Today's guestpost was written by Renea Winchester.
A Hardscrabble Christmas
Stories from a Georgia Sharecropper
As told by: Billy Albertson
Written by: Renea Winchester
In the late 1930s, strip malls didn’t exist in rural America. There were no Secret Santa’s, no Elf on a Shelf, no white elephant gift exchanges; but Christmas came nonetheless.
Born to Egbert Tabor Albertson and Ola Belle Etris Albertson on March 31, 1932, Billy Albertson knew about hard work and hard times. Christmas trees weren’t purchased from a commercial grower. Finding a tree was a family affair. “Momma and Poppa and us kids lit out in search of a tree. After everyone decided on the right one, Poppa chopped it down with an axe and we drug it home. Didn’t cut one till the week before Christmas, lest the pine needles dried out and fell off. Poppa nailed the tree to a stand, one that was made from planks he fashioned together in the shape of an x. Back then we had us a big old field of corn, had plenty. We popped that corn and strung it on the tree. That’s all we had for ornaments. Weren’t no lights on our ole pine tree, didn’t have ‘leck-tricity.”
The Albertson home of the late 30s and early 40s was what most would call a shack. Sharecroppers moved often and lived in whatever building was located on the land they farmed. When Billy was almost eight-years-old, his family lived with Mr. Lee Pitchford who owned a dairy farm in North Georgia. Later, Billy’s Poppa found Guy Staton who owned a larger farm in the Clairmont Community. Billy remembers that “Poppa sharecropped for thirty years,” before ultimately settling down in what Billy still calls the “Birmingham Community,” (present-day Milton, Georgia).
Regardless of where the Albertson’s lived, the homes were usually the same. Ramshackle, rickety shelters held together with gumption, hard work, and a whole lotta love.
According to Billy, “There weren’t no insulation . . . our houses weren’t tight. The old farmhouse wasn’t much. Lotsa times it wasn’t even sealed on the inside. You could see daylight coming in through cracks in the wall, look down at the floor and see the chickens scratching under the porch. Landowners supplied the tools and the mule, then took half of what we made except what we growed in our garden spot.”
Back when winters were cold, snow fell so deep that Billy’s Poppa hitched the mule to a terracing drag and cut a path to the woodshed, to the privy, to the barn. (A terracing drag is a v-shaped plow that is used to keep rainwater from flooding the garden, and in this case, cleared a walkway to outbuildings). Chores required attention regardless of weather. Kids hurried to complete their assigned duties while hoping the snow would yield a tasty treat known as snow cream.
“We’d make snowmans but didn’t own no sled. They cost money, if you could even get one back then. We looked forward to snow. Sometimes Momma scooped it up and added vaniller flavoring and some sugar. That made the first ice cream I ever ate. Boy, it shore was good. Of course we hunted Mistletoe,” Billy continued. “It was hard to find, but Poppa would shoot it down then we’d hang it in the house. The girls would walk under it and we’d kiss ‘em. I believe that was the way it went.” Billy’s laughter bounced off the tiny walls of his living room.
Christmas Eve found the young Albertson children peeling socks from their feet to hang by the chimney with care. Out of eleven children, Billy was number ten. Each of the seven siblings who were still at home used a single sock as a stocking; the others were married, starting a family of their own.
“We’d hang a sock on the fireboard, most folk these days call it a mantle, but we called it a fireboard.
Come morning, if we had an orange, or an apple, and a piece of peppermint in our sock, we knowed old Santa Claus had been there.”
There were no other gifts. No X-Box360 or iPhones. No battery-operated toys that would be broken and discarded the next day; only a single piece of fruit and peppermint candy. Christmas feasts at the Albertson home were sparse when compared to the gluttony of today. There were no cookie exchanges, no pesky fruit cakes, no tins filled with aromatic rum balls, and certainly no roast beast, but the tradition of fruit in stockings continued even when Billy became a father.
As one might expect, peanuts were as common for Billy as chocolate is for us today. “Momma always had peanuts roasting by the fireplace. She made peanut brittle for Christmas. Poppa would take any excess from our garden, like beans or peas, and he’d swap them for pinto beans, maybe a hundred pound bag if we were lucky. We also ate a lot of kraut and hominy. You use dried corn to make hominy. See, the kernels of Silver King is real big. We’d take the wash pot outside and gather all the sticks and twigs we could find to build up a fire. Momma’d get the ashes from the fireplace and pour them in the water. You boil that with the corn. The ashes helped the husks slide off, can’t make hominy without them.”
I didn’t ask, but I suspect with eleven children to raise Momma Albertson found it easier to cook most large meals outside. However, pintos were cooked over the fireplace.
“Momma cooked the pinto beans in a cast-iron pot with three legs on the bottom. She put the pot in the fireplace where it was good and hot then heaped coals on top so all the beans inside would cook.”
By age six, Billy Albertson was wishing for a pocketknife something fierce; one with a chain attached so he could clip the knife to his belt loop or overalls. But the knife cost twenty-five cents, and twenty-five cents was hard to come by back then. He’d wished for a knife the previous year only to receive another orange and a stick of peppermint. Billy was almost eight-years-old when Santa granted his wish. “I was so happy. I thought the world of that knife,” Billy said. “And I took care of it.”
As the Albertson family became more self-sufficient, clothes became Christmas presents. “Momma made all of our clothes. She’d make the girls’ dresses for Christmas, made us boys little shirts and pants. One year she sewed me some short pants. I despised them.” Billy laughed. “I did. I despised them. I didn’t like them at-tall. She made the girls’ dresses from chicken feed sacks or dairy sacks and made Poppa’s work shirts out of fertilizer sacks. Back then, fertilizer came in cloth bags with 6-8-6 printed on the outside of the bag. The material was heavy and the numbers 6-8-6 was the analysis of the fertilizer. Momma’d wash the sacks out real good and sew Poppa’s shirt. When he wore it you could see real plain the 6-8-6 in red letters across the back of the shirt.”
“Did you ever remember your Momma getting a present?” I asked.
“No,” he said with tears in his eyes. “No. I don’t. Poppa, he got work shirts.”
Churches had sprung up in the Birmingham community. Billy attended Christmas services in 1945 at the Liberty Grove Baptist Church in Alpharetta where the sound of a piano and old-timey gospel music filled the air. Members put on a play complete with shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and a Baby Jesus. The church still stands today, alive and active as a testament that some things won’t change.
In the 60s, life was still rural. Billy and his wife Marjorie were settled down on Hardscrabble Road. They’d broken ground on their own homestead and were living in the house even though it wasn’t finished. “Now we didn’t have no mortgage,” Billy said. “Just worked on the place a little bit at a time, you know, as we could afford it.”
Developers hadn’t discovered this part of farm country, hadn’t begun building gated communities and a drugstore on every corner. At night, one could sit outside and look up at the stars that were too numerous to count. After moving around most of his life, Billy made a promise to The Man Upstairs.
“I says, ‘Lord, if you give me a good place to live I promise I’ll stay put.’”
He kept that promise. After fifty years of living on Hardscrabble Road he has no plans on breaking his promise to The Man Upstairs.
Time slipped through Billy’s fingers just as it does for each of us. Today, at age eighty-one, fond memories of Christmases past fill his simple home located on Hardscrabble Road.
I hope you enjoyed Billy's Christmas memories as much as I did! Renea has written an entire book about her relationship with Billy- In the Garden with Billy. The book is available on: Amazon.com BarnesandNoble.com or through Renea's website.
Renea was born and raised in western North Carolina. She is an accomplished Appalachian writer. To learn more about Renea’s work please visit her website at www.reneawinchester.com - I know you'll be glad you did!