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The Last Days of Big Grassy Fork

The Last Days of Big Grassy Fork

Hunter James
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Last Days of Big Grassy Fork
    Book Description:

    The Last Days of Big Grassy Forkrecounts newspaperman Hunter James's attempts to save his 100-year-old family farm and homestead from extinction. Wise, irreverent, pugnacious, and often hilarious, James fights back against the galloping urbanization of his beloved North Carolina piedmont. Interweaving current affairs and family history, James details the growth of the Winston-Salem area as a center of Moravian piety and later as the world's largest tobacco manufacturing center.

    This personal history shows he is not the only James to have had a difficult time fitting in with the neighbors' idea of progress; his family's trouble in the Piedmont began early. In 1904 his grandfather was flooded out of a brothel in his birthday suit, and he later scandalized the local Baptist church with drunken sermons, exposing the dark secrets of the congregation. James's unique sense of the absurd, and his willingness to play the fool, make for entertaining reading as each of his efforts at preservation fail miserably. He accidentally torches a neighbor's barn in an attempt to burn off his best pasture land, as was always done in the past; he squanders enormous amounts of money vainly trying to save his farm by becoming the piedmont's preeminent lord of the manor, vintner, wine snob, and horseman; and he finally seals his own doom when in alliance with his neighbors he inadvertently creates the "world's largest garbage pit."

    The book ends with an eloquent plea for a true agrarianism in the modern South, for the need to strike a balance between the call for industrial expansion and the desire to preserve the land.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5637-8
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-ii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. iii-iv)
  3. 1 Coffin Nails, Lynch Mobs, and the Rebirth of a City
    (pp. 1-16)

    I had come back to the town almost as a stranger. Maybe I wouldn’t have come back at all, except that I heard the town was dying and didn’t have much time left. Everyone had told me how it would be: the streets all empty; grass growing through cracks in the sidewalks; factories dark and idle; once-busy retail shops vacant and padlocked, with countless “for sale” signs in the windows; lynch mobs meeting in back rooms, hoping for a chance to snare and crucify the man responsible for the town’s collapse.

    In the thirty years that I had been away,...

  4. 2 House of Passage
    (pp. 17-32)

    On the day after I had written everything I could write about Ross Johnson and about the old town of Winston and its bucolics I went back to walk again the streets I had known so well as a child. Down Trade Street, up Liberty, down Trade again. All the places I had known when my father was looking toward a good, full life for himself and his family.

    By the time he was in his late twenties, my father had already become owner or part-owner of a string of barbershops and rental houses, but he allowed drink and cards...

  5. 3 A Glass of the Finest
    (pp. 33-61)

    In the days of my innocence, I had no idea how far beyond our family’s plantation, much shrunken from its original one thousand acres, my grandfather’s fame had spread. But spread it had, especially after the great flood that washed away much of north Winston in the fall of 1916.

    Even after I knew a great deal more, I never did know nearly enough. Nobody, for example, was able to say exactly how the old man had managed to escape the flood—which is to say, how he got out of the whorehouse where he had spent the night. Was...

  6. 4 Mister Will’s Revenge
    (pp. 62-76)

    I was very nearly grown before I knew the whole story of why my grandfather and Aunt Effie’s husband-to-be, Mr. Will Goslen, never could sit down and talk out their differences like men of quality, and come to a satisfactory meeting of the minds. At the time he was squiring Aunt Effie B., I was much too young to grasp all the ramifications of their falling out. I knew Mr. Will was an important man in our town, but he was also a Republican at a time when the South was still trying to get over Mr. Lincoln's war and...

  7. 5 Mama’s Little Boy Lost
    (pp. 77-90)

    I first knew my Uncle Luther as little more than a peddler of eggs and butter, forever fawning at the back gates of the rich and mighty in our town, often returning home with stories of how Mr. R.J. Reynolds II had invited him onto his patio for a nice companionable chat or how Mr. James A. Gray, the banker, had once allowed him to peek through the porch screen at his newly remodeled kitchen and entrance foyer. Strange that he could not have known those men on near-even terms, as had my grandfather. Stranger still that he ever took...

  8. 6 My Debut as a Wine Snob
    (pp. 91-99)

    As an embattled freeholder struggling without much success to save a family farm from extinction—the farm that was now my home—I ultimately hit upon what seemed an ingenious plan, not so much to save the house as to save the land itself: I would become a famous winemaker, whose product would prevail over the lesser vintages of our area and assure me a permanent place of refuge amid the towers of a growing city.

    All of our agricultural authorities had persuaded me and dozens of other would-be wine snobs that we could hardly fail. They assured us that...

