Sunday, January 17, 2010

Conecuh People: Words of Life from the Alabama Blackbelt

Excerpts from:Conecuh People by Dr. Wade Hall
Attraction: Red Door Theatre (seen right and below)
Location: Union Springs, Alabama
Photos: Tourism Council of Bullock County and the Red Door Theatre

Conecuh People is a series of interviews with nineteen mostly humble people who lived in southern Bullock County, Alabama, during the first half of the twentieth century. There are sad stories, funny tales, and personal insights into the past, all intricately woven into a brilliant fabric of literature no less authentic than the antique quilts that are still popular today. Although each character is unique, out of their stories emerge patterns of a way of life that could easily be representative of many counties all around the deep South. This way of life has also mostly disappeared, so Conecuh People serves to preserve the history in a powerful way.

Conecuh People was so successful as a book that New York playwright Ty Adams adapted the book into a popular play that is performed annually at the historic Red Door Theatre, a converted historic Episcopal church in Union Springs. The Red Door Theatre is in Bullock County, where all the characters in the book are from. This beautiful town also offers an amazing walking tour. Many of the photos you will see on this feature come from that walking tour and the productions of Conecuh People.

The following excerpts are from a lively moonshiner named Tommie Manley. Manley's wife, Verse, is also featured in the book and the play.

From Conecuh People:

I been making whiskey from the time I was 'bout eighteen to I got be about fifty. I got caught fourteen times and was sont off two times. Both times I got off easy because I never made the judges mad. The last time I went off Judge Johnson in Montgomery sont me. I didn't give him no trouble at all.

He asked me, "Well, say Tommie, why would you make whiskey?"

I said, "Well, Judge, it's just a thing I could do to get some quick money out of."

He said, "Well, Tommie, didn't you know that you was breaking the rules and regulations of the federal government?"

I said, "Yes sir, Judge, I did. But I was trying to slip by and not let nobody know I was doing it."

He asked me where I bought my sugar at. Now, I didn't want him to know who was furnishing my sugar, so I said, "Well, Judge, I would get some at the hardware store and at different places."

He said, "Now, Tommi
e, the man at the hardware store don't sell sugar."

I said, "Well, you know, they might have didn't. Maybe the man was just buying some to sell to me. He knowed I wasn't scared for him to know I was making whiskey, so he'd special order a couple of tons for me."

Now that tickled them folks to death up there in that courtroom in Montgomery. I said, "But Judge, I know I done wrong, and I'll never do it no more. I just can't do it. I done got too old and I can't handle the weight of that sugar and them shorts and that other stuff."

I know peoples who been making whiskey all their lives and never been caught. This last time I was caught by two young men from Butler and Montgomery County. Turns out they had been making pictures of me, my still, my car and everything from a helicopter.

I was already caught and didn't even know it. I seen that helicopter coming across but didn't pay it no attention. They passed over, went on and found two more stills and went back to Montgomery, put that helicopter up, got in a car and come on back and got me.

It's hard for them federal men to catch you lessen you been turned up. I always put my still in somebody's woods that I can slip into and out of without them knowing. That's the reason you get caught a lot of times. When the landowner finds out you in there, maybe he go talking and call in the law.

You know how people is. If they can't make a living good and have money, then they don't want you to neither. It's just like I told Verse the other day. I bought her a picture called "The Lord's Supper" right up there on the wall.

I said, "Verse, you take Jesus Christ. He was the greatest man that's ever been on the land. But you look at them old boys on the end of that picture. They fixing to get Him whupped and killed. Judas is down there at one end, and there's Peter standing beside Him with his hand on His shoulder. He got his hand on Jesus' shoulder! That's the onliest man you know of that ever put his hand on Jesus. See, all them boys was close to Him. But anytime peoples get that close to you, they close enough to kill you. And they will!

They betrayed that Man and got Him killed. So if peoples will do that to Jesus, you know they gonna tell where I'm making whiskey. They gonna tell on me and get me sent to the penitentiary. Them peoples the cause of that helicopter coming in. Them federal men wouldn't never have found my still if I hadn't been turned up. They wouldn't have known where to go to look. Bullock County's got a lot of woods, and look how far I was from home. They just got to find somebody that talks. That's the way the world operates. Now you hear me 'cause it's the gospel truth."

I make good whiskey. But ain't no still whiskey bad. Of course, after you 'still it, you can put it in something that makes it bad. Whiskey is strong, and if you take that strong whiskey and let it set in a metal pan, it'll eat that metal off, and some of it will will be in the whiskey. You drink that kind of whiskey, and it'll likely kill you. That's why some peoples holler 'bout homemade whiskey being poison.

But I used copper tubs and tubes and caught my whiskey in a glass jug or a wood keg, and wadn't no poison in them. One more thing 'bout whiskey. If you want to flavor it, you put it in a charred wood keg; and it'll be white going in and red coming out. The whiskey sucks the flavor out of that wood.

