(This column was published in April 2000 and later became chapter 1 in
A Timeless Place, Lett’s Set a Spell at the Country Store.)
Written by AlexSandra Lett
Growing up on a huge farm in the middle of Nowhere – 12 long miles from a Somewhere called Sanford and four miles from a no-stoplight town known as Broadway – I figured out early that Grandpa’s country store was the social center of the community. On chilly days and nights local folks would hang out around Grandpa’s potbellied stove to catch up on the latest gossip. On summer evenings farmers “set a spell” outside and compared tobacco prices and crop yields while wives shelled peas for tomorrow’s supper.
There were off-color jokes, funny stories, character portrayals, and sometimes tragic news…all told with fervor and passion as folks “Lett” it all hang out. Some were recovering from 4 a.m. risings to take dried tobacco out of the barn, then prime more tobacco, loop it and put it into the barn for curing. Farmers, wives and “young’uns” came nightly to the community waterhole for “shooting the breeze” and thirst-quenching – only “dranks” mind you, ranging from Coca-Colas and Pepsis to Royal Crown colas, Spurs and chocolate-flavored sodas. Buying a nickle “drank” from the icebox was admission to the best show in the neighborhood – taking part in the real life daily drama series at the country store.
A few folks bragged about white lightning and homemade wine, but public partakings were few and far between. Sometimes I’d see Grandpa go quietlike behind the long counter – laced with hoop cheese, two-for-a-penny cookies and one-cent pieces of candy in big jars – and take a nip from an unlabeled bottle, but we’ll talk about that later.
Upon entering the store customers were drawn to mouth-watering favorites like vanilla cookies, peppermint sticks, peanut brittle squares, and 3-D candy (chocolate, vanilla and strawberry) but then there was the gag-a-maggot item, pickled pig’s feet. Ugh! The shelves behind the counter featured boxes of candy bars – on the bottom row so little hands could reach. Other shelves held staples like pork ‘n beans, Vienna sausages, sardines, and crackers. Heaven forbid anyone who tried to eat sardines in the sanctuary of the store ’cause Grandpa would say “get those stinkin’ thangs out of here.”
Two cold bins, one for the many “drank” varieties, the other for milk and ice cream, lined the right side. The back area hosted a rack containing white loaf bread, honey buns, oatmeal cream pies and moon pies, and of course, nabs galore, those orange square crackers and the round Ritz-like variety, both filled with peanut butter, and a main staple in every farm worker’s diet.
A main feature of the store was tobacco – rows of cigarette cartons, packages of chewing varieties, and cans of snuff. Sometimes the air would be thick with smoke from farmers who believed in supporting the tobacco industry. Anyone was welcome to contribute to the large can that once held peaches but now served as a spittoon. Ping! Ping! – the sound of gushing spit could not be mistaken. Chink! Chink! – one could hear as checkers were snapped on top of one another. The aroma of slightly burned coffee wafting through the air was all-too-familiar when the old potbellied stove was fired up.
Anything could become a tall tale at Grandpa’s country store in Buckhorn community where local yokels, “drank” salesmen and cracker carriers gathered daily to “set a spell.” It didn’t matter that bread and milk cost twice as much at Lett’s Grocery as it did at the A & P uptown. This unofficial country club offered personal advantages that competitors couldn’t match – here you could learn everything from who picked a mess of beans that day to who was messin’ around with whom.
Nothing was too trivial to talk about…and no one was spared the threat of gossip. The key was to keep your nose clean and your drawers on – and, of course, go to church every Sunday – if you wanted to escape the wrath of wagging tongues. Anybody who broke the Ten Commandments could be “pert-near” burned at the stake on winter days by the old potbellied stove in the back room. Many a stone was thrown at sinners on summer evenings a few yards from the store’s shelter where people kept their distance from the bugs seeking the light.
This was before bug zappers, mind you. Oh, to be a fly on the wall or should I say, a bug near the bulb!
