A story of the drought of the late 1800s

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This has been a long, hot summer. I was forced to dig my caladiums this past week because they were so small, stunted and needing almost daily watering. I had not considered what this hot summer had done to the animals in the nearby woods until my son pointed out something that made me realize they are suffering, too. This week as he drove out Country Club Circle he noticed two deer on the lawn of the church that is in the curve of the road there. It was a mother deer and one of her young deer. He said that they were terribly thin, and so still he first thought they were statues. I have heard other people telling about animals coming up to homes. Melba Lowery says that a raccoon stays under one of their bird feeders, apparently hungry. Tracy and Jennifer Campbell live on Country Club Circle, and Tracy said he counted sixteen deer behind his home. He said they eat everything they can find in his yard — shrubbery, rose bushes, monkey grass. They are so hungry and thirsty.

Praying for Rain

When I was young, about eighteen, a group met in the home of Mrs. C. B. Walker to study the Bible. Others who attended were Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Turner, Miss Kuma Shealy, Mrs. M. M. Taylor, Mr. and Mrs. Ben Barnes, Athlea Foster and others. These were all great Bible scholars. Mrs. Walker told of living near Dubberly when there was a terrible drought. She said they drove in wagons to special prayer meetings at her church where they prayed diligently for rain. She said they prayed, believing, and carried umbrellas indicating that God would answer their prayers. That was faith, and we need prayers now and we need to believe that God will answer our prayers. There is no way these animals can find water and food if we do not soon get rain.

This past week Wiley Hilburn wrote of the drought that afflicted several North La. Parishes during the late l890s. He did not mention Red River and Natchitoches Parishes nor did he mention 1894. About seventy years ago, my mother told me about the terrible drought of those years, and how it affected her family. My mother was ten years old when this story took place. Please forgive me for telling you a story from my own family that I wrote many years ago for my children – a story about my grandmother. My daughter asked that I share this story with you.

A Mainstay

Corn was such a mainstay in life when my mother was a little girl. Each year when the corn was harvested, they first took out the seed corn for the next year. The corn that was left was carried to the grist mill and either coarsely ground into chops to feed the chickens, or ground into meal. The grist mill owner kept a part of the meal as his fee. He could easily sell the meal.
My grandmother was a sort of mid-wife in the community since she was called to homes where there was illness. If there were an abscess or a bruise, a poultice of scalded meal helped, or a thin gruel made from cornmeal was excellent following an upset stomach. These were just a few of the medicinal benefits from cornmeal.

However, cornbread was the accompaniment for the vegetables that she cooked. Turnip greens without cornbread was unthinkable. For breakfast she made a dish she called “mush” which was made from meal placed in boiling water and cooked until it thickened down. On cold mornings when the six boys and two girls along with the parents lined down the benches on each side of the big old table, steaming bowls of cornmeal mush, with a dollop of butter and some form of sweetening made a welcome meal. Of course, they always loved the hot water cornbread that she made. It would not be Thanksgiving or Christmas without cornbread dressing.

An Empty Barrel

The corn crops had failed for the past two years because of the drought. December 1894, found all the cornmeal gone – the barrel was empty. The smokehouse had plenty of meat from the hogs they had butchered – hams and bacon. There was a large flock of chickens, and of course, there were the cows. Wild turkeys were so plentiful in the trees around their farm that with just a single shot the boys could bring down one. The huge half-gallon fruit jars that she had canned were lined along the shelves with peas, beans, and peaches and any other fruit that was available. There might be greens or collards in the garden but they did not taste right without that cornbread.

Grandmother Susie had observed her 40th birthday December 5, and now it was just a few days until Christmas. As she walked down the long porch to the kitchen ell of the house, the wind seemed to cut through her clothes. She felt the cold especially now, and she was so cumbersome. Perhaps, it was because by April she would have a new baby. The youngest child, a son, would not be two until July. She stirred the coals in the stove, added kindling wood to start the fire going, and then added more wood.

Still, the meal barrel was empty. Grandmother knew that come spring the cows would “come into the pen” which meant they would have new calves. Milk and butter would be plentiful to sell. The hens would lay much better than in this cold weather. The eggs could easily be sold to buy meal, but spring was a long way off.

An Idea

Grandmother remembered that a few years back Grandfather had sold his cotton and cleared much more than he expected. He had gone to Mrs. Prothro’s Millinery Shop in Campti and bought Grandmother a beautiful silk scarf. Mrs. Prothro had selected one that would set off Grandmother’s fair skin, red gold hair and blue green eyes, and it was large enough to be worn as a shawl.

The next Sunday, Grandmother proudly draped the scarf over her shoulders as she went to church. It was beautiful and the ladies crowded around, admiring it. One, the wife of the grist mill owner, had asked where it came from. The next week she had gone to the shop but there was not another scarf like it, none so pretty. She had come back and gone to my Grandmother and attempted to buy it. No way would she sell it – it was a visible way of showing Grandfather’s love for her. That cold December morning, Grandmother remembered the scarf that the grist mill owner’s wife had coveted. She knew that they had plenty of meal as they kept a part of the meal as they ground the corn for the farmers. But meal cost money and she had none.

A Trade

She made up her mind. She took the scarf, which had been carefully wrapped in her trunk, and decided to try to sell it. Even though she was just a little over five feet tall and her body was bulky with the expected baby, she saddled a horse and rode off to the home of the wife of the grist mill owner. When she arrived, the woman still coveted the beautiful silk scarf. After a little coaxing, she persuaded her husband to swap a barrel of meal for the scarf.

Grandmother was so proud to ride home and tell the menfolks to hook up the wagon and bring home the meal. They were astounded. How did little Grandmother manage to get a barrel of meal?

Christmas Dinner

There was cornbread, there was mush and at Christmas there was plenty of cornbread dressing.

She never had such a beautiful scarf again, but her six sons and two daughters had what was lacking in their diet, and there never again was the shortage of corn and cornmeal as that winter of 1894-95. Oh yes, the baby that was born April 19, 1895, was a girl, the last child Grandmother ever had. This baby’s birth caused the cooking for the family of now 11, to be delegated to my mother who was ten years old, along with the responsibility of taking care of the three smallest children. A few years later, two of the sons, John and William, along with Bobby and Sidney Turner, and Lola and Effie Turner, of here in Minden, rented a house together in Mt. Lebanon and attended the college there.

A Namesake

History books record the terrible drought that afflicted the United States for about three or four years in the middle l890s. That drought had a tremendous effect in Red River Parish, where my mother was born and grew up. This is the story of her mother and my grandmother, Margaret Suzannah Longino, who was born 1854 and died in 1919, four years before I was born. She was the mother of eleven children, with nine growing to adulthood.
At least four of these were college graduates, which was an accomplishment for farm families. She was a gifted seamstress, making the wedding dresses, christening dresses, burial clothes, and even men’s suits for the community. Each winter after the gardens and the canning were “laid by” she made each of the six sons a new blue serge suit with their last year’s suit being passed down as a “second best” suit for the next son in line. She used many bolts of cloth to make dresses for the three daughters. With just a pattern for a neckline and an armhole, she designed the most beautiful clothes for the daughters, without a pattern, but just a picture from a magazine such as Godey’s Lady’s Book. My daughter is named for her.

Juanita Agan submitted a weekly column to the Press-Herald for more than 15 years until her death in 2008. She was a resident of Minden since 1935. The Press-Herald is republishing select articles from Mrs. Agan’s Cameos column every Wednesday.

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