My dad (left), Uncle Buck (right) and a bunch of bull (left, right and center)
Although Grandma’s hometown in northwest Indiana is far from the hills of Appalachia, we’ve always affectionately called that side of the family “a bunch of hillbillies.” And that side of the family has always called themselves “a bunch of hillbillies,” so it works for all concerned. Colorful stereotyped behaviors strongly influence this description, and family lore is thick to support it. I suppose most American families have at least a little hillbilly blood in their trees. Ours had an infusion straight from the Bluegrass State that enhanced our inherent hillbilly-ness.
During the Great Depression through the 1950s, many Appalachian families moved north to find work in the Midwest’s industrial cities. Perhaps Chicago was the ultimate destination when the Jackson family pulled up their Kentucky stakes and headed north on the hillbilly highway. If so, they came up about 90 miles short of The Windy City and somehow decided that Medaryville, Indiana, was the place to be. Maybe it was the area’s vast potato crop – how could anyone pass up a community nicknamed “Tatertown”? Whatever the reason, bringing a large family with a distinct Kentucky drawl to a tiny northern town of about 600 undoubtedly had an impact. For my family, the impact was direct: On Feb. 27, 1954, Ellard “Buck” Jackson married Mary Lynn Lowry, my grandparent’s second youngest.
It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall when Aunt Lynn and Uncle Buck told Grandma their marriage plans: Grandma often called the Jacksons “good-fer-nothin’ moonshiners,” and Uncle Buck called Grandma’s family (the Guilds) “a bunch of thievin’ horse thieves.” I’m not sure why. Maybe there really was some moonshinin’ and horse thievin’ goin’ on. Perhaps the Jacksons and the Guilds were Medaryville’s long-forgotten, smaller-scale version of the Hatfields and McCoys, without all the gunplay (I think).
Apart from the other two, Aunt Lynn is the better behaved of the middle three Lowry sisters … although considering the threesome’s complete behavioral tapestry, that’s not sayin’ much. When she’s with her sisters, Aunt Lynn’s inner-hillbilly fully emerges and it quickly becomes a women-and-children-first situation. Uncle Buck was a larger-than-life, straight-talkin’, no-guff-takin’ mountain of a mountain man. In the 1970s, Uncle Buck and Aunt Lynn bought some tree-covered land outside of town, built a home and opened Leisure Time Campground. This would be the site of many of our annual “hillbilly reunions” over the years.
Besides the usual camping accommodations, Leisure Time featured a music hall with a small stage and a kitchen. Just about anyone could get onstage to perform as long as the music was distinctly country. Uncle Buck was the leader of the house band. His showstopper was when he’d do a Kitty Wells impersonation. It’s something to see a large, mustachioed man in a women’s wig and flowered muumuu dress singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” in a perfect falsetto. After an evening of music, eating and drinking, we’d sit around a campfire and Uncle Buck would impart his pearls of hillbilly wisdom. In the morning, Aunt Lynn would fix the world’s best biscuits and gravy for everyone back at the music hall.
Sometime in the late 1980s, Uncle Buck found Jesus out in those woods. Soon after, Uncle Buck became Pastor Buck and Leisure Time Campground evolved into Leisure Time Baptist Assembly Church. The onstage music headed in a gospel direction, and Kitty’s appearances were less frequent. But Uncle Buck was still Uncle Buck, and Aunt Lynn’s cooking stayed the same. Praise the Lord!
Uncle Buck died in 2007 and, shortly afterward, Aunt Lynn moved to Indianapolis to be closer to their two daughters. The reunions out in the woods are gone, but the memories of good times, great food and occasionally weird musical performances remain.
Grandma would often provide updates from hillbilly headquarters:
“Buck and Lynn are still having music in the woods Saturday nights, and now they’re getting ready for the Fourth of July weekend. Then the hillbillies will really cut loose! They had one of those big weekends over Memorial Day too, and they gathered in from all over the country. There were around 6,000 people. They brought their campers and some had tents. It was really a sight to see. Now they keep calling in for Fourth of July tickets. When Lynn’s gone, I have to work the phones, and you can’t believe the crazy questions they ask. I just give them back crazy answers.”
