Cheryl Hughes: Farm Talk
Roasneers. That’s what my parents called corn on the cob. That’s also what Garey’s parents called corn on the cob. The term probably comes from the turn of the century tradition of roasting ears of corn over the fire, hence roasted ears became roasneers. That’s just conjecture. I couldn’t find any documentation of such.
I was in Alabama over the weekend, and like it often does, the talk turned to the past. Charlotte, Garey’s sister, and Garey added up how many acres of corn they hoed out every summer.
“There was ours in the back pasture, then Daddy had some at Chester Creel’s and more at Porty Jacobs place,” Garey said.
“Don’t forget Granddaddy’s,” Charlotte added.
“I didn’t remember you hoeing your Granddaddy’s,” Agnes said.
“Yes Mam, we did!” Charlotte wasn’t going to let Agnes forget one minute she spent in the fields.
The final tally was forty-five. Acres of corn. Hoed by hand. In the hot Alabama sun. Just in case you think this might be an exaggeration on their part, let me introduce you to Mr. J.D. Hughes, patriarch of the Hughes family in Corner, Alabama, a wiry little man with a “My way or the highway” attitude. He was a worker, I will give him that. He worked a public job during the day and farmed till dark after he got home. Charlotte says he was able to accomplish so much, because he had two slaves: Garey and Charlotte.
During the summer months, J.D. kept them busy every minute of every day. They had to follow the tractor that was plowing the corn in order to remove any little clod of dirt that might have inadvertently found its way onto a tender stalk of corn. As the corn grew, they hoed out the weeds, by hand, on all forty-five acres. This was years before “Round-Up Ready” corn.
They tended other crops, as well. There were fields of cantaloupes and watermelons and anything else they could sell on the Birmingham Farmer’s Market. I’ve often said Garey has no idea how to garden, he can only truck farm. When my brother-in-law asked how big our garden was, I told him three acres. Garey shook his head. “It might be an acre,” he said.
“Let me amend my answer,” I said. “If you’re looking at it, it’s one acre. If you’re hoeing it, it’s three acres.” (That’s the way it feels to me, anyway.)
Garey has good memories of selling at the farmer’s market. I think that’s why he gets so much joy from raising the crop of sweet potatoes he and our granddaughter sell every fall.
Since I’ve been retired, I’ve tried to tend to our garden, so Garey doesn’t have to work in it when he gets home. I will think I have things in good shape only to look down the hill and see Garey, with a hoe in his hand, chopping through an area I tended to that morning. He just can’t help himself.
Aggie was no stranger to hoeing in the fields. She was one of eight girls, each of whom had her own hoe. Each spring, her dad traveled to the bank in nearby Cullman, Alabama, to borrow enough money for seed and fertilizer, then hitched his planter to his mule and planted his five-acre cotton allotment. When the seeds turned into young plants, the girls chopped the cotton, which means to thin it out. (I asked why they didn’t just plant fewer seeds—seems like a no-brainer to me—but nobody could give me a satisfactory answer. I even submitted the question online, but Google didn’t know either.) As the cotton grew, the girls hoed out the weeds. The crop was sold in the late fall, and Aggie’s dad travelled back to the bank in Cullman to pay off his spring loan. “He always did that first,” Aggie said.
Life in the fields is no day at the park. I got my taste of it in the tobacco patch. I think the difference between how I was raised and how Garey and Charlotte were raised was one of parental attitude. Even though my parents wanted us to know how to work, they didn’t want us to have to work as hard as they did when they were growing up. J.D. wanted his children to work as hard or harder than he had to. I used to think he was just being a hard nose, but I came to understand that he was proud of his work ethic and wanted his children to be proud of themselves also. He used to say to our kids, “Come spend some time with me, and I’ll teach you how to work.”
I wish he could have lived long enough to see his great-granddaughter setting out sweet potato plants with her grandfather. He would have been pleased to see his farming tradition is alive and well.