Week 43: October 25, 2014
Granddaddy was a Pack Rat…. Maybe not….
Urban Dictionary: Pack Rat… One who is unable to throw away a single thing with the most minuscule amount of sentimental value. A person who collects or hoards, especially unneeded items.
My grandfather Edgar McKinley was a farmer in the small Southern town of Siloam, Georgia; a saver of many things, or was he a pack rat by the way he lived and all he saved? But even though I might call him a pack rat in jest, most things were saved out of necessity. His generation may well have been the first true “green” generation; they saved – but they used what they saved!
I became interested in stamp collecting when I was young and in my hunt for stamps, I soon discovered my grandparents had a trunk full of correspondence – and all those letters had stamps! I had hit pay dirt! It wasn’t long before I took possession of those envelopes, with not a care in the world as to what was inside. My mom later told me that her parents had kept every letter and card sent to them – and in just one short weekend – I confiscated all those stamps and my mom discarded all those letters. What a genealogy tragedy! I should have kept the contents and discarded the stamps. I threw away the gold! A few did survive… letters from their son Leroy in the Army and a couple of cards from Aunt Lena in Atlanta; writing to tell her brother how much she enjoyed the cured hams he sent her.
My grandfather saved everything for a purpose – to reuse. The Prince Albert tobacco he used for rolling cigarettes came in a muslin pouch – grandmamma saved those for quilt backings. She painfully took them apart to sew into squares.
All shapes and sizes of bottles were saved – that was their Tupperware. Why throw away what you can reuse. Even barbwire was saved – mama remembers helping her father wind it on a wooden pole to store for another use. She was always afraid of getting stabbed with those sharp points, if she didn’t hold the pole tight enough, as he rolled.
He fashioned a long sewing needing to sew his cotton bags from part of a metal rib of an umbrella. One end was cut into a sharp point for sewing and an opening was formed on the top to secure the heavy thread. My mother remembers sitting on the back stoop as she watched him sew the bags. She kept that simple object for years as it held dear memories of her father – and now it’s become part of my heirlooms. He often made what he needed – that’s how they lived in those days; they were truly self sufficient people.
It was my Grandfather Paul Bryan who cooked in this cast iron pot, but yet it actually belonged to my Granddaddy McKinley. He liked his smaller one, so he always borrowed it when it was time to make Brunswick Stew and BBQ. And what do you stir a big pot like this with? A home-made wooden paddle – made by Granddaddy Bryan; another pack rat item for me.
Flour and sugar sacks were saved and reused into clothing. The manufactures designed their bags with pretty prints just so they could be reused. My ceramic tea pot, which belonged to my Grandmother McKinley, came nestled in one of those flour or sugar bags, and she saved it – and now it’s mine. Several pieces of my depression glass are from both of my grandmother’s. They once were the good Sunday pieces – and they treasured them.
Again I ask. was this type of saving a real “rat pack” obsession or a way of life in those days? They lived a frugal life; items were not wasted and they also became other money-makers for them. Granddaddy McKinley knew how to make a buck. He never rode by a discarded tire on the side of the road – he had a stockpile of tires to sell on weekends at five dollars each. My mother remembers many locals stopping on Sunday afternoons, needing a tire – and granddaddy always had one waiting for them – which resulted in five dollars for him.
Bottles – another item saved – all shapes and sizes – for what you ask? Not to display as pretty colors in a window. He lived in a dry county – no liquor was sold. When he visited his brother, who lived in a ‘wet” county, Granddaddy always stopped to buy whiskey. Saturday nights brought thirsty patrons to his farm. For sure the local “law” knew that he sold liquor, and he was visited more than once – late at night – looking to discover his cache of hidden whiskey; I called it friskey, but that’s another story! Wherever he hid those bottles of white lighting was definitely a mystery – and they were never found! My mother often laughs today as she remembers those visits by the local law – and wishes she’d thought to ask her father exactly “where were your hiding spots.”
Edgar McKinley was a man with no more than a fourth grade education – he wasn’t proficient at writing and couldn’t read that well, but he was a businessman and knew how to make a buck and save it. And my mother inherited that trait from him – she always talks about being frugal – and she is.
Granddaddy bought his farm of 117 acres for $1500 dollars from the government. It was overgrown, but rich in timber; he watched and walked that land. After only a few years, he cut the timber and paid off the promissory note. The government office tried telling him it wasn’t legal – they were losing money. He quickly turned the tables on them, saying “would you like my lawyer to cross the street and tell you I can!” He then owned his farm free and clear, while many lost their farms. And you ask, “did he save that original land deed?” You bet he did, and I have it today, and what a piece of history it tells.
