My Friend Smokey, by Willard Tilford

My father, Willard L. Tilford, was born on November 22, 1915. His father, John Cabel Breckinridge Powell Lee Davis Tilford died three years later. His mother, May (Wilkerson) Tilford, raised Willard, three older brothers and one older sister through the depths of the depression. She cleaned and took in laundry. The children big enough to work were “farmed out”. Her death from cancer in 1938 left Willard with David, a half-brother from a second marriage, eight years his junior, to support. The second husband had abandoned the family after a few months.

There are stories which I will never know with roots in this time, although I have heard hints of a few: Jessie, the beautiful but infirm red-haired sister, scored the highest of all students tested in the Greene County [Indiana] high school entrance examination even though she had missed entire years of grade school and had no educational resources at home. Jessie died of a brain tumor at twenty-four. She looks out now from two remaining photographs, a beautiful young lady. Brandon, an older brother, was recognized among area carpenters as an expert designer of entire truss and rafter systems. He supervised the construction of his designs, all done mentally without training or blueprints. Brandon landed on Omaha Beach. He lived through the Atlantic Wall but died after forty years of Cajun coffee in New Orleans. Byron and Balfour were also both veterans. They shared another similarity in that both died due, in part, to another popular type of drink. David, the half-brother, joined the Navy at 18 and fought in the Pacific aboard the USS Taylor, a destroyer. He was later licensed in the Merchant Marine to pilot any vessel of any tonnage on any ocean on earth. David lived in his retirement: with the help of good friends, an average of five dogs, and periodic oxygen; near Trenton, Florida. His VA grave marker rests next to Willard’s. David’s ashes were scattered, as he wished, in the Gulf.

Willard enlisted in the Army in 1935 to get work. He allotted the bulk of his Army pay directly to David’s support. Willard was discharged in 1938, long enough work a few jobs (including Allison Engine Company in Indianapolis, building the Allison V-12 which was the first engine used in the P-51 Mustang exported to the United Kingdom), to marry my mother, Elizabeth Mitchell (who died as the result of an automobile accident in 1963), buy a forty acre farm near Bloomfield, Indiana for $1,500 (on which he lived for fifty-five years after the war), and hear the news of Pearl Harbor. He immediately enlisted in the Navy, was discharged after the war and ultimately retired from civil service. Ten years of schooling, Owensburg High School graduate Willard Tilford progressed from carpenter and self-trained secretary-stenographer to management analyst by passing the stringent Civil Service Federal Service Entrance Examination for entry level professional positions. New college graduates frequently failed the FSEE. When I was twelve and full of knowledge I asked my father what it was, when he was my age, he wanted to do when he grew up? He was forty-three at the time. He looked into space, thought, but could not answer. Willard had never in his life had the opportunity to consider what it was he wanted to do.

Willard could still point out the farms on which he worked in his early teens in exchange for food, lodging, and being allowed to attend school as we drove together through Grayson County, Kentucky. Almost all of the buildings he knew were gone, but the fields remain. Most of the fields that he cultivated laid fallow. Here is one of his stories of those times.
– John Willard Tilford

My Friend Smokey

For two years, from April 1932 until April 1934, I lived with Grit and Lillie Porter on their seven hundred acre farm about five miles from Falls of Rough, Kentucky. In 1932 I was a sophomore in the Falls of Rough two-year High School.

It was not unusual during those depression years for children from large families to live with families who operated large farms. As described by more modern slang, “Survival was the name of the game”. I was not mistreated except I had to work harder than regular family children. But then that was the reason for my being there. That’s just the way things were during those times.

I rode a large, red mule named Bird to school. Bird and her teammate, Bell, comprised one of seven teams of mules that worked The Porter farm. This was before farm tractors had come into common use. Bird and Bell was the team assigned to me. So far as possible, a driver always worked the same team. A sort of camaraderie developed between team and driver and they worked together in greater harmony.

In some ways Bird was a hateful mule. Every morning and every night when I buckled the saddle girth, she would try to bite me. And every time she tried to bite me, I would slap her jaw. And she would lay her ears back in anger. But I would get angry, too. After all, she was always the one who started the conflict.

Yet I knew she wasn’t really trying to bite me or sometime she would have succeeded. And I think she realized that I didn’t really try to hurt her by slapping with an open palm. I think each of us knew that there was a streak of stubbornness in the other.

Going to and from school, I passed through a settlement of a dozen or more Black families. And there were also a dozen or so children in the settlement who didn’t attend school at all because there was no school for Blacks at Falls of Rough. Not one person in this settlement could read or write. They had to take any mail they received to the General store and have some white person read it to them.

