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Grand-dad Will's Stories -- Part IV

Margrett McCorkle (+1 509.924.3482, Margrett42 at comcast dot net)

In my previous articles ([1],[2],[3]), I have introduced my great-grandfather – William Marion Ewing who I have always called Grand-dad Will – and provided some life-illuminating stories which have had an incredible influence on my childhood and beliefs. Memories are wonderful things, and during Grand-dad Will's and my life together, he greatly relished both recalling his memories and sharing them with me. At the time he was in the autumn of his years, I was very fortunate to be there and able now to pass on his stories. This article continues to deliver on my promise to pass along Grand-dad Will's stories on to you and my children. Additional stories will appear in future articles.


The front porch was a very important part of Grand-dad Will's home. The house itself was rather small, and the front room – the living room – was used only during the coldest months or on very rainy days. Otherwise, if you were not in the kitchen then you were out on the porch.

On hot summer evenings, we often ate our supper on the porch. From it, we could look out over the cornfields and down the driveway to spot a visitor as they first turned into the drive. Visitors were always a welcome sight. Many a long summer evening was spent story telling and gossiping with friends and family who came to visit.

No matter how early I would awaken and run down the stairs, I would find Grand-dad Will sitting at the kitchen table or out on the front porch having his morning cup of coffee, always with a big smile and a "Did you sleep well, little sister?" greeting. If I found him on the front porch, there would usually be a surprise waiting for me, something he had whittled while waiting for me to wake up. These intricately carved animals, birds and reptiles were some of my most treasured possessions. I remember once finding a little turtle that he had carved and then attached a little head so that it moved back and forth when touched – a bobble head of that era. I was delighted with the turtle and can recall to this day how precious it was to me.

Grand-dad Will and I spent many wonderful hours on the porch, story-telling and whittling the hours away. One day I had a 'great idea' and approached Grand-dad Will about it. I was about nine or ten years old at the time. I had concluded that I must learn how to do this marvelous carving. After telling Grand-dad Will that this was what I wanted to do, he said: "Well, if you are going to learn to carve then you must have a carving knife."

I have not returned to Casa, Arkansas, since we moved to Washington State back in 1956, but I am sure it is a nice-size community today. Back then, however, it was quite a jaunt down the unpaved road to the town's country store. The store was quite small and nestled on the side of the road with nothing near it as far as one could see. Down the road we went, just Grand-dad Will and I. It was hot and it was dusty, and upon arriving the first thing was to get a cold drink – a NeHi grape or orange soda – and, often times, a Baby Ruth candy bar.

But this day was extra special; we had a major purchase in mind. Grand-dad Will looked up at the proprietor and asked to see his carving knives. The proprietor reached into the front case and took out a display box of pocket knives. Oh, to my eyes they were beautiful with so many kinds to choose from. One in particular caught my eye; it had a beautiful white pearl handle. After much discussion on the good and bad qualities of each knife, Grand-dad Will asked which one I might prefer, and without any hesitation I pointed to the pearl handled one. To my delight, Grand-dad Will said: "We'll take that one." I recall what a wonderful day it was, and how I could not wait to get back home to begin my first wood-carving lesson. We finished our cold drinks and set off for home.

I would like to say that I became a fine wood carver, but alas, my attempts fell far short of Grand-dad Will's talents. Even later attempts in my adult years have failed to produce anything remotely similar to the objects of perfection Grand-dad Will managed to produce with just a pocket knife. I did, however, manage to make some rather fine whistles from willow branches and some nice bull whips by braiding the willow's bark, all done with Grand-dad Will's expert over-sight.

I also made countless slingshots that Grand-dad Will and I would use when we set along the river bank to fish. Times are much different today, but back in my childhood, on hot summer days in Arkansas, I would not have gone anywhere without a slingshot in my pocket. We do not always like to tell of our mischievous acts, but the crows of Grand-dad Will's cornfields were most often the target of my efforts with the slingshot. Grand-dad Will did not disapprove.

The driveway from the main road up to Grand-dad Will's home was lined with a rock wall. All the rocks had been carried and placed there by Grand-dad Will himself. It was a pretty drive, and I loved that rock wall. I spent many a lazy afternoon lying on the wall, watching and sometimes catching the little red-striped lizards that also liked to sun themselves on the rocks. I could see the garden on one side and a cornfield on the other. It was a perfect spot to practice my slingshot talents.

