1941 Article written by Tom Ham
about the tough life and times of the Murray County family of Sam and Violet Long.
The article first appeared in The American Mercury.
Shown here is a condensed version that appeared in Readers' Digest, June 1941.
The modern world has passed him by — but Sam Long doesn't miss it.
A Home—and Independence—in the Hills
Condensed from The American Mercury
The Anglo-Saxons tamed North Georgia's mountain wilderness, and their descendants still dwell to themselves in the land their forebears conquered. As Sam Long says, "We allus lived hyar —my pappy an' his pappy an' his pappy afore him, I reckon." His blood is the bluest of the race: large, clear eyes; high, steep forehead; fair hair and finely chiseled features tell a genealogical story all their own.
SAM LONG came down out of the hills the other day, looking troubled. He shuffled up to the whittling bench forum out front of the settlement store and put in his oar, uneasily:
"I heered tell they was a-havin' some more trouble over thar acrosst th' water. Is they anything to it, fellers?"
They laughed at Sam Long, these city slickers of Cisco (pop. 150). And Sam's eyes grew round as an owl's as he learned about Europe's war. They were still wide and round when he shouldered his sack of meal and packed off up the ridge into beloved oblivion.
The world and Sam Long have let one another be. Yet deep in the Georgia Cohuttas, Sam has done well by his family. I first heard of the House of Long back in October, when Forest Ranger Hoyt Seaboldt mentioned them. From Atlanta it's 100 miles north and 100 years ago to Sam Long's cabin, away up where the Blue Ridge tumbles out of Tennessee into Georgia. The road up Tater Patch Mountain is a nightmare; a bad road finally becomes a worse one, an old wagon trail. Then you get out and walk four miles over the roughest geography in Rand-McNally's repertoire.
Sam steps down off the porch of his rickety bark-chinked cabin to greet you — a slightly stooped figure in a shabby old coat and faded overalls of multicolored patches. An ancient black felt hat shades bright, twinkly eyes that peer between weeks of beard and months of scraggly hair. Sam must be crowdin' 60. Curiosity is eating his innards out, but he doesn't show it.
"Proud ter know ye!" he says. "Won't you-uns be a-comin' in an' set a spell?" A chorus of gasps inside, followed by the patter of feet away from cracks in the door. Sam Long's woman rises, swings her youngest from lap to hip.
"Take this cheer," she urges, thrusting forward the cabin's only chair: venerable, home-made of thick slabs whittled smooth. It teeters on large, crude crescents whacked out of a tree bole. A crack has been bolstered by rawhide. Sam Long's woman is talking: "You younguns, come out from onder them beds!" Apologetically she turns: "Law! them younguns hain't seen nobody from outside in so long they hain't got a tail-holt on comp'ny manners."
The cabin must be about 10 by 20 feet. Its two high windows have never known glass. Both are boarded up now against the cold. The room would be stygian dark but for the blazing logs in the open hearth.
"Sam, he made th' chimbley an' farplace," Mrs. Long anticipates your question. "We-uns fetched rocks fr'm th' river an' he plastered 'em up. Hit'11 last a hundred years, I reckon."
Over the fireplace a long, rough scantling serves as a mantel. Nailed on the walls are hides of coon, fox and groundhog. ("Ye can make fine string an' cheer seats out'n hide leather.") From pegs hang overalls, a cap, a rifle, a coal-oil can. In the dark far end of the cabin are the beds — four wide wooden things of incalculable age, jammed headboard to footboard, two to a side. On these sleep all the Longs, together with such of their kin as may visit them. Crowded?
"Why, we-uns hain't crowded none ter mention, Ef you-uns would stay fer th' night we'd be proud ter bed ye down."
Besides Sam and his woman, there's Sam's brother Darnell, 49 and friendly, whose wife is in a state hospital.
How many children are there, anyway?
'"Baat 11," says Sam.
"They's 12!" Mrs. Long corrects him. "Two or three av 'em's over to Sam's ma's."
She bends forward to stir the pot of vittles bubbling from the pothook.
"That in th' pot? Why, that thar's hawg meat a-bilin' fer supper." She gives her long stirring stick a vigorous twirl. "Hit's acorn-fed razorback an' mighty fine. Woods is full av 'em, a-runnin' wild."
Food is no problem with Sam Long. There's plenty of deer and bear, wild hogs, rabbits, squirrels, possums and coons. There are quail and pheasant galore, and the stream that pell-mells through his valley is squirming with rainbow and bass. Wild bees keep him in sweetnin'.
And there are always the chickens. Their eggs — with the furs of coon, skunk and fox — are Sam's money crops. He trades them at the store for the four daily needs his valley won't raise: coffee, soda, soap and salt.
Come right down to cash money and Sam figures it might take 50 cents a week to feed his family in the manner to which it is accustomed.
It's the land that keeps Sam's family eating — rich, black, virgin soil, ripened by centuries of forests. Fifty bushels of corn come from one of his four cultivated acres; he has it ground into meal at the mill 12 miles below. His tomatoes grow "big as a body's hat," and his 'ta-ters,' cabbages and turnips could pose for the seed catalogues.
Sam has neither ox nor mule — just hoes in his crops and turns them over to the sun. He loves his land. Whose land? It's his'n because he makes it work for him. Of course now, the title might be registered down at the courthouse in somebody's else's name, but it's Sam Long's land because Sam Long runs it and lives on it. Ain't that enough?
Four years ago the Longs "moved down inter Whitfield County fer a spell." But they didn't tarry long.
