"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Hutchins B&B

have travelled all through the Deep South, and have stayed in over 100 antebellum and Victorian homes in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana.  The best ones were immaculately renovated and with enough furniture and appointments from the period to qualify for the Historic Home certificate.  The very best of these were those whose owners had some link to home’s past.  One such house in Vicksburg –Anchuca -had been recently bought by the great-great grandson of the owner during the Siege of Vicksburg.  He had the journals of his grandfather, and was able to tell what it was like to be in the house while Grant’s artillery, launched by land and river, thundered into the city.  A cannonball from one of the battleships in the Mississippi was still lodged and preserved in floor of the living room.

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The owners of a large rural planation house in Mississippi had kept the journals of an owner during the pre-War period.  The man was both a country doctor and a plantation owner, and his journals about ailments and treatments gave an insight into medicine in 1850.  His slave ledgers also gave a look into the economics of slavery – what he spent per capita in food, lodging, medical care, and clothing; and how much revenue each slave produced by his labor. 

One of the most fascinating stories of the South in the Civil War was from Earl Hutchins, the owner of a B&B in southern South Carolina.  It was no more than a hunting cabin in the woods, but the owner was an unreconstructed, fire-breathing Rebel, and he told about his family’s encounter with Sherman’s army as he marauded his way (living off the land) in his punitive march through the state.  

Hutchins was 6’7”, 82 years old; and looked like John Brown – the God-crazed, crusading abolitionist who killed, burned, and savaged his way to Harper’s Ferry “as though he was liberating Jerusalem itself.”  

I was the great-grandson of a Confederate major and slaveholder; grandson of a boy who witnessed Sherman’s depredations from the very window of his bedroom and watched his soldiers burn the barn, slaughter the cattle, rape his aunt, cut the slaves loose, and sledgehammer every piece of furniture in the house looking for silver; and son of a father who fought the vile arrogation of power of the Federal Government until his dying day.

Hutchins Run was settled in 1820 by his great-grandfather who had come from Virginia where he had been farming tobacco. He had a small plot of land which was getting tired, and he was sick of selling to the Carter family and their merchants and always in debt to them. When the Carters moved to the more fertile land of North Carolina, my great-grandfather trekked inland to homestead at Hutchins Run.

With his wife, three children, and five slaves he travelled by steamer to Charleston then by horse cart and mules over some of the worst, swampiest, buggiest, snake-infested terrain in the South; but when he got to Hutchins Run he was happy. The land – some 300 acres – was high, dry, well-watered, and not far from a trading post. There were few problems with Indians, and other settler families close enough to help out but not too close for comfort. He, his family, and the slaves cleared the land, built the cabin Hutchins used for the B&B, and started farming.

The house Hutchins lived in was built by his great-grandfather in 1845. At that time more land had been cleared, and the family raised dairy cows and some beef cattle. The number of slaves was around 15 which never changed until the War.

His grandfather was born and raised in that house and saw everything destroyed by Sherman’s army. Reconstruction was a bad time for the South, he said; and maybe the only consolation was that his grandfather never had to sell his land because of debt, nor had any Yankee carpetbaggers or freed slaves attempting to appropriate it.

His land was farmland, but hard duty land – not the flat fields of the Northern Neck or the lands east of the Shenandoahs where his folks had settled; and certainly not the Mississippi Delta. It was hilly and rocky, and every acre cleared was an acre of sweat and blood. For a hundred years harmony prevailed. Plantation owners lived in Aiken, Charleston, and Georgetown; farmers like Hutchins developed the rural inland counties; and poor whites and blacks picked cotton and worked the tenant farms. Labor and capital were in equilibrium. Society was structured, predictable, stable, and peaceful. I am not sure he had read Absalom, Absalom, but Hutchins’ family history was a lot like Faulkner’s Sutpens.

The Hutchins B&B where we stayed was, in Hutchins’ own words

About as much of a bed and breakfast as the Southern Pines Motel, a sorry piece of lumber that’s only good for pussy and sour coffee. There’s not much reason to stay at my B&B either unless you’re duck hunting or lost. We’re about ten miles into the woods from the nearest town, the accommodations are only fit for shooters and dogs, and despite the second “B” in B&B, there is no breakfast. I keep the name just to attract any strays that’re travelling from Georgia to the Low Country.

