The Racket Settlement: Community recalls early days; Racket’s past brings memories to residents
By Johnile Johnson Beacon Feature Writer – The Richland Beacon-News, Rayville, Louisiana; 06 Sep 1982, Mon • Page 12
Community recalls early days Racket’s past brings memories to residents By Johnile Johnson Beacon Feature Writer, ca., 1982
…..The place had several names; Holly Wood, since holly trees grew on its ridges and The Sticks because it was out in ’em. It was called the Robinson Settlement because three brothers of that name played a prominent part in the life of the community. The name-Racket was not a proper name, meaning either person or place. The word meant a ruckus to the people. When two of the women got involved in a verbal confrontation at church on Sunday, they created a racket with such uproar and confusion that some renamed the community as a joke, but the name stuck. Today when one inquires if a family named Racket lived there, he gets a matter-of-fact answer, explaining the origin of the name.
Chatting with oldsters who lived there before the Twenties, one soon understands that the community was a group of people with close attachments. One man says, “Everybody knew what everybody else was doing and even thinking about.” Another says, “Nobody ever lost a crop because of sickness or bad luck. If a family got behind, enough fanners took time out from their own work to catch him up.” Fewer than a dozen families made up the dynamic and close-knit group; The Reeves Hardwicks, Charles, Felix and Sylvester Moore; Ben, Sid, Oscar and Horace Eppinette; Lindsey Whitten, Mack McGowan, the W.S. Mitchells, and the Jordan Seymours.
The area itself was about six square miles, located south of Start, reaching several miles east and west of Highway 33 running south.
Robinson Road ran off to the east about two miles south of Start, going through the community of small farms, averaging 40 to 80 acres. A few men such as Ben Robinson farmed as much as 400 acres. At that time it was cotton and corn with velvet beans in the corn to help enrich the soil.
The vines twined themselves on the cornstalks and produced fat purple pods that looked and felt just like velvet. Plowed under, the beans furnished the necessary nitrogen for good crops. The land was good sand loam–porous–the kind that could get a hard rain in the afternoon and in a day and a half could be ready for plowing. It had a natural underground drainage that drew the water off quickly, making it especially valuable.
Most of the houses were rough structures built two or three feet off the grown because of overflows. This height with no protection around the bottom caused them to be cold, indeed, when the freezing wind from the north whistled beneath them in the winter.
All had fireplaces, and a few still had the old mud chimneys containing swamp moss for its adhesive effect. High ceilings and a dog-trot hall were their main architectural features. A very few had screen porches, front, side or back.
Many owners were always jacking up their house, replacing blocks and sills. No doubt, termites were eating them away, but back then A.B. Curry says, “None of us ever heard of a termite. They said, ‘The flying ants are after us.”
In a former issue of the Beacon an informant inadvertently listed the Racket School as the Hollywood School. Not much is remembered at the Racket School, except that it was a one-room affair and the first attempt at education in the community.
The Holly Wood School was a big square building with no partitions. A sliding curtain went down the middle dividing it into two rooms. Three classes occupied one side; four classes used the other. There were two teachers, the older, more experienced one acted as principal.
Looking back to those times, Ruth Curry says, “Nearly all the children fell in love with their first and second-grade teachers.”
Miss Anna Butler and Miss Betty Brunson boarded with the Josh Robinsons. Some residents still remember the pretty dresses Miss Brunson wore and that she always smiled. Another teacher held in high esteem was Miss Betty Robinson who came from below Dunn.
What they vividly remember about Margaret Ward was her T-Model Ford with the solid rubber tires three inches thick, and then they add that they had holes in them one and half inches big straight through and through to make the hard tire a little bit more like a cushion.
Residents refer to Tiny and W.B. Grant’s mother who was also a principal and then they say, “Miss Dora Whitten came along and was also a favorite.
In retrospect many of the men remember how bad they were, admitting that at regular intervals they overturned the outdoor privies . just for the heck of it. One says, “We were absolutely uncivilized.”
Men and women who attended the Racket School are rather indefinite about its curriculum, except for the Palmer method of writing and memorizing.
In order to learn penmanship properly, the pupils had to practice for unspecified lengths of time the ovals and push-pulls for circular and straight-line letters. The exercise was supposed to condition the writing muscles for more flexibility. One says, “All it did was get mine out of condition, ’cause I can’t write my own name the same way twice right today.”
Memorizing was the big thing back then. Some tell of getting switched or spanked for not being ready to recite their memory work when the time came.
One man remembers laughing at Ovin Hardwick when he forgot his poem and got a spanking. He swears that he knew his by heart but that because of Ovin’s spanking the words all turned to blanks in his mind. All he could mumble was “Up the airy mountain, down the rushing glen, “–the first line and “White Owl Feather,” which appeared somewhere about the middle. “I got mine,” he grins, meaning a spanking.
