by John Head


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781563525285
Publisher: Taylor Trade Publishing
Publication date: 06/28/1999
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.78(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.91(d)

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Chapter One

If fish had not fallen from the Florida sky, the Fitch family farm might not exist. My grandmother, Julia Fitch, told me the story of the family's flight from Florida. She liked the place where they lived near Jacksonville well enough. The weather was warm year-round. She found the people she met down there to be just as warm. And she loved to garden, so Florida's profusion of plants made it a paradise. But she missed the rolling hills of Middle Georgia where she grew up; Florida's flat landscape just couldn't match it. And she didn't like walking along a river and seeing a beast as big as a cow swim to the surface. The first time she saw a manatee, she told me, "It like to scared me to death."

    But the unchanging terrain and even the strange creatures grazing in the rivers did not sour her on Florida. Anyway, my grandfather, James "Buddy" Fitch, loved Florida. He had gone down to find work and then sent for his family to join him. Even after the good construction jobs that drew him there dried up, he was satisfied earning enough money for his family to survive the Depression by helping out at a roadside vegetable stand and chasing odd jobs.

    To Grandma, the Depression was more ominous, something that would only get worse. She thought the family would be better off back in Georgia where they could depend on the resources of relatives if they needed help to make it through. But she was willing to follow Grandpa's wishes and stay. She was willing until the wind blew a water spout out of the ocean, carried it over the land and dumped water—along with frantically wrigglingfish—in her yard.

    Some of the children—my mother included—thought it was manna from heaven, a fish fry catered by God. This was the parable of the loaves and the fishes come to life—minus the bread. My grandmother didn't think so. She saw it as a sign, and not a good one. For her, it was confirmation that Florida was a place where nature had gone haywire, and where who knew what might happen next. "Well, sir," she told me some forty years later, using the inflection of her voice to give that phrase one of its many Southern meanings, this one more or less translating into "Well, let me tell you...."

    "Well, sir," she said. "That was enough for me."

    She vowed to get back to Georgia the first chance she got. That chance came when a fire destroyed the house they rented. My grandfather wanted to find another place and stay on. His dread of packing up possessions only to haul them somewhere and unpack them probably was one reason for his inertia. He always said the two hardest jobs in the world were chopping cotton and moving. Given his druthers, Grandpa said, he would rather chop cotton.

    However, Grandma had other plans. "I told Poppa, 'I don't know what you're going to do, but I'm taking these children and going home.'"

    In the end, my grandfather didn't put up much of a fight. He returned to Georgia and to farming, which he had grown up doing. I wonder now if this was a surrender to the fate he had been fleeing. I knew him as a reliable provider for his family, but also as a hard and joyless man. He had only one diversion I can recall—alcohol. It took him not only away from work, but from life itself.

    Butts County, Georgia, was "dry" back then—meaning the selling of beer, wine, or liquor was illegal. But the creeks might as well have flowed with whiskey, the stuff was so easy to find. The local bootlegger stocked booze he bought in Atlanta and resold it with the tax stamp still intact. Or if you had less expensive tastes and a pocketbook to match, he offered Mason jars of home brew, fresh from the stills.

    Sometimes Grandpa started drinking at the end of the work day on Friday and didn't stop drinking until late Saturday, giving himself time to sober up for Sunday service at Macedonia Baptist Church, where he was a deacon. He sat in "Amen Corner" with the rest of the elders, whose duties included affirming the points the preacher made during his sermon ("A man won't do right 'til he gets right with God!" "Amen!" "Won't somebody say Amen, again?" "Amen!"). The deacons also handled Macedonia's version of Catholic communion, which consisted of saltine cracker crumbs substituting for the wafers and Welch's grape juice standing in for wine. (While the county was "dry" in name only, the churches were virtual deserts when it came to alcohol.)

    The rest of the week my grandfather worked from sunup to sundown five days, and sometimes six. In the country, if someone can be counted on to do his job and do it well, people say, "He's not afraid of work." Not only was Grandpa "not afraid of work," he was a predator and work was his prey. He tracked it down and attacked it, never seeming to find enough of it to satisfy his blood thirst for it. He expected everyone around him to have the same attitude. He made no exception for his children. One of my aunts told me about the time a neighbor stopped by the farm one evening and found my grandfather and his daughters working in the fields.