Since I passed through their settlement each morning and night, they turned to me to read, and occasionally write, their letters. I didn’t mind except that I had considerable work to do when I got home. Sheep and cattle and mules and hogs had to be fed and cared for. If I was late beginning my chores, then I was late getting finished. So I tried to avoid delays.

One house in this Black settlement fronted the road. A very old lady named Granny Sorrels lived in this house. She had a grandson living with her who was nicknamed Smokey. Granny was probably about 90 years old. And since this was in l932, she probably had been a slave girl in her youth. What stories she could have told if only I had had the time to visit and talk with her!

Not many people used this dirt road through this settlement, so Smokey would make it a point to be out in the yard every morning and every evening to greet me when I passed. He would always say something to me, and I pretty well knew what to expect. If it was summertime, he’d say, “’Sure is hot, ain’t it?” And if it was wintertime, he’d say, “’Sure is cold, ain’t it?” Smokey liked people and he wanted people to like him.

The need for a school for these Black children was obvious, but nothing had ever been done about it. Finally, Granny started making a fuss about the need for a school. She talked it up in the community and contacted Black people in other communities for advice. And she had me write letters seeking support.

I remember Smokey would sidle up to me and watch me write. To him it was inconceivable that anyone could put marks on a piece of paper that could be read and understood by somebody else in a different community. Granny had to keep telling him to get back and quit bothering me.

I got caught up in their needs because what they were seeking was not unreasonable. I talked with my teachers at school, and I talked with the old folks at home, and all recognized the need for a Black school. These people weren’t trying to cause trouble. They weren’t asking for an integrated school. Integration at that time was unthinkable. They just wanted their children to be taught to read and write and handle money. And I had to recognize that the reason I was going to school and Smokey was not was because I was white and he was Black.

Granny located a qualified Black schoolteacher in Hardinsburg who was willing to come to Falls of Rough and teach. Housing would have been no major problem. In those days, a vacant room and a pot bellied stove were the basic ingredients required for a schoolroom.

Granny, along with other adult Blacks contacted the Green family seeking their help. Help from the Greens was essential.

I’ll have to tell you a little about the Green family. They were very rich and influential. They owned the town of Falls of Rough. They owned a sawmill and flourmill, both run by waterpower produced by a dam across Rough River. They owned the Falls of Rough general store. And they carried on extensive farming operations. They owned every dwelling house in Falls of Rough and the land upon which each house stood. And this included the residences of the uneducated Black people who were now pleading for help in getting a school.

There were three boys and one girl in the Green family. None of them ever married, so their fortune remained intact. They were educated abroad and were widely traveled. They mingled with political and social leaders of national prominence. If only the Greens would use their influence, these Black people very well might get their school.

But failing to get more than sympathy and lip service from those she contacted, Granny had me write the Governor of Kentucky. These Black people really thought the Governor would understand their needs and take some kind of action, so we all looked forward to his answer.

But the Governor never answered our letter. Looking back on it, it’s easy to understand why. There were educators and politicians and businessmen in Grayson County. If there was need for a Black school, then they were the ones who should have been carrying the ball. The Governor probably never even saw our letter, and even if he did he wouldn’t have been much impressed by a hand written letter from a schoolboy.

And so this Black settlement gave up hopes of getting a school, and a sort of hopeless normalcy returned to the community. And Smokey and Granny were nearly always outside to wave and speak to me as I rode past.

The Porters did not live on a mail route, so it was my job to pick up the mail at the Falls of Rough Post Office each evening. I also often took a tote-basket of eggs to market at Green’s General Store, and picked up the basket with any goods ordered.

It so happened that one time as I was galloping past Granny’s shack, carrying this basket, my school books, and the daily mail, Bird simply got her front feet tangled up and fell head first in the packed road with both Granny and Smokey looking on.

Now mules are noted for being sure footed, and this stretch of road was just about the only level stretch on my trail. Consequently, I was not gripping my saddle horn, and I was not keeping a tight rein. So the fall was disastrous.

I remember the mule starting to fall, and the next thing I knew was about an hour later when I regained consciousness on Granny’s tattered bed covering inside her shack. My neck was terribly sore, my head was aching, and my mouth was puffed and bleeding. I was surrounded by several concerned Black people, including Smokey.

I found out later that Bird had pranced back and forth in front of the shack, refusing to leave, until finally one of the Black men hitched her to the gatepost.

Now I am not saying that Bird was worried about me. I am merely saying that she knew where I was, she was unhitched, and she refused to leave without me. Under similar circumstances there are very few free and unhitched mules or horses who wouldn’t have gone home to their feeding barn, the presence or non-presence of their rider notwithstanding.

