Digging holes here and there in American history.

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Sunday, November 21, 2021

Shotgun Wedding in Reverse

    The traditional shotgun wedding, replete with gun-toting relatives, is a common premise of comedies set in hillbilly country. Any big-city fellers who wander into such areas had best be discreet about interacting with local womenfolk, lest they find themselves forced—at the point of a gun—to stay a lot longer than they had intended.  

   But what if the shotgun-armed relatives show up after the wedding? And the news of the family bruhaha is transmitted to newspapers halfway around the globe?

   Sarah Wafer was born into a large and well-known family with extensive land holdings in southeast Claiborne Parish. At sixteen, she was attending school in Terryville, also known as Quay, then in Claiborne but later annexed as part of Lincoln Parish.

   In the fall of 1855, a Dr. Clement and 16-year-old Sarah, “an orphan heiress of a wealthy Louisiana planter,” eloped from Claiborne Parish. The couple journeyed to Arkansas “with utmost dispatch” where a quick marriage ceremony was performed.

   The account of what happened next was detailed in Homer’s Claiborne Advocate.

   On the return trip to Claiborne Parish, Dr. and Mrs. Clement were met by the bride’s brother, James T. Wafer, who forcibly took possession of his sister. Mabry Wafer, Sarah’s father, had died two years earlier, so James had become Sarah’s guardian. Dr. Clement was removed from his seat beside his tearful bride. After some discussion, the groom was allowed to accompany his wife to Wafer’s home.

   After a short time, Wafer permitted the couple to leave. The newlyweds went to the doctor’s house in Arcadia. There they resided “in the comfortable enjoyment of about one half of their honeymoon” when Sarah was summoned to the bedside of a sick sister at her brother’s residence.

   Apparently, the summons was a ruse to separate Sarah from Clement. While at James’s home, Sarah was presented with a letter written by her brother-in-law, the sister’s husband. The letter accused Dr. Clement of “having basely imposed upon and deceived her and that he was a coward for allowing himself to be chastised by her brother. Even worse, the letter said Clement was “old, ugly, and no physician,” that Sarah did not love him and never did, and that she could never consent again to live with him.

   Sarah signed the letter.

   The Wafers loaded Sarah in a wagon and carried her to the home of another sister, Mary, who lived with her husband John Wyatt Simmons on the Red River in Bossier Parish.

   Dr. Clement followed in pursuit with fifteen to eighteen armed Arcadia friends. Reaching the Red River home, they demanded Sarah Clement. To avert bloodshed, Sarah consented to go with Clement but only on the condition she be taken to her uncle, Claiborne Parish resident Reverend James T. Wafer. The parties agreed Sarah would remain unmolested at Rev. Wafer’s for two days. Then she would announce her decision on returning to Arcadia with Clement.

   Skeptical the agreement would hold, brother James Wafer raised a group of armed men to accompany him to his uncle’s to retrieve his sister. The house was heavily guarded, however, and the sound of the cocking of several shotguns by Clement and his friends caused the party to retreat.

   James went to Homer to swear out a complaint. Claiborne Deputy Sheriff Gentry Warren summoned a posse of about twenty armed men to go with him in the middle of the night to Rev. Wafer’s house in the Arizona community to arrest Dr. Clement and his party for “forcible abduction and imprisonment of the fair heroine.”

   Warren and the posse narrowly escaped meeting gunfire when they approached the house. Had they not quickly announced themselves as the law, a bloody fight would have ensued. Instead, Clement and his friends submitted to arrest.

   The entire party arrived at Homer about 9:00 a.m. the next morning—the posse riding in carrying their shotguns intermingled with the prisoners and Clement and Sarah seated side by side in a buggy.

   In the commotion of sixty riders on the street, one of the posse members accidentally discharged his shotgun. The charge passed through the window of J. M. Thomason’s office, inflicting a nasty but survivable wound on the Homer attorney.

   James Wafer signed an affidavit for a writ of habeas corpus, which was issued by District Court Judge Harmon A. Drew. The writ commanded Clement to produce Sarah and show cause why he deprived her of her rights and liberties. Clement did not answer the writ immediately and was also arrested for contempt of court. The next day, Drew held the habeas corpus and contempt hearings and dismissed both.

