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Lowell Ozbirn: Cows and pigs in the street and the wonders of ice and electricity.Posted Tuesday, April 5, 2011, at 10:13 AM
I recently posted an interview with 97-year-old Lowell Ozbirn, a lifelong Fulton County resident, whose earliest memories go back to 1919. I've gotten a great response to Lowell's memories. People love to hear about how "the big city" of Salem developed and how people survived out in the country with no electricity, much less toilets, hot water, telephones or television. Here is part two of our interview:
Q: You said the rock building at the southwest corner of the square (currently Swingle's Family Diner) may be the oldest building on the square. What are your early memories of Salem's business district?
Lowell: The Castleberry building (at the northeast corner) must have been built when I was very little. I remember it always there. I watched that bank being built next to it (Hughes, Welch & Milligan CPA's), when I was little. Uncle Jim Pickren had a store, it was down about where Short's Hardware is now (Groovy Little Flower Shop). Had front posts, it had kind of a hangover porch of a deal and had big ole posts out in front of the building.
Q: I saw a picture the other day where it wasn't all buildings (on the square), there were spaces between buildings. They just filled in spaces as time went on?
Lowell: The eastside of the square got all built first. Alfred Chadwick had a barber shop in the last building on the east side. Dr Weathers built, he built a post office and drug store and three or four buildings, up there. I don't remember what the others were but that was the end of town that way. So he put an extension on and made the eastside a third longer than it was.
Q:All the stores were filled up, I guess?
Lowell: Yes. Then, on the northside, there was, I don't know two or three buildings added to that. You can almost tell by them old rocks on the buildings.
Q: The rock buildings are the oldest?
Q: The Castleberry, didn't you tell me they actually excavated the rocks and cut them into blocks here in the area?
Lowell: That beats anything I ever heard of. They had those arches over the windows and doors and it was a big old building, three story high. They made it out of them hewn rock. Well, it looks like it would have took 40 years to build that.
They wasn't afraid of work. They just went in there and worked at it.
Q: So you think someone had a quarry where they cut that rock.
Lowell: Yes they had a quarry where the rock were about the same thickness, that's where they get 'em.
Q: and what was Castleberry built for? What was it originally?
Lowell: It was just a general store. I reckon he handled a little bit of everything. He had groceries, hardware and stuff. Farming tools, a little bit.
There was a big hardware on the west side of town, A big hardware went into there. I don't remember the name.
Q: Was Castleberry's a big gathering place, with a big pot bellied stove, where people just sat around?
Lowell: Yes. Yeah, there on the north side of the Castleberry building, the street runs on a level and it's down the hill so the sidewalk gets pretty high there. There was where those black people (African American residents) would gather in town. They'd come down there with 15 cents and buy them a watermelon or such and eat it out there. They just pitched their rines out there in the street. There was open range with hogs and cattle wandering around town.
Q: Right in the middle of the street?
Lowell: Right in the middle of the street, yeah.
Q: So, it was just a muddy old street like you would see in western movies?
Lowell: Yes. Somebody lived on the edge of town and their stock would come into town and mess it up, and one guy had an old horse that, when farmers would come to town with corn to grind, that old horse would be in that corn eating what he wanted.
Q: Did they always have concrete sidewalks?
Lowell: No. No. They had boards.
Q: So, it could be pretty messy walking around down there I guess?
Lowell: Oh, yeah. Those old boards would rattle when you walked. I forgot about that.
Q: You said your father would give you a dime for doing chores. What you would spend your dime on when you went to town?
Lowell: Oh, usually buy a sack of candy with a nickel of it, and maybe keep a nickel for next Saturday or something, because you could get a real big sack of candy for a nickel.
Q: Was there soda pop?
Lowell: Uh, no I don't believe there was any soda pop. They didn't have any ice to keep it cold.
Q: So that came in later?
Lowell: Yeah, that came in later. That was a great thing when electricity came in. When you could get a cold drink, that was something else.
