Stories of the South - Granny & Grandpa Johns
I was given these negatives years ago. I kept them on my desk at home and when I moved after I got married they came with me. I don’t remember how I got them, but I’ve had them probably close to 15 years now and have never scanned them, until now. As far as I know, there’s not been a lot written down about the Johns side of my family, so I wanted to write something down while I still have some good family sources available to me. This is Arthur Johns Sr. and Susie Gertaline Johns story.
Arthur and Susie Johns, or as I knew them Granny and Grandpa Johns, occupy a special corner of my brain. They were the very last of a certain generation of Mississippians. A generation born at the end of one world war and before the second one. They lived their formative years through the Great Depression and saw automobiles, electricity, television, and telephones come to Mississippi. The lived their life according to their own rules.
When I was a kid they lived in a big, square log “cotton shack house” with notched corners and originally no running water. They went across the road and under the hill to gather water from a natural spring. My grandfather, their son-in-law, drilled under the road to pipe the spring water up to a spigot by the back door. They kept a big bucket of water by the sink with an aluminum dipper hung on a nail above the bucket on the wall. Best tasting, coldest water in the world. They had no house phone. They burned one light bulb in the house at a time, either the one in the living room or the one in the kitchen. The kids begged them to move out of the big old house many times, but they loved it. Maybe the $5 a month rent had something to do with it.
Granny Johns kept the front yard swept clean of any grass with a broom. Yardbirds (chickens) wandered her flower beds and roosted in the trees. The house had a big wide front porch all the way across the front of the house. Wisteria vines grew across the porch for shade in the summer. It was completed with handmade benches and rocking chairs for sitting and visiting. They heated the house with an open fireplace framed by a huge mantle with a coal oil lamp that burned all night to keep the haints away. Haints is a southern word for ghosts. Some long forgotten ancestor brought the word down from Appalachia with them when they moved to Mississippi. Granny Johns could see spirits, or what she called spirits and she didn’t want them in the house while she was trying to sleep. Belief in the supernatural ran in the family as Grandpa’s mother Sarah Jane Whitt Johns read tea leaves. They kept a picture of her on the mantle.
I’m the oddball cousin that was 6 to 7 years younger than everyone else but I tagged along as best I could after the others. We all loved playing in that rambling yard. A bunch of us would meet on Easter to hunt eggs and then walk up to the cemetery. I never could understand what for, but it was something to do. We would walk and play among the graves touching and tracing the vines and leaves on the really old tombstones while the older kids pointed out this aunt or that uncle. Funny story, when I was pretty small, 5 or 6, we were hunting Easter eggs and I thought I had hit the jackpot! I found a huge mound of eggs hidden in a clump of some flowers and filled up my little pink Easter basket with cream colored eggs and trotted off back to the house to hopefully be declared the winner of the Easter egg hunt. Granny Johns cackled when she realized I had found a nest full of fresh eggs! She just laughed and gathered them in the hem of her housecoat and pronounced me the best egg finder ever!
Granny Johns was born Susie Gertaline Duncan on April 17, 1912 in Chickasaw County Mississippi to James Virgil Duncan and Willie Belle Duncan. Grandpa Johns was born Arthur Evans Johns on August 2, 1909 to Thomas Jefferson Johns and Sarah Jane Whitt Johns in Chickasaw County Mississippi also. They married August 2, 1929. I don’t know a lot about Granny and Grandpa Johns, to be honest. I knew them in their 80s and as a little kid I loved them for what there were in that moment of time. I never thought to ask where did you go to school? When did you get married? We know bits and pieces like Grandpa Johns grew up near Buena Vista, MS and went to school there and played football in high school. He most likely attended Buena Vista Agricultural High School which opened in 1909 and was the first Agricultural High School in the state of Mississippi. Like a lot of my family they grew up farming and continued to farm their entire lives. Granny and Grandpa even lived in the Delta at Charleston, MS for a while sharecropping. They eventually made their way back to Houston, Mississippi and later to Mantee, Mississippi to the house I knew. They raised 7 kids to adulthood (including my grandmother Pauline) and lost 4 children along the way. Most of the kids were born at home, amazingly, with no drugs and little doctor’s care. Did I mention that Granny Johns was tough as a pine knot? The youngest, Fannie Lee Johns Ward, is still living and shared some of what she remembered. Lee was born in Vardaman, MS and was delivered by Dr. Edmondson. She was the 11th, and last, and poor Granny Johns didn’t even know she was pregnant! Grandpa had a nickname for just about all the kids - Fannie Lee was “Toot”, Pauline was “Polly”, James Earl was “Sal”, Charles was “Bo”, Wilburn was “Joseph”, Arthur Evans Jr. was “Jr.”, and Leroy was just Leroy.
