Tobacco Road Girl
by Pastor Dan White
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New Orleans has Bourbon Street. Memphis has Beale Street, and Augusta has the infamous Tobacco Road.
Tobacco Road in South Augusta, Richmond County, Georgia, got its name during the time before and after the Revolutionary War. Farmers raised tobacco, a cash crop, and had to get it to the Savannah River for shipment to England. The tobacco was placed in hogsheads weighing about one thousand pounds and pulled to the river by oxen. This route to the river became known as Tobacco Road.
Erskine Caldwell’s book, Tobacco Road, depicts the fictional Geter family in a raunchy and raucous narrative that brought shame to the South, Augusta, and the people who lived on Tobacco Road during the Great Depression. Caldwell traveled with his dad, a high school teacher and football coach at Wrens, Georgia, High School, and an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister. As he traveled with his dad on pastoral visits he saw terrible poverty and based his novel on an exaggeration of conditions he witnessed.
Caldwell depicted the Geeter family with gross sexuality, casual violence, selfishness, and an overall lack of decency. Caldwell took a shot at religion as well through the character of a woman preacher with no nose who ran around with a much younger man. At the root of the Geter’s family drama was their extreme poverty. According to Caldwell, poverty caused their behavior.
The novel was published in 1932. Ruth Schlein was four years old when it was published. Ruth was a Depression-era, Tobacco Road girl raised on Old Waynesboro Road which is not far from Tobacco Road. She said, “A lot of the things in Caldwell’s book, Tobacco Road, I saw growing up.”
Tobacco Road became a best seller. Soon after publication, a script was written for a play based on the novel. The play became one of the longest running plays in the history of Broadway. Later, a 1941 movie was produced based on the novel. John Ford, famous for his John Wayne cowboy movies, directed it. The beautiful and popular actress, Gene Tierney, starred in the movie along with Charley Grapewin, who also played Uncle Henry in the Wizard of Oz. Another star in Tobacco Road was Dana Andrews who had a long and productive movie and TV career.
There is another Tobacco Road story - a true story. It will never be the basis for a best selling novel. It will never be made into a Broadway play or a Hollywood movie. It is the story of a decent, God-fearing, and generous family. Such material doesn’t make for best-sellers or long running plays. It is the story of Ruth Clark Schlein and her generous, poor, humble, and gentle family based not far from Tobacco Road during the era of the Great Depression. Ruth’s amazing story can be seen through the lens of her favorite passage, Psalm 23.
The Lord is my Shepherd. Minnie Clark’s reputation spread by word of mouth concerning her skills as a seamstress. Rich women from Augusta drove down the dusty roads with beautiful cloth to be transformed into designer dresses. Every half dollar Minnie made for making a dress helped fight their grinding poverty. For hours and hours Ruth’s mother, Minnie, worked tirelessly at her sewing machine.
Minnie became pregnant in 1927 and toward the third trimester, she knew this pregnancy was different and delivery at home was going to be risky. She was carrying twins. Most Depression-era children were born at home. A hospital delivery was not an option. Hospitals cost money, and they had none.
One of her loyal customers was Mrs. Green whose family owned the Green Creamery on Telfair Street in Augusta. They were well-to-do.
Mrs. Green made a trip to give a dress order. She said, “Minnie, you can’t have those twins at home. You’ve got to come to Augusta and have them in the hospital. You can stay with me. I’ll pay for everything.”
The Lord looked after them through Mrs. Green. Ruth and her twin sister, Marie, arrived on February 16, 1928, at University Hospital. It was a breech birth. Their mother surely would have died in childbirth at home. Ruth and Marie could have died too. The Lord is my shepherd.
I shall not want. There was precious little to eat in those days. The cupboard was often bare. Both children and adults were thin and skinny as a rail. Ruth and her family ate what they raised on the one mule, twelve acre farm her father owned. They had a few peach and apple trees, and a cow.
