To get the feel of a special place or an event you can examine the official records, read the history, look at pictures, and listen to the stories folks tell on one another. It takes a Homer or a Faulkner to weave all that information into an enduring myths, but even inconsequential hamlets deserve a niche, at least in the family memory. This is just a story; art is the domain of artist and history is the domain of professional liars. R.C. Stuart, local historian, wrote, quoting Napoleon, "History is a lie agreed upon."
I agree that history is a pack of lies, but historians seldom agree, much less story tellers. For example, the portrait below, which hung for seventy years in the living room of my grandparents home, is of one of the daughters of Abraham and Lucinda Stuart, original settlers of Penhook. Their daughters names were Lucinda, Lunetta, Lucetta, and Lunica. My mother and grandmother engaged in an ongoing debate, especially when company was present, about which sister was portrayed - their own "Who's on First" routine. A few years ago, when the portrait, and one of her husband, were donated to the Historical Arkansas Museum, their staff historian, after much research, positively identified the lady in the picture as Lucinda Stuart......or did he say Lunetta? I can't remember.
Even though settlers were coming here before the Louisiana Purchase, a community was not established until about 1826. The hamlet would last less that two centuries; in 2008 the last few crumbling buildings were bulldozed and the rubble hauled away. All of the original log houses and most of later frame houses are gone. Even the two original grave yards are unkempt and overgrown, but a few scattered descendents of the original settlers remain, some living in 19th century homes and others in manufactured homes. A church, a post office, and a volunteer fire station are all that remain. The post office is only open three hours a day.
This part of the story starts in the 1930's and meanders from there.
The three general merchandise stores, the meat market, the bank, and the post office, which made up commercial Penhook, all closed in the middle of the day. From noon until around two o'clock, the village slept. Usually the regulars, checker players, whittlers, and onlookers who sat around the stores, also went home or, at least, away. Of the cast of regulars none was more regular than Sunshine Williams. He usually sat on a whittled down bench, on the porch of Middleburn's store, and on summer afternoons he pulled a wooden Coke case to the shady side of the store, turned the case on edge and sat leaning against the wall. In the winter he moved indoors and tended the wood burning stove at the back of the store where men gathered. Some folks claimed to be able to tell time, temperature, or a change in the seasons by Shine's position around the store.
"I reckon winter's coming, Shine has moved inside," someone might say in passing.
Anyway, one hot summer day when all the stores were closed and only Sunshine was watching over the town, an unfamiliar Black man came riding a fully harnessed mule into town, as fast as the nearly exhausted mule could trot. The rider spied Shine and halted the mule at the store.
"I need a doctor!," the rider exclaimed.
Calmly, Shine replied, "Well, we have two doctors in this town. There is Dr. Thompson and......."
The excited rider interrupted, "Man, there ain't no pickin' and choosin' a snake done bit me!"
That is far as the old story went; whether the snake was poisonous or not, nobody said. For the rider's sake we hope the snake was benign, since the two doctors were products of the 19th century medical training. It was said they had three remedies: white aspirin, blue aspirin, and if neither of those worked, pink aspirin. One of doctors was said to use the same pocketknife to castrate pigs and work on patients. One doctor, had been operated on for throat cancer and could speak only by holding a mechanical device over the hole in his throat. Once, he was working on a fence when he struck his thumb with a hammer. He went home and returned to the fence with speaking device in hand and said, "Damnit!" No doubt, this is an apocryphal story, but nevertheless part of the mix.
Another story involving a stranger seeking medical attention had to do with a man bitten by, what he supposed was a mad dog. This fellow stopped his truck at the post office where a group of men had, as usual, gathered on the porch this particular morning.
"Good morning." he called out from a few steps away.
"Goommmng" a few of them muttered and then one said, "What can we do for you?"
"I am looking for a Mad Stone and was wondering if you know anybody around here that might have one?"
Two or three of the men shook their heads, then Dr. Thompson spoke up, "Mad Stones don't work, that's just superstition. You are just wasting your time."
The stranger turned away, then paused and said, "You ain't been bit." He climbed back in his truck and drove on.
For clarification, I must add mad stones were found in the stomachs of deer. When applied to infections, the stone was reputed to draw out the poison. The best Mad Stone comes from an albino or "witch deer" that is pure white with pink eyes. It not only cures the rabies, it also cures snake and spider bites.
Some said Mr. Otis Stuart, a respected member of the community, had never ventured out of Hempstead county, so there was some talk when we heard he planned to visit his sister in Dallas, two hundred miles down the road. This was in 1953, the year he turned 82. His relatives were alarmed. He planned to drive this 1938 Chevrolet truck; a truck driven so slowly that Mr. Otis seldom shifted beyond second gear and on a few occasions made the short trip to the post office and back home without disturbing the chickens that roosted on the truck's cab. Everybody knew his truck was a 1938 model, because that was the date on the license plate - Mr. Otis entertained the notion a license for a truck was the same as a marriage license, good for the long haul.
The warnings were dire:
"Otis, those Dallas drivers will run you in a ditch."
"Mr. Stuart, we are all betting you get lost in that big city."
And the one he heard most often from his family members, "Those Dallas policemen are going to put you in jail and we are not coming to get you."
He rejected their warnings, "I got a visit in my mind".
On the eventful day he left early and drove west in the direction of Dallas, his daughter waited anxiously around the telephone; hoping for a call from her aunt in Dallas, but fearing a call from the police from God knows where. The second day she brought the good news to the post office, "He made it to Aunt Liza's house in a little over ten hours".
About a week later he arrived back home, safe and sound. The boys hanging around the store couldn't wait to hear the details of his adventure.
"You all said the police would get me and they did. Just as I was coming in Dallas two police cars with sirens going and lights flashing stopped me. I was worried, but they were just as nice as they could be. They asked me where I was going and one of the officers had me move over and he drove me all the way to Sister's house. And that's not all, when I got ready to come home they came over and drove me to the city limits. I had a police escort, coming and going!"
"Mr. Stuart, did the Dallas police say anything about your license plate?"
"Why, yes they did. One of them said I need to get a new one. I agreed it was a bit rusty, but you can still read the numbers."
The boys, with their heads down, all grinned at one another, but none dared laugh.
Dr. Thompson's office, along with the Masonic hall, was on the second floor of the wood framed post office. When I was about ten years old the old postmaster, Cousin R.C. Stuart, took me up to see the cluttered second floor. The Masons were no longer active and Dr. Thompson was long ago in his grave, but their junk was scattered about. When I showed interest in an old birthing table with foot straps the postmaster said, to my horror, that was where the Masons performed a ritual spring castration on a young boy. I had seen calves castrated and could easily imagine men doing the same to some bad little boy. That was my last visit to the second floor and I said my prayers unprompted at bedtime until memory of that contraption faded.
As I said, Dr. Thompson was active before my time, but two stories about him came down though the years. Sometime in the 1920s Vernon Goodlot, a confederate veteran and owner of a nearby cotton gin, was reluctantly persuaded my family member to consult the doctor. Although Vernon was well into his eighties he had never had medical attention. The good doctor examined the patient and concluded a enema was needed. The patient was directed to remove his clothing, don a gown, lie down on the examination table, and wait for the nurse. Presently the nurse arrived with the enema (in those days a hot water bottle with a tube and enema nozzle on the business end) and she asked Vernon to role over on his side. When the nurse attempted the procedure, Vernon jerked away. After a failed second attempt, the impatient nurse, said,
"Mr. Goodlot, if I am to give you this enema, you will have to be STILL."
Vernon replied, "Still hell, woman. You almost stuck that thing up my ass."
*Benjy's story in Faulkner's "Sound and Fury" refers to the famous soliloquy in Shakespeare's Macbeth and points to decline of the upper-class Southern family. "The Southerner," as Flannery O'Connor noted, "is usually tolerant of those weaknesses that proceed from innocence." Penhook's innocent was named Rusty. Of an indeterminate age when I knew him, he spent most days sweeping the walkway in front of the stores and visiting with passers-by. The store owners occasionally gave him some change or invited him in for a slice of boloney and soda crackers. On Saturdays, when there were crowds in town, he would forgo sweeping for preaching - emulating a Holy Roller preacher he had seen once at a camp meeting. Dressed in a tattered black suit, he stood on the cleanly swept walkways, held an open bible and spouted gibberish to no one in particular. Everybody good naturedly accepted him as another town fixture, like the Catalpa tree by the post office or the old men gathered to talk about the weather.
