Limestone County Historical Commission
Limestone County Historical Commission

Jo Bayless

DAVIS PRAIRIE

 

Interviewed by Logan Wilson

September 30, 2014

Forest Glade, Texas

 

 

[ed. note: A high-pitched noise, possibly crickets chirping, is heard throughout the interview. Also, wind chimes are heard intermittently in the background.]

 

WILSON: My name is Logan Wilson. Today is the thirtieth of September, 2014. I’m interviewing Mrs. Bayless at her home in Forest Glade, Texas. This interview is sponsored by the Limestone County Historical Commission and is part of the Footprints of Times Past project. I want to thank Mrs. Bayless for her efforts and her time in our project. The next voice you hear will be that of Mrs. Bayless. (moves microphone toward Mrs. Bayless)

 

BAYLESS: As Mr. Wilson said, my name is Jo Bayless. I’ve—grew up in the neighborhood of Davis Prairie. My mother’s parents started out there eons ago. My maternal great-grandfather was John “Jack” Rasco, the fifth child of John and Lucy Taylor Rasco. Family legend has it that Lucy was the niece of President Zachary Taylor. Who knows if that’s true. Jack married Susan Davis, the youngest child of Brinkley Davis. My grandfather Uriah was their oldest child, and my mother Imogene Rasco Hamilton was the last child born to the union of Uriah and Suda Pierce Rasco. I was born about two miles from the Davis Prairie schoolhouse. I’m not sure exactly what delineates community lines, so I may not be considered a Davis Prairie native, being born two miles away. However, Mother was born in sight of the school property and lived there until her marriage to Glen Hamilton in 1935. Even after marriage, she managed to get back nearly every other—every weekend and usually during the week after the family moved to Mexia in 1945.

 

Not exactly sure when the school was closed. However, it happened before 1943, when I began first grade and had to go to Thornton. We lived in and around the Davis Prairie schoolhouse until we moved to Mexia in 1945. I grew up basically in Mexia and in Davis Prairie because we did go back down there every weekend. My mother’s family still lived on the old—what we called the old homeplace, which is in sight of the Davis Prairie schoolhouse. In fact, I played in the school building as a child. Of course, it was vacant.

 

Well, it wasn’t vacant. It was deserted. It was abandoned because there was still some stuff in there that—some books and some desks and some chairs, and even the outside privies were still operational. There were several of the kids in the community that would go down and play on the school grounds, and we used the bathrooms down there when we were playing.

 

The community has grown. It has expanded. It has shrunk. In my time as a child, there was a grocery store, which also had a gas pump, one of the old-fashioned ones that you pull the handle and pump the tank full, and then you—gravity pumped it out into the car. In fact, my mother and daddy’s best friends ran the store at the time that I was—when there still was a gas pump there. As I said, my mother’s family has lived there—well, Brinkley Davis came to Limestone County in the early 1800s and got that four-thousand- acre land grant. My great-grandfather inherited some of the land, and my grandfather inherited some of the land, and my mother inherited some of the land. I had some of the land. I have since sold it, so the land ties have gone but certainly not the memories.

 

It was basically an agrarian community. Everybody had cows. Everybody had chickens. Nearly everybody had hogs and dogs and kids. Everybody had a garden. The men basically farmed. More what they call truck crops—peas, tomatoes, potatoes, stuff like that rather than cotton and—well, they did grow some corn, a lot of it for feed because they did have cows and hogs. My mother’s family always managed to have at least one hog to kill in the fall. Oh, and hog-killing day was an exciting experience for little kids, to get to run around the fire, to watch them try to scald and scrape those hogs. (clears throat) Did it the old-fashioned way. Kids this day and time have absolutely no concept of—you give them a whole chicken and, Well, what am I supposed to do with this? (Wilson laughs) It’s supposed to be in pieces or it’s supposed to be in boneless nuggets. They have absolutely no idea of what to do with it. They’ve never seen a whole chicken. And a chicken running around on the ground, forget it! Of course, I’ve killed and scalded and plucked chickens. In fact, even after I married, we raised our own chickens for a while and would put them in the—of course, they didn’t have freezers. You just—when you wanted a chicken, you went out and run him down and killed him and cooked him. But we—of course, as time went on, we had freezers and whatever and we were able to store food.