One of the Black men started out walking to my house, which was almost five miles away, to tell the Porters what had happened. To this day I do not know why he didn’t ride my mule. I suppose it was because back then Black people were reluctant to take any liberties that might offend White neighbors, so he walked the ten mile round trip.

It was late when I regained my composure sufficiently to mount my mule. As soon as I hit the saddle, Bird took off in a gallop with no command from me. She seemed to know without being told that there was a lot of time to be made up.

Despite her independent attitude, Bird had always been my favorite mule, but after she waited for me at Granny Sorrels shack, she became more than just the mule I worked in the fields and rode to school. She became my friend. I often gave her an apple or at least the core to my apple. I also brought her an armload of clover occasionally, and slipped her an extra ear of corn when I fed the mules.

The Falls of Rough High School was only a two-year high school, so the next year I went in the opposite direction to the Yeaman High School, still riding my faithful mule over the hilly, dirt roads. Consequently, I didn’t see much of Granny or Smokey anymore. If they ever tried again to get a Black school at Falls of Rough, I never heard of it.

It was during this last year that I lived with the Porters that Bird became ill. The veterinarian said she had lock jaw. She did not respond to medication. When I got home from school one day she was dead and had been pulled to the far side of the farm near Rough River, there to slowly return to nature.

After the work was done that night, I walked to the far side of the farm to pay my respects to Bird. Now it is ridiculous – perhaps stupid – to morn a mule. But as I looked upon her, I remembered the many long, hard, and tiring days we bad worked together in the fields; and the many cold, rainy and wintry days I had ridden her to school. I was glad my classmates didn’t see me, but I just couldn’t help but weep for Bird.

In the spring of 1934 I left Kentucky. The long, deep depression had lasted seemingly forever, and would last years more. And there was a maniac in Germany who would succeed in turning the world upside down. I spent almost seven years in the military service of our country.

For many years I did not go back to Falls of Rough. I did not see or hear from anyone from near there. And then one day I saw a friend from Grayson County. I inquired about many people I’d known as a child, including Smokey Sorrels. He told me that Smokey stupidly tried to hold up Green’s General Store when he was eighteen years old. He was tried and convicted of attempted armed robbery with a deadly weapon and was sent to Eddieville Penitentiary to serve a sentence of twenty-one years. He was wounded in an attempted jailbreak not long after being sent up and spent considerable time in solitary confinement. Smokey died in prison five years after being confined.

So Smokey Sorrels, the friendly Black kid who liked people and wanted people to like him, had died in Eddieville Penitentiary at the age of twenty-three.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky probably spent more money in prosecuting and confining Smokey Sorrels than it would have spent in providing a school for all the Black kids at Falls of Rough.

Now of course, Smokey might have wound up in prison anyway. But if he had been given a chance and still failed to become a productive member of our society . . . then it would have been his fault. As it actually happened, those in authority who could have helped establish a school for the Black kids at Falls of Rough but didn’t just might be who really sent Smokey to Eddieville.

The members of the Green family are all dead now, and their plantation has been broken up. Their great wealth has been squandered by unappreciative heirs. Lawsuits have been won, lost, and waged again over the spoils. The Green sawmill and flourmill and general store and farming enterprises have long since been abandoned. The hundreds of acres of virgin timber, with trees so tall that few shotguns could bring down a squirrel from the upper limbs, have all been ravaged. A book was written about the famous Green family.

There is not a Black family living in the area now. They migrated to the larger cities after the Greens died and their plantation type of life was ended. The little all-Black cemetery is a neglected plot of ground now. There is one grave there that reminds me that my friend Smokey is also gone forever.

* * *

2 thoughts on “My Friend Smokey, by Willard Tilford

  1. says:

    When reading this I was trying to relate it to the fact my mother was born 1920, here in Monroe County.  I remember her saying when she was just a little girl, in grade school, she and her friend were walking down the sidewalk with arms together.  Her mother called to her and told her she could not walk with arms entwined with her friend, because she was “colored”.  Mother rarely spoke of times when she was younger but she remembered this so clearly because she and her friend were playmates of years.  Mother always spoke of how kind and loving her mother was.  This had to have been a very confusing thing for a little girl to hear.  Of course it was not to be questioned, one never questioned what their mother told them, they just behaved and did it.   Last year I stood at the grave site of the little baby who did not make it full term.  We cried as a family, grieving with my great niece who lost her baby, that didn’t make it full term.  We grieved with the baby’s father and his family as well.  That baby would have been so loved and cared for.  Would my grandmother, had she lived, or my mother, if she was alive, thought any different of the baby because of the color of it’s skin?   I would like to believe and so I shall, love conquers all.   Thank you for sharing your story.  


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