Tag: Georgia

Thoughts on Country Stores

Artist’s rendering of Fortsonia community in Elbert County, with its country stores

A funeral eulogy, of all things, recently provoked thoughts on the country store and its legacy, and what the decline of the institution has cost us.

On reflection, I think it has cost us a great deal in what some mavens and bean counters of social culture lump together in the term “quality of life.” This yardstick includes a good many things supposedly contributing to the overall happiness and wellbeing of the average person of common sensibilities, often accompanied by a caveat that some of these are prone to becoming casualties of our faster paced modern age. The decline of the country store, such as it has, I believe, left a good number − namely those nebulous threads that can help hold a community together and give it strength − squarely among the injured.

The eulogy was for a woman who had operated a convenience store in this community, but not your typical convenience store with slam-bam-thank you-ma’am service by a clerk whose name you likely don’t know and who probably won’t be the clerk if you stop in the next week. This store was different. It sits a crossroads on a main highway, attracted the normal passing trade, and when she ran it did a lot of business with the local community, being the only place around for several miles. It was this latter trade that gave the place its character.

Rarely did you stop there during the summer months when there wasn’t a collection of elderly men from this residential and farming community sitting outside on benches put there for that purpose. Community gossip and tales − fishing, farming or just tall − were the common fare for anyone who wanted to sit down for a sample. In colder months, the regulars took the bucolic banter inside. The woman being eulogized, the owner, not only allowed this but encouraged it, made provisions for it, and along the way the store become more than just a place for the odd soft drink, loaf of bread, gas or fishing tackle and bait. It became a community institution.

This was the remnant of a tradition stretching back at least to the second half of the 19th century in the South and representing what was first a commercial phenomenon and then a social one. In The Southern Country Store (Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1944) Thomas Clark traced the main growth spurt of country stores to the post-Civil War period when the small farmer in the South who couldn’t afford to take a lot of time away from his work and travel to the nearest town needed a source of supplies, farming equipment and seed, dry goods and even credit closer at hand. Some merchants who before the war might have hauled their small wares from farm to farm in wagons settled down, put down roots and became a mainstay of the community. The postwar development of more railroad mileage fed the creation of some stores, such as that of T.J. Hewell in the Dewy Rose community of Elbert County. Railroad officials urged Hewell to start a store and even helped with a small loan. Eventually Hewell’s store, opened at first in what had been a shotgun house, became not only a store but a railroad freight station. The slogan was “A store within reach of every cabin in the South,” and in time, one way or another, that idea was largely realized.

Virtually everything needed for rural or small town life could be supplied from the country store. It doubled as a community forum as well, with small gatherings around its pot-bellied stove in the winters and on its front porch in the summers. Out of the banter around the stoves and another often present fixture we get the term “cracker barrel philosophy” for homespun commonsense, often unsophisticated but always reflecting the life experience of the “philosophers.” Stump speakers on the hustings from the start found country stores a good and convenient place to draw a crowd. Beginning his political career running for Georgia agriculture commissioner, the legendary Eugene Talmadge campaigned around country stores. So did the notorious political huckster Huey Long of Louisiana, who started out as a traveling salesman selling fertilizer to country stores (seemingly a good apprenticeship for any politician). Country magistrates sometimes conducted court proceedings at stores and the store was sometimes a venue for community meetings of local importance. (In my own time I know of at least one community volunteer fire department that can trace its roots to discussions beginning in a country store.)

I grew up around a latter day country store, in the Pearl Mill community in the 1960s, and in some ways it was my first school. The store was operated by my grandfather and mother. In his last able years, my grandfather held court around the pot-bellied stove winter and summer (when the stove was cold but the open door still provided a convenient place for him and his cronies to dump their cigar ashes.) Half a century later, the scenes are as clear in memory as they were in life. The mainstays were my grandfather, in his favorite gray jacket and sweat-stained rumpled fedora. Along with Mr. Henry Prince, another local retired farmer, summer and winter dressed usually in a black suit coat with matching pants, neither no longer fit for church on Sunday but still giving him a dignified air. Perched atop his head and cocked to one side was his other trademark, his flat-topped felt hat that had probably been new the last time he voted for Eugene Talmadge. Mr. Henry also stands out in memory because he always punctuated his tales with guffaws accompanied by fierce taps of his walking stick on the concrete floor. More often than not there was Bill Shiflet, a local retired textile mill worker and jackleg carpenter who was forthright about several youthful misadventures on a South Carolina chain gang for bootlegging. A variety of less often regulars filled the extra chairs from time to time.

 Listening to their stories of times past − of the years of World War I and before, of the Depression and of World War II − was my first schooling in history (and about people), and the idea that in all times the big stories of history are made up of untold numbers of smaller, individual stories, like the fibers and strands that make up a rope. Looking back, I now see these were priceless lessons that could never have been gleaned from the pages of a book.