 

WILSON: Mrs. Bayless, can you enlarge on the process of the butchering of the hog. What actually did that entail? What—

 

BAYLESS: Okay. Of course, the hog was usually started in the early spring as a piglet. I mean, you chose your hog. You penned him up. You fed him, you fattened him. My uncle used to say that November was the hog-killing month, was the traditional hog- killing month because the weather had gotten cool enough that they could get the hog killed, chilled, and started smoking before another little warm front moved in. The hog was usually shot and then the throat slit to—and hung up to bleed out. After that, the washpot had this—they used the outside—of course, it was all done outside. There was no such thing as an indoor butcher shop in the farming community. They would use a fifty-five-gallon drum, usually propped up at an angle so that the water stayed inside but then they could still rotate the hog. They would fill that with boiling water, submerse that hog, that hog carcass, in there to free the bristles, so that they could be scraped off the hide. And they usually—sometimes they used knives. A lot of times they used broken pottery because the broken pottery would scrape better than the knives.

 

Once the hog was free of bristles, they were then hung, gutted, halved, cut up however— the bacons were—the bacon was cut off. The fat was cut off. By the way, the fat was rendered into lard. That was another day’s worth of work somewhere down the road. You didn’t do that that day because there was too much else going on. If you were going to have sausage, nine times out of ten the entrails were used as sausage casings. It was my mother’s job to clean the entrails. What she would do, she would get a piece of stick—not a pencil, not something clean out of the kitchen, but she would find a stick in the yard, scrape all the bark off of it, and feed the gut, like, over that stick and then turn it inside out and scrape out the residue and then wash them thoroughly. That’s what they used for sausage casings. If the entrails were unusable, then they would sew up feed sacks and make little bags out of it for their sausage casings. [Bayless note: Sausage was smoked just like the rest of the pork. Smoking was the method of preservation.]

 

They had a smokehouse that was probably—oh, I’m going to say probably twelve- or fourteen-foot wide and maybe twenty-foot long. And they used hickory wood to smoke. As long as you could find the smallest piece of that smokehouse, you could smell the hickory smoke in it. (Wilson laughs) Like I said, they usually got it all cut up, hung up, and salted down and ready to smoke that day or the next day. You waited till you had a really blue norther come in before you started this process because you wanted it to be cold for as long as possible to get the meat chilled down so that you could keep it—you know, keep it from spoiling.

 

WILSON: So the meat wasn’t refrigerated. It was preserved by salt?

 

BAYLESS: Salt and smoke.

 

WILSON: Salt and smoke.

 

BAYLESS: Salt and smoke. No, the only refrigeration was an icebox. The iceman came every three or four days and you got anywhere from 25 to 150 pounds of ice.

 

WILSON: You couldn’t put a whole hog in it, could you? (laughs)

 

BAYLESS: Why, no. No no. There was no way. You were able to keep the milk in there. You were able to keep—well, not even a lot of food in there because what they—if they preserved it, they canned it. I canned a many a jar of peas and beans and tomatoes. Of course, my mother—I was the oldest, so I fell heir to the biggest majority of that part of it.

