife. I still have some of the boards at home where he skinned them and hung their hides out to dry. Along in December every year a traveling man would come through buying hides. He would come back then in early spring and buy more hides. My daddy made quite a bit of spending money by selling those hides. The way I remember it, a possum hide would bring fifteen cents and a coon hide would bring a dollar and a skunk hide would bring fifteen cents. You could make quite a bit of money, which was scarce in those days, and it came in handy.

I had one sister. She went to school at Murfreesboro State Teachers College. After she finished she taught school for $55 a month up till she got married.

I've been living in Bethesda all my life, with the exception of the time I spent in the Navy during World War II. Other than that, I've been right here. I was in the Navy from 1942 to 1945. I served aboard two ships while I was in the Navy, in the south Pacific and also in the Atlantic. I came through the Panama Canal with an aircraft carrier and went into the Atlantic. Other than that, I've been right here.

I was in the Senior Citizens Center a while ago looking at the pictures of the graduates of the school. It brought back a lot of memories to me seeing the different ones that were there. They started [taking and] putting those pictures up the year after I graduated. So, my picture is not there. My year of graduation was 1940. I had a small class and there are not many left who graduated when I did. Most of them are dead; Billy Marlin--I can't remember other names right now, but most of them are dead.

The Mill

There was a mill that ground flour and corn. I believe it's in the book that my son wrote; I know part of it is. It was just the other side of my house on the creek. The property that the mill was on belonged to my granddaddy. He didn't own the mill; didn't have anything to do with it. He rented the land to the people. They used the building on it and they run the mill. After the mill quit running, Mr. Arthur Chrisman from this community, Mr. Orr Chrisman's brother, moved the mill across the road onto what is now Eugene McMillan's place. It stayed there until Hardy McMillan built a tobacco barn and tore the mill itself out. They used that old mill building for a tobacco barn for years.

The mill was run by steam, not a water wheel. They got the water out of that creek right there at my house to operate the mill with. I have one piece at home out of that old mill right now, sitting out back of the house. The mill was for wheat or corn or whatever needed to be ground. I was small but I remember it being in operation. An uncle of mine operated it some; I remember riding a horse with him, going around to different places.

Raising Tobacco

Tobacco raising has changed quite a bit. Today it is altogether different. Then, the people on the farm and the whole community, not just my family but the whole community, pretty well cleaned up newground in the woods during the winter months. Working in those newgrounds was quite different from working out in the open in the fields you work today. You had the roots and all that; you had to pick them up, you plowed them up, you cut them out. They cut the trees for wood and cut the brush off of it, and piled the brush and logs. Then, along in the first part of March they had these brush piles, tremendous big piles of them as long as this building and about ten feet wide. Then they set them afire and did what you call burning your plant beds. Burning the plant beds killed the weed seeds that were on them. In those days people didn't know anything about getting out in the open ground and raising tobacco. They thought you had to be in a newground to do it. It did raise good tobacco.

You saved your own seed from the previous year. The seeds are small and come from the bloom on top of the plants. You normally clip the top of the tobacco plant off to make the leaves spread. But back in those days, you would pick out some of your best stalks of tobacco. You would let the blooms go on up and seed, and to keep your birds from getting those seeds, to save them, you would use a netting of some type and protect the seed and let it mature. You didn't cut those stalks of tobacco. It didn't take a lot of them; the average man would not need more than three or four spoonful of seed. You could buy seed but most people saved their own.

There was no special preparation of the bed except to burn it off and get the ground broken up good. You would spread the seed around and then tromp it into the ground with your feet. I haven't heard of anybody tromping in a bed in years! After you got those seeds sowed, you just took your feet and walked on the bed.

If you didn't have money to buy canvas [to cover the beds] you used a domestic material to make your own canvases. The domestic material came in strips three feet wide and you could buy it in bolts. Then you had to sew it together. That was always the women's job. The beds were nine feet wide, because the material to cover the beds came in three foot widths. I remember my mother; for a nine-foot tobacco bed she sewed three strips together. Still today, when you buy tobacco canvas, you find it nine feet wide.

