These rules certainly wouldn't fly around our house, except maybe the one about eating everything on your plate. We do like that idea although we sometimes overlook it, as when my mother-in-law leaves uneaten any onions or mushrooms she finds in the food. She simply hates onions and mushrooms remind her of liver, which she also hates. But we won't wake you at 6:30 for breakfast, won't restrict your visit to a few hours, and will allow you to sleep with the opposite sex. A rule the Shakers probably wish they could re-visit. And even tobacco is okay, not in the house, but around the place. So, come visit and as my friend Dellie would say, "just stay all night."
It was the same day at two different spots in Madison County - Hot Springs and Hopewell (don’t you just love that name). It was the same roll of film, two different exposures. But the pictures are so different from each other - illustrating the change taking place in the county at that time, change that continues to this day.
The first is a photograph of Hoye and Nina Shelton and their family, with two neighbor men. They have just finished a day of hanging tobacco. In 1983, burley was still king in Madison County, the leading county producer of burley in the state, with hundreds of small farmers like the Sheltons depending on tobacco for cash income. But tobacco’s days were numbered, and in ensuing years it has played a steadily decreasing role in the county’s lifestyle and economy. Farmers like the Sheltons either moved onto other crops, or more likely, gave up farming altogether.
The second photograph is of a group of teenage girls holding a platter they’d won at a small festival in Hot Springs. The platter has an image of ET on it. By 1983, Madison was firmly engaged in mainstream culture and had been for decades. Radio and TV, better roads, telephone, and a changing demographic brought new values to the community, so an image from a popular movie shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. Yet still I was struck by the availability and acceptance of mainstream culture in the county.
It’s the pairing of the photographs that I really like. The image of place they offer – a place moving away from a tradition that had sustained it for many years and toward an image of an unknown, and otherworldly, future.
It seems so long ago.
And I suppose it was.
When we were new to this place.
And the place new to us.
Not yet knowing how to act,
Or what to say.
How to be a good neighbor?
What it means to be in a community.
We offer help.
It’s clear they need it.
Children have moved off.
And the Mexicans have yet to arrive.
I help also to learn the place, and test myself.
To see if I could be all day in a field, 90 degrees,
Sweating and sticky from the tar.
Me of the soft hands and clerk’s body.
In those days, help meant tobacco.
It’s what was here. Lots of it.
The lifeblood of the county.
Everyone had a hand in it.
Working with a group, there wasn’t a better time.
Talking, laughing, teasing, forming a bond.
And the tobacco we cut . . . At the end of the day,
We’d marvel at what we accomplished.
It’s hard to think of Doug Wallin and not smile. One of my first times around him, I helped him and his brother Jack hang tobacco in the barn next to their cabin on Crain Branch. Doug was high in the barn, moving between the top two tier poles. I was new to the work and he didn't want me handling the heavy sticks of burley while up too high in the barn. After we got into a rhythm with the passing of the tobacco, Doug began singing. His voice echoed from the tin roof and filled the barn with his unique soft voice, eloquent phrasing and unaffected style. It gave me goosebumps and made me smile back then and does the same thing now as I write about it.
Doug always made me smile. He was a bit of a jokester and player of pranks as his father, Lee Wallin, was noted to be. He had a song to fit most any occasion and reputedly knew over 300 ballads and songs. Doug could be cantankerous and suspicious and he didn't suffer fools or what he perceived as disrespect. When his mind was made up about something or someone, he wouldn't change it. He would quickly drop an offender from his life. He was an incredibly gifted singer, many say the best Madison County has ever produced.
I was fortunate in that Doug’s mother Berzilla, Dellie Norton's 83 year old sister, really liked me. Her daughter Berthie once said her mother used to daydream about me, which I find amazing and flattering given our 55 year age difference. As is the case in any community that celebrates family as Madison County does, my relationship with Berzilla carried over to Doug and over the years we grew fond and comfortable with each other.
Years later, after Berzilla died, and Jack was needing increased attention at the VA Hospital in Asheville, the brothers moved to a small apartment near the Marshall bypass. As much as I loved spending time at the cabin, listening to music and stories, eating, working, sitting on their porch, my favorite memory is from the time when they were living in town.
I stopped at Ingles on the way home today. I had Benny and Kate with me and walking through the canned food aisle we ran into Doug and Jack who were doing their weekly shopping. We visited for a time and talked briefly of their lives in town. I begged off, needing to get the kids home and fed, and told them I’d come by soon for a visit. As we turned to go, Doug and Jack both reached into their pants pockets and pulled out their wallets. They each found two one-dollar bills and ceremoniously presented one to each of the kids - a gesture so stunning in its simplicity and sheer goodwill.
Madison County Sheriff, E Y Ponder (center with tie) and deputies with confiscated marijuana crop, Marshall, Madison County, NC, 1979
In 1979 Madison County was one of the leading producers of marijuana in North Carolina, and the illegal crop was widely reported as the number one cash crop in the state. Madison was also the leading producer of burley tobacco in North Carolina.