Growing up in a sharecropping family in southern Missouri can’t be easy. But that’s the early life of my father, Talmadge Hollis Lane. He was born on November 21, 1914 in Ridgely, Lake County, Tennessee to William Everett Lane and Ruberta Hood Lane. He was interviewed in 1991 by his grandson Brian, and much of what we know about his early childhood was taken from this interview and stories that he told me when I was growing up. Some of the information doesn’t jive with records I’ve found. Whether this is a function of a failing memory, or fudging stories, I’ll never know. He was a complicated man.
His extended family called him Talmadge. I knew him as Tom. He was the oldest of six children, with brother Vernon and sisters Bell, Pauleen, Helen, and Margaret coming after him. About 1919 dad’s parents moved from Tennessee to the Bootheel, located in the southeastern corner of Missouri. The family moved a half-dozen times from farm to farm sharecropping. Dad was seven when the family moved to Caruthersville in Pemiscot County. There the family rented land and farmed for themselves. They grew cotton, corn, and hay and raised chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigs, cows, and goats. They used mules to pull farm machinery.
The Lane’s were poor. The children were born at home with the help of a midwife. They lived in a four room house that had a kitchen and three bedrooms. Each child had their own bed, which was a luxury. There was no running water; water for cooking and bathing was gotten from a pump in the yard. At first the home was heated by wood, but when wood became scarce, the family switched to a coal burning stove. The house didn’t have electricity until dad was eighteen. The out-buildings included a barn, henhouse, and outhouse.
Like the Lane’s, most people in the area were poor. If holidays were celebrated, they were celebrated sparsely. For Christmas the children would get an apple, orange, and six walnuts. The items were usually placed at the ends of their beds or on a chair. One year my dad received a football. And the school hosted a Christmas Pageant for the families of the pupils. Mr. Clark, a wealthy cotton farmer, would have an Easter egg hunt for the kids of the community.
At a time when many children did not go to school, the Lane’s had the fore-thought to send their children to school, at least until they got older and decided on their own not to attend. The school was one room and about two miles from their home. Each child was furnished with school books, paper, and pencils. When dad was twelve he received a scholarship to attend high school; it cost money to attend the higher grades. The scholarship was in track because he was a good runner. The high school was four miles from his home, and he didn’t like running, so he dropped out of school. Despite this he was an intelligent man who always read and stayed abreast of the news.
Everyone in the family worked in the fields picking cotton, or doing whatever needed to be done. The boys helped with planting in April and helped with the harvest in August. The family had a wooden planter that was pulled by mules. The planter had a hopper that held seeds. As the mules pulled the planter, it dug two rows, and seeds dropped evenly into the furrows.
For most of his teen years dad picked cotton. Cotton pickers used a bag that held about one hundred pounds of cotton. After their bag was full, they carried it to a wagon that held up to two thousand pounds of cotton. Dad picked about six hundred pounds of cotton a day. The family took their cotton to the gin where they sold it for fifteen cents a pound. If they wanted to take a chance on the price rising, they had the cotton baled. They took the bales home and stored them in the barn until later. The family ran a tab at the local store and paid it off when the cotton was harvested and sold. While the life was hard, the family was able to survive through the fruits of their labor. I remember, during the few times when we visited my grandmother, asking about the loud noise that could be heard all day. It was the sound coming from the cotton gin, an everyday sound to the people who lived close by, but alien to me who lived a few hours north.