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Authors: Lila Beckham

Orphan Girl

BOOK: Orphan Girl
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Orphan Girl

Lila Beckham

 

 

 

Gilly Jacobs Eubanks

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © March 2014 - revised Oct 2015

 

 

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without express written consent of the publisher, except for excerpts or brief quotations in a review. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, events or locales, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

This novella is dedicated to my maternal grandmother, Mae Foster Powell. I could sit and listen to her talk for hours on end as she told me our family’s stories and tales. She was a great influence to me and to my writing. She was the love of my life…

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing Miss Gilly

 

The wrinkled old woman looked up from her pea shelling and gave me a searching look. I had asked if she knew anything about sharecropping. Our class was studying Alabama History and the teacher had instructed us to each write an essay covering one of the topics we discussed. One of the topics we discussed was sharecropping during the Great Depression. I remembered my great-grandmother saying that when she was a child, her father was a sharecropper. It stirred my curiosity about them as a society, what they were like and such as that, so I chose to write my essay about Sharecropping.

When I finished with high school, I wanted to go to college to study journalism. The only way we would ever afford it was if I earned a scholarship, therefore, I was working hard toward that goal. I thought this would be a great human-interest story, if I could find someone who knew the subject well enough to speak on it.

I could not ask my great-grandmother, she has gone to be with the Lord, but her next-door neighbor and closest friend, Gilly Eubanks, was still alive. Miss Gilly, as everyone called her, lived on a piece of property adjoining my great-grandmother’s old place in Citronelle.

My grandmother had lived in Citronelle all of her life, and although Citronelle was a good thirty-minute drive from Mobile, we had visited my grandmother the first Sunday each month for as long as I had been alive. However, I had not gone there in several years, not since my grandmother’s funeral. The funeral was the one and only time I had ever met Miss Gilly; on the drive there, I had hoped she would remember me. She was near eighty years old, but still sharp as a tack. I had not known how to get in touch with her to ask for an interview beforehand, so I had just shown up at her door that day and asked to talk with her. She was sitting on her front porch shelling peas when I arrived and said that she did not mind my unannounced visit. She invited me to sit and talk awhile, so now, here I sit in front of her with my little recorder and notebook, trying to look the part of a professional journalist.

 

“Who’d you say you was?” Miss Gilly asked.

“I’m Susie Jackson, Miss Gilly. I’m Betsy’s great-granddaughter.”

“Betsy was a good woman. She was a good friend to me when I first moved back out here in the late 40s, about 1948 no, 9 it was. She taught me how to be a good farmwife.”

“Yes, Ma’am, she was a good woman,”
I said, looking into her pale but remarkably clear blue eyes. She stared at me for a full minute it seemed before she spoke again.

“You favor her, you know.”

“Thank you Miss Gilly. I’ve been told that before,”
I said, and I had been told that several times, but when I looked into a mirror, I could never see the resemblance.

“You say you wanna know about sharecropping, you look awfully young to be intrested in stuff setch as that,” Miss Gilly said shaking her head.

“Yes, Ma’am, I remember Grandmother Betsy saying that her father was a sharecropper. Since you and she were friends for so many years, I thought you might know something about it too.”
 

“Yes I do,” she said slowly, “More than I’d like to know about it, that’s for sure.” Miss Gilly seemed to perk up a bit. “I can tell you a thing or two about sharecropping,” she said sprightly.

When I turned on the recorder, she asked, “What is that thing?”

“It’s a voice recorder, Miss Gilly. You don’t mind if I record what you’re saying, do you?”
I asked cautiously.

“Ain’t never had my voice recorded before, but I reckon it’ll be alright.”

“It will help me keep the facts straight when I write my essay.”

“Is it ready for me to start talking?”

“Yes, Ma’am, it’s ready.”
Miss Gilly bent forward, as if she thought she needed to be closer to the recorder for it to hear her.

