Camera Rolls: 102:68-72
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Lillie Mullins , conducted by Blackside, Inc. in 1990, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Speed, mark it, set, roll.
Mrs. Mullins, can you describe the area in which you lived?
Yes, we lived down on a fairly lower place, and we lived in a little old shotgun house. And my father moved down there in the other shotgun house. So, my father, he worked on the farm, and we all worked on the farm. In the fall we all picked cotton...but we didn't get much for our money, [laughs] I mean for our cotton, much money for our cotton.
Well let me ask you—
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] let's cut.
Mrs. Mullins, if you were going to take us on a tour of your house, but we jumped in a time machine and went back to 1930, what would it look like?
Well, it'd be a front room—
I'm sorry, could you start off by saying, "My house, the house we lived in."
Yeah, the house we lived in, it was a shotgun house. Have you ever been in one?
All right you come in the front door here, there's a bed over here and a bed over here. There's a room back here, it's a kitchen, back door. And that's a shotgun house. That's the way, we've lived in several of them that way.
Now, what, what kinds of things did you have in that house, what kind of living was it in a house like that?
Well it was just about as poor as you could get. We had beds, and table, and chairs, and after we got in there awhile we got cook stoves. But when we first went down there in '30, I didn't have a cook stove. I had a bed, and I made me a place out in the yard and cooked on the fire. I dug a little trench thing and put a grate over it, put wood in there and cooked beans and bread on top of it.
Eric, you've got to turn that fan off.
I wanted to, could you describe to me, back in 1930, what was your, or 1929, '28, what was your normal day of work? What was work like for you?
Well we'd get out, in the summertime we'd get out early in the morning, I mean about sunup, and we'd work all day long, come in because we had to make as many hours as we could in '30. And then the drought hit us, our cotton and our corn and everything else died out, so we just didn't have anything. And in the fall we had to scrap cotton to make our living for fifty cents a hundred. So, done best we could.
Now, life was rough in a normal year, just how rough was it when the drought hit?
It was awful rough. We just lacked and made it, it was so hard on us, all of us. Everybody, it wasn't only in my family, it was everybody.
What did it look like when the crops died? What was it like the drought coming on you like that?
Well it just, ground busted open and dried out, and the
corn and the cotton and the garden stuff and everything just dried up, turned yellow, and died.
** The drought just, well, it just sucked all the water out of the ground. But we had pump water, you know, to drink and stuff like that, but even the bayous and rivers and everything else went down through the worst part of the drought.
Can we cut for a minute?
How did you stay cool?
With pace board fans and anything we could fan with [laughs]...wipe sweat and fan.
There was a month that someone described as—July, I think, of 1930—when the temperature was a hundred degrees everyday. How'd you get through that month?
Well we just had to do best we could, and fan, and try to keep cool. Honey shade, or shade of the house, if we was in the field we'd have to go shade trees. We was so hot we'd have to stand there and fan, pull off our bonnets and fan with them.
Well there, there were nights that were hot too right?
Oh yeah, it was hot. Open up all the windows, what had screens on them, and fan and do best we could.
I wonder if you could describe what you did with your children, how, I mean you described a wonderful thing that you did for your kids when it was hot.
Well we just had to make pallets and put it in front of the doors, and the babies, I'd fan them with a fan. Go to sleep fanning, wake up fanning [laughs], do best we could. It was terrible, but we, we made it, with the Lord's help.
Now the people in your area, what kind of neighbors were they?
We had good neighbors, and when anyone got sick in the family, well everybody went and helped with them. Take them food, chicken soup and stuff like that, you know, and help with them to get them well. We just, we had good neighbors. Everybody shared and shared a lot. It was the only way to live, then.
That's great. How we doing for footage?
We have to change.
Yeah, I knew we were right at—
Camera roll 69.
Can you tell me, what were the relationships between blacks and whites at that time, like your relationships with them? Did people get along?
They, they were fine. We had good black neighbors, good people, but it wasn't very many white people lived there. And we all shared a lot. One of us got sick, the other one helped. They were good people. And we just, like all other poor people, if any of us needed anything we'd ask the other one for it, you know, just good neighbors.
What did you live on in terms of—
Turn that fan off, Eric.
Now I have to go back to a question I asked you before because of a sound problem or a, you know, there was some problem. I'd like you to describe what it was like during those hot nights during the drought, what you'd do.
Well we just had to get us some pace board and fan and try to stay cool. Put the children down near the door and windows. A lot of them liked to sleep on pallets on the floor where it was cool. So, I'd fan the babies, you know, go to sleep and drop my fan. Wake up and get it again and fan.