Man it's strong! You can run an automobile on the first ten or twelve gallons. It'll run your car just like gas. You strike a match around the jug where you catch that first run of whiskey, and the whole thing will blow away—and you with it. What you have to do is cut that strong whiskey to where a man can drink it. You take some of your low whiskey—they calls it low wine—and run some of that in it and it cuts the power down. You want your whiskey to hold just enough beads to when a man swallow it, it won't eat him up. Now you jug it up and you got some good whiskey.

Excerpted from: Conecuh People: Words of Life from the Alabama BlackbeltNew South Books, Copyright 2004 by Wade Hall

Conecuh People Tourism Guide

When I first met Dr. Wade Hall at his family home in rural Bullock County, I joked with him about how I would one day lecture my son about the “hard” times I grew up in. “Back in my day, we didn’t have an Internet,” I will tell my two year-old when he gets older.

In truth, all of the real life characters in this book would have been thrilled to grow up in a modern middle class lifestyle. If you’re like me, you take many of our modern conveniences for granted, so this book will cause you to notice and appreciate such comforts like never before. For example, the next time that you open the refrigerator, you will suddenly realize how privileged you are to enjoy such a luxury. Little things like that will race through your head for days after reading this book.

There isn’t much talk in the book about how much better things used to be; however, there isn’t much complaining either. We all know how hard the conditions of life used to be: no electricity, no indoor plumbing, scarce food at times, lots of hard work on a farm, etc.

Yes, we all know, but we have never felt it. This book will make you feel those conditions, not just through descriptions of lifestyle but through sympathy developed through emotional connections to the real life characters. The fact that there is so little nostalgia in this book only makes the story that much more realistic and compelling. The simple joys of their humble lives did sustain these proud people, but they wanted more. Even so, they do not feel wronged. Their faith taught them that a greater life was ahead.

Rather than reading about these characters, you will feel like you are sitting on their front porch talking to them in person. This style is largely due to Dr. Hall’s incredible editing, such as transforming the interview recordings into monologues and adding key elements of place, time, and voice at critical points. The authentic dialect will remind you of Faulkner at his best.

Dr. Hall also deleted repetitions that often develop in normal conversations and rearranged the order of some interviews. By rewriting some of the material—without losing authenticity—he transformed the work into a dramatic presentation. The style of this editing is what distinguishes Conecuh People from other oral histories and makes it into a work of literature.

Dr. Hall is not a researcher from a distant area of the country who came down South to “study” these subjects and their strange rural roots; he was born—and will always proudly be—one of them. Indeed, he knew many of them intimately growing up in the very area and suffered through the same burdens of poverty and hardship. Since such destitute areas rarely produce brilliant English professors, Conecuh People is an especially rare treat. Note: the houses highlighted in this feature are all in Union Springs, but the book focuses on the hardscrabble country residents just south of the town.

His personal knowledge of the area allowed him to add subtlety into the manuscript that any other author would lack, yet his years away from his rural home also add layers of objectivity and perspective.

Like most people would given the opportunity, Dr. Hall immediately left his rural Bullock County roots as soon as he graduated from his small country school. He went on to become a distinguished English professor at Bellarmine University and author of twenty books while he lived in Kentucky.

After retiring, he moved back to his boyhood home and brought an impressive collection of rare art and books with him. He has also donated sizable collections to several large universities, including the University of Alabama. Dr. Hall earned his M.A. in English from the University of Alabama and his Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois. Standing in his large home office is like stepping into an exhibit at an urban museum. I couldn’t help but snap a few pictures just to capture the feel of the room and house. The work to the right displays a rare African-American angel painted in the past. Click to enlarge the picture or the top two pictures of the Red Door Theatre for more detail.

The Red Door Theatre makes for a very unique venue right in the heart of this beautiful Southern town and offers different plays throughout the year.

Directly behind the theatre is the town’s impressive Civil War cemetery and monument. Union Springs offers a walking tour of many charming antebellum homes that are gorgeous to behold. There is even a delicious Italian restaurant right across the street from the theatre called the Union Pizza Company.

The play Conecuh People is performed every spring (see the link below). The book was published by New South Books and is still in print after a decade. After you read the book, you will want to come see the play. While you’re there, check out everything Union Springs has to offer.

Many small Southern towns have a few nicely-renovated antebellum houses, but this town has over forty buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The Union Springs/Bullock County Tourism Council has brochures available just around the corner from the Red Door Theatre, and there are several places to eat, although I recommend the Italian place as the best. A walk through this pretty town on a beautiful spring day will give you a strong connection to the past and a rich cultural experience.

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Conecuh People Tourism Links

Red Door Theatre/Conecuh People the play

Facebook event page for Conecuh People the play!/event.php?eid=297518515195&ref=mf

Union Springs Tourism

Conecuh People the book

Conecuh People on Amazon

Wade Hall Collection of Southern History and Culture at the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library-The University of Alabama

Stay updated on the latest productions of the Red Door Theatre on Facebook

Bellarmine University (where Dr. Hall taught English for twenty years)

Follow the special collections blog at the University of Alabama Library: What's Cool @ Hoole