    "Buddy, you ought not to work those children so hard," the man said.

    "Why do you think I had 'em if they wasn't going to work?" Grandpa snapped.

    I wonder now if he was a different, more carefree person in Florida where he wasn't rooted in the sandy soil the way he had been in the clinging red Georgia clay of the fields he plowed from his boyhood on. Or maybe Florida simply offered surer ways to make money, something he searched for throughout his life.

    In any case, fish fell from the Florida sky, and he had to return to Georgia. Isn't this the way of family histories? Some unlikely or unexplainable event causes a change in course that alters everything that comes after. Those plummeting fish put my grandfather on the path to ownership of property; magic brought him and his family to the land, but it was his everyday sweat—and the sweat he squeezed from others—that watered the soil and turned the land into a farm.

    Grandpa was a cash-and-carry man, hewing to the sage advice Polonius gave Laertes. He neither loaned money nor borrowed it. (I overheard him on the telephone trying to console a troubled friend. "If there's anything I can do to help," he said, "anything at all, just ask, as long as it doesn't involve money.") If he was truly strapped for cash himself, he simply sold some of his land. It would be easy to fault my grandfather and those like him for allowing land to slip away through attrition. But the alternative was to go into debt. And Grandpa had seen enough farms sold on the courthouse steps and families forced out of homes with nothing to take with them to believe debt meant ruination.

    So the property went, like pieces taken one at a time out of a puzzle. By the time my grandmother died—fifty years after the land was purchased—only a fraction remained to be handed over to a second generation. It appeared they would be the last in our family to lay claim to the land. There were almost twenty heirs when the surviving siblings and the children of those who had passed on were totaled. They owned the property together, and they fought about it as only family members can fight—with even the smallest matters made large by past hurts that endure among people held close by kinship ties forged in familial love, ties so strong that they hold people fast even when love has long faded. They discussed and argued and refused to talk about it until the last of them was worn down and submitted to the logic of selling the place.

    With that decision the chain of ownership could have ended. But then, for reasons I did not completely understand, I decided to buy this rundown, overgrown, used-to-be-a-farm. I talked my brother James, an attorney out in California, into joining me. We knew we could keep the land in the family for a third generation. We hoped to turn it into something that could be passed down to all generations to come.

* * *

A piece of family lore held that my grandfather got someone from "the white side" of the family to take out the mortgage to buy the land, because banks back then wouldn't loan money to a black man. It's a plausible story. Grandpa was light-skinned. He had cousins who were so light they could pass for white. There's no doubt that there was white blood in the family, with a little Creek Indian mixed in, too. As for the bank, no one who knows the history of the rural South would be surprised that a black man looking to buy land couldn't get a loan from the local bank.

    But the story apparently is not true. A title search showed that in 1939, one James Fitch paid two thousand dollars cash for 103 acres of Butts County, Georgia, land from the McCords, a prominent white family. There is no mention of any loan or mortgage middleman. There also is no mention of where my grandfather—who, as far as I can determine, had not gotten rich working odd jobs in Florida—got two thousand dollars cash in the depths of the Great Depression.

    A mysterious transaction took place fifteen years after Grandpa bought the land. According to a second deed that surfaced in the title search, Lewis H. Cawthon sold six acres of that same land—and the house that had been built on it—to my grandfather. The price the second time around was "One dollar and other considerations."

    Getting six acres and a house for one dollar is a bargain by any reckoning. But why would anyone—particularly someone with Grandpa's ferocious frugality—pay even that token amount for property he already owned? And what were those "other considerations?"

    The document did contain this sentence: "This deed is made for the purpose of verifying the land line between grantor and grantee." What land line? I studied the original deed from my grandfather's purchase. It listed the owners of property that bordered the land he bought. There was not a Cawthon among them. And I knew from my childhood memories that Grandpa farmed much more than six acres of land around the house well after 1954.

    When I asked my mother and my aunts and uncles about how Grandpa got the land, they said he bought all 103 acres from one of the Cawthon brothers. Mom said she heard stories that Grandpa bought all the land for one dollar. Might there be a grain of truth in that family lore after all? Did Grandpa own the property outright as the first deed indicated, or was Lewis Cawthon secretly involved for "other considerations" that would take my grandfather fifteen years to repay? Was there something between the two, something that couldn't be recorded on paper?