The slingshot was not my only childhood toy. After hearing stories about American Indians and their skills with bow and arrow, I wanted to test my skill. So one bright summer morning, Grand-dad Will and I set out to gather the materials needed to make a bow and, of course, many arrows. We found the materials down on the river bank where the willow trees grew and chose only the straightest of willow branches since that was what was needed for arrows. The bark would be stripped from the branches, and the future arrows placed in the sun to dry.

The branch for the bow would be stripped, bent just a bit, tied with string, and set aside to dry. While the bow cured in the sun, we were busy making arrows using the collection of feathers gathered on other trips through the woods. Raven and crow feathers were good as were any hawk feathers I had been lucky enough to have found. By the end of the day, all had gone well, and I found myself the proud owner of the best bow and arrows ever made. With Grand-dad Will's instruction and much practice, I eventually became a fine archer.


Grand-dad Will was a medium-size man, about five foot, eleven inches to six foot tall. He was stout in his younger days. Even in his seventies, he was a strong man; he would carry me all over the country, haul logs from his back-forest area, and plow his cornfields and gardens, of which he had three each. He always seemed happy; I do not recall ever seeing him sad or angry. He always seemed happiest when we had an adventure to go on. There was always something new to do or discover.

But ... He taught me that chores came before the fun. Now that I am old enough to look back and appreciate his wisdom, I think that one of the most valuable things Grand-dad Will taught me was his work ethic. However, with Grand-dad Will the chores never seemed to be a hardship; chores with him were just plain fun. And many chores became learning lessons, for example, when pulling weeds from the garden, each clot of dirt might turn up an arrow or spear point.

Many mornings, before Grand-dad Will and I would start whatever was planned for the day, he would be up early and with his faithful old mule – Old Red – would have plowed the cornfield. Grand-dad Will had three fields planted each year with corn. And he also had three garden areas. It was part of Grand-dad Will's and my 'job' to weed the gardens and harvest the corn. This led to much canning and preserving of the fruits and vegetables. This was all done with the knowledge that Grand-dad Will would, as a reward, have lots of good 'eats' during the winter months.

I do not know when Grand-dad Will got Old Red or how old Old Red was. But Old Red was around all the years I spent with Grand-dad Will and many years before that. He was the most docile of animals. He liked nothing better then to walk round and round the grounds giving rides with as many children as possible sitting on his back. Old Red seemed to greatly enjoy all the attention and never hesitated to give the rides.

Old Red also loved to go 'traveling'. Often, when Grand-dad Will and I would need to go to the little country store down the road, we would ride Old Red. He always seemed to know we were headed for the store as he would not need any guidance at all. I also think he knew he was going to get an apple reward at the end of the trip. Everyone knew Old Red; he would get a lot of attention from folks at the store and anyone we met along the way.

One chore I liked but could not do well was shelling corn for the chickens. Grand-dad Will would take an ear of corn, shuck it and with his thumb push the kernels right off onto the ground for the chickens to eat. It looked easy, but it was hard. While the chickens were eating, we would gather eggs. And if it happened to be Sunday morning, we might be there to catch a big fat hen for our Sunday dinner.

Gathering Firewood

As I think back, I have to admire Grand-dad Will's vitality. He would arise quite early every morning, build a fire in the wood stove, and put on his morning coffee to brew. We all know that putting up fire wood, when you have to have it to both cook and heat, requires a great deal of work. Grand-dad Will's home sat on about three acres, more or less; I never knew the amount of land he homesteaded. He would go part-way up the side of the mountain with Old Red and bring down logs which he would first saw and then split into firewood. The firewood was stored in a shed near the house.

When Grand-dad Will fitted Old Red with a harness and apparatus to pull logs, Old Red was totally unhappy. He knew where he was going and what he was going to have to do. He would head out rather well. But about halfway to where the logs could be found, he would balk, and it was a real test of will to get him to move on. On the other hand, once he was hooked up to a log, he did not waste much time going back down the mountain side. Most days it was a trip or two, dragging down a log at a time; that was about all you could get out of Old Red.

