Son of a Preacher Man Series – Episode One

The rain that had not stopped turned the dirt road from Mineral, Virginia to Richmond into a mud path that sucked wood wagon wheels down. The word from neighboring farms was another damn hurricane had come ashore around Myrtle Beach and tracked right over Richmond. A month earlier another storm tore up the outer banks and rampaged up the James River to drown a lot of livestock  in Suffolk. The Richmond Dispatch, as it was called before adding the name Richmond, only gave lip service to the storm on page four, “We have to regret that the wind and threatening weather of yesterday interfered with the decorating of the business houses of the city.” The locals were planning a visit from the president who was on a train from Fredericksburg to a quick whistle stop in Ashland. The report continued, “They decided a number of persons had to hesitate about carrying out such plans, but the wind and dark skies were disheartening. However, if we all can’t have what we wish, let us be thankful for what we have, and resolve to enjoy ourselves to the uttermost.”

President McKinley visiting Richmond was not on the mind of farmers with work to do, even if General Lee and his wife were party to the ceremony. Old man Joseph rarely got a hold of a newspaper and paid little attention to the columns of newsprint with the smudge of black ink stain that lasted about as long as any of the pontification of people who never did any real work. His son, Harry, was only ten in 1899, but old enough to be a farmhand.

"Harry, you and Wesley git the calf  up in the wagon. Come on, push," Joseph said. “Boy, the beef buyers in Richmond ain’t gonna’ wait for this downpour to stop.”

The boy behind the calf heaved against her hind quarter and pushed the baby up shoving the animal under the canvas of the covered wagon.

Harry was a skinny farm kid no where near filling out the hand me down overalls. Like his four brothers and three sisters, he was no stranger to hard work. In the 1800's farm folk had lots of kids for cheap labor in a post Civil War Virginia. Soon as a boy could carry a bucket of water without dragging it in the dirt, he'd go to work in the fields. And, most would work there until they outlived enough winters to finally die and get buried in the family plot out back.

Making the Fall trip to the market in downtown Richmond from Mineral took a couple of days. Even the wildest of imaginations could not dream up the same distance would only be a short car drive of about a half hour would actually come true in the next century.

The old road back then crossed a couple of rivers that ran down through a part of the Chickahominy swamp until what's now called Staples Mill Road runs in to Broad street. Harry and his brother Wesley walked along the path by the wagon watching the old cow follow her calf in the wagon. “No need to tie her,” the old man told the boys. He taught them that she'd stay close behind her baby in the wagon. Along the way other farmers would greet the wagon, "Take my cow along to market?"

The neighbors knew and trusted old man Joseph as an honest haggler for a good price.

Before long, there'd be a small cattle drive pushing through the country side. They'd get to the first river and the man that owned the wood bridge charged a nickel toll for the wagon to cross. The boys would drive the cows through the water at a penny per cow. At night, the only heat was the kerosene lamp they hung from the roof of the wagon. One black overcast night with only the small dim light bouncing off faces of family members huddled together seated on hard wood planks of the wagon floor, Harry spoke to Wesley, “One lone light - out there - no stars can be seen through the clouds. Wouldn’t you know it, snow flakes are beginning to fall.”

“You think we are gonna’ do this all our life?” asked Wesley.

“Look at our old man. He’s beat. Ain’t got a hope and a prayer.”

“Ain’t no prayer ever get him out of the dirt.”

Harry nodded and turned his attention to one of his favorite dime novels to read in whatever dim light from the kerosene was left. “That your favorite?” Asked Wesley.

“Seth Jones or the Captives of the Frontier. I like it. Listen to this line, ‘The clear ring of an ax was echoing through the arches of a forest.”

“Sounds like us,” said Wesley.

“Yeah, except he goes on to fight savages and survive.”

That was an understatement, as life in the country was tough. These are the people that cleared acres upon acres of land with nothing more than an axe and shovel. They fell trees, stripped the bark to make lumber for houses, firewood for fuel, and leave land cleared by hard strong hands. They did the back breaking work to uproot hundred year old stumps to make way for tilling the dirt for rows of corn and butter beans. Survival was basic for men that knew how to work and were not squeamish about the task to bleed a hog by slitting the things throat. The women knew how to boil the animals hair off its back and they mastered knife skills to slice and butcher the right cuts to make use of everything the hog had to give for feeding the family. Smoking and putting up a ham was only the beginning of meat curing and tasks needed to make good use of all the meat with no waste. Girls learned early how to can tomatoes, beans, and pickles without killing off a family member with tainted food. Everyone pulled their share. They had to work or die.

