Summary: Hazel Strickland grew up on her father's farm in Pike County. She graduated from high school and then attended college for a year. She was the first of her extended family to do so. She found employment as a clerk with the county government.
Percy and Carrie Strickland's first surviving child was born in 1918 while they were living on the Holmesville-Osyka road. When this child, Hazel, was two years old her sister Edna was born. Six years later Carrie gave birth to a son, Percy Jr. He was followed in 1928 by a third daughter, Christine, and in 1931 by another girl, Trennette. There were five surviving children in all. Percy Jr. was eight years younger than Hazel so most of my mother's childhood memories involve only her sister Edna.
Hazel's earliest recollection is of her grandfather H. Strickland. When she was a baby she brushed against an old lightered pine stump and got a splinter in her leg. Carrie carried her down to the field where H. Strickland was working. He calmed her down and pulled the splinter out. Hazel was fond of her grandparents on both her mother's and her father's side. Except for the few years H. and Delilah lived on the State Line Road, her Strickland grandparents lived right next door to her for as long as she knew them. Hazel spent many hours with both her grandmother Delilah who lived next door, and her grandmother Sophronia, who lived three or four miles away. Of the two Sophronia was her favorite because she was more lively and talkative.
Other very early recollections of Hazel are of Alvie Taylor, her father's employee. When Hazel was young Alvie roomed with the family and was llike a big brother. At day's end, when Alvie finished plowing, Hazel and Edna would run down to the field. He would put them upon the mule's back so they could ride to the barn. The girls always baked Alvie a cake on his birthday. They trusted him to remind them of his birthday and he enjoyed tricking them into making him several birthday cakes every year.
Children normally started school when they were five years old but Percy made Hazel wait for two years until Edna was old enough to go. The old H. Strickland place was set back from the road and was approached by a long driveway from the Osyka-Holmesville Road. Percy didn't want Hazel to walk to and from the school bus by herself. Hazel and Edna entered school at the same time and went through school together. They were in the same classroom for 12 years. In 1917 horse-drawn wagons were introduced into Mississippi. These early buses had two benches running front to back and facing each other. The tops and side curtains were made of canvas soaked in linseed oil. By the time Hazel and Edna started school in 1925 these old wagons were being replaced by gasoline-powered buses with seats facing forward. The two girls walked to the Osyka road and caught one of these buses to Centerville Elementary School. One of the Pezant girls often held Hazel on her lap as the bus drove the four or five miles to Centerville. The Pezants were the family that had the store at the crossroads. They had a wind-up victrola or cylinder player. These were a novelty in Pike County and Hazel enjoyed visiting their home just to see this.
Hazel and Edna took the same bus for 12 years until in 1937 both Hazel and Edna graduated from high school. After the eighth grade they transferred at Centerville to another bus to go to Progress School, several miles east. After they had finished high school the two took a six-month business course together at a secretarial school in McComb. Only then did the two part company. Edna married in December 1938 soon after finishing the secretarial course. Hazel continued to live at home until in 1940 she returned to school for a year at the Southwest Mississippi Junior College in Summit.
Both Edna and Hazel enjoyed school. They rarely missed classes except when they were sick. Once they skipped school by getting off the bus with two of their cousins. They told the bus driver that they had permission to do so. They somehow expected to play in their friend's home all day. However the girl's parents carried them home. Of course they did not have permission. Percy said that since they didn't want to go to school, they could stay home and chop cotton. The next day they worked in the cotton field all day. After thatexperience they didn't want to skip school again. When they were still living at the H. Strickland place, the girls got in trouble for doing their homework on the woodwork. Percy was installing new window facings in the front bedroom. While the boards were still unpainted, Edna and Hazel did their math homework on them. Percy made them clean the pencil marks from the wood. He pointed to what he thought was Hazel's work and ordered her to clean that. He did the same with Edna. He mistook Hazel's work for Edna's and vice versa so the girls had a good laugh even as they cried.
Edna was Hazel's best friend and also her most persistent rival. Hazel claims that Edna sat through class quietly and barely mumbled her responses to the teacher. Yet as soon as the school bus stopped in front of their house, Edna was screaming the day's news to her mother while running full-speed up the driveway. By the time Hazel reached the porch, her mother had already heard all the news from Edna. It was frustrating. According to Hazel, when company came Edna was everywhere, serving, preparing food and vigorously attending to the kitchen chores. When no one was watching Edna showed considerably less energy. Hazel gave me the impression that she herself did more than what was expected of her. However I noticed that it was Edna who threatened to call their mother when Hazel quit hoeing the garden and settled herself under the shady bushes for a rest. Indeed the girls were a pair of good friends and good competitors. To this day, they both really enjoy being together.
