“Po Folks In Boogerville”
Jeffrey A. NIx
In the fall of 1939, a tragic housefire destroyed most of my maternal grandparent’s belongings—along with the house they were leasing off of Highway 26 near Cusseta Georgia. My mother Esther Alene, recalled the event this way: “….I heard mama yell “fire!” and the next thing I know, daddy was pitching the stove wood out the back door with one hand, while tossing me out the door, head over tea kettle with the other!” The remainder of the family followed. See-my mother was the youngest of the bunch (they nicknamed her “Baby.”)
Thomas Lee Whitley Sr. had been a sharecropper at the time, making a meager living for his family. Like many others, the Great Depression had devastated the family’s finances; they were reduced to using the plastic ORA ration tokens at times. Now the fire had destroyed his livelihood and brought him to realize that he had no future as a sharecropper. So, he turned his attention to taking work elsewhere and moved his family to Boogerville sometime in late October 1939—at least, according to the October 31st edition of the Columbus Daily Enquirer of that year. It read: VALLEY NEWS – Mr. and Mrs. T. L. Whitley and family have recently moved to Columbus.
There was no doubt about it, the Whitley family were officially the newest “Po folks in Boogerville,” as my mother would say.
The U.S. Census of April 6, 1940 shows the Whitley family residing at 1320 Cherry Avenue. The household members were Thomas “Tommy” Lee Whitley, Sr. Martha “Mattie” Lura (Green) Whitley, Mary Eleanor “Sammy” Whitley, Martha Jewell “Judy” Whitley, Beatrice Earl “Boots” Whitley, Thomas Lee Whitley Jr., & Esther Alene “Baby” Whitley. This census shows that Thomas Sr. was a Road Hand for the State Highway Department. Mattie kept house, Judy was a seamstress, and three youngest children (Beatrice, Thomas Jr. & Esther) attended school.
Then came the United States involvement in World War II. Thomas Sr. & his wife Mattie took jobs with Eagle-Phenix Mills; they both walked the distance (about a good country mile, as grandad would say) to and from the mill every day. Jewell maintained her seamstress job; Thomas Jr., barely 17 years old, went into the Navy, Beatrice would help Jewell around the house and took other odd jobs; Esther washed dishes for a local restaurant after school and on weekends—she recalled having to stand on soap cartons to reach the sink, because she was so short. This is also in part how she was able to purchase an A.M. radio for her father on his birthday, so he could listen to the Grand Ole Opry—she said she paid about $7.50 for the radio, brand new. Yes, it still works.
Thomas Jr. wrote back home from his duty station in the Philippines to his family often during the war. In one of his packages, he included grass skirts for each of his sisters. My mother was MUCH too modest to model the grass skirt without wearing her street clothes underneath, as reflected in the photograph. Beatrice, however, modeled a much shorter, daring skirt that she secretly bought; one that was certainly NOT approved of by her parents—which is why she modeled it while standing on the back porch of their Boogerville home (the parents were at work). Soon, another gift to the entire family arrived; it was a package containing sets of brass candlesticks made out of spent artillery shells and bullet casings for each sister and his parents.
Thomas Sr. & Mattie worked for Eagle-Phenix Mills for several years. Thomas was lucky to still have that job after an illness of several weeks during the spring of 1947 kept him in bed. He eventually retired from the mill; afterwards, he worked part time in a bait shop. Mattie returned to housekeeping duties and looking after Mary Eleanor after she was deemed unable to care for herself. The daughters all married and moved out of Boogerville. Thomas Jr. used the G.I. Bill to learn a trade in upholstery—he had his own business, Tommy’s Trim Shop, for decades in Columbus, both on 10th Avenue and Linwood Boulevard.
Thomas and Mattie also eventually said goodbye to Boogerville and settled into a modest two bedroom home at 367 30th Avenue in Columbus—the road was still made of dirt when they moved in.
I would occasionally catch my mom getting a bit teary-eyed as she gazed at the few photos of family and childhood friends from that time. Boogerville was in the family blood you see—and by extension, I can’t help but feel it’s in my blood, too.
Esther Whitley in her grass skirt sent from her Brother Tommy during WWII.