There are more than a few stories that came out of these times that make me laugh even now, over 50 years on. Only a few miles from where I now sit there was for many years Hudson’s Store, a country store that was a mainstay of the Fortsonia community. It was also, of course, a local gathering place. One common visitor was my great uncle, Jeptha “Jep” Mattox, a local farmer. Short and stocky, like all my male Mattox kinsmen, he was gregarious and regarded as honest to a fault; he served for many years as a deacon of the nearby Bethel E Baptist Church. For all his saintly qualities, however, he was also an inveterate prankster. Had his forebears been Irish instead of Welsh, you might be tempted to say there was a leprechaun in the woodpile somewhere (he had more than a little of the blarney of the Irish about him nevertheless). One of his favorite targets was his brother-in-law, “Lily” Scarborough. “Mr. Lily,” as he was known, was a good fellow by all accounts and my own vague recollections, but unlike Jep he had a reputation as generally being serious-minded. He was of middling height, slim, with a clean-shaven face, usually a little flushed, and with a prominent nose. His most distinguishing trait, however, was his high-pitched voice, which came out in a slow, nasally drawl. When he and Jep weren’t like oil and water they were like gasoline and a spark.

On one occasion, Jep was in Hudson’s Store entertaining all and sundry with his impersonation of Mr. Lily’s voice and demeanor. His back was to the door, so he missed it when Mr. Lily, shuffling quietly as always, entered. The others saw Mr. Lily, of course, and quickly grew quiet themselves, stone-faced even, unsure what would happen next but pretty sure it wouldn’t be good, though probably amusing in the aftermath. When Jep noticed that he had apparently lost his audience and that their gazes were now fixed behind him, he turned around to see the object his jesting staring at him. It was probably a look akin to that of a wolf with a rabbit in its crosshairs. The rabbit will sometimes freeze rather than flee, hoping it won’t be noticed. But when the wolf is as tormented by hunger as Mr. Lily had been tormented for years by Jep’s shenanigans, the rabbit is seldom lucky enough to escape. Jep froze, but there wouldn’t be any escape.

Mr. Lily just regarded Jep for a long minute before finally saying, softly, his voice even and in earnest and at its twangy best, “Jep, you do that again I’m gon’ hafta kill ya.”

With a mumbled apology Jep beat a hasty retreat. That time. For the moment. But no way could he let it end there.

He and Mr. Lily didn’t really speak for several months after that. As the winter months came, though, Jep hit upon an idea he hoped would make Mr. Lily look ridiculous, allowing Jep to regain the upper hand in the one-upmanship.

Dynamite was easier to obtain in those days, the early 1950s; in fact, some farmers even kept a couple of sticks on hand for blowing up stumps from new-cleared land or for opening up the flow of a stream dammed by beavers. However he managed it, Jep obtained the heavy, waxed paper that formed the outside wrapping of two sticks of dynamite and carefully wrapped them around two lengths of an old hoe handle cut to the right size. Then one cold day when the potbellied stove in Hudson’s Store was bronze with heat and he knew Mr. Lily was there, Jep ambled in, the two wrapped lengths of hoe handle sticking out of his back pocket.

After general greetings all around, subdued somewhat as all present knew of the ongoing feud between them, Jep turned to Mr. Lily.

“Lily,” he said. “I been thinking about how to end this trouble of ours. I’ve thought over it and prayed over it and I cain’t come up with nuthin’ but ta let Saint Peter settle it ‘tween us.”

At that he opened the door of the stove and tossed in the two wrapped sticks.

Mr. Lily broke for the door yelling, “He’s crazy as hell! He’s crazy as hell!,” barely slowing enough to open the door on his way out. All of course leaving Jep doubled up with laughter and the others at hand gradually realizing they weren’t about to die then and there.

I remember my grandfather telling this story to the coterie around his own stove on an occasion after Mr. Lily had just departed their group. Just one example of the lore the country store culture gave rise to. Like the “cracker barrel” philosophy born of hard experience and passed down in plain talk, it was all part of what more tutored philosophers call the “ethos” of the community, its fundamental character or spirit. The decline and loss in most cases of the country store has cost communities. Athens wouldn’t have been quite the cultural wellspring it was without the agora, nor Rome the center of civilization it was without the forum. Small communities lost their nearest thing to these when the country store culture started to fade.

These days planners of developments often lay out elaborate plans for residential communities around what is supposed to be in improvised “town square” ambiance of small retail shops and eateries. The idea is to try to recreate a small town atmosphere whose loss is generally lamented by those of a certain age and experience with a mystic chord of nostalgia. This is laudable, in a way, though somewhat plastic and phony in essence.

They might do better without so much thought and paraphernalia. Maybe all that’s needed is just a simple general store with a good heater in an open space with chairs around for winter and a few benches on a porch outside for summer. Human nature might take care of the rest.



Random Thoughts Going Into the Holiday Season

A traditional depiction of the first Thanksgiving

     Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose significance can change as the years pass, so too some of the people we hold dear. That’s true of Christmas as well, but for most, I think, Thanksgiving is less a time than Christmas for somber reflections on those who live forever in our memories, more a time for instinctively celebrating what you still hold onto in the here and now. That’s good in itself, but also an opportunity missed. Celebrating and giving thanks for the here and now is like the making of new wine, but it’s the savoring of old vintages that bring the most pleasure.