The mission of this trek through rain and mud was to make it to the 17th Street Farmers' Market in Richmond. Haggling over prices and negotiations from tough buyers and sellers was the main event, but shoppers also listened to political speeches and raised their own voices at religious revival meetings. Little did Harry and Wesley know what those hell and brim fire meetings would mean to them later.

The season for harvesting and haggling at the farmer’s market turned into a cold winter until finally a new planting season came and the boys had a field to clear for butter beans and corn. Harry was busy stabbing his pitch fork in mounds of black dirt turning the clumps over to take seed. Wesley was no where to be found.

The sun moved into an unbearable angle and sweat poured off Harry when he heard Wesley, “Hey.”

Wesley’s head of long black hair was soaked, “Where have you been?”

“Swimming,” answered Wesley. “Too hot to work this time of day.”

Harry’s face flushed red, “Papa has me working in this dirt and you are off skinny dipping.”

Wesley shrugged and laughed.

The pitch fork was in Harry’s hand where he had been aiming the empty prongs at another mound of weeds and black dirt. He said nothing.

Wesley watched the anger grow in Harry's face.  Wesley lost his smile and the nonchalant attitude disappeared.

Harry raised the steel fork into a spearing position. Before either boy could speak, he let go. The sharp steel prongs of the spear headed toward Wesley’s chest.

Fear filled both boy’s faces. Neither could believe their argument had gone this far.

That old pitchfork glided in what felt to Harry like a slow motion lifetime.

Then, mid flight, the fork was smacked down and dug deep in a mound of dirt within inches of Wesley.

The thud in the ground was the only sound for a moment.

Harry felt a ringing rise into his ears like he was about to pass out.

“Damn, Harry,” said Wesley.

Harry dropped to his knees, “Jesus, what have I done?”

“Just about killed me for nothing. Lucky son-of-a-bitch that fork hit the dirt. I don’t know whether to kick your ass, tell Pa, or what.”

“Wesley,” said Harry, “this is a miracle.”

“For who?’

“Both of us been saved by something.”

“Like what?”

“It must be the angel of the Lord smacked that fork in the dirt.”

“Angel of the Lord?”

“Has to be. Look how close to your feet. Only a few more inches and you’d be shooting blood. We have been saved by something.”

Wesley looked straight on at Harry, “Saved by something of for something?”

Like a bolt of lightning, according to Harry telling the story years later, he was born again in that instant and never turned back. He spoke of that night when he tossed his favorite dime novels in the fire and picked up the family Bible. Some years later, Harry got off the farm as a young man and moved to Richmond where he became a milk man. In his time, the milk man drove a horse drawn wagon over the same route of households each day. He told how that old horse knew the route so well, he'd stop at each house and make all the turns without having to pull the reigns. Cold winter mornings were a challenge for Harry, and the horse struggling up slippery streets in Church Hill delivering milk.

Harry became a man of commerce. He didn't have formal schooling, but he had business sense. Knowledge of the food chain engrained in him from the farm and the bartering skills at Richmond's Farmers Market was all the education he needed. He opened a grocery store.

One store led to the second and third small family corner store owned by Harry. In those days, the grocer did all the work. Buyers came in with a list and the grocer filled the bags and rang up the total. Holidays during the depression offered most people little to celebrate. Each Christmas, Harry would bring in a railroad car of flour and boxes of oranges. He handed out the bags of flour and oranges as long as the inventory lasted. Most people in Barton Heights felt a deep kinship with Harry. These were days when a hand shake was a badge of honor. It was a common practice to have customers buy on credit and it paid off. During the depression, customers with a tab came in and asked Harry if he'd take real estate in exchange for wiping out debt. This led to him owning a sizeable inventory of home sites.

Grocery stores made money for Harry, but his calling, his passion was preaching. That memory of the pitch fork stuck with him. He and Wesley spent many a day on the revival circuit preaching hard core about the sins of the world. They pitched circus tents all over rural Virginia to hold their firebrand prayer meetings he had heard at the market meetings. In addition, Harry rented retail store fronts and opened his 'Good News' mission for weekly prayer meetings. At one point, he bought a church for his brother - but it failed and Harry moved his family in the living quarters of the church. That move would become the genesis of many stories.