He raised his family by working that farm and saving – not wanting. He lived his life by saving not wasting. One of my mother’s favorite Southern expressions is “you won’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out” if you don’t save. She believes in saving for a rainy day – she learned from the best!
I’ve always been a saver too – just look around my house… my grandmothers’ worn butter churn sits in the corner of my kitchen, showing its age. The last few pieces of my mother’s porcelain tea set, she played with as a little girl, now sits alongside other treasures in my antique oak china cabinet, which was also hers.
Most of the glassware inside that oak cabinet is family heirlooms – the carnival goblets are from my Grandmamma Bryan. I remember hearing the stories of how whenever my parents went to the fairs, they brought her home a new piece of glassware.
My oak kitchen table was originally my mother’s – I grew up eating at this very table. My grandfather bought it with four chairs for ten dollars; he found it sitting in someone’s front yard – thrown away for the newest style at the time. Mama remembers it painted with several different colors, each hiding under the other. Granddaddy soon stripped it back to its original oak wood. My husband has redone it a few times over the years – my children have colored, put together puzzles and did their homework at this same very table, and I’m still using it today.
A small dome trunk sits in my living room, full of family history and mementos. Inside you’ll find Grandmamma McKinley’s eyeglasses, thimble and her worn bible – her treasures! I love how she wrote the births and deaths on the pages of the bible. It was one book that she knew would never be lost. Her thimble pieced many quilts, and often by only the light of granddaddy’s fox hunting lantern – and yes I have that too! It accompanied him every Friday night when he went fox hunting.
Just seeing Granddaddy’s “Prince Albert” tobacco tin sitting on a shelf reminds me of watching him roll a cigarette. He would never buy a pack of cigarettes – unthinkable – wasteful! He’d often roll a few extras and tuck inside the tin if he was going to the local “filling” station; that was his Saturday afternoon place to talk politics. The name on the tin always reminds me of when I’d call the local store and ask “do you have Prince Albert in the can.” Of course when they said “yes” – I told them that they better let him out. I’d hang up laughing! It wasn’t my only phone prank when I was at the farm, and I’m sure I received a switching or two when I was caught. I had to amuse myself when I stayed there, and sometimes at a price – when I was caught.
My mother actually dug up this Cupid & Venus Depression glass pitcher when she helped to clean out my great grandfather’s house after his death. She saw the lip protruding out of the dirt under the car shelter – and with only a spoon – she dug it up and found it in perfect condition – no cracks or chips.
A few pieces of quartz also sit among my crystal – granddaddy McKinley brought them home one Friday night after fox hunting for me. He found them when the light from his lantern picked up the sparkle on the ground – and they soon became my treasure. Another odd piece in my cabinet is a pocket watch worn by Granddaddy Bryan. I remember the day I sat next to him admiring it – and said “I like that.” One day it showed up in my mailbox – he gave it to my father and said, “send this to Jeanne.” Sad to say I only have one lonesome arrowhead left given to me by Granddaddy McKinley – he picked them up in the field as he plowed. I remember having a box full of them, but over the years… It saddens me that I didn’t treasure them enough to hang on to all of them. His land was Creek Indian land in previous years; many living in that area of Greene County dug up Indian artifacts.
Who doesn’t have one of these ceramic Xmas trees – at least at one time? I had always wanted one and my father must have overheard me as he asked someone to paint one for him – he packed it up carefully in Georgia and mailed it to me in Connecticut. I was so excited when it showed up at my door. I get that same feeling when I unpack it every year.
One item passed to me from my father, which I’ll never know the meaning of, is his Mason ring and box of ivory tools. Being a girl, I can’t join the Mason Society, but they still mean a lot to me knowing they were treasured by my father and he left them to me.
The more I’ve dug in my trunk of treasures, the more I’ve found – things I’d forgotten – almost. There is Uncle Leroy’s Rifle Marksmanship pin from WWII, the purple heart he received as well as the flag that draped his coffin.
These memories of my pack rat treasures are what my children and grandchildren need to know. They aren’t just objects to be put out at the family tag sale. They represent stories to be passed down to the next generation. They say stories only last two generations before they are lost – so take the time to pull them out of your mind and put to paper. Tell the stories you’ve been told – be a pack rat of stories, as well as family heirlooms.
So was granddaddy a pack rat or a penny pincher? If I’m known as a pack rat like my grandfather – then I’m in good company. Whether he was a pack rat, survivalist, entrepreneur or realist, he left an inheritance to my mother. He always said if you have land – you have something – and if you take care of it, it will take care of you. He kept his land by the way he lived – never living beyond his means.
So if you are lucky to inherit family treasures – preserve them and tell the next generation their stories – this will keep the family alive.