(Works Progress Administration interview from 1938 – transcribed exactly as written – including misspelled words, etc.)
by WPA writer
R. D. Lucky
October 17, 1938
The thing that seemed to worry Jim Holback most right now was his fifth-grade education.
“I wish you’d of happened along by here yesterday”, he said regretfully.
“My boy just went off again last night to see about getting back on the WPA work. He’s the one that changed my mind about these things you want me to talk about and that boy could of explained things more than I can.”
I watched the old gentleman as he ran his fingers along on the two by four which extended across the small front porch just about one foot above his head.
“It wouldn’t suit everybody”
“Got several of these 25 cent pipes.” he chuckled. “Even then I get hard pushed when I get ’em scattered around all over the place. I’m jist liable to put one down at the hog pen as anywhere else and walk right off and leave it. Generally, run across my stray pipes though without much trouble.”
“A whiff of strong, mellow-sweet struck me full in the face as Jim Holback settled down in the old straight chair with its fuzzy cow hide seat cover. He leaned back and propped his foot against the porch post.
“It wouldn’t suit everybody”, he explained – handing over a small can filled with brownish, crumbly home grown tobacco.
“Smells good,” I ventured and before I had time to ask about the factory-like fragrance, he continued.
“It took me forty years to make up my mind about smoking – Never did suck any smoke down my throat but I always said nobody oughter to smoke until about a year ago, I jist decided I’m going to enjoy my pipe as long as I can.”
“But what about that good flavor-odor,” I broke in.
“Well, I’ll tell you the facts – my boy says it ain’t right for me to raise my own tobacco and fix it up like that and I reckon he’s right in a way. If all of us cotton farmers raised our own tobacco I guess it would throw a lot of men out of work in the regular factories – anyway, its more trouble than its worth.”
I rolled a cigarette and tasted the mild cigar-like flavor, still waiting to find out how he mixed his home-made smoking tobacco.
“Thats deer tongue what gives it the right smell,” he finally told me. “You can go up around the sub-marginal project and find deer tongue a growing all over them hills up there.”
“My old lady heats the tobacco leaves in the stove, crumbles it up right fine then sprinkles a little ribbon can sugar over it and it suits me better’n any of that bought stuff you fellers smoke around town.”
I had to admit he really had something there but I was anxious to find out some other things.
“And I’ve got something here,” I said before he had a chance to tell me any more about the home spun tobacco business.
I offered to read the list of questions which I had jotted down on a slip of paper.
“Spect you better do that,” he agreed willingly. “Getting sorter late and my eyes ain’t good as they used to be.”
“Reckon I have to like it,” he went on chuckling again when I asked, “Do you still like farm life, after all these years?”
“I been getting’ more interested in politics the last year “
“Don’t know nothing else to like much except I been getting’ more interested in politics the last year or two than I ever been.”
“Well, now,” I interrupted, moving my chair over nearer the wash stand which was an odd home-made affair. Jim’s wife had already told me how she found a small peculiar tree over in pasture. It had four limbs which grew in such a way that they made excellent natural legs. The small table-washstand helf my attention this time only for a minute.
“Well sir,” I repeated – “I’ve never been a farmer but it certainly seems to me that farm life would hold all the interesting experiences compared with politics.”
“Its all mixed up together,” Mr. Holback assured me. “I can see it all purty plain now to what I used to and talk about the farmer making his own living – pshaw – he can’t make a living by hisself exactly to save his neck.”
“I used to argue hell off its hinges about other people sittin’ around on their do-nothing stool and everything like that. I figured anybody could make a living if they’d work but I shore haven’t got much to brag about and further and more, its everybody that makes a living for everybody else. Jist can’t do it by yourself to save your gizzard.”
“Course I been voting the democratic ticket all my life, not studying much about it till that boy I told you about got me to thinking how may ways you could look at things.”
As he looked out toward the ramshackled barn, I could tell he was anxious to give me, honestly, some information that might be helpful.
“You’re fixing to write up some stuff for the Government which is liable to be read by a lot of high up educated people according to what my wife said you told her.” He turned his eyes earnestly but uncertainly in my direction.
“Well, I was born down here a piece from Tuscaloosa “
“Reckon I jist might as well go back and begin right where I was before I started,” he smiled good naturedly while I couldn’t keep from laughing at his mildly humorous, friendly way of saying things.
“That’ll be fine,” said I, feeling that he really had something to say, I added encouragingly – “Suppose you go ahead and tell me some of your experiences in your own words.”
“Well, I was born down here a piece from Tuscaloosa – Been living here all my sixty one winters, not counting off about three years when us and several other families got the Texas fever.”