What was, what was the food that you normally lived on? What did you eat as your normal diet?
Well we usually ate anything we could get a hold of to eat. We'd go out in the spring of the year and pick wild greens and get stuff out of the garden if we had it coming on. We'd just eat beans, bread, stuff like that. And we tried to raise our chickens to, you know, have chicken to eat. Maybe a pig or two, something like that, but we didn't have nothing real fancy. But we eat [sic].
Can you, can you tell me, start again and tell me your, your typical day. What you'd do, every detail you can remember? You'd get up in the morning, you'd go and put the fire on in that little grill.
Get up early in the morning and—
I'm sorry, I stepped on your line, I talked over you. Can you start again?
About the cooking?
Yeah, just, I woke up in the morning...
Yeah, I'd get up early every morning and go out there and start my little fire [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] and fix my bread. Of course had to cook it in the skillets, you know, on top of that little grate. And at night when I'd come in from the field we usually put our beans on and cook them, you know, at night. Next day we'd have beans, cook our bread on that thing. So, just, that's all I had to cook on until we had a stove, and then that way, when we got a stove we cut our wood and had baked bread and stuff on top of the stove.
Now winters were cold, weren't they?
Yeah, they was pretty cold. We had to chink and [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] all them houses up, build fires and cut wood, bring in, and sometimes we had a little old queen heater, sometimes we had a cast iron heater. Anything to keep us good fires, keep fire all night.
When...it was a hard life.
It was, or I thought it was [laughs]. Think back now from what things are now, it was terrible. But we had to make it and we did.
How, how rough did it get? When was the roughest time you ever had?
Well, it was pretty rough through the winter. During the summertime, you see, you could get out and work and raise a garden, and people would give you garden stuff and stuff like that that you'd live on. But in the wintertime you didn't have anything if you didn't have it laid up, bought up. You'd go down and buy your flour and lard and stuff like that, you know, in the fall of the year when you was picking cotton, have it laid up for the winter. If you didn't you'd go hungry [laughs]. Get out and kill a rabbit or two, or squirrel, and have fresh meat. [laughs].
People did a lot of that, didn't they? They hunted and—
Yeah, they did. And people used to trap and catch coons and minx and stuff, you know, and sell the fur. We did that a few times, and catch rabbits and squirrels in the traps and dress them, cook them. You just had to manage for anything you could get by with. It was a hard life to live.
Now, did you need help during the drought?
We got a few commodities from Lonoke, that's about all we got. Just, well about once a month, and then it cut off to every other month, and then they cut it permanent. So we didn't get no more.
Well, well some people, some people were just too proud to take food at all.
Well we, we was glad to get this for the children, and for the families. We might near had to have a little help because, if it ain't out there to get this, it ain't out there to get. Make. So we had to have a little bit of help. And when the kids started school and all like that, well all that cut out.
Your kids helped you, didn't they, in the field?
Oh, my children, they got big enough to pull a sack or a hoe, they was right there beside of me, working. My oldest boy and my oldest girls was at home at that time, they helped me then.
People have described people who lived then in this area as very proud, some of them wouldn't take aid at all. What was that all about?
I really don't know, I don't, didn't understand them, you know. My husband, he didn't like to do nothing like that. He wanted to work, wanted us to work, and make it. "The sweat of our brow," he said that was a way to make it. But he didn't like to work, so we just made it ourselves, best we could.
I'm going to ask you again, you know, people have described the conditions as very rough during a normal year, but during the drought it got really rough. Well, that's pretty close to not living anymore.
Can you describe that?
Well I don't know, I can't remember all of it, but we really had a bad time in that way. We done anything in the world we could to make a living, get out and fish, and catch game and stuff to live. We had to through the hardest times.
How did you, how did you feel about your landlord?
Well they done what they could to help us. Of course they couldn't do much their selves, they didn't have it to do with, and they had families the same as the rest of us. As I say we all shared and shared alike, you know, in a lot of ways. Food and gardening and stuff like that.
What kind of food did you get from the Red Cross? There were some books you had to use, right?
Well we got those commodities, I mean those books - God we called them doodling books - Well the coffee was rationed, couldn't get it without them, and so much of that. Sugar, and I think the flour was too at times. Shoes and clothes was rationed. Say if you had three or four kids needed shoes, you'd get about two pair a month till them stamp things was gone...and follow the year. A lot of people had to quit drinking coffee because they couldn't get the coffee. So, sugar and all of that was rationed.