Boys and girls walked to school, rode horses or wagons when the weather was bad.
During one spell of bad weather, when the flu was raging, Lester Johnson says that one day he was the only pupil in school. He didn’t go home though, for he had been absent with the flu himself, and the teacher spent the day helping him to catch up.
The mothers and fathers went with their children to the school building on Sunday, for it also served them as their church.
Years later the first school bus created a sensation when Howard Bennett came driving it down the road to pick them up. A description of the vehicle sounds more like a hearse than a school bus-a long battle-gray contraption with long wooden benches and side curtains. Pupils entered from the rear, and one former passenger recollects the older boys riding, standing on the steps attached to the floor of the bus.
Hwy. 33 was not graveled until the early twenties. One fellow who was on the scene to acquire ammunition for his slingshot says that the gravel was delivered in wagons equipped with a bed of two by sixes. The heavy boards were arranged so that a twist at the end turned each one over and let the rocks come pouring down through the long cracks. He remembers how fine the smooth rocks were for bird hunting.
Racket settlement was a place where people would remember the blacksmith as an important man in their midst. John Durrant, a Frenchman, who sharpened their plows in his little shop with the open end repaired all their farming implements as well as shoeing their horses.
Mrs. Minnie Watts, the daughter of Durrant, in her late eighties, says that her father came from France when he was fourteen years old. Arriving in New Orleans, he caught a boat up the Mississippi and finally got off at Alto, from where he came to the settlement. The daughter remembers him as a happy man, but she says he refused to teach his children the French language, saying, “You don’t need it. Speak English.”
Miss Minnie lives with her daughter and son-in-law, Lillian and Katie Ruth Whitten at Start and is still rather spry for her age.
Another outstanding character in the community that people remember with great affection was John Redman, a black man living on the DeMoss place.
Redman was a hero to young boys because he fashioned their slingshots and taught them unerring aim. Redman’s stepson-Buck whose real name was Matthew Mosely, owned a weapon with no equal. The stock was a foot long with double rubbers for extra strength. When Buck pulled the flap back loaded with a small piece of cast iron or a smooth rock from the newly graveled road, he could shoot a bird’s head off at thirty feet.
The occasion separating childhood from boyhood was camping out with Redman. When the boys were old enough, their parents let him take them to spend the night on the fingers of Crew Lake. No matter how small their fish were, Redman provided his boys with a fish fry that they still tell about. Tales of hearing growling wild animals also still abound.
Erma Lee Brown says that Redman probably started her on a secretarial career. When she was all of twelve years old, she hand-wrote his correspondence.
“I got paid a nickle a letter,” she says.
When she objected to the financial arrangement, he would refuse to let her write the letters if she didn’t take the nickel. It was a matter of pride for him to pay for his secretarial work.
Eula Redman, John’s wife, was known all over for her excellent cooking. Every Christmas her holiday fare centered around a baked goose. Trays of food went back and forth from her kitchen to those of her friends.
As soon as anyone entered her house, she would say, “Come on, you must eat a bite.”
The center of attraction for the whole community was Pig Ankle — Frank Robinson’s Store. When asked if the store got its unusual name because pickled pig feet were part of its merchandise, A.B. Curry says, “No. That had nothing to do with it. It did have the pickled delicacies, but the store just looked like the name sounded.”
It was an old-timey country store with a square front and porch, sitting high off the ground on piers. A partition down the middle converted it into two rooms. The main part was about thirty by fifty feet.
Old man Joe Turner had an office in the southwest corner. Turner was the bookkeeper, who had to wear glasses and was about forty years old. According to one informant, “He wasn’t much to look at. The fellow was a dainty man who always wore a necktie.”
The store owner had met Turner on the train when he went up to Memphis to buy merchandise and hired him. “The bookkeeper never took up any time with the kids, and I never knew of him laughing,” Curry says.
Frank Robinson, the store owner, was a character. Sometimes he just didn’t like to act grown up. He would go out of his way to slip up behind you and thump you on your ear, saying, “Did I miss it?” “I’ll get it next time.” The fact was that he got it every time.
He always smoked cigars, and he was obsessed with the firecrackers that came eight in a box. One time he lit one and stuck the box in a boy’s back pocket. Things picked up. Robinson was always wrestling and tussling with the nearly-grown boys. The store was the gathering place for boys, especially those who were already shaving. If they had any money, they’d buy something. If they didn’t, they just hung around.
“My daddy worked there, and when we got caught up on the farm, I’d go to the store with the others. We’d occupy the wooden benches or sit on the edge of the porch and hang our feet off,” says Curry.
