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Memories of Humphrey, Arkansas
in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Recollections of Robert Meacham



The atmosphere and aura of Humphrey was one of warmth and friendliness. As a child I knew our grandparents' home was a place of love. While it was a humble abode compared to our own residence in Nashville we were always excited at the prospect of going to Arkansas and we relished the time spent in that small town of less than 700 souls.

Naturally it was not a perfect place and I'm sure there was too much gossip and some bits of scandal in Humphrey but today I can name no place where I have found more genuine friendliness. The smiles of the people were real and sincere. Their interest and caring was from the heart. Even in big cities with reputations for rude inhabitants like New York and Paris I have been lucky in finding some friendly and interesting people. But in the South one can find more friendly people and I rate Humphrey at the top of Southern hospitality.

I was a very young child when my grandfather, Patrick Henly Mathews who we called Papaw, died. It may be difficult for some to believe but I do have very distinct memories of him even though I was not quite four when he died. Some of these memories may have been preserved/muddied with the reference of photographs but there are many images I have of him for which there is no photograph.

His surviving letters show him to be a simple, good hearted, spiritual, and patriotic man. He gave practical advice to his children, wrote good long letters, and used humor and even corny humor.

When he was sick, I remember preparations for visiting him in the hospital in Stuttgart. I had a new toy "doctor's kit" with toy stethoscope and other medical tools in a black doctor's bag. I had hoped to use all the bags implements on Papaw and was disappointed that I did not have time to do a full course of doctoring. My clear memory is that his oxygen "tent" was opened so that I could kiss him.

My mother said that at some point before dying Papaw crossed himself and that she and Aunt Haley asked Mamaw if a priest should be called. Mamaw's answer was, "Why he's been a good Methodist for over 40 years!". And of course crossing oneself is not asking for a priest but there are other variations of the story that I heard at a family reunion.

Julia Stokes Mathews, my grandmother, who we called Mamaw, was a dynamic mother of seven children. She was strong, energetic, hardworking, and opinionated.

She also liked humorous stories. One she told involved a government investigator coming to one of Humphrey's more rough-edged women while doing a security clearance investigation. He asked her if she knew of any wrongdoing or questionable activities in the young man's background and the lady responded "Hell no!" And Mamaw thought it funny that such "strong language" would be used in a response to an official investigation.

Of her children all seven had 1st marriages that made it to the finish line.

Mamaw was a very generous and giving person. She could spoil us grandchildren. Once on a visit to Nashville, we were in the downtown Woolworth's store. I had admired a paint-by-numbers kit of Da Vinci's "Last Supper". It was a large hobby shop sort of edition with the "canvass" over two feet wide. I did not ask for it but Mamaw snuck it over to the cash register and bought it for me. I still own a pewter horse head tie tack that she gave me for Christmas when as a young teen I was a horse enthusiast. But my most cherished relic is the quilt that she made for me because I said something about not having a quilt. This corduroy patchwork quilt with lining must be one of the last things she ever made if not the last because shortly thereafter her condition worsened.

When "Bonanza" was a popular television show, Mamaw complained that "Some folks will miss Sunday evening church just to watch that show".

One opinion expressed was "Even Lincoln didn't believe White and Colored children should go to school together." According to my mother Mamaw like most Southerners had never voted for a Republican before the Eisenhower-Stephenson presidential race. She voted for Eisenhower, the Republican and Ike later sent paratroopers into Little Rock to enforce the integration of public schools there. After that federal troops in Arkansas episode Mamaw said that she would NEVER vote for a Republican again. I recall her saying in so many words the old saw that integration would not lift up the Blacks but would only pull down Whites or the schools in general. While such things are just not said today there are statistics that shore up Mamaw's prophecy. Standardized tests have been "dumbed-down" since the 1950s and writing standards have dropped immeasurably. It is difficult to make true statistics from surviving samples but I would argue that the Black sharecropper offspring sixth grader of the 1930s typically wrote better compositions than 10th graders, black and white, do today. The schools too in the areas of safety and discipline have indeed gone down hill. And there has been a politically correct re-segregation via special programs, set-asides, Black proms, endless color bean-counting, etc.

It was surprising to see Blacks attending school in the middle of summer in Arkansas when I was very young. The reason was that the Colored schools had a different schedule so that they could adjourn for late summer/early fall cotton picking to make some cash.

