Mr. Leland was 5’7”, weighed 140 pounds in his 70s, and looked in silhouette like a 14 year old boy not finshed growing, but I heard tales about him that were greatly different from the Grandpa I thought I knew. I never knew him to drive a car nor a tractor. He farmed land that had belonged to his father that was almost a mile from a gravel road.
But politicians from Montgomery made their way to his out of the way farm to request his support in their election campaigns. He wasn’t rich, was not a society person, yet influential people came to seek his help. He served as Beat Committeeman for the Democratic Party for 65 years; he was a constable even longer . He was re-elected every four years.
Rumors said when a fight happened at a dance, someone would go after John Leland Barton to settle things down. It was said he’d walk in and say, O.K. boys, that’s enough “and the fighters would back away from each other. I asked him what kind of gun he carried as constable.
He replied “If you always say what you mean and mean what you say, you don’t have to carry a gun.” It didn’t make sense when he said it to me and doesn’t really make sense to me now, but it worked. Maybe it was because folks knew when you had a family member dying, he would come sit with the family, then help get things ready for the funeral. If a house burned , he would help fight the fire and bring his tools to help you rebuild. He’d bring his wife, Miss Mamie, over in his wagon to help bring a baby into the world, or help doctor your only horse that was injured. None of his children were seen giving him back talk, yet he didn’t holler or make a lot of threats. He just looked straight at people and they listened.
In 1985, Tuscaloosa News Staff Writer, Bob Kyle, wrote a news story entitled “Little Bit of Rough Weather Can’t Stop This Democrat” about “J. L. Barton, 88, of Ralph, Alabama. Five inches of snow would not prevent him from showing up.. Barton said he had a duty to do, so he got his son, A.B. Barton to drive him to the scheduled meeting of the Tuscaloosa County Democratic Executive Committee. He was one of the oldest members of the group and the only one that showed up at the court house that Saturday morning.
The picture that accompanied the article showed him heavier since he had stopped doing his own plowing. His lined face was as determined as ever.
The article quoted, “Yes, sir, I started out as a Democrat and I’m going to end up as one. I have a lot of friends who claim they are Republicans, but I don’t hold anything against them. I’ll like them as long as they don’t try to convince me.’
Barton went on to tell of his nine children, eight still living, 28 grandchildren and 36 great grandchildren, and many of the next generations. People come from all over the Southeasst seeking his extensive memory of family relationships to complete their family trees.
At the age of 95, he was recovering from a broken hip at a local nursing home when family members were called.in because his heart was failing. I drove my mother to the home. When we entered his room two other daughters were there. He looked at me and winked and said, “This must be the day I’m to kick the bucket to get so many folks over today.” He joked about his own death until his breath got too short for him to talk. He told a grandson that when my grandmother got dementia he knelt by her bed and asked God to let him live long enough to care for her. He said, “If I’d known I’d live this long I wouldn’t have prayed so hard.”
He was buried with his 50 year Masonic pin in front of the church where he had been Sunday School Superintendent and where he had been married 73 years before.
Life in southwestern Tuscaloosa County
Granpa’s Farm and Granny’s House
My maternal grandparents were Mary Florence (Mamie) Cork and John Leland Barton, both born at Ralph, Alabama in 1877 and residents in that community until their deaths in 1963 and 1972 respectively. Although my family lived 8 miles away at Romulus I spent as much time as I could at my Barton grandparents’ house. As a preteen I was loaned out much of each summer to help my aging grandparents on their farm.
Leland Barton house has been destroyed by a tornado
Their farm was about one mile back in the woods behind Wesley Chapel Church at Ralph, Alabama, where they had been saved, married and enlisted to do God’s work. Each summer we went to clean the graves of all four of their parents, a son, and a granddaughter. Nearby was the grave of Granny’s sister, Aunt Beulah, who had never married and had bought a tombstone and kept it at the foot of her bed until the time for it to be used.
