When Winters Were Longer, The Tales Taller

Stories By the Fire

The series “From the Archives” features articles from the archives of our quarterly journal. The following article by Walter Darrell Haden appeared in the Winter 1972 issue of the White River Valley Historical Society Quarterly.

When icicles hang by the wall,
and Dick the shepherd blows his nails,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
To-whit; To-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Winter: a hardening of the year’s arteries, when blue cold is blown out of snowbanked skies. But winter is also a warm time of holidays, friends, and firesides.

Many of us who are forty or over remember the sounds of shingle-clapping winds and the chill of a straw-tick in the attic when company came. Hugging knees as close to the hearth, and a favorite storyteller as we could, we gained a kind of wisdom.

Chimney corner stories about the Headless Cobbler of Smallett Cave kept me deliciously frightened on many a dark night. Only a mile from the cave, I went to bed ruluctantly, and then not to sleep. More than once I thought I heard the far-off “tack-tack-tacking” of the old shoemaker’s hammer. Lying awake in the darkness, I imagined the stalactite water drip-drip-dripping from the cave ceiling. In my mind’s eye it caught as it fell the gold of the old troglodyte’s lantern light. The storytellers succeeded in keeping me out of the cave, but they could not keep the cave out of me.

Few are the readers who cannot boast at least one such dubious saint who relished a cold night and a warm pipe. Although it was well that the teller of good tales lit his way with a sweet-burning pipe, it was no less happy if he was a sensible whittler. My great-grandmother, who died less than six months after I was born, used to light her after-supper pipe with a coal red-hot off the hearth. Frances Indiana (Kay) Haden could whisk the coal up nimble between thumb and forefinger, tamping it into the crumbled tobacco of her lokg-stemmed clay pipe. Through a blue haze of home-grown twist, she recounted Civil War times in Atlanta.

The stories were not new. They were generally well worn. Seldom were they true. But their tellers were not malicious liars. When they embroidered a story, it was usually to improve it. It was inspired, creative lying that recalled a “toad-strangler” rainstorm that sent Beaver and Spring Creek “twenty-foot over the tallest sycamore,” and a big pile of driftwood shooting over the Rome Bridge. “If Gusty Smallmouth hadn’t got his foot caught in the highest steel span of that damned bridge girder, he would probably never have noticed he was in a floatin’ crap game!”

Our entertainers lied beautifully, well aware that we knew they were lying. And no one was hurt by their lies—not a nickel’s worth of property or character suffered through these pleasant deceptions. It was not the misrepresentation the traveling horsetrader used about that little sorrell. Her new owner had to find out sooner or later that she was “blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other.”

A Douglas County Missourian—and a distant relative, by marriage—told one of the taller stories I have heard. Old Jess declared that the nights were no longer as bright as they had used to be when he was a boy. “Why, I remember once’t,” he said, “when the moon was full, the ‘Northern Lights’ was flashin’, there was a great snow on the ground, and all the woods was afire.”

My great-grandmother Haden could call back merry happenings. She would chuckle about the time my great-grandfather asked for her hand in marriage. Great-grandpa Haden was not a man of many words. He had just won a game of “going-to-the-mill” he had been playing half-heartedly with his prospective father-in-law.

“You’ve quessed the hand I had the hazel nuts in,” said old Mr. Terrell Porter Kay. “Now what will you have as you prize?”

“Can I have Frances?” Great-grandpa asked, brightening some.

“Whoop, sir!” The old man sputtered, apparently surprised, but he hesitated for only a few seconds. Then he answered resolutely, “No, not until after hog-killin’ time!”

Often when Great-grandpa had a story started, he would choose to turn it over to his wife rather than run the risk of dropping the story’s punch line. “You tell it, Frances”, he would say.

And it was his raconteur wife who gave early currency to the legend of the Headless Cobbler of Smallett Cave. In an interview at his home in Ava, Missouri, December 22, 1960, W. D. Haden—her eldest son and my late grandfather—recalled his mother’s account of the cobbler:

Ma and a renter’s wife—Mrs. Hall, I believe—were on their way to sit up with a woman who was dying with consumption—Mrs. Cloud, I think. The two women were walking up the road alongside Spring Creek and the old cave across from it. Ma told us later that just about “dusky dark” a man without a head stepped out into the road in front of them. On one of his shoulders he had a Bible. As the two women and the headless man met, he didn’t say a thing, Ma said, but the women lit out, and the strange man walked on in the opposite direction. They hurried on east to the Cloud home, where later that night the sick woman died. Mrs. Hall, Ma, and her sister, Aunt Julia Sellers, laid out the corpse for burial while the men folks started work on a casket. It was a hot night, so the womenfolks, when their work was done, sat down in some cane-bottom chairs to cool awhile in the yard of the home. Ma had leaned back in her chair while she smoked her clay pipe. All of a sudden from between the back of her chair and the side of an old earthen cellar, a commotion began. At first she thought that it was the headless hant. I reckon for awhile there was almost another woman to be laid out. But then she found out it was just her chair mashing a calf that had been dozing alongside the cellar. The calf lit out, and so did Ma.

Some winter evening when a good fire warms our homes and recollections, we might do well to turn off the television and radio. When memory is the only tube alight, perhaps the wonder that was childhood will come and sit with us and listen in the glow. If no such magic is worked, we should not give up. Friends driving by may notice no green glow through our windows and decide to stop and swap stories.

This article by Walter Darrell Haden, originally appeared in the White River Valley Historical Society Quarterly Volume 4, Number 8—Summer 1972. Click here to browse or search the archives of the Quarterly.

About White River Valley Historical Society

The WRVHS exists to preserve, protect, and promote the cultural history of Taney County, Missouri, and the upper White River Valley region through public programs and educational events.

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