     In my early years, we of course learned about the Pilgrims and the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving and accepted it all without a peep. In the third grade class of Mrs. Mary Williams (who just recently turned 100, bless her) at Falling Creek Elementary, the whole first half of the basic reading book dealt with the Plymouth Colony, that section intended to take the class at least through till the Thanksgiving break. As interesting as the history lesson was, at least to some of us, it was hard being in a rural Georgia county in late 1970 and feeling any particular kinship with characters in far off Massachusetts of 250 years before. The idea of a special day set aside to give thanks also seemed a little odd, as in the even more than now churchgoing times, giving thanks was pretty much an every day, every meal thing.

     It wasn’t till years later, and again most recently after reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower(Penguin Group Publishing 2006), that the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving pretty much collapsed in my thinking on the day. First, we don’t have even an approximate date for the 1621 feast. According to Philbrick’s research, anytime from mid September to late November is as close as one can guess. After the harvest, when the colonists had “gathered the fruits of our labors,” according to the governor William Bradford, it was time to “rejoice together … after a more special manner.” Geese, ducks and deer (the deer supplied by the local Pokanokets, an estimated 100 of whom accompanied the colonists’ friend Massasoit to the feast) were also as much a part of the menu as the wild turkeys hunted in the woods. It’s also unlikely that anything ever took place like the traditional depiction of the colonists and Pokanokets sitting down at a long table covered with a tablecloth with tableware set out. Historians think instead that the celebration was more in the fashion of a traditional English country harvest festival of the time, with the various fowl and the deer roasting over spits on open fires and the revelers eating either standing or squatting. (And both colonists and tribesmen would have eaten the fowl and venison mostly with knives and their fingers. Forks were still decades away from being common. Any stews or potages of meats and vegetables would have been eaten from crude bowls with carved wooded spoons or small oyster shells.) There would have been no cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie, but there would have been beer, for the Pilgrims, as we call them (they called themselves Saints), were not nearly as stiff and Hellfire-breathing as they’re sometimes depicted. They liked their beer, and one of the bountiful crops being celebrated was the barley, which would ensure ample beer and ale through the winter.

     Learning all this, I didn’t feel bad or deprived (as I had occasionally in fleeting thoughts over the years) at the Thanksgivings of childhood, which were not much like the traditional story. Thanksgiving then meant a big turkey (Thanksgiving and Christmas being the only times of the year we ate it), watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (which in my thinking “officially” marked the beginning of the countdown to Christmas − it still does), and being out of school for two days. In fact, thinking back our Thanksgivings probably had more in common with what historians believe actually occurred than with the traditional story. But there was always the hunting.

     My father was not a hunter in the sense that he hunted for sport. He had nothing against hunting as a sport, and certainly had nothing against the killing of game animals for food, but he simply seldom hunted for the sake of it. Looking back, he never really had the time. Thanksgiving was an exception. He would take his 12-gauge shotgun and the 12-years-old or so me would have my .22 caliber single shot rifle (or later my single shot .410 shotgun) and we would spend three or four hours prowling the woods along Beaverdam Creek (our family then owned land almost a mile along each side of the creek in the Pearl Mill community of Elbert County) usually shooting into squirrels’ nests (we seldom saw any game or other signs of game). I don’t recall us ever actually killing any game; we tended to pay little attention to the noise we made slogging through the dry leaves, more than enough noise to forewarn any game. It wasn’t till some years later, after the fever of adolescence, that I realized that that the lack of success didn’t matter, in fact hadn’t been at all important even at the time. The idea was simply that we would hunt together, and something unspoken would be passed that would probably only later be appreciated.

     It suited me that we didn’t kill any game. Like my father had, I have nothing against hunting game animals for food and have done a good measure of it, but the idea of killing an animal just for the kill doesn’t appeal to me and hasn’t since I was five years old. And that introduction gives me a good excuse to tell another story that comes to mind whenever talk of hunting comes up.

     Like “Ralphie,” the hero of the movie “A Christmas Story” that came out nearly 20 years later, I wanted a BB rifle. But where “Ralphie” was 10 or 11, I was five, but my age didn’t matter to my grandmother. If I wanted it, then by God I should have it, and so I soon did.

     Elberton had a Western Auto store in those days, on North Oliver Street, fronting the town square, and that’s where she made the purchase. Donald Brown, son of a neighbor in Pearl Mill was a salesman at Western Auto and he helped me pick out the multi-shot, lever-action piece of boyhood paraphernalia, the stock polished and the metalwork finished just like my father’s guns, and even threw in a cardboard tube of BBs and a handful of paper targets. These would prove useful after the initial outing.

     Back home, in my grandmother’s backyard, I took aim at all manner of targets, a tin can, a plank that stuck out from a shed, the twig of the big peach tree that stood beside the chicken coop … and then one of the chickens wandered into view. It was about half-grown, as I recall, and was one of several that regularly made it out of the fence, usually only to wander back in again. It was strutting and clucking its way along the outside of the coop’s chicken wire fence, scratching for grubs and other bugs in the dirt.

