Memories of Brown County
A Conversation with
by Jeff Tryon
Sometimes Brown County folks argue about who all is a “real Brown Countian.” When checking their pedigrees, hardly anyone can get the better of Ralph and Garnet Parsley, who not only have lived in Brown County their whole lives, but whose family roots reach back to a time before there even was a Brown County.
Ralph was born in 1915 not far from the Gatesville Road farm where he and Garnet have lived since their marriage in 1938.
Garnet was born in 1917, the daughter of Ray and Lena Keaton, a middle child of 12.
When she was one, the family moved to “the new house” built from wood sawn from virgin timber off a 137 acre farm.
“In the winter we had a wood stove and we slept upstairs about three in a bed, boys in one room, girls in another,” Garnet recalled.
“We grew everything we ate. Mom would even bake bread three times a week, so we didn’t have anything ‘bought’n’.”
The family rarely went to town. If they needed something not produced on the farm they relied on a kind of mobile store they called “the huckster.”
They made their own entertainment.
“We had a ball team, you know, there were twelve of us. All the neighbors would come to our house on Sunday after church and we’d have a ball game. The boys had made a diamond out in the field with lime, and we even had bleachers made out of boards and boxes.
“We had hard times, like everybody did, but we didn’t know we were poor,” Garnet said. “We were happy. We had a good time together.”
After attending the Helmsburg School for most of his education, Ralph was transferred to Morgantown for his senior year. He graduated at Morgantown with the class of 1934 and is one of the last living members of that graduating class. It was at Morgantown where he met future wife.
“I saw him first,” Garnet said. “Sarah, his sister, and I were real good friends. He was a senior and we were sophomores…Ralph was standing against the school with his foot back on the wall. And I said to Sarah, ‘Who’s that good-looking boy?’ She just died laughing,” Garnet recalled. “She said, ‘That’s my brother!’
“That’s all that was said until we were over at church at Spearsville one Sunday evening. We had all kind of congregated out front when Ralph said, ‘Let’s go get a watermelon.’ Me and Irene and Delphi all went to his car and we kind of whispered ‘Who’s going to sit in front?’ So Ralph just came around, opened the passenger side door, and took me around. So, he got his pick,” she laughed.
“We bought this place in January of ’39, the year after we were married.”
Ralph said during his early years he “worked at everything,” including the canning factory at Edinburgh, where he earned a dollar every three hours for a fifteen-hour day.
“I’ve hauled gravel with horses and pulled them to death, too. I used to get the creek gravel for a dime and they’d give me 40 cents for hauling it. I’d load and haul four or five loads a day. I hauled sand and gravel on one of the first trucks in Brown County. It was a 1936 Indiana. Not too many people left in Brown County know what that truck looked like. It was wore out. On some of these hills I’d have to stop and clean the spark plugs before it would pull the hill.” All the gravel and sand was shoveled in and out by hand, of course. “If you’d send a man to Columbus today to get a load of sand and hand him a shovel, why he’d say he was overqualified for that,” Ralph laughed.
In the 1930s and ’40s Ralph farmed on four different farms, starting out with horse-drawn implements.
“I bought a Syracuse plow someplace—a 12-inch, two-horse plow. And I plowed with that until I got a tractor during the wartime. I shucked corn about every day all winter until I’d shucked 60 acres by hand,” he recalled. “Then I’d start up again.”
Ralph also had a brief political career in his younger years.
“In 1954, I didn’t have no better sense than to run for school board, somebody talked me into it,” he said. “I was on the second bunch of school board members there was. We built the first three schools in the county. I’m the only one left.”
Ralph also served as clerk. “We had a judge and prosecutor that came down once a month on a Saturday to have court. Back then before the young kids would get married, they had to talk to the judge about it first. After he got so he trusted me, before very long, he turned that job over to me. I would write on there ‘approved by Lybrook.’ I tried to talk them out of it,” he said. “They didn’t know what they were getting into.
“I had one of the best helpers anybody ever had down there, Dale Mathis’ wife, Betty (Bond) Mathis. She could type, and I couldn’t. I got pretty good at the job about the time I was through, I knew where everything was.”
After two terms as circuit clerk, Ralph worked a year as a grader operator for the county and then took a job at Indiana University, where he worked until his retirement in 1980 at age 65.
At the same time, he was milking a string of cows by hand. “You don’t find too many anymore that’ll do that,” he notes.
One of Ralph’s lifelong joys has been hunting.
“Dad and Harry Bell hunted every night and on Sunday they’d hