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ONE ACRE OF RED CLAY

April 17, 2021

Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition, 236 Union Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 583-9803.

What is the world’s oldest profession? Not so fast. What you have always heard from sociologists may not be the correct answer. According to the Biblical account, the oldest profession existed before the concept of sin. Genesis 2:15 reads, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” May I suggest that the oldest profession is gardening, the care of the earth?

When Clare and I examine our heritage, we discover a long line of farmers and gardeners in each of our family trees.

At birth, he was named Stonewall Jackson Long. Before he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, he changed his name to Jackson S. Long because he said he would rather be known as Jackson S. than as Stonewall J. He was Clare’s father, my father-in-law. I called him Mr. Jack.

Mr. Jack was the fifth of nine children raised on a dirt farm in Saluda County, South Carolina. He dropped out of high school just a few weeks before graduation to help his father do the spring planting. He became an executive with Southern Cotton Oil Company and retired as President of the company. He drank Kentucky bourbon and smoked unfiltered cigarettes, that he lit with kitchen matches. He thought that either filters or lighters caused cancer. He was sure that tobacco did not cause cancer because it grew in the good earth.

In retirement, Mr. Jack returned to his roots. He purchased a Troy-Bilt tiller and grew a half-acre garden. His plot was pristine. Beautiful vegetables were planted in uniform rows. Mr. Jack’s garden was almost pest and weed-free. Best of all, he loved sharing the abundance of his tender loving care with family, friends, and neighbors.

 My dad, too, grew a big garden. It was about the same size as Mr. Jack’s, tilled with a small Ford tractor. Dad’s plot was a family project. All eight of his children worked in the red soil. The garden was bountiful. The harvest was plentiful with enough to share, to can, and to freeze.

Mr. Jack and Dad came by their gardening skills honestly. They learned by necessity and the examples of their fathers and grandfathers.

In 1923, my grandfather and grandmother, Pappy and Mammy, moved their family from Greenville to Spartanburg in the Upstate of South Carolina. Pappy had been working for his brother-in-law, Asbury Lawton, managing Lawton Lumber Company in Greenville. Pappy decided he wanted to own and operate his own business. So, to avoid going into competition with his brother-in-law, he and the family moved to Spartanburg, where he founded Neely Lumber Company.

Pappy called the business a one-horse lumberyard. He had one employee, Charlie Norman. The lone draft horse’s name was Old Dan.

Pappy was able to earn a good living to support his growing family. He built a fine home on the Greenville highway just on the outskirts of Spartanburg, where the pavement ended.

In February 1928, their eighth child was born. The business and the family were thriving.

In October 1929, the dark cloud of the Great Depression descended. Homebuilding was at a stand-still. Home repairs diminished. People had no extra money to spend. The lumber business dried up. Pappy mortgaged the lumberyard in an attempt to keep it afloat. Prosperity was just around the corner, or so the politicians declared. Pappy mortgaged the beautiful house and sank the money into the company. Despite all of his effort, he lost his business and his home.

The family moved to a rental home in Cedar Springs. Pappy bought a chain gang mule at auction and farmed acreage adjacent to the rented house. He tilled and planted a large vegetable garden to feed his family. They had one cow and one goat to provide dairy products. They raised turkeys and sweet potatoes to provide a meager income.  In 1932 the youngest, ninth, and last child was born. Through grit, determination, and faith, the family survived.

In 1937, Pappy bought a parcel of land with a railroad siding along the Southern Railway line between Spartanburg and Columbia. He had no collateral. The bank loaned him the money on his word. He built a lumber shed near one end of the property and reopened Neely Lumber Company. At the other end of the property, he cut off a one-acre wedge-shaped lot where he built his home.

Some folks cautioned Pappy against building on the land. It was an old pit that had been the source of clay for the hand-thrown brick used to construct Foster’s Tavern in 1806. Some thought the composition of the soil rendered the land unstable, unsuitable for building.

“If you build there, you’re asking for trouble. Every time a train goes past, the house will shake so badly that the windows will break out.”