“You can sit comfortably, Miss Gilly. The machine will hear you fine.”
Miss Gilly gave me a doubtful look, then sat up straight and resumed shelling peas.

“Sharecropping…,” she said as if testing her voice.

“Um hum,”
I murmured, nodding my head.

“I’ll start off giving you a few facts about this place first, if that’s alright.”

“Yes, Ma’am, You can say whatever comes to mind.”

“Well, these days, I do tend to speak my mind. I done got too old to worry about what folks think of me,” she said with a chuckle.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way, Miss Gilly. Grandmother was like that too.”

“Where do you want me to start?”

“You can begin with your name, Miss Gilly.”

“Alright then, my name is Gillian Jacobs Eubanks, “Gilly” for short,” she said and smiled. “Farming has long been a way of life around here, especially after white men settled here. This area was part of the territory of thousands of indigenous people. Even the Indians that lived here before us were farmers of one sort or another.

When white folks come to explore this place, the Choctaw and Creek people were already here. They lived and hunted in the area. White men first explored this place, back in the 1700s. The land around here was fertile and found to possess healing herbs and mineral springs. Word spread of all the wonders and the beauty of the place, and when the territory opened up for settlement after the turn of the century, white folks began coming in droves. Now, I’m talking about the turn of the nineteenth century, not the twentieth.”


Yes, ma’am
.”

“Mobile was already settled. Heck, it had been settled over a hundred years by then. First by the French, then the Spanish, but those folks down
there
stuck close to the coast. They knew not to impinge upon the Indians territory; they valued their scalps too much for that. However, those coming here from Georgia and the Carolinas were a land hungry bunch of folks, and tough as shoe leather. They started settling the area about 1811, but it would be another eighty years before it became a jurisdiction.

In 1892, they give it a name. The name they give it “Citronelle” was because of the citronella grass that grows wild throughout the township. That was the pivotal point in time when things began to change around here, for the better for some, but not for all.

Late in the 1800s, the town became a popular resort destination because of the mild climate, herbs, and healing waters. Yes, Citronelle had become famous and as I said a while ago, people started arriving in droves. 

Buildings sprang up, nearly overnight. Those wealthy upstarts from New Orleans, Atlanta, and Mobile built fine homes, a courthouse, and several restaurants. Then they built hostelries to accommodate the influx of visitors.

A prominent doctor and his family built a grand hotel high atop a hillside north of town. The land it sat on contained over a thousand acres. That was a lot of land for one man to own. The resort they built had serpentine walks, guest cottages, tropical gardens, variegated rose gardens, and flowering trees such as dogwood, crepe myrtles, and magnolias. It even had its very own train station in front of it so that visitors could ride right up to its front doors. They named it the Hygeia. I had to look that up one time just to see what it meant. I found out Hygeia was the Greek Goddess of Health.

Another well-known fact about this town was that on May 4, 1865, at the end of the Civil War, one of the last of the Confederate armies surrendered here. General Richard Taylor surrendered his army down yonder, under what later became known as “Surrender Oak.” This was the third in a series of five major surrenders of the war.

The two previous surrenders occurred at Appomattox Court House, in Virginia between General Robert E. Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant. The second and largest surrender was at Bennett Place near Durham, North Carolina. It was between General William Tecumseh Sherman and General Joseph E. Johnston.

Sherman took no pity on Southerners. He was the one that burnt Atlanta you know. They say he burned a swath of land fifty miles wide from Atlanta to Savannah. His troops burned crops, killed livestock, and consumed supplies as they destroyed every cotton gin and storage bin they come across, as well as tore up every train rail and station they could.

You see, I know a little history about Alabama, and our country too, but I did not learn it at school. I learnt it from reading. After I learned how to read, I read everything I could lay my hands on, from feed sacks to the bible… Unfortunately, the old live oak no longer stands. It was destroyed by a hurricane in nineteen hundred and two, but for many years, the ancient oak was reverenced, not just because of the surrender, but because beneath it, a way of life had vanished, ne’er to come again to the South.

