Plain Folks in Arkansas

           Thomas Watts Goodson (1856-1936) came from one of those Tidewater communities in South Carolina still named after a Civil War general.  Driven by the War first to rural Alabama, they had finally ventured up the Red River to about present-day Sulphur Springs.  Here young Tom opened a teaching "academy."  It may not have been too lucrative, for he accompanied his family back to Arkansas after his father was able to register claim (1875) to an eighty-acre homestead there.

       The government grant may help explain the family's good will toward Abraham Lincoln.  The Homestead Act had been advanced in earlier years to lure small farmers into the western territories, but had regularly been defeated by Southern votes.   After secession there was all the more reason to reward any small farmer who had not taken up arms against the government, and the Act was finally signed in 1862.  Happily, Tom's father, John Wesley Goodson, qualified, despite the family's South Carolina origins.  His grant was situated in the recently established Miller County, where the deep forest was soon attracting lumbermen.  By 1888, a logging railroad built south out of Texarkana came through, and a postal station named Boyd was established.  Other stops were at Ferguson's Crossing (a saw mill), Roberts (where Liberty school was situated), Fouke, Black Diamond (where my mother was born in 1899), Dodridge, Ida and other villages on into Louisiana.  From around the turn of the century that slow train provided easy, cheap transportation through the pine and hardwood forests where Tom delivered the mail with his buggy, and his children hopped the train to Liberty School at Roberts.  The rails were taken up about the middle of the twentieth century, and the last old railroad depot finally disappeared a few years later.  Most of the villages had long since faded away, leaving only the cemeteries, where many of my kin are buried.

        Several of Tom's children had to experience their father as schoolmaster.  Harry, always full of good nature because he so loved stewed apricots, was a notorious giggler, even in the schoolroom.  His father once scolded, "Harry, an' you giggle one more time, I shall raise little whelps all over your backside."  Well, Harry was also a studious and curious little fellow, and of course there was a dictionary in the room.   He scampered right to it.  When he discovered Webster's meaning for "whelp," a giggle escaped him in spite of himself. The Goodsons loved to tell such stories over and over again, claiming that they improved, like an old stew, every time it was set forth. When he was an old man, Harry still told this one, which he would conclude with his wheezy laugh: "And that's exactly what Papa did. He raised little puppy dogs all over my backside."

On the first day of school, the children had to supply their names for Tom to enter into his school book where he recorded attendance, as well as the tuition each family paid, often in kind.  The story goes that one child said her name was Baby Rose. "Baby Rose," Tom Goodson growled at the poor girl, "I shall call you Mary." And so he did.

        Tom's was still a day when religion reflected a considered position. For example, you may recall that the Methodists agreed with the old Anabaptists in discounting any mystical power in the sacraments, which they liked to explain as mere symbols. It was misleading, Anabaptists felt, to perform any particular rite without understanding exactly what it meant, and stood for. Therefore they thought it foolish to baptize mere infants instead of waiting until the child reached an age of understanding.  But of course there were also still those denominations which did firmly believe in the mystical efficacy of the sacraments. Tom Goodson had always been an argumentative fellow, loved reasonable discourse, really appreciated a good sermon. Since his own Methodist congregation could not afford a preacher every Sunday, Tom frequently had to attend some one of the nearby church meetings. One Sunday the old man found himself as guest sitting right down front.  The preacher was haranguing the congregation on the crucial importance of baptism for infants. "I tell you brethren and sesters," he shouted. "They is babes in hell not a span long," and he held up his palms before him.  Tom, being up in years by then, may not have appreciated the resonance of his own voice. "That's a lie," he muttered. His fellow worshippers were scandalized; he went across the street to a justice of the peace and paid a fine for disturbing public worship, five dollars I believe. My mother remarked that it was a good thing he did so.
    But Tom did have a sense of humor even though today it may not seem very nuanced. I have a typwritten report telling how Tom, as a young man teaching in a particularly blighted neck of the woods called "Hungry Hill," wrote a squib about one of the parents.

Of all the men of Hungry Hill
There's one superior man.  
They called him John McCan.
To hear him tell about himself
You'd think no one could be
So brave, so strong, so wonderful,
So wise and learned as he.
He knew the history of his own,
And foreign lands also.
He knew the Bible lid from lid
There was little he did not know.
He really believed when he'd get to heaven,
St. Peter would take him by the hand
And leading him up to the Golden Gate
Say, "Have my seat, John McCan."

Many years later, so my report continues, "at an exhibition for the last day of school exercises, a cousin asked Mr. Goodson if he could give a number, to which Mr. Goodson agreed, asking if he himself should select the subject to be recited. No, the cousin would select his own number.  Imagine Mr. Goodson's horror when the cousin began after being introduced by the master of ceremonies the night of the exhibition, 'Of all the men of Hungry Hill'--but Mr. Goodson relaxed considerable when instead of [John McCan] the cousin shouted 'Ephraham.' You see, John McCan was really a friend of Mr. Goodson's, and was present at the exhibition."

    As Tom and Molly grew older, the children took a more protective posture. I believe it was Gerald brought his mother a huge specimen of the favorite dog of that day, a German shepherd. His name was Tony, a perfectly lovely dog, but I take it the beast was quite intimidating. It is said he liked to stroll down the sandy lane under those oak trees behind some unsuspecting pedestrian, then silently leap over his head. They said Charley Cox poisoned Tony.

       I think the children may have all contributed to buying Tom and Molly another of the fads of the day, an automobile. I remember it well., a Chevrolet I think, but in any case a coupe, with a rumble seat upholstered in red imitation leather. I got to ride in it.


Family of Thomas Watts Goodson (1856-1936) m. Mary Elizabeth McClure (1862-1938):
Standing: Gerald, Harry, Albert. Seated: Florence, Pearl, Nell, Ora, Raye

Albert followed in his father's footsteps delivering a rural mail route, but Ora actually succeeded her father as postmistress in Fouke. Pearl became an R.N., and Raye followed her example but then went ahead and became a school nurse, ultimately the head of that department in the Dallas Public School System. Harry went to the University of Arkansas, became a C.P.A. and eventually a partner in Haskins and Sells. Gerald and Florence got positions with oil companies, he in equipment sales for Continental, she as legal secretary for Gulf Oil. Although Tom and Molly, children of the agrarian age, had nine children (including Little Charlie, who died as a boy), there were only six grandchildren. Three of their offspring did not marry; two who did remained childless. It was the ones espousing urban life who eschewed children.

         When Gerald came on a visit to Dallas one hot summer, Nell, Raye, Harry, Elza and Gerald decided to run down to Cabell's and get some ice cream. Cabell's was the best ice cream store in Dallas. Harry, being the one with plenty of money, was the first out of the car to go in and buy it. "Will a pint be about right?" He asked. "Aw, make it a pint and a half," Gerald suggested.

        Tom and Molly's grown children would "go home" for Christmas. Our little family traveled from West Texas, Harry and Raye and Pearl from Dallas, Florence from Houston, Gerald from Tulsa. Some might sleep at Ora and Russell's, others with Albert and Hortense.  On Christmas Eve some of the men would go up to the Old Place.  Albert Junior would scale a huge holly tree and saw the top out, letting it fall to the ground.  This would be our Christmas tree, which reached to the ceiling of the front room. Rough banquet tables borrowed from the church yard were set up from the living room through the dining room out onto the back porch. After dinner the men would sit around the fire and light their pipe by putting a red coal into its bowl. For them, Christmas Eve was the time to shoot off the fireworks they had all brought along for me. We would take a shovelful of red coals out into the dark backyard. You could stick the fuse of a firecracker onto a hot coal and when it began to fizzle, you had to throw it. I remember when I was about four I did not throw it in time, and my hand was really stunned. I had Roman candles, too.

        In those days pretty much any field was open to quail hunting, and most people could direct you to where a covey had last been sighted. One good field was at the Old Goodson Place, where the triangular fifteen acres south of the county road was still an open field surrounded by remnants of the rail fence the Goodson boys had built. Several old black oaks marked the site where the house had once stood.  The place was surrounded by the big woods where we got the Christmas tree.

Gerald and Harry liked to bring their fancy hunting coats, gear, and automatic shotguns  along on visits to the country.  Harry brought the bird dog which his trainer kept for him during the balance of the year.  Russell (Ora's husband) would take his city inlaws quail hunting.  Harry liked to show off the new set of chokes he had for his 16 gauge.  He and Gerald were expert on size of shot and drams of powder in the shotgun shells.  They discussed the shot patterns of various loads.  Albert, the local brother, did not go, but his teen-aged son, Albert Jr. did, and he was by far the fastest with his shotgun, speed being all important when you flush a covey of quail.   As I entered my teens, Russell passed his lore of the woods on to me, or a little of it:  how to spot a squirrel in a distant oak, how to scale a perch or skin a cat, how to dress a deer.  I understood that during the hard times these had been skills from which a family had to subsist.  But Russell was no quail hunter.

        I found records in the old Washington Courthouse (at that time the court house for Miller County) of Tom's marriage to Mary Elizabeth McClure.

Molly Goodson nče McClure, with author, 1932

Contents                                                                                             Home