Ricky Harpole column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hard times brought families to ‘possum standard’ of wealth measurement

My memories were re-cranked recently by, of all things, a Denny’s TV commercial.

A man compares the value of a $2 pencil as opposed to a nourishing $2 meal. My hat is off to the whole shootin’ match that put it together and also  an opportunity to share Mr. Raymond Hales’ “Possum Economy Story.”

He told it to me at a dove shoot he’d organized near Moccasin Bend when I was about 15 years old.

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Now not unlike myself, Mr. Raymond had from time to time been accused of not allowing the truth to interfere with a good story, but according to my research, this tale falls into the other category. I made inquiries of the era in question and arrived at the undeniable conclusion that he’d managed to “tell it straight” on at least one occasion.

“Times were hard,” he said, “It was the peak of the Great Depression. People were starving. There were no jobs. There was no money. There was no food (or very little) and no hope that the situation would change in the foreseeable future.

“Mr. Roosevelt was working on the problem, but any problem that took decades to create cannot be mended overnight. The whole damn nation might as well been in an Arkansas penitentiary. We were poor people—Lafayette County poor,” Hales said. “We were still better off than city people because we at least had a truck patch and a 40-acre cotton crop in the field.

“Although nobody, nowhere, had the money to buy the cotton even if it made, we could at least eat the proceeds of the truck patch,” Mr. Raymond continued.

“Cotton was seven cents per pound. Meat was 40 cents.”

There was a period song with that title published in one of Mr. B.A. Botkins’ “Treasury of American Folklore” books that gained great popularity with the sufferers.

“It’s got so the family can’t     hardly eat

Account of seven-cent cotton and forty-cent meat.

I heard some words I can’t repeat

‘Bout seven cents cotton and forty cent meat.”

I’ll get back to Mr. Raymond’s story momentarily, but here are the statistical results which I verified:

Available commodities and their attendant costs: (1929-1934)

Barrel flour100 lbs.—$1.50

Pair overalls — 75¢

Beef (lb. on avg.) — 31¢

Gasoline gallon — 15¢

New, plain-Jane V8 Ford  $700

The average wage for a sawmill hand was $1 per day. My grandfather built a new house amidst this carnage, not because he was in possession of a grain of affluence, but because he had a surplus of lumber he’d spent a winter sawing for a market that suddenly existed no longer.

Times were tough indeed. To add personal tragedy to the families’ already precarious existence, his father unexpectedly passed away leaving him, his brother, sisters and mother with a truck patch and 40 acres of Stoneville 213 cotton in the field.

There is another old saying  among believers that says, “Somewhere between can and can’t, the Lord will provide.” Another says, “He works in mysterious ways.”

“Whoever thought He would send providence in the unlikely guise of a ‘possum?” Mr. Raymond asked. “Yes people, your common road kill, trash can, outhouse scavenger with a grin,” he added.

Research verifies that the fur market valued a prime winter ‘possum hide at 50 cents per pelt at the time.

“The pelt would only become prime after cold weather had set in,” Mr. Raymond explained, “but they kept well when caught over the summer and fall when safely lodged in a makeshift pen made from cedar posts and recycled chicken wire and a scavenged model A pickup truck bed which no longer had a truck to burden.”

“They will eat left over hog slops and other things even a chicken wouldn’t peck at. I’m talking about low maintenance, high dollar stock. To put this into proper perspective, consider the math:

3 possum pelts = one day’s labor

1-1/2 possums = new wardrobe

or four hamburgers + (the possum himself is similar to pork when properly prepared)

1 pelt = 3.2 gallons gasoline

“For a measly 1,400 ‘possums, you could be the proud owner of a new Ford,” Mr. Raymond added.

“The possums had the market cornered until the politicians and the feds swarmed in.

 “And children, swarm they did for one brisk fall morning two newly-appointed game wardens accompanied the local crooks, (oops, I meant sheriffs) staged a raid on the ‘possum ranch.

And, not being content with liberating the livestock which, from the beginning of time until just recently, had been perfectly legal, they wrote both boys a summons to court in Oxford, which was a long step closer to Leavenworth prison than anybody wanted to contemplate.

“It was clear to Mrs. Hales that it was time for legal corruption, (oops again. I meant to say assistance) to come into play.

“’Bub,’” Raymond told his brother, “’Maybe we’ll get lucky and only get sent to Parchman. We’ll be close to home if anybody wants to come see us. We sure as hell can’t pay no fine cause they turned loose the only cash crop we had.’”

Meanwhile Miz Hales hitched the mule to the only conveyance that could still pass for a wagon and sought legal counsel. Beforehand, she’d assessed the contents of the truck patch as well as the barnyard and hen house.

She must have been a wise old country girl who knew the secret way of accumulating favors from men. The main secret being — they liked a good, wholesome, home-cooked meal while discussing business.

It didn’t hurt her case that she was a widow and he was a bachelor, but the stakes were high and the penalties perilous.

Raymond and Bub were dispatched to bed while the lawyer and Mrs. Hales plotted strategies.

Court was held on Saturday in those days and the attorney gave strict instructions as to the eight o’clock rendezvous. When they arrived on schedule they were freshly scrubbed, serious and sober.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the lawyer. He appeared drunk as a skunk, was in possession of a 32.2 Smith revolver in his left coat pocket and a flask of imported brandy in the other.

He proceeded to ambush the sheriff and judge on the courthouse steps. Thankfully, it was a verbal ambush and no ammunition was spared.

He denounced the entire conglomeration for conspiring to not only starve, but also to incarcerate widows and orphans in the name of justice.

The boys were sure at this point that they would share a cell with the old reprobate lawyer, but eventually the old buzzard walked out smiling.

The racket had ceased and low and behold, he no longer appeared to be drunk.

He told Mrs. Hales, “You can take these boys home and sic ‘em  on that cotton crop. All charges are forever more dropped and dismissed.”

Then it was time for the hurtin’ part. She popped the dreaded question asking, “How much do I owe you?”

 He said, “Mam, I just like shaking the system up from time to time and this was one of those times. Pro Bono, no charge. But, if you want to consider fixing me another one  of those fine suppers next Sunday, I’ll make those carpetbaggers catch those ‘possums and repair your pen.”

Thanks to Obie and Mirl, Raymond, Rainer Starr, and Ms. Martha Reed  who informed me that at the time a stick of rag baloney cost $2 or four possums.

Happy huntin’,