A DAY WITH UNCLE HENRY & HIS RECOLLECTIONS
by Earl Henry Burnam
If there are inaccuracies, prevarications, or other annoyances in these
recollections, Uncle Henry should not be blamed. The writer is at that
age in life that he could have easily thought he heard something he
really didn't, may have misunderstood or misinterpreted, or may have
been influenced by his Mother's stories, told so long ago that some
embellishment is justified.
Uncle Henry and I left his house in Paducah, Texas about 9:00 a.m. on
August 21, 1992, heading for Sweetwater, Texas. Uncle Henry's wife,
Hazel Audry (Miller) Johnson, and his mother, Lena Edna Thompson, are
buried in the Sweetwater Cemetery. His sister, Minnie (Dean) Hofman, and
her husband, Joe A. Hofman, are also buried in the same lot with Grandma
Thompson and Aunt Hazel. There are three vacant spaces in the lot.
Uncle Henry wants to be buried in the spot next to Aunt Hazel. We also
found the house in Sweetwater that Uncle Henry had built for Aunt Hazel
and himself in their early married life. During our two hundred plus
mile round trip from Paducah to Sweetwater, Uncle Henry shared some of
his recollections with me. We arrived back in Paducah about 4:00 P.M.
the same day.
Aunt Hazel's mother, Ola F. Miller (1878-1956), and grandparents, David
M. McKnight (1846-1929) and Mary E. McKnight (1851-1907) are also buried
in the Sweetwater cemetery. Their lot is located near the main gate, on
the same main road to the lot of Uncle Henry's family. Aunt Hazel had
two brothers. Eddie, who lived in San Antonio is also dead. Her brother
Earl was crippled, with one leg shorter than the other. Uncle Henry
doesn't know the status of Earl Miller, who lived in Phoenix.
His mother, Lena Edna (my grandma) was born to the Carley family in
1866. Lena Edna Carley had one sister, Aunt Emma, and two brothers,
Uncle Roy and Uncle Claudie. Aunt Emma married a Mr. Tilley and had two
sons, Emmett and Willis R. She also had a daughter, but Uncle Henry did
not recall her name. Uncle Roy Carley had two daughters. Uncle Henry
didn't remember their names either.
Lena Edna lived mostly as a single parent, making a living for her
family by working in hotels or boarding houses cooking, washing and
ironing, and hose cleaning. She died with cancer while living in
Sweetwater in 1930. It was late in the fall as Uncle Henry recalls.
(Earl Henry's recollection: I was not quite two years old, but as my
mother told me, old enough to make a lot of unnecessary noise
crying, while Grandmother lay in state. My two uncles, Henry and
Little Bill, tried to shut me up by making a toy for me. I can't remember my
grandmother, but I remember playing with the toy later, back in
Chillicothe, until I was at least four years old. It was a little wooden
wagon, about a foot long, and four inches wide. It had tricycle wheels,
which they had also made of wood, and a little wooden man. The axle for
the wheels had an offset to which was attached the wire mechanism that
operated the wooden man, making him pump back and forth as I pulled the
wagon. The point here is that my uncles were smart and talented men.)
Wilson Henry Johnson was born on December 7, 1898. His father was
William (Bill) Johnson, Lena Edna's second husband. He left grandma
before Uncle Henry was old enought to remember him. Pearl Elizabeth
(Johnson) Burnam, my mother, was born June 17, 1896 in Milford, Texas.
Pearl was Lena's first child with Bill Johnson.
Lena's first marriage was to a Mr. Dean, with whom she had three
children, W.C. (Uncle Bill) Dean, Bruce Dean and Aunt Minnie (Dean)
Hofman. Uncle Henry did not remember if father Dean had died, or just
left Grandma Thompson. But I seem to remember my mother saying that
Grandma's first husband had died. Uncle Bill Dean and Bruce Dean both
left home to earn their own living at an early age of nine or ten, which
was not an uncommon practice for boys at that time.
After Bill Johnson, my grandpa, left, Lena Edna married Mr. Thompson. My
uncle, "Little Bill" Thompson, was born when Henry was about four years
old. Little Bill's daddy left Grandma soon after he was born. Uncle
Henry and Uncle Bill T. had a close relationship throughout the years.
Uncle Bill T. died in 1990, shortly after his wife, Lura, passed away.