Then you stretched the canvas over the tobacco bed to protect the young plants. If you didn't have the money to buy the domestic with, you used brush and laid the brush over the bed to protect the plants from the weather. That was done too.

There is a difference in the size of the beds. Now, most tobacco farmers sow about one teaspoon of seed to a hundred feet of bed. Their slips [young plants] grow up to be large stem slips, because they have more room. Back then, you would use about five teaspoons of seed on a hundred feet of bed. From that you had a whole lot of slips. When you started setting them out you picked the best slips. Setting them by hand, you didn't have to have the large uniform slips like you have to have today with the tobacco setters. So, one bed would set out three or four acres of tobacco. When a rain would come you would pull off your largest slips. You would wait until next week when another rain came and you would go back and pull your largest slips off again. Quite a bit of difference.

Now, your plants grew up and you went to setting your tobacco. Most of it was set in May. You pulled your slips [young plants] from the bed and you set them out. You waited for it to rain. Today we wait for it to get dry; then you waited for it to rain. You plowed your rows with a bull tongue [plow] before you got ready to set and then waited for a rain. You would be in there barefooted. Everybody would pretty well pull off their shoes, the grown people and the children too. The young children would drop the plants fifteen inches or eighteen inches apart. The older people would come along with a peg [an object to make a hole in the ground] and put the plant in the ground by hand. I remember in my teen age years that if you would get a group of teenagers in there pegging that tobacco there would be a sort of a contest at who could go all the way across the field without straightening up. And, who could get to the other end the quickest.

Of course, in those days the chemicals that you used were very scarce and they were expensive. So, the tobacco come up and got the worms and that type thing on it. You walked over the field and pulled worms off by hand, and kept them off by walking through the field about once a week. There was spraying to some extent, but very seldom. Most people caught worms by hand because of the expense. I can remember going over that tobacco right now, catching those worms. We did get to using arsenic of lead in later years. Possibly though that is one reason that tobacco causes diseases now compared to what it caused back then, because of the chemicals that are put on it now.

There was also a big difference in the way it was cut. You had a tobacco knife that you started in the top of the plant and went nearly to the bottom with it, splitting the stalk. Then you cut it off and you left it split. In place of having the sawed sticks that came from the sawmills, you went to the woods and you cut you some straight sticks. Most of them were sassafras. You had to hang that tobacco over those sticks. You hung it over that stick in place of spearing it on the stick like they do now. It was hard to handle, because spearing it like they do now makes it stay on the stick easier. You had to have somebody there holding that stick while you put that tobacco over the stick, where it had been split. We carried the tobacco on the sticks from the field to the barn on a wagon, mostly. You have seen these tobacco wagons they use now, then it was something similar. You mostly just laid the sticks down on the wagon. Then, I can remember picking it up to hang it up in the barn, and having it all slide down. You would have to straighten it all out.

I have the first spear at my house that I ever saw or remember. Mr. Orr Chrisman made it in his shop for my daddy out of a exhaust pipe of a T-model Ford.

Back in those days they used a lot of scaffolding out in the field. You would cut poles and put posts in the ground. Then it was cutting those poles with a cross cut saw and an ax, digging a hole by hand, and putting them in the ground, laying your bed poles down. You would build your bed and lay poles across it, and hang that tobacco out in the field to let it cure for a couple of weeks. Rain would have some effect but not that bad, because the tobacco was hanging on those poles and didn't get any mud on it. It would just curve some but not that bad. That would cure it down to where it wouldn't take so much room. Tobacco barns were small and a lot of people used the lofts and different places to hang the tobacco in their barns.

I can very well remember helping an uncle of mine, when I was 14 or 15 years old, building a scaffold. We hauled the tobacco in with a team of mules and a big slide and hung it on this scaffold. Just as we finished up--I was coming in with the last load--the mules got to acting up and I let them hang a post in that scaffold and tore the whole scaffold down. Ha! I didn't laugh at the time, and I remember his reaction mighty well!