Fetching Water

Grand-dad Will's house was very primitive by today's standards There was no indoor plumbing or running water in the house. Not until a few years after his death was a well dug and water pumped. All water had to be carried from his neighbor's well. For me, going to get water on hot summer days was fun. The amount of water needed for the day dictated how we would fetch the water. If the barrels needed to be filled, then we would hitch up Old Red to a wagon and he, usually to his delight, would make the round trip. Filling the barrels was needed on laundry day and when a lot of canning had to be done, as well as, of course, for bath nights. It was great fun on hot summer days, but I can not imagine it being much fun for Grand-dad Will during the winter months.

When it was not necessary to fill the water barrels, Grand-dad Will and I would just walk over to the neighbor's home with small buckets. Grand-dad Will always saved the small buckets which lard came in. They were my water buckets, my blackberry buckets, my arrow-point collection buckets, etc. – all round, very useful buckets.

When we set out to fetch water, Auntie would repeat oft-mentioned, stern instructions. One was to not take off my shoes and get my feet dirty. This was very hard to accomplish. I could talk Grand-dad Will into just about anything, and I tried to convince him that this was a 'rule' we could break. He came up with a very good solution.

We would head out across the cornfield until we came to the stairs built over the fence – the stile. There I would remove my shoes, leave them by the stile, and go the rest of the way barefoot. It was a hot walk, with many stops along the way to capture a June bug or to play with the dung beetles we would find along the way. We would build dirt hills in front of the beetles and watch them struggle to push their ball of dung up the hills and then scurry to catch up with the dung ball as it rolled down the other side.

After socializing over drinks and ginger snaps at his neighbor's house, we filled our buckets with fresh water and set off for home. I greatly remember – when I was very young, probably five or six years old –Grand-dad Will would carry me on his back through the field when it was hot on my feet. When I was six years old, Grand-dad Will would have been seventy-one years old. He must have been a rather healthy fellow.

When we got back to the stile where I had left my shoes, Grand-dad Will would set me down on the bottom step and wash my feet with one of our buckets of water. Then I would put my shoes back on and feel for sure Auntie never was the wiser. It was Grand-dad Will's and my secret.

It was during this time that Grand-dad Will taught me to spin a bucket of water around, up and over my shoulder, and not spill any of the water. The first time he showed me this, I thought it was magic which I just had to learn how to do. The secret, of course, was to spin the bucket very fast so that centrifugal force would keep the water inside the bucket. I did not let Auntie know I had mastered the trick; spilling water made a good excuse for coming home with an empty bucket.

Doing the Dishes

It was our job, Grand-dad Will and I, to do the dishes each evening after supper.

During the trek to fetch water, we would discuss what his friend and caring neighbor would have for us to drink when we arrived at her house. The bet would be on whether it would be Lemonade or Sweet Tea that would accompany the always-favored ginger snaps that she made so well. Riding on this bet would be who had to wash and who had to dry the dishes that evening after dinner. Grand-dad Will had taught me that helping those we love do the chores was just another way to show one's love and caring. So, I really did not mind helping wash and dry the dishes. We just liked to bicker; it was part of the fun.

We had to heat the water and wash, rinse and dry all the dishes. This usually turned into a fun time for the two of us, but it was always done with care to make sure not to break things. One night I had the washing detail and Grand-dad Will dried the dishes. During a quiet moment, he asked: "Hey little sister, do you know how to juggle?" My answer was that, no, I did not know how. With a "Watch me!," he started tossing three plates into the air and catching them as they came around. Suddenly, he missed and all the plates came crashing down onto the floor, bouncing every which way. He would laugh when he retold this story, enjoying describing that my eyes had gotten big as saucers when the plates hit the floor. He had failed to tell me, and in my young inexperience I did not know, that his dishes were not glass. They were the enameled, white-with-blue-trim tin that was popular in the day. He later explained to me had his dishes been made of glass, he would have long since not had any as he was prone to be a bit clumsy when he did the dishes. Whenever I see these tin white dishes with a blue band around the edge, in flea markets or second-hand stores, I have to smile and chuckle, thinking back to my dear Grand-dad Will and his plates hitting the floor that evening long ago.

