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Smokey Row

The Adventures of John McDougald

Roy Sanders


(All drawings by Cheryl Wooten)

(The following essay is part of Roy’s insert which accompanies his CD Smokey Row, The Adventures of John Mcdougald.  See Bookstore for how to purchase a copy of his CDs)

There was a time, maybe a hundred years ago or even less, when being a rural Texan was a very different deal.

Imagine rural Burleson County---circa 1910. Artesian wells have been discovered, even in fairly remote areas, but there is still no electricity, air conditioning or indoor plumbing, and automobiles are something you might see on rare occasions---maybe on a Saturday trip to Caldwell if the wealthiest merchant in town, or maybe an outsider, wants to show off for the locals. Just about everyone else is on horseback or riding in a wagon.

Far from the idyllic rural lifestyle of today (where modern professionals like to keep a remote weekend home or a permanent residence if they don't mind the commute into Bryan or College Station), Burleson County was likely a place to get the hell away from---not really a place to go to. In fairness, this was true of all of the state's rural areas. Rural seclusion didn't necessarily mean peace and serenity. It meant boredom, drudgery, slave-like labor and the kind of lonely solitude that consumed people---where a visitor might not come for days or even weeks.

Not far removed from the frontier, these early 20th Century Texans worked far too hard and died younger---often without medical care. It was not uncommon for a rural Texan to simply work himself or herself literally to death by age 60 or younger.

The Saturday morning excursion into Caldwell, Burleson County's seat, was a treat, especially for the young. The only other entertainment would have been a Saturday night dance at the Sons of Hermann Hall in Deanville, the SPJST Hall in Snook, a house party or barm dance. Without television, the Internet, smart phones and CD players, families'simply created their own entertainment. This might have been the only real joy many rural Texans experienced.

And unlike today, music was not merely the domain of celebrity. Virtually every family had someone who played something---often very well.

This is a fictitious story of a man all too real. John McDougald, age 20, is
plenty smart enough, ambitious in his own way,  restless and eager to get away to a better life in the city---probably Houston. There, a man can find somewhat easier work with a paycheck, live in town, not be hampered by transportation problems and see and experience a different world. As a poor man, it still won't be perfect, but it is a step up.

Such a decision is easy today. Go where the money is, find a good neighborhood (Load the Wagon/Smokey Row), enjoy the shopping malls and quick access along the Inter-states. If it gets to be too much, you can always head back to the country on the weekends. Your home there will still have satellite TV, online access, plenty of comfort and modern conveniences. It is an easy trek back and forth.

But in McDougald's time, this was a life changing decision---for himself and his family. Leaving home meant going away and probably staying away for long stretches. And you were leaving plenty of good people behind.

McDougald is torn.

As a resident of Smokey Row (located near Hix on the far northern tip of Burleson County near the Milam County line), John knows there are plenty of reasons to leave. There is back breaking labor in the brutal heat, planting and harvesting corn and some cotton. There are livestock to raise and care for. There is a house to maintain, and John, the youngest of five children, is now the only child still living at home.

John's mother Molly is now 55 but looks about 20 years older by today's standards. With a stooped back, largely from hauling water in a bucket from a well and bending over to work in the fields, aching muscles and chest pains that seem to come more and more often, Molly knows she won't be here forever. Her husband Jacob died relatively young at age 48 in 1900, and she was lucky to have her older sons Sam and Gideon around for the hard work until they married and moved. Sam and his bride moved to Deanville, not an impossible wagon ride from Smokey Row, and Gideon and his wife moved south of Caldwell to Harmony. Sisters Emily and Corrine are also married and living just east of Caldwell. They are still a presence, particularly for a Sunday afternoon get together, but they all lead busy lives. So there is a cold reality. John's departure means Molly will be alone most of the time with no one nearby to help with plenty of work.

And there is Angelina. A Hix resident, Angelina is now 18 and has been John's steady girl for about three years. Marriage seems inevitable except for one thing. Angelina's family has no intention of leaving and won't even discuss the possibility of their daughter being taken away to who knows where.

It simply isn't done.

In 1910, it is easy for a man to get stuck in Burleson County.

This story is surely fictitious because the outcome is so unlikely. If John were a real person, he surely would not have left. He would have indeed been stuck---and perhaps would not have entirely regretted it. Yes, the life is hard---but no different than anyone else's. And you have plenty of family and friends around. You are certainly not alone. There are a few gathering places around Smokey Row, and everyone goes to Smokey Row Baptist Church on Sunday.

But we will let the story take a different twist. We will let John leave---as so many eventually did ---for the city and "the better life." This exodus from rural Texas began for most much later---around the time of World War II. But John is not a typical person.

A third generation Texan, John is a descendant of harsh Celtic stock, the rough hewn "Scots Irish" immigrants who were forced out of southern Scotland and reluctantly relocated to Ulster in Northern Ireland.  Reviled there as harsh, outspoken, crude and prone to violence, the Scots Irish seem to always be looking for another place to live.  Most aren’t sorry to see them go.  Other than an uncanny  musical proclivity, and a talent for working with their hands, the Scots Irish seem virtually uncivilized.  But in a fight, you want them on your side.

The McDougalds eventually make the trek to America, settling initially in the isolated Blue Ridge Mountains along the Virginia-North Carolina state line, then on to the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee and, finally, “Gone to Texas” in the vernacular of the day.

So moving on is an entirely new concept, but the logistics will be harder this time.

John has plenty to think about. The Saturday morning wagon ride into Caldwell finds his mind wandering (My Wagon Wheels/Rollin).  Even in quiet times on a trail ride (Saddle The Horse/Hard Ride), John is mulling over his options.

John is also the family’s designated “songster.”  Proficient on finger-style guitar and banjitar (a 6-string banjo also known as a banjo-guitar), John is a constant presence at barn dances and house party gatherings (Barn Dance/Guitar Yodel).  He draws on many influences—waltzes, polkas from his Czech and German neighbors, ballads, reels, rags and parlor music.  He’s probably the only white man in Burleson County playing a guitar. Long the mainstay of black musicians, guitar is something John learns from an old black gentleman in Caldwell who plays on the street corner in the Freeman Town addition. Other white families in Burleson County stick to 5-string banjos and fiddles. If he leaves, he will surely be missed----as much for his musical contributions as for being a good neighbor.

Never far from his mind is the beautiful Angelina (Be My Girl Angelina) who is probably the perfect woman for him. Would he find another love elsewhere? Possibly, but you never know. These choices have to be made carefully. Life doesn't let you hit the reset button.

And even in times of rural drudgery, something happens that cheers the soul and reminds everyone of the cycles of life. The birth of a new calf or colt is always a blessing (A New Life Begins/Little Hoss Colt) and seems to reconnect the country boy again and again with his roots.

But the overriding consideration will be his mother. Living alone, she will surely survive with family within a reasonable distance. Surviving and really living, however, are two different things. Molly, wanting at least one of her children to experience life off the farm, will surely let John go---and even encourage it. But will it be for the best? More worries for John (Alone When I'm Gone/Long Goodbye).

He doesn't look back as he leaves (My Wagon Wheels/Away), but that does not mean this decision is permanent. Even if he leaves, he may very well come back in a short time. What he does, he can undo. Molly will always leave the door unlocked.

Now fast forward about 100 years.

Texas indeed shifted from rural to urban over the last century. Politically, economically and socially, Texas evolved into a land of skyscrapers, freeways, cell phones and GPS systems---mostly a good thing.

But when the first discussions came about a few years ago for a Trans Texas Corridor, I was struck by an interesting fact. Texas, for all its modernization, was still to some degree about the man and woman on horseback. High-speed highways and rail systems logistically made sense for a more urban, hectic Texas. But Rick Perry and the contractors ran into a roadblock---rural Texans.

Modernization cutting through large swaths of rural Texas was simply too much for some to bear.  In another state, big money would have prevailed immediately (and it eventually will in Texas too).  But for a short time, rural landowners bowed their backs and stood up for a socio-economic lifestyle that still exists.

Folks like John McDougald may have led an exodus from rural Texas decades ago, but not everyone left.  And many returned—even if just for the weekend.

Perhaps a super highway would serve us well after all—making it faster and easier to get back to the country.  Taking us home.