Q: You have mentioned a couple of times, African American people in Salem. There were black people living in this area in the 1920s and 1930s?
Lowell: Yes, there were about 10 or 12 families that lived in Salem, up around the knob. I don't see how the poor people made it. There wasn't no work, scarcely and, how they done it, I don't know. They just worked hard labor jobs when they could.
Q: They didn't own land, farms?
Lowell: There was a black man that owned a place here, by the old shirt factory, and that was the only farm I knew they owned.
Q: Were they treated well? People weren't trying to run them off?
Lowell: No. People associated with them. There was black men working, building that bank on the square, I remember. I don't know where they went to. Starved out I guess.
Q: Went to find a better life?
Lowell: I guess.
Q: When you were born, there were already automobiles?
Lowell: Oh no. Oh no. I was about 10 or 11 year old before we got a car.
Q: So it was the 20s.
Q: Your dad didn't think they were foolishness?
Lowell: No. No. He didn't. He paid $428 for it (a Model T) and where he, where we got that money I don't know. We had in quite a bit of cotton and, after paying rent on the old place, I guess he saved up. I knew how to work. During harvest, I was 12 years old but I could pick cotton like no body's business, chop cotton. My brother and my mother and dad would all go in on a patch of cotton and hoe it, then he would keep it plowed, you know. That was about all there was to it until you got ready to pick it. He loaded up in the wagon of the evening. As we'd pick it, we would put it on the wagon and we would get that wagon full and kept weights of it and take 1200 or 1300 pounds to the gin, and the gin would bale our cotton off it.
Q: Was there a gin around here?
Lowell: Oh, there was a gin in every little town. There was a gin here at Moko and there was one at Camp and one at Glencoe, one at Morriston and one at Byron. They didn't have any way of getting cotton very far, I mean just a team of wagons and there was a little old gin just real often. There was one at Frenchtown, do you know where that is?
Lowell: Well there was a gin there. Old Truman Benton's dad and someone owned that.
Q: So, back in the early days farmers grew a lot more things than now, corn and cotton, for example?
Q: So, I would think people today would say the ground isn't good enough to do that. It's too much clay.
Lowell: Well, we raised a bigger portion, the biggest portion of what we'd eat and we weren't by ourselves, everybody was the same, everybody done that.
Q: Was cotton the main thing you would sell?
Lowell: Cotton was about the only cash income.
Lowell: And I don't know what they done with so much cotton. They must have shipped it over seas or something. Of course, everything was made of cotton then.
Q: So, cotton was a big cash crop. Didn't people have big herds of cattle that they sold?
Lowell: No. No. If you had 12, 15 you had several cows. My grandfather had 15 or 20 head. He had a particular kind, Red Pole, they called it. His cattle were just as red as red could be. Wasn't a white hair on them. I don't know where he would get his bull but he had those red cattle ever since I knowed him.
Q: And then would he sell them?
Lowell: Uh-huh. Yeah, he would sell them.
Q: So, at what age did you get married?
Q: And where did you meet Vola?
Lowell: At, uh, at Hart at a brush arbor revival. The Assembly of God was having a revival.
Q: and, by brush arbor, does that mean, instead of a tent...
Lowell: Yeah, they wasn't no tent. They'd just build a frame and cut bushes and put over it to keep the moon from shining in on them. Put some seats under it.
Q: So, people would come from all around..
Lowell: Come from all around in their wagons, mostly in wagons.
Q: So how old was Vola?
Lowell: She was 20 when we married. She was two year older than I was.
Q: You just saw her at this event and started talking to her?
Lowell: Yes and I took her home. I was in an old Model A car, and made a date for the next Sunday. But I couldn't get that car every Sunday from my dad and mother, because my dad drove it and then my older brother, so I'd never know when I'd get it. (Laughter) But I had a mule to ride. If I couldn't get the car I'd always have a mule. It was a long ways to ride a mule but I did.
Q: How long did you date before you got married.
Lowell: About a year and a half.
Q: Did you parents think you were old enough to get married?
