Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Great Depression, growing up on the county Poor Farm, shaped my father's life

Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting stories about my father, or stories my father liked to share.
    My father Sidney Hurdle, who died recently, was the sixth of eight children and the last in his family to die. As we first cousins said at his funeral, we've moved to the front row.
    I really think to understand my father or any of his siblings you have to understand that he was a child of the Depression in the truest sense. When the Depression hit it was clear to my grandfather that he wasn't going to be able to support a family by farming, and he was lucky to be able to get the job managing the County Home for indigents -- the Poor Farm (or the Poor House).
    I was raised hearing tales about life on the Poor Farm, and until the age of 14 or 15 assumed that Dad had lived there because the family was poor. I remember sitting in Shep Smith's cotton office one afternoon with a few older men when I mentioned something about Dad growing up on the Poor Farm. George Buchanan, who always looked over his glasses, pushed them down an extra bit and said, "Son, your grandfather managed the county poor farm."
    Of course, I considered this a betrayal of the first order! I had always been told Dad lived on the Poor Farm, only to learn that he was in top management. But when I confronted him with this new revelation he explained that when he lived there he didn't live a lot higher life than the residents. The family usually ate the same food and was surrounded by the same poverty as everyone else.
    There were so many stories from the Poor Farm. The times were hard. Even if the family had assets, there truly was no money during the Depression. One oft-told story deals with my grandfather's failure to obtain a $25 loan from the local bank despite having more than $1,000 in county warrants for collateral. These warrants were issued as promise of future payment because the county could not afford to pay my grandfather the 25 cents per day per resident to which he was entitled. Of course, he was expected to continue to feed and clothe the residents at his own expense. Pop Hurdle ended up having to sell the family's best mule to raise the $25. (In 1958 my grandfather "forgave" the bank and again started doing business with them).
    My grandfather was born into relative rural affluence in 1891. He was forced to quit school after third grade due to nearsightedness, lest he go blind (or so the doctors said). He was determined not to slip into poverty, even if the boll weevil and economic collapse seemed determined to push him over the edge. He drove himself hard and drove his children almost as hard. It affected all of his children, sometimes not in a good way.
    I'll leave my grandmother to another day, save to say that by modern standards it's a miracle that a man with a third-grade education managed to attract a highly intelligent, high-school graduate who became a school teacher (although she taught for only a few years). Dad always said whatever smarts our family has came from this wonderful woman.
    Back to the Poor Farm. Dad lived there until just before World War II. I think the family moved into Holly Springs in 1938 or 1939, when Dad would have been 14 or 15. But his time at the Poor Farm had an effect on his entire life. It gave him a great deal of compassion for the poor.
    About 15 years ago we were in an attic and came across an old chest that had been bequeathed to my Dad by a resident of the Poor House when he was a child. To be more precise, although the man did not have a will, the chest and a few other small items were his "estate." He wanted my Dad, who was then 10 or 12, to have his chest.
     When Dad saw his chest he knelt down and rubbed it, and told me the story about his old Poor Farm friend, an old indigent man. "I was his best friend," he said. "When he died he left me this chest."
    The chest was pretty wretched in appearance, and I'm afraid I allowed as much. Dad looked at me, back at the chest, then back at me. "It was all he had."
    Of course, I felt rather small and wished I had kept my mouth shut about the appearance of the chest.

Mark 12
42 And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.
43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:
44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.


carl said...

When I met Sidney as a very young child I knew instantly/instinctively that he understood how the under dog felt. I just knew. Mr. Hurdle had the "it" factor for lack of a better explanation. This is and was a good enough explanation for me.

Carl Dunlap

Jay Westfaul said...

I have always thought the world of your family and am glad you shared this story. The Hurdle family was always so good to me when I was privileged to serve as organist of the Methodist Church in Holly Springs for six years.

Col. Reb Sez said...

Thank you Jay (and Carl). Of course, while you were playing for the Methodists I was mostly attending Baptist services. I've only heard you play a few times. But I love to hear you play!

I did attend the HS Methodist church for almost two years, 2004-2005, although we didn't join. Some years ago they had an absolutely perfect service. I hope they haven't changed (ruined) it.

Inman Moore said...

Dear Frank,
Your father, Sidney, was a good man in the best sense of that word.
He was exceptionally kind to Nellie and me when we needed some help. In addition to be caring, Sidney was a very intelligent man. You were fortunate to have such a man as your father. You, Mike, and Lanier, and families are blessed. We will all miss him but we are glad he hung around as long as he did.