The Childhood of WB Tingle Jr. (1917-2006)
As summarized from a taped Oral History
The first five minutes of WB’s Oral History in his Own Voice
William Berner Tingle, named after his father and called by friends and relatives W.B. (pronounced dub-ya-b), was born on the “cold, cold” night of November the 17th, 1917, in “the house down by the creek.” This house was some five miles from Woodville, itself sixty miles or so, as the crow flies, due east of Atlanta, Georgia. My father’s childhood, until he was nine or ten, was lived within a thirty mile radius of Woodville where the patriarch of the family, Pappy Tingle, a gray haired man, with a huge mustache who walked with limp, had a house famous among the children for his scuppernong arbor. Pappy Tingle had, during his lifetime, a little money and made a habit of buying small parcels of land and building houses on these for sale or for rent. He owned the place down on the creek and also the house, a block or so from his own, called “Uncle Floyd’s place.”
But by the time of William Berner, W.B.’s dad, the family money had run nearly dry. In his relatively short life–he died in 1945 at the age of 54–he kept body and soul together by any honest means possible. He was a good blacksmith and could shoe a horse. He built houses and barns. He always farmed some, hay and corn for the animals, cotton for cash. He was hit hard along, with many others, some of whom lost their places, when the deadly boll weevil finally arrived in the South, nearly destroying the cotton crop. But his fortunes, along with several other family members in the Woodville area, a number of whom owned saw mills, were tied to timber. He cut and hauled trees, mostly pines, sometimes using mules to “snake” a log out from the underbrush. In 1928, he moved his family to Ora, South Carolina. One Mr. D. Davis had built a planning mill in Lansford SC and William Berner soon followed with his saw mill. Trees, mostly pine, were plentiful, some of it never-before-cut, virgin woods.
W.B. recalls having lived, during his early years, at least on two different occasions in the house down at the creek. There the family built a blind ditch out of logs to drain the bottom land to plant corn. Twice the family lived in a house located in the small community with the wonderful name of Lingalong; that’s where the bowel weevil first hit in the early twenties. They lived also, for a time, at Uncle Floyd’s place; at the Hickson place; again, in Woodville, at the Asbury House, located a block or so from Pappy’s place; and, just before they moved to South Carolina, at the Stephen’s place located halfway between Woodville and Washington. In Ora they lived first at Miss Eupenea Bryson’s place. The parsonage for the local church being vacant, they rented it for a number of years until the church acquired a Preacher, Mr. Alexander, who wanted to move in. The family moved back to the Phenny place. Finally, in 1935, they bought seven acres of land from one Miss Flemming and built a house in which William Berner’s wife, Bertha, lived well into the 1950’s.
The quality and kinds of houses in which the family lived seem a barometer of the family fortunes; W.B. reports:
About the house on the creek, it was similar to the ones in the book [the photographs of Walker Evans] that you gave me. As I can remember, it was a two bedroom, I don’t think it was three, a dining room, and kitchen, and it probably did have a living room and a fireplace. And in the kitchen there was a little brick flu hung from the ceiling for the chimney for the wood stove momma used to cook on. And there was a well not too far from the house and we had to draw the water and bring it in. And my mother had a place outside to boil and wash the clothes. And the house was sealed, probably at the time, well I think we hand some narrow tongue and grove pine lumber. And I can’t remember but a lot of people at that time would make paste out of flower or whatever and put newspapers on the wall.
The newspaper was for insulation. Many of the houses did not have screens; in the summer heat the windows had to be kept open:
That summer that’s when I remember we had the chicken pox. And we still had the cradle. I don’t know who has that cradle now and it had a net over it and I think Edith slept in the cradle and I just kinda took care of myself. Lot of the houses didn’t have any screens or anything on it and the flies were kinda bad.
The Hickson place may have been the least pleasant.
I think maybe we moved down near where uncle lewis had a saw mill, that’s Dan Thaxton’s dad, down on a big red hill. I can’t remember the name of the farm that it was but there was a lot of timber cutting down in there. And there was a little tiny of a place, and it wasn’t as big as the place on the creek, and my dad moved us there for a summer and maybe part of a winter. And we didn’t have a well near the house. It was across a road down a steep kinda of rough bank where the spring was and we would go down with mama to get water to do all the kitchen stuff and washing and whatever. Still no electricity.
