The following are the compiled childhood memories of all the Cunningham children. Pictures have been added, but the narrative remains as remembered and recorded for the original “Family Ties and Memories” book that was published in 1977.
Beginning with their marriage in 1916, Big Mama and Pop lived in several houses in and around the Sulligent, Alabama area, including the Old Robinson place and Doctor Woods’ place.
Their first child, Kate Laurene, was born in Vernon, Alabama
and a year later their second child, Frances Jeweline, was born.
Their first son, James Denton,
was born a little over
a year and a half later.
The family livelihood from the beginning involved farming and working in sawmills. In 1920, Pop suffered a disabling sawmill accident in which he lost an inch and a half of the right heel.
While recuperating, Pop used the insurance money received for the accident to go to business school. While attending this school, the teacher was invited over for supper one night. Everything went well until time for dessert. When Big Mama went to serve her crowning glory – a beautiful meringue pie – she discovered that Jeweline had stuck her fingers in it. At other times the children occupied themselves with such things as riding a tricycle, swinging on doors, and sliding down the cellar door.
By the time the fourth child, Dorothy Faye, came along,
having babies was a pretty common thing
around the Cunningham household,
but Grandma Cunningham came to stay and help with the little ones anyway. Jeweline had to use the potty in the middle of the night and Big Mama was so uncomfortable she just told her to find the pot under the bed for herself. After several unsuccessful tries, Jeweline settled for what to her was an acceptable substitute –Grandma’s big, wallered-out shoes. It was not quite as acceptable to Grandma the next morning however.
Another memorable thing about that day was the supper meal. Grandma couldn ‘t find anything for the children to eat in the kitchen except some old coffee and biscuits, so this is what they were fed, cold biscuits soaked in cold coffee.
At this time the family lived in an old hotel in Sulligent. The children were old enough to play on their own and one of their favorite places was a crib playhouse in a barn nearby. Unfortunately, this was in a pasture with a very mean milk cow named Filie. Filie loved to chase kids and, of course, the mad dash across the pasture running from “Old Filie” made the playhouse that much more exciting.
Other exciting things that happened at this house included the circus that came and set up in the pasture. For the use of the pasture, the Cunningham kids were allowed to see the circus and all its animals anytime they wanted. There was also a train ride for Kate and Jeweline from Sulligent to Crews with two new straw hats thrown in.
In 1921 the family moved to a three room shotgun house in a sawmill camp halfway between Sulligent and Detroit, Alabama. The family came to call this place “Other Mill”.
The fifth child, Thomas Ferrell
was born while the family
was living at this house.
When the time came, the doctor was called and the children were told that he would bring their new baby. The children were waiting in the yard when the doctor drove up in his Model-T and they waited patiently for the doctor to bring the new baby out of the car. When he went on in the house, the children were confused but continued to wait patiently.
Finally they began to circle the car to get a better look and eventually searched the car themselves, but still couldn’t find the baby. When word came from the house that they had a new baby brother inside they were completely surprised and never figured out how the doctor “snuck” him into the house.
One of their favorite pastimes at this house was a playhouse in a tent near the road under some pine trees. They would also sneak off whenever possible and wade in the creek because it was forbidden. They loved to hunt crawdads and, of course, anything new was terribly exciting. One time “anything new” meant some snuff, but to the displeasure of the others Jeweline ate all of it and the others didn’t even get to try it.
Their pleasures were simple. Walking along the road and popping maypops was one of the things they enjoyed. One day they came to a large maypop that wouldn’t pop. They looked a little further on and there was another one and a little further still was an even larger one. They continued to ramble and discovered they were in the middle of a watermelon patch. The natural thing to do was to enjoy a watermelon, but after it had been consumed, guilt set in. They realized that someone had planted all the watermelons and they had stolen some of his crop. Filled with remorse, they ran home and told Big Mama who then went and paid the man for his watermelon.
In 1923, the family moved to the Joe Stevens house owned by Pine Dimension Lumber Company in Monroe County, Mississippi. Moving to Mississippi constituted moving to a “heathen” land in the minds of the children. They didn’t know what to expect but knew it would be strange and the people in Mississippi would be scary. Not long after arriving, Kate and Jeweline were looking around and in spite of being scared, curiosity got the better of them. There was an old black man getting water at a pump in the backyard, and they eased up to him and shyly asked him what his name was–knowing all the time that it would be something they had never heard before. His name was Henry Cunningham.