"I liked hit a right smart," Mrs. Long says. " We-uns had neighbors down thar. They hain't nobody ter neighbor with up here. Hain't a house in 12 mile. But Sam," and here she wags a reproving head at her embarrassed lord and master, "he never took to th' flatlands. Most ever' mornin' I'd catch him out thar a-starin' up at that ol Cowpen Mountain, an' he'd say ter me,' Ma, lat's git shet o' this place an' git back up thar whar we-uns wuz raised. Hit jist don't seem like home down here.'"
Sam tucks his head, spits miserably into the fire — "sping!"
Sam's been around. He's visited mighty nigh every town in a 40-mile radius — a dozen or more — and once he was even down to Atlanta.
"Hit were about 30 year ago, I reckon. They taken me down thar ter witness' in a likker case. They shore was a mess o' folks down thar too. A body never seed th' like."
Not so broadly traveled is Sam Long's woman. "Th' aimbition of my life is ter see Dalton [35 miles west]. I reckon if I'd ever git ter At-lanta I'd die a nach'al death!"
Mrs. Long's place is in her kitchen — a narrow shelf of a room that hangs off the back of the cabin like an afterthought. Down the center there's a long, rough table made of slabs, with two hewn benches alongside, pegs driven into them for legs. I have dined at that table several times, dined well on fried meat, "biled meat," corn-bread and honey-sweetened coffee. The bread is flung out on the table in two huge planks, from which each one tears his portion. A bone-handled hunting knife is passed around to hack off hunks of the steaming razorback entree.
Sam Long's fierce native pride makes it difficult for him to ask questions. He doesn't like to appear uninformed. But Sam is uneasy about the war. "Hit's them Germans that's a-foughtin', hain't it? Hitler? Don't recollect as I ever heered tell av th' varmint."
The Longs are healthy folk. Sam says that boneset is good for the fever; there's also "life everlasting" and catnip for colds, and ladyslipper for the nerves. But Sam can't recollect when one of his brood has been sick — except when young Ernest "wa'nt thrivin'," soon after he was born.
Mrs. Long takes up the tale. "I was aimin' ter go down ter my sister's [a 13-mile walk] when birthin' time come. But th' rainy season come, an' I couldn't git out. So I brung Ernest out right here in th' cabin with nobody but my big girl — she was 18 then — ter holp me. My girl, she cut th' naval string, but she got onsettled an' I had ter set up an' look alter th' youngun myself. Hit must've been too much fer me. My milk, hit shet off soon atter that."
The doctor happened to come by one morning on a fishing trip and told Sam the baby should have milk. The nearest cow was a dozen miles away.
"Wan't two days afore two whole cans o' that Eagle Magic Milk come fr'm th' doctor. Ernest, he come out fine on that, an' wa'nt long afore he was eatin' hawg meat gravy an' taters an" greens with th' rest av us."
There's a little school down at Cisco, but 26 miles a day is too far for the young ones to walk, and they haven't had any book learning since they last stayed down in Maam's valley four or five years ago, Mrs. Long finished the fifth grade; the grown boys had two or three years; the younger ones none.
Books? "Yes, we got a purty book," Mrs. Long boasts. "Hit's over to Sam's ma's now. Hit's got picters av some presidents. Wa'nt George Warshin'ton th' first president? Me an' Sam was arguin' about that."
Sam's children include Otis, Elmer and Hardin, tall, strong and silent as the mountain oaks they grew up with. They cut timber down near Chatsworth, walk the 22 miles home to spend week-ends. Eldest daughter Bertha comes back, too, every chance she gets. She's housekeeper for a family in Dalton. At home now are an assorted half-dozen ranging from shy Lavinia, just bosoming into womanhood, and Arvil, already a huntsman with his own dogs, to Dee, 6, a ragged pair of overalls full of mischief, who is slyly tormenting that 2-year-old dwarf of an Ernest, whose bare bottom gleams in the firelight as he pops over to retrieve a gumdrop — gift of the visitors.
The mother's face is brown from the sun, etched with lines of pain and labor, but she bears herself with an easy grace that belies the stair-stepped towheads clinging to her faded skirt. Her dress she made by hand from the same bolt of calico that clothes her daughters.
The Longs' outward manifestations of love are lavished on their children, and it's beautiful to see. The girls mostly cling to their mother, but Sam, he's "plumb a fool about leetle Dee."
They're real people, the Longs. Not storybook mountaineers: there hasn't been a shooting or a moonshine still in the family in a decade or two. They're unwitting vestals of the restless flame that fired the souls of their adventurous forebears to tame a wilderness and bring forth a nation therein — the flame that is America. Call them hillbillies, or call them pioneers.
Sam Long's family has asked little of the world. With nothing much but an axe, a hoe, a rifle and some fishhooks, they've achieved on their own a glorious measure of that will-o'-the-wispish thing man has chased through countless ages — contentment. There are others like them in these hills. We've often talked, my wife and I, about driving the Longs down to Atlanta for a visit with 1941. But I don't think we'll ever do it.
I don't think Mother Nature would approve.
Note: A slightly longer version of this article originally appeared in The American Mercury,
June 1941. This condensed version was published in Reader's Digest, June 1941.
Tom Ham worked for the Atlanta Journal when he wrote this article.
Thanks to Joann Watkins, great-niece of Sam Long, for making this article available to the museum. She also provided a picture of Sam, his wife Violet, and daughter Bertha, taken sometime later. It can be seen in the PHOTOGRAPHS section of this museum website.
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