The Cabin Road

There’s an old road that parallels the Flint River at the north end of Lake Blackshear among the fields, pines, and orchards of South Georgia. The road is named for J.W. Cannon, who started a large farm on the south side of Limestone Creek in the early 1900’s. The road has been paved for years but for the first 18 to 20 years of my life it was a dirt road. My Grandfather and I travelled this road regularly, passing through the tunnel of pecan limbs reaching out from the Cannon orchard. We crossed Limestone Creek, where the Cannon farm ends and the fields begin to spread wide. At the top of the hill, we turned to the West at the little cement block house and an old, tin-roofed building covered with cypress board siding cut from the Flint river bottom, rusted, weathered and worn by a century or more of southern wind, rain, and sun.

               On the other side of that old building there is another road that turns back to the south. It is a dirt path, a field road with potholes and a strip of grass between the dirt ruts where tires keep the grass beaten and swept away. This old road bisects the heart of the land my great-great Grandfather bought on the north side of Limestone Creek in the 1890’s. Family lore holds that he was scouting timber for a lumber company out of the little town of Montezuma, about twenty miles North when he found the place.

The old cypress-board building is known as “the commissary”. It served as a store for all the surrounding farms well into the 1950’s. When the commissary’s cypress boards were cut from the river swamp over 100 years ago, the Flint river still ran free. The timber was hauled up the steep bank to a bluff by oxen chained to a cable. The river’s bed was buried in the waters of Lake Blackshear in the 1930’s. The oxen’s bones have been in the ground twice as long as I’ve been alive. The old building still stands. But barely so. The last ten years have taken a toll on the commissary. Hurricane Michael peeled back the corners of the tin roof and shifted the building’s frame. The cypress siding is peeling from its crooked skeleton, one wall was pulled away from the seal, and its floors are warped. A lover of old things, I’ve checked into trying to restore the old building but its just too costly given the shape its in. Still, I can’t bring myself to tear it down quite yet.

               As you turn off the pavement at the old commissary and hit dirt, the road runs straight and flat for a mile and a quarter. It is bound on each side by open fields and orchards. I have traveled this road in all weathers, at all times of day and night, with children, dogs, old men, and with people who left this earth long ago. When I am on this road I see them all around me.

               Opposite the commissary lies an old feed barn, probably the sturdiest of the original outbuildings remaining on the farm. A lean-to encircles the barn on three sides where troughs lined the wall for the hogs and other farm animals to take their grain in the old days. Today, the tin roof of the lean-to shelters old farm equipment—rusty planters, harrows, discs, chains, an old syrup kettle, our old pecan sprayer truck, the heavy iron pulleys that used to run my great grandfather’s sawmill and cotton gin, and my grandfather’s old, blue 1967 Ford pickup—-the one he drove when he helped me move to college.

               Just south of the feed barn there remains an old cast-iron steam boiler. Its heavy, circular iron door is stamped “Schofield Iron Works, Macon, Georgia. Inside the door are a series of metal tubes that were filled with steam when in use. The boiler was fired by feeding wood or coals into the two smaller square doors at the bottom to heat the water-filled pipes lining the boiler itself. A large pipe emerges from the top of the boiler and ran to the gin and sawmill that used to also be nearby, supplying both with the steam power to run them. The boiler’s housing is covered in bricks that are today beginning to chip and crumble, baked from the inside out by the heat of the boiler. Grass and weeds have sprouted on its top and between the crevices of the bricks. Not far away there is an old peanut picker, into which dried stacks of peanuts dug from the earth and stacked by hand on stakes for drying, were fed by pitchfork to separate peanuts from vines long ago.

               Continuing down the path of the road, the worn posts of the old farm gate with rusted hinges still attached stand passive guard. In summer, the stalks of Bermuda and bahia grass growing between the tire ruts wave as I pass, their seeds filling my truck’s grill and radiator when I’ve let it go too long between mowings. I have been going down this road on foot, riding horseback, pedaling a bicycle, driving tractors, cars, and trucks for over half a century. It is the road I know best.

               Once inside the open gate, there is an old, abandoned pecan orchard on the left. It is abandoned because this 10 acres, along with 150 acres across the paved road further east, was sold years ago when one of my grandfather’s brothers sold his share of the farm to Mr. Adkins, the farmer who rented the land at the time. When Mr. Adkins retired, he put the land up for sale. We were able to buy it all back except for this 10 acres. Family legend suggests that this orchard was started as a pecan nursery, which explains the haphazard pattern of non-grafted seedling trees at its north end.

