The Hiram Johnson Story (1909-99)

By Darlene Johnson - 2000

As a freshman at Lees College in Jackson, Breathitt County, Kentucky, in 1983, I was given an assignment of interviewing someone over 55 years of age. I chose my grandfather, Hiram Clarence Johnson, Sr. In the following story, Grandpa tells of his family, his life, the jobs he had, and what it was like when he was growing up.

"My name is Hiram Clarence Johnson, Sr. I was born September 25, 1909, at Guerrant, Breathitt County, Kentucky, at my parents' homeplace. My mother was Eliza Combs, and my father was Arthur Johnson, Sr., also known as "River" Arthur. My grandparents were Walter Johnson and Dorcus Turner Johnson; and Logan and Jane Combs. In 1940, I married Golden Marie Toler (1916-1989), and we reared 16 children: Kenneth Ray Davidson (deceased) and Lelia Mae Davidson Smith (twins); Paul Edward Johnson (the author's father); Jimmy Darold Johnson (deceased); Evelyn Marie Johnson Sparks; Billy Joe Johnson and Wanda Faye Roark Johnson (twins); Shirley Jean Johnson Palmer; Carlise Ann Johnson Jett; Franklin Dee Johnson; Kathleen Johnson Spencer; Eliza Jane Johnson Seigle; Hiram C. Johnson, Jr.; Linda Lou Johnson Terry; Tommy Gordon Johnson; and Arthur Logan Johnson.

"I was one of nine children. My siblings are French (deceased), Ed, Evelyee (deceased), Myrtle (deceased), Beulah (deceased), Flossie, Bertha Mae, and Inzie. While growing up, we never had any disputes in our family of any kind. We all got along good. My father was a schoolteacher, church moderator, and an ordained Baptist preacher, so there wasn't much room for any arguments.

"I went four years to Highland School, five years at Berea, then I came back to Highland to finish. All together, I went 12 years to school. In 1936, I went into the CCC for 25 months and four days. I was sent to South Bend, Indiana, in the Advantage Camp. I worked at the camp on the Advantage Project. I worked in the canteen as a canteen steward.

"After leaving the CCC, I came back home to the farm. In 1941 I went to work for the Morgan Packing Company in Indiana. In 1942, I went into the Air Force. I got out of the Air Force in 1943. I made PFC, a cook, a baker, and a butcher. In 1943, I worked on the highway crew. Later, I went back to work for Morgan Packing Company. I also worked at Steel Craft Manufacturing Company, where I worked for three years. In 1960, I went back to work at Morgan Packing Company, and I retired there in 1972. Then, I came back to my farm at Athol, Kentucky. I also own the biggest part of the homeplace at Guerrant, which is made up of survey grants from the government.

"When I was growing up, the mail was delivered to the post office by horseback or on foot. Sometimes the mail carrier had to walk and deliver the mail. The country store was owned by Billy Belcher at Guerrant, Kentucky, which was about one and one-half miles from home. Bad wagon roads were all that we had in that day and time. A person had to cross the river or wade the creeks a lot of the time. The roads went into the creeks.

"I remember when Breathitt County was a wet county. I don't remember the exact date, but I remember when there was whiskey in Jackson and all over the county. I began going to Jackson with my father, sometimes by myself, between the age of 12 and 15. It was a pretty rough place. Also, the country life was rough. There were no cars; we only had wagon roads and walking paths, so we had a pretty rough time getting anywhere. Breathitt County was also known as 'Bloody Breathitt.' The town had a Hargis Commercial Bank. The First National Bank was put up around 1909. Lees College, at that time, was about the only high school that we had, above the missionary schools, which were around through the county. The missionaries had a school at Guerrant. It was a grade school and a high school. Schooling in that day was hard to come by.

There were a lot of people that made moonshine, but no one in my family ever did. My great-grandfather had a still, where he made red whiskey. He got a permit and made red whiskey for the government. I still remember where he had his still. We used the bottom part of the still to heat water when we killed hogs, to heat wash water, and other things. It stayed in the same spot for years, as far as I know, there was no bootlegged whiskey made on the farm. Bootlegging has gone on ever since I can remember, and always will, I guess. If the county is not wet, someone will make bootleg moonshine, and somebody will drink it as long as we live. Breathitt County was a big bootlegging county.

"I can remember when World War I was over and people rang the church bells and school bells. People rejoiced that the war was over. I was not too big, and my father was ready to go to the Army and had everything fixed up to go when he got word that the war was over. It was a big joyful time when the war was over.