They could count the chickens through the gaps in the flooring of their little four room house built by Uncle Lonnie Smith. To keep out the harsh winter winds, they put down a quilt to fill the space between the door and the floor. There were no screens to keep out summer’s biting insects and flies. In the summer, Ruth and Marie stood with a cloth in their hand fanning the food to keep the flies away at meal times.
Ruth and Marie attended school in Hephzibah. Before they got on the old school bus, they ate a breakfast of corn mush. By lunchtime, they were very hungry and sat in the lunch room with nothing to eat while others who had money bought a lunch. Through the kindness of a lunch room lady, they were able to eat from time-to-time. For supper, they ate whatever was in season and available. A common supper consisted of grits, tomatoes, maybe a piece of meat, and anything else that could be scraped up. There was no going to the store to buy sugar, flour, or other staples. Desserts were unknown. Winters were especially hard. If the garden harvest had not gone well, their canned goods made in Minnie’s kitchen were quickly gone.
During the Depression, it was common for beggars looking for work to stop at a stranger’s house and ask for food. Ruth said, “Momma always found something for them. I don’t how she did it. It was not uncommon to have strangers sleeping on the porch as momma gave them a place sheltered from the elements for the night.”
The little girls were put in charge of fetching the water from the spring two miles away. Water was precious. Every drop counted. Nothing was wasted. It was a great day when Nettie’s husband (Ruth and Marie’s brother-in-law) came to dig their well. Ruth said, “We almost killed him.” He had dug down about eight feet. The dirt was removed from the well by lowering the bucket attached to the windlass. The dirt was placed in the bucket and then pulled up to dump it. Ruth and Marie were given charge of operating the windlass. Their little arms began to ache and their fingers hurt from the winding and the load of the dirt-filled bucket. They could hold on no longer and the bucket went down pell-mell landing on the head of Nettie’s husband knocking him unconscious. “We thought he was dead! We thought we had killed him!” He regained consciousness to the relief of all. After a few more days of digging, he finally found water at about fourteen feet. The four mile round trip to the spring came to a grateful end.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
I'm gonna leave Tobacco Road
and get myself a job
with the help
and the grace from above.
- by the Nashville Teens ( a 1964 Rock and Roll group from England who had a top ten hit with their song, “Tobacco Road.”)
Ruth knew there had to be green pastures and still waters somewhere. And, she knew it wasn’t going to be found living near Tobacco Road. Her dad, Samuel Ellis Clark was condemned and gossiped about by cruel neighbors. “He’s lazy. He don’t work.” This was about the time Ruth and Marie turned twelve and thirteen. The girls had to grip one side of the band saw and dad gripped the other side to cut firewood for the stove. He couldn’t hold out long. Exhaustion overtook him quickly. Times got even harder. No one knew he was weak from cancer which would soon kill him.
Ruth and Marie like most of the children in that era worked hard. “All I knew was a straw hat, sweaty clothes, no shoes, and work, work, work,” according to Ruth. Only a few months after her fourteenth birthday, Ruth’s brother invited the girls to travel to nearby Butler Creek to see some girls he knew. “Setting on the porch banisters was the most handsome and wonderful man I had ever seen. He had coal dark hair and sparkling blue eyes.” He was Herman Schlein, eighteen years old with a job in Augusta working for Green’s Creamery. He even owned a Model-A Ford. Trips to see Ruth became frequent.
After three months of dating, on one hot, sultry July day in 1942, Herman and Ruth took off to Edgefield, South Carolina, to find Judge Garfield. “You’re just a little girl,” he said to Ruth, “and, you want to get married? How old are you?”
Ruth replied, “Fourteen, sir.”
“Well little girl, do you want to be eighteen?”
“Well then eighteen it is.”
The judge pronounced them man and wife. Herman thanked him, gave him three dollars, and headed back to Georgia with his new bride.
Ruth and Herman kept their marriage a secret from Ruth’s mom and dad for three months. They acted like they were dating. One night Herman didn’t return Ruth to her home until one o’clock in the morning. Her momma scolded her, “Ruth, what are you doing staying out so late on a date?”