The Joe Stevens house itself had been built for the Cunninghams but another family was already living in one half of it when they arrived. It had a big open hall and after the chimney was complete, the other family moved out. There was still little enough room, and the children sometimes slept five to a bed. One night in the dead of the night, one of the pillars supporting the house caved in and scared the family badly. One whole corner of the house had fallen down.
The older girls were by this time responsible for the younger children and Ferrell was a special problem for them to keep clean. He learned to crawl, but he didn’t exactly crawl. It was more of a dirt-gathering slide. His hair was also tangled and fine and earned him the nickname “Fuzzy” which he carries to this day.
Other responsibilities included being in charge of the house while Big Mama plowed. Kate had to do the dishes, churn, cook dinner, and mind the kids. The most trouble she had involved making cornbread. The milk was always unpredictable, and baking powder and soda had to be added to the meal. The wood burning cook stove was not exactly dependable for an even heat either. The result was that the cornbread was sometimes burnt to a crisp on top and mush in the middle. Sometimes it would just bubble in the pan and never really do anything. These were the times Big Mama would just start over when she got in from the field.
There was another time she had to cook more dinner also. A black man had been hired to clean out the well and each day he brought his lunch in a bucket which he set aside while he worked The children found the lunch just too tempting one day, and ate his lunch while he wasn’t looking. When lunchtime came, Big Mama had to cook something for him to eat.
Big Mama busied herself with other things for her children They were always dressed well. She would make clothes from scraps of old suits from her brother and anything she could get her hands on. At one time, she even made two little patent leather purses for Kate and Jeweline from the tongues of some old shoes.
Pop, in the meantime, farmed, worked at a sawmill and on construction work. There was little money, but Christmas was always a special occasion anyway. The Christmas of 1924 was especially memorable. The family loaded in a wagon filled with hay and quilts to keep warm and went to Aberdeen on Christmas Eve to see Santa Claus. After the shopping, the parade, and lots of time, the family got ready to go home, but Ferrell was missing. The family searched for hours for the baby, taking turns looking, calling, tracing and retracing their steps. He was finally found waiting patiently at an intersection in Aberdeen.
It was while living in
the Joe Stevens house
that the twins were
born to the family.
Tillie Clo was born
with Billy Joe.
Two and one half years after the twins were born, the last child came
into the family. Harroll Glenn became the perpetual “baby”
of the family, nestling Billy out of this much cherished position.
It was also at the Joe Stevens house that the older children started to school riding on a Model-T bus driven by Claude Hankins. Kate and Jeweline were always in the same grade and were good students. In the fifth grade, Kate represented her school in a Math contest and won second in the county.
In the meantime, the younger children occupied themselves with such games as stick people dressed with scraps of cloth, a wagon built by older brother James and one year Tillie got her first doll for Christmas. Big Mama had made the head out of a gourd and it even had blue eyes that would roll open and shut. The doll made it through a lot of playing until one day Tillie and Dot were playing in their house in the wood pile and Big Mama walked up to see what they were doing. She stepped on the doll’s head and crushed it to pieces The girls were extremely disappointed but not as much as Big Mama whose hard work had been ruined.
In 1928, the family moved for a short time to Crossville, Alabama while Pop worked in a sawmill. The house had an extremely high front porch and a back porch that came out at ground level. It was at this house that the family heard their first radio when Herbert Hoover was elected President.
The children’s favorite toy was the body of an old Model-T car. Ferrell, the oldest child not in school, was left in charge of the younger children. They wanted some candy, so Ferrell went to Yerby’s Store where the family had a charge account and charged a nickel’s worth of candy. He brought this back to the little ones and then they wanted some more. Ferrell was embarrassed to go back to Yerby’s so he went to Mixon’s store where the family did not have a charge account. He got some candy and when he found he couldn’t charge it, he just ran. Later, when the matter had been solved, he had to pray for forgiveness for a long time as his punishment.
This same old Model-T was the scene of one of Billy’s accidents. He broke his arm when he ran against one of the doors and it opened too easily.