I have been told a lot about the Civil War, but I don't know anything about it personally. My grandfather and grandmother lived at the homeplace during the Civil War. That is when the Klu Klux Klan was supposed to have hung my grandfather, and my grandmother had to cut him down.

"During the second World War I was in the Army Air Force Division. The war was fought overseas. After awhile they turned me loose to come back home and get a defensive job. I went back to work at Morgans. The 1930s, the Depression got to be the worst. I remember that, because I lived through it. Flour got down to three sacks for a dollar, lard was six cents a pound, bacon was five cents a pound, and meal was cheaper than flour. Things got down pretty cheap. Times were pretty hard. There were no jobs and no way of making a living, except on the farm. There was very little money.

"I remember the older people would tell their ghost tales or stories as each one knew them. But we wouldn't talk about many ghost tales or anything like that. We mostly told church tales. My mother and daddy would sit and sing, and we got a lot of teaching about the church. My parents lived on the homeplace, where I was born and raised. My father was also born and raised there. I can remember being told by my grandmother that my grandpa was hung at the homeplace by the Klu Klux Klan. After they left, my grandmother went and cut him down with a butcher knife. He was hung so his feet would barely touch the ground, so he wouldn't choke to death. They didn't want to kill him, they just wanted to show him who was boss.

"When I was a little boy, I rode behind my father on a horse on our way to church or associations many times. My mother would ride with him. We went to many different churches and associations. There was a Baptist church on Old Buck or near it. There was another church on Shoulder Blade, and a Presbyterian Church at Highland. Since my father was a church moderator and a Baptist preacher, I went to several churches when I was small. Later on, when I grew up, I went to church on my own. I went to Berea College in 1925 and joined a church. I have been a Baptist church member ever since. I haven't been going to church at Berea, but I feel like any church is a good place to be.

"Back when I was young, the law was mostly in town. They were rough and tough. They never had many requests to come out into the country, but we had deputies and the sheriff, like they do now, but they didn't hold very strict order.

"I remember my family using a lot of home remedies. I remember drinking ironweed tea for a sore throat. If I had spring fever or whatever in the spring, I had to drink sassafras tea. Polk salad has been known to break up pneumonia fever in the spring. We used groundhog grease to rub on our necks for sore throats, and we also used catnip tea. The doctors didn't come around very much. They had faith healings, or so they said, but not too much around my neighborhood. We had all kinds of fevers, like pneumonia fever, but we never heard much about scarlet fever. We had all sorts of flu. We had whoopping cough, sore throats, and many diseases that we didn't know what they were. People just doctored around with ironweed tea and other teas, and things like that. We would go to the doctor every now and then.

"In the old days, people said if you planted corn when the signs were right, you would have good corn. If you planted corn when the signs were wrong, you wouldn't have good corn. Sometimes it worked out to be the truth, and sometimes it didn't. A new agricultural teaching says to plant your corn in the ground, and it will grow anytime, but the older people thought you had to plant it when the signs were right; and if you planted it when the signs were wrong, you didn't get any corn. It was the same with green beans. If you planted green beans under certain signs, you didn't get any beans. If you dug your potatoes on the new moon, they would do well. They also said if you killed a hog when the signs were wrong, the meat didn't turn out good. It all curled up and didn't keep, which could be right or wrong. You could watch it; sometimes it would work, and sometimes it didn't.

"The way people killed hogs back in my time was that we would build a fire and have a tub of hot water. Sometimes people would put the hog down in the tub of boiling water and take the hairs from it. Some people laid them out on a big platform, scalded them, scraped them, and cleaned them. They put them in a smoke-house, put some smoke under them, and they had hickory-smoked meat, or whatever, right out of the smokehouse. People used anything that would smoke. They used corn cobs, hickory bark, and hickory wood. The meat was good eating at that day and time. The only meat that we had was home-killed meat. Meat and lard has been as low as a nickel a pound. People always salted their meat. They had to salt it good, so the meat would not spoil.We didn't have any deep freezers or refrigerators. You had to kill the hogs when the weather was right, and take care of it yourself. Beef wasn't killed as often, but when they were, a person had their own way of taking care of the beef, which meant it had to be kept dry. You had to keep the flies, rats, and mice away from it, which was sometimes hard to do. The old-time meat eating was as good or better than it is today.

"In my day, when I was a young boy, a bunch of the neighbor boys would go rabbit or coon hunting. We all had our own coon dogs, and of course, each boy had the best dog, but that was hard to prove. Rabbit hunting was a big sport, but not as much as it is today. People still enjoyed the meat and the hunt.

"Horse racing was a big thing back then. On the home farm, where I was born and raised, there was a good, level, smooth piece of bottom land. The old-timers would gang up there, and they would race their horses to see who had the best horse; of course, that was the old-time big shots. The young boys would go out and run their daddy's horse and race it a little bit and not tell him, but it would come out, because the neighbors would tell. The father would then find out if his horse was a good runner or a bad runner, by the way his neighbors were talking to him.

"When the railroad went through, I can't exactly remember the date, but I was a great big boy at that time. I can remember people talking about the railroad going through. They had strikes, and they had "scabbers" as they called it. When the railroads were on strike, they would hire a new bunch. Sometimes they would fight, and sometimes they got along good. When I was growing up, there wasn't much of a union. The L. and N. Railroad had a strike one time, which was caused by union members. I was a pretty good size boy, when they had the strike. It was a distance from us, so I don't know how they did, or what was done. They had the strike when they were building the railroad. I can remember when the first blacktop road was built in Breathitt County. We don't have near as many blacktop roads as we need, but maybe as many as we are gonna get for a while.

"We never had electricity until about 1950. I think it was a better life then, except a person had to use coal oil lamps. Radio never came around until I was about 12 or 13 years old. Then we began to hear about someone having a radio, but we didn't have any at home until about 1932, or somewhere along there. Other people had them, but we didn't get around much.

"The timber business, in my grandfather's day, was a great thing, but it was not done much by the time I grew up. I helped cut logs and sawed them, and I helped run a few logs down the river. I saw a few ties cut and made. I never did make any ties, but my brothers did. So the timber in this country was cut out years ago.

"The elections were the same back then as they are today. We had about the same officers in the elections as we do now, but we didn't have any machines. You had to make your vote with a pencil mark. It was out in the open, maybe in some old schoolhouse or a voting house that had been built. The people would go out during the election, about like they do now. Sometimes they would have a big turn out, and sometimes they didn't. If it were a small election, they would just have people stand in line for whom they wanted to vote for. It was a funny way to have an election, but sometimes that is how they had it.

"They had about the same kind of courts as they do today, except that they are more strict today, I guess. Courts are handled in so many different ways that the common man doesn't understand what is going on. Now, we have a district court. That is something that we didn't use to have. We had the county court, the magistrate court, and the circuit court. A jury trial was handled like it is today.

"Mining was something that I never did do much of. I have dug a little coal out or "groundhogged" it out, but I never did work in the mines. I don't think that I would have liked it. There was a lot of mining done, especially in Perry County and Leslie County. I did know a lot of people who worked in the mines. Now it is all handled by unions. Used to a person could go out and dig a little coal, haul it in a wagon, and sell it, and there was no trouble. Now, unions make a person pay a certain price, or they don't get to work.

"When I was growing up, school books were furnished by the schools. The books were first plain old reading, writing, arithmetic, and grammar. The county furnished these books. Later on, people had to buy their books, especially the high school books. Everybody didn't go to school regular. You went if you could, and if you couldn't, you just missed. So a person didn't learn too much. Now, we have better roads, and better ways of getting to school. Today, we have better schools than what we had back then.

"Making molasses was a way of making something to eat, and something to sell on the farm. You planted the seeds and worked it just like you do corn. When the cane got ripe, it was run through a mill, which mashed the juice out; then it was run through a boiler that boiled the juice, and then the foam was skimmed from it. When it boiled down to good clear molasses, it was one of the best foods grown on the farm. It sold good, but it is a lot of hard work.

"I have seen soap made, but I never did help make any. My mother used to make homemade soap. She used hog grease, lye, and different stuff to put in the soap. She then boiled it down, and let it sit so it would harden. She would then cut it up. I have washed in it many of time. People used to wash clothes with it. That is all they could get, if they didn't live close to the community stores.

"I remember where a flour mill was set up and a grist mill that was run by water. The flour mill was set up at Jackson. I was told that there was also a grist mill there. On Snake Branch, they had a mill pond. That is where the water mill sat. People would go to the mill, and things were ground by a water-powered grist mill.

"When I was a young boy, we had the game of marbles, and the game of baseball. Later on, we had volleyball. The girls would play "Ring Around The Roses" and all of that. Games were mostly among the community or the school children."

My grandfather passed away on November 29, 1999, at the age of 90. He lived a long and full life. He was an inspiration to all who knew him. I can't remember him ever being sick, or even going to the doctor. Besides being a father to 16 children, he was a grandfather to 41 and a great-grandfather to 39 or more. Grandpa was a great man and is sadly missed by his family and friends.

(Note: For photos on this story, see photographs section.)
Darlene Johnson, 726 Highway 1812 West, Jackson, KY 41339, shares this story and the photos. She works at The Kentucky Explorer magazine.