    When I wrote about my puzzlement over this in the Atlanta Constitution, the newspaper I work for, a colleague walked up to me and said the answer was plain.

    "I can't believe you've become such a big-city boy that you can't figure out what was going on there," Jim Wooten said. Like me, he is a son of the rural, small-town South, so he was entitled to tease me. "Obviously, your grandfather was working the land for this other fella. They must have had some kind of sharecropping arrangement."

    If this was sharecropping, it certainly wasn't a typical example. Sharecropping replaced slavery in the South after Emancipation. Some say it was like slavery, only worse. A slave didn't get paid for working; a sharecropper had to pay someone to let him work. The sharecropper (almost always black) was allowed to plant cotton on the land of another man (always white) in exchange for handing over a portion of the crop. In addition to housing, the landowner usually provided food and other supplies, with his costs to be covered in the division of the crop.

    The problem for the sharecropper was that if the crop was poor or failed altogether, he was in debt to the landowner. Some found themselves in debt by the landowner's accounting even when they produced bumper crops. The debt could grow deeper and deeper each year, until a sharecropper had no hope of digging himself out. On top of that, the sharecropper was on the land at the pleasure of the man who owned the property. That man was lord of the land in every sense that the word "landlord" conveys. If the landowner was displeased for any reason, he could order the sharecropper to leave.

    My grandfather's situation appeared to be nothing like that—not even close. He had title to the land. If he didn't really own it, why go through an elaborate ruse to make it appear that he did? Was this some enlightened version of that instrument of racial oppression called sharecropping?

    I doubt that. As far as I know, Butts County was no incubator of racial harmony half a century ago. It wasn't the worst place in the South for race relations, but it wasn't close to the best, either. Donald Grant, in The Way Things Were in the South, his history of black people in Georgia, recounts the lynching of Henry Etheridge near Jackson, the county seat. Etheridge's offense was promoting the back-to-Africa movement among blacks in Butts County. I know of at least one lynching that took place while I was growing up in the county, and of an incident in which night riders—the Ku Klux Klan enforcers who, under cover of darkness, terrorized "trouble-making" blacks—fired shots into the home of a local civil rights leader.

    Such history only raises more questions about how my grandfather got the land and what it meant for him to own it. Why was any white man willing to sell that much land to a black man? What did other people in the community—black and white—think of it? If the resale really was about a property line dispute, why didn't Lewis Cawthon, who certainly occupied a superior status compared to Grandpa, simply declare that the line was where he said it was and that was that?

    My list of questions grows. But even as new queries are added and my chain of questions lengthens link by link, the dilemma is always this: When so many of these mysteries can be resolved only by knowing what was in the hearts and minds of the people now dead, where do I find the answers? My grandfather, a man of few words when he was living, has been dead for thirty years. Grandma told me stories, but she didn't have time to tell and I didn't have time to listen to all the stories I now wish I knew.

* * *

Houses and farmland once were living things. They were not merely built or bought; they were born. And, like babies, they took on the traits of those for whom they were born or of those who adopted them. My grandparents put parts of their innermost selves into the only house and land they would ever own. They embued the property with essences of themselves the way parents pass their genes to their children.

    My grandfather gave the house its utilitarian toughness. It was unspectacular but sturdy, made to stand up under the burden of their children. There were six children at home then—five girls (my mother Myrtle, Bessie, Marie, Helen, and Doris) and a boy, Marvin, who was the youngest. The four oldest boys (James, Randolf, Fred, and Chester) had crossed over into manhood and were out on their own. They soon would be off to soldier in World War II.

    As the years passed, the farm became a way station for my grandparents' children and an ever-growing cadre of grandchildren. There were no frills; every feature was plain and functional. The house was all straight lines and sharp angles, like my grandfather's face, and it was long and narrow, like his lanky frame. Unadorned, the rooms were as spare as an empty packing crate. There was nothing distinctive about it, except that it was one of the few two-story farmhouses in the county. But even that was a matter of function rather than style. You have more house taking up less land that way.

    The house inherited my grandmother's gentle generosity. She cooked constantly, so the house always smelled as if company was coming. She made the lace curtains that fluttered slowly in the windows, like the wings of resting butterflies. She softened the angles with simple things of beauty—a sea shell, an egg-shaped polished stone, a ball of crystal glass.