     I took careful aim down the barrel, the front sight blade squarely on the chicken’s head. I pulled the trigger and the rifle spit the BB at the target. The chicken collapsed without a sound. I had hit where I had aimed; the BB had gone right into the chicken’s head.

     I walked over and nudged it with my toe, expecting it to get up and get away. So far as I then grasped the whole notion of death, it had never occurred to me that the BB rifle would kill or that the chicken I shot could and would die.

     I recall a sense of panic setting in. How would I explain this? There was no way out of it. The chicken was dead from being shot with a BB and I was the only one around with a BB rifle. There would be no need for a trial, and the peach tree was handy. (That was the way things tended to play out on “Gunsmoke.”) Even though I was only five, Sherlock Holmes couldn’t have added up the evidence to that conclusion any faster than I did. There was nothing else to do but confess and hope for mercy.

     It was a lenient court, and I probably got off far better than I deserved. My grandmother regretted the loss of the chicken, but she made sure I understood the idea of killing only what you intend to eat. She cleaned and fried the chicken and made me eat it, even though the experience had left me with no taste at all for chicken. Before that, she did make me walk down the hill from her house, rifle in one hand, carrying my kill by its legs in the other, and show my mother what I’d done. My worst fears as I’d stood there by the chicken coop fence looking down at the still and quiet chicken hadn’t come to pass − and I kept my BB rifle. But I never again shot it at anything that was alive.

     That’s why I’ve never been a hunter, at least not a hunter for sport. (And I’m not especially fond of fried chicken, either.)

     All such memories, often as the years fly by, peopled by those who live on only in your memory, are milestones that add up to lead you by whatever routes and meanderings to where you are. They’re one of the things I’m most thankful for, and not just one day a year.


Stepping In It

Stephen Heard, as he is depicted in a painting in the gallery of the Georgia capitol. Based on an early 19th century rendering supposedly accurate.

     It was bound to happen and I knew that from the start. I expected a good hiding, as it were, and courted it. When you challenge a bit of long held lore, a piece of local history so deep-dyed in the local community’s fabric that it’s been told, retold and recorded in the only “official” history of the county that’s been written, it can cause a ripple.

     It’s taken a while, but a couple of people have delighted in passing on to me a few murmurs from the gossip grapevine that amounted to “Did you hear about what he said?” As one of the informants chided me, “You stepped in it.”

     I’m just surprised it took so long. It’s now the fall and my crime was committed in the spring. Now comes the time to explain it to all who didn’t witness it.

     In April I was asked to speak on local history at the Elbert County Library. I chose to deal the legend of local American Revolution hero Stephen Heard’s rescue from a British jail in Augusta by his loyal slave woman “Mammy Kate” the night before he was to hang. She refused the offer of her freedom as a reward and she and her husband are buried near Heard in the family cemetery in the Heardmont community. It’s a nice story. It just doesn’t have the added virtue of being true.

The historical marker indicating Heard’s grave and outlining the legend of his rescue by his slave woman, Mammy Kate.

     Local attorney and historian John McIntosh accepted it as gospel in his The Official History of Elbert County 1790-1935, published by the local Stephen Heard Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1940. The story has found its way into multiple histories and into the New Georgia Encyclopedia, though the writer of the entry gives some leeway for doubt by calling it a “local legend.” In October 2011, the story was given the imprimatur of a proclamation by the state chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, duly celebrated with a ceremony at the Heardmont cemetery.

     As a Heard descendant (great-great-great-great grandson), the story I grew up on always intrigued me. But it perplexed me that for such a celebrated hero of the Revolution, other than the fact that the Virginia-born Heard (and his extended family) was drawn to our area of northeast Georgia by the 1773 Cherokee land cession, had served some nebulous role as governor and was an intimate friend of George Washington (there is no evidence for that either), the rescue story was all anyone generally knew about him.

     Like many if not most historical figures who become cloaked in legends of some durable fabric, the truth turns out more interesting than the tall tales.

     To begin with, for the story of his rescue to be at all true there is one necessary condition that would have to be met: It would have to have occurred during a time when Augusta was occupied by either the British forces or their loyalist allies. Augusta was occupied by the British for a few weeks in early 1779 and by mostly loyalist forces from June 1780 until June 1781. In both cases we can, with primary sources, reliably place Stephen Heard elsewhere.

     The fall of Charleston, South Carolina, to the British in May 1780 precipitated a surrender of rebelling forces on both sides of the Savannah River. In June 1780, over 400 members of the Georgia militia surrendered to the loyalist forces that had recently occupied Augusta. The only exception was Lt. Colonel Elijah Clarke, second in command of the militia, and a handful of his veteran backcountry fighters. They crossed the river into upcountry South Carolina to join with other diehard holdouts and continue the fight. With Clarke were Heard and the refugee government of Georgia.

     Heard, serving on the Executive Council of the state government, had become the council’s president early in 1780 after the previous holder of that office had died in a duel with a political rival. (Georgia’s revolutionary government was factious and contentious enough to embarrass a banana republic. Heard, it seems, possessed a vital talent for avoiding any taint of partisan rivalry, resulting in his leadership by default.) In time, this made him the de facto governor for some months. He also did not surrender and take the British oath of allegiance. With the rest of the Executive Council, he joined Clarke in the field.