               An old sharecropper’s cabin is slowly settling into the earth at the orchard’s center. It is sided with the same cypress boards and rusted patina roof as the commissary. At the door which opens into the long straight hallway, there is a board nailed to the siding with a number etched into it. But the board is aged and worn and I can’t make out the numbers.

               Sharecropping has a long and ugly history here in the south. It was a system developed in a cash-poor, land-rich part of the world following the Civil War. Theoretically, the system could have benefited both the landowners and the sharecroppers. But, human nature being what it is, in reality, this was rarely the case. Most arrangements overwhelmingly favored the landlord. He allowed his land to be worked on shares and supplied mules, equipment, and seed, frequently charging the sharecropper for these items. The sharecropper provided 100% of the sweat equity and was often left with very little to show for it.

               I think a lot about the people who lived in this sharecropper cabin. I never knew them. They were long gone from the farm by the time I came along. I don’t know what color they were, though I suspect they were black. I don’t know how they may have been treated by my great grandfather. I like to think he treated them fairly but I am not naïve. I know what things were like in south Georgia at that time.

               The closest I can come to an answer is the following reply from someone who grew up in another sharecropper cabin on this same farm just a little further down this dirt road. Eddie Byron, a big man, known as “Pig” by all who call him friend, is in his eighties and still runs watermelon harvesting crews, sometimes on this very farm he grew up on, and works during the pecan harvest at a local cleaning plant. Regarding his experience growing up on this farm in the world of sharecropping, he says with the warm, friendly smile he seems to wear perpetually, “We sharecropped 20 acres with mules—cotton, corn, peanuts. We made $16 per week. On Saturday, everything you picked was yours. But, if you picked 200 lbs on Saturday, they expected you to pick 200 lbs the rest of the week.”

               Just past the orchard grows an aged and thick-set water oak. It has seen all the Anthropocene has to offer and doesn’t seem impressed. It has seen the small surrounding fields bound by fences and hedgerows, transformed into an ever-expanding, less diverse landscape. The land is depopulated but the human mark upon it is more conspicuous now than ever. Mules have been transformed into GPS-guided tractors. The ospreys riding thermals above the fields must dodge A-10 warthogs out of Robins Air Force Base. The rusty hog wire and barb wire fences have been rolled up and removed, the posts uprooted, to make way for efficiency at the urging of the economies of scale, and with them have gone the sound of bobwhite quail calling from the vanished field edges.

               Beyond the water oak, the land opens up on both sides of the road into spreading fields filled with a revolving patchwork of cotton, peanuts, and watermelons, then back to cotton again, with a little wheat or sorghum occasionally grown in-between. To the left there are about 94 acres with a hand-dug, New Deal-era drainage ditch running through its center, while a center pivot irrigation system crawls slowly in a circle over the land. Across the road, to the right, there are 225 acres of open ground with a little two acre depression at its center, which holds water after heavy rains or when that field’s two center pivots are running.

               Pumps submerged into Lake Blackshear suck the muddy water into pipes that carry it under the fields to the pivots, where the silt-laden water wears away at them and artificially rains on the crops. The Flint River running through Lake Blackshear in its upper middle portion here has a strong flow and is regulated downstream by the Crisp County hydroelectric dam, which provides power to this area. It is rare to be able to pump from the lake and we are allowed to do so only because we were fortunate enough to have grandfathered permits that were issued prior to the restrictions put into place in the late 1990’s. Though we live in a land of plenty rainfall, I often wonder what the future holds for this practice and what future pressures our water may face as the rivers of the Western U.S. go dry and our own population here increases.

As the sheen of the lake glistens in the distance beyond the fields, we continue down the road. You have to watch for potholes along here, beaten out by the heavy traffic of decapitated school buses full of watermelons, semi-loads of peanuts, and cotton module trucks leaving the fields. I fill the potholes with gravel from time to time. This helps cushion the jarring blows as tires roll over the craggy stone pillows. Through a combination of rain, soil type, topography, and the assault of farm equipment, these same holes will wear away again and in time, I’ll have to bring more gravel.

               The next structure of any sort to break the monotony of the open fields is a lone black walnut tree on the East side of the road. It is gnarled and bent by the wind. The tree’s trunk is hollowing and it is battered by the nearly annual “accidental” dosing of cotton defoliant it receives from the crop duster hired by the farmer who leases our row crop land, to spray the sea of cotton surrounding the tree. The old walnut had a companion for much of its life—another walnut, larger in girth and height. A few years ago a storm destroyed its deeply grooved, hollow trunk, leaving the remaining walnut to face the glaring sun and seasons alone.