Lett’s Grocery and Filling Station was situated in the Buckhorn vicinity in central North Carolina near the site where my ancestors originally settled. In 1739 a ship loaded with men, women and children from various countries came to this new land America via the Atlantic Ocean. The immigrants, including some Letts from Ireland, surveyed the Wilmington area and decided to head up the Cape Fear River in search of a prized possession: land they could claim. They stopped long enough to build flat-bottomed boats, rafts and dugouts to bring their belongings up the river.
The Lett family stayed a while at several places and in 1745 my ancestors rowed to the foot of Buckhorn Falls where they found what they were looking for: thousands of acres of rich bottom lands for growing cotton and other crops. The settlers marked their chosen site and called it Lett’s Landing, which is still owned by family members today.
My great-grandfather John Wesley Lett, born in 1852, and my great-grandmother M. Arnettie Thomas, born in 1869, brought 10 new Letts into the world. Rumor has it that Grandpa – Willie Puzie Lett – was named after? a preacher who conducted a revival at Moore Union Congregational Christian Church. It sounds like Pue-z, as in church pew – but sometimes misspelled Pusie and often mispronounced deliberately by “dirty minds.” This name, also passed onto my father, was a bone of contention throughout my childhood days as bad boys and sometimes silly suitors teased me relentlessly.
Grandpa, born in 1888, inherited land along the Cape Fear River and later bought a big house and farm for his wife and nine children three miles up the road. He was fondly called “Captain Puzie” and demanded respect and? admiration with his captivating personality, tall stature, and big-brimmed hat. He was a handsome devil sporting a twinkle in his eye…with a yarn or joke for every man, a tease and treat for every child, and a smile and wink for all the women.
“Captain Puzie” was charming and comical…a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth type of man, and a favorite with the ladies and the not-so-ladylike suitors who thought he had deep pockets. People were always trying to fix Grandpa up with a new Mrs. since “Miss Verta,” my grandmother, died in 1951.
There was never a dull moment at Lett’s Grocery and Filling Station and no end to folks trying to marry off Grandpa. One day John Henry Jackson, the Dr. Pepper salesman I dubbed “Mr. No Salt,” brought the “dranks” to the store and was really excited because he had finally found Grandpa the perfect mate. This guy raved about a wonderful widowed woman and then pointed out that she too owned a country store.
He said to Grandpa, “You’re going to love this woman because she’s a lot like you. Her name is Mert Moore.”
Without batting an eye Grandpa shot back, “Yes, I do love her…she’s my sister.”
Oh well…so much for match-making Grandpa.
The life and times at Lett’s Grocery and Filling Station offered entertainment in the days before radio and television and continued to do so even after the talking box and “boob tube” started stealing people’s brains…“tools of the devil,” as Grandpa would say. The station WGCS (Grandpa’s Country Store) signal came in loud and clear “pert-near” 16 hours every day from sunup to bedtime.
The colorful characters in the Buckhorn community were just as interesting as any movie star, soap opera idol or TV headliner. For example, before I Love Lucy, there was a neighbor named Penny Wellington, famous for her flaming red hair and weird sense of humor. She talked funny and acted crazy…some say she was not playing with a full deck.
One day Penny came into the store wearing miss-matched clothes as usual, carrying a six-pack of empty soda bottles, and babbling on and on about nothing that made any sense. Suddenly she yelled, “Captain Puzie, whatcha?want me to do with these here ‘drank’ bottles?”
Grandpa said, “Just throw them over in the corner.”
So she did.
It took a long time to pick up all that glass.
The country store is closed now, and Grandpa is long gone, but the stories live on. So pull up a chair, and “set a spell”…
Summertime in the ’60s
(This column was published in June 2003 and later became a chapter in “Timeless Moons, Seasons of the Fields and Matters of the Heart.”)