It was while living here, at Crossville, that the older boys got their first taste of possum hunting. One moonlit night, they struck out already scared of an old crazy man in the neighborhood and got about 200 yards from the house. An owl hooted and that ended the possum hunt with a race back to the house.
Shortly after Christmas, the family moved to the Troop Station House. They spent the depression years in this house which was also on the flower farm on the side of the railroad, not moving from here until 1935.
The train ran by the house three or four times a day and there was also a dummy run between Aberdeen and Columbus several times a day. The railroad claimed its price on the pets of the family. One was an old crippled rooster named Crip. He was addicted to dead flies and would run up every time the fly swatter hit the porch. When he was run over and killed by a train, nobody in the family could stand to eat him because of all the dead flies he had eaten.
They were not so discriminating in another case, however. They had adopted a runt pig as a pet and had named him Spot. Spot had the misfortune of getting killed by a train one hot summer day. The family had to eat the pig at the time he was killed in order for the meat not to be wasted. Unfortunately, it was wasted anyway–all over the place. In the middle of the night the family came down with a case of simultaneous, massive diarrhea. The toilet was about a hundred yards from the house and might as well have been a mile. Some made it and some did not. Another popular stopping place was the woodpile, but some did not even make it this far. The shortest dash ended under the kitchen table. This was attributed to Jeweline who was caught on her way out the back door. Big Mama made her clean up the mess and it was not until much later that James was exposed as the true culprit.
The whole family was sick again later when everyone except Big Mama and Glenn came down with measles that Kate had brought home after nursing the neighbors. With the whole family sick Big Mama and Glenn had to run their legs off to take care of the whole bunch, but they all eventually recovered. After they were back in school Glenn and Big Mama came down with the measles and had to fend for themselves.
Glenn got in on other work also, frequently carrying out the pot for Jeweline. In this case, though, he got reimbursed at the rate of a penny a day. Other swaps were common too, like the one between Ferrell and Tillie. He got her left over milk in exchange for a piece of his ribbon cane.
Their entertainment ranged from listening to a phonograph brought over by their neighbors the Finches, to playing with fireballs. These were made by soaking tightly balled up rags in kerosene and then lighting them and playing pitch.
There was a rash of mad dogs one summer. The children were playing on the road bank one summer night and James was up on the road. He looked up and approaching him was a dog known to be mad. Instead of running, he whispered for all the kids to be quiet. They all froze and the dog came by James with only a foot or two to spare. It went on down the road and got in a fight with some other dogs, who all came down with rabies later. It had already bitten a neighbor, Aubrey Hanson, who had to take the shots.
When they were not worried about mad dogs, there was always something else after them. Their neighbors, the Hansons–Burline, Virgil, and Verdell–were quick to take advantage of the fact that none of the Cunninghams were allowed to fight, not even to defend themselves. There was a constant battle to outwit them. Kate at this time was having trouble with “mean” Clyde Sanders. He seemed to delight in making Dot cry especially on the bus, and Kate had to fight him all the time.
On one occasion something else got after them. All the kids were in the back of a wagon with James driving, coming back from a meeting in Hamilton. Slowly someone with some kind of covering over his head began to approach the wagon from the rear reaching out trying to get a hand on the wagon. James made the mules run but the “haint” followed them for a long, long way.
Other night trips in the wagon included trips to Vernon. The family would pack a supper and drive as far as Bethel Church to eat it. Then they would drive all night to Grandpa Sanders house. The trips were generally cool and were looked forward to by the kids.
When they were at home, they were ingenious at making toys and games to play. One favorite was a “flying ginny” made with a plank in the woodpile. It would go around and around, and one time when Billy tried to get off at the wrong time, he was knocked unconscious. The children were scared, thinking that he had been killed and were very relieved when he eventually regained consciousness.
The girls by this time had their own ideas of how to play. One afternoon Big Mama had gone to an aunt’s funeral, and Kate was quilting using ravelings out of flour sacks as thread. The younger girls came in complaining that they needed a place for a playhouse. Kate gave them permission to burn off a place. Unfortunately the place they picked to burn was a garden full of peanut shocks. In fact, it was the whole winter’s supply of peanuts that went up in smoke, but it did make a nice big playhouse.
