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By Sam Perry
Sometimes, on quiet Sunday afternoons, I enjoy visiting the graves of my long-departed relatives who lie at rest in many of the old cemeteries in McCreary County. Recently, I visited one of my favorites, the Bruce-Shepherd Cemetery which is located just above Laurel Creek out on Highway 478. It is a very old burying ground and is the resting place of several of my kinfolk on my mother’s side of the family. The earliest grave dates to 1852.
As I stood there in the cemetery, gazing at the weathered grave markers, I was struck by the number of children who are buried there and how difficult it was in the nineteenth century to bring a child to maturity. At one time, the children buried there were vibrant young people filled with exuberance and energy with many long years of life stretching out before them. Now, all that remains of their earthly existence are pieces of stone upon which are etched only their names and birth and death dates. These artifacts stand as mute reminders of a time when life was truly hard and survival prospects for everyone was quite remote, especially for children.
W.M Bruce was only ten years old when he died. John Spradlin lived six years. Cora Alice Spradlin was three when death took her. Mary Spradlin lived but six months, while Dora Spradlin and Leslie Spradlin each survived only a month. These Spradlin children were sons and daughters of William and Luverna Spradlin, but, other than that, we know very little about them.
What killed them? What circumstances converged upon their lives to snatch them from the arms of loving parents and anxious relatives and place them on a lonely hilltop overlooking Laurel Creek? We’ll never know, for sure, but we can make some pretty logical guesses.
The nineteenth century, during which span of time most of our ancestors arrived in this part of the Commonwealth, was not a good time for children, or anyone else, for that matter. Life was short and brutal. Although some individuals did live to advanced age, most did not, and the wonder is that anyone survived childhood.
Poor eating habits put many children into early graves. In most families, the diet was uninspiring, to put it mildly. Other than a mess of wild greens in the Spring, fresh vegetables seldom graced the dining table. Fried pork and greasy cornbread were the staples and, although filling, set the stage for vitamin deficiency disorders such as scurvy, pellagra, and stunted growth. Country ham and cornbread are tasty on occasion, but to eat them three times a day, seven days a week, is to invite the angel of death into the house. Some mothers innocently permitted their infants to chew on strips of raw bacon while they were teething, at a time when many hogs were infected with trichinosis.
To drink milk from cows that browsed in the forest was to play an early form of Russian roulette. Milk fever and brucellosis took many lives on the frontier. Most of the family’s drinking water was derived from open springs which, also, slaked the thirst of a variety of small forest mammals. Typhoid fever and even cholera were not uncommon ailments and were closely associated with contaminated drinking water.
Until its cause was discovered in 1900 by Dr. Walter Reed, yellow fever swept through the south every summer, claiming thousands of lives. Malaria was so common in rural areas that it wasn’t even regarded as a disease, hence the old expression, “He ain’t sick, he’s just got the ague.” Yet, it sent virtually everyone, at some point in their lives, to bed with the chills and fever.
Mountain families worked from sunup to sundown under conditions which we would regard as intolerable. Accidents took many of the able-bodied men, either immediately or as a result of the infection that set in later. Homes were filled with swarms of flies in the summer, when the windows were open and smoke from the fireplace and fumes from kerosene lamps in the winter when they were closed. Each family had a smelly privy that bred flies and the universal complaint was that the outhouse was too far away in the winter and too close in the summer.
Children seemed to bear the worst of the suffering. Boys learned to follow the plow before they were ten years old. They planted, cultivated, and harvested the corn crop, shoveled manure, and performed odd jobs around the farm which the men didn’t have time for or didn’t want to do. Girls mimicked their mothers and labored over a hot stove or fireplace, spent endless hours at the loom and spinning wheel, churned butter, and carried water from the spring. When they reached puberty, usually about age fourteen, it was time for them to marry and most of them did. Like their brothers, they seldom went to school and seldom had time for play.
So, when one considers what life was like when our ancestors loaded their worldly possessions, and the children who were not able to walk all day, onto the backs of their pack horses and set their faces to the west in search of new beginnings in the land of the Big South Fork River, it is in utter amazement that we learn that they did as well as they did. It is sad to reflect upon the fact that almost as soon as they got their new ground cleared and a cabin built, it was, usually, time to establish a family burying ground, a sacred piece of land which filled up all too quickly.
In our comfortable electronic-driven society, we are, sometimes, unable to resist the temptation to romanticize our past. Parts of that past were, indeed, romantic, but we must never forget that, for our forefathers, life consisted, mostly, of an incessant struggle for survival, with death as a constant companion.
So, to John and Mary and Dora and Leslie and Cora and W.M., and all of your childhood contemporaries who came into a harsh world filled with promise and hope, but whose lives were cut short through no fault of your own, please know that you are not forgotten. Enough of your generation survived to enable us to be here today. For that, we are thankful. May we who have so much be unselfish with what we have and try to pass the best of it to on our own descendants. It is the least we can do.