Rusty's parents attended church infrequently, but felt obligated to invite a new preacher home for supper, at least once. Rusty's mother set the groaning board and after everyone was seated, with the preacher at the head of the table, Rusty's father invited the guest to say the blessing. The preacher was about halfway through his usual five minute prayer, when he was interrupted by Rusty.
"Papa, what that man reading off his plate?"
Not long after the blessing incident, Rusty's father passed away. After the church service of the funeral, folks were standing around outside the church visiting and Rusty became impatient. He cupped his hands over his mouth, hollered,
"Last one to the graveyard is a rotten egg!"
And he took off in the direction of the cemetery. Rusty, like the Holy Ghost, liked to keep things moving along. Another time, a one ring circus came to town and Rusty gave up his sweeper-preacher career and joined the circus. Rusty's family, it was said, was somewhat relieved, but other folks were upset and complained to the sheriff that the circus had kidnapped Rusty. The sheriff dispatched a deputy to Murfreesboro, where the circus was performing, and fetched Rusty. After his mother passed away, the sheriff came over and helped Rusty pack. He loaded Rusty, bag, bible, and broom in the official car and set off for the State Hospital in Benton. When they were on a uninhabited stretch of road just outside Benton, the sheriff let Rusty turn on the siren.
Albert Smith, a wounded veteran of WWI, rolled his own cigarettes from tobacco poured from a Bull Durham sack onto a cigarette paper that came with the tobacco. As the man had only one arm, this was a mesmerizing sight for me. When he finished rolling a cigarette, he would place it between his lips and produce from his shirt pocket a kitchen match, then strike the match with a thumb nail, signaling the finally of the show. Men who rolled their own cigarettes had small burn holes on their shirt fronts and pants. Occasionally a smoker would set his shirt on fire, becoming a source of amusement. Albert's arm figured prominently in a schism in the Campbellite church over at Cracker's Neck. The village was so small it could barely support one church, but there was a theological dispute resulting in a second church being built on the other side of town. I asked Albert what caused the split and he said, "The Whole Man Theory". He explained that on judgment day some in the church believed the whole man would emerge from the grave, but the schismatic's held otherwise. Albert explained,
"My arm is somewhere in France. On judgment day, I ain't going to go get it and I don't think it can swim the ocean and get to me." Certainly a more practical theological argument than debating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin and, as schisms go, about as rational as any other.
My mother said Arthurlo Goggin whipped Georgia because she could not make a 1. This was a puzzle she said, because "a dying man could make a one." I pictured a man holding a piece of chalk standing in front of a blackboard and with an arm outstretched as he fell dead to the floor having made a mark on the blackboard and across the baseboard and then Goggin saying, "Well, he's dead but he did finally make a one." I never knew who Georgia was, just part of the story.
My father was principle of the white school and Arthurlo, the teacher of the colored school, once came to consult with my father about a problem. Arthurlo said the children were eating all the chalk. Neither principal nor teacher were concerned about the obvious indication of malnutrition, but only how to preserve the limited supply of chalk. My father recommended that Mr. Goggin keep the chalk in his pocket. Problem solved - except for the malnutrition.
Whenever his students read aloud and paused at an unknown word, Arthurlo would say,
"Just call it cat, or rat, or dog and move on."
After Goggin retired he would come to town selling mimeographed copies of his poems. His simple poems complemented anyone and everyone he thought might pay a dime for a copy. Goggin was very dark, stooped, and had a wide nose. He wore a disheveled three piece black suit, dusty black hat, and his shoes were cut so that his toes were released from the confines of his ill fitting shoes. In his later years he was, I judge in retrospect, a man tenaciously holding on to the remnants of his dignity.
Another of my mother's stories had to do with the coming of telephone service to Penhook. On the day the crank system was operational, everybody in town called on another, but as no one had anything in particular to say, the same basic question was asked over and over, "Are you satisfied with the service?" and when the party said "yes" the call was ended and somebody else was called. Apparently this went on all day. Late that night one of the over stimulated children in the house sat up in bed and called out,
"I'm taddy pied, I'm taddy pied!"
