When you want to get the full story, the best thing to do when possible is to go to the people who were there or involved. This was the case Monday when a group of Colbert residents, my age and older, got together for a very interesting history session arranged by Wyota Hannan.
The occasion was a visit from Rusty Williams from Dallas, a multi-published author, who was on a quest for information about an incident called “The Red River Bridge War” that took place in the summer of 1931 on Red River near Colbert.
Rusty, whose last publications were a series of books titled “My Old Confederate Home, a responsible place for Civil War Veterans.” “The Red River Bridge War” manuscript already consists of 80,000 words in 12 chapters along with notes, bibliography, index and photos. It will be completed within seven months and is due to be released in the spring of 2015.
He contacted Wyota, an active member of the Colbert Historical Society, for help in hearing “color” to liven up his book and give it that personal touch. The group that gathered in the fellowship Hall of the Methodist Church in Colbert, answered question after question, then really got wound up on life in the Depression years in the Red River Bottoms, southeast of Colbert.
I will not go into the information they provided for the book, but since I was there as a listener, will write about some of the stories they told of life in that area at the time.
Rusty has a long writing career, including several years with Harte-Hanks Newspapers that owned The Denison Herald during most of the time that I was employed there. A full-time author now, he keeps busy on one project, book or another.
Those present included Mary Kathryn Hodge, a retired teacher; Mickey Fisher from Platter, a retired Pillsbury employee; Wyota and James Hannan, who have spent most of their lives in Colbert; Faye Carroll, retired teacher; Marylin Miller, formerly a legal secretary in Dallas whose husband was a native Colbert resident; LaVerne Sims Bledsoe, retired teacher; Charline Barnett, also retired and whose husband later said he wished he had also attended the meeting; and Dr. Charles Scott and a biologist friend from Chickasha.
The voices of the folks who lived in the area of the Bridge War at the time it took place had many stories to tell that should really spice up the author’s book.
Living in the Red River Bottoms meant that electricity wasn’t always there for the families and when the Rural Electric Administration (REA) finally began signing up residents for electricity, it was an exciting time. One of the ladies, one of nine children in a farm family, vividly remembered when the REA representative came to their house down near the river to see if they wanted to sign up. Her father asked how much it cost and was told $5. He told the rep he wanted electricity, but he didn’t have $5. Money was really scarce at the time and the husband had a hard enough time feeding his large family. The rep said if he wanted to sign on, he would pay the fee for him.
That made for a happy family and excitement grew as the installation of electricity came to their home. Once connected the kids all waited with baited breath for the switch to be turned on for the one light bulb hanging from the center of the room. They all gathered around and when that light came on she said it was “like Dallas being lighted up” to all of them.
A few years later a salesman came around wanting to sell them a washing machine. Her father told the man he didn’t want one because he had a wife to boil their clothes clean and he was afraid a machine wouldn’t do that. The salesman told him he would bring one out and if it didn’t get the clothes clean, he would pick it up. It stayed with the house to the delight of his wife who put her rub board away.
Lye soap was something else several remembered. All the families made their own lye soap that worked for everything from washing dishes to shampooing their hair, taking baths and every other use involving soap and water.
When asked about what they ate for Sunday dinner, “Chicken” was the unanimous answer. Often a chicken would be killed by wringing its neck, then plucked with the feathers kept for pillows, and cooked, all after church. There were homemade biscuits and gravy to go with the fried chicken. Ham, bacon and pork were cured in the smoke house. So with chickens, cows and pigs on the farm, vegetables and fruit raised there and canned, corn being ground into cornmeal and the staples bought on their infrequent trip to Denison, the families, no matter how large, generally had plenty to eat. Each family had at least one cow so they had milk to drink and butter that they churned. They recalled keeping the cows penned up at certain times of the year to keep them from eating bitter weed that spoiled the taste of the milk.
Some remembered coming across the river to Ashburn’s in Denison for ice cream as one of the best treats they had. They came to Denison to purchase their staple groceries and everything else they had on the farm.
Even though Colbert had a movie theater, sometimes they would go to a western movie at the Superba, Rio or Star Theater when they came to Denison. Gene Autry was their favorite cowboy, one of the interviewees said, adding that he and his friends thought Roy Rogers was a sissy. Then on the way home the last thing they would do is stop and buy a large block of ice and wrap it in newspaper to keep it from melting before they got back across Red River.
A couple said that making whiskey was something that their fathers and grandfathers did to help support their families. One father brought his product to Denison and sold it to a well-known Denison grocer. One of the fathers was a sheriff and also operated a number of beer establishments in the Southern Oklahoma area. Most, however, were farmers and their kids turned out to be okay.
DONNA HUNT is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.