VALLIE MAY HARRIS (BICKNER)
3rd daughter of Oscar Lloyd Harris and Miriam Vivalvie Atkinson (Harris)
To all of my family, this is the story of my life as I lived it, and remember it. I am the oldest living member of the Harris family of Dothan, Alabama. I am the third daughter born to Oscar Lloyd Harris and Miriam Vivalvie. Mama was born 1880-1961 and papa was born 1877-1959. Toy, the oldest of my sisters, was born 1902. We call her “Toy” but she was christened Marguerite Harris. Juanita Gilbert Harris, my second sister, I called “Nita.” Toy was born 1902, Nita 1905. And I came along seven years later on September 25, 1912.
All born in Dothan, Alabama
We were all born in Dothan, Alabama. Dr. Spivey delivered all of us. Black mama (Alice) was a freed woman who papa loved very much. I don’t remember much about her except what mama told me. While I lived in Dothan she was very much part of our lives, she took care of us like we were her own family. Mama sure loved her. She would come down to our house, put me on her hip, take my two sisters, and put the dirty clothes basket on her head, and at night time she would bring us back – clothes all washed and ironed. She wouldn’t take any money, so mama always had a sack of groceries for her. Mama always made a point of giving to the grocery store that day.
When we moved to east St. Louis I was only a baby, not sure how old I was. Mama sold all the furniture we had. In one of her letters she told papa she got $20 (he had gone ahead of us to find a house for us), and she had got the money he had sent her, $10. His first paycheck was $20 and he had to keep $10 to live on. Mama writes back she had bought the girls each a coat and me a pair of shoes. In her letter she refers to me as the baby. She had $2 left and that would be enough for her and the children. We rode a train from Dothan to east St. Louis. Papa said in another letter that he would meet us. I think we lived in east St. Louis two years. I know we lived there during the riots.
Papa was transferred to Kansas City, Kansas, and we lived on Carlisle Road in a large company house. It was a two-story, brick, beautiful old house with lots of trees and not too far from where papa worked.
I started to school when I was 7 years old. It was a country school with two teachers. I walked to school, about two miles each way. Grandma and grandpa, mama’s parents, always lived with us.
The door opened and in walked General Robert E. Lee
Grandma used to tell me stories of her life as a child. One I remember very well was the time when she was a small child . The door opened and in walked her Uncle Reuben Atkinson and General Robert E. Lee. They had sneaked through the Union lines to check on their families to see if they had food, and then sneaked back. Reuben was under direct command of General Robert E. Lee and was killed at the Siege of Richmond, Virginia.
Every year, papa would take his vacation and we would drive through from Kansas City to Dothan in an open Baby Overland. We had isinglass windows we would put up if it rained on us. We would always have a reunion at the old Harris farm. Uncle Walt farmed it. Cotton, sugar cane, goobers (ground peanuts), raised watermelons. We would have as many as 250 people. Papa had seven brothers and sisters and they all had families.
Aunt Martha lived in Enterprise and had married a Mr. Atkinson, and had several children. Howard, now deceased, and I were good friends. We would always go to fields to gather watermelon for the reunion. We would drive to Auntie’s house, several hours away from Dothan. This was the old Atkinson farm, or plantation as it was called then. I was probably 8 or 9 years old, maybe younger.
The wood house had one big central room with table and chairs all handmade, and a fireplace where all the cooking was done (no stove). Alice, a black slave, freed, and loved, did all the cooking. I remember one time I asked her for a sandwich and she told me she didn’t know what a sandwich was. Mama told her it was a biscuit with meat between it, we never had light bread there.
All the children slept on pallets
This was the house mama grew up in. There was a big room in the middle of the house and two rooms off to one side. The beds had strings laced across from side to side and a feather mattress made up with white sheets and quilts, and feather pillows. All the children slept on pallets on the floor. The farm must have been somewhere between Headland and Abbeville on Route 431. The house was high off the ground, steps going up to the porch. A latchstring closed the door. Daytime it was out and pulled in at night. Papa (Oscar Harris) lived closed by.
Mama (Miriam) and papa were sweethearts from age 7. Papa could never remember mama’s name. One day he wrote it on a post under the house – Miriam Vivalie, and then he promptly shortened it to Vallie. This is how I got my name when I came along years later.
I am now 98 years old. We were a happy family. I was married December 24, 1931 to Clarence Bickner, born November 17, 1911. We have two sons – John, should be Lloyd John, born August 30, 1935 and Frank Ralph Bickner, born May 11, 1949.
You could have heard a pin drop
We were married December 24, 1931, by a Baptist minister. We had a big dinner at home with all the family. We did not go on a honeymoon. Money was very tight so we spent our wedding night in my room at home. The next morning when we went down to breakfast, papa, mama, Toy and Bert, Nita and Shep, Phyllis and Jennie Lee were all sitting around the table. Me and my big mouth, the first thing that came out of my mouth was do you know what happened last night? You could have heard a pin drop. Then papa couldn’t hold it any longer and he started laughing. Papa and everybody started laughing again I opened my big mouth and said I didn’t mean that!
Well to tell the rest of the story, we had gone over to our little apartment at his mother’s house, and we heard a big noise. We looked out the window and there was a whole bunch of people out there. We thought oh no! they have come to take us for fooling around and we went out the back door. As we ran out we heard a chorus of voices singing Silent Night oh Holy Night! As long as papa lived he loved to tell that story.
He was the color of paper when he was born
Clarence and I were married during the depression. Johnny was born 4 years after we were married. He was delivered by Dr. John Payne Torrey. John was a breech baby and a R.H. factor. Dr. T’s (as I always called him) wife was a registered nurse, and was on vacation in Dover, Massachusetts. Dr. T called her and she flew home to take care of Johnny. He was about the color of this paper when he was born, and it was, nip and tuck, for about 6 weeks. But he pulled out of it and is a fine 6-foot, 3-inch man today.