     Thus begun an odyssey leading him farther into upcountry South Carolina, into North Carolina (where Georgia’s state government records eventually ended up via another means) and finally to Virginia. In March 1781, he wrote a letter from Henry County, Virginia, giving a broad but fairly detailed account of the struggle in the Carolinas and Georgia since he had fled Georgia but nowhere mentions any capture by the British or loyalists. Neither do any of the considerable body of dispatches from the loyalist commander in Augusta, Colonel Thomas Brown to other loyalist commanders and even British General Cornwallis mention the capture of the head of Georgia’s revolutionary government.

     The first picaresque story of northeast Georgia’s other legend from the Revolutionary War years, the heroine Nancy Hart, did not see print until 1825, and that in a Milledgeville, Georgia, newspaper that evidently just printed a story the writer had heard. Others would follow, maybe only three plausibly based in fact, later ones obviously of whole cloth. The first written account of the rescue of Stephen Heard, however, does not appear in print until a September 1901 story in the Atlanta Constitution, one of several on a page devoted to stories from Georgia’s past by Atlanta’s Joseph Habersham Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The story even quoted Mammy Kate, as reportedly told to her grandchildren, in a dialogue that echoes 19th century minstrel shows. As with the stories of Nancy Hart, the rescue story does not appear in any historical account until it appeared as a newspaper feature with no cited sources. Then, like the Hart stories, it took on a life of its own.

     If the story isn’t true, it’s difficult to fathom how and why it might have been told. There is one vague mention − McIntosh’s Elbert County history − of Heard’s father and brother being imprisoned in Augusta in one instance, but not time is mentioned. Perhaps the genesis of the story, if it has any factual basis at all, grew from that.

     If the Heards were imprisoned in late 1780, they wouldn’t have been alone. After Elijah Clarke’s first failed attempt to attack Augusta in September 1780, many suspected of rebel sympathies were held prisoner. The British also issued orders expelling from the area upriver from Augusta relatives of those known to or suspected of having joined with Clarke. An estimated 100 farms were burned. The line of expulsion ended at the Broad River that now forms Elbert County’s border. (If the stories of Nancy Hart dealing with marauding loyalists are true, they likely stem from this time when loyalist troops prowled north of the river.) An estimated 600-700 settlers from the area sought refuge in the mountains of western North Carolina, traveling en masse under Clarke’s protection. (All of this noted in Heard’s March 1781 letter from Virginia.)

     The revolution brought a hard time to this corner of northeast Georgia in those months, when life could be more “nasty, brutish and short” than life on the 18th century frontier already could be. Perhaps both the Nancy Hart story and the story of the Heard rescue, if they did in fact originate from this time, were part of a picaresque mythology that grew up to mask what must have been some starkly unpleasant memories.

     In the case of Heard, if Mammy Kate and her husband “Daddy Jack,” are actually buried near Stephen Heard in the family cemetery (and their grave markers were not placed until the mid 20th century), it could be the story was told to mask something that embarrassed the Heard family. That Kate might have been Heard’s mistress must at least be considered. It is established fact that Heard’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Heard, fathered children by at least one of his slaves. And having a mistress buried near the master wasn’t without precedent even within Heard’s own extended family. The brother of Heard’s son-in-law (my great-great-great grandfather) had his mistress buried between himself and his wife.

     This possible relationship, of course, can be nothing more than speculation, a stab at explaining why.

     Even if this speculation is true, it doesn’t genuinely diminish the man Stephen Heard who was in everything known about him a man of his time, and who should be judged in that light.

     Freed of the rescue story, in fact, he emerges a more interesting and more important figure. He refused to surrender in the face of what must have seemed hopeless odds, and kept Georgia’s revolutionary government alive, if on the run. By accounts, he was just a shade over five feet tall, but he stood much taller in the face of the direst adversity.

     Legends and mythologies have their place, even when they involve people who actually existed. They are part of the cultural story and tell more about the times that spawned them than they tell about the figures at the heart of them. But one must overshadow the other, and let that one be the truth. As in the case of Stephen Heard, it’s usually much more interesting.


The Ol’ Time Music Isn’t Gone Yet

The reviews of Ken Burns’ documentary on country music are in, and most reviewers think that despite the sixteen hours spread over eight episodes the story it adds up to lacks something. On what that something is, opinions varied.

“Burns went broad but not deep,” according to one online review. “He dealt too much with the business and not with the music.” To another reviewer, Beverly Keel in the Nashville Tennessean, watching the documentary was like “watching the official memorial service for the Nashville I used to love so much,” the funeral oration for what Nashville and country music used to be.

The first reviewer missed a good deal of Burns’s point: For Nashville, country music is a business, big business, and has been since it became centered there. Hence when legendary guitarist and record producer Chet Atkins was asked to define the “Nashville sound,” he reportedly riffled a handful of money. Even though my own attention to the documentary was sporadic (only four and a half episodes) and distracted, Ms. Keel’s observation seems closer to the mark.