The last of the children started to school while living at the Troop Station house. Billy and Tillie had an especially interesting first day at school. It was a near disaster. Tillie decided that school was not for her and proceeded to hide out behind the coal bin. Billy, being of a calm, gentle nature, was sent to get her and finally got her calmed down and returned to class. Later that day Edward Blair “peed” on the floor and Tillie laughed so she had to stand at the blackboard with her nose in a ring. Billy found an aspiring poet named Hanna Williams who told the same fascinating story in its entirety and everyday from then on “Peter Rabbit, Peter Rabbit, HOP HOP HOP. Make your ears go FLOP FLOP FLOP.”
By the time the family moved to the Day Place in 1936, the kids had gotten a little older and more mischievous. They liked to walk around and explore. On one occasion, they had started a fire in an old grass field to keep warm, but the fire got out of hand and they decided to leave the scene before they were caught. They moved on down the Tombigbee River and came to a fork. Hearing a motorboat they stuck their heads up over a bank and someone started shooting at them. The shots hit the leaves above the boys’ heads but it was enough to put them in gear and they left the scene again but this time on their hands and knees through the briars and brambles.
This house was only about a quarter of a mile from the river and a very common pastime was swimming. Most of the family were adept swimmers but Jeweline was always a little bit scared to go across the deep part. One day she finally got up her nerve and made it about halfway across. But she got scared and started going under. James, after trying to get her to swim on across by herself, tried to help her out but to no avail. Finally he got under her and standing on the bottom of the river, he shoved her upward as hard as he could. The kids on the bank managed to catch her.
Another incident happened on the river on the Fourth of July of that year when Big Mama’s brother Kent and his family came for a picnic. Three of the boys decided to float down the river to the picnic grounds and meet the family there. The boat they commandeered turned out to have the front end out of it, but they solved this problem by dobbing it up with mud. They also didn’t have any paddles, but since they would be floating downstream, they decided they didn’t need any. So they started out, having to stop every few hundred yards to bail out the boat. They came to a barely submerged log and not having any paddles with which to steer, they turned sideways just before hitting it and the three of them were poured out into the river. Again they had to rescue the boat and start over. They eventually made it to the picnic about three o’clock in the afternoon.
The year of 1936 brought the family the best crop they ever made. When totaled up, they had harvested 36 bales of cotton. It was time for the family to have a car. Pop and Big Mama went to Aberdeen and bought a 1929 Chevrolet from Richardson Motors. Then they realized they did not know how to drive at all. Fortunately, they ran across Wade and Dallas Smith who liked nothing better than to drive a car. The Smiths drove the car as far as the highway where Big Mama and Pop turned off. They got the car headed down the dirt road to the Cunningham home, put it in gear, gave it a shove and jumped off. Pop slipped behind the wheel and his first experience with driving was thrust upon him. He finally maneuvered the car to a stop in the front yard and havoc broke loose, as all eight children yelled, laughed, danced around the car in a ring, and, of course, tried it out for size. By one account, the revelry lasted all night long. The next day was time for another driving lesson. John Sutton was asked to come over and teach James the mechanics of driving. All of the family got in, but instead of teaching, John was more interested in just driving. Eventually James elbowed him over enough to get in a little practice. The car had to be pushed off to be started and was always out of brakes, but it was the most glorious thing in the world to the Cunninghams.
The kids were getting older all the time and as they did, their games became more sophisticated. This house was located in North Hamilton. The road close by had a large bank. The boys had gotten an old tire pump and rigged it with a valve on either end. This unique tool made it possible to fill the pump with water through one valve, wait for a car to come along, and squirt the water through the valve up over the bank and all over the unsuspecting motorist. One Sunday afternoon, the idea was especially effective. The boys could not see who was coming along because of their location, but when they heard a car they really let him have it. They plastered mud all over the preacher riding in the rumble seat on his way to a meeting.
The most serious injury at this place was the blood poisoning James got from a cut he got in his leg while swimming in a creek. Big Mama finally healed it up with zinc oxide.
The Collins house seemed to have a nature of its own and was said to be haunted. This may have been because of a strange water puddle that kept forming even during dry weather near the head of the bed in the boys’ room. It was near where Lee Watson’s Daddy had died The house was also noisy and popped a lot especially the tin roof.
Another notable thing about this house was that it was apparently near an Indian settlement or battlefield. After a rainfall, the field nearby would be scattered with arrowheads.