In the off-season, Hutchins’ liked to scare the few Northern tourists that happened on his B&B which was far from any place of interest – half way between Aiken and the Coast, remote, and off most maps and travel guides.  My wife and I were two of the very few non-hunter guests that had stayed there.

“Where’re y’all from?”, he said.

“Virginia”.

“Yeah, I can see that”, he said, looking at our license plates, “but where are you from?”

Before we could answer, three of his dogs came busting out of the brush behind us, and my wife jumped like she’d been stuck. Behind the dogs, a truck came banging up the dirt track, and out stepped Bud Lickens.  

“This here’s Bud Lickens”, Hutchins said.  It was a hot day and Bud looked like shit. His shirt was all ripped from tearing through the blackberries; his pants were wet like he’d pissed them; and his hat was all slimy and mashed in like one of his dogs had been chewing on it. His truck was beat up and caked with mud. The windshield was just a gummy slime. It looked like he hadn’t cleaned it in weeks, and he had just smeared the bugs back and forth with his wipers.

“So”, Hutchins said to us. “I asked you where you all are from”.

My wife said she was from Virginia, but she saw that he wasn’t buying any of that, so amended herself and added “Northern Virginia” which wasn’t any more a part of Virginia than Massachussetts.  I said “Connecticut” which got a tobacco-stained, smeared smirk, and I figured that to him the word must have sounded like a sticky tappet.

Fortunately for us, his wife came down from the house, and I could see the relief on my wife’s face. “Whew”, I knew she was saying to herself; and I figured it couldn’t be that bad if the toothless old bugger had a wife and there were women’s things in the house.

After we had gotten settled, Hutchins took us through his museum and the slave quarter ruins; out to the battlefield, the breastworks, and Confederate graves, and finally the gun house – a collection of antique muskets, carbines and rifles from the World Wars, and M-16s and AK-47s from Vietnam; and his own assortment of shotguns, deer rifles, thirty-ought-sixes for boar, and some fancy .22s with carved stocks.  He hadn’t built and assembled all this to get a rise out of liberal Northerners, but he did, and it was the piece de resistance.  Up until now he was an eccentric, stereotypical Southern Cracker – exactly what we had hoped we would run into on our trips south.  He was wild-looking, an unreconstructed slaver, and ranted on about events that had happened over a hundred years ago.  He was supposed to be like this.

The gun room changed him from a Southern caricature into a scary, armed, and dangerous mountain man, Yankee-hating demon. 

A number of years before, my wife and I had travelled by car from Washington to Guatemala by car, routing ourselves through the Deep South.  We were hiking in the deep woods of northern Alabama, at least 10 miles from our campground, and only at the half-way point where the trail hooked back up and around to where we started.  We always camped in National Forests, the least-frequented national preserves and the campground was already in a dark, heavily-wooded sector of the park.  Ten miles deeper into the forest, down at least a thousand feet and into a desolate, forgotten part, we had begun to wonder if we could trust the trail map and/or our sense of direction.  It was spooky down there.

Suddenly we heard noises coming from below us.  Bear? Panther?  Our worst nightmare, however, was now visible – three men on horses, banging slowly through the brush.  We had seen Deliverance not more than a few weeks before setting off on this trip.  We would be raped, buggered, and shot and no one would ever find us.  “How y’all doin’?, said the lead rider.  I have heard those words thousands of times since, but those were the most welcome, friendly, and comforting.

I relate this because even after the thirty years that had passed since the Alabama woods, we had retained our Northern prejudice.  Earl Hutchins absolutely, positively had to have hatred and murder on his mind – rid the world of another two dope-sucking, flag-burning, buggering, godless Yankees.  We were OK until the guns – then the full bore of the image of the crazed Cracker came right up into our faces. 

“Earl”, yelled his wife from the porch of the house.  “Why don’t you stop fulminatin’ and ask those nice people if they want some iced tea”.  Saved by a woman’s skirts.

It took years later and many trips to the South to get rid of most of those eerie feelings; and a pickup truck with a gun rack and confederate flag pasted on the back window will still gives me the willies.

We went on from Earl Hutchins’ place to much more predictable, safer, and genteel Southern homes.  The Rice Plantation in Monck’s Corner SC was a delight. 

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It was old and spacious, Spanish moss dripped from the live oaks, and a grand lawn stretched down from the back porch to the river.  It was another Southern stereotype, but it was beautiful, civilized, and very welcome.

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