Lena Edna, as Uncle Henry recalls, decided that on the fourth time
around she would marry for money. Uncle Henry and Little Bill were
working away from home and sending money to Grandma. This made
a Mr. Anderson think Grandma had money. Lena Edna thought Mr. Anderson
had money, a perfect setup, so they got married. When they did, Uncle Henry
and Little Bill thought that relieved them of any responsibility to help
Grandma with finances, so they quit sending her money. It didn't take
Mr. Anderson two months to find out he had made a gross mistake about
the fortunes of Grandma, and her fourth husband went riding swiftly into
the sunset. Grandma took her third husband's name back, Thompson. Uncle
Henry also used the name of Thompson when he was young, to be the same
as his mother's and little brother's name. Grandma's grave headstone
reads Lena Edna Thompson.
When Little Bill Thompson was still a new baby, Lena Edna was making the
family living working as a chamber maid in a hotel in Sweetwater. The
family at that time was Minnie, Pearl, Henry, and baby Bill. The
five year old Henry's responsibility was to take care of baby Bill. The
hotel's wiring to the electric lights was exposed. Lightening from a
storm caused the wires to set the ceiling on fire above the baby's head.
Little Henry grabbed up Little Bill, got him out of harm's way, and
screamed for his Mother, yelling that the room was on fire. Lena Edna
went screaming for the hotel manager and together they put out the fire.
One time while living at home with his mother, Minnie, Pearl and Little
Bill, Henry found a pearl handle knife. Pearl thought she ought to have
the knife since it had a pearl handle. Minnie thought she ought ot have
it because she was the oldest. So Pearl and Minnie started hounding
Henry to give them the knife. Henry knew that finders were keepers and
wasn't about to give the knife up. There was a little tool shed on the
end of the porch of the two room shack they lived in. Minnie and Pearl
(it took both of them because one couldn't handle Henry) wrestled Henry
and put him in the tool shed. Pearl locked it, and took the key. They
told Henry they wouldn't let him out until he gave them the knife. After
about an hour or so, Henry became tired of it all. He told Minnie that
if she would get the key from Pearl and let him out, he would give her
the knife. So Minnie did, but Henry ran with the knife. Minnie caught
him and took the knife from him. (Earl Henry's commentary: "And that's
the way that Uncle Henry knies got their name, and that's the truth."
Uncle Henry: "We were always playing jokes on each other, but we didn't
really want to hurt one another. Or at least we didn't intend to.")
One dead cold winter morning, when the frost was on the ground, Pearl
was out by the wood pile. Henry hadn't started chopping the wood yet. He
dared Pearl to stick her tongue to the metal axe head. Pearl didn't want
to be chicken, so she put her tongue to it. Pearl started exclaiming,
"Yng u u u", as her tongue stuck fast to the axe. They had to pour warm
water on the axe until things thawed out and the tongue came unstuck.
One day Henry was trying some stilts he had made. Minnie was ironing.
She had opened the window to let in some breeze on that hot summer day.
Minnie had her ironing board right up against the window so she could
get maximum benefit of any air stirring. Henry walked up to the window
on his stilts. Minnie instantly demanded that he get out of the window
and stop blocking the breeze. Henry, was not to be bossed around, at
least not without trying to stand his ground. Minnie told him that if he
didn't scat she would put the hot iron in his face, as she raised it
upward toward him. This startled Henry. He quickly stepped down backward
from his stilts onto a broken glass bottle with his bare feet. It's
understandable why Uncle Henry still remembers that incident. He was
hobbling around for several weeks after that.
At about the age of six or seven Wilson Henry lived with his Uncle
Claudie, the horse trader, for a couple of years. Uncle Claudie and his
wife lived in a covered wagon. The wagon had extensions from the sides
of the main wagon bed, to accommodate a sleeping mattress with room to
walk around it from one end of the wagon to the other. Uncle Claudie
made the family living by trading horses, always receiving a little
money "to boot". One time he had Wilson Henry ride an old skin and bone
horse he was moving from one town to the next. The horse was so starved
he couldn't keep up. When horse was about as far back as the horizon
from the wagon, it was so weak it fell down, with Wilson Henry on its
back. Uncle Henry was scared, but not hurt. He couldn't get the horse to
stand up. He started crying for his Uncle Claudie, but they were out of
hearing range. So Wilson Henry pulled & pulled on the sorse until he
finally got him up. He mounted him and started toward the wagon, keeping
the wagon in sight, but couldn't catch up until the wagon stopped. He
told Uncle Claudie he didn't want to ride that horse any more.
