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Hartselle Enquirer

Mountain folk neighbors

By Clif Knight

The five Knight boys were an inquisitive bunch. They took notice of every living human being and stray animal that passed by on the narrow dirt road in front of their farmhouse in rural Clay County, Alabama in the 1940s.

That’s why they dropped what they were doing and ran to the road to see something they’d never seen before—a pair of oxen pulling a wagon piled high with an odd assortment of farm implements. The driver was an old bearded man who stood when he spotted us and tipped his worn felt hat to acknowledge our presence, he wore baggy overalls and dairyman’s boots and held a whip in his right hand.

“His name was Riley Spears and he and his wife were going to be our new neighbors,” we learned from our mother when we told her what we’d seen on the road.

We learned a lot more about Mr. Spears when he showed up at our back door with a letter in his hand a few days later. He could not read or write and wanted our mother to read the letter to him. The mail was from one of his three sons, each of whom served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II.

They purchased a small farm, that adjoined ours in 1947 as a means of getting their parents off the mountainside farm they lived on in the Shinbone community, where there was no running water or electric power.

The old man’s farming methods were a throwback to the 18th century. His tools were handmade and his family’s sustenance was limited for the most part to a milk cow, a hog, a few chickens and garden vegetables.

His oxen had minds of their own when pulling a plow. They simply dropped to the ground and took a rest when the going got tough. When his whip failed to get them up and going, the old man would simply walk to his house and sit down for a rest of his own.

Another sight to see was his hog grazing and rooting around inside a pasture fence with the oxen and milk cow. He made the triangle-shaped wooden yoke and put it on the hog’s‘ neck to prevent it from straying outside the barbed wire fence.

The Spears’ were our closest neighbors and always welcomed our visits. They had a big dinner bell hanging on a pole in their back yard, and we were on notice that if we heard the bell ring we were to respond in a hurry.

When we visited we carried our battery-operated Zenith radio. We’d tune it in to the Grand Ole Opry and listen to the country music while sitting on their big front porch. Us siblings would soak up the adult conversation with special interest in family histories and their struggles of eking out a living on a poor mountainside farm.