“Thats been quite a spell back. I reckon its been nigh on 32 years since my first wife died and then I moved back here with one small child.”
“Didn’t have a dime,” he said with emphasis, “but I was one of them stubbord ignoramouse critters. I could handle a four pound axe and I knew it and after my first wife died. –”
Mrs. Holback came out the front with the small tub which she used for her kitchen water bucket.
“Here,” I suggested – suddenly thinking I might divert the Holback history into some gruesome detail – “Let me draw the water for you.”
Her husband moved slowly to his feet. “I’ll take the tub Emma, wanta show him my pigs before it gits too dark. I’ll git in the water in a few minutes.”
We walked toward the front gate leaving the tub sitting on the well boxing as we passed.
“Emmas my fourth wife,” he began “but I’ll tell you right now – my low down hard headed cussedness made it hard on me and my folks too.”
“When I moved back here from Texas, I lit in to clearing up land for different land owners at three dollars per acre. I worked. I’ll be snatched if I see now how I did what I did. Didn’t have no plow mule but I got old man Silverhorn to rent me one of his plugs. He let me work out the rent so I cleared him five acres of new ground. Next thing I had to look out for some land so I could farm the coming year. Well, I just tell you the truth – anybody’d work as hard as I did that winter had oughter have the fatal snot beat out of ’em. Yes sir, I cleared by myself – I mean with my axe and piled the brush – twenty seven acres of new ground that winter.”
“I boarded with my brother and his folks all that winter and then about time spring set in, I done decided I better try to git married agin. I never did court none, you might say. Honest to God, I reckon I never did say a kind word to any of my wives except I try to treat Emma a little better now since I sorter learned a little sense besides working.”
“My second wife died in two years and left me with another child and that made one boy by my first wife and one little gal by my second wife. I argued and growled about nearly everything – jist looks like I couldn’t help it and it might do somebody some good to just put that down on your papers jist like I’m telling it right here.”
“My wife didn’t live over that.”
“My third wife had six gals. She worked and worried herself plumb to death. She shore was a good woman and I ought of been a whole lot easier on her but its done too late to talk about that now. When the last baby was born the Doctor told me it had done been dead at least a couple of days and natcherally my wife didn’t live over that.”
“The oldest gal had done got up big enough to keep house and cook and the other six cut wood, hoed and helped me farm just the same like they were boys. Oh yes – my boy – well, I just tell you , he run away and I never did know where he went for a long time.”
“You all can come on to supper,” Mrs. Holback called from the well, after, no doubt, deciding that we men couldn’t be depended upon for her bucket of water.
Although anxious to know the full details of the life of an unusual sort of fellow, I felt that I’d rather hear more about politics and less about Holback history. On second thought, I made up my mind to listen to whatever he wanted to say.
The old fashioned long table, the bench fully as long, and sitting next the wall bore evidence of being well used.
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather just sit here on this bench,” I suggested. Right at the moment I had the notion to say,”This must be the seat of the silent six,” but I didn’t have to ask about the six girls.
“Since my gals have all left home, we ain’t had much use for that old bench.”
Jim Holback spoke dryly, unemotional, as he passed the large bowl of tender greens, cooked with what was left of a hickory smoked ham.
“I reckon if you took them one by one, they’d tell you plenty to put in your writings about how hard I was on ’em when they was growing up.”
“I just wonder who that is now,” Mrs. Holback turned her chair and got up. The two dogs rushed out from under the house. The howling bark of the older dog to a whiny welcoming sound just outside the front gate.
“It ain’t no ‘pposm, I don’t reckon; jist keep your seats, I’ll go see,” Mr. Holback volunteered flatly. “Gittin to where its sorter like town roads out here with all them rolling stores and school buses; keeps the dust a flyin'”
“Its Horace,” the kind old lady heard the familiar voice as she said to me, “I guess he couldn’t get back on the WPA work.”
“Now he’s the one can tell you about Dictators and Democrats,”
A tall, red faced man of something near 30 years came in followed by his father.
“Now hes the one can tell you about Dictators and Democrats,” Mr. Holback spoke slowly as the younger man shook my hand cordially.
Finishing supper we sat on the front porch while Horace Holback told me of his hobo visits to old Mexico – work in the orange groves and finally his stevedore experiences on the San Francisco water front.
“I went to night school out there and being interested in Whats the matter with every thing, I put in most of my time on political science and economics,” he began seriously and apparently sure of himself.
“I believe we should have older peoples schools in every rural community – That is; – special evening classes where the older folks might go and mingle with each other and see what a problem it really is to get things worked out for the good of all the people.