“Brenda [my mom’s niece] has set her wedding date for July 13, and it’s to be in Terre Haute in the Catholic Church. He’s Catholic, but they haven’t made one out of her yet. And if that’s the wrong time for you, plan your doings and forget about hers. It’s just another hillbilly wedding. Brenda’s having trouble pleasing everyone. Steve [Brenda’s half-brother] wants your dad to give her away, but they think he’ll mess things up. So Steve said he’s next in line and if he does, then Dan [Brenda’s full brother] is left out and there Brenda hangs. If I was her mother, I’d take her up myself and say, ‘Here, take her – I’ve had her long enough!’ She’d just as well start a new trend. Well, I’d better stop. Have a nice Mother’s Day, and we’ll be thinking of you all. Love Mom
“P.S. Brenda goes into the hospital May 13 to have repairs made [huh?], and Steve goes in on the 14th to have the rest of his teeth pulled.”
“I was reading the paper Saturday night, and I always check the death notices. In the column before the notices, I read a heading: ‘Man Shoots Out TV Over a Family Quarrel.’ I laughed and said to your dad, ‘That sounds like hillbillies from Medaryville.’ I read on, and it was my sister and her husband! I called her and she said he was drunk when she got home and after supper, she turned on the TV. It made him mad because she wouldn’t talk to him. She said, ‘Who wants to sit around and listen to an old drunk all evening?’ She saw him go get the gun and wondered what he was going to do. She soon found out. He blew the TV all to hell!”
Unfortunately, my great-uncle and his family struggled with his alcoholism for the rest of his life. Our understanding and treatment of this disease have certainly changed in the 51 years since Grandma wrote this letter. But I don’t think the medical community has made much progress in addressing the condition that afflicted Grandma immediately after she read this account in the local newspaper. In scientific terms, they call it “flabbergasted,” and Grandma was never a fan of having her flabber gasted in any way.
Several years ago, my great-aunt and great-uncle’s (the TV slayer) oldest son began writing his memoirs, which he shared with the family. Alcohol is also the unfortunate catalyst for the following story from his memoirs, but the impact is firmly on the other side of the flabbergasted scale:
“On New Year’s Eve 1950, about 11:30 p.m., I had just picked up my fiancée, and we were headed for a private party. I was going south on the county line road and had just turned west. I had an old 1938 Chrysler, and I was about to shift into high gear when I noticed headlights coming up fast in the rearview mirror. We later learned it was an uninsured drunken driver. I had just filled my rear gas tank that night. The next thing we knew, he hit us in the rear at 100 miles per hour without touching his brakes. This shot our car off the road into a ditch. Our car rolled over three times, and it burst into flames. I couldn’t get the doors open, and the car was filling with smoke. A small restaurant was about 50 feet away from where my car stopped rolling. They were having a New Year’s Eve party there. One of the men at the restaurant got close enough to the burning car to yell in, ‘Is anyone alive in there’? I yelled back that I needed help with the door. I remember hearing people yell at him to stay away from the car because it was going to blow up. Thank God he didn’t listen to them. He jumped on top of the car and started pulling on the door as I was pushing up. With his help, the door finally opened. He asked if anyone else was in the car, and I said, ‘Yes,’ as I started lifting my fiancée into the opening. He pulled her out and got her away from the car. As he helped me out he said, ‘Jump! The car’s going to explode!’ So I dove off the car. I could feel the heat on my feet as the car’s gas tank exploded and engulfed the car in a ball of fire. As we lay on the ground checking our conditions, we suddenly realized that our guardian angel was my fiancée’s brother! I then understood how he won a Silver Star Medal for valor in the Pacific during WWII. We both owed our lives to his courage.”