As the family moved, it grew. After W.B. came Edith born at the Lingalong place, two years later, then a boy that died, then Neil born at the Ashbury House, then Addie, then Carl born at the Stephen’s place, and later in South Carolina Mamie, and Douglas were born, making a total of seven children. After each birth, Bertha would be laid up for a while and a female relative would come to help her out with the family chores. Two of the more extended trips of W.B.’s youth involved going from South Carolina back to the family land in Georgia to collect either Grandma Mines, Bertha’s mother, or Grandma Tingle to help Bertha after a child had been born.
But in the mid to late 20’s while still in Georgia, though times were hard, the family fortunes must have improved somewhat. William Berner bought a Model-T truck for hauling timber:
My dad was still hauling lumber along with other things and he bought a Model-T truck. That was before I started school. I was around five or six. All it was just the chassis, and I think it had fenders on the front. It had the hood just wrapped around the fireboard where the coils were that furnished the fire for the spark plugs. And that was all, no windshield or anything. So my dad found an old outfit with a windshield on it and he built the seat over the gas tank. It had a cushion of some kind on it, and we would haul lumber.
Also they rented the Ashbury house, again in Woodville, a block or so from Pappy Tingle’s place:
And then from there, my dad must of been making a little money along there somewhere, though it was rough in those times. I think we moved up to the Asbury House. And that was just a little beyond Uncle floyd’s house on the way to Woodville. I’d say about a block from Papa Tingle’s house and it was a huge two story house with a big fireplace on each end. And a bit living room on the right and two bedrooms upstairs and one down stairs, whatever. And that’s where Mama had the typhoid fever.
The family also bought its first real automobile:
I think in the meantime there we bought the Model-T touring car. And a it was one with the canvas top and the isinglass curtains which you could put down so you wouldn’t get wet in the rain. With a back seat and a little rack thing on the fender to haul more stuff on.
And a Fordsom Tractor which, it the Stephen’s place, “reared up” on William Berner apparently damaging his chest:
It was there, logging timber, that his Fordsom Tractor reared up on him and kinda set him back for a while. And from then on he seemed to have asthma.
The family fortunes appeared on the rise. William Berner bought a saw mill which he powered for some time with the Fordsom tractor. With this asset and some small capitol on hand, he moved the family, along with some black families who had worked for him over the years, to Ora. The move could not have been easy; it meant leaving behind the family network, the Tingles, of course, Pappy, Uncle Floyd, Uncle Herman, Uncle Lewis, and Uncle Robert, but also Bertha’s kin, the Mines, who liked to eat and to drink, now and then, and seem to have been a slightly more happy-go-lucky bunch than the Tingles who had about them a slightly puritanical stiffness.
W.B. believes that his family was the first group of outsiders to move into the small close knit farming community of Ora. There the whites owned the land; the blacks were sharecroppers. Mostly though, the new family was treated with hospitality; the small children were invited and, walking up the railroad tracks, attended functions at the local church. No sooner however had the family settled in than the Depression set in. William Berner’s ingenuity was sorely tested.
The recession had really taken over by then, so saw milling had slowed down so my dad had leased a farm and we did some farming and we did some farming up in front of Miss Bessy’s house…
And there was some pretty rough times was in there. My dad usually had some work so he could cut out some lumber and build a farm for different ones around and repaired things and ah he was still able to cut and sell some lumber.
And ah over there in the Parsonage he had a truck. Mr. D. Davis loaned him a truck. And he did go down to south, in the southern part of there, next to the ocean, in South Carolina and a buy cabbage, potatoes and I forget what all maybe rutabagas and sell’em to make some money. One day he went to Florida. Well, he brought up some oranges now and then, and he went to Florida and we had a big freeze and he lost some then I think…
So it was some rough times in there. We would have to charge some stuff from Mr. Bird. I’d hate to go down and charge stuff. The bill would get pretty high, but finally get back going and get’em paid. And I remember my dad going one time to the WPA headquarters and getting one sack of flower and he came back really irritated so that was the last time we did that.
In the summer we’d usually have a thrashing machine or something. We’d thrash the grain for the different farms around. They didn’t have a very large…they just grew the grain they needed…just a few acres and we’d go round and thrash it for a tenth of the grain. So we’d haul it to Sogberg to sell it and we’d leave enough grain there in Spartenburg to carry us over the winter.
The government seems to have left the people to fend for themselves. Still no electricity. When W.B. learned to drive at the age of fifteen he makes no mention of the now ubiquitous “driver’s license.” The government did do one thing, during the Depression, which couldn’t have made much sense to the farmers, who probably had little understanding of Keysian theories of international capitalism:
And one year President Roosevelt, it musta been the soil conservation time, and we farmers weren’t getting much for the cotton so we had the farm bureau to come out and measure plots of cotton. We already had it planted and it was getting on to where the bolls were coming on it and that year all the farmers had to plow up a portion of the cotton I suppose to control the prices of it…I don’t know…but my dad didn’t like that…I was sent down to plow up that cotton.