Clarence worked for Phillips Petroleum Co. and we lived in Oklahoma City. Frank R. Bickner (Clarence’s brother) joined the Air Force when World War II broke out, and was sent to Taft, California for training. After he received his training and graduated with honors, he was made 2nd Lieutenant. It was not long before he became 1st Lieutenant and Squadron Commander. He was a pilot for a B31. This plane was called a Cigar because it was long and slim and very fast. He was killed November 26, 1943. It was a big loss to me, he was close as a brother to me.
Our youngest son, Frank Ralph Bickner was named after Clarence’s brother. Clarence’s mother, Clara S. Lake (Bickner), and father George Jasper, moved to Lurton, Arkansas, and bought a 150-acre farm. They raised tomatoes, canned and sold them, and had the usual corn and vegetables. When Johnny was about 2 years old, we visited them and Johnny was still on the bottle and would not drink milk that came from a cow. So his grandmother would get up early and milk the cow, put it in a quart bottle and Johnny would go out on the front porch to get his milk.
The Depression hit hard
We moved to Lurton (year?). The depression had hit and Clarence was out of work. We bought a farm near Clarence’s parents (2 or 3 miles) for $19 dollars at a tax sale. It had a two-room house on it made from solid oak. The roof leaked. Clarence made handmade shingles and reroofed the house. I had a big wood stove I cooked on – that’s where I learned to cook and make bread, and not to cook lamb, my one time only. Clarence had taken the lamb to the field and butchered it. We planted a crop of corn, black-eyed peas and a garden.
Mama (two mom) sent me a little dog and a silver Persian cat to keep me from being so lonesome. Clarence carried them in his shirt all the way from Bartlesville, Oklahoma to keep them warm. Trixie the dog lived with us for 17 years. Johnny and Trixie would eat ice cream together lick by lick. My baby chair was used by Johnny and later by our youngest son Frank. We still have this high chair but it is a little worn now.
We papered the walls with newspaper
Now to tell you the rest of the story of our Arkansas house. We papered the walls with newspaper to make it warmer. We had big cracks on the floor so we put linoleum down, and we were quite comfortable. The picture up on the wall is yours of our little house in Lurton. I got sick, I think it was the result of a neighbor’s cow got into our field and trampled it all down and ate most of it. All our hard work for nothing. We moved back to Bartlesville and Clarence went back to work at 25 cents an hour. Part of that time was spent digging ditches and then covering them back up. No work so the foreman made work for his men.
We moved to Fairfax, California where Clarence was a certified high-test welder. Then the drought came and the winds, and the sand. So you couldn’t see your hand held out in front of you. The day I had to put a wet towel over Johnny’s face so he could breathe, the dust was so bad in the house I swept a quart of dust off the window sills, Clarence bundled Johnny and me up and took us back to mama’s and papa’s in Bartlesville. Clarence was out of work so I stayed with them.
Mama baked a lot. One day she was busy making cookies, Johnny came running in calling mama, I answered him and he stomped his feet no! no! I want my “two mom” and from that day on, mama was called “two mom.” Johnny is grown now, married, two sons – John Jr. and Rick, but mama is “two mom” to him yet. Here is Two Mom’s cookie recipe. We used to eat them soon as they came out of the oven. There was no written recipe. She always put a lot of flour in her bread bowl, added lard, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, buttermilk, and vanilla flavoring, and kneaded them in her bread bowl, and rolled them out with an old round cookie cutter, long gone, approximately 3 inches in diameter. Over the years I’ve tried to make up a recipe as close as I could to mama’s but that touch is gone. Here is the recipe as I remember it:
Two Mom’s Sugar Cookies (circa 1870s)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup lard
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- 2 tbsp. Buttermilk
- 3-1/2 cups flour
Knead into soft dough and roll out on a floured breadboard, and cut out with a large cookie cutter. Do not roll out thin but leave about a half-inch thick. Place on a greased (lightly) cookie sheet. Leave room for them to spread. Bake at 350° to 375° for 8 to 10 minutes, or until lightly brown.
This cookie recipe dates back to her mothers and “Auntie” ( name?) so your great grandmother on my side and my great aunt “Auntie” used to bake these in a fireplace. This is the house that mama and papa played at. “Black mammy” always did the cooking. She was the best cook, biscuits that melted in your mouth, baked sweet potatoes, cornbread, baked in an iron skillet, black-eyed peas, fried chicken, home-cured ham. Corn, green beans, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, not many other vegetables. Many of the vegetables and meat we eat now, I never ate until we moved to Kansas City then to Bartlesville. All the food we ate was grown on a farm.
Papa never was a farmer
Papa never was a farmer except when he was little and he helped his mother Margret Richards (Harris) to raise his brothers and sisters, after his father died (name?), Benjamin Harris farmed at the old farm (Harris). Seemed to me it was on the old Headland Road. After papa and mama were married November 1901 they moved to Dothan and lived in town. Papa worked for smelting company, I don’t remember the name. All of us, my sisters Toy and Nita and I, were born there. We visited the house one time when we went back to Dothan.
As I remember things I will try to write them down. So these papers of memories will be somewhat disconnected. The letters I’ve enclosed are letters Clarence, your father, found in her cedar chest and he has kept them all these years. Mama’s and papa’s love letters written in 1900 and 1901 and later years. Even to the one mama wrote to her father, my grandpa. “John Andrews Atkinson” asking permission to get married. You and Johnny will have much reading to do. I would like you to copy them so Johnny will have a copy.