Growing up poor on a three-acre strip of dirt in McDowell County, five miles West of Marion, N.C. and caught up in the Depression, there never seemed to be too much to get excited about. Christmas was always a fun time and the end of the school year, eight months in those days, also signaled a reprieve from corduroy knickers (whistle britches), a loose brogan sole flapping on every step, and vegetable soup in the school lunch room five days a week.
However, since we ate a lot of corn-meal mush, “fat back,” “poke salad” and corn bread, a couple of other dates stuck in your mind. One was the week the “thrashers” spent in our community and the other was the “All Day Singing and Dinner on the Grounds” at the Clear Creek Baptist Church.
The “thrashers” came in late summer to serve the small farmers of the Pleasant Gardens community in processing and storing their wheat for the long winter ahead. The wheat fields in that area were miniature in comparison to wheat fields of the midwest. With this in mind, the threshing machine was usually parked in a central location in one of the larger fields, and the farmers in the neighborhood brought their wheat to the site, where it was “thrashed” bagged and returned, along with the resulting wheat straw, to the keep of the contracting farmer. I imagine some of the wheat was taken to local flour mills and sold for profit, but I think most was for the owner’s personal consumption.
The “thrashers” were a mixed group of tough professionals, quite adept at their trade and young college boys who joined this particular group in the lower Southern states and stayed with them sometimes as far as Canada, before returning to school wiser, richer, stronger and with a wealth of stories to tell the co-eds.
Fellows my age were enlisted to serve as water boys and were paid off by eating at the most bountiful table one could imagine. The ladies of the neighborhood brought their “specialties” to the huge table each day, set up in the shade near the machines. There didn’t seem to be a lot of fancy eats, but the table was always filled with fried chicken, liver mush, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and other fresh vegetables such as squash, tomatoes, onions and corn on the cob. Topping all this off was a table set aside for desserts, and this is where the local ladies showed off their talents with cakes and pies, which brings me to the second important event in a youngster's life in the summers of the early thirties.
I wasn’t old enough to understand the logistics of putting on an “All Day Singing and Dinner on the Grounds” at the little country church, now named the Pleasant Gardens Baptist Church, but somebody in the congregation lined up the singers, set up the tables in the church yard and signed on the contributors of food for this annual event.
Many of the members rode their farm wagons or buggies to the churchyard, and the horses or mules were tied in a grove of trees near the graveyard. The singers seemed to be from distant places, like “up near Asheville,” “over in Union County,” or even “down in South Carolina” Most male singers wore matching suits and ties and if a lady accompanied them, either singing or playing the piano, she was usually dressed “just a little highfalutin” for our neighborhood lady's tastes.
In the church, we “young'uns” were seated on the front row for the singing, and usually burst out laughing when a tenor or bass member of a quartet took a few notes on his own, leading to a dressing down by irate parents. The second “solo riff” had us practically rolling on the floor resulting in our being marched down the aisle by one ear or, even worse, by the seat of our “overhauls,” resulting in our doing a modified “turkey-trot,” embarrassing to say the least. A red faced mother threatened a “horse-hiding” when we got home and expelled us to the church yard where we played games until the congregation broke out the door and headed for the tables of food. Fear of getting trampled usually kept us waiting until the lines had cleared.
If the meals for the “thrashers” were recognized as tables loaded with solid, working man’s food, then the tables at the all-day singing were considered the most beautiful presentation of food ever witnessed in those parts. Here the fried chicken, a staple of farm life, met roast beef and roast pork, country-style steak and country ham. Bowls of green beans and boiled potatoes, squash casseroles, pinto beans, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, turnip greens and spinach led the way to the table set aside for home cooked breads. Here yeast rolls shared the table with large “cat head” biscuits and “crackling” corn bread.
The last table was where the youngsters spent most of their time, for here were the special concoctions of cakes and pies, along with the ever popular banana pudding, sharing the table with apple, peach, and blackberry cobbler, and “seconds” were always available. In a neighborhood that poor, you knew that people had saved their best foods to present to their friends at one of the few times when everybody forgot their troubles and came together in a spirit of homecoming.
Following the meal, it was back to the church for more singing, but this time the youngsters were herded to an oak grove near the horses and mules for an afternoon nap, watched over by a lady shooing the flies away with a dirty apron.
Like a lot of readers, I’ve eaten meals in fancy restaurants in Asia, Africa, and Europe as well as the United States, but I never remember better meals than those I ate in a country church yard in Pleasant Gardens, N.C.