I am far from an expert on country music. In fact, I was late coming to a full appreciation of it, and that by an unusual route. I came to know in their later years both the late Georgia radio, print and television personality Billy Dilworth and Eastanollee’s own late “Doc” Tommy Scott, the legendary “medicine show man.” Billy was involved for years in promoting country music and knew many of the stars well. “Whispering Bill” Anderson was one of his closest friends. As for “Doc” Tommy, one of his earliest jobs was playing with Bill Monroe and Tommy himself began appearing on the Grand Ol’ Opry in the 1930s. Knowing both was like a graduate course in country music.

The “old tyme” country music, that is. A common complaint, one I’ve made myself, is that “country music doesn’t sound like country music anymore.” To me and many others I hear voicing opinions, it all tends to sound the same now. The music itself is so often hyper-amplified electronic squeals and clatter with little in common with the riffs of a Johnny Cash or a Buck Owens, more in common with a slow motion train wreck. In that, it’s virtually indistinguishable from modern rock.  (But still preferable to rap.)

The lyrics, when they can be deciphered above the noise, tend to be inane. They have little in common with, say, the almost Shakespearean lyrics of Kris Kristofferson or the earthy refrains of Willie Nelson, to say nothing of lesser songsmiths. Both country music’s strength and appeal are rooted in its recording the highs and lows of the human experience. That was a lesson learned from knowing Tommy Scott’s beginnings reinforced by stories from my own family, stories of Depression-era gatherings where my grandfather brought out his violin and others brought their own instruments. The music offered relief from hard times and celebration of surviving them. But these days, as Ms. Keel put it, with so much happening in the world, “with so much that needs to be said … we’re hearing only about beer, trucks and boots.”

Of course, like Ms. Keel, whoever she is, I betray being of a certain age by making nostalgic paeans to the older country music that I had a certain fondness for even before I appreciated country music as an art. It stems from associations made early between certain songs and singers and particular memories held more closely as the years stack up. That’s why of the music I listen to the most, the music downloaded to files on my laptop, among the Beethoven, Dvorak, Elgar and Sinatra, to name a few, are complete albums of Marty Robbins, Charley Pride and a couple of other country and western stars. These latter all evoke particular memories. Both Robbins and Pride, for example, were well represented on the jukebox of a café in Calhoun Falls, South Carolina, just across the Savannah River, that was often the Saturday night out destination for our family in the ‘60s. The owner, a little, always smiling woman named Lillie Mae Christley, served hamburgers in which the meat wasn’t a patty but a scoop of sautéed, seasoned ground beef, messy but still among the best I’ve ever had across half a century. If there was an “in” place in the mill town, Lillie Mae’s was it and a lot of beer was served over a counter bordering the full length of the open kitchen, but it was still a family place. A quiet wraith of a man, J.L. Ayers, hung around a pool table at the back, sometimes helping out at the counter but always keeping order on the rare occasions that was needed. Anyone downing enough Pabst Blue Ribbon to get loud, vulgar and rowdy would learn the little man could use both ends of a cue stick with equal efficacy. And Charley Pride was often providing the background music. Hearing the same songs now, I can still see it to myself just as it was then.

I wax too much into maudlin nostalgia here, but it all does underscore a key point. It’s doubtful any of modern country music will conjure up the same sort of associated memories for anyone decades down the line.

One theme of Burns’s documentary is that the genre even in its early years was always gradually changing, the business as a business steadily growing, the “crossover hit” bridging two or more genres being a brass ring the producers increasingly sought. So the amalgam of it all, the fast, slick packaged, gibberish-laced cacophony that is so much of Nashville’s “country music” will endure and prosper so long as it finds a paying audience, as it evidently does. But bigger and flashier isn’t always better, in music and a few other areas,  and maybe it would do well to no longer regard a good deal of what’s now the “Nashville sound” as “country music.”

Now genuine country music is still a going concern, but you find it most often, it seems to me, in the quiet hideaways similar to where it began. There are still places around where talented amateurs gather and play some of the best to be heard.

There are many such places, but sometimes they have to be dug for like rare gems. One such I know of, a country store in Long Creek, South Carolina, just across from Rabun County, has been a gathering place on Saturday nights for years, drawing players from both Georgia and the local neighborhood. The store isn’t far from the stretch of the Chattooga River where “Deliverance” was filmed, and on a clear evening any urbanite rafters and kayakers still caught out on the river can likely hear the music. Of course, if the players think that’s the case, they tend to play the banjoes a little louder.

After all, traditional country music, real country music, has always included a little comedy, too.

“I wonder what happened to Carl Hamburger.”

Several times in his later years, my father would, in general reminiscing,   wonder aloud, “I’ve always wondered what happened to Carl Hamburger.”

Carl Hamburger was a young man who had worked at the Patz & Fortson store in Elberton in the early 1940s, and as the first German my father had ever met, he was a curiosity. But on his visits to the Patz & Fortson store with my grandfather, he, then about 12, and Hamburger became more than casual acquaintances.

Then came a day when Carl just wasn’t around anymore.