As I think back, I realize Grand-dad Will had a sense of humor that was often mostly for his amusement.


Grand-dad Will always said how much he appreciated people coming to visit as they would often bring food, and he would have great meals he did not have to fully cook for himself. He never failed, when he said grace at supper, to thank the wonderful cooks, the more the merrier, who had prepared the food.

Sunday dinners were always special. Sometimes we would dress up and go to someone else's house for Sunday dinner. Grand-dad Will and I did not care all that much for this. We much preferred people to come to our house for Sunday dinner; usually that is what happened.

With people coming to Grand-dad Will's home, he and I would have the pleasure of going out to the chicken pens and catching chickens. Depending how many people were coming, Auntie would tell us how many chickens she needed butchered. Then, after the chicken catching and butchering, it would be off to the garden and cornfields to gather food stuffs: green beans, peas, corn, lettuce and tomatoes. All the while, Auntie would be in the kitchen turning out her wonderful pies. It was hard work, but Grand-dad Will and I had a wonderful time, with enough time left to take a short rest before visitors arrived.

During my summer visits to Grand-dad Will's home, one thing I especially looked forward to was going to visit an elderly couple who lived a ways from his house. We would go in the evenings, usually after supper. The special treat was 'The Watermelon'. Behind the couple's house was a small creek that ran fast, and they would have the largest watermelons I had ever seen cooling in this creek. The melons were also the sweetest I had ever tasted. We would set out doors in the yard and eat watermelon until I could not eat another bite.


Fishing was a big part of our lives. Everyone fished, and 'fish stories' were too numerous to count.

One summer, as we were visiting Grand-dad Will's neighbors, the elderly man took us back to the creek where he had dug a small pond at the side of the creek. In this pond was the largest catfish I had or ever have seen. I remember the elderly man saying this catfish weighed seventy-five pounds. The catfish was larger than I was at the time, and I remember thinking the fish's head and mouth were large enough that it could have swallowed me. That evening was spent re-telling the tale of catching the catfish, as well as, of course, many other fish stories.

Grand-dad Will and I spent many hours setting on the river bank, fishing with our cane poles and worms. If it was a good day, we would have fresh fish for supper. Setting on that river bank – with our poles in the water and the warm sun on our faces, watching the dragon flies and mud dabbers flit around the muddy shore – always brought out stories from Grand-dad Will. I spent many a lazy afternoon napping and listening to his tales of adventure.

More important, more serious fishing trips concerned the running of trotlines[4] in streams across the Petit Jean, the mountain range bordering Grand-dad Will's homestead. The evening before a trip, Grand-dad Will would make dough balls[5] to use as bait. Early the next morning, we would use the dough balls to bait the hooks on the trotlines. Early the following morning, the trotlines would then be checked for fish to harvest. The baiting and harvesting was done in a small boat that one person would paddle while another would pull up any hooked fish and then re-bait the hook with a dough ball.


[1] McCorkle, Margrett. Grand-dad Will's Stories, J. Clan Ewing, Vol. 14, No. 2 (May 2008), pp. 27-29.

[2] McCorkle, Margrett. Grand-dad Will's Stories – Part II, J. Clan Ewing, Vol. 14, No. 4 (November 2008), pp. 13-18.

[3] McCorkle, Margrett. Grand-dad Will's Stories – Part III, Ewing Family J., Vol. 15, No. 2 (May 2009), pp. 38-40.

[4] Trotlines were a popular way to catch fish. They are still used in some areas, especially to catch catfish. A common setup is to secure at least one end of the trotline to a stump, bank or a sturdy tree branch that sits at the water's edge. Weights are attached periodically along the trotline to keep it underwater and to prevent larger fish from dragging the line back and worth. Trotline lengths vary according to the width of the stream they span or the shape of the pond in which they are placed. Hooks are usually placed every two feet or so.

[5] Dough balls were an alternative to live bait and were mostly used to catch catfish. They are still used today. At their simplest, they are a mixture of flour and corn meal, held together by 'sealing' the ingredients with sugared water. Variations involve using biscuits, honey, peanut butter, etc. Modern-day variations involve using Wheaties, 'shrink-wrapped' biscuit dough, etc.