  9. 7 Lord of the Manor
    (pp. 100-120)

    Despite all of my pretensions, I eventually had to acknowledge that my venture into wine making was an inglorious failure. Not only were my vineyards a shambles, so were my ambitions to set myself up as a reputable wine taster. Worse, I knew I could not again step foot inside the Albanian’s riverfront retreat, except as a kind of failed court jester whose appearance would only start the real wine tasters to whispering behind their hands. An ignominious and even disastrous end to what had once seemed a noble calling.

    Still, after taking over the family farm—what was left...

  10. 8 My Introduction to the Sport of Kings
    (pp. 121-137)

    I knew by now I would never truly be able to throw everything over and put all this life behind me. I had also begun to agree with my wife that we would need real first-class professional help if we were ever to get anywhere with restoring the house. I would probably even be obliged to let the cat die a natural death. The question, as always, was money. Where was it coming from? The question Uncle Frank always put to me before deciding not to leave me any.

    I had long known I would never make a fortune in...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. 9 “The Old Ways Are Allus the Best”
    (pp. 138-152)

    We must have worked for another two years on our neo-Victorian “manse,” as we now called it, before I had a chance to turn my whole attention to the land itself. I was long finished with being a wine snob. I’d had enough of the sport of kings. I still had my books and word processor and I guess that was all I really needed. But we were also in the business of growing hay for the commercial market and not doing too badly at it.

    I looked down at the empty horse barn and then around at the dying...

  13. 10 Little People with Fur Coats
    (pp. 153-166)

    We would first see him on a morning in early autumn. He would come slogging down through our bottom and make his way along the Big Grassy Fork, always in that purposeful way of his, anxious to relieve his traps of their prey and the prey of its fur—and to fill his pockets with money.

    He was already old before I knew him and had been coming to the farm for many years to set his traps. There would always be a paper to sign; it would be the same paper he had brought the year before and the...

  14. 11 The New Patriarchs
    (pp. 167-181)

    I’m not sure when I first realized the trapper was not coming back. It must have been some time in the fall of 1988 or 1989. All I remember is that the cold weather was suddenly upon us and that he had not come around with his little paper for me to sign. Had he somehow guessed that we no longer wanted him on the property? Had he heard talk? Perhaps he was ill. Maybe he had even died. I could not find out because, as it happened, I had forgotten his name, if indeed I had ever known it...

  15. 12 “Different in All Things from All People”
    (pp. 182-189)

    While waiting for the first garbage trucks, I sometimes go out late in the afternoon and take a brisk, contemplative walk along the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. What damnable irony, I tell myself, to think that the city plans to place the world’s largest garbage dump either alongside or right on top of the most historic trail in Colonial America!

    Actually the road no longer has anything to do with Philadelphia or much of anything else, but it was the first pioneer trail ever to traverse the whole of eastern America and to penetrate the back parts of Carolina and...

  16. 13 Birds of Omen, Birds of Prey
    (pp. 190-194)

    Autumn, cold days now, leaves falling in great flurries as the bulldozers roar and more warehouses take shape on the hill across the Grassy Fork bottom, the stark skeletal-like framework of the girders catching the first sharp gleam of the morning sun—and not a day when we don’t waken to the sound of croaking seagulls, flapping crazily about the creek bottoms and over the surrounding hills. What had brought them here, so far inland, so far from their native habitat, so far from where I had ever seen them before? Was the end of the world upon us at...

  17. 14 The Last Agrarian
    (pp. 195-207)

    By chance, a book calledWhy the South Will Survivehas come to hand. A kind of neo-Agrarian tract written by fifteen of the Souths leading intellectuals and celebrating the fiftieth anniversary ofI’ll’Take My Stand,an even more famous Agrarian manifesto that has baffled and inspired a certain kind of Southern intellectual for the past five decades.

    By an odd coincidence,I’ll Take My Stand,which was as much an attack on the capitalist order as a defense of the Southern tradition, hit the literary market just as the country was entering the Great Depression. But it is no...

  18. 15 The Last Days of Big Grassy Fork
    (pp. 208-216)

    Johnson is dead now, and my Baltimore days are long behind me. But I often think of our conversation at the Hamilton Street Club as I look out at the great dust clouds rolling across my bottom or as I lie in bed at night and listen to the clang of tractor trailers being unloaded and the loud, raucous shouts of the stevedores way up on the hillside among all the warehouses, always remembering the day in my summer garden when the patriarch and his flunky had assured me that I was a lucky man.

    “Why you’ll never in this...