In the work of William Faulkner—in its resonances of history, place, and memory—I have found much to help me understand my own relation to history and place. In the hope that it will be of interest to those involved in historic preservation, I offer this reflection.
My Own Little Postage Stamp of Native Soil
And as he talked about those old times and those dead and vanished men of another race from either that the boy knew, gradually to the boy those old times would cease to be old times and would become a part of the boy’s present, not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening, the men who walked through them actually walking in breath and air and casting an actual shadow on the earth they had not quitted.
William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses
I have lived most of my life at Palo Alto, a long dead town located in the prairie in western Clay County. To reach my home you drive out Hwy 50 then Hwy 47 from West Point and turn off at our family store. Then follow my driveway along an old road bed through a pasture and onto a low rolling hill to an antebellum cottage that is home for me and my family. From my front door I have a clear view across the abandoned town site and beyond.
Some have probably wondered why I live at Palo Alto. In part it has to do with my own resistance to being swallowed up in the suburban sprawl which many have chosen for the sake of a higher salary. But it is also, perhaps primarily, due to the fact that Palo Alto has served as a source of inspiration that has led to a deeper understanding of history. It is “my own little postage stamp of native soil,” a phrase that Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner used in reference to his own native Lafayette County, Mississippi, the inspiration for his fiction. Rather than move to a more cosmopolitan setting as did many writers, he chose to live in his hometown, Oxford, the county seat of Lafayette County. Like me he also lived in an antebellum home, Rowan Oak, whose memories recalled the history of the land.
Today we often think of history as merely “facts,” as though it is nothing more than dry information dutifully collected and stored for what reason we know not. However, it is through the study of local history in and around my home that I came to see that it is much, much more.
From childhood my encounters with unearthed relics and oral history intimated that my everyday environs — home, family, and surrounding lands — were part of a long and ongoing continuum that opened onto vast vistas of time. When our garden was plowed, artifacts were exposed in the earth: broken pottery and glass, nails, and even a small iron, probably a toy once used by a small girl. Wondering where these came from, my parents related that the land where we lived and pastured our cows had once been a town known as Palo Alto and that my family had lived there since the town’s beginning in 1846. In that year my great-great-grandfather Daniel B. Hill moved his family there probably by covered wagon and constructed a log dogtrot house and opened the first store and post office. He named the new settlement after one of the early battles of the Mexican War, the Battle of Palo Alto. As I became aware of the associated history, the place was transformed; I saw it through different eyes.
In 1973 I began in earnest to research the history of Palo Alto digging through deed records in the Clay County Courthouse and querying neighbors and relatives about their recollections. As the result of my findings what I had seen as otherwise unnotable yards and pastures were transformed in my mind’s eye; here, for example, stood the carriage factory, or Charles Gates’s store, or the Palo Alto Inn, the social center of the town, whose owner John Armstead was shot dead by his nephew in 1872. I eventually expanded my investigation to other parts of the county, including West Point, the county seat; the mysterious Tombigbee River where I had canoed as a youth and partied as a teenager; and the nearby Kilgore Hills that were settled by Dr. Benjamin Kilgore of South Carolina in the 1830s but by the 1970s were occupied by only legends. While I was discovering local history I was also discovering genealogy. My own family tree branched out and intertwined through the history and places that I was discovering like a vine through a trellis. I began to understand what genealogists feel as they uncover personal linkages to the past and the larger community of family and humanity.
I was especially fascinated by what had been the old Palo Alto livery stable cistern. Cisterns were large holes excavated in the ground to catch and store rainwater from rooftops. While their necks were only about three feet in diameter, underground the cisterns were much wider. Most had been filled in with dirt long before my time to prevent animals and humans from falling in; during my childhood only the livery stable cistern remained open, and it had become something of a local legend. According to the stories, the cistern was so large that before it was filled with water, residents climbed down into it to hold a dance. On several occasions I climbed over a fence and struggled through the grass and brambles to reach the lonely cistern, where I would stare down to the surface of the dark water below. In the quiet, I could almost hear the sound of fiddles and dancing feet from some long gone Palo Alto evening. The dance could well have happened, but then it may not. I frankly find it difficult to believe that anyone would climb down into a hole in the ground to hold a square dance. Regardless, my mental images of this event took on a mythical quality in which the image of the cistern pointed beyond itself to something mysterious that could not be verbalized.
Despite my intuition that there is more to our experience of history and place, I found little in my academic studies to help me understand my intuitions. From this perspective archaeology and history were the domain of objective study—of facts and statistics and theories. Realms of value and mystery are not even alluded to; they slip through objective methods like water through a dip net.