As the oldest girls the burden of the household chores fell heavily upon them. They also did farm work, mostly chopping and picking cotton, which their younger siblings rarely had to do. Alvie did the major work but Carrie and the children pitched in. Percy bossed the work but he was a full-time mechanic. My mother says that everyone thought that the Stricklands were rich because Percy was so free with his money. After all didn't he treat everyone at his fish camp? He was Mr. Big Shot, but Carrie and the kids had just enough to get by on. Carrie made all their clothes and raised most of their food. She saw but little of Percy's money if, indeed, he ever had any.
As the oldest daughter Hazel was in charge when her parents were elsewhere. Percy was usually working on cars at the garage about 150 yards away from the house. He was too far away to supervise the children and Carrie sometimes made two or three trips a day to Magnolia to pick up auto parts. In her absence Hazel was expected to see to the necessary chores, such as sweeping and scrubbing the floors and sweeping the yard. To sweep the floor, the Stricklands used a floor broom made from broom sage. To make a broom from the broom sage, the grass was cut when it was three or four feet long and tied into a bundle. The broom didn't have a wooden handle like store-bought brooms have. The Stricklands also made a scrub bush out of corn shucks. These corn shuck scrubbers had a long wooden handle which was attached to a short plank into which many holes were bored. Corn shucks were pushed into the holes to make a serviceable scrub brush. These brushes were used to wash the floor about once a week. The floors were scrubbed with lye water and then buckets of clean rinse water was thrown onto the pine floor. The water was swept out the door or allowed to run out of cracks in the floor.
The yard outside had to be kept clear of grass and weeds. To do this the yard had to be hoed every once in a while to remove growing grass and weeds and then swept with a yard broom. The yard broom consisted of two or three dogwood branches tied together. Only much later, after the invention of the lawn mower, was grass allowed to grow in the yard. While tending to these chores Hazel was also expected to care for the younger children. More than once she had to chase after little Percy Junior with her yard broom. The younger sisters, Christine and Trennette, were so much younger than her that Hazel had little difficulty controlling them.
All the girls worked in the gardens and in the cotton field. Their main job was to chop or hoe the grass that grew between the plants. Alvie Taylor could plow between the rows but he could not keep up with the grass in the rows. Hazel's brother, Percy Junior., was too young to help chop cotton and, anyway, he spent his after school hours with his father in the garage helping to fix cars. He was 12 years old when he overhauled an engine for the first time. It was the Model A Ford belonging to G.N. Mullins. By the time Percy Junior and his younger sisters were old enough to work in the cotton fields, Percy had sold his cotton field next to the garage. After that large field was sold Alvie only planted a garden back of the house for household vegetables.
Hazel helped her father in other ways too. During the Depression Percy altered the dates on expired automobile license plates. Hazel would then repaint them so they looked new. When she was a teenager she helped her father make fish traps of chicken wire. He sold them to poor families who were willing to take a chance getting caught by the game warden. The fish traps were baited with cakes of cottonseed meal and lowered into the water. The catch was turtles, perch, catfish, snakes and whatever else swam or crawled through the net's small opening. Percy saw nothing wrong with using traps to catch fish and he always kept a dozen or so in the water, often in his own ponds.
Hazel spent a lot of time with her grandmother Sophronia (pronounced so-froe-knee with the accent on the middle syllable). When Sophronia was not feeling well Hazel would spend several days at the George Simmons farm, doing chores and helping with grandpa George. Hazel's other grandmother, Delilah Strickland, did not have the burden of running a farm since she and H ran a grocery store. She didn't need as much help as the Simmons did. Delilah was quiet and when Hazel would visit with her, they would often sit together on the porch and, perhaps, say nothing.
Hazel was also active in the Bluff Springs Baptist Church. In those days the church building was located in the Emerald Community near the Allen Brother's Store about three miles east of the Percy Strickland home. Hazel looked forward to Sunday School and to the morning and evening services at the church. She had taken piano lessons at the Progress School for one semester so she was sometimes called upon to play for the church when one of the more experienced women was not there. Hazel could only play certain songs and then only if the song had no sharps and no more than one flat. The music was written in the old shape-note style. She was a member of the Baptist Young People's Union, the BYPU, which was a forerunner of the Baptist Training Union. For a while she taught the children's class of the BYPU. When she turned that class over to an older person, the woman wrote Hazel a nasty note that had the effect of undermining her self-confidence. However Hazel enjoyed going to church and she remained an active member of the Baptist church throughout her life.
