shotgun houses from my cracker youth

A Sunday Snapshot Musing

While I was in Florida last fall I decided to drive by to see what was left of the old houses my grandparents had lived in when I was a child, and where some of my first memories begin. I was astonished to see how the houses had shrunken over the years. I’m sure they were much larger when I was young.  Both were built in classic “shotgun” style where all the rooms are in direct line with each other with a hallway straight through the center of the house. They’re called shotgun because you could shoot straight through the front door clear to the back of the house without hitting the walls.

This is where my mother grew up. It was a classic old cracker house and as you can see from this picture, there was not much left to see. Sixty years ago, woods full of pine trees, palmettos, and scrub oaks surrounded the sandy yard, and honeysuckle vines grew all along a rail fence running along the left side. I remember it being one of Granddaddy’s favorite flowers because of the fragrances that filled the house all summer and into the fall until the first frost “killed it back” to rest until the next season. As far as I know it was never painted but left to weather into the classic gray of most houses in the area at the time.

Florida November 2008 021 The kitchen, walk-in pantry and dining room were nearly flat on the ground now, but that’s one of the reasons I think the house seems so small. My grandparents raised not only my mother but her three sisters and two brothers here. The back part was separated from the front by a porch that connected the two structures. That way the front parlor and bedrooms in front were spared the heat from the kitchen.

My grandmother had an old pump or reed organ those days, that she operated by pumping bellows with one foot while the other foot jumped around the two peddles to sustain the sound. It looked like hard work for a small woman like Grandma C.  I remember one particular Sunday afternoon when most of the extended family–aunts, uncles, spouses and all the younguns that sprang from them–had assembled for family dinner (at noon–supper was the evening meal).

After the kitchen was cleaned, the men dragged the organ out onto the porch, while Mama’s youngest brother, the only one still living at home, was pressed to bring out  his harmonica and guitar to play, while Grandma C played the organ. There was no dancing, but the family sat around the edges of the porch and along the front steps (which were taller too) to sing church hymns and standards of the day.

Meanwhile, over in the  next county, my father and his eight siblings (the nine) were growing up in this house. Granny G also took in my two cousins (boys) to raise after their mother–her 21-year-old daughter–died when the youngest was a few months old. Readers of one o’the nine stories may recall a few shenanigans from those nine boys, many of which took place in or were likely dreamed up in this house. With 11 boys to cook for, wash for, and guide into adulthood, believe me my grandmother had very few idle moments those years.

Florida November 2008 012

It’s in slightly better repair because the cousin who inherited it still uses it to house the itinerant farm workers he hires to help out on the huge farm he inherited that he calls a ranch now. Grandpa would be astounded that what was a family farm is now a larger, commercial venture that made the new owner well off, if not rich, and certainly not “dirt” poor as Grandpa G was. He always said “put your money into land,” and he did, and accumulated 1000 acres over his lifetime.

The exterior was painted white with green trim. Grandpa built most of it himself with some help from his family, and it was “modern” compared to so many of the houses at the time. Not many years before he died in the early 1950’s, he remodeled the kitchen to provide running water.

To the best of my ability to remember, there were a total of seven bedrooms. Again, the dining room and kitchen with pantry of this “shotgun” style are in the back, separated–again–by that back porch. That makes a lot of beds to make in the morning, a lot of socks to sort, overalls to wash in the old wringer style washing machine, and too many shirts to iron every week.

After her nine boys grew up and moved away, Granny G had only the two grandsons to tend to. There was so much time then that she managed to sit in one of the two rocking chairs on the front porch and read a book or the weekly newspaper most afternoons. There was a swing there too. When I visited, that’s were I sat and played my plastic harmonica while she read. Both of us would throw up our hands to wave at the occasional neighbor who happened to drive by on the old tarmac road.

This house may be around for awhile, but I’m pretty sure I’ll never see Grandma C’s old house standing again. What’s peculiar, now that I’ve been away from Florida for so many years, is how no one bothers to remove the old debris. Eventually someone will pick up the scraps that can be re-used–in a pack house or barn or similar storage unit behind the large, mega sized modern houses that have sprung up within shouting distance all along the road. Everyone who lives in those new houses are somehow connected to the land and the people who used to live there. Some are cousins I don’t even know. And to me–living so far away–both these old cracker houses will exist forevermore–in all their former glory–even if only in the cockles of my memory.

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One thought on “shotgun houses from my cracker youth

  1. How wonderful you were able to photograph them now. When I went “home” what I mourned was the loss of the giant old roses and the pine trees that were chopped down when the back 40 was subdivided. Do you have photos of them then, of of the people in them? I really enjoyed these moments today.

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