Mrs. Mullins, can you describe for me what it was like to stand in line waiting for, what it was like for you when you were standing in line waiting for Red Cross aid?
Well, we had a number and we just a big houseful, you know, big roomful of people and they call a number out for the people. You call a number and they'd package out our stuff.
When, when you went up to the front, what would people say to you?
Well some of them know me and some wouldn't so we'd always speak, you know, and all we had to do was hold our number and hand it to them, you know, we didn't have to talk to them if you didn't want to. But they were friendly, nice people...about the same way it is now.
Could you, I'm sorry there was a noise of a truck, could you describe that again like you're waiting in line, and how would it work? How did you get your food in the Red Cross house? What, what, how did it work?
We'd just go up there-
I'm sorry could you start again 'cause I stepped in your words. I talked over your words, so could you just start again and tell me what it was like to get Red Cross?
Well we'd just go in up there, Lonoke, in the court house it was, in a big room, and people'd be all in there. And they'd call a number, and when they call your number you'd go up there and they'd hand you your bag of groceries, you know. You usually have to take a box or something, you know, to put them in. So, it'd be hard.
How'd you get into town?
How'd you get into town?
Well, we had an old Roadster-like car, and you'd turn the top, let the top back on it, and me and the children would get in there and away we'd go. He'd drive, my husband, we'd go to Lonoke and get our groceries. Mostly all, you know, like powdered milk, and powdered eggs, and canned meats, pork and stuff like that. Sometimes we'd get canned beef, rice, that's about all.
Was it enough food?
Well it helped out what we could rake and scrape for the other part. Sometimes we'd get flour, sometimes we'd get meal, you know, to help out. Otherwise that's what we had to live on, what we could get.
What was the—just switching to another subject—
Just a second.
You described for Valerie and Meredith the way the cotton looked.
Yeah, it's a pretty plant and it grows up and blooms white blooms, and then blooms turn red. Then they fall off and then on come the bulb. Then when it's on there so long it opens up and you pull the cotton out of it. [laughs] Put them in your bowl of it.
What's it like to work a cotton field?
Well I used to like to work in the field because I've always worked all my life and it's nice if a person likes it. It's hot, but then we didn't pay much attention to it. We just went on and worked. Some people liked it and some people didn't. They had to do it. But I liked to go to the field to work.
The area that you lived in was in trouble way before the drought, right? Can you describe the hard times of the '20s please?
Well, they just, ordinary living, you know, people lived there. Like all other times, you know.
OK, let's cut for a second.
Get a little bit more detail about working in the cotton fields, about how many pounds you'd pick, you know, and at one point you said you picked a hundred pounds in the morning.
Then a hundred pounds, and I want to get a sense of just how much work that really is.
It's a lot of work.
**[laughs] You take your children to the field and have them on the sack with you, and drag them on the sack, and let them play up the middles, and they'd pick little piles of cotton and I'd pick it up when they got to it. But I was with my children all the time.
** I didn't leave them at the house or somewhere else. I just had them with me. And they enjoyed it, seemed like because that's all they knew, you know, it was a field. It's hard on us all, but we went through it.
How many pounds of cotton would you pick a day.
Well I could pick a hundred in the morning and take care of the children, and a hundred in the afternoon. But my boys picked two hundred in the morning and two hundred in the afternoon. I had three boys that did that, my twins and my oldest boy.
Could we go over that one more time, and could you say picked a hundred pounds of cotton, so people have a sense of what you're picking. How many pounds of cotton did you pick in a day?
Well it would be two hundred pound a day, a hundred pound a morning and a hundred pound in the afternoon. And I taking care of my children along with it.
That's a lot of work, that's a lot of work for someone.
They stayed in the field with me.
Your kids lived on dried milk, huh?
Yeah we all lived on dried milk, beans, rice, whatever we could get to live on, we lived on. And my kids was all healthy. Oh of course they'd have a little cold in the wintertime, but I'd doctor them up. We didn't run to the doctor everyday, Mama was the doctor [laughs], and I still doctor them.
Why dry milk?
Well that's all we could get. We didn't have no cow. A lot of times we didn't have a cow. Once in a great while, you know, some years we'd have a cow, keep here a while. He'd get aggravated at her and sell her. Then we didn't have no milk.
How much would you make for your picking?
How much money would you make for your cotton picking?
Well sometimes we'd get fifty cents, sometimes we'd get a hundred. Of course as it went on up we got more, but we've picked it for fifty cents a hundred.
