The 1920s was a decade of significant transitions. If we look at pictures of folks in the 1910s and then in the 1930s we see changes in style. Women’s legs appeared at the bottom of their dresses; the big, frilly hats began disappearing; men’s suits looked less like they were trussed up in them; ties changed and even children’s clothes changed with the leggings coming off and bare legs appearing. Our culture transitioned as well. The Roaring 20s was a dynamic period that probably made people uncomfortable with the rate of change, especially those in rural areas of northwest Florida like Oak Grove. The economy was booming, experiencing what we might call a bubble these days. Even more conveniences and food items were available that had been made on the farm just a few years before. The rolling store came through once a week and brought all kinds of goods for sell. Consumerism flourished and more people found the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs indispensable to their needs. It is unclear when Grandpa King closed his general store but it was likely around this period and may have been impacted by the ability of these other sources to provide more variety to consumers.
Jesse and Alma Barrow had been married six years when the 1920s started. He had registered for the WWI draft not long after they married but had not been called up to fight because he had a family. They had two young daughters; Milrey Lucille “Cile” born in 1915 and Roberta Patha “Bertie” born in 1918 at the beginning of the 20s and had added all but two of their eight children by the end of the 1920s decade. Ira Marie was born in 1921, Myrtle Wylene “Bug” was born in 1923, Glenwood “Glen” was born in 1925 and Blandena “Blannie” was born in 1928. The 1930s added Carolyne born in 1930 and Noma Joann born in 1939. Jesse was farming on a piece of property his father gave him that was located today at the western end of Nathan Ln.
He also bootlegged. Water in Oak Grove was plentiful and remembered as cold and sweet from the wells. Good water makes good whiskey. But there is a dark side to bootlegging in a booming economy. Competition and the effort to eliminate it. In the 1920s a family moved into the area from south Alabama and worked hard to corner the market on bootleg by driving out some of the competition; targeting the Black families living in Oak Grove. Within a decade they were successful by buying up land sold for taxes, by threatening and shooting at the families and by intimidation. My grandfather’s playmate and best friend had to leave with his family in the dead of night, something Granddaddy spoke about years later with a hard edge and anger in his voice. Luckily they found each other again in the late 1960s and redeveloped their friendship.
On the day Glen was born, Granddaddy was on his new piece of property on what would become Highway 2, planting a pecan orchard. The remaining children were all born at the new property. While Granddaddy was building the new house (the old house on the property was almost falling down when they moved in) the family slept in the barn. One night a large oak snake crawled over Grandmama and infant Carolyne, taking his sweet time to exit the other side. Grandmama just lay still until he was passed. Somehow, I don’t think I would have been so calm. But my Grandmother wasn’t in the least intimated by snakes. She could smell rattlesnakes and I saw her dispatch them with nothing more than her ever present walking stick and quick actions.
Malaria was a constant threat during this period. It was endemic in the deep south. Several of Jesse and Alma’s children had it but none worse than Blannie. She had recurring bouts of extreme sickness for nearly a decade. Years later after returning to Crestview she bumped into one of her teachers, Ms. Dilly, who asked almost immediately if she still had bouts of malaria. Thankfully not. Good public health measures slowed and then eliminated the threat but the DDT used in the spraying left its own side effects in the area.
Enough to eat was another constant threat. Many went hungry during the 20s and 30s in the rural parts of the South. I am told that Jesse and Alma’s family had food to eat, it just wasn’t always what they wanted to eat. And it might not have been nutritionally adequate but it would fill up the empty spot. That was especially true during the several months in 1937 and 1938 when Jesse spent some time in the Atlanta Penitentiary for bootlegging. He wasn’t caught at his still, but at a friend’s, but it was his second offense. It did give him the opportunity to get sober and he stayed that way for the rest of his life. Years later he would tell the story about running his hooch to Holt and seeing two men on the side of the road as he neared the town. On his way back they were on opposite sides of the road and jumped onto the running boards. Jesse swerved the car and managed to drop the one on the passenger side. He pulled his pistol and pointed it at the one on the driver’s side and announced, “Jump or die”. The guy jumped.
When you were poor, lived in the rural South and just barely scraped by, you didn’t have many toys as a child. You learned to make do with whatever was available. You made your own toys, or at least your own entertainment. Some of my fondest memories of growing up was sitting on the front porch after dinner and listening to my aunts tell stories on each other about their childhoods. Marie was tall and strong and for the younger kids an excellent source of energy for adventure. They would create a teeter-totter out of a stump and a log or board. One of the younger kids would stand on the down end and Marie would jump down on the top end and send her sibling flying up and back to flip in air before landing or just do a spread eagle before hitting the ground, hopefully feet first. Another favorite was pulling over a pine sapling and “riding it” when it was released. Marie or Wylene would hold it down while one of the younger kids would climb to the top and hold on for dear life after she let go. I can remember Marie telling one story about Glen insisting she let him do the flying. The problem was he was sickly and thin as a kid because of asthma and poor nutrition and didn’t have much weight to slow the swinging tree. She did try to talk him out of it but he was a boy, he could do anything those younger girls could do, so she pulled one over and he got on. When she let it go it whipped back and forth forever with his thin little legs flying like a flag in a windstorm off the tree. She would always start laughing picturing in her head his precarious condition before the tree settled down.
