Some years ago a lawyer friend of mine from Fulton fell into a piece of Tishomingo County land lying south and west of Woodall Mountain, the highest point in Mississippi. The lawyer’s grandfather, a Belmont timberman, bought the land during the Depression from an African-American family. Local tales abound of the old black gentleman who reared a passel of children on the property, scratching out an existence on corn and peas grown in the hollers, life always bounded by the sandy ravines and steep hills falling away from Woodall. Maybe the children sang old slave tunes and learned soulful harmonies as they gathered corn and picked cotton on their isolated little hill farm at the turn of the 20th Century. Perhaps we will never know.
My friend is Tom Childs, a kind man and the kind of man who would never say an unkind word about another. Careful in conversation. Truthful. Words mean something to Tom who grew up in Eupora, he and his sister Jolee helping tend their father’s small country general store. I have known Tom since the early 1970's when he turned down fellowships at Harvard and New York University to come to Fulton as an assistant football coach at IJC. He also joined his friend Stacy Russell’s law office. I have tried cases with Tom and against him and never questioned his word. If you have the good fortune to talk to Tom, watch his eyes. His blue gray eyes speak of humility. I trust men and women of humility. I believe what they say.
The headwaters of the old Tombigbee River are born as fresh flowing springs bubbling out of hills leaning west of Woodall Mountain. From these hills, the Tombigbee flows south through northeast Mississippi into Alabama and down to Mobile. African-American folklore tells of an old slave song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, which slaves sang in code, telling their fellows how to follow the old Tombigbee north to freedom.
The Drinking Gourd is the Big Dipper, which may be used to find the North Star. According to the lyrics, one should follow the Drinking Gourd north along the Old Tombigbee until:
The riva ends tween two hills,
Foller the drinkin’ gourd,
Nuther riva on the other side,
Foller the drinkin’ gourd.
Where the little riva
Meets the great big un,
The ole man waits.
Foller the drinkin’ gourd.
The “nuther riva on the other side” is the Tennessee River, which curves north around Woodall, eventually meeting the “great big un”, the Ohio River, where the “old man waits” to take them across the river to freedom. Supposedly the trip from Mobile to the Ohio would last about a year, with the fugitive meeting the old man in the winter, when the Ohio was frozen, so the escaped slave could walk across the river on ice. The past is silent as to how many slaves may have followed the Tombigbee to freedom. We might imagine one or two now and then, sometimes maybe a family, ill clothed and poorly fed, heading up the river at dusk, dodging search parties and snakes, slapping mosquitoes, hungry and tired, always following the Drinking Gourd further north like the children of Israel following a Pillar of Fire. Some say the song is just myth but I’m not so sure.
Several years ago Tom Childs made a new friend, Buster, a stray someone had deserted. Jolee says Buster was a rather non-descript fellow. Undistinguished. Not the kind of dog many folk would notice. Yet for years Buster was Tom’s sole companion as they labored and piddled on the old farm. Tom and Jolee dragged their grandfather’s little Belmont timber office out through the country to a hill on the place overlooking a wide green meadow. Tom is turning it into a cabin of sorts. Under the cabin live seven big healthy hounds someone dropped off as week old pups a few years ago. Of course Tom took them to raise and they greet all visitors with a heavenly dog chorus, baying frantic excitement. Felix and Gomer are buried nearby. For the second time. They were Tom’s uncle’s dogs, previously interred near the timber office in Belmont, now a Piggly Wiggly parking lot. Tom said he couldn’t bear the thought of asphalt being poured over the dogs who had been buried there for decades. So he dug them up and moved them to the hills.
Tom’s place has one of the largest naturally flowing springs in the State of Mississippi. Clear cold waters bubble up in area about the size of a small tenant house and flow in an un-named stream toward the Tombigbee River bottoms, headed to Mobile. I am troubled that this beautiful stream has no name. So I think I will name it Childs Stream. And not just for Tom.
Just above the spring ancient oaks shade a gentle knoll where pieces of flint peek up from the earth. No doubt this was an old Indian campground. Maybe fugitive slaves rested here too. Tom tells me that late one evening a few years ago, just before Christmas, he and Buster were standing on the old campground when Buster suddenly perked his ears and looked over the spring toward the woods. Tom looked too but saw nothing. He then heard a snatch of song floating on the breeze. He quickly recognized the voices of two young black children, a boy and a girl, harmonizing in the chilling air:
O little Town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie!
The voices startled Tom and Buster. They had heard no one approach the property. They thought they were alone. Excited, they stumbled toward the voices which seemed to be coming from a small copse of woods just beyond the spring.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by ....
As they hurried toward the trees the words seemed to drift away, the melody passing down the valley and on between two hills. Tom tells me that he and Buster never saw a single soul, yet he knows they heard children singing. I believe him though I only have Tom’s word for this for Buster now sleeps in eternity, buried near the cabin on the hill. Tom says he will be buried there too some day.
We hear the Christmas Angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Immanuel ....
[My note: This is an original composition that my husband wrote for an Oxford publication and is reprinted here with his permission.]