Now when you say fifty cents a hundred, a hundred what?
A hundred pounds, just like you'd take a cotton sack and put a hundred pound of cotton in it.
Could you describe to me again what it was like looking at the fields going dry?
It was terrible. You had weeping thoughts about it because it was all going dry. The ground was drying up and crackling open. And the cotton and the corn and everything was dying, turning yellow and dying, so...
Well I was just thinking that, I was wondering how it felt like. You had these young kids and—
See all that going down, it was terrible feeling because that was your living, them fields, and it was terrible feeling, wondering who was going to get the next part of our living.
Did it seem like at one point that the drought would never end.
Well, we all thought about it for a while, and then after while it let up and so then things got better. Terrible while that drought was on.
Well, I have to ask you that question again, did it feel like it was going to go on forever?
No we didn't think it would be, we had hopes it would end, which it did. So we didn't feel that it would go on forever, but we knew we had lost everything we had, you know.
Now, there were a lot of diseases in the area, what kind of diseases were there?
Well it was malarial fever, swamp fever, and things like that. It was lots of malarial, in the water and the mosquitoes when we first went to the bottoms. And typhoid fever, you know it was bad then, raging, but luck would have it we never did get none of it, so, just none of my kids ever did have it. They might have gotten a broken bone once in a while or something like that, but you know that wasn't injuring our health much.
You beat the odds on that one.
Could you tell me, please, about that Christmas?
The doctor came, well we didn't have anything for Christmas, and me and my daughter got out and got us a big old cotton stalk and we made us a Christmas tree out of it. Set it in a bucket and set it in the corner. She taken foil and covered sweet gum balls and made little things out of pace board and covered it, decorated it. So when the doctor and his two children and wife came to see us they brought us kids a gift a piece. He liked to fell out when he came in the door. It was so real, you know, and it was, he said that was the most real Christmas tree it ever was.
Could you, could you say again when the doctor came, start out there because there was a car going by just at that point.
Yeah when he came in—
Oh I'm sorry, could you say, "When the doctor came," or describe how the doctor would visit just to say hello on Christmas.
Well, when the doctor came in, him and his family, he saw that tree and he just liked to fell out because it was so real, you know, he said there was more real stuff to it than anything else because it wasn't artificial. It had grown in the field.
Would the doctor come and visit you often?
Well, no, nothing only a holiday or something like that. He and his wife would come out, one of the children or something would get sick and, you know, had to have a doctor, we'd take him to him. He lived in England [Arkansas], and his office was in England, and we lived way out in the country.
Can you describe the Bottoms for me? What's the Bottoms?
The Bottoms? The River Bottoms. Well it's just around England, and cotton and corn and stuff that growed [sic] then. Now they put beans, soy beans, but their raising a lot of cotton this year. Oh it's pretty. We always called it the River Bottoms, now they say England Bottoms and things like that, but we always called it the River Bottoms.
If you're standing on a hill looking over that area, what would it look like?
It'd be pretty to me [laughs], all that pretty cotton going, growing. Of course they having a late season this year. The cotton is not too big, but it's beautiful. Where we used to farm with mules and things, why they farm with tractors now.
Mules were a big thing in those days, wasn't it?
How important were mules?
Well, it was all that we had to work with. We had to feed them, and raise their food, and raise ours with it. It was a beautiful time, you know, when mules and things was on, but now you can't see a mule [laughs].
Well they were sort of the machine, weren't they, they were the engine?
All of them tractors and things came in and it just killed out all of mules, and horses, and things.
Did you have a mule?
Did you have a mule?
Our landlord had mules and we used, petted them, fed them, and did everything with them. It was, I used to ride an old buckskin mule to the store [laughs]. Had more fun at it than anything. We had to go to a plantation store, you know, store to get stuff.
When you, you had, you chopped wood with your son, right? Can you tell me about that?
Yeah, we'd go down in the bayou when it was, you know, couldn't get no wood nowhere else and saw it down. We'd go in a boat, and saw it down. Then float the tree out, saw it up, carry it to the house, put it in the stove.
What was it like to work so hard just to live?
Well it just come natural, nature, for the work. And I worked right along with my kids all the way through.
Could you say that again, I was setting, at the beginning I was setting—
No, it's all right.
Wait for a second.
Your, your husband talked about "earning with the sweat of your brow." What did he mean by that?
Well, he wanted us to work. Earn our living with the sweat of our brow, I guess, and that's what we done.