Pappy took the comments seriously. When the footings for the home were dug, he brought in a fellow who had the equipment to drill holes for electric power poles. The deep holes were spaced several feet apart along the footing trench. When the concrete was poured, and the footings filled up, those holes created pilings supporting the house in the unstable clay. It worked!

Mammy and Pappy lived in the big house, as the family called it, until 1961. Pappy had suffered two heart attacks and a stroke. Mammy had chronic asthma. They moved to a new home in Duncan Park built by their third son, my Uncle Asbury. Uncle Asbury received the deed to the one-acre parcel of land and for the big house.

For the next twenty years, the house was occasionally rented. It served as a place of worship for three start-up churches. It was finally converted to office space.

Clare and I moved to Spartanburg in 1980 with our four sons. The old home was vacant.

After a futile search to find a home we could afford, Clare saw the big old house, as if for the first time.

“Why can’t we live there?” she asked.

I asked Uncle Asbury if we could rent the house. He was delighted to have occupants. We moved in, eventually purchasing the home and making improvements along the way. The old home place, the big house, has been our home for the last forty-one years. This slice of land, shaped like a piece of Mammy’s sweet potato pie, has become our garden.

Earth Day was founded in 1970 as a day of education about environmental issues. Earth Day 2021 will occur on Thursday, April 22—the holiday’s 51st anniversary. The brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day began as a “national teach-in on the environment.” Nelson hoped to bring environmental causes into the national spotlight.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller Silent Spring raised the specter of the dangerous effects of pesticides on the American countryside. Until that time, protecting the planet’s natural resources was not part of the national political plan. Through efforts by government and industry, our citizens have grown increasingly aware of the need for action. Our planet Earth needs healing.

Through individual environmental practices like soil and water conservation, recycling, composting, and planning, we have made significant strides. We still have a long way to go. 

Our one acre of red clay has gradually become holy ground, an unlikely sanctuary wedged between a railroad track and a four-lane highway. We are surrounded on every side by commercial property. Until recently, a pawn shop was across the street.  A landscape company and wood yard were located next door on Uncle Asbury’s old real estate property. Now, Carolina Garden World is our delightful neighbor. Littlejohn Trucks specializing in eighteen-wheel tankers, sprawls down the street. My nephew, Kam, has started a business at the old lumberyard. Our neighbors on the other side are living in a mobile home. Once out in the country on a tar and gravel road, the old home place has been surrounded by commerce. Yet, this is our sanctuary, and we love every square inch of it.

When we first moved into the big house, a well-meaning church member asked, “That is just temporary, isn’t it?”

Of course, it is just temporary. We have only lived here for forty-one years. At some point, we will be gone.

My son-in-law and I were sitting together on our back porch recently. Jay is a well-educated farm boy from Illinois. His Dutch family roots grow deep in the black earth of the Great Plains. From our vantage point on the porch, Jay looked out at the garden.

“You know,” he started. “When you’re gone, it won’t take long for all of this to go to briars and bramble.”

I agreed. “It won’t take long.” I paused before adding, “Somebody else may want to take it over or not. For now, it is mine to tend. I’ll do that as long as I continue to enjoy doing so and as long as my physical health will allow me to do so. After that, I’ll give it back to the Lord.”

Then I said, “Jay, you should have seen it when the Lord had it all by himself.”

I am grateful that Jay and his family have moved in with us. He has taken great interest in this old home place. Already, Jay and Betsy and their daughters have made this one acre their own. Jay and Betsy both come from long lines of farmers and gardeners who love and cherish the good earth.

When Moses saw a bush that was burning but not consumed, his curiosity got the better of him. He moved closer to the unusual sight, and a voice spoke to him from the flaming shrub.

“Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)

There in the sand, Moses stood barefooted and stammering before an ordinary bush with an extraordinary message. It was a theophany, an encounter with the Almighty. It was a sacred moment, a divine engagement, and a declaration of holiness. If that hot, dry, desolate place can become holy ground, then this one acre of red clay can also become a sacred space. So, too, can your garden be sanctified and be made holy.

As we approach this Earth Day, please consider ways you and your family can join with many others to observe the event. For our family, this is an easy day to remember.

April 22 is also Mr. Jack’s birthday.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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