As flags go up around the town where I’m living in 2018 in Georgia, I can’t help but reflect on the people who raised me and the work ethic they exhibited. Labor Day is a good excuse to celebrate them.
I tell folks I was a “Kingsport Press Strike Baby,” although my mom objects to that. The Press (one of four major industrial forces in the economy of Kingsport, Tennessee) was where many of the men in my family worked by the middle of the twentieth century. It was known to be the largest hard-back book manufacturing facility in the country. My grandfather, Rob Smith, went to work for “The Press” (in Kingsport you always put “the” in front of the one-word name of the place you worked: “the Eastman” “the Mead”, “the Press.”). He started about 1929. He worked himself up to running a whole bookbinding machine by himself. He told me how it worked, and used to keep me quiet on the back pew of the church by slowly and meticulously showing me the mechanics behind how a book was bound, using hymnals in our pew racks as examples.
By 1963, the labor union of which he was a part (the Pressman’s Union or “Allied Press Unions”) went on strike. Pappaw (as he was known to me), had to live up to his commitment to be part of the group that had fought for decent wages and better working conditions. He joined the strike and walked the picket line. Several uncles, as well as my own dad walked out as well. His brother, Uncle Clyde also joined the strike. Pappaw’s son, my Uncle Wes later moved to New Jersey to find work in a factory there. Uncle Bud, another son, got a motor route to carry the Kingsport paper to subscribers in the area. Daddy (married to pappaw’s daughter) left and started selling vacuum cleaners, first for Kirby, and later at Sears Roebuck, & Co. In case you’re paying attention, the strike happened in April, and I was born the following January. You do the math.
When I think back to my memories of growing up in the aftermath of the strike, I remember my Pappaw working hard at whatever he could find to do. He would start the day feeding whatever cattle might be in the barnyard. He would milk Old Bessie, our Jersey cow, who was gentle as could be. Then he’d come back to the house, wash up, and eat breakfast that Mammaw made in the kitchen of Granddaddy Ketron’s house. They had moved there shortly after Grandmother died to help Granddaddy with cooking, cleaning, and farming. Mammaw was also a hard worker, getting up as soon as the sun was up, stirring up breakfast, planning the meals for the day and week, and processing the fresh milk brought in each morning and afternoon, then canning the garden produce and cleaning the house and keeping her activities at church on schedule, where she was also the financial secretary, in charge of counting and depositing offerings and attending meetings once in a while.
Pappaw’s dreams were dashed with the strike. He owned land over near Bell Ridge, in “Morrison City,” as it was called, a neighborhood in Carter’s Valley, just north of Kingsport. He dreamed of building a house on that land, which was atop a hill with nice views overlooking the valley and the north fork of the Holston River, just a bit south of where Possum Creek flows into it. The strike also meant the end of his planned retirement. As the company negotiated with the union, they eventually folded and a new company was formed, and old obligations went up like smoke into thin air.
So his days were mostly filled with hauling cattle to market for neighbors who needed him, doctoring those same cattle with what knowledge he had (which was a good bit for a fellow who only stayed in school through 8th grade). And in spring and fall, he would go throughout Morrison City plowing and disking gardens for people, many of whom insisted on having gardens, because they had all come from family farms to this neighborhood. His little red Massey Ferguson, and the little white ford tractors were busy during those times, with him driving all over the valley providing this much needed service. Then in hay time he would return to the fields around Granddaddy’s house and put up acres and acres of hay. Usually that meant a couple or more trips to Rogersville to buy parts to keep the mowing machine, hay rake, and baler all in good repair. He still found time to put out a huge garden, enough to feed several families, and to work the tobacco patch, which payed for the taxes on the place, and sometimes helped with a modest Christmas.
He was able to do all this, and to provide for his and Mammaw’s needs because he had learned to conserve resources because he had raised momma and her three brothers all during the Great Depression. He talked often of the scarcity of money and the fear they’d run out of food and other needed items during that time. This is when he became committed to the life of hard work with which he had been raised. He scrimped and saved and worked and labored with his own hands and kept doing his job at the press in those depression years. He told me more than once that even though money was tight, the family never did without. He seemed proud of that.
Oh, and he also put tar-paper in the cattle racks of the big truck and drove over into the coal fields around St. Charles and hauled coal back to several people who burned it as their main source of heat. He made several runs until efforts were made to convert old furnaces into oil heat or heat pumps. I still remember going to his parents’ house in Bell Ridge area (or more specifically, McKenzie Holler), and watching the coal burn in the shallow fireplace of the log house where they lived. I was never warmer than when sitting in front of Grandmother Smith’s coal fire.
We were fortunate to have tractors and equipment on our farm. Our neighbors back at the Bluff were the Collings family, who still farmed with a team of horses. Wesley Collings mowed hay off very steep hills, hills which made a natural bowl shape on his farm, and stacked the hay in the bottom of the bowl by hand, until I was ten or twelve years of age.
I worshiped every step Pappaw took. I was his constant companion, and I learned a lot from him. I can still see him washing his hands in the sink that was on the back porch. He would fix the faucet to where it would make this distinct sound as the water ran out, “shsh, shsh, shsh,” and slowly he would soap up his hands and arms, rinse them off, and grab the towel that was always on the nail between the windows and dry off real good. He would also clean the tobacco out of his teeth, getting ready to eat.
Often times he would grab an old jar saved for this purpose and fill it with water and ice and seal it good, and carry it off with him to whatever job he was going to do that day. Many times I’ve been happy to drink after him out of that old jar when we were hot and thirsty.
He worried about my generation and those that were coming afterwards, because we weren’t raised to work quite like he was. We didn’t value what we had and take care of it like he did. And seemed to want things quickly, when he knew the value of saving and earning and buying carefully, with cash, not credit. He often told me of building the house I grew up in, the first house he actually owned, which was built on a small lot across the creek from Granddaddy’s house. He told me with great pride, that he had given the builders the last dollar as the last nail was being driven into it. This, the result of his working hard at “the Press” to provide for his little family. After he and mammaw moved to Granddaddy’s house, he rented this house out to his son, Wes, and his new bride, Thelma. Later mom and dad rented it after Wes and Thelma moved to New Jersey. That’s where I was raised until 7th grade, when we built a house on the back pasture.
His generation worked. They worked hard, and they built this great country. We could learn a lot from them. I’m thankful for them on this Labor Day.