“I’ve fully decided,” he continued thoughtfully, “We don’t need one man to get started on a band wagon basis; whip up a fuss all over the country and get people to thinking too much can be done all at once.”
“Sure – we need to get along better – every small farmer in this country does – they’ve just about lived on hope and hard work every since I can remember.”
“Money is just about the root of all our troubles all right but it certainly isn’t the whole cause of our hard times.”
“The older generations just like my father here were never permitted to really know anything about economics, you might say. They planted their cotton and just hoped they might get a fair price. No control, no cooperation – No security.:
“It’ll take up too much of your time,” he warned me, “if I try to explain everything the way I see it, so I’ll just not try to do so.”
“Go ahead and say what you please,” I answered – “I’m comfortable and certainly feel at home with you folks.”
“Well, since we have made a start toward better methods, crop-cooperation, control, etc., I think we should continue that way. Of course, I believe it should be improved quickly, because no farmer can possibly have anything like the decent necessities while his products are priced out of line and unbalanced with our national economy.”
Mr. Holback had said nothing, suddenly he got up and put his pipe on the two by four from which it had been taken before supper.
“Well, you boys can go to bed when you get ready, I’m gonna lay down.”
Turning toward me, he said in his usual unemotional manner, “I’ll just leave the farmers fate in you younger folks hands. – Make yourself at home.”
They are the dangerous democrats
The old mans son moved his chair closer. Tempering his voice, he began, “Now you take Pa for example – He never has believed in Automobiles. He used to say “them dang things is whats ruint the country” – he laughed a little and then kept talking. “Thats the way of a lot of other people living out this way.”
“Pa never would buy anything unless he had the cash in sight and you can see for yourself, he hasn’t anything here but a few acres of worn out hilly land. You can easily see how progressive he has been. This old house for instance; when our other house burned, he built this lean-to out of some old second hand lumber that you nor I would have. He simply never realized that progress means more than a pitiful existence of the individual family. Its got to be national and in fact, its got to be more or less world wide.”
“Now, don’t you think,” he almost asked me point blank – “They are the dangerous democrats?” I mean, these fellows who work and skuffle all their lives, trying to manage things on the old early American pioneers plan. Their education and outlook is such that they see things almost wholly from a selfish individual point of view. After they suffer and talk among themselves for a while, they decide its all wrong but they don’t exactly know why!”
“Some high powered misleader works his way in, takes the floor, and begins pumping the younger folks with the idea that something a whole lot better is right around the corner. These poor fellows fall in line and while the long-winded misleader froths at the mouth, a new movement is born!”
“New movements are all right and its a good idea to keep on kicking for improvements, but the democratic party can be improved on and on and far as thats concerned any party would have to be improved all along to be successful so I say, “Why not stick to the old Democratic idea and keep on improving it.”
“Sounds sound,” I agreed, “and thats just the way I look at it myself.”
He’s been going to church all his life
“How about his religion?” I asked. ‘Would it be a good idea to say anything about that?”
Horace Holback smiled a little. “I suppose it would be all right. He’s been going to church all his life, gets a big kick out of trying to sing the do, ray, mes, in the old christian harmony. I know one thing for sure, his every day religion has improved since I was a kid. Its just like the Democratic idea, it seems to me that ones religion should be constantly improved.”
“You know what,” the young man looked at me in the light from the kerosene lamp sitting inside the room that had bee assigned to me for the night. “If you were to get a history of this family, boy, you’d have to come out here and spend a week,” and with a hopeful ring in his voice, he added, “Why not do that some time this fall; we can hunt some and eat sweet potatoes till you break down with a good spell of indigestion.”
“That reminds me of what Aunt Jenny used to say,” he added with a boy like chuckle. “She used to say the best way in the world to kill a sweet gum tree; and you know how they will sprout every time you cut ’em down; well, she said the way to kill a sweet gum, you have to bore a big hole about half way through, pout it full of old sorghum molasses and then stuff the hole full of soft sweet potatoes; stop it up and it would sure die with indigestion.”
“Pretty good,” I agreed heartily, “but I like ’em and certainly it would be a pleasure to spend a week with you some time later.”
Leaving early the following morning, I felt convinced that if all the small farm owners could have the spiritual outlook of Horace Holback, there would certainly be no need to worry over what would come in the future. At the same time, I wondered what the six ‘gals’ and their tenant farmer husbands might think about the conditions under which they live. I resolved to make the trip back into the country sooner or later.
ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS – Volume I – IV: Four Volumes in One
The first four Alabama Footprints books – Volumes 1-IV have been combined into one book