               I know how that lone walnut feels. There hasn’t been a single time I’ve been on this road without thinking of my grandfather since he passed away a quarter century ago. Pop was my companion on this farm and his guidance shaped my life. Like everyone else’s, my path has been beaten and battered at times like this old field road. I often fill the potholes battered out by life with memories of him and of this place as I fill the ruts in the field road with gravel.

               The shaded understory of the remaining walnut tree serves as a beeyard for the hives left there to pollinate the watermelons. In early spring the bees often swarm, forming pendulous living globs of worker bees who cover their queen, awaiting the return of scout bees out seeking a new home for the colony. After watermelon season ends following the 4th of July, the bees race furiously back and forth to collect pollen from the ocean of cotton blooms around them. Their seemingly chaotic flight filling the space under the walnut tree lends no sense of the mysterious code of order within the hive.

               A few hundred yards on, an old corn crib stands beside the road with another, younger pecan orchard as its backdrop. In my youth, there was a sharecropper cabin next to the corn crib and a narrow fenced-off pasture that extended out behind it, where horses grazed. The horses are now long gone and the fences torn down. The sharecropper cabin had fallen into disrepair. Its cypress board siding had long been covered with a sort of exterior tar paper that had a yellow brick pattern printed on it, which I see frequently in this part of the world on such houses of that era. The old sagging house was torn down about the time I planted my first pecan orchard a little further down this road. We shored up the corn crib to use a storage barn. We replaced the tin roof and added an additional lean -to, but left the rusted tin siding that covers the cypress boards as an aesthetic memorial to by-gone days.

               In late August of the years in which peanuts were growing in the fields, Pop and I frequently stopped near here to pull a few plants from the ground. Gathering the running vines into a mass in each hand, we tugged gently at first, careful not to rip the underground peanut pods from the plant as we coaxed the roots from the sandy soil, releasing the sweet aroma only found in a peanut field. Once we had them free, we shook the plants to get as much of the loose dirt off as possible and laid them in the floorboard of the back seat. Once home, we stood in the yard and pulled the pods from their stems, washed them, and dumped them in a pot of salty, boiling water to create the boiled peanuts we so craved all year long. It is a ritual I still practice.

               As we proceed southward on the road we reach a low spot where a culvert runs beneath the dirt track, carrying the water from the surrounding fields into a depression lying in a grassy area between the orchards. Following a period of heavy rain, this depression fills with water to form a small, wet-weather pond to which wood ducks, blue-winged teal, black-bellied whistling ducks, and shorebirds like solitary sandpipers can be found feeding in winter and early spring.

               In the memory of my childhood, somewhere near the location of this culvert, the land turned to cow pasture, and the road angled to the southeast across what is now pecan orchard, to a cattle gap that still rests at the edge of the woods. Sometimes when I’m on this road, my mind wanders back and I see things through the windshield of my grandfather’s 1978 Ford LTD. We’d stop there at the cattle gap and as Pop’s window rolled down, the cows looked up from their grazing. They stared at us blankly with grass blades dangling from their mouths.

“Where’s your tennis’s?”, Pop always asked them. By “tennis’s”, Pop meant tennis shoes. It was a silly, random question, but cows will look at you, bewildered, no matter what you say to them. The herd looked around at each other, looked back at us, and one or two cows let out a bawling “moo” before walking away wild-eyed from this ridiculous line of questioning. As a kid I found this hilarious and for the rest of his life, Pop asked cows about their tennis shoes whenever we passed even a small herd.

               From the cattle gap, the road descended down to the lake edge. Back then, this route took us beneath the tendrils of Spanish moss hanging from the cypress trees, whose craggy knees protruded from the water. We passed in and out of shade and sunlight. Turtles of all sizes rested on logs extending above the surface of the water. The sunning turtles scattered and dropped into the muddy water as we approached.

               But that route was abandoned long ago when the cows were removed form the farm and the pasture was turned to make way for more cotton. The road was straightened on a more direct route. Seeing no need for more cotton, I planted my first 25 acres of pecan trees on the site of the old cow pasture in 2005. On the other side of the straightened road, across from the orchard, is the field where my grandfather and I searched for arrowheads. Where, every time he found one, he exclaimed, “Looky-here”, like he’d never seen an arrowhead before.

               This old field road is called the Cabin Road. It is named so because, at its end, where Limestone Creek pours itself into Lake Blackshear, there rests a cabin. Sometime in the 1930’s my great grandfather had in mind to move to town to better manage his hardware business, leaving the day to day farm activities to an overseer. He tore down the old house that used to sit beside the commissary building back at the road’s beginning. In the 1950’s the lumber was re-used to build a cabin for my great grandmother here at the mouth of Limestone Creek. She loved to fish for white perch or crappie, so he extended a dock out into the water about 120 feet from the bank to the creek channel and built a covered platform at the end so she could sit in the shade and pull in fish with her cane pole.