 

Anyway, as far as community challenges, the challenges that were—that went with every community back in those days. I wasn’t there. Of course, I wasn’t born until 1937, so the Depression was well past its peak and starting to—economy was starting to pick up. But there was quite a bit of moonshining going on in the Davis Prairie area. In fact, one of my uncles—(laughs) I hate to say this but one of my uncles was one of the chief instigators. The little store that I talked about earlier, the revenuers of the—I guess it’d be the— what’s the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives] now or whatever. Whatever or whoever oversees that put a watch on that store because he was selling an inordinate amount of sugar. They thought maybe that they could catch the bootleggers by seeing who was buying all the sugar. And, like I said, the people who ran it were my mother and daddy’s good friends, so they were—you know, but this all happened prior to my appearing, so all I’ve got for that is hearsay. But my uncle could describe the whiskey-making process in detail, so I know he knew what he was doing. (Wilson laughs)

 

As far as major families in the community, I don’t know that there was any such thing as major families. The Rascos were there. The Bates were there, B-a-t-e-s. There was two brothers that were there. The Richardsons ran the store. Russell’s daddy started the store in the early thirties, and then he moved to Shiloh and Russell and his wife took it over.  And then when they left, one of the Bates boys took it over and ran it until it closed. I don’t even remember for sure when it closed. Maybe the sixties. Rand [Bates] may have given you something on that. I don’t remember.

 

WILSON: Um-hm, he might have.

 

BAYLESS: Like I said, there was several families of Rascos in there, and then one family that I was particularly—I don’t know whether enamored is a good word, but impressed with, I guess, was the McLennans. I’m not sure exactly what Mr. Mac did. I think he might have been a teacher of some sort, but I know Mrs. Pearl was a teacher. She taught at Thornton school forever. When I went to school down there and then I think she may have still been teaching—well, she probably wasn’t still teaching when the school closed because she would have been too old. But they had two boys and one of them was killed during the—in World War II. And the other one was—bless his heart, he was always—felt to be inferior by the family. He didn’t—wasn’t old enough to go to the war, so he wasn’t old enough to make any kind of impact. Probably, in today’s society, he would be considered mentally challenged. Not bad but certainly not top IQ material.

 

Morals, traditions, independence: everybody knew everybody’s business. Everybody knew everybody’s kids. Everybody knew what everybody was doing. The camaraderie was small-town stuff. Like I said, everybody knew what everybody was doing, who was doing what to who, and, you know, it was just small-town camaraderie. No hostility. Well, there was, but a couple of guys who get crossways with each other. Some of the ladies would get crossways with each other, but that’s just human nature.

 

All of my mother’s family except her and one brother played some form of musical instrument. So they had the fiddle, they had the guitar, they had the piano, they had the banjo, they had the mandolin. They had all the instruments, and probably three or four times a year they would have the Saturday night party at their house simply because they had the instruments and the means to provide the music and entertainment.

 

WILSON: They had the musicians. (laughs)

 

BAYLESS: Right, had the instruments and the musicians. In fact, my mother’s youngest brother—and I’ve said this a number of times. If he had had any drive and anybody pushing him, he could have made Chet Atkins look like a rank amateur with a guitar. He could have been that good. No drive, no ambition, just played for his own entertainment. Decided he wanted to learn to play the fiddle, so he did. Taught himself to play the fiddle and was—personal opinion—was pretty darn good with it. I don’t consider myself any kind of a music connoisseur. I know what I like, and I know when I hear it if it’s right.  And his was usually—

 

They got ahold of a piece of sheet music one time. I shall never forget it. My brother was in his early teens, I guess, and they got ahold of a piece of sheet music. Well, it was a song that they were familiar with, but they had been playing it—and, again, I don’t claim to know all this—of all I’m talking about. But they were playing it in one key, and come to find out it was written in a whole different key. They could not—none of them could read the music. None of—my aunt, neither one of my uncles. Of course, my brother didn’t have a clue about reading music. So they took it up to Mr. McLennan who played the violin—he played the violin; he didn’t play the fiddle—played the violin and he read the music and played it for them in the written key.

 

WILSON: Did they change after that? Did they—

 

BAYLESS: They attempted. They attempted. Of course, I’m not discerning—I don’t have a sharp enough ear to know if they could make the change or not. (Wilson laughs) I know they didn’t quit playing it because, like I said, it was a familiar song. It was one that—well, it was called “The Waltz You Saved For Me.” You may or may not know it: “The Waltz You Saved For Me.”