Granny Johns had short jet black hair with just a little bit of grey. She was a tiny woman just barely over 5 feet tall. Her Native American heritage shown through in her dark eyes, perpetually tan skin, and high, sharp cheekbones. She would cackle and laugh in a way that would make you laugh right along with her. She was a fierce woman that could and did stand up to her mountain of a husband. She never learned to drive and dipped a little snuff from time to time. Fannie Lee also confirmed how tough Granny Johns was. One time she was hanging out clothes in the backyard when a man came up to her and put his arm around her neck and started dragging her away. Leroy and Charles had to run out and help her. Another time a man tried to rob her when she went to get her social security check out of the mailbox. She was able that time to run away and lock herself in the house before he could get to her. And bless her heart, she once saw a lion across the road from the house and no one believed her. Come to find out it was true! A lion had escaped from a small traveling circus and that was their lion.
Grandpa Johns was well over 6 feet tall and a veritable bear of a man. He wore size 54 overalls. When measuring for overalls you add a few inches to your regular waist size for a loose fit, but still, Grandpa Johns was no doubt a large man. He struggled with his “sugar” and lost a leg at the knee well before I was born due to diabetes. To me, he looked like a giant lying in his bed when we would go to visit. I would quickly give him a hug and then out the door I would sprint to play. To call Grandpa Johns eccentric was to call Faulkner a little different. He smoked a pipe and ordered his favorite tobacco through the mail and smoked Prince Albert in a pinch. The whole house always smelled of pipe tobacco. It’s a scent you never forget.
Grandpa Johns passed away when I was 7 at their home in Mantee on May 19, 1989. If he had lived to August they would have been married 60 years. He is buried at Gibbs Cemetery near Macedonia, MS and close to his childhood homeplace. You can read about Gibbs Cemetery by clicking HERE. Granny Johns passed away when I was 12 on October 28, 1994, at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Columbus, MS. She is buried beside Grandpa Johns.
Granny and Grandpa Johns might not have had much, but they loved their kids and I always remembered how proud Granny Johns was of each one, even the boys who could be a pack of scoundrels. They made sure that all of them got something of an education. As far as I know, 6 of the 7 graduated from high school, quite the accomplishment for the time period and where they lived. My grandmother left school in the 11th grade and went to work to help support the family. The two youngest, Fannie Lee and Wilburn, went to junior college at Holmes Community College in Goodman, MS. Three of the 5 boys served in the military - Arthur Johns Jr. US Navy, Leroy US Army, and Charles US Air Force. Those three also went on to own their own businesses. My grandmother as the oldest was the one that worried and took care of everyone. She worked a 40+ hour week in a factory, first a garment plant and then a ceramic tile plant as well as helping my granddaddy manage their 80-acre farm, raising two kids, and living with her mother in law. She was a tough, elegant lady. Granny Johns lived with my grandmother and granddaddy right after Grandpa Johns died for a while which is where I really got to spend some time with her and get to know her. She loved to talk and she loved Tabb and coffee. I don’t know if I ever really saw her drink any water. I get my coffee addiction honestly.
Granny Johns has been gone for over 20 years now, but I always think about her at funny times. Their house was purchased and moved somewhere over in Alabama, we think, but we’ve never been able to find out where. The place where they lived was vacant and grown over for many years but was finally purchased and a new family lives there in their shiny new double-wide trailer. But every time I go by there I look at it and still see the old place with the huge old trees and chickens in the yard, the barn sitting to the side where we were forbidden to enter, and the sandstone fireplace that rose up toward the sky that I liked to climb. It’s like I can take a transparency of the old and overlay it across the new. One of those moments where you can feel your age but still smile at the memories.
Thank you so much for reading! If you have made it this far, I have one request. Dear sweefamily that reads this, please, please, please leave your comments on this post! I would love to hear your memories, stories, and remembrances of these two. This is something that I have been wanting to do for several years and finally just bit the bullet and did it. I hope you liked it, and if you did please let me know. If you didn’t like it, let me know that too.
A huge thank you to my Mom, Kathy Pounds Lancaster, and my great aunt, Fannie Lee Johns Ward, who helped with their first hand accounts of Granny and Grandpa Johns.
Ps. There were a few other negatives in there of some kids I didn't know. If you know who they are please comment family of mine. Love yall!