    Likewise, my grandparents tried to shape the land the way they shaped their lives. For my grandfather, it was all about clearing and plowing and squeezing as much value out of it as possible. Just as he saw his children as units of labor, he measured the land in bales of cotton per acre and bushels of corn and sweet potatoes.

    The land was not only alive; it was teeming with life. Grandpa spent most of his time competing with those other living things to stake his claim. He fought adversaries of all kinds, enemies that flew, walked, crept, hopped, or burrowed in to eat his crops. And there were enemies that grew up out of the ground and surrounded his plants, choking them or sucking the nutrients they needed out of the soil. Grandpa was the stern disciplinarian to his unruly 103 acres. He believed in letting them know who was boss. Once he got the land to bend to his will, he used an iron fist to keep it in line.

    My grandmother, on the other hand, caressed the land with her fingers and used that loving touch to convince it to yield gardens of fragrant beauty. (Having thought about my grandparents' differing approaches to the land, I now can imagine Grandma standing with hands on hips and telling some recalcitrant flower, "You just wait 'til your father gets home!") She grew rose of Sharon, four o'clocks, forsythia, morning glory, sunflowers, and roses of various sizes and colors. She tended and picked from apple trees, a pear tree, and a peach tree. And there were blackberry bushes that needed no tending. They gave fruit to anyone with the courage to confront their thorns in order to pick enough for pies and preserves.

    Grandma's green thumb provided me with more than an appreciation for the beauty and bounty of plants. It allowed me to learn the value of showing contrition after committing a crime and of showing a willingness to accept the proper punishment. The yard was full of shrubs and bushes of various kinds. We knew when we had committed that rare transgression that placed us beyond even Grandma's forgiveness.

    "Go get me a switch," she told us, and we went searching for the instrument of our own corporal comeuppance. The trick was to come up with a switch that fit the crime. Return with one that was too small, and Grandma, exasperated, would go find one large enough to increase the penalty to cover the added charge of attempting to obstruct justice.

    Those are some of the broad memories of my grandparents' house and land. I took such visions with me to a local bank on that February day when my brother James—who had come all the way from California—and I signed the papers to buy the farm. The bank president welcomed us into his office before the closing. He talked about how much he enjoyed working on civic projects with my brother Fred, the first African American elected to the Butts County Commission. Later, one of the loan officers asked us if we had seen Fred's wife, Brenda, who was the first black branch manager for the bank. Whether or not the story about his being unable to get a bank loan was true, Grandpa would be amazed at what took place in that bank that day. He would be amazed at the changes that had taken place in Butts County, not just in the almost sixty years since he bought the land in 1939, but also in the twenty-nine years since his death in 1968.

    He might have been even more amazed at the price his grandsons paid for the tiny puzzle piece that remained of the land he bought—along with the house he paid to have built on it—and the debt we took on to buy it. Grandpa paid two thousand dollars for 103 acres. I have no idea what the house cost. But the house and land together couldn't have cost him a fraction of the forty-three thousand dollars we paid for them on February 18, 1997. And the thirty-three-thousand-dollar mortgage we took out had to be more debt than he accumulated in his entire life. In fact, I would bet the debt I ran up within one month of getting my first credit card was more than he owed in his lifetime.

    A few days after the closing, when I knew the tenants who were living there would be away, I went to the farmhouse. I wanted to know how it would feel to stand there as the owner of my childhood dreams, which is what the farm had become.

    The lyrics of one of my favorite songs came to me as I walked up the front porch steps. It's a Jackson Browne song about someone who "looked into a house I once lived in" to "see where my beginnings had gone." I wondered at that moment if looking back was what buying the farm was about. Was I trying to see where I had come from in order to figure out where I ought to be going? This was more than a renovation project. I knew that. What lay ahead was the reconstruction of memories—memories of this place and the people who were here before me.

    Yes, the house and the land are living things. They have stories to tell, if only we know how to listen. Standing on the front porch that day, I knew this place no longer felt like the place I had known. I didn't believe I could re-create that place, but I hoped to rediscover it. I wanted the stories of the Fitch family farm to unfold day by day, answering all those questions I had never even known to ask. I wanted to be immersed in the long-buried details. In the end, I wanted my work on the house and the land to provide enough revelations to write the biography of this family place.

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