The oak was said to have an aura about it, a mysterious way of putting a spell on folks who opened themselves up to its powers. Writers sat beneath its canopy of widespread, moss-covered limbs and fantasized novels of the Old South, a land of grandeur and gallantry. They romantized the war and chivalry lived on in their stories… Poets wrote surrogated poems about the oak. Meaning they substituted the tree for someone or something… Young lovers lay entwined on leafed bedding beneath it, making promises they failed to keep once they left its presence, the spell broken.”

“That’s beautiful, Miss Gilly, almost poetic in its telling.”

“Oh, I’m just getting warmed up. I have lots more to tell you,” said Miss Gilly with a grin, which caused me to smile.


Please, continue.”

“Tucked among live oaks, citronella fields, and the gently rolling hills of lower Alabama, the Citronelle of the late 1890s thru the mid 1940s, was a secluded, spa-like retreat of the rich and famous. It was a place where pleasure and immoral habits could be indulged. Then, when the likes of Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable came to stay, after the filming of Gone with the Wind, awed lawmen ignored the excesses that fanned the fires of fame. Citronelle was a place of incredible beauty, healing waters, and natural herbs.

By the late 1930s, it boasted several more grand hotels that were fit for royalty. Back then, silence could be bought for a penance and when all that bad stuff began happening, the town began to dry up. Bad word travels just as fast if not faster than good word does; folks looking to get away and relax decided to go on to the next new place to get-away to.

By the mid 1940s, the place had become a veritable ghost town. I don’t know why the citizens of Citronelle let it become such an awful place, a Sodom and Gomorrah of the South. No one ever told me the real reason, but I have heard stories, many different stories. Some say it was because things got out of hand, which happens when the wrong sort move into a place. Where the rich go, the riffraff will follow. And where there’s money, there’s corruption.

I believe the real change for the better came about when the daughter of the local sheriff disappeared. I hate that the girl lost her life, but if she hadn’t, there ain’t no telling how bad things might have gotten around here. She was missing for several days before they found her. The poor girl had been raped, murdered, and left to die in a ditch behind one of the opium dens. From what I heard, several of those had sprung up along with all the other
fine
establishments.

You know, Opium was legal back in those days, as was cocaine, marijuana and many other drugs that‘s now illegal.

There was one joint that was situated on that bluff over the Escatawpa River where it bends south just north of town- I’ve heard some awful tales about that place. They say that back in those days, every night, someone was murdered in that place for one reason or another. They’d take them out back and throw their bodies into the river to get rid of them. Most times, they’d float several miles down river before their bodies became lodged in a beaver den or wash up on a sandbar- it was impossible to know where they were killed…

Anyhow, I heard the sheriff went plumb-crazy and killed everyone there. He then waged a one-man war on those places and all the other places unsavory types tended to gather. The sheriff said he was sick and tired of covering for hash heads and silver-spooned white trash. The good citizen’s of Citronelle, banded together and made alcohol and drugs illegal, that was when people began moving away. After that, not many remained, but the ones that was here to begin with. The poverty that many folks in this country suffered in the 1930s because of the Great Depression, come a little late to this area.

In 1955, Citronelle sprang back to life briefly. Thick, black crude bubbled up from her soil; they had discovered
oil
. By then, the poor were poorer and the rich and famous were gone; I reckon they had found more exotic places to play. We were still here, but we had no other choice; we were some of the poorest people in town and couldn‘t a gone anywhere if we wanted to.

Little has changed since the 1950s. The town is a little more run down. Many of the buildings abandoned, left to rot in the hot and humid air. A few of the old mansions still stand, but not in their former grandness, folks turned them into single-family houses, bed and breakfasts’, law offices and mortuaries, some, into clothing and flower shops. Nowadays, they call Citronelle the oil capital of Alabama, but that title contradicts what she really is. She’s a humbled, faded portrait of her former self.

BOOK: Orphan Girl
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