   Two days later, those arrested for the alleged abduction and imprisonment of Mrs. Clement appeared before Justice _________ Millican. Clement was tried first. One of the witnesses was Mary Wafer Simmons, Sarah’s older sister. Mary testified Sarah had been engaged to her brother-in-law, Sidney Simmons, before her elopement with Dr. Clement. Mary said Sarah had received a letter purporting to be from Sidney in which he chastised her for her dalliances and was finished with her. Based on the letter, Sarah, or Sallie as Mary called her, hastened into an elopement with Clement, who she did not love, and after the marriage, learned to hate.

   The letter was a forgery.

   The case against Clement was dismissed and the prosecution declined to pursue Clement’s “accomplices.”

   While the trials were underway, Sarah was “spirited away to parts unknown.” The Claiborne Advocate reported, “the general opinion is that she has been transported to Arkansas, where she is protected or guarded by forty double barreled shotguns and a howitzer!”

   Adding insult to injury for the parties involved, the article from the Advocate was published across the country, including papers in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, New York, North Carolina, and even in England and Scotland.

   Surely the saga does not end there, but the newspapers are silent on the rest of Sarah Wafer’s life. Family genealogy records are confusing, but census records and other government documents seem to sort out her fate.

   Mary died soon after the trial and Sarah married the widower, her brother-in-law John Wyatt Simmons. What happened to beau Sidney and husband Dr. Clement so far has eluded us.

   Sarah and John Simmons moved to Texas where they farmed and ranched in Rains County near other members of the Wafer clan. They raised numerous children, including one named Mabry after her father.

   While Sarah’s love life got off to a rocky start, she finally found a relationship that worked, experiencing a marriage of at least 40 years. Sarah died in 1905 and John followed in 1917.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Wash Day


You may appreciate your washer, dryer, and Tide soap pods more after reading this excerpt from the memoirs of Willie Lee Pace Dillon. Born in 1885, the fourth of twelve children of William and Rebecca Pace, she wrote this recollection of 1890s clothes washing in 1956. 
“Lye soap was usually made in the winter and late spring when good oak or hickory wood ashes from the fireplace were plentiful, as well as surplus hog grease and bones. An ash hopper was constructed by placing split boards on a plank fence two feet from the ground, slanting downward and resting on a brace, then setting a bottomless barrel onto the boards. This was filled with ashes and clear water was poured into a basin-like hole at the top in the ashes. The water passed through the ashes, separating the invisible lye which would drain into a vessel at the bottom of the hopper. Usually I was the one assigned the duty of pouring on the water and emptying the dripped lye into the large pot for making the soap. By mixing and heating the lye and greases a cheap, good laundry soap would be made. The soap was dipped from the pot while it was hot and poured into a non-leaking barrel to be used as needed after it cooled.
“Buttons could easily be broken in the family wash, as we were then using a 'battling block and stick' to remove excess dirt before boiling the clothes in a large outdoor three-legged black wash pot with fire underneath. The 'battling block' was a large, sawed tree block standing upright near the tubs. Well-soaped wet garments were placed on it one at a time and "battled" with a paddle-like stock, forcing out the dirt and spattering the 'battler' with dirty water. Usually I was the battler while my two sisters tended the tub and pot.
“I also tended the pot fire. The clothes were boiled in the pot and required frequent punching down with a stick. Then they were lifted into a tub full of clean water and rinsed through two other large wooden tubs of water before hanging them on the wire line and backyard fences. We used our first rub-board [washboard] in the early 1890's.”


Friday, February 5, 2021

Coupons and Coffee Stretcher

World War II rationing changed how Americans lived and ate 

My grandmother never threw away anything. Not that she was a hoarder. She kept a simple, clean home without trails meandering through mountains of newspapers, mystery boxes, and other paraphernalia typically associated with a hoarder. No, she never discarded anything because she had so little and what she had might be needed again. Bacon grease was saved for frying. Potted plants received coffee grounds as fertilizer. She made her own quilts from scraps of cloth, cooked everything from scratch, and maintained her own milk cow and chickens until she could no longer care for them. 

If I held the refrigerator door open too long, she reminded me the escaping cool air cost her money. I didn’t dare leave on a light as I left a room. She bought cattle feed in colorful cloth sacks that served as material to make dresses. 

Grandmother was the most frugal person I’ve ever known. 

So I was not surprised while cleaning out her house after her death in 1982, we discovered her World War II ration book. I don't know if Grandmother assumed rationing would return and she would need ration coupons again or if she kept the book as a memento of those hard times.
As I examined the ration book, I could not help but think about her difficult life through the Great Depression and World War II. When America entered the war in 1941, Grandmother was raising my mother and my two uncles, the three ranging in age from four to eight. Rationing only exacerbated a trying family situation. Frugality was a product of necessity through much of her life. 

