Delta Dreaming: Simple Jobs

On a few occasions, I have chopped corn for about an hour, at which time every bone in my body ached and cried for rest. My mother-in-law, not what you would call a manly woman, used to chop it all day for four dollars. Life was a bit different then, I suppose.

Corn was as staple in Southern life back in the day, and even further. Fredrick Law Olmstead, describing his travels through the pre-civil war American South, told how it was common to watch a wife go to the field, pick some ears of corn, grind them, and make cornbread for a single meal.

Of course they used corn for other purposes as well. Old timers used to talk lovingly of a “corn-fed hog.” And then there was whiskey. Don’t forget the whiskey. Legend has it that proceeds from making whiskey partially paid for this old farmhouse at Wattensaw. The fact that an old “still” rests in a corner of the attic lends credence to the legend.

Along with a thousand other plans, I intend to bring that old still down someday and give it a try. Perhaps not.

Back some years ago, the county newspaper ran a series of articles that became quite popular. A man named Boyd lived in the Zion Hill Community, about 15 miles from here, in the early 1900s. Illiterate, he married a younger woman who insisted on teaching him to read and write. For practice, she forced him to keep a journal in which he recorded his daily activities.

It is amazing how many daily attempts consisted of the simple declaration, “Hoed corn all day.”

Despite the physical demands, there is something peaceful about carrying on a simple activity that records instant progress. I think that is one reason that so many Southerners to this day are addicted to cutting and baling hay.

Too many times in this modern life, we never finish a task. We simply “put out the biggest fire” and go to another. Sometimes we aren’t even sure we’ve made any progress at all. So the old timers may have even found hoeing corn relaxing. Who knows?

They grow a lot of corn around these days. It isn’t for cornbread or whiskey—you know … useful things. They grow it to make fuel for automobiles, so people can drive even more to do whatever it is they feel they need to do. I did that for years. Seems I was always late getting somewhere to do something. I forget what it was now.

Often, as I exceeded the speed limit in my haste, someone would pass me going even faster, gesturing with one hand and holding a cell phone with the other. Often, at such times I thought of the old Boyd man, sitting down after a long day’s work and a wondrous supper prepared by his young wife. I could see him at the kitchen table after it was cleared, maybe taking a wooden pencil given away by a seed company and beginning to write, maybe on a “Big Chief” writing tablet, in painful scrawl:

“Hoed corn all day.”


Hoeing Corn - Farm Security Administration
Hoeing Corn - Farm Security Administration

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