Written by AlexSandra Lett
When the school year ended in June, we “young’uns” on the Lett farm had only a few days’ break before the 12-hour tobacco marathons on the farm began. “Rise and Shine” and get-your-butt-out-of-bed Daddy (Bud Lett) let us curl our toes between the covers like a bear still resting in the cave. Even let’s-cook-biscuits-and-fix-enough-breakfast-for-an-Army Mama (Ruby) allowed us “young’uns” that rare but sweet opportunity to sleep late. It was the most precious of gifts on the family farm.Arising from our slumber after 10 a.m. we felt relief and then quickly remembered that the biggest garden in four counties was bursting forth beyond the backyard. Every day we worked…after all, there were green beans to be picked and snapped…squash to be chopped and later fried with fresh onions…cucumbers to be peeled and diced for supper and later made into pickles…tomatoes to be christened with salt, eaten with eagerness, and some put up for winter enjoyment.
My Daddy, brother Jimmy, sister Carolyn, and I eagerly ate Mama’s made-from-scratch biscuits laced with homemade blackberry jelly. We dived into sausage rolled into patties and links stuffed in a grinder months ago on hog-killing day, eggs lifted only yesterday from the chicken house, and grits covered with butter from Aunt Gladys’ cow.
Paula Gayle Patterson and Debbie Mansfield, friends from the city, arrived for the summer to stay with grandparents on nearby farms. They showed up in their “citified” clothes, and I relished my reunion with these girls from another planet. Boys and television did not excite us – we had better things to do. We talked endlessly about school and what we were going to be when we grew up – one day it was a nurse, another a teacher; for me it was never a farm wife.
As animal lovers we noticed the big ticks on dozens of dogs and knew our work was cut out for us – we formed a tick company and got out the tweezers, plucking the bulging bloodsuckers from thick manes. In the yard we played Hop-Scotch, Hide-and-Seek, Ring around the Roses, Simon Says, or Red Light-Green Light, and climbed trees.
We especially enjoyed our walks to the Puzie’s Pond down below our house where I showed them how the fish would come up and eat right out of my hand. We fed the ducks and watched the turtles peep out of the water and then we three would-be stars created a dance routine on the dam.
Meanwhile, the boring boys on the farm kept their distance while they enjoyed Kick the Can and rolling old car tires everywhere and using them for inner tubes for swimming at Puzie’s Pond.
Often Paula Gayle, Debbie, and I looked for four-leaf clovers – lucky charms, you know – and always tied the stems with white flowers into long chains for necklaces. Sometimes we laughed so hard our stomachs hurt… and other times we lay quietly on our backs in the grass and watched the clouds. Someone would say “that cloud looks like a…..” or at night one of us would comment, “that star is where the goddess Helena lives” and the cosmic explorations began. We were Sisters of the Sky!
Debbie and Paula Gayle came and went throughout the summer as either Debbie’s grandfather, Carl Dickens, or Paula’s uncle, Clayton Lawrence, bought them to visit since both grown-ups enjoyed setting a spell at Grandpa’s country store. They told me of living in houses in a row on paved streets – so unlike the farm where Lett land stretched for 400 acres around us and other large neighbor settlements nearby. Debbie and Paula Gayle brought the city to me each summer, and I shared life in the country with them.
Demands of the farm consumed my youthful summers but not so much that I couldn’t find time for kinship with these new kissin’ cousins and soul sisters. We connected each year through a common language, play and laughter, and bonded through expectations of long friendships and dreams of bright futures.
© 2003, AlexSandra Lett
Life…Ripe for the Pickin’
(This column was published in July 2000 and later became a chapter in A Timeless Place, Lett’s Set a Spell at the Country Store.)
Written by AlexSandra Lett
Each family and every community have their own way of celebrating holidays. While growing up in Buckhorn vicinity near Broadway, North Carolina in the 1950’s and 1960’s there “weren’t” any discharging of cannons, ringing of bells, or drinking of toasts (perhaps some nipping of white lightning behind closed doors) on Fourth of July.
Our holiday parade consisted of Grandpa, Aunt Gladys, Mama, Daddy, and us three “young’uns” walking a beeline to a favorite fishing spot. There were no fireworks unless it was Grandpa (Puzie Lett) or Daddy (Bud Lett) raising Cain about us kids acting like wild alley cats.
