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In February 1941, an article about the Harricane (or Harricanes as we’ve been kindly advised) appeared in the Wake Forest College literary magazine, The Student. A series of nine photographs accompanied the story, written by Neil Morgan. This is a slightly abridged version of that piece.
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Within the shadow of the Wake Forest campus there lies the extreme eastern border of the Land of Paradox. Old timers and farm suppliers call it the Harricane. But most folks don’t know it’s there.
Follow the road behind the gymnasium, take a right turn, a left turn, another right, and another left, and travel five or six miles east by northeast; you’re in the middle of this Land of Paradox. I know. Because I spent six weeks last summer surveying in the heart of the Harricane. There are something like 80 square miles of it–in Wake and Granville and Franklin.
The country? Just like its people. The people? Paradoxical. Industrious, but poverty-stricken. Friendly, but hostile. Happy, and yet despondent. Rough, still genuine. Rugged, but ragged. Clever, but ignorant.
Rough, bouldered, red hillsides with scraggly growths of cotton, and here and there a cluster of two or three log buildings around an old-fashioned open well….
Precipitous, rutty one-way roads that curve and bend like the contents of a dish of spaghetti–rocks big and little strewn around–weeds growing down the center of the road….
Sprawling, dimly-lit, never-painted crossroad-stores with crushed RC-Cola crates for steps, flour barrels for chairs, oil stove crates for counters, and dingy shelves lined with Tube Rose, hominy grits, ten-cent socks, canned beans, Blueboy overalls, and sardines, all side by side….
Giant 500-acre farms deserted–their streaked red dirt covered on every hill by brush and small pines–the only vegetation that will subsist; wagon paths erased and shackly houses and barns collapsing under the weight of tin roofs that mark the industry of immigrant farmers who didn’t know that nothing will grow in the Harricane….
Two-room schoolhouses–relics of older days–still in use by white and black alike because the school bus, “don’t git that fur.”
An occasional lovely, painted home standing out in bold relief against the poverty of the Harricane to pay tribute to education and culture–owned by men who went out into the world to learn the new way of life and yet came back home–home to the Harricane….
Rickety A-model Fords whose brawn have been defeated by the stones, the soggy clay, the bumps of the Harriane but which have gained new leases on life with Willys wheels, tinned-up windows, homemade seats, and open-air windshields….
All this is the Land of Paradox, the Harricane.
When you go in search of the Harricane, don’t expect to receive guidance from the natives. If you stop and ask a group in the field, they’ll all look sheepishly at one another. Finally one of the old men will volunteer, take off his hat, scratch his white head, and striding toward you say as he points far off in any direction–it makes no difference which–say, “Over that-a-way!”
But any Hurricaner will gladly tell you how the country got its name. It seems that some generations ago–there is some disagreement as to whether it was during the lifetime of Great-great-grandpaw Ezekiel’s third or fourth wife–“there were a big blow come through these heah parts. It kilt all the cattle and swep’ down all the houses. Ruint all the crops that y’ar. We named this country the ‘Harricane’ an’ that’s what folks has been a-callin’ it ever since.”
The rocky red land that characterizes the Harricane is pitifully unproductive. Cotton and corn are the only two crops that the people attempt to grow; and even these are not luxuriant. I stood atop a hill with a farmer late one cloudy afternoon in summer and looked over almost 200 rocky acres. We had walked over his entire farm and the only crops I had seen had been two rows of cucumbers and a row and a half of “roasting ears.” The fellow was illiterate, generally ignorant. But he had a keen humor and insight.
“This country used to have two good things,” he said tersely. “Corn whiskey and good well water. Now it’s got so you can’t even get good corn whiskey.”
So we walked over to his well and took some deep draughts. It was then that I saw his home. It was a two-room log cabin without windows or chimney; he lived alone.
Some chance remark of mine led him to try to explain his pitiful condition.
“Well,” he said, “I had a little tough luck last year. I lost what little money I had in the bank, and then my wife and pigs died.”
He appreciated my interest. He hastened to bring me three skinny cucumbers and invite me to return when his pears were ripe.
