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It was the middle of the Great Depression and during the Dust Bowl years. Hardly anyone had any money. Even in West Virginia, dust coated everything during the summer and farmers often resorted to chopping down trees to feed their cattle, when the grasses in the pastures gave out. My granddad was working away in the oilfields while my grandmother ran the farm and the dairy with what friends and relatives had ended up on their doorstep destitute. Those folks received little or no pay, but they got room and board, and Grandma had a reputation as a fantastic cook.
An unexpected knock on the back door wasn’t an uncommon thing in those days, as bums and hobos stopped to ask for work or for food. The difference between bums and hobos was that hobos would work for their food, bums wouldn’t. And so, it was no surprise when a soft knock came at the back door one morning, and a dusty, unshaven white-headed old gentleman stood there with his hat in his hand. He asked my grandmother if she had any small jobs on the farm that he might do for a meal, but my grandmother told him that he didn’t have to work for a meal, and that she’d be happy to fix him some breakfast. He politely, but firmly, told her that he’d worked for his living all his life, and wished to do so as long as he was able. He reminded her that the Bible said men were to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. (He didn’t know that he was speaking to a preacher’s daughter.) She said that she was sure she could find something for him to do, but that she wanted to feed him first, since people work better when their stomach isn’t growling. He reluctantly agreed.
After he ate, they spoke of work and Grandma learned that he had done split-bottomed chairs earlier in his life. She struck a deal with him to put new bottoms in a couple old chairs in exchange for lunch and supper that day, a night’s sleep in the barn and breakfast the following morning. As he walked slowly up the hill to cut a white oak sapling for material, she recalled that his hands seemed awfully stiff and his vision appeared to be less than ideal. He finished doing the two chairs not long after the family shared their supper with him, and Grandma let him wash up in the cellar house, before he turned in for his night’s sleep in the barn. He ate breakfast with them the next morning and Grandma put some food in a flower sack for him to eat for his lunch and supper on the road. After thanking her profusely for the chance to earn his room and board for a day, he started on his way in good spirits.
The work that he’d been so happy to perform was coarse and loose by any expert’s standards. His stiff fingers and bad vision, combined with his limited time, made the chairs into objects that many wouldn’t use. Still, with an old cushion thrown on them, they were useable. And used they were. Anytime someone asked about them, Grandma told them the story of the proud old gentleman who insisted on earning his way in life. And so they remained on the farm, even when the depression was over and the extra seating wasn’t needed any longer. They were kept not for their value, but for the honest man they represented. When my grandparent’s had passed away, and their home was torn down by an opportunist aunt, my dad took the chairs. When Dad passed away, and my mother moved to town, I took them to my own home. For twenty years, they’ve been in my basement, used only rarely, when I was tinkering down there.
I’m no spring chicken, so I’m looking to thin down a lot of my stuff, so my stepson won’t have to wonder what to do with it all after I croak. He’s a pretty good guy, but he’s not into antiques, especially “rustic” ones. I’m going to take them to a guy that has an antique shop and an auction house and see if I can get a few dollars for them. I’ll run off a couple copies of this story and attach one to each of the chairs. Maybe someone else will want them as a reminder of old times and good people long gone. May God bless them if they do. © 2013