Hopkins County Ky Folk Lore

Hopkins County Folk Lore
Courtin' in the Old Days

By Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland


Dating in the old days was a lot different than it is today. In rural Hopkins County during the mid to latter 1800's, courtin' could be a long drawn out affair.

Where did a fellow take his girlfriend in the absence of movies, restaurants, arcades and ball games? How did the couples manage time alone to get to know each other? As we shall find out, in matters of the heart, if there's a will, there is a way.

The church was the life and breath of each community in those days. Churches were not only houses of worship but meeting places for socials, baby and wedding showers, and any occasion for which the people needed to meet.

A two-week revival was very much looked forward to by those young people of courting age. A boy or girl would have ample opportunity to look over the opposite sex for two whole weeks! What could be better! Girls would congregate together before the service in the churchyard. Coy smiles from dimpled cheeks sent the message that the girls were indeed interested in the group of boys lounging across the yard. Boys also "ganged up" together. With plastered down hair and shirts tucked haphazardly into Sunday pants, they scanned the "possibilities" of the females, who, for some reason were caught up in great fits of giggling.

Most of the young people already knew each other from school and family socials. Indeed several were related, which decreased the availability of sweethearts to choose from. Never the less, the process continued and usually with some level of success.

By the second or third night of the revival, the boys and girls had established "who liked who" and the race was on. A third person, usually a friend of the smitten girl, carried messages back and forth between the would be sweethearts. Notes were passed in rapid succession from Bible to Bible as the youngsters finally became bold enough to sit on the same bench with each other and designated friends. I dare say the preaching of salvation and redemption rarely penetrated one ear or mustered the slightest interest, though the preacher must have tried valiantly if he was any good a'tall.

If the boys and girls were pre teens, while keeping a close eye on them, parents were not overly concerned with the crushes of their young children. If they were teenagers or young adults, parents WERE concerned and paid a great deal of attention to the goin' ons at the back of the church. Sometimes a strict father sat in the back of the church keeping an eye on his daughter who was growing up much to fast for his comfort. Mother was hard pressed to give the preacher her undivided attention as she watched the back of the church more than the front. Of course these young people were well aware of the parental scrutiny and rose to the occasion. They stood with open hymn books with the rest of the congregation, bowed their heads for prayer, and even pretended to hear the minister while waiting for the next note to reach their eager hands.

If the attraction continued throughout the revival, boys would walk the girls' home after the service. A couple of miles of walking each way was no trouble at all for a young man with stars in his eyes. Even then there was little chance to discuss any growing feelings they might have had for each other. A brother or sister of the girl usually walked with the couple and mother and father were behind just a few yards much to the frustration of the lovesick twosome. Why, holding hands in the summer darkness was only attempted by the very daring and boldest of couples.

Many a marriage came about from the association with the community church and it all started on the back pews under the watchful eyes of the whole congregation.

Barn and house raisings were opportunities for potential lovers to meet as well. After the structures had been erected, dinner was spread on the ground for the hungry workers. Young people sometimes found a place to sit together, with plates in laps; they talked of everyday occurrences. The conversation was always casual knowing they were constantly under the surveillance of old and young alike.

Barn dances and singings helped promote the courtship of determined young adults. Singings were usually held in someone's home, changing locations each month. Young and old would arrive with "juice harps" and guitars for pickin' and singin'. If the home hosted a piano or organ, then so much the better. Songs of a religious nature were the most common theme " 'cause everybody knew them by heart." "What a Friend We Have In Jesus, Standing on the Promises, and Amazing Grace" could have been sung with great gusto and feeling. Popular songs of the day and songs created from the lonely times of the Civil War could also be heard drifting over the plowed fields and thick woods of the countryside. Everyone brought heaps of food and the singers ate, sung and made merry long into the night. Couples could stand next to each other while singing, and the term "rubbing elbows" was probably created out of necessity right there in some country parlor in Hopkins County, KY.

Couples took every conceivable opportunity to sneak outside under the guise of cooling off in the night air or even locating the outdoor toilet. Meeting for just a few moments, hands were held and many a "buss" was quickly planted on upturned faces at a designated meeting place. Of course these little conspiracies never went unnoticed by the people who deemed it their place in life to know such things. If the lovers were of age, it was to be expected and only the length of time stayed away from the wall papered parlor was of any note. A girl's reputation could be made or destroyed by the length of time she spent under the Oak Tree with her sweetie.

When the courtin' got down to the bare bones of the matter, the determined male would "come a callin." Back in the very old days, one very respectfully asked the father of the girl if he could call on his daughter. This was done before the first visit was ever made. If permission were given, the man would arrive dressed in his Going to Meetin' clothes and proceed to visit with the entire family. Sometimes not one private word was passed between the "intended" pair. Some of the farming homes were exceptionally small in those days having only two to four rooms in most cases. There was nowhere to go except the main living room, which was sometimes, a sitting room, bedroom and kitchen combined. Other houses were larger featuring several bedrooms, separate kitchen and a parlor used only if company came calling. Even if the home displayed a formal sitting room, the results were the same. The entire family would be in attendance, especially the younger siblings whose main goal in life had become the teasing of their sister. The conversation would by all accounts be stiff and unnatural even if the gentleman had known the family all of his life.

Again when one proposed marriage to the girl of his dreams, another meeting with the father predetermined if the aspiring groom was good enough for his daughter. Intentions as to the future he would provide for the daughter was discussed at length. Living arrangements, including income, were all covered in detail. If a zealous father needed to impress his own status as head of the family upon the young man, the meeting could become longwinded and torturous. All the poor fella could do was twist the brim of his hat and just endure.