We never had over two or three acres at any time. An acre did not yield near as much as it does today. Of course, you used no fertilizer. Newground grew a real thin tobacco in place of being a heavy, course tobacco. Fifteen hundred pounds, I know, would have been a big yield on an acre. Today, the yield might be from two thousand to three thousand pounds to an acre.

[Hugh: today we see few trees on Bethesda. Things must have been quite different then.]

Yes, it was. Newground was one of the ways you cleaned the woods up, for your tobacco crop. Just about every family did it. Everybody in the whole country was doing the same thing. Right across from us here, that was called the "knolls." Why, I don't know. There were, I would say, 29 acres of beech trees there. That was pretty well all cleaned up to burn tobacco beds in. Right where William Marlin owns today, that whole side was in a beech woods. I can remember going in there and cutting, piling, and burning tobacco beds there. Finally, they were cleaned completely off and tobacco was raised in that newground.


Millwood [a wooded area close to the mill on Bethesda road] brings up another thing I can tell you about my young days. My daddy raised a lot of hogs. Millwood belonged to Bett and Miss Alice Irving who lived then where the Taylor house is now. At Millwood the beech "masts" [a term then used to identify seeds from the hardwood trees] was good hog feed. My daddy would take some sows and turn them in there, and they would raise their pigs right out there in the woods eating those beech masts. They did a good job of raising a group of pigs; right there, just eating those masts. They make good hog feed. He would turn five or six sows over there in that Millwood and they would make their own living. After the pigs got up to pretty good size, he would go and take them home and feed them. This would be in the fall of the year.

The Family Cows

Several people in the community didn't have pasture land. Mr. Jefferson Dowell (??) was one that comes to my mind. He lived right here next to the school house. His house has been burnt and a new one built back. He just had a small piece of ground and just about everybody had to have cows for their own milk. People that owned property like Millwoods would let people put cows on their land. I know Mr. Jim was one of them that did it; he wasn't the only one but I don't remember the rest of them. You put a bell on your cows, you turn them loose in a place like that and then every afternoon you go over there and milk your cows and have your milk. That furnished pasture for the cows to run on. That has been a big change in the community. Everybody had heifer cows and they got their own milk and cream. You sold the surplus whether you had two cows or whether you had twenty. You sold your surplus that you didn't use yourself. They had a milk truck that come through and picked it up in cans and carried it to the cheese plant, mostly to Lewisburg. They had other plants in Franklin, Murfreesboro, and Columbia.

You milked and put it in a milk can. Before they had such things a coolers, you put the morning's milk in cool water and it sat there all day, and then added your night's milk. Most of the time the milk truck would run every night. Over at my place now, I have a spring house. That spring house has a rock floor in it and crevices have been cut out of the rock that the water flows through. When I was growing up there on that farm the butter was put in buckets and was set in that cold water to keep it.

The Icehouse

I can remember they had an ice plant in Franklin. Every time there would be somebody passing to Franklin, you would have them buy a block of ice. It came in 100 pound blocks. Over at our place there was a place under the house that was dug out, a hole in the ground under the house. You hauled sawdust from the sawmill, and you took that block of ice, and you put it in under the house, and covered it up with sawdust. Every meal when you wanted your iced tea or anything like that, you took an ice pick and a pan and you went down there and you picked off what you thought for that meal. I can remember going under that house right now with that ice pick, getting what ice we were going to have for dinner that day. Now, you didn't use it regularly because the trip to Franklin was a big one. You had to wait till you had an opportunity to be in Franklin and bring some ice home with you. A hundred pounds would last a long time, week or longer if you covered it up well, even in the summer time.

I can't tell you very much about it, but up on the Paris Bennett place there was an ice house built up there. The people that owned the ice house and neighbors around would dig ice in the winter time. It was built out of sawdust in a hole in the ground. They put sawdust on the walls and on the top of it and walled it in with poles and posts stuck in the ground. That ice would keep till the middle of the summer after they dug the ice in the winter time and put it in that ice house.