We once had a long car breakdown episode at Forest City, Arkansas. The not-so-old Dodge station wagon gave us lots of trouble. I remember a truck that was pulling a load of new truck cabs stopped to help us on the highway. It actually stopped about 80 yards past us because it took the driver that long to slow down and stop. After endless waiting I remember crying that "We'll never get home". A few years later, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world was Sonny Liston, a former con, who grew up in Forest City. It was perhaps not the best place for a woman traveling alone with three children to have car trouble but Mama seemed unfazed by such concerns.

Humphrey's Main Street had sidewalks on both sides. It was very pleasant to stroll to downtown past neat houses, magnolia trees, the Methodist Church, Uncle Ed's home, and finally the highway, in reaching the center. I still remember certain places where the sidewalks were very cracked and other places where there was often standing water in the ditch. Heavy farm equipment and tractors often motored down Main Street.

Aunt Mamie's store, Morris's store, Mr. Mauser's store/pool hall, the Community Center, the post office, a gas station bait-shop, a derelict railroad depot, Uncle Ed's Dry Goods store, the motel and a few other buildings made up the downtown. Most of the stores were very pleasant and clean. The exception was Uncle Eds which had old clothing and old shoes and smelled like stale dirty shoes. Mamaw said that "Why the sorriest nigger in town wouldn't want some of those old shoes in there." Her opinion of Uncle Ed Malloy was that he was a bit on the lazy side and she exclaimed concerning his wife Aunt Lula "why she even has to run the bath water for him!"

There were benches in front of a couple of the stores and Pat liked to hang out with the "whittle and spit club" as the group of old men who often sat there were known.

One day an old deaf lady was hit by a train and the freight train stayed there with the warning signals still sounding and the lights flashing for hours as the body and parts were policed up. A colored boy had tried to make a run to save her just before she was hit at the crossing.

Another time, when I was a bit older, maybe ten or twelve, Mamaw received a phone call that Morris Creel had fallen down. Mama went down to the store while Mamaw and I waited at the house. Mama came back and said "Mama when I got there he was already gone". He had died of a heart attack.

I enjoyed the simple pleasures of walking downtown by myself or sometimes with Barbara and getting a coke and maybe eat-a-snacks or Hostess cupcakes from the motel, Aunt Mamie's, or Morris' store.

Once a local boy showed me a penny that a train had flattened. I decided I too would put a penny on the track. But I was not there when a train finally came. Later, I saw lots of white stuff that apparently is discharged when a train hits its brakes hard. I saw a bad roughed-out spot on top of the rail but did not find the penny. Soon the rail section was replaced. So that little episode cost the railroad some serious money and me guilty feelings.

The side street (now Julia Avenue) beside Mamaw's house was not paved but did have nice tan colored stones for a surface. With my sling shot, I would shoot those rocks into puddles, at trees, and way up into the air with them coming down on roofs. Nobody told be to be more careful or stop hitting houses with rocks.

We would go shooting Pat's 22 rifle, 22 pistol, and the Luger pistol at a bridge over Crooked Creek violating a myriad of safety rules.

I remember Pat taking me fishing at Bayou Meda (pronounce locally as Bi-o Meedah) but in earlier days we fished at Crumb Lake (officially called Glenwood Resevoir). Our most successful day of fishing was at Kingdom Come Resevoir.

At Crumb Lake Daddy and I were often in one john boat and Billy and Pat were in another among the dead trees left standing after the land was flooded. We usually caught bass but once I remember telling Daddy that he was snagged but him saying "No, it is a fish" and finally he reeled up a large mud cat. Another time Daddy caught an alligator gar. One day I had caught the biggest fish and it was a fine bass. Years later Mama said that Daddy did not really like fishing too much but just thought it was something a father should do with his sons.

After our productive hours at Kingdom Come with good strings of fish (or perhaps that day it was an ice chest full of fish) we were returning and paddling through the channel dividing the algae as a thunderstorm approached. As we made it to the landing there was a Black family fishing from the bank and also beginning to retreat from the approaching storm. I remember Daddy laughing because the little girl said "I can hear that thunder but I can't hear that lightnin.".

As we cleaned fish one day at Mamaw's backyard, I remember a large cat running under her house with a big fish head in its mouth.