It was through reading the works of William Faulkner that I began to see that there is more to history and place than meets the eye.
To be concluded in part two.
Categories: Historic Preservation
I think what you capture here–very beautifully–is the importance of relationship. Without it, nothing of significance happens.
I have passed through that part of Clay County before, going from nowhere to nowhere, and can definately appreciate the area. The rolling hills and flat expanses with grey and white clay embankments of fossilized oyster shells and stunted cedar trees. The occasional inhabited house and the occasional abandoned relic of another era surviving into ours; though holding tenuously to existence in the face of utter neglect; yet, showing the ephemerality of the built environment through its decay if there are none like you to stand firm against those forces. Otherwise, the persistence of memory for those rural places is negated and all those experiences fade into a fog of nothingness.
Great post, any mention of Faulkner makes me get literary. Your post ties in with a book I read recently: William Faulkner and the Southern Landscape by Charles S. Aiken, a great book about the “geography of Faulkner’s Mississippi.”
Great expression in you’re writing.
My ex-wifes folks, the Wards , who are from Una, MS are buried at Palo Alto Cemetery. I had a very dear friend for whom I was caregiver for several years. He lived with me and my wife and was the father I never had as a child. It’s funny how God gives us what we need when we need it the most. Perhaps not having a father as a boy was destiny for me. Knowing one day I would bid this dear man that I called “Papa” farewell I inquired with your father (Mr. Elliott) about purchasing two plots , one for my dear friend and one for myself at Palo Alto. Your dad was such a meek and mild mannered gentleman. Always the same sweet natured man each time met and spoke to him. The epitome of kindness!
A few years later my beloved friend and father figure indeed passed on . He had worked for over 40 years for Haliburton, working in 51 different countries. Ironicially, before he retired in 1977 he was country supervisor for oil exploration in Libya, his office was in Tripoli. He told me so many interesting stories about his work and the turmoil in that particular region. I wonder what insight he could share with us now if he were alive to tell.
His crews drilled test holes in the earth then used dynamite and sizemographs and who knows what other mechanical stuffs to find oil. When the day came for the man to dig “Papa’s” grave, Scotty Allen, the funeral director called me to tell me that it was taking the man a little longer than usual voicing that they had to use dynamite to break up the ground structure, it was solid fossilized sea shell, hard as concrete!
I remember the first anniversary of my beloved, I knelt at his grave with my eyes flooded with tears then looking down I saw a huge section of white chalky limestone with half a shel protrouding outwards. I took it home and set it in water to soften and before long the clump of limestone revealed a whole shell. The shell is now a keepsake and memory that I keep on my fireplace mantle. I reach for it every now and then and give it a rub, it is as precious as his friendship and love was to me.
Knowing him, I sure he would get a big chuckle out of knowing that had to use dynamite to dig his grave. The comment that W. White share about the oyster shells in the formations in and around Palo Alto made my thinker click. I hoping it’s ok to share this story with you and others here.
My family, the Sizemores of Pheba and Westpoint, MS know your folks well. My aunt Cary (Sizemore) Bailey and her husband Bob Bailey(who everyone knows) often spoke highly of Mr. and Mrs Elloit (your dad and mom) and how they carried the mail. My brother Gary Sizemore(my brother) and myself ran Uncle Bobs Union 76 station for many years after he retired. I think you also know Gary’s wife Lynne (Cothran) Sizemore when she use to ride her horse, “B” in competition .
I now live in Lincoln, Nebraska. April 1, 2011 I will be driving home to West Point, and of course, I always visit my belated friends grave in Palo Alto. He and I drove out to the cemetery the day we purchased the plots. It was in the spring, just like now. I remember how peaceful it is there. Good enough for my bone’s to rest one fine day!
Your story made me yearn for my little Postage Stamp, West Point. My sister, Karen, was buried in the Palo Alto cemetery last summer. I could not get over the beauty of Palo Alto. Being from the other side of town, I wasn’t familiar with this area of Clay County. I live in Seattle now but will never call it home. My cousin in Oregon sent me your post. Thank you for your beautiful story.
I don’t think that I’ve seen you since the old days when I was working with you and Jim Dawson on the history of Lauderdale County. Hope all is well. Let me know when you’re in this neck of the woods again.
Jack. You worked with Nan in Meridian. Nan teaches at auburn and is doing great work placing students in small towns doing community journalism.
Sorry about that–a sign of a failing mind. I guess that–having not seen or heard from Nan in about 20 years–then suddenly seeing your name it registered with me as being Nan. I believe that you and all of your sisters, except Karen, were younger than me.
Thank you for this wonderful story. Charles Gates is my 3rd Great Grandfather. My mother is originally from West Point.