Sunday, August 26, 2007

Wint Barton

George Winton Barton was born the year the Titanic went down, on a 300 acre farm near the Pocket up in that panhandle extension of Floyd County, Georgia. Next week he will celebrate his 95th birthday. He has had a hip replaced. He's alone now, Miss Frances died two or three years ago. He suffers from macular degeneration. "If it's right in front of me, it's not there," he says. That means he can't drive or weave baskets anymore. "I went out with my nephew to show him the kind of tree to cut for baskets, but I couln't even see enough to tell."

Despite all that, his mind is sharp as ever. Sheila and I give him a ride to and from church every Sunday morning. And he is downright jaunty as he walks to the altar at church to kneel for communion while people half his age stand because of bad knees. He likes to get to church a few minutes early so he can visit in the vestibule with other members before the eleven o'clock service. This morning the usher came out to tell us that our laughing and talking was disturbing the new middle service still proceeding in the sanctuary.

On Friday I stopped by the retirement home at 7:30. Mr. Barton was sitting on the bench out front raring to go. We drove up highway 27 toward his old stomping grounds and our modern elementary school. This day Wint Barton would be our "primary source" for our first week of social studies lessons. I suspect his visit will be one of the events of fourth grade that my charges will remember.

The librarian and I had set up the science lab for his interview -- a comfy leather chair at the front with a table along side for any show and tell he brought along, semicircles of chairs for the students, a loaded video camera on tripod preset to record the event for posterity, a big stack of photocopies of an article about Mr. Barton and his baskets from The Progressive Farmer, 1983.

I wondered if he could really fill the hour alloted for each class. I needn't have concerned myself with those thoughts.

Introducing him to my students, I said that I had known Mr. Barton since 1962. I asked if there were any math whizzes who could tell me how many years I had known him. Hands went up and we were started.

"I was born way back in," he raises his voice to a near shout, " 1912, and in ten days, I''m gonna have a birthday. Can anybody tell me how old I'm gonna be?"

The man was born for the stage!

When a child mentions her old North Floyd County surname he jumps in, "Are you kin to Weldon Touchstone?"

"That's my Pawpaw!"

Such joy on the faces of the ten year-old and the nonagenarian.

He answers questions::
  • Yes, 6 sisters and three brothers, all gone now. Six others lived into their nineties. The six girls were the oldest. He was the middle boy.
  • He started school "just up the hill" in Barton School. There was one teacher and about 25 students fron nearby farms. It got its name because his grandaddy had donated the land for the school.
  • No, they didn't have a cafeteria. You either packed a lunch or went home for lunch. His little first grade brother, Raiford, had begged his mother to pack him a lunch. Most of the other students lived too far to go home for lunch like the Barton children. Raiford wanted to eat with them and play during the lunch period. She finally relented. That was the morning that a student looked up at about 10:30 and noticed a glow in the cracks of the ceiling. They emptied the one-room school of children. The big boys managed to get all the desks out the door before the fire became too hot. But that was the end of Barton School and the end of Raiford's sack lunch.
  • He walked to Barton School, of course, but when it burned a neighborhood man modified a Model T truck chassis to hold a bed with a plank bench down both sides and one in the middle and a canvas Conestoga-wagon-style top. As far as we know that was Floyd County's first school bus. On it the twenty-five Barton school kids bounced down the dirt road three miles to the larger Everett Springs School. Everett Springs had three and sometimes four teachers.
  • As a boy his only "allowance" was any money he could make selling rabbits in Rome on Saturdays. For that enterprise he built thirty rabbit boxes and set them out around the farm. He checked them every other day. "Sometimes I'd catch none, or one, or two. But one day I caught nine!" He'd tote them back home in a burlap bag and put them in a holding pen. On Saturday, he would kill them. dress them, and take them to town to sell for 25¢ each.
  • No, he didn't fish much but some of his friends, such as Quillian Mills, liked to go "sacking". They would attach two bags to hoops, a large one and a small one. One boy would wade upstream on John's Creek with the sacks held at an angle to the bank. Another boy would wade downstream toward the other poking a stick under the bank to scare the fish into the sack. When the sack holder felt a fish in the sack he would twist the top quickly to capture it. Wint only tried sacking a couple of times and never had any luck with it.
At the end of each session he showed off his baskets.

"My daddy made baskets out of oak splits -- for picking cotton and other things. When I retired I decided to see if I could make one. And I could! After I retired I went to over 150 craft shows in 4 states and I sold over 3,000 baskets. I visited schools more than a hundred times to show basket making, till my eyes got too bad. For this basket I cut down the white oak tree, split the wood, and weaved the basket."
Of course some of the questions gave me an idea of the work I have ahead of me this year:

Child: Did you know [grandparent who lives in Ohio or North Carolina]?
Child: "Mr. Barton, did they have mail when you were a little boy?"
Child: "Did you live during the War of Independence?"

I've only scratched the surface of the questions he answered and the tales he told. He had a ball and so did the students and their teacher.

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