Ruth retorted, “You mean I can’t stay out with my husband?”
Her Momma cried. The next day, Minnie called Ruth’s school and told them she was married. That ended her education - at least for a time. Her dad told Herman to get a place for them. She packed her things and they moved into a one room furnished apartment on Greene Street in Augusta near Herman’s work at the creamery.
No more poverty. No more picking peas, picking cotton, or picking beans. No more sweat or straw hats. Ruth had money for the first time. They could go out for a hamburger. Buy a coke. It was the green pasture and the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. As a little girl, Ruth walked barefooted the almost two miles to and from Pine Hill Baptist Church on the dusty road with her family. Occasionally, the preacher gave them a ride back home. She wore a dress made out of a flour sack by her mother. Her mom and dad were charter members of the church that her dad helped build. Her dad was a deacon but was discriminated against by the richer people in the church. Ruth remembers it quite well. “Old man Catle was chairman of deacons. He was well off and because dad was so poor, he wouldn’t let dad pray in the service or take up the offering. My sister, Marie, and I were not allowed to take part in any church activities or the children’s plays. Although one time, the church pianist made us an angel costume out of a sheet for the Christmas play, and we were able to take part.”
Ruth’s dad was a gentle and kind man. Not one time did he ever hit or spank any of the children. Sometimes, her mom would get a peach tree switch. That would always bring out Trouble, their yard dog. He loved Ruth and Marie with a loyalty so fierce that Minnie couldn’t whip them. Trouble would snap at Minnie and often saved the girls from a switching. The only way Minnie could switch them was to first tie Trouble to a tree.
Ruth refused to be baptized in Spirit Creek where the rest of the children and adults were baptized. “The water was too cold,” she said! After she moved to Augusta, she joined Second Baptist Church on Wrightsboro Road and was baptized in their heated, indoor baptistery.
She raised her family in the ways of righteousness in that church, and the promise of God was fulfilled. “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). All of her children and grandchildren follow the Lord and are active in their churches. She has great comfort knowing that she will one day in heaven see her son, Lester, who died on February 9th.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Ruth had hardly ever traveled outside Richmond County. Five months after she was married, Herman was drafted into the armed forces in January 1943. She stayed in Dothan, Alabama, while he trained at Ft. Rucker. Then, it was off to Arizona and California where he deployed for war in the Pacific. Herman fought in six major battles including the battle for Guam (July 21 - August 8, 1944) where over 1,000 American soldiers died and over 7,000 were wounded.
Ruth returned from California to Augusta and lived with her recently widowed mother while Herman fought the Japanese in the Pacific. Her mother had found a job serving as the matron for the women studying nursing and was given an apartment in their dormitory. One of the ladies for whom she made dresses helped her get the job. This job would eventually lead her mother and Ruth into the nursing profession. Her mother became a nurse through the letters from the doctors who knew her and saw her work. This led to a waiver which allowed her to take care of sick people. Her mother’s example of working with the sick and Ruth’s love of people caused her to want to be a nurse too.
Lester was born at Ft. Gordon shortly after Ruth’s 15th birthday while Herman fought in the War. The War officially ended on August 15, 1945. But for thousands and thousands of veterans like Herman, it continued. The valley of the shadow of death hovered over him for years after the War. The death of his buddies, the carnage, the killing, and the close calls on his own life affected him. The Herman that left in January 1943 was not the same Herman who returned to see his two year old son for the first time in the fall of 1945.
To kill the pain of war, Herman turned to alcohol. For Ruth, the rod and staff of the Lord comforted her and gave her strength to be a mom and a wife with an alcoholic husband.
Ruth ran into her pastor, Dr. W. T. Chewning, at the A & P grocery store one day and confided in her pastor. Dr. Chewning counseled with Herman and assured him that he would be accepted by the church. Eventually, Herman was baptized and a radical change for the better swept over him.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Before Herman’s transformation, Ruth worked at the Swift Packing Company to supplement the income of her husband who had a job with the City of Augusta in the roads and bridges department. She was subject to constant layoffs. She wanted a stable job and decided to go to nursing school.