Youth groups at the church played a major role in the dating life of the young people. The church sponsored trips for the young people as well as dinners and parties. There were tables and benches under the trees surrounding the church building. When the weather was good the entire congregation would occasionally gather for a Sunday meal. These were church picnics. These events were informal and everyone came in family groups. Ordinarily, young people did not go off alone together for romantic purposes. They saw each other at community and family gatherings and visited in each other's homes long before they ever thought of marriage.
Until Hazel graduated from high school in 1937, she studied by the light of coal-oil Aladdin lamps. Percy did not wire the house for electricity until the power lines were extended to the area just before World War II. Wood was used for both heat and cooking until butane gas became available sometime after 1942. The water well at the house was 90 feet deep and this made it difficult to use. However Percy had another well at the garage. This well was equipped with a motor-driven pump and an elevated tank. An underground pipe ran under the highway and up to the house. This was an unusually elaborate and costly system but it saved Carrie and the girls many hours of labor every week pulling water from the house well.
Percy believed in educating his children. Unlike most men of his region and generation, he turned away from farming as soon as he could. He taught many young men how to maintain automobiles and tractors, including his son Percy Junior. Percy Junior became an excellent mechanic and went on to operate his own garage in Osyka for many years. He in turn taught his three sons the trade and all of them prospered as auto mechanics. Percy Sr. encouraged his two oldest daughters to go to secretarial school in McComb to learn how to type and to keep accounts. Years later one of the younger daughters, Trenette, likewise finished a course at a secretarial school and went on to a career as an office manager for an insurance company.
After Hazel finished her secretarial training, she stayed at home until the fall of 1940 when she enrolled in the Junior College at Summit. The school had been a trade school but now it was enlarged to become an academic institution. Hazel was probably the first woman of her extended family to attend a university-level school. She boarded at the college. The school was 10 or 12 miles from her home and Hazel had no transportation. She qualified for student aid and was able to pay for most of her expenses by cleaning the bathrooms at the school. She was shy but got along well with her classmates. She was on the Drill Team and worked on the yearbook as a typist. She attended the school for the 1940-1941 school year but she had no real plans to earn a degree. In her time and place, the only people who went to university were those who wanted to be medical doctors or teachers. There were few of either in Pike County and even fewer who were relatives of Hazel.
In the summer of 1941 Hazel found a job as a clerk at the Tax Assessor's Office in the Court House at Magnolia. She worked in this office for a year and lived in a boarding house in Magnolia. She dated, going to movies or sitting on the porch swing and talking. She says that she wasn't popular with the boys. She enjoyed her work but she had no intention of making a career of that either, especially if it meant remaining single. She had no great ambitions to achieve success in something that was outside her experience of home, family and farm. She was actually looking forward to having a family of her own and she had a pretty good idea of who she wanted to marry.
Hazel had known Junior, G.N. Mullins oldest boy, since she was nine years old when he was a boarder at her grandparent's home. One day Hazel heard her grandparents talking about their youngest daughter, her aunt Irene. Sophronia said that Irene wanted to marry G.N. Mullins. George Simmons was opposed to the marriage but Sophronia thought it was a good idea. In the end George Simmons gave his consent. After Irene and G.N.'s marriage Junior was Irene's step-son and Hazel's cousin. She didn't take much notice of her new cousin and she was somewhat scandalized by G.N. He was always flashing money. He wore white suits and straw hats and he had a bad reputation as a husband and as a father.
However G.N. and Percy Strickland were friends if not companions and Irene and Hazel's mother were sisters. It was inevitable that the two families saw each other frequently. Hazel first really notice Junior one Christmas at her parent's home. Junior had liked Hazel for years. When he was a teenager he always carried a red pocket handkerchief in his shirt pocket. He liked to take the handkerchief out and, rolling it up, snap Hazel with the end of it. This was called "blistering" because if done properly it would cause a red mark on the skin. But Junior was gentle with Hazel and he would say, "I did that because I like you." Hazel thought that he was simply annoying until the Christmas of 1938 when she noticed that he had grown into a well-mannered and handsome young man.
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