Some odd merchandise showed up at times. An Arcadia store went bankrupt, putting on a referee sale. Robinson bought it all. Among the stuff was a dozen derby hats.
One day Ben Robinson, the owner’s brother, was trying on one of the funny-looking hats when Clyde Hardwick, Jimmy Watts and I walked up and tried one on, too. Ben said, “I’ll buy you boys a hat if you’ll wear it, but if I catch you wearing your own hat, I’ll take it back.”
The boys were well pleased, but the other two boys soon tired of the way they looked beneath the derbies, and sure enough, Ben took them back.
“I wore mine for a while longer, but finally I took my own money and paid for it. I had been to Rayville and had seen Richard Downes wearing a derby. It looked real good on him, but it didn’t flatter me at all,” he says.
Included in the bankrupt sale were about 50 shirts. Wiley Roberts who looked like Colonel Sanders, bought the whole stack. I knew he’d never live long enough to wear them out, but he got them for twenty-five cents a piece, and I guess, he just went for a bargain.
The shirts were the particular style that he wore, and he never was seen in any other kind. They had a detachable collar held on by one button in the back of the neck. Some were made out of celluloid. There was a variety of colors-plain white, striped, and different shades.
Herman Hardwick said Robinson was a super salesman. Once when a man’s father died in the community, the son came down to Pig Ankle to purchase a burial suit. The only suit available was several sizes too big, but Robinson convinced the man that he could just fold the extra part down under him and it would do just fine. The man took the suit Hardwick said Robinson couldn’t have gotten that off on anyone but a dead man.
They probably bought the casket at Brock’s in Girard. That’s one of the few things Pig Ankle didn’t have. You couldn’t get a medical prescription filled there, and you had to go to S. Coleman’s in Rayville to buy your school books.
There was plenty of nearly everything else -dresses reaching halfway to the ankle, bonnets, corsets r shoes and notions for sewing. The best selling candy was Uncle Sam’s kisses-two for a penny-and the popular jawbreaker that a kid could slurp on for half a day. A favorite cake or cookie was the stage plank-a big flat ginger-bread affair-six by eight inches in size with hard pink icing. It cost a nickel.
Some special merchandise remained in the barn. It held a special attraction for men whose thirst craved something stronger than the store’s soda pop. It was illegal liquor stashed around in the barn’s secret places. The booze came in second-hand containers — Nehi bottles, Ball and Mason fruit jars-pints and quarts.
A lot of devilment went on in connection with the liquor. Some of the older boys would pilfer a few bottles, and then somebody else would snitch it back from them.
An interesting crapgame also went on behind the barn.
During the cold wintertime, a huge cast-iron heater kept the store warm. lAs far as A.B. Curry can remember, there never was a break-in or Burglary at Pig Ankle. All Robinson ever did was put a stick up over the bottom window to keep it from being raised.
One of the farmhands called Punch, got a peculiar custom started among his friends. Having nothing to decorate his horse’s bridle with, he cut off a cow’s tail (not his cow, of course) boiled it with some red calico scraps and came out with a rather gruesome red tassel of a sort. Before long many of his friends did the same thing, producing many short-tailed cows.
Owners of the cattle were furious because the cows needed the full brush on the end of their tails to swat the troublesome swarms of horseflies that flourished in the area.
All the hands on the Robinson brothers’ place had their own horses. A few owned good saddles which they treasured. Until they were able to purchase the coveted saddles, they contented themselves by folding up a nine-foot cotton sack and using it for a saddle blanket. Others rode Indian style, but their bridles might have several cow-tail brushes dangling on each side.
When Crew Lake became a boom sawmill town, the residents in Racket Settlement did not become too involved except to haul over an occasional load of sweet potatoes and other farm produce. They could have easily used the sawmill money, but they were farmers with hearts and minds fixed on the land.
When asked how far back the community reaches, Ruth Robinson Curry says, “Clear to the beginning,” as she proudly displays her father’s family bible that records his birth in 1867 and his marriage — Benjamin Myrick Robinson to Anna Wynn on the thirtieth of March, 1890, at Girard.
“So you see,” she says, “His parents had already been here a long, long time.”
Thirteen sons and three daughters were born to Ben and Anna Robinson.
The huge family took its place in the community and helped make it very special. Beautiful modem homes of brick now stand where the rough farmhouses used to be, and there is still something special about the community that holds people close to home. Bentley Curry, son of A.B. and Ruth Curry, works away, but he still lives next door to his parents with his wife the former Sandy Mangum–and their children–Trey, Suzie and Alan….The Richland Beacon-News
06 Sep 1982, Mon • Page 12