One memory of his father seems to stand out for W.B., in the early days of the depression, possibly as a kind of image for the particular misery of those times:
And it was long in there in that time that he was bothered so much with hemorrhoids and it kinda upset me so he asked me to go find a mulligan plant so we could boil it and make a tea to put on’em and I can ‘member him sitting under the old oak tree just in misery…
In South Carolina W.B. began to get his growth and with that came hard labor. He had, of course, always worked; children too were hands in those days and one could always use as many as possible. He had his “chores” and did whatever else was required to help out the family. On one occasion, he and Edith were sent to the site of house that had burned down with the task of pulling from the blackened wood any nails that might be saved. And on other occasion, when William Berner found him playing in the yard when he was supposed to be on an errand for his mother, he was told that if he was old enough to disobey–he was eight at that the time–he was old enough to work and was sent to carry water to the hands in the fields. Early on one might have thought that W.B. was not entirely temperamentally suited for the rigors of farm life:
And my dad he had a pig once and he was araisen it and he was going to kill it one weekend, a Sunday, he wanted me to come out and hold the rope through the fence so where he could cut it in the right place and we had it set up and I got afraid and went home and left him so I don’t know how he managed that, so any way….
But in South Carolina all qualms of childhood set aside, W.B. labored like a man, weekdays and Saturdays too:
While we were living at the parsonage and dad leased the church farm that had been left to the church years before and it hadn’t been farmed in quite a few years and it needed a lot of terracing and the terraces what were there needed cleaning off, brush cut. I remember going down and doing that. It was pretty fair soil and then we would grow potatoes, sweet potatoes, for our use down there and we would grow a few acres of wheat….
Talk about growing cotton. My dad in the summer would send Barney and I down to do a lot of the work. We’d plant it and have to put in the fertilizer with a fertilizer distributor and then you had a cotton planter that would throw the seed down fairly close and if the weather was right the stuff would come up and ah it wouldn’t take long before it would have to be chopped–we called it chopping cotton–and thinned out and that was a long boring day, chopping cotton, I would always hurt right in the back of my neck but ah we had a pair of mules and Barney would plow one and I the other and have to plow it every so often to break the crust so if you had a shower or rain it would keep the moisture in the ground. And it was laid by in late summer and in the fall we picked it and that was a boring job…
But sometimes plowing had its incidental delights and surprises:
My dad was always looking for spots to grow to corn to feed the animals, the hogs and mules and so forth and so it was above the little tenant house where Barney lived a little north I suppose on this little hill overlooking Warrior Creek so we needed a little brush cleaning so we cleaned it up and the next spring my dad sent me up with a mule and a one horse plow to break up the ground to prepare it for planting corn. I think you probably know what a one horse turn plow is. It’s a plow with a smooth side on the left with a curved blade that turned the soil and a sharp point to break the ground. But anyway that’s where I plowed up quite a few flint arrowheads and I’d take’em up home and takem up and put’em on the ledge on the back porch above where we washed our hands and stuff and so when we moved I forgot about the arrowheads and I didn’t see them anymore. I musta had a good half a coffee can full.
And then just on the other end up from that same parcel we clean, the ground wasn’t as good as that, but he sent me down to break up the ground. We had old Bell the mule we used to snake logs with a turn plow one Saturday to break up that plot of ground to plant the corn and I musta plowed up seven or eight snakes that day. They were all still hibernating and couldn’t do anything. I killed some of them maybe. So there was nothing but work around the place
With the hard times that came with the Depression, W.B.’s help was required more and more to keep the family going; his schooling was interrupted:
I was sent down to plow up that cotton, that musta been one of the years I stayed out of school. I quit in musta been the eight grade and around half of the year to help my dad in the spring and the next year I didn’t go at all.