By the time the family moved to the Tom Took place which later became more commonly called the Benefield Place, the kids were in their teenage years. Also at this time, Charles Vaughn became acquainted with the family. These two circumstances produced some interesting results over the years spent at this house.
Most of their enterprises were at night. One, for instance, was the popular sport of “snipe hunting”. This particular game involved all ages. The younger children were in charge of getting down in a gully on an especially dark night, holding a sack low on the ground and calling over and over, ” Here snipe. Here snipe”. The older members of the crowd took the lantern and went out to round up the snipe and make them run into the gully. Since it was such a mild sport the older ones usually lost interest and just went on home without telling the sack-holders who would usually drag in hours later very confused.
For the stouter of heart, there was always night prowling down deep in the woods. On one occasion all the Cunningham boys; a 300 pound neighbor, Charles Henry Myers; and another neighbor, Fowler Poindexter; as well as Charlie Vaughn, were out on an expedition. There is some dispute about the actual purpose of this particular expedition, but no matter how it started out, it had a very interesting grand finale. After a while, the bunch sat down around a lantern to rest. At this point, Charlie Vaughn took over with stories about the panthers roaming this section of the woods. He bragged that he could call one up if he wanted to and could even get one to answer him. To prove his point, he let out a blood-curdling yell and shut the lantern off at the same time. This was bad enough but when some kind of animal nearby answered him, ” all Hell broke loose”. The boys ran, terror stricken, full speed, through the pitch black woods. The inevitable happened. Charles Henry Myers ran into a pine tree and someone plowed into him. Another terrified boy hit a burned out tree stump. Charles Henry slammed into him from the rear finally going down with a grunt when he stepped in the stump hole. The sound of flight could be heard as all the boys tried desperately to reach the cornfield at the edge of the woods. Their only pursuer, however, was the booming laughter of Charlie Vaughn After this sobering adventure, the boys stayed close to home for a while.
This did not mean, however, that they stayed out of trouble. One cold night they were playing close to the newly paved Highway 45. The kids built a grass fire on the side of the road mainly to keep warm, but when a couple of cars turned around and went the other way, the kids had their plan. They put out the fire on the side of the road and rebuilt it in the middle of the highway. As the night proceeded and corn stalks were added, the fire reached gigantic proportions The reactions of unwitting motorists especially delighted the kids. Some would stop and turn around, some would stop and ease by, others sped up to get by in a hurry. The most surprising reaction, however, caught the kids completely by surprise. A Greyhound bus came along headed for Columbus. By this time the kids were crouched in the ditch along the side of the road. Instead of going on immediately the driver stopped and turned on the big spotlight on top of the bus. He started scanning the field around the road with the spotlight and the kids found themselves running. When the light would swing by, they would jump up and run as far as they could until it swung back again. Charles Henry, however, found it hard to stop and start, so he just kept going right over the backs of the people in front of him. Luckily, there were no injuries. By the time the Greyhound bus driver had reported the mischief to the highway patrol in Columbus, and the patrolman had gotten back to the scene, the kids had cleaned up most of the mess, and somehow escaped getting in trouble even from Big Mama and Pop who had slept through the whole thing.
On another night, the family was returning from a singing at Kolola Springs by a gravel road when the headlights picked up an unusual animal–a black possum. The possum ran in the ditch and James stopped the car, Ferrell got out to catch the possum, saw him running in the ditch, and decided to give him a good swift kick to stun him. Ferrell got stunned. It was not a possum, but a fine specimen of a skunk. After the thick blue fog lifted, Ferrell staggered back to the car. He was most unwelcome, and despite the cold had to ride home on the front of the car. When he got really cold, the family let him stick his head in long enough to get warm. His shoes suffered the most damage, but since they were fairly new and could not be replaced, they had to do. Even after they were buried for a while (which was supposed to get rid of the odor), Ferrell could empty a room in a hurry if he got too near a heater for very long.
The most serious illness while living at this house was the malarial fever that caused Kate and Jeweline to have to skip the ninth grade in school. In spite of the setback, they went on to finish with good grades. All the other children eventually finished also, and began to scatter. In the 1930’s the girls began to marry and leave home and the boys began to go into the services as World War II came and went.