Grandmother and the Refrigerator

My grandmother--my mother's mother--was a widow for a long number of years and she lived in my home through my young days. When she came there to live, my daddy told her and my mother, "I will run the farm; you women run the house and we will get along good together." That was the way things went. He ran the farm and the women ran the house. They said nothing about his farming; he said nothing about what went on at the house. Back in those days everybody kept horses and rode them around over the place. Now you use pickup trucks. One spring morning my daddy and I saddled up our horses and went to the back side of the place to do some work. This was on up in 1936 or 1937. Here came a boy that lived on the place back there and told my daddy, "Mr. Allen, Miss Willie wants you to come to the house." So, we get on the horses and ride back to the house.

As we go in there is a man there by the name of Clare Richards, and he was from Franklin. He was selling refrigerators that were called Kelvinators. They burned coal oil. Clare Richards was a salesman and he had been talking to my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother had offered to buy one and put it there for us to use. So, my daddy and me went in the house and they told him why they wanted him to come to the house; they wanted to know whether to buy that refrigerator or not. He was real interested in what he was doing on the back side of the place and his answer was, "I told you women a long time ago, if you all would run this house I would run the farm. Come on, Billy, let's go to work." Ha. Ha. And, they bought the Kelvinator. It was something that was unique at that time because there was no electricity in the country. We had our own ice and could make ice cream in it. The ice cream went in a tray just like you'd make it in your refrigerators today. At first it would be real icy, but they came up with a recipe where you used marshmallows and this, that, and the other in it and it made good ice cream. We'd been used to making ice cream by cranking.

Community Spirit

That school was built by the community, mostly. That is another thing that changed, completely. The county furnished very little of the money that was spent on that school. The community pretty well did it all. Another thing that happened, the community wanted a gymnasium. And, all of the community, not just one person but the whole community, went to cutting logs and carried them to the sawmill and had them sawed and built a gymnasium. Jessie, you should remember the old gymnasium. [Jessie: yes, I played ball in it.] It's sitting right up yonder at Paris Bennett's right now. You'd recognize it. Paris tore it down and put it back up just about like it was. It's sitting there right now.

And, the community club, you had a strong community club. They met once a month and brought a covered dish supper, some of the best eatin' I ever remember. That was a big thing in the community and met once a month. [The club began in the late 30s and met up well into the 60s.] The men would come up to here and cut the school yard. The community kept it cut. I can remember very well going out in the yard and catching some of my mother's chickens, tying their legs together, walking up here to school with two chickens in each hand, and putting them in some coops. Everybody else did the same sort of thing. Mr. Tom Beasley, John William's daddy, would come to the school and catch those chickens and take them to Nashville and sell them. That's the way they bought things for the school. That's the type things that the community did. It was called the Community Club.

I don't know where I would have been now if it hadn't been for this community. I built a house back and the community furnished part of the money, a pretty good part. And, the neighbors also built the house back.

First School Busses

I can very well remember the first school bus that was ever in Williamson County. I helped build the thing. At that time, the county required so many students [a specified number] to attend the high school to keep the high school. College Grove and Bethesda had a big rivalry between them. Some students lived between the schools at Bethesda, College Grove, Arno, and Rudderville. The men in the community--women, too, probably--would get together and go see people at nights to influence them to come to Bethesda school, so they would have enough students to keep their high school. Of course, the College Grove people did the same thing.

To make it enticing for those students to come to Bethesda, the Community Club bought a chassis for a two-ton truck. Mr. Charles Oliver was principal of the school and took a big interest in the community. He took those high school boys and built the bed on that truck. It was built out of ply board and tin. The Community Club owned it and operated it and furnished the driver for it. They went into the communities that were outlying and picked up the students. The students had to pay something like two or two and a half dollars a month, to make expenses on the bus. They called that bus the Cracker Box. They wound up with two, and possibly three, busses and things operated that way for several years.

One of the first school bus drivers that I recall was Franklin Bond, who started driving one of those busses before he finished high school. One of the first drivers--they had several--was named Jack Watson. He was Jim Ed Watson's father. Jack was also the janitor for the school, and kept the furnace and everything running. I lived close by and Jack would get me to come to the school and fire the furnaces and do some things. I'd come up early in the morning and I'd help Jack quite a bit. I'd rather do that than be in class.

