Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A mountain family moves to Georgia cotton country

West describes his family history in a passage that evokes the emotional strain of the industrialization of the North Carolina piedmont. Determined to give his children a decent education, West's father led his family in "an exodus" from their home in the mountains of Georgia to cotton country. There, he became a sharecropper and spent his life wishing to return to the mountains. He never did. West also remembers his grandfather, a "mountain patriarch" who married a Cherokee and taught his grandchildren to respect everyone, regardless of their race.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Don West, January 22, 1975. Interview E-0016. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
When were you born, Don?
DON WEST:
June 6, 1906.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Your father was a small farmer in north Georgia.
DON WEST:
That's right. Gilmer county near Ellajay. About fifteen miles from Ellajay. I was born on theCantecay River. My father was a hill farmer. All of the mountain people then, you know, who lived out of the towns, were farmer people.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Owned his own land?
DON WEST:
We owned a little piece of land. About 100 acres of very rugged mountain land. We sold it for $400 when we went to the cotton country. I was down there last summer and they said any land around there is worth $2 to $3,000 an acre. This is what's happened to mountain land.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Second homes.
DON WEST:
Yeah. Condominiums. Ski resorts. All kinds of tourism.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did your father buy the land or did he get it from your grandparents—
DON WEST:
Well, I think… when my mother married… my grandpa always had a custom. I think he had thirteen kids and he always gave each one of his boys a mule and each one of his girls a cow. On my father's side, I think my grandfather helped my dad to get a little piece of land. Very cheap then, you know. Practically everybody owned a little piece of mountain land, that lived in the mountains. There were practically no tenants. Tenant farming was down in the deep South. Cotton country. Old slave country.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why did you leave the mountains?
DON WEST:
Well, my father wanted to get to a place where there would be more schooling for the kids. As I said previously, we had only four months a year total school term. I went through the sixth grade in that kind of school. Down in the cotton country, which had been the old slave holding country, they had seven and nine months schooling. My dad wanted to go down there so we could get more education for the kids. We moved and he became a sharecropper and that was the rest of his existence until he died.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did he feel about moving from being a mountain land-owner to being a sharecropper?
DON WEST:
He always wanted to go back. All my life as a kid, the rest of the time, that was dad's hope. That someday he'd be able to go back to the mountains. And that's true of all of our family. Our whole family went down. Many of them went to the cotton mills. Adco in Cartersville. I had one uncle, Harv, he was my father's brother. He was supposedly one of the best moonshine liquor makers in the mountains. And he always had bad luck. He'd get caught. But I remember, he also went down out of the mountains. He didn't make liquor after he left the mountain and went to the cotton mills. And when he died his last request was that they take him back to the mountains and bury him. I remember I went with them. Oh, it was a rough muddy little road up the CantecayRiver from Ellajayout to Cantecay. And we buried him in Ebenizer Church yard. I wrote a story about that. He was a terrific figure to me. He was a great big six feet and a half tall. And he was always poverty striken. But when a kid went to his home, you know, he took you in and he'd sit you down to a meal that had practically nothing on the table. But he would laugh and you felt welcome and you felt like somebody, almost like a king. You know, he was sitting you down to eat. Yet he hardly ever knew where the next meal was coming from. He was a terrific character. He always had, as I said, bad luck. Once the revenue men raided his still. It was on the Cantecay River and there was a big bluff off into the river. The revenuers were out on the side away from the river and they said "We've got you now." My uncle looked around and saw that they had him on that side. He made a big dive into the river. He was a good swimmer. He escaped. He'd tell these stories and laugh. He said "And by god I was there firing the furnace and the first thing I saw, I looked up and here they were. I was a good runner. I thought well, I can outrun them. I made a dive and caught my foot in a goddamn piece of brush and fell. And they had me." They sent him to the pen.