Her desire was met with immediate resistance. People told her, “You’ll never make it. You only have a G.E.D. You didn’t even finish high school. You only have a 9th grade education.”
Herman was against her plan too. She enrolled anyway during a layoff. Shortly after she enrolled, she was called back to work. Ruth sadly took her books back to her nursing instructor and told her that she wouldn’t be coming back to school. Mrs. Blocher told her, “I’m keeping this spot open for you. I’ll save your books for you.”
A week later, she was laid off again. Herman finally acquiesced to the desire of his determined wife. She set about to become a Licensed Practical Nurse. Lester was in the 10th grade and tutored his mom in math and algebra. Her youngest child, Calbert, helped her with her written work. She finished the nursing course and passed the State Board on her first attempt. Her cup ran over.
Ruth would go on to become a leader in the nursing profession in Augusta. She organized the 10th Division of the Georgia Professional LPN Nursing Association and was elected president in 1971.
In spite of all those who were against her and in spite of her academic deficiencies, the Lord prepared a table for her through His grace and her determination and hard work.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. The goodness and mercy of the Lord follow Ruth then and now. Herman’s father who immigrated from Germany and settled in Augusta died when Herman was young. His widowed mother married a man from Modoc, South Carolina.
His step-father was a brutal and abusive man who beat Herman’s mother and Herman. When Ruth met Herman, he showed her black places on his back from the brutality he suffered. He ran away from home as a teen-ager slipping away at night. He walked bare foot from South Carolina to his Aunt Gussie Schlein’s home near Tobacco Road. Herman was taken in by her, and she showed him goodness and mercy. Herman went many years without seeing his mother and didn’t see her until his step-father died.
When Ruth married Herman, nay-sayers told her, “Your marriage won’t last. You all are too young to know what you are doing.” But, the goodness and mercy of the Lord followed them for 54 years of marriage and three children, Lester, Connie, and Calbert. Their home was built on the values of the Bible. All three finished college and all the grand children who have completed high school have college degrees. All are following in the footsteps of faith walked by Ruth, Herman, and Ruth’s parents.
After Herman retired, he wanted to get out of the city and move to the country - something Ruth was a little leery about. They bought a few acres and a comfortable home in North Columbia County, Georgia. Shortly after retirement, Herman died. She faced life alone.
But, the goodness and mercy of the Lord followed her even as a widow. She was visiting an older sister near Varnville, South Carolina - in the Low Country and stopped for a cup of coffee at Hardees. A gentleman walked up to her and said, “I don’t think you are from around these parts.” Ruth explained that she was there to visit her sister but wasn’t sure that she remembered how to get to her house. “Oh, I know where she lives. Let me go with you.” The rest is history, as they say. Ruth and Jerry Cummings, a widower, have been together for seven years. They both have new life - a life of blessings together in the sunset of their years.
Ruth says, “It’s been one step at a time. I’ve prayed for the Lord’s help, and He has helped me. I wanted my children and grandchildren to have what I never had. I love my children, and the Lord is helping me with Lester’s death. I love my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, and my nieces and nephews.”
Ruth is a charter member of North Columbia Church and was the first person to join the church. She said, “I love my church and pastor, Brother Dan, his wife, and Ramona, and pray our church will grow. It’s exciting to follow my mom and dad who started a new church too”
Ruth has dwelled in the house of the Lord. The Lord shepherded her through hard times. He has brought her to the green pastures and restored her soul. She has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. The goodness and mercy of the Lord follows her forever, and her cup runneth over. The little bare footed girl who once dressed in a flour sack from near Tobacco Road prays that all will find their way through the goodness and mercy of the Lord even as the Lord has blessed her and led her in all these years.
Rev. Dan White is a free-lance writer and founder and pastor of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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