In my father’s recollection, the rumors around town were that Carl had been arrested as a German national found in possession of a shortwave radio. This would have placed his disappearance after Germany had declared war on the United States following the declaration of war against Japan. Having heard this story a couple of times over the years, I just mentally filed it away. Not long ago, however, I ran across the name Carl Hamburger in a newspaper account and it became spoor on the trail of what I found a fascinating story, and a bit of local history that should, if any of the old rumors linger, be set straight.

First of all, as rumors running rampant in small towns will as they run from mouth to ear to mouth, some things got mixed up, and other things were just plain wrong to begin with. There was at least one roundup of foreign nationals in Elberton, on October 13, 1942, in which the FBI netted four Italian nationals and one German. None were named in the newspaper account − the FBI refused to divulge any specific details to local authorities −  but all were alleged to have been found in possession of either firearms and ammunition, cameras or radios capable of sending or even receiving shortwave signals. All of these items were contraband for foreign nationals under edicts issued by the Roosevelt administration as a wartime measure once the United States was at war with Germany and Italy. The raid on Elberton was coincident with raids the same day in Athens and Atlanta. Elberton, though, with its significant Italian immigrant population employed in the granite industry, is apparently the only town of its size in Georgia that drew the FBI’s attention, at least in the raids of October 1942. Evidently, however, by the time the raid took place, Carl Hamburger had been gone from Elberton for some months. This is his story, both before and after his time in Elberton.

Carl August Hamburger was born July 4, 1922 in Wiesbaden, Germany, son of Anne Kahn Hamburger and Arthur Abraham Hamburger, a furniture dealer. According to an oral history given to the William Bremen Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta by Frances Bertha Hamburger Bunzi, Carl’s late sister, Carl and his father were arrested by the Nazis following Kristallnacht, ie “Night of the Broken Glass,” the nationwide November 9-10, 1938 pogram against Jews carried out by Nazi paramilitary forces. They were released on the condition that the family leave Germany. Arthur Hamburger was forced to sell his business for a fraction of its actual worth.

Father, mother and son went first to Cuba and from there entered the United States by way of New York City. They arrived in Elberton in time for Carl to finish school, graduating with the Elberton high school class of 1940. (Frances Hamburger, who had worked as a governess in England, was able to return to England and made her way to New York City from there.) It is uncertain from records, but there seems a good chance the Hamburgers’ immigration was sponsored by the Patz family of Elberton.

On July 18, 1941, Arthur Hamburger told his story before a meeting of the Kiwanis Club in Elberton, or rather Carl did. Arthur’s command of English at the time was limited, so Carl acted as his translator. “I am here to make you a good citizen,” he told the group, “and appreciate all the kindness shown me.”

Due to sketchy records, there is no evidence that Arthur was the unnamed German national arrested and interned in October 1942. But it wasn’t Carl. He had joined the U.S. Army some months before. Records indicate that he served as a translator with an Army intelligence unit throughout 1942-45. That would seem unlikely had his father been interned as a suspected enemy alien.

After the war, Carl attended the University of Georgia Law School but evidently never practiced law. Instead he entered business, eventually acquiring and operating several successful businesses in the Albany and Columbus area. He died March 12, 2012, at the age of 89.

So an idle question is at last answered and an unfounded rumor put to rest. Just a footnote in the larger story of Elberton during the years of World War II, but it had been left to gather dust in a quiet corner of history where the truth often lies.

Some Thoughts on Sunday Alcohol Sales

Georgia saw various temperance movements come and go beginning in the early years of the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until 1885 that the state legislature enacted a statute allowing counties to vote themselves “dry.” Most did. And in 1908, the legislature voted prohibition statewide. National prohibition came and went leaving Georgia still dry; alcohol wouldn’t be legal in Georgia until 1935, two years after national prohibition was repealed.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Georgians in want of a tipple didn’t get one in the dry years. Those with access to bootleggers, which meant just about everybody, always did. For the more rascally of society, this presented no moral dilemma, but for the more piously-inclined who wanted an occasional drink there was a consensus on the Southern Protestant love-hate relationship with the neighborhood bootleggers’ wet goods. They could love a good drink but hate for most people to know that. (And those who did know wouldn’t talk about it, being mostly of the same brotherhood or sisterhood themselves.) Some unkind souls might make the claim this manifested rank hypocrisy. What it was, though, was the practical application of a utilitarian principle: The greatest happiness for the greatest many. With alcohol illegal, both the Baptists and the bootleggers could be happy.

I lay out all this as preamble. The residents of the city of Elberton, my sometimes acutely neurotic hometown, is on the verge of voting whether to join the other 251-odd cities and counties in Georgia in allowing Sunday sales of alcohol, both package sales and by the drink. The likely outcome isn’t clear. If the idle chitchat overheard in checkout lines has foundation, if the virulent brimstone-scented rhetoric in letters to the editor is taken to heart and if the similar offerings on social media that seem to channel Carry Nation aren’t just blather, the idea of Sunday alcohol sales in Elberton is still a subject that can raise ire, tempers and the odd fist slammed down on the odd Bible.

