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Capturing Oral HistoryPosted Friday, January 29, 2010, at 3:19 PM
Just a few weeks back I was driving into Cape Girardeau on Bloomfield Road and remembered an incident that my mother, (Pearl Watkins Corbin) told me, about her experience of coming to Cape when she was a young girl. It occurred to me that this is a bit of oral history that should be recorded for posterity. I will not be able to post any specific dates, but by using my mother's birth date of August 20, 1896 as a focal point, I will try to give approximate dates and details of this incident.
It would have been about 1904, when mother was 8 years old, that the Watkins family was living on the banks of the Cato Slough in south Bollinger County. It was late summer or early fall, and they had raised a bumper crop of sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, and Sorghum Molasses, more than they needed to carry them through the winter. They decided to take these items to the big city of Cape Girardeau, where they could sell them and buy some winter clothes.
In preparing for this trip, they greased the wheels of the farm wagon, piled in enough hay to feed the team of young mules, and make a soft bed for the potatoes, as well as a good bed to ride and sleep on. Yes, I said, "sleep on," because it was about 30 miles to Cape, and it would take them three days to make the round trip.
For the first six miles, the road they traveled was a meandering path along the timber-covered banks of Castor River to Brownwood; then this dusty, or muddy, dirt road followed the railroad about three miles to Advance, a town of about 225 people. They came into Advance on the sandy road of Vine St. and went through town on what is now Sturdivant St. Then, they traveled east along the railroad tracks to the area known as Lakeville. There, they turned north to Rum Branch on the "Bloomfield Road" and wound around the base of Hickory Ridge Hill. It was almost impossible to cross the boggy, and swampy Old Field area, even in a wagon. There may have been a few automobiles in Missouri at this time, but my mother said that they did not see a car on this 30-mile trip. They did not have to be concerned about crossing the Diversion Channel, because this was before Little River started draining "Swamp East Missouri."
Even though this Bloomfield Road meandered around swamps, over steep hills, and through timber-covered valleys, it was the main thoroughfare across Stoddard and Cape Girardeau Counties during the early days of the 20th century. On the first day of this journey, the Watkins family followed this Bloomfield Road to a spring about three miles west of Cape Girardeau. This spring is still visible today; however, it is now just an algae-covered pond. However, my mother said that when they there in 1904 it was a small stream of cool clear water, gushing from the timber-covered hill. Here they camped for the night; cooked their meals on an open fire, and slept in the wagon bed of hay.
I can't recall that my mother mentioned anything about their experience of going ahead into town, but I can imagine that they drove their team of mules right down town in Cape, parked their wagon on the south end of Main St., where they spent most of the day selling their potatoes and sorghum for a pocket full of money, maybe even more than $25.00, which they used to buy some shoes, overalls, dresses and long underwear. They may have even had a few dollars left, as they made it back to the spring on Bloomfield Road, where they spent a second night under the stars.
They spent the third day driving back home, where my mother no doubt boasted to her friends that she had been half way around the world.
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Paul Corbin is a 100-year-old historian, humorist, and amateur archaeologist from Advance, Mo. He grew up in the Greenbrier area west of Advance, where he attended Stepp School on the banks of Cato Slough and the Castor River, important waterways throughout his life. In an age when many area residents did not go to high school, the young Corbin made the decision to walk the five miles to Zalma, graduating in 1933. Throughout his life, he was an enterprising businessman, selling Watkins products from house to house throughout a large area - and later opening a variety store in Advance. He and his wife Geneva traveled throughout the United States, even following the route that the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled. His knowledge of Native American culture is extensive, and he has donated a sizeable collection of his artifacts to the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center and the Bollinger County Museum of Natural History in Marble Hill. Throughout the years, he has submitted articles to TBY, the North Stoddard Countian, the Ozark Mountaineer, and several other Missouri publications. He has also written two books - "Reflections in Missouri Mud," and "Fragments of my Feeble Mind." The first one is out of print.
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