Do a lot, did a lot of people feel like that?
Did a lot of people think like that?
Well, I don't know. I didn't think they did. He was a different person than anyone else.
When did you first know you needed help, really needed help during the drought? When did it hit you that you really just couldn't go on?
Well, it just come on us that we didn't have nothing to go on. Wintertime coming and didn't have anything from the summer so we had to have a little help, and that's, we got a little help.
Look I'm going to have to ask you again because of that big truck outside. When did you become really aware that you just had to go get something, you had to have help?
Well it come in the fall of the year we didn't have it raised and we had to have help. What we didn't can up we didn't have.
Was it a hard decision for you to go get help?
Yes, in a way because he didn't much want to go and sign up for nothing. So, he finally did give up and we went and got it.
Did you have wallpaper in your house or—
Let me just finish. Was it weather worthy, could it withstand winters and that sort of thing? What was your house like?
No, I've taken newspapers and flour and mix it up and make my paste and paste, cover the walls with newspapers. I have. And then sometime we'd live in a place and the landlord would get us some wallpaper and we'd tack it on. But a lot of the houses is [sic] open. We had to do something.
I'd like to ask you again—
Watch the creaking of your chair there, Eric.
Oh, it's not me. OK, let's cut for a second.
At one point you said that, when we were talking outside, that it was like living, you were like living like animals almost.
You said you were living like, almost like animals.
Yeah it was, it was almost like animals the way we had to live, and get by, and get through because it was just that way.
It's like you're right on the edge of survival.
Yeah. We had to do that, and had to live, I mean, you know, to survive, get by, live like that to get by.
When, well let's just cut for one second.
—at the time whether you felt like, whether you were terrified of what was happening?
Well, I just had to ask the Lord to help us, and I didn't get scared. I just trusted in Him to help us do it, which he did. That's all I could do.
Did you ever hear about people grumbling that they weren't getting good aid, good Red Cross aid? Did you ever hear people grumbling about that?
No, I didn't.
What was the social life like?
Mine was just taking care of the children and going to the field and working, thinking about them, how to take care of them.
OK, we're out.
I want you to close your eyes for a second and look into your house that you had in 1930, just look inside it.
Well, I can, I can see that.
Tell me what you see now.
Well I walk in the door, a little old porch there. I walk in the door and there's a two room house and it's a bed here and a bed here and a kitchen back there.
What's in the house? Do you have a lot of things?
Very few clothes...so we didn't have much.
What kind of music did you like?
I like guitar, violin, French horn. Good country home music, that's all I know.
Now how would people at that time, even in the drought, how would you socialize?
Well, we'd visit one another at each other's homes. They'd bring their guitars down sometimes to our house and sometimes to other neighbor's houses, and we'd just have music. You know, they played what they knew. They played for dances and stuff like that. The neighbors gave a dance, they'd go and play music for them.
Did you like to dance?
Yeah, yeah I've been dancing since I was about eleven years old. They'd play square dances and, you know, music they didn't know much about. They called it round dance then, you know, just two step and waltz.
All right, let's cut for a second.
There were always a lot of mosquitoes around, weren't there?
Yeah, there used to be a lot of them down there. They carried malarial then.
Say that again.
Can you start again by saying there were a lot of mosquitoes and bugs and stuff like that?
Yes, lots of mosquitoes, and they carried malarial, and we'd go inside in the evening and build a smoke up, smoke the house out before we'd go to bed. Get rid of them. That's about all we could do, because we didn't, you know, we didn't have no sprays and stuff like we do today. We had to build smokes and smoke them out.
Now you'd walk around the house, right? You'd just sort of-
Yeah we'd get out in the yard and build a smoke up out in the yard or something like that, you know, till it got, they got so bad, and then we'd go in the house, sit in the house. Had lamp lights, cool oil lights, and things like that.
You had what?
Cool oil lights, lamps.
That's how you lit your house?
That's the way I had light in the house. Cool oil lamps.
What was the, how did the system work? There were like sharecroppers, tenants, and planters right? What were you?
Well, we worked "by the day" they called it for the sharecropper, most of the time. We never did make a crop of our own. We worked for the other feller, sharecroppers.
Who, who were the big men, who were the power? Who was the power in that area?
Well, it's just like you go lease a lot of land and you would, you know, you'd hire hands to work in the field for you, and you'd be the man. Mr. Gibbs was one of them that we worked for a lot.
Did you ever feel like life was unfair?
No, I just taken it as it come...had to.
OK, we're done now. Really.