Walker Evans took the pictures for James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families. Note that word “tenant.” Interestingly in that regard many of the pictures in the Library of Congress of the rural south during the Great Depression are characterized as depictions of “landless whites.” I don’t recollect having seen pictures captioned “landless blacks.” I don’t think one had to characterized blacks as landless; that was assumed. But “landless whites” were a particular social category, particular enough that the phrase could be used as a tool to sort through the thousands of pictures of the rural poor taken by people like Evans, Marion Post Wilcott, and Dorothea Lange.
My Grandfather, William Berner Tingle, was for a considerable while landless. My father, William Berner Tingle, Jr., remembered having moving from house to house at least half a dozen times in his childhood. By the 20’s the family fortunes had decayed almost completely. Land can be divided up only so many times between all those sons, and by the time my Grandfather came along there wasn’t any left.
I don’t know for sure that he was a tenant farmer or sharecropper. I expect he was. But as far as I can tell, he was also an odd jobber. So if he rented, I am not sure that he planted crops for much other than his own consumption and to sell to get some cash money for things like sugar, coffee, and clothes. Some of the Tingles seem to have had an entrepreneurial streak, and somewhere along the line Grandpa Tingle acquired a mobile saw mill.
He would scope out the territory and go up to the landowners who had a good stand of pine and say he would cut them down and sell them for a percentage. He kept himself and a crew of four to six men busy for years with that saw mill. That’s how he acquired the money to buy a few acres in Ora, South Carolina. He was no longer landless, and on that land he built from wood he had cut the house he sits in front of in this picture.
He was a man known in that small community to have a one hell of a temper. Part of that may be genetic; many members of the line have a tendency to fly off the handle. But I think too he was in chronic pain. He had asthma as the result, some believe, of having a tractor buck up on him and crush his chest. Also he had hemorrhoids of a near Olympian variety. The story goes that to be able to sit in his car he stretched across the metal frame of the driver’s seat a tractor inner tube with a hole cut in the middle large enough to accommodate the hemorrhoids.
He died pretty young in his early 50’s I think of a heart attack that occurred, according to some reports, in the middle of a raging fit about the price of sugar. He smoked. If you look closely at the picture, you can see a cigarette between the fingers of his left hand. He also drank. My father reports that he was sent not infrequently to the local store to buy a bottle of Old Crow. The bottle was then usually secreted in the hollow of tree stump, hidden out of sight but of ready access.
I have always known we, as a family, were full on hillbilly, but having a heart attack over the price of sugar? Damn, that is something…