The child in the story was identified as Dodo. When my mother told this story at a family gathering once, I asked about Dodo as I had never heard of anyone in the family called Dodo. She said Dodo was not a family member and dismissed my inquiry as a distraction from the telling of the story. Years later I was home from college one Christmas and happened to hear a knock at the door. I was greeted by small pudgy balding man in the middle sixties, who inquired if my Miss Mamie was home. I said yes and I would get her. My mother invited the man and his wife, who was sitting in the car, into the living room. Having no interest in visiting with strangers, I ducked out. At supper I asked my mother about the visitors and she said,
"that was Dodo and his wife, he is retired from the Navy and wanted to visit the place where he grew up."
"Dodo of the telephone story?"
"If he was not a relative, how did he come to live here?"
She explained that my grandfather had visited an orphanage in Washington, the county seat, and the lady in charge gave him a baby to take home. The child was not adopted and there was no paper work or such, the baby was just handed over and my grandfather came home with a baby. The family nick-named him Dodo and he lived there until he was old enough to join the navy. End of telephone story, but a segue to the Penhook telephone system.
The telephone service remained the same until the late 1950's when a dial system replaced the private Penhook telephone company. Mrs. White was the operator, she answered "Central" when you cranked the 'phone, and her husband managed the telephone lines, which were strung on bois d'arc post, trees, and whatever was handy. As the Whites grew older, the service became less reliable; a broken line might remain broken for weeks. The summer of 1956 I was working in Houston and attempted to call home. Such calls required at that time the assistance of, in this case, multiple telephone operators. I could hear the telephone operator in Houston, talking to the operator at Hope.
"I am unable to complete the call, the line to Penhook is down."
Houston operator, "Do you expect it to be repaired later this evening."
"I don't think so, it has been down all summer."
There were telephone numbers, but nobody used them, or for that matter, knew what they were.
"Mrs. White, would you ring the store."
"If you are looking for your mama, she and Doris went to town."
The system also had disadvantages, the Whites went to bed at 9 o'clock. So, if a call was made after bedtime, it had better be an emergency or the caller got an ear full.
Mr. White died in 1958 leaving his wife with only a tiny house and a monthly social security check. She was once heard to say, that after she paid the light and butane bills, there was not much left out of that $42 social security check to live on the rest of the month.
August Boathouse peddled patent medicine horseback. He filled saddle bags with Carter's Little Liver Pills, 666 Cold Medicine, Lydia Pinkham's Herb Medicine, Doan's Pills, and such and made the rounds to Black households for miles around. But he did not work the last forty years of his life. He became as useless as a rag after he got Zenobia. The story that went around had August caught in a compromising position by Zenobia's husband, who held a loaded and cocked .32 pistol pointed in August's general direction, and announced his intention to shoot. August offered to settle the matter by buying Zenobia for $50. The deal was made and Zenobia went home with August. This event was alleged to have occurred in the 1930's and that was a lot of money in rural Arkansas. The story concluded with everyone agreeing August had made the deal of his life. She worked at every job available, bought August a truck when the horse died, and never missed a trick. Whenever she was out and about, she would cast her eyes around until she located an object of interest.
"What are you going to do with that old ax over there."
If the owner replied, "Nothing." he would soon surrender the ax to Zonobia.
The last time she drove up my driveway, some months after August had died in the summer of 1983, she requested a donation to some church function. As I was signing my pledge, I could tell she was desperately searching the empty yard for something...anything of value. Finally, she looked down and said, "What are you going to do with that rock?"
She had spotted a fossil oyster shell commonly found in the fields around here.
"Not much," I said.
"Let me take it home with me."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Put it in my flower bed."
I knew she would do that, as she kept her yard highly decorated with painted coke bottles and stuffed animals. In her front yard was a mimosa tree and placed on the tree limbs were five or six enormous stuffed animals, some five feet tall. The stuffed animals remained in the tree day and night, rain or shine, until she had invited guest coming. Then a place was set for each animal, and the animals were seated at the table. As I made a generous contribution to the church project, Zenobia invited my wife and I over for cake and ice cream. I accepted the invitation and we arrived the following Sunday afternoon. I made no mention of the stuffed animals. My wife managed to maintain her composure through the entire social event in spite of being seated next to a bedraggled and mildewed kangaroo with one ear. I feared for my life when we departed the Mad Tea Party, but I though it worth the risk. She only said, without a trace of a smile,
"You did not mention there would be other guests."
|By the turn of the century all of stores were closed
and a few years later all were knocked down and the debris hauled away.
|Columbus School, circa 1934|