They played with and tormented each other, snakes, and their Uncle Allen. Allen was Alma’s older brother and a bit, well it is hard to put a word on it. Fussy, critical, nervous, all of the above and more. When he drove his father’s Model A Ford he rode the brakes, giving everyone in the car whiplash. The kids were always doing something he didn’t approve of and he would come marching to their house to tell his sister about their misdeeds. “Almer, those younguns are at it again!” he would bellow as he stomped into the house. Mama says Grandmama just listened to him and then offered him something to eat while they hid outside laughing.
After sharing all of this I am happy to report they all grew to adulthood and had their own families. My Mom says growing up was hard but she wouldn’t trade her memories or the experience for anything. And then she laughs and says, “But I wouldn’t want to go back and do it again!” Most of the family stayed in the Florida panhandle but a couple moved away for a time and returned as they got older. The oldest lived to age 97, and two other sisters lived to 90 or beyond. Three died in their 70s and one died in her 60s. If you are counting that means there is one left of this extraordinary family, my Mom, who lives with me and misses her family more than I can describe. Every year is a blessing for me that I can’t begin to describe. (Update: my Mom passed away in October 2020.)
In less than a week my generation will be having our second annual reunion. When we were all growing up, every November around Thanksgiving and my grandparents’ anniversary, we would have a reunion where there was lots of food, lots of laughter and great fellowship. Occasionally we would sing, as we did at my grandparents 60th anniversary in 1976. Below are what remains of some poor but cherished recordings of our singing together. Between the immediate family and the in-laws we had a pretty good choir. That anniversary is some of my most cherished reunion memories. After we ate and sang, I convinced six of the girls (Joann had to leave early) to come outside with me for some pictures together. Carolyne, as usual with her playful and mischievous personality, said maybe they could sit on the stump with the pointy end (see photo above). That got them laughing, rifting and teasing each other and as we walked around looking for a place to pose Carolyne just kept making funny comments. And then Cile lost it. When she really got tickled she would bend over to laugh and her whole body would shake. That started everyone laughing at her and before I knew it they were all laughing with abandon. I managed to capture that moment despite my own laughter. That was how they were together. If you could get them started, their storytelling and laughter was just contagious.
For this year’s reunion we have extended our invitations to anyone descended from Richmond and Martha Senterfitt Barrow or from William Franklin and Maryann Malissa Hart King. We are gathering at Blackman Community Center, 7590 Highway 189, Baker, FL, 10 a.m. on 12 November 2016. It is a bit strange to now be in the older generation and encouraging the several generations below mine to learn the stories and get interested in our history as a family and as part of a founding community in Florida. These days that can be hard, there are even more distractions than there were when I was growing up. But we had a good turnout last year and are hoping for more this year. I think when we get older, say past 45, we begin to want to connect more.
I think the reason genealogy has become so popular is because we now live lives that are mobile and disconnected. We don’t live near family. We are scattered and stay in touch with Facebook and Twitter rather than hearing their voices over the phone or sitting with them in person every week and listening to stories that entertain and amaze. That’s a shame really and something we should all try to remedy as best we can. We need to remember that every day that goes by is one less to get to know all of the family; in person and through genealogy. Letting life just happen means you wake up one morning and another parent, grandparent, sibling or cousin has gone and a little more of the tapestry of our lives may be lost. I can promise that when that has happened a few times, you come to regret not sitting with them and asking them questions and hearing their remembrances.
Until next time when we will return to Oak Grove just before the Civil War (or War Between the States or the War for Southern Independence).
- History of the Sears Catalog
- Montgomery Wards: The World’s First Mail Order Business
- Moonshine: A Cultural History of America’s Infamous Liquor by Jaime Joyce
- In the Sweet By and By – Barrow Family 1976
- Amazing Grace – Barrow Family 1976
5 thoughts on “Seven Sisters (and a Brother) in 1930s Oak Grove, FL”
Did you know any Beasley’s. my Dad was from Walnet Hill FL. The is an Oak Grove there. May not be the same. The Oak Grove Baptist Church cemetery has some of my family there. Gary Beasley of Century, FL.
Hi Gary, actually there are three Oak Groves that I know of in Florida. The one mentioned in this blog is in Okaloosa Co, FL and the one you mention is in Escambia. I don’t recall seeing the Beasley name in any of the documents I’ve been going through for these articles. Good luck on your searches.
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