Other places around have been similarly divided. And oddly enough, the approval of one plank of the issue doesn’t necessarily mean the other is a sure thing. In 2014 the voters in Hartwell, eighteen miles north of Elberton, narrowly approved Sunday package sales by a vote of 514-507. But on the same ballot Sunday sales by the drink in restaurants was defeated with 512 No votes edging out 510 in favor. Knowing the train of thought of those three or four voters responsible for the split would be interesting, and maybe disquieting, like knowing how hotdogs are made. The unincorporated area of Hart County itself, incidentally, is still dry when it comes to distilled spirits.

Elbert County has a similar history of love and hate where legal alcohol is concerned. The county stayed dry for a long time after Georgia counties could choose to go wet and after several counties close by did so. Again, that hardly meant drinking wasn’t going on, regularly and sometimes copiously. It just meant Elbert Countians couldn’t buy legal booze close to home. Instead, they bought a lot of it just across the Savannah River in Calhoun Falls, South Carolina. Throughout my childhood in the 1960s, in fact, the Carolina mill town just a couple of miles inside the state line, and about sixteen miles from Elberton, was called little else around here but “Saloon Falls.” There were, as I recall, at least four thriving liquor stores within sight of the main thoroughfare whose carriage trade depended heavily on their clientele from across the river.

Just as in the days of state and national prohibition, bootlegging was also a going concern hereabouts, catering mostly to the less prosperous of the county, and a bootlegger who made good stuff could do a land office business on the sly and was most often very well thought of in reputable circles. Craft distilling is one of Georgia’s small but growing industries now (there are 16 such distilleries in the state at the moment) but within my own memory from the 1960s it was a cottage industry even if it wasn’t legal. Elbert County never had the reputation of, say, the Gumlog community of Franklin County for its moonshining magnates, but I’m inclined to think that’s because Elbert County’s craftsmen of the pot stills were just better at keeping their wet goods trade within acceptable bounds.

My father never operated a still, but in the 1960s he built several. Besides auto repairs, at his shop at Pearl Mill he kept most of the local farmers’ equipment operating and did custom welding. He could build just about anything out of metal. And that’s how the still-making came about.

He never went near a law school but my father was an independent-minded man who had a fine natural understanding of the distinction between the concepts of malum in se, something evil or wrong owing to its own nature, and malum prohibitum, wrong (but never really genuinely evil) simply because someone, or a group of someones, thought it should be illegal, a good part of the time the someones being uptight self-righteous busybodies. If a small farmer needed to boost his cash flow in a bad year or if a mill worker with a large family needed to eke out his wages by making and selling a little ‘shine, my father didn’t care. Most people around in our community who gave an opinion on the matter that I recollect felt the same way. From my father’s perspective, at least, making the still was just a job of work. He had the hard and fast rule, though, that he’d never assemble the still in his shop or even have all the parts in the shop at the same time.

My memories of all this are clear, as clear no doubt as the consciences of all involved. Still, I’ll mention none of the names. Some of the sons and daughters of the moonshiners are still around and there’s no need to or use in causing them any embarrassment now. They’re from good families and some of them, in fact, are church deacons and Sunday school teachers, like their fathers before them.

Living in the unincorporated county, I don’t have a vote on Elberton’s Sunday sales referendum, just an opinion.

I understand most of the overall concern of those pious souls opposing Sunday sales. Like many other things humans can choose to take in, alcohol can be abused with terrible consequences, not just for the drunkard but for his or her family and sometimes for perfect strangers. Concern for all the aforementioned should be lauded. But the argument of many is still “Should there not be one day, and the traditional Sabbath at that, when temptation to drink should not be present?”

Except that that is never the case. Those afflicted with an inability to control their drinking inevitably take pains, like those facing imposed legal prohibition at all times, to ensure their own supply. And the well-meaning are thus left fighting a fatuous battle over vacuous symbolism. I respect faithful men (and women) of the cloth even when we disagree, such as this instance, enough to make the case that they would do more good where those potentially lost souls are concerned by speaking from their pulpits and acting through outreach programs than worrying whether the average citizen can buy a six-pack on Sunday to drink that lazy afternoon or have a beer or a glass of wine with their restaurant meal after church.

I’ll take my own cue from the Book of Benjamin. From Benjamin Franklin, that is. The rascally Sage of Philadelphia never addressed the matter of Sunday alcohol sales, per se, but in a 1761 letter written from England to a friend back in Franklin’s native Boston he did address the matter of the “Sunday laws” then common in Puritan-inspired New England. These edicts prohibited doing just about anything on Sundays that might lead one to crack a smile, much less laugh. You could do little within the law except sit and contemplate Scripture and all the things you could be doing if it wasn’t Sunday, all the things you could do any other day of the week.

Franklin wrote that he had met none of the so-called “Sunday laws” in England. Instead he saw people “singing, fiddling and dancing.” (Very likely, I would venture, with some drinking involved.) He noted, too, that the cities were in good order, the fields tended, the cattle and horses fat. “All this evidence,’ Franklin wrote, “would make one suspect that the Diety is not so angry at that offense [Sunday frivolity] as a New England justice.”

So if the Elberton voters approve the referendums, on some Sunday, in some venue, I’ll raise a toast to Ben.