As our nation, and the world, faces unsettling times rocked by wars, terrorist attacks, shootings and mob violence, let’s take a peek into the happier and quieter times of long ago.
In the 1920s and 1930s, in much of America, especially the rural South, the expression “come in and sit a spell” was a very common invitation given to friends and perhaps even to passing strangers. In the hot summer weather, it might have been an invitation to come in out of the sun and join the hosts on a big front porch — to sit in a rocking chair and rest your weary bones.
For many reasons, that expression, or similar words of hospitality, are seldom heard today. What were those early days like and what has brought about the changes in our social behavior?
Years ago, Frisco was a town of about 650 people, and it existed mainly to serve the surrounding farming community. Farm families came to town to shop, get their blacksmith work done, do their banking and attend church. After the area one-room schools were consolidated into the Frisco ISD, farm children joined “town kids” to get their schooling. Before privacy fences cut off the view to our neighbor’s yard, we visited while mowing the yard, grilling steaks or hanging clothes on the clothesline. We were just one big community in which we learned to know and love each other as neighbors.
Life on those early day farms, and even in town, was very different from the regimented eight-hour work day so many of us have today. There was always something to do when living in a rural community, especially on a farm. Cows had to be milked, the chickens fed, hogs “slopped” and garden vegetables had to be picked and prepared for meals. When harvest time came, the crops could not wait. This was cotton country. In Frisco, school was dismissed at cotton-picking time so children could help gather the crop. Many of the town’s people dropped their usual chores to help pick cotton and make a little extra money. When I say “a little money,” I mean a very little. I remember when picking cotton paid 50 cents per hundred pounds. As a child, it took me all day to pick a hundred pounds. At the age of 8, I picked enough cotton to earn $9, enough to buy my first bicycle … a used one.
In the days before air conditioning, we cooled our houses by opening the doors and windows and praying for a breeze. Architecture was different from today. Most homes, large and small, had front porches. The little two-bedroom home I grew up in had a small front porch and a porch swing. The more affluent built large, two-story homes with big wrap-around front porches. It was on those front porches that families often took their leisure time break, dodging the hot sun, sitting in rocking chairs or on the porch swing, watching the occasional traffic pass by. That is when you might hear the friendly invitation to “come in and sit a spell” and have a drink of cool well water from the family dipper.
But, things changed. The Great Depression hit our land. Those of you who are old enough to remember those days will recall that the stock market crashed, and banks, including both of Frisco’s banks, failed. Some farmers lost their farms as cotton prices “tanked.” Throughout the country, unemployment was rampant, soup lines formed and it took President Roosevelt’s programs like the Works Progress Administration to gradually ease the nation’s pain. Neighbors were brought even closer as they relied on each other for many of their needs.
Then, before the Depression ended, along came World War II, and the nation came together as never before to support the war effort. Men and women of all ages went to work building ships, tanks, Jeeps, ammunition and whatever it took to keep our troops supplied. People on the home front sacrificed in many ways. Goods and supplies such as sugar, gasoline and tires were rationed, but everyone worked for the common cause – to win the war!
In 1945, when the war was won and our troops came home, there was a lot of catching up to do. Unemployment was no longer a problem, as the manufacturing of automobiles and other products resumed. The G.I. Bill assisted returning servicemen in many ways. It made it possible for them to get a college education, which may have been interrupted by the war. It also helped them buy property and build homes.
In looking for things that changed our behavior from the days of sitting on the porch and inviting passing friends and strangers to “come sit a spell,” I count air conditioning as a major factor. After the war, the architecture of new homes changed. Fewer houses had big porches, so we retreated to the cool comfort of our homes. There we stayed, and it took a knock on the door to bring an invitation to come in and cool off.
As families spent more leisure time indoors, we played indoor games like dominoes, checkers, Chinese checkers, Monopoly and Scrabble. When we tired of that, families gathered around the new loudspeaker radio to listen to their favorite programs such as “Fibber Magee and Molly” and “The Shadow.” Unfortunately, such family activities took a hit when television came along and monopolized our lives.
Here is a personal story about how much of a novelty early day television was: In 1952, my family lived in an “oil camp” in East Texas. The camp was a small community made up of employees of the oil company I worked for. I bought a television, a small black and white RCA set. It was the first television set in the camp, and when our neighbors saw the tall, 50-foot antennae, we did not have to invite people to “come in and sit a spell.” They volunteered to come in and “help” us watch whatever happened to be on. Friday night wrestling, one of the few live shows at the time, was their favorite, and when we ran out of chairs in our small living room, our friends sat or reclined on the floor. On warm summer nights, we turned the television facing a window, and people brought their lawn chairs to watch more comfortably.
At the time, our 7-year-old daughter, Kay, was saving her meager allowance and doing extra chores trying to get enough money to buy a bicycle. She saw an opportunity to profit from our television watchers, so she started passing the hat, collecting contributions from the crowd. They saw the humor in it and gladly chipped in. It took a while, but she finally got her bike.
Today, as you have probably observed, our family time and time spent visiting with our neighbors has been impacted even more by ever-present cellphones, Facebook, computers and other electronic devices.
Remember, the Bible says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and that does not mean just your next-door neighbor. There are many around us who need our love, if only a friendly greeting or a pat on the back. Try it. They might even invite you to come in and sit a spell.