Mules in rural Arkansas, circa 1950.
The Seed and the Story is a weekly column written by Boiled Down Juice editor Meredith Martin-Moats exploring folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier and on the Boiled Down Juice. Topics included in the column are also often associated with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action. Thanks so much for reading!
I teach a class at Arkansas Tech entitled “Folklife and Oral History.” Week before last the students turned in their final projects: oral histories, ethnographies, and various explorations of living traditions in their families and/or communities. Our time is very limited, yet even a short research project offers students an opportunity to see how much can be learned simply by asking questions and listening closely to the stories people have to tell. This principle holds true throughout much of life regardless if we’re listening to stories from people familiar to us or if we’re listening to stories from those whose lives may seem drastically different from our own. This semester I asked the students if they’d be willing to share their research with readers of the column. So over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing some of their research with you.
Allison McVey, a veterinary science major, completed her research project on the role of both work and companion animals in her family, exploring how the roles of these animals have changed, or not changed, over the years. Speaking with her grandmother Lila Jean Williams on their farm in rural Birdtown, Arkansas, Allison outlines how the chickens, cattle mules, horses, and hogs all provide nutritional value to the family. “The animals not only provided food by giving their bodies,” she writes, “they also plowed the earth to grow vegetables grown to satisfy the needs of the family. What wasn’t consumed during its normal growing season was canned and stored in the cellar. Potatoes were put in milk crates so they weren’t exposed to light and air…peppers were dried and hung from the rafters for use in soaps and chili during the winter…From a nutritional standpoint, work animals keep my family alive and well-fed.”
McVey continues with information about her grandfather’s hunting dogs and the meat they brought in as well as how the family’s relationship with animals continues to allow them the opportunity to grow much of their own food. She also discusses the historic importance of the bartering system and how this alternate way of exchanging goods has—and still can in many situations—meet a community’s basic needs. “Perhaps the most important aspect I’ve drawn from my research,” explains Allison, “is the familial value that work animals provide our family. “It’s a camaraderie,” she explains, “that working the land we live on provides us.”
Although her family no longer plows with mules or milks cows by hand, they still rely on a wide diversity of animals and crops to feed the family, and retain a close relationship with the seasons, the animals, and the dirt itself. Near the end of her paper she concludes with some thoughts on her grandmother, Lila Jean Williams, who is clearly the matriarch of the family. “She says that we came from the earth,” writes McVey, “and I genuinely believe that she is right. Our roots are the earth and it has provided us with the means to make our way in this world.” She concludes with talking about her grandmother’s hands: “They bear scars and discoloration from rough work clearing fence rows and years out in the sun. They are roughhewn and time worn, yet there is no better pair of hands to soothe the feverish head of a sick child or stitch the tiniest stiches in a quilt used to keep a person warm…. I find them beautiful as I’ve seen what they are capable of.”
Thank you so much to Allison McVey and Lila Jean Williams for allowing us to share their story here. What’s your family’s story? We’d love to hear from you. Thanks so much for reading.