Pictured (top) are my paternal grandparents, Carl and Lillian Crain, with twin calves in 1951. The second photo is of my grandparents dressed for church.
Pictured are my grandparents in 1961 with their Guernsey cow and her twin calves.
My paternal grandparents ran a Saturday milk-and-butter route in Greenville, S.C., in the early 1950s. I was then a child and loved the adventure of riding along to deliver moo juice and butter to a few city dwellers who wanted milk products “straight from the cow.”
My grandparents “on Daddy’s side” lived near Mountain View, a rural section of Greenville County. My parents, my younger sister, and I lived nearby. Most of our kin lived within 20 miles of each other.
My tall, thin, black-haired Grandmother Lillian didn’t like being called “grandma,” so, to me, she became “Ma.” Granddaddy Carl became “Pa.”
A carpenter and farmer, Pa was thin till he threw his last pack of “Camels” way out into his cornfield when I was a kid. After that, a “bay window” grew onto his 5-ft. and 8-inch torso. Biscuits, ham, sausage, grits and red-eye gravy put pounds on Pa after he parted ways with “Nick O’Teen.” After quitting smoking, Pa fit in better at the Pentecostal church our families attended.
Pa tried factory work three times – during which he labored evenings or nights at Woodside Mill (textiles) in Greenville, S.C. – but Ma worried and couldn’t stand Pa working second or third shift. They had sons – J.B., my father, and my Uncle Fred – but Ma wanted Pa home at night, because she’d hear things howling after dark, and she’d get “all tore up.”
Ma’s father, a farmer, had told her about a time when he was riding horseback on a dark night and a “painter” (a cougar or puma) “got after him.”
“Daddy heard that painter running behind him,” Ma told me. “He rode hard to home, jumped off and run in the house. He saw that painter come in the yard. It scared the horse but didn’t bother him before he left.”
Ma had a melancholy temperament. She’d play her guitar and sing tearful tunes such as “Take Me Back To Renfro Valley” by John Lair. That song contains these words about Renfro Valley, Kentucky: “I was born in Renfro Valley / But I drifted far away / I came back to see the old home / And my friends of other days / Gone are old familiar faces / All the friends I used to know / Things have changed in Renfro Valley / Since the days of long ago.”
Lillian Crain plays her guitar in her later years.
My grandparents’ tin-roofed house sat about 100 yards off a paved road. It had no underpinning and rested on rock pillars. Two beagles, Mack and Tillie, lived under that abode.
Ma and Pa raised two hogs each year and kept chickens, two mules, and two cows. Pa preferred Guernsey or Jersey cows. “Their milk is richer than Holsteins,” he said.
Pa milked twice a day, and Ma strained the milk. She let it sit for a while and then poured off the top creamy part of the milk. Most of the milk went into the refrigerator and was used for drinking. The creamy milk went into a hand-operated churn in order to separate out the butter. Sometimes, I churned for Ma – moving a plunger up and down inside a large, brown butter churn.
Ma strained that churned milk and butter and consolidated the butter into a mass. The milk that went through the strainer during that process was placed in the refrigerator and used for buttermilk. “Buttermilk is the liquid left behind after churning butter out of cream,” according to “Wikipedia.”
Ma cooled the butter with ice and placed part of that butter into a wooden mold. She held the mold over a plate and slowly pushed down on the mold’s plunger handle. The butter eased out as a “cake,” with a decorative design embossed (by the mold) on the top of the cake. Ma wrapped each of several cakes of butter in wax paper and stored them in the refrigerator.
On Saturday mornings, Ma and Pa loaded their car with milk products and we headed down Hwy. 253. We turned left onto Poinsett Hwy. in Greenville and passed Bruce’s Auction Barn where folk sold cattle, horses and mules. We drove on a tall bridge, and below us lay a railroad track and a giant junkyard. I often saw a steam shovel moving crushed cars. The scene reminded me of an illustrated children’s book Mother gave me: “Stevie the Steam Shovel.” I liked that book because Mother called me by my middle name, “Steve.”
Our first milk stop was in a cul-de-sac. A thin, brown-haired woman bought a gallon of fresh milk. A lady across the street took some of Ma’s butter and milk. We made other stops, but I especially recall this one:
One Saturday, we trekked up stone steps to an old house where a lady lived with her near-grown son, Steve. She invited us in and showed us some of Steve’s oil paintings. Steve met us but didn’t say much. One of his works depicted an antlered elk standing tall among mountain trees. I thought, “Someday, I’d like to paint like that.” The son’s artwork stirred me, and his name, “Steve,” seemed to confirm, in my young mind, a kind of “brotherhood.” I later became a high school art teacher. I liked to draw before I saw Steve’s painting, and there were other art influences that came later into my life, but there was something special about seeing Steve’s elk painting and finding out we had the same name. One never knows what inspiration one may find on a milk-and-butter route.
Mr. Robertson’s house was next in our usual routine. He lived high up off the street, across from Holmes Bible College, then located in downtown Greenville. Mr. Robertson (Mr. R) worked with the railroad as an engineer, I think. He was self-confident and liked Ma’s milk and buttermilk. His wife was quiet. Mr. R asked about hunting quail on Pa’s farm, so Pa invited him to his farm. One Saturday afternoon, Mr. R showed up in the latest hunting gear: hunting vest, hunting hat, and tall boots. I’d never seen an “in the flesh” man dressed like he came out of an ad in “Field & Stream Magazine.”
Mr. R did some shooting out among Pa’s 26 acres. The only problem was that Uncle Jim, one of Pa’s younger brothers, lived down the road. When Mr. R started shooting near Jim’s house, Jim, who wasn’t one to hold back opinions, quick-walked up into Pa’s field.
“You’ve shot up every bird around here,” Jim told Mr. R. “I think that’s about enough.”
Mr. R ended his bird-blasting and high-tailed it back to the city, where Uncle Jim thought he belonged.
Our last stop on Ma’s milk-and-butter route was near Mr. R’s residence. We walked from his house to reach the backdoor of a small, old house. A fenced-in alleyway lay behind the house we approached because city garbage-collecting trucks drove behind that house and others to make pick-ups.
I remember one Saturday when we moved through two gates and knocked on the back door of the small house.
“Well, hello,” an elderly lady said to Ma. “I see you have the little fellow with you, today.”
I often had seen the two little sisters. They wore print dresses and kept their gray hair in buns. Their thin ankles, slightly rounded middles, matchstick arms, and small noses caused me to think of them as birds flitting around inside a little birdhouse.
The more talkative sister took a gallon of milk and two cakes of butter from Ma and said, “We have something for the little fellow.”
From her kitchen table, she took a small cloth bear she and her sister had made by hand. He was light teal in color and had embroidered black eyes, a black nose, and a smiling red mouth. He had padding (stuffing), but was no more than a half-inch thick. He measured 3.5 inches wide from extended arm to extended arm and 4.5 inches high from bottom of leg to top of his head, not counting his ears.
I still have that bear. He’s been with my wife, Carol, and me through the raising of two daughters who played with him. We’ve always called him “Little Bear.” He’s pretty worn, but he sits in a small rocking chair on a box on our kitchen table. One look at that bear and my mind goes back to many wonderful Saturdays I spent with Ma and Pa as we rode along on Ma’s milk-and-butter route.
Pictured is the little stuffed bear I still have.