The grayed clapboard house nestled between large oak trees and was framed by a weathered gray picket fence to keep dogs in the yard and chickens out. A porch deep enough for a family to sleep on pallets on a hot summer night stretched the width of the house and a huge rain barrel caught water off the steep tin roof to be stored for baths and Granny’s flowers. Rockers of all descriptions were separated by cane bottomed straight chairs and hemmed in by a swing. Pots of flowers lined the rims of the porch and a child must water them before dark if rain had not come.
Long front steps were deep, too, so that we children could sit on a lazy afternoon after a huge Sunday dinner and listen to the hum of conversation from the grown ups in the squeaking rockers. Family trees were outlined and filled in by stories of each branch. Cousin Jim who had been dead 40 years became as real to us as the faces now remembering his exploits. At night when the house clung to the day’s heat, three hours in the moonlight were pleasant preludes. Sometimes summer lightning might be seen on the horizon and promising breezes cooled us for sleep.
A door opened to the central hallway 15 feet wide running the length of the house and enclosed at each end unlike the open dogtrots of many neighbors. It was a place for guests greeted, and small children to be contained.
The parlor was on the left with a wicker settee and side chairs facing the chestnut pump organ.. Pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hunnicutt Barton, my great-grandparents, looked down so sternly that I had difficulty picturing Alabama Virginia Barton as the loving mother-in-law Granny described with great tenderness. A wood burning heater was vented through the closed fireplace making a more efficient heating source. Only the overflow of company ever went in there since most visiting was done on the porch or in the bedroom across the dogtrot.
The heart of the house was the dining room. The pine walls were dark with age and smoke and the long homemade pine board table was 12 feet long with chairs at the ends and one side and a bench for children on the other. A china cabinet held plates, cups, saucers, glasses and serving dishes. Each evening Granny and Grandpa ate side by side with their backs to the window as they talked about the day and ate warmed over dinner over the oilcloth table covering. Supper was the lighter meal so it was reheated to go with a fresh pone of cornbread and a glass of buttermilk. As I faced them across the table I thought they were like a worn pair of shoes, so well matched,yet soft and comforting.
A step down into the kitchen led to the water bucket and the aluminum dipper by the sink. Under the southern window the small metal covered table served as cooking and eating area for two or three and there we had our breakfast. The Warm Morning cook stove reigned in the space near the back door with a warming cabinet on top to store baked sweet potatoes or leftovers and had a large tank for a constant supply of hot water.
The door to the left opened to the 6 by 8 foot pantry which held the oak icebox and the flour and corn meal bins that held 50 pounds of each with a cedar dough board for making biscuits. The five gallon lard can was nearby. Smocks like the ones French painters wear in cartoons hung on pegs with the sunbonnets to protect fair skin from the bright summer sunlight. The tails of the smocks could be turned up into makeshift baskets for picking peas or fetching eggs from their nests.
On the L shaped back porch I held squirrels shot early morning in the cornfields while Grandpa skinned them for a breakfast treat of squirrels in brown gravy over Granny’s golden biscuits. Extra biscuits were filled with fig preserves and dripped butter when I bit into them. They let me drink the strong coffee perked in the pot always found on the back of the stove if I tamed it to beige with cream.
There were many things a child could do to make themselves useful. Water was pumped from the well for drinking, cooking or washing. Many buckets were needed to fill the big black wash pot and the tin tubs used for scrubbing clothes and for rinsing. After enduring washdays I learned to protect clothes for a second or third day to reduce the washing needed. On a hot afternoon I could take a jar of cold water to the field where Grandpa was plowing or ride old Maude the half mile to the mailbox along the gravel road.
Perhaps I was Granny’s favorite. I secretly thought so. Most of the other grandchildren were grown and married or teenagers that would be bored staying away from city comforts.When I fed the chickens and filled their trays with clean water I thought It was fun to be the center of attention and given privileges granted only the single child. No annoying siblings could tease or frustrate and life was good.