And then I was able to go back and pick up those half a year I stayed out of school and then the get the ninth grade out of the way. but then there was some question as whether I would got to school that year cause things were still kinda tight and rough. So the school district they couldn’t afford to pay Mr. Davis to drive the school bus, so I was the first student to drive the school bus so I was able to get the job driving the school bus. It was a new bus. Mr. Rowe and my dad went over to Rock Hill to get the bus and I drove it back. I remember the school district paid me 15 dollars for doing that, so I drove it and finished by last two years driving the school bus. And my dad built a shed for the school bus and I got 25 dollars a month for driving the bus, so not long after I started driving the bus my dad had bought a used chevy pickup and then that 25 dollars I made the payments on the truck, a pickup, and Frank Smith had an ice route and he let me have it and two and three summers I hauled ice out around in the country on that pickup, and those summers I would thrash and do the binding…
Throughout the hard times, there remained a sense of community; they were all pretty much in the same boat:
Then as I can think about it no one went on vacations, they weren’t concerned with that, but sometimes in the summer the men around who like to skein, go seining in the Enoree River, like Mr. Blakely and my dad, and Mr. Craig Hunter, they would all go seining in the Enoree River to get the cat fish and get’em all cleaned and make a catfish stew and maybe fry some, and then the whole community would come down and they would bring the bread and all that goes with it and we would have a fish stew and fish fry, and then there was Warrior creek where it entered the Enoree river and there was that swimming hole and people would go swimming. Bout every year we would do that, maybe twice a year. And ah then other times during the year, some families from the church would have get-togethers at the school house and sometimes at their homes and everybody would bring a plate of whatever they had to bring, like a pot luck and there was always plenty to eat at that time and then they’d have places where we could play games. Like it was Halloween and we’d have a Halloween party and bob for apples and whatever it was people did then, and a couple of summers, there wasn’t too many boys to play baseball, I don’t how old we were at the time, there was another community not too far off and they’d come and we’d have a couple of ball games together during the year…
If the adults were not familiar with the modern concept of vacations, the young men seemed immune from any faddish definitions of sartorial splendor:
As far as I know those overalls were mostly the things we wore. I had two pair, an old one and a newer one usually and we had a shirt and some kind of pants–I don’t remember what– we wore to church and it was a another year or two in there that my daddy took me to the men’s shop down in Laurens and got me my first suit I ever had and probably about the only one…
Clothes were not that easy to come by. On one occasion, while chopping wood, W.B. misfired and drove the ax into his foot. Asking his mother to examine the wound, his first concern was not for his big toe but for whether the sock was ruined. But if toes were less important than socks, fingers were another matter. A hand without digits could scarcely be called a hand:
And that’s where Neil cut off Carl’s finger, middle finger, and one of the others, but they was able to sew the one that was partially cut back on but he lost part of that one, so anyway they was cuttin up corn stocks to feed the cows with….
Several summers in his high school years, W.B. worked in Mr. Craig’s peach orchard stacking 65 pound baskets of peaches. One time, under the intense heat, he turned pale and his elders made him stop though, he says, he would rather have passed out than quit. Mr. Craig took an interest in the boy and told his father that he would like to send him off to school. W.B. was sent to Clemson, a military and technical school at that time, but his previous schooling had not prepared him and he quit after three years. By then, the war was on. He and a friend paid 25 dollars each to hitch a ride with a man driving cross country. They went to California and got work at Convair.
On our first trip back to SC and Georgia, Carol and I spent a good deal of time looking for the Asbury House. I don’t why exactly–perhaps because WB mentioned it frequently in his stream of consciousness ramblings and because it was one of the few houses he mentioned that had a name. We had a sense of where it was supposed to be but couldn’t find it. For some reason, we stopped in Greensboro, GA, near Union Point, not far from Woodville, and chancing to walk by the offices for the local newspaper, I went in and asked it they knew of any place around called the Asbury. The good old boy–he was was a very big good old boy–at the counter said he had heard something about it, and then called to the back asking for the phone number of a local lady who knew the history of the place. He called her up on the spot and she said that she remembered such a house by that named but it had been moved. Moved to where, I wondered. Maybe, he thought, near Atlanta at the Stone Mountain Park.
Later, when we were closer to Atlanta, Carol and I drove to Stone Mountain Park where we found a recreation of an Antebellum Plantation and on the grounds there a house called, officially the Thornton House. Unofficially, drawing on what WB said about the place, I think it is indeed the Asbury House. According to the official literature it was built in the 1790’s at Union Point. Well Union Point is mighty close to Woodville, where WB said it was, and the entry way to the house is as he describe the Asbury House, and the upstairs too, conforms to WB’s description of the Asbury House: one large, bare unpartitioned room where the children slept. I wanted to take a look around that room, but you had to stay behind the ropes and weren’t allowed to ramble.
So here is the Thornton/Asbury House as it appears at the Stone Mountain park all fixed up with an English Garden in front.
And here’s a picture of the house in its original location, near Union Point. WB mentioned that there was a way to crawl through the fireplaces of the Ashburn house to get outside, and you will note here indeed a passage way between the two chimneys, used I think to pass food into the house from the detached kitchen structure.