JACQUELYN HALL:
You mean your whole family. Not just your mother and father but your uncles and you—
DON WEST:
All of them. Both my gradfathers, our uncles and aunts. This was an exodus. This was a general picture of north Georgia to Atlanta, or to Cartersville, the cotton mills. See, the cotton mills came in around the piedmont. I remember the first time I ever heard of cotton mills was the pack peddler. The pack peddler once a year used to come through the mountains and he always stayed one night at our place and stayed with other neighbors. You know, and he has his pack on his back and he'd show us a pretty piece of cloth that he had and so on. And he came one year talking about jobs that was down at the Atco and Cartersville and Canton. Where the cotton mills had come, around the foothills of the mountains. So mountain people just went out, as they did over in North Carolina, to Gastonia, Marion and so on. So this was a general picture. My grandfather on my father's side died working in the Adco cotton mills, now at Atco, Georgia. That's where I learned the song "Hard Times a Cotton Mills Girls" that Hedy has on one of her albums.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When was this that you moved?
DON WEST:
Right after the first world war our family began moving. My grandfather on my father's side moved out first. His family and then my father and then my uncles and aunts generally followed afterwards. Most of our people went into the cotton mills. But my mother said… I remember one of my grandfather's said "Well, your family, you've got nine kids. They can all get jobs in the cotton mill." And I remember my mother saying "I never intend for one of my children to go into the cotton mill if I can help It. I'll be willing to wash clothes and wear my knuckles bear and anything to keep them out of the cotton mills." So none of my immediate family ever went into the cotton mills. My father became a sharecropper instead of a mill worker. Most of the others went into the mills. He remained a sharecropper until he died.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Where was he a sharecropper?
DON WEST:
In Cobb county in Georgia around Marietta. The place where we used to live now has the big bomber plant there. Right close to Marietta. It was a medium sized thing. That wasn't a great big sharecropping area. The big sharecropping was on down toward Atlanta. But a lot of tenant farmers and sharecroppers were there. So my father went to that area and we grew up. We all worked on the farm. I got these fingers shot off from dynamite there on the farm. My mother, kids, brothers and sisters, everybody worked.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Where did your father get his desire for you all to go to school?
DON WEST:
I think it was his own awareness that he'd never had any education and my mother hadn't had any. My mother had about a fifth grade education. And they had a feeling that they would love for their kids to go on to school. My mother used to read a lot. I remember once a Sears and Roebuck catelogue had six classics advertised for ten cents apiece. Little paperback books. And she ordered the whole six of them. And she read them aloud to the kids, to us. I remember some of the neighbor kids talking about "Well, Donnie West's mother's read a whole book." We just didn't have any books. Bible was about the main stock and here we had six books and my mother had read them all. All through the book, the whole book.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Somewhere back your ancesters had been professional people.
DON WEST:
Well, my grandfather's father had been a doctor. He was one of the earliest settlers there. And he was the one that married a Cherokee. I'm quite sure this must have influenced my grandfather's attitude a great deal. Because he was not sympathetic to the confederacy. Like thousands of other north Georgians, mountaineers, who went with the Union rather than the Confederacy. And he always taught us that we should respect all people, regardless of their color or their race or their background. To hold nothing against people that they themselves couldn't help.
JACQUELYN HALL:
So while you were growing up he was still alive?
DON WEST:
Oh my yes. He was, to me… well, I guess now we would call him sort of a mountain patriarch. He was the head of his family. Great big. About six feet and four inches. And as I sometimes say to some of my long haired friends he was quite modern in more ways than his racial attitudes. He had a great big beard down on his chest. I used to think, when I'd hear the preachers talk about God, I'd think about God and he was almost the spitting image of my old grandpa. With this big beard.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was he practicing medicine?
DON WEST:
No, his father had, see. But there was no school. And before the civil war they had no public school system. So my grandfather probably never got as much as two grades of formal education. But he was a j.p. and a leader in his community. He had a lot of native ability. Incidentally, my grandfather was the first person that told me that scalping was not an Indian practice but had been brought in by white man. I remember once I took a little sixth grade history book home and was showing him a picture of a couple of Indians. Had their knives and had the hair of a white girl, just about ready to take the scalp. It made him very angry. He said this told the wrong story. He said that in the first place it was the white man that brought in the custom of scalping, not the Indian. He had learned that from Chief White Path. See, the Cherokee nation had been there in north Georgia and my grandfather knew some of these Cherokee leaders very well. White Path had been the war chief of the Cherokee.
JACQUELYN HALL:
In the introduction to Cards of Southern Earth you tell a story about an indentured servant who ran away with a Cherokee. Was that apocryphal?
DON WEST:
That's an old legend. I don't know how accurate it would be.