After an engagement had been announced, a little more liberty for the couple could be had. Attending church together or a barn dance, corn shuckin' or the like could usually take place without a chaperone accompanying them. Still, the times a lady left her house and arrived at a public social with her future husband were still scrupulously noted by the parents and most likely by every female in attendance.

When the two lovers finally became man and wife, moving into a home of their own was sometimes simply unaffordable. The married duo commonly moved into the homes of one of their parents. In some cases they shared a bedroom with other family members. In this instance, one has only to wonder at the decorum and ingenious ways the pair managed to conceive children. Somehow it was all part of everyday life and no one thought anything about it. No one probably except the nervous bride. While clutching grandmother's wedding quilt with a death grip beneath her chin, faced not only a new amorous husband, but also a few of her new family members, sleeping not three feet away.

In time, a home was built for the newlyweds or a vacant house was rented. The happy couple, free at last began "to sit up housekeepin."

Given all the protocol these people had to endure, elopement was not uncommon. My mother talks of the time she and my father eloped in the dead of winter.

The year was 1932. Transportation had improved somewhat and cars were seen on the roads with increasing frequency. Singings and socials were attended now by persons living out of the area with use of the automobile. At one of these country singings, my mother, Glenna CARNER and father met. She says they were "crazy" about each other from the very start. My father Jewell BUNTIN was living in the area off Olney Road known as Purdy Town near Dawson Springs. A town it wasn't, not really a community either, just several Purdys living in close proximity to each other, gave the area its name. My father lived with his uncle and aunt, Henry and Verdie UTLEY Buntin. The Utleys were known throughout western Hopkins County for their fine singing voices and rich harmonies. They attended the monthly singings on a regular basis, and my father came along for the fun of it all.

My grandfather Will Carner, was a very strict man when it came to the courtin' of his daughters. Although my mom had been escorted home from church or socials by several eager young men of the time, Grandpa was always in attendance or one of her brothers. At about the same time she met my father's brother, Justin Buntin and his young bride, Opal Rhetta BOARD. Aunt Opal became a willing go between for the couple delivering letters for them and whispered messages.

The courtship had continued for almost a year when the young sweethearts declared their love for each other in letters. They even discussed marriage through the written word and planned their elopement. My mother could not gain the courage to talk to her parents knowing that the answer to her intended marriage would be a firm no. She was only fourteen years and nine months of age when she took the plunge and ran away with my father. He was six years older. Today we can well understand the concerns a parent has for couples that marry at this very young age. In those days however, many couples were given parental consent to marry at this age although my mother knew consent was an impossibility. The big crash of '29 had hit just a few years ago and the country was still reeling from the effects of it at the time of their elopement. Although my parents were deeply in love, mother states she would have waited until she was older if there had been any other way to escape the hardships of those times.

It was January 29, 1933 with freezing temperatures gripping the county. My mother walked to school that day with a few extra clothes bundled inside her coat. It was all she could do not to tell her younger brother who walked beside her, that she wouldn't be coming home again, ever. Of course she did return home for constant visits after the marriage but at the time she didn't think that would be a possibility. It broke her heart to leave him for they had always been close and took care of each other. As school was about to start my father appeared from the woods where the schoolhouse stood. Mom ran to meet him spurred on by fear that the teacher would try to stop them. In a mad rush, and hand in hand they fled through the woods and onto the road where a car was waiting. A friend of my father's, Aubrey HOWTON, drove the get away car.

The car was a Roadster. It had no windows or heater and the drive to Shawneetown, IL was long and miserable. They were covered in quilts but the coverings did little to protect them from the freezing temperature. Hands, feet and fingers ached and stiffened from the relentless cold. By the time a Justice of the Peace was found in Shawneetown, the freezing trio could barely emerge from the car. After an equally tortuous ride back to Hopkins County in the wee after midnight, shelter was offered at the home of my dad's cousins, Poke and Bell BARTON.

Food and a warm bed were given to my parents and they finally snuggled down for the remainder of the night. After a "little while" the equally frozen and stiff, Aubrey Howton, entered the room. Finding no other bed available, he plunged in beside my dad. Two of the occupants of the lone bed spent a very awkward night. The oblivious and snoring Mr. Howton slept quite well, thank you very much.

My parents were married for 16 years and had three daughters when tragedy struck our little family. While on a fourth of July camping trip to the Cumberland River at Kattawa, KY in 1949, we lost our husband and father forever. My oldest sister became pulled away by the powerful undertow current of the river. She was being swept further and further from the shore and in the full throes of drowning. My father rushed to the water, pausing only long enough to kick off his shoes, and swam to my sister. He too became caught in the undertow. With arms wrapped around each other they were pulled again and again to the bottom of the river. The last time they went down, he pushed my sister to the surface. A boat was racing to the rescue and the men aboard managed to drag my sister from the river. My father never surfaced that last time and we were never to see his face again. He remained in the river for three days.

My mother married again several years later to Clint DUNBAR of Hopkins County. This time a much wanted baby brother was born into our family. This marriage lasted many decades but my mother again lost the man she loved, this time to cancer.

You know, the customs and traditions of those long ago times may seem very harsh by today's standards. Children obeyed their parents and parents took care of their children. People were tough back then. They married and stayed married, through thick and thin, even though a divorce would have been justified in many cases. They also knew the value of respect. Rules for life were developed from trial and error. Although the rules were sometimes broken as in the case of my mother's elopement, the lessons learned reinforced the raising of her own children. Knowing what was expected of each person was a guideline and often a lifeline when dealing with the pressures and pleasures of everyday living. Respecting parents, your spouse and your neighbors was the rule of the day. Even when someone died, the respect and love the family carried for that deceased person, fortified them, sustaining them through the worst of times, pushing them ever onward to good times yet to come.

Copyright 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland



  Nancy Trice, © 2000