From around the age of ten, Uncle Henry worked on the farms and ranches
so he could go to school. He would get up early and do morning chores,
go to school, come home and work late. Then he would work on Saturday's.
This is the way he earned his room and board, and went to school.
This was important to Uncle Henry because he said he really wanted to
get an education. In fact he was so determined that he went to the
fourth grade for four years. He said that he never finished the whole
year because the farm work played out and he would move on. They
wouldn't pass him on because he hadn't finished the year. He said he
never had to study because he knew it all already. One year he had been
in the fourth for two weeks when the teacher gave him a test. She looked
at the results and told him: "Henry, you don't belong in the fourth. I'm
putting you in the fifth." Henry knew that he would then have to start
studying. He said that was the best thing that ever happened to him. It
made him have to work. Uncle Henry told me he still had a fourth grade
report card. I selfishly asked him to let me have it.
He gave me 3 report cards: 3rd Grade, 1912/1913, Henry Thompson, age 13,
D.J. Derden - guardian, Pleasant Hill School, (arithmetic, 100;
geography, 95; language, 100; physiology, 92; reading, 100;
spelling, 99; deportment, 100), promoted to the fourth grade; 4th Grade,
1916/1917, Henry Thompson, age not shown, B.F. Mitchell - guardian,
Midway Public School, (all A's except a B in writing; and a written
comment: "An excellent pupil"), promoted to the fifth grade; 6th Grade,
1917/1918, Henry Thompson, age 18, B.F. Mitchell - guardian, Midway
Public Schools, (mostly E's for excellent and the rest V's for very
good), promoted to the seventh grade. Uncle Henry did not continue his
formal education after completing the sixth grade.
During a stretch at one farm, the farmer was driving the team of horses
for one cultivator, while young wilson Henry was plowing with the other
cultivator. Henry had his horses and cultivator fine tuned so that he
could practically set back while watching the horses and cultivator
follow the rows. Henry kept noticing the farmer fighting the team,
trying to keep the plow going straight as it was pulling strongly to the
side. Henry approached his boss to ask if he needed help. At his bosses'
acquiescence, Henry suggested his boss use the cultivator he had been
riding while he plowed with the stubborn one to check it out and adjust
it. After about an hour of adjusting the first one thing and another,
including the straightening up the set of the plow points, Henry told
his boss it was fixed and ready for him. His boss said he would just
keep riding Henry's plow and could stay on the other one.
Incidentally, Henry was never paid money at these farms. He just got
room and board. When I asked him about that, Uncle Henry responded: "You
didn't need any money in those days." I asked how he would go to the
next farm or go home. He said he would just catch a ride with someone,
or the next farmer would hear about him and send someone to get him.
At a ranch that Uncle Henry worked on, it was his responsibility to go
out riding to check on the calves that had just been branded. They would
often get sores and infections. (And possibly the "W" word, or "baby
flies".) Uncle Henry wouldhave to doctor them. (Ronald Earl was not the
first doctor in the family.) One Sunday Uncle Henry was heading for town
on his borrowed horse. He didn't say why he was going to town. But
before he got out the ranch gate, he saw a young calf with its mother.
He rode over to check out the brand, petted it and doctored it. He got
on his horse to leave, but the calf started following him. He tried to
shoo the calf back, but it kept following him. Henry would spur his horse
into a run, but the calf was faster than his old nag. Henry walked the
calf back to its mother and waited around until it started nursing.
Henry then successfully slipped away and made it to town. You'll have to
ask Uncle Henry what he did in town.
Uncle Henry recalled living in Duncan, Oklahoma in 1907, the year
Oklahoma became a state. His mother planned to take them all to the
picture show to celebrate. This would be a big deal because the family
barely made a living. Okies were celebrating in all manners. Someone
started shotting their guns in the air and before long everybody with a
gun was shooting them. Shotgun pellets begin perppering the roof of their
little two room shack. "Momma told us to forget the picture show". She
was not about to let them get outside in that shelling.