               My grandfather and I both inherited her affinity for fishing this same spot. More often than not, when at the farm, we always ended up here. In the fall of 1997, I drove Pop around the farm for the last time. He was dying of cancer. Pop felt every bump we hit as a bolt of lightning. But he wanted to see the farm. He wanted to ride down this road. It is difficult to express to people in the 21st century, the meaning that land holds to some people. There is, of course, value in the monetary aspect of land, and to most  people, it seems, there is no value beyond that. But, land means more than that to some people.

               Pop was quiet for most of the trip. Uncharacteristically so. I still wonder about the thoughts running through his head on that ride over the land. I know some of it, at least. It could be seen in his eyes. He knew it was the last time he would see the farm. He was soaking up its scenes, replaying the memories. On our way out, at about the same spot where the road used to veer off to the Southeast across a long-ago cow pasture, Pop asked me, “Do you think you’ll ever sell this place”?

               What struck me was the way in which he asked the question. There was no intent of a lesson in his words. There was no pressure to hold onto the farm. He simply wanted to know. He wondered about the fate of the land. Without asking me directly, he was trying to discover if the farm meant the same thing to me as it did to him. I think he wondered if I remembered all the days we had spent together here. And he was letting me know those memories had value no matter what happened to this place.

Though our lives overlapped, we would live in different times. There would be different demands, different needs, a different world that may require different things of me than it did of him. Pop understood this. I can now see that the non-judgmental way in which he asked the question demonstrated to me that I did not need to feel obliged to keep the farm if the course of my life demanded otherwise. He was giving me permission. Permission to let it all go if I so chose.

I was 26 years old and in my last year of classes in pursuit of a Ph.D when we had that conversation. I didn’t know where education would take me. I had no intention of selling the farm but I didn’t know what the future held in store. More than likely my plans would take me elsewhere, or so I believed. The thought of planting pecan orchards here was not even an ember in my mind then.

There are many things I wish I’d said to Pop when he asked me if I thought I’d ever sell the farm. There are even more things I wish I could say to him after all these years. More questions I’d like to ask.  But, at the time, I didn’t have the words or the experience to understand what I needed to say. So, I simply answered, “No sir, not unless I have to.” Pop seemed satisfied with that reply. Somehow, even now, it seems the right answer. Slowly, we drove on down the cabin road past those familiar fields, all those old buildings, amid the ghosts and memories that only exist here, on this farm, and nowhere else on earth. We drove on down the cabin road to places neither of us could know anything about.

6 thoughts on “The Cabin Road

  1. Beautifully written. As I read it, I couldn’t help but imagine that same journey down the disappearing roads of my family’s homestead in Middle Georgia. I have visions of those same tattered tin shelters and abandoned farm equipment, the same untended pecan trees, the same memories of Daddy talking to the dairy cows, and even the same knowing look on the bovine faces in answer to his often inappropriate questions. The one memory you have that I wish I shared was of that last ride across the farm and the reassurance that the land would remain in the family as long as possible. What a comforting memory that must be!
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your walk down memory lane. As fast paced as everyday life can be, we all need to slow down our heartbeats sometimes through a peaceful journey into our pasts. Thank you for sharing this. I enjoyed the trip!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is wonderful. The land tells so many stories and you’ve conveyed that so eloquently. Weathered and worn, different and the same, the land remains as a legacy to all it has endured. I love the trees in this, and I will now forever picture cows with tennis shoes. We still have many cows and ranches here in Texas that are visible from city highways,, so you should know this memory of yours will live on quite often with a complete stranger, giggling at cows.


  3. As someone who grew up at least partially on a family farm, I share the draw of the land, the comfort, the centering of a life on land. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I envy that you still have your land and can enjoy it the rest of your days


  4. Great look back on a life that a lot of us were blessed to have had. I was a small lad when my great grandparents had a 575 acre farm in (wait for it) Alpharetta. I remember going up there and running those pastures playing Cowboys and Indians, running from a mean old bull and skipping rocks across one of the two ponds on the property. We would come in thirsty, pump water from the handle in the kitchen and put it in our own gourds that were hanging on the wall….with our names on them as well as just the right size according to your spot in the family tree. I remember going up once a month for reunions. We would get there early to help sweep the front yard. Because of the huge oak trees there was no grass but it had to look spiffy for the family. Wonderful memories from so long ago that brings back a smile every time. I truly would go back to that time in a minute. Thanks again for such a wonderful look back to a happier time. 👊


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