Lowell: My parents didn't know it. (Laughter) I got married unbeknownst to them and kept it a secret for three months or such a matter.
Q: You did? Where did you get married?
Lowell: At Hardy. I guess it was a Justice of the Peace. I'll never forget what he told us after we married. He said 'now I want to tell you something. You get you a rope and throw it over your house. One of you get ahold of one end and one get a hold of the other and see where you go.' Then he said, 'one of you turn loose and go to the other end and both pull.' I thought it was the stupidest thing I ever heard, but he was sayin' 'pull together.' It was just as true as true could be.
Q: You were both young, how did you make it? Had the Depression hit?
Yes, it had and times were tough. We both knew how to plant and care for cotton so, when we married in 1932, we rented a place, a house and some land, along (Highway) 62 and put in our allotment. You could just plant so much (cotton). It was the driest year, Richard, you nearly ever saw. We didn't make enough cotton for nothin'. A fourth of the cotton and a third of the corn went for rent. Our landlady didn't get nothin' either but she stuck with us. My dad gave us a cow for milk and we had a mule and wagon. Somehow, we got by.
Q: Times were hard back then but, looking back, it doesn't seem so bad?
No. We had a lot of fun, did a lot of runnin' around. We went squirrel huntin' and possum huntin, things like that. Even when we had Sybil (their only child), we didn't slow down much. We just took her with us.
Q: At what point did you come out here on Highway 395?
Lowell: In, uh, 1941. Bought 160 acres here. Give $1,450 for it. I got the money from my dad. He had a sale, where he sold out. There was an old house on the property, further down the road from here.
Q: You grew up between Salem and Glencoe. Why did you decide to buy here, near Moko?
Lowell: Well, that house up there was old but we could live there while we built our house. We moved into this house in '42. My dad helped build the foundation and get it square, but Vola and me built the rest of it.
Q:You had electricity when you built it?
Nooo. We didn't get electricity for years. This house was built with a handsaw. Ever board in this house, in the old part, was done with a handsaw. I could saw and Vola could drive a nail.
Q: How did you build a house and run a farm at the same time, you must have worked day and night?
Lowell: We did. We farmed first and did the building in-between times.
(Lowell and Vola Osbirn went on to build up a large and successful farm, and were honored as the 1970 Fulton County Farm Family of the Year.)
Q: When you think of all you've seen and done in 97 years, are you over amazed at all that has changed in our society?
Lowell: Oh, it's been a sight on earth of all the change. I think now, we've gone as far as we can go.
I never thought they would have telephones without wire. I never thought they could pick up sound through the air.
Radio, it was something grand but that television was really amazing and I said, 'well, they'll never get color out of the air,' but, before long, black and white was old fashioned and everyone had color TV.
It's not uncommon now to see a little kid, about this high , with a phone up to his ear.
Q: So, do you think things are better today than they were in the old days?
Lowell: No, do you?
Q: I wonder. We have more comforts.
Lowell: Oh, yeah, we have more comfort, but I don't know if life is more enjoyable. I'll say these little old phones and high faluting stuff has ruined many a kid. I'll say that.
Q: In what way?
Lowell: I've see too many kids lying flat on their bellies watching television when they needed to be out picking up rocks or doing something. And they don't know how to work, I'm trying to say.
Q: I remember last fall, when you got your driver's license renewed, you held it up and told me you are good to 100. So, you're planning to hang around a while?
Lowell: As long as the good Lord lets me. As long as I can get to town to go to church and get groceries and visit a little bit with people, I'll be happy.
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I used to call this blog "Stranger In Town" but time goes by quickly. After a year in these parts, I realize people will still say, 'he's from off' but I now proudly claim I am a "Stranger No More"! After a lifetime in living in big cities, small town life has produced surprises, good and bad but, after more than a year, I love it (most of the time!). I promise to keep on writing about stuff that interests me and things I think of to complain about. I hope you will continue to check in occasionally to read and comment.
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Lowell Ozbirn has seen a lot in 97 years and remembers it all.