Through the middle of the Harricane the winding Neuse River crooks its way. Harricane roads reach dead ends on both sides of the river; and families on opposite sides, within calling distance of each other, go through their lives without knowing each other. Harricaners could have these bridges built; they’re rugged, industrious people….
Friendly folks? Well, their attitude is dependent on the outsider’s approach. They hold no objection to an intruder so long as he holds none toward them; but let one display a feeling of superiority, and his position is precarious. Let one put himself at the Harricaner’s service, and everything the man may possess is in turn at the outsider’s disposal.
The mark of education is found even in the Harricane. One gracious fellow owned all the land on both sides of a road for over two miles. We rode in his 1940 Buick to look over his crops. They almost prospered in among the rocks and clay. His home was a two-story brick affair, lavishly furnished. His family was educated, brilliant. He was proprietor of an up-to-date cross-roads general store, and operated too a cotton gin, a grist mill, and a sawmill.
Before I completed work on his farm I learned his story. He had been the only child of a typical Harricaner far back in the Harricane. His father had been killed, his mother died, and he had been sent by welfare officers to an orphanage…. He gained some education. He studied modern agricultural methods at State College. Finally he returned to build up his oasis in the Harricane desert…. the Harricane still seemed home to him.
An interesting contrast of this fellow were the big bad men of the Harricane–men who might have been like this prosperous merchant had they received education. Neighbors warned me of one fellow in particular. He had a reputation for meeting visitors with a shotgun. He was down on mankind, folks seemed to think.
I reached his place early one morning. His kids peeped out from behind shades as I walked up his front steps, which were almost collapsing from rot. Then, arms on hips, he appeared at his door and asked me what in h– I wanted. He was a giant of a man…. His stride was like a panther’s. His dog, just as bad and worse, helped to circulate a bit of my blood with his hot breath at my knees.
I explained that I was representing the government and wanted to check over his farm, and asked him if he would please be so kind as to come along and help.
I backed gently off the steps as he exploded, and he followed me. This was his land, he said, and no blankety-blank government man had a right to be on it. Then followed an oratorical outburst which enumerated the injustices he had suffered at the hands of the United States government and the numerous letters of apology received form Henry A. Wallace. His forceful conclusion was:
“You can’t measure my land. I got rights and privileges. I been having rights and privileges ever since George Washington discovered America.”
But I listened to his troubles for half an hour, agreed wholeheartedly, finally got his consent and cooperation in surveying, and we parted firm friends. That’s the Harricaner.
There’s one more side to these people–one that an outsider wouldn’t expect to find…. It’s sentimentality.
I remember an old, white-haired, stoop-shouldered little man who walked with me around his small farm. He showed me one field, set off from all the rest, grown up in small pines and stubble. I asked him why that field was not under cultivation.
“We hain’t tended that since my son did back in 1917,” he said. “That was the y’ar he went over to France. He didn’t never come back.”
Raw and uncouth though he was, this man, I concluded, was paying his dead soldier-son a greater tribute than many other Americans ever did.
It must be a pretty big world, after all, if a community within fifteen minutes of a great educational institution can remain fifty years behind.
But the Harricance is dying.
I talked to many old Harricane couples who told me of sons and daughters “making good” in mills and factories in the distant cities of Raleigh and Durham and Henderson.
“Susie and Ned wants us to sell our place and come into town with ’em. Says we’s too old and decrepit to stay out here by ourselves!” they would tell me.
And I would back up Susie and Ned and ask the old folks why they didn’t go. They never seemed to know–quite. But I did. The Harricane is its people; its people are the Harricane. Few of them have gone outside of Their Country for generations. The Harricane’s life is their life–its habits their own.
But here and there new things are creeping in, and old ones are going. Radio, telephone, and improved methods of transportation are finally biting through the Harricane’s thick crust of antiquity. School buses are traveling deeper and deeper into this Land of Paradox; mail carriers are bringing daily news to many of them.
Old things are always being replaced by the new. There’ll come another “big blow” one of these days. And the Harricane will go with it.