 

WILSON: No.

 

BAYLESS: It’s an old country song. In fact, when I got my computer that I could steal music off the Internet, I put it on a CD. I’m not sure who had the recording that I put on a CD, but, of course, again, I grew up with all this stuff. The dance was at my grandparents’—or not at my grandparents’ but at my aunt’s house any number of times.

 

Everybody had a car. Well, not—I’ll restate that. I don’t know that everybody had a car. Horses and wagons were the mode of transportation for the farming. I can remember many times when Uncle Quint and Uncle Bill were raising cotton. When they’d get a bale out—and even if they didn’t—even if they were picking for somebody else, a lot of times—and there was a gin in Thornton. A lot of times they would let us go ride the bale to town and wait in town while it was baled. They would let us—either put us in one or the other—it was two drugstores—they would put us in one or the other of the drugstores and tell the drugstore people to let us have sodas or whatever till they could come back to us. So that was another exciting [activity]. Another exciting thing for a little kid to get to do was to ride on top of that bale of cotton to town, to get to do it. Then, of course, as time progressed, cars became the mode of transportation. They got tractors. They got lawn mowers. They got—you know, just like everybody else, graduated into the mechanical age. But when they—when I—the first thing that I remember about farming in the Davis Prairie area was everybody used horses and plows.

 

My Uncle Bill that I mentioned awhile ago tells a story about his grandfather, which would have been Jack Rasco. Uncle said Grandpa was plowing one day and he said, “I went through the field and he said, ‘Take the reins, Jess(??). I just don’t think I can make another round.’ I took the reins and Grandpa went to the house, and nine months to the day Eloise was born.” (both laugh) So Grandpa wasn’t in as bad of shape as he thought he was. (both laugh) That was not a true story simply because when Eloise was born, Grandpa would have had to been plowing in January, and you didn’t plow in January.  But that was one of Uncle Bill’s favorite stories about his grandfather, which would have been, of course, my great-grandfather.

 

Late 1940s—I want to say 1947—is when they first got electricity—

 

WILSON: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.

 

BAYLESS: —in the house where my mother grew up. Of course, that’s what I have to base all my knowledge on because by that time we had moved to Mexia. We were going back down there every weekend, sometimes during the week if Mother struck a notion to go home. Up until—I guess after—well, my baby sister was half-grown before Mother ever went to work for the public. She was strictly a stay-at-home mom. She, of course, did all the cooking and the washing and the cleaning and the canning and the produce, minding the chickens and the cows. We always had a cow; at least one, sometimes two. We always had chicken and eggs and, you know, plenty—but, like I said, I never remember going to bed hungry. May not have been what I wanted to eat, but I had something to eat before I went to bed. We got electricity. Then, of course, the electricity brought on the other things, the washing machines and—finally, in the middle fifties, they got a butane tank. And, of course, then they could get rid of the woodstove.

 

Aunt Grace cooked two meals a day every day of her life from the time she was twelve years old. She made biscuits for breakfast, she made biscuits and cornbread for lunch every day of her life until she was probably sixty years old and cooked on a woodstove. You have any idea how hot a kitchen gets with a woodstove? (Wilson laughs) One little bitty window, no cross-ventilation. You know, I’ve seen her get through with a meal, go out on the front porch, and just be wringing wet with perspiration. “Y’all go ahead and eat. I’ve got to rest a while,” she’d say. But she was the closest thing I had to a grandmother on my mother’s side because, well, Mother’s mother died before she ever married. Grandma died in ’31, Mother didn’t marry till ’35, and Aunt Grace was probably thirty years older than Mother. No, she wasn’t. She was probably twenty years older than Mother. So she was the closest thing I had to a grandmother and she never married. She lived on—she lived right there on that hill where she was born until she got ill in early part of 1967. Well, not the early part. It was probably in March or April when she became too ill to stay there by herself with just the brothers. And she stayed with us awhile, she stayed in Dallas with a cousin for a while, and then she finally wound up at our house. She was here at our house when she passed away. But she made biscuits for breakfast and cornbread and biscuits for lunch every day. And then, of course, supper was just whatever you could find.

 

But, of course, the guys farmed and they had to have full-blown meals. They had to have food to—you know, the fuel to farm. The two uncles that lived at home, one of them would sleep on this end of the porch and one of them would sleep on the other end of the porch. After they got through with eating their lunch, they would go out there and they’d lay down and sleep—you know, rest for fifteen or twenty minutes, then get up, go back, and hook up the—well, they didn’t use mules; they used horses—hook up the stock and go back and finish plowing or whatever they were doing: plowing, planting, or—you know. But, again, we always managed to eat well. We always managed to get along.  Mother was the youngest of eight. It was five girls and three boys and two of the boys never married. They lived right there on that—on the Davis Prairie hill until they were unable to stay there without any help.

 

I don’t know of any—as far as (laughs) civic organizations? (laughs) They didn’t exist in that small a community. Well, the civic organization was the community. Everybody was involved in it. Everybody was—everybody did basically the same thing. You farmed, you got together on the weekends. I guess the closest church would have been in town or the Davis Chapel Church of Christ, which is over—well, it’s probably six or seven miles from the Davis Prairie schoolhouse. My family was not overly religious. They didn’t attend church. They all had a strong belief in God, but it was just because of the fact that they recognized that everything came from God and that he was the provider. But as far as any formal religion there, it just wasn’t there. Is there anything else that you can—that I might elaborate on for you?

 

WILSON: Well, at the conclusion of every interview, I always ask the same question. I’ve asked you this before, but it’s always worthwhile on every tape. And that is, Mrs. Bayless, if you would have a single piece of advice for the young people of today, what would it be?

 

BAYLESS: Get back to the basics. Figure out how to kill a chicken. Figure out how to cut up a chicken. Figure out where the eggs come from. Figure out where—you know, you can’t go to the store—there may come a time when there’s not any stores. And if you don’t have some means of survival, you’re going to be in a world of hurt. If you don’t have some means of growing your food or producing your food by some other means than going to the store—

 

WILSON: Those are lost skills.

 

BAYLESS: They’re definitely lost skills.

 

WILSON: And the lack of them could be fatal.

 

BAYLESS: Could be very detrimental to your health. (both laugh) My first piece of advice, other than getting back to the basics, would be realize that God is the center of all of it. Without him, you can do nothing. I realize that sounds really trite. It does to some people. But he is the Almighty. He is the provider. He is the one that is going to give you everything that you need. No, that’s not even true because I guess he’s going to give you—he’s not going to give you things you deserve because if you get what you deserve you’re going to get nothing. (Wilson laughs) But he’s going to provide for you according to his plan and purpose.

 

WILSON: True, true.

 

BAYLESS: So many people, especially the young people, don’t have any concept of— we’ve talked about this numerous times in various groups that I’ve been in. Do you know they no longer teach cursive writing in school?

 

WILSON: I do.

 

BAYLESS: They no longer teach cursive writing because everything is printed on a computer. If they teach them, they teach them to print.

 

WILSON: Have you—are you aware of the new math?

 

BAYLESS: I don’t even want to go there. (Wilson laughs) They started a new—they started new math when my children were in school and it was like a foreign language. And I’m sure it’s not any better—

 

WILSON: Oh, it’s much worse.

 

BAYLESS: —this day and time.

 

WILSON: It’s much worse now.

 

BAYLESS: Again, you give a kid a pencil and a piece of paper and tell him to do a long division problem, and he don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. “Long division? What’s that?”

 

WILSON: A computer.(??) (laughs) Mrs. Bayless, I do appreciate this so much, your time, your contribution to our project here. I want to wish you the best.

 

BAYLESS: Thank you, sir. I appreciate the opportunity.

 

WILSON: Yes, ma’am.

 

end of interview

 

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