WWII caused shortages of manufactured materials, including metal, rubber, and clothing. But food shortages affected everyone. With markets around the world inaccessible, imported foods like coffee and sugar were unavailable in quantity. Much of the processed and canned food was reserved for shipping overseas to the military and our allies. Food transportation across America was limited by gasoline and tire rationing and the priority of transporting soldiers and war supplies. 

Because of these shortages, the federal Office of Price Administration established a rationing system to manage the distribution of foods in short supply. The OPA established 8,000 ration boards across the country to administer the program. Every American received a series of ration books containing coupons necessary for buying rationed items like sugar, meat, canned goods, and cooking oil. When new ration books were available, Claiborne Parish residents picked them up at distribution points set up in Homer, Haynesville, and other communities. 

A rationed item could not be obtained without giving the retailer the appropriate ration stamp. Once a person depleted the ration stamps for a specific item for the month, no more could be purchased. Meals were planned with care, utilizing creative menus, and avoiding waste. 

Citizens found innovative ways to compensate for the shortages. When a car owner could not obtain a new tire, one might be fabricated from wood. People were encouraged to grow “Victory Gardens” in their backyards to supplement the food supply and contribute to the war effort. Some items like nylon hose were difficult to come by. In January 1943, Gibson’s Quality Merchandise of Homer, Louisiana advertised it would have 42 pair of nylon hose for sale in February. Customers were advised to sign up quickly to reserve a pair. 

Coffee rationing began in November 1942 with every person over 15 allowed one pound every five weeks. One news report revealed, “One pound every five weeks will be allowed for every person…This works out to slightly more than one cup a day, and in households where children 15 or older do not drink coffee, the grownups can have the children’s share as well as their own.” 

“Coffee stretchers,” concoctions added to coffee to make it go further, ranged from pure chicory to a cereal blend containing chick peas, barley and malt. While some were homemade using acorns or grains, commercially-prepared substitutes like Postum—a wheat, bran, and molasses blend—and Happy Jack were available. 

Americans supported the war effort and endured the shortages but coffee rationing was very unpopular. On July 28, 1943, President Roosevelt announced it was ending, the first of the rationed items to come off the rationing list. Most wartime food rationing ended in November 1945. 

Holidays like Thanksgiving were quite different on the home front during wartime. The traditional turkey centerpiece was but impossible to acquire. Even Thanksgiving football was suspended. The Detroit Lions, who have hosted an annual Thanksgiving game since 1934, put the tradition on hold between 1939 and 1944. 

The privations and inconveniences endured by those back home hardly compared to those in the service overseas or the suffering and starvation experienced in war-torn countries. Those years, however, influenced how the people who struggled through them would live the rest of their lives.

"Dead" Son Comes Home Alive

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   Teenagers aggravate their parents in many ways, but a 16-year-old Haynesville, Louisiana youth went above and beyond in driving his to hysterics, and later, apoplexy.

   One evening in early 1922, Marlin Mathis failed to return home. The news accounts do not explain if he ran away, lost himself in the wilds of Corney Bayou, or simply hid himself away to avoid punishment for some misdeed. At any rate, after a few days his parents concluded tragedy had struck the teenager. His father, a Haynesville contractor, and his mother agonized over their missing son.

   A few days after Marlin’s disappearance, his parents saw news reports from Amarillo, Texas about a youth about the same age who had been killed in a railroad accident. Details are vague, but the young man was probably “trainhopping,” jumping on or off of a moving freight train, a common practice of transients and runaways moving across the country.

   Fearing the worst, they telegraphed for details. A description of the body matched the missing son. The parents were told one of the last statements the boy made was that his father was a contractor.

   Mr. and Mrs. Mathis left at once on the train, sure they were going to bring the body of their son home.

   The hours creeped by as the train rumbled across the wide Texas expanse, adding to their anguish. Once in Amarillo, they viewed the body and identified it as their son by “a slight twist to the left in the nose and a mole on the left breast.”

   The body was prepared for shipment to Haynesville and just before the parents were to leave for the train, they received a message that Marlin was at home, “very much alive and in his usual good health.”

   Certainly the Mathis family was relieved, but grief likely turned to anger at the distress and embarrassment young Marlin had created. The ignominy of the matter was furthered when the Associated Press picked up the story, distributing it to hundreds of newspapers across America. The story of the “dead” boy returning home appeared in papers in scores of small towns and large cities.

   We can only speculate on Marlin’s fate when Daddy Mathis returned home from Texas.

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