I can remember very well, a school bus would come up the hill in the mornings, and I would be standing up there. When the driver went to shift gears, I would swing in on the back of it and ride the rest of the way to school. Ha! Ha!

My Own Family

I met my wife while I was in the Navy, on a train going from St. Louis to California. She was going to California to visit relatives. She and I corresponded for a while and we finally got married. She was from Kansas City and had never been on a farm before. Before we got married, I brought her here to the farm and told her what we were going to do. She was in agreement with it. We moved after we came back here from the Navy, into the little house that sits up there beside the road right now . We had no electricity in it. Our first two children were born while we lived there; we lived there seven years. We had three children; the third one was born after we moved.

I carried my grandchildren up there two years ago. That old cabin is about gone [it is unoccupied and in a grown up blackberry thicket], but I told them we lived there seven years and that the momma and daddy of two of them were born there. They were about the happiest seven years we have had. There were a lot of memories standing there with my grandchildren at that old cabin.

We cooked on a coal oil stove. There was a spring behind the house; we carried the water out of the spring with a bucket; we heated the water with a fire and a kettle out in the back yard. Therefore, I didn't have any electric bill to pay at the end of the month. The pressure was not on then to make money and keep the money flowing. They were happy years. We've been married 52 years when October comes. We've had a good life together. We've had some up and some downs but who hasn't. We have had all different kinds of things happen, but Miss Eva and me have always stuck together.

[Jessie: tell us about your teeth.]

I had my teeth pulled and got a new set of false teeth. They were good for about a year and then they said my mouth was changing, and this, that, and the other. I would go to him and he would work on those teeth and three days later they would be hurting again. My daughter and son-in-law and two grandboys invited Miss Eva and me to go to Gulf Shores, Alabama, for a week on the beach. We left here in a van and drove down there. Ronny Mack pulled up close to the beach as soon as we got down there. Me and the two boys got out of the van and right on down to the beach we went. Miss Eva, Susanne, and Ronny Mack stayed back at the van; they weren't as fast as we were. And, those teeth were hurting me terrible. I pulled them out of my mouth and handed them to one of the boys and I said, "Here boys, sail them out across that ocean just like you would a rock on granddaddy's pond." Well, they grabbed them and sailed them! Well, they had been there before. Their daddy saw them throw something in the water but he didn't know what they threw. And he yelled at them, "Boys, you know you're not supposed to throw that in the water." He went to pulling his belt off and the boys went to running toward him. I had to hurry up and get in between them to keep the boys from getting a whipping. Ha. Ha. And then they all got mad at me. "Here you are way down here and you can't eat this and you can't eat that. That dentist could have used the teeth and made you some more." Oh, they gave me a going over!

Well, that night come and time to eat. They told me they would let me pick out the place that we would eat. We drove around over the town there, and then walked around. I saw a place that looked like it would be nice to me, the most expensive place that I saw. It was a big, nice place. One of these kind that uses bought linen napkins. I went in and ordered a 16 ounce T-bone steak. Twenty-four dollars and something. Well, the rest of them ordered the same kind of steak. They didn't think I could eat that steak but I did a good job of it. Got through and I put my chair back--they were all eating--and I said, "Whoo, I've got to go to the bathroom." I knew it was going to be a big bill 'cause that was a high priced place that I had picked. In place of going to the bathroom, I went out and went back to the place we were staying and left the bill for my son-in-law to pay. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Miss Eva got made at me because I didn't pay my part of that trip.

But, I'll have to tell you this to go with it. It hasn't been too long ago, just a year or two, when the telephone rang one night. It was my son-in-law. He said, "I just had to call you. I was thinking about you. Something happened; I just had to call you and tell you about it." I said, "why, what happened, Ronnie Mack?" He said, "I am at the Depot, that restaurant down there, and some friends of mine came by here to eat and we were going to the boat show. I got up and went to the bathroom and when I got back they were gone and the bill was laying on the table. And, I thought about you!"

[Hugh: what words of wisdom would you have for people 100 years from now?]

Treat thy neighbor as thyself.

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