Another time as Mamaw, Mama, and Aunt Hallie were walking out to the car across the short front yard, they reacted to a colorful snake that was on the lawn. Billy took care of that snake (perhaps a scarlet snake or a scarlet king snake?) with a hoe.

Mamaw's back yard was a rustic place with the remains of an old garden fence and a chicken house. The home had a comfortable front porch with a porch swing, a nice living room, a nice dining room, a kitchen, a back porch mostly used for storage, a front bedroom with a double bed, a back bedroom with three single beds, and the sun room with another couple of single beds. The one bathroom had only a tub and no arrangement for a shower. I don't know what year the outhouse became obsolete and indoor plumbing was installed but perhaps during the '30s? When Mama was a little girl in Humphey, they still used an outhouse. I remember Michelle, our exchange student from Switzerland asking if there would be indoor facilities before our trip with him to Arkansas. It was a pretty modern home and was not like some of the homes around Alvin C. York's home area of Pall Mall and Rugby in the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee where outhouses commonly lingered long after rural electrification and people had "farm truck in the shed, modern tractor in the fields, but still used the little building down in the lower corner of the back yard."

There was no air-conditioning in Mamaw's house. Our own home on Woodmont Boulevard had AC installed a few years after the Meachams moved in. Humphrey was on the low flat cotton and rice growing prairie of Arkansas and it was very hot in the middle of summer when we usually visited. Mama had a nice collection of window fans, floor fans, and oscillating fans.

The mosquitoes were quite thick and if we played outside in the evening we could get lots of bites in a short span of time. The town was sprayed with insecticide periodically so it could have been worse. Once while visiting the Magnolia Street home of the Beards, I can remember the fogger truck putting out its cloud of insecticide to combat mosquitoes and Barbara and I ran out into the cloud for fun.

Mama remembered that when she was a little girl Mamaw would go to the chicken house or just grab a chicken in the back yard and ring its neck. It is interesting that Mamaw used the quick grab-the-chicken-by-the-head method and shake it round and round rather than the more ceremonial beheading method preferred by some. Growing up Mama never had to milk their cow as Mamaw thought that milking the cow should be the boy's job. Mamaw grew up milking cows and but apparently did not want her daughters to have that skill.

When Billy was a teenager he would have some animated verbal arguments with Mama. I can remember Mamaw going to the sideboard in her dining room and getting money out of a drawer and offering it to Billy in an effort to end the arguing which seemed too heated for Mamaw's sensibilities. Billy said, "Oh Mamaw!" as he waved off the bribe.

In the back bedroom, Mamaw had one of those cat clocks that have a tail and eyes that move. I can remember sleeping there with Mamaw and Barbara while Billy and Pat slept in the sun room and Mama and Daddy had Mamaw's room (the front bedroom). We managed to sleep more in the house when Aunt Hallie, Uncle O.T. and Donna would spend the night with us there on a trip down from North Little Rock.

There were lots of interesting characters in Humphrey. Aunt Ellen, Mamaw's sister, lived out on the highway to Stuttgart and unlike Mama owned and drove a car. She was very quick moving, quick talking, efficient, and energetic woman. Mark Anthony, Alice Jean, Imogene, Mildred, and everyone in Humphrey were just a great warm and friendly people.

Aunt Margaret's daughter, Nancy Evans (later Nancy Lockhart) stayed with Mamaw as an older teen and she drove the classic 1957 Chevy convertable. I remember when she dated Buddy and would run outside when his pick up pulled up in front of the house. Mamaw said "Nancy dates too much but I guess there is nothing I can do about it." In later times after Nancy and Buddy were married, we visited their trailer home out in the country. Buddy farmed aggressively and intensively and worked very hard. They were named Farm Family of the Year and featured in more than 20 photographs in a supplement to the Stuttgart newspaper. But like many farmers, low commodity prices, and high operating expenses finally got the better of Buddy and he had to declare bankruptcy. The family, including the young children Angela, Edward Ray, and later Kelly moved to Mississippi after the bankruptcy.

There was an old and very kind man that lived across the street from Mamaw. He often wore a pith helmet and was very helpful to Mamaw when she needed something special done in the yard or help with something. When he died, I remember Mama saying that he was off "to his reward".



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