Now, country folks didn’t have much use for what the “givernment” called holidays ’cause Grandpa said such events were for “citified” people who had easy jobs with too much time on their hands. However, on Independence Day my family usually avoided putting tobacco in the barn and would cut back on farm chores so we could do something special.
One of my favorite Fourth of July outings was a trip through the woods to a popular fishing place called the Kelly Hole located about a mile from the Lett farm. There was an extra treat: all along the way we could pick and eat blackberries. Mama (Ruby) insisted we wear long shirts and britches to avoid the attack of mosquitoes and chiggers (or redbugs) and to protect us from briars and brush on the long walk.
With our cane fishing poles and tin buckets in hand we headed off through the woods, blazing new trails and beating the bushes for fresh blackberries. Yum!
When we arrived at the fishing hole we sat on the banks and ate blackberries while casting our lines into the water. What I hated most was baiting the hooks with live crickets and worms with the same fingers used for eating blackberries. I didn’t mind the stained hands from natural blackberry dye but I felt guilty about killing those cute little worms and chirping crickets. When I asked my Daddy real nicelike to “please, purr-ty please” bait the hooks he would usually do so without much hassle. However, my brother Jimmy would taunt me — “Are your hands broke?” or “Prissy little girl, can’t even bait a hook!”
Despite Mama’s protests Daddy, Jimmy, my sister Carolyn, and I ate almost as many blackberries as we picked, pigging out non-stop until we were bloated. Just as well our stomachs were full because by the time we got home…we could hold back a little bit while Mama prepared berries for a cobbler.
Back at the farm the menfolk would clean the fish (thank God), and we prissy girls would wash and cap the blackberries for dessert as well as get them ready for Mama and Aunt Gladys to can a dozen jars of blackberry jelly. All of us practically dried up the well while hosing down our bodies in hopes of destroying Poison Ivy and Poison Oak juice just waiting to make our lives unbearable with itchy rashes.
Carolyn and I painted our chigger bites all over with fingernail polish, hoping to suffocate the redbugs that burrowed in our skin. Actually the bugs were probably better for us than the dyes and chemicals in the polish, but it sure was fun polka dotting our whole body with the likes of Pink Passion and Red Rage!
Meanwhile, Daddy would get out the ice cream freezer and start cranking while we took turns churning the milk, sugar and vanilla into homemade ice cream. Then we would sit down to a mighty fine supper — fried fish, fried cornbread, homemade slaw, sweet tea, and of course, blackberry cobbler covered with vanilla ice cream.
The next morning Mama made pancakes. While some folks preferred molasses mixed with butter or Karo syrup (the one that said on the label “gives your pancake a college education”), our favorite topping was blackberry jelly. You have not really tasted the best mouth-watering pancakes until you have eaten them with fresh blackberry jelly, a house specialty from mother’s kitchen, fondly referred to as “Ruby’s Restaurant.”
As we young’uns turned into teenagers, Mama and Daddy would drive us to Sanford 12 miles away on Fourth of July so we could see the sky light up with fireworks. We watched in awe as someone somewhere mysteriously stirred up a bunch of colorful explosions in the pitch black sky to lighten our spirits and brighten our lives.
Looking back I realize our celebration of Fourth of July reflected a greater reality – the American dream – and we experienced our freedom by roaming the woods, fetching a mess of food, running wild, and celebrating life.
On the Lett farm in Buckhorn community life was ripe for the pickin’ every day even though at the time we didn’t know we had it so good. We lived in a land of bounty — lots of mighty fine folks, an abundance of good eating, and plenty of mosquito bites. Yes, we had pert-near anything country folks could ever “want for”!
Now, every Independence Day Grandpa is looking down from Heaven and Gladys is kicking up her heels ’cause she ain’t canning and freezing. Daddy and Mama are relaxing on the bank of a river called Paradise.
We still miss them, especially on holidays, when we’re cooking and eating and talking a mile a minute at kinfolks’ house where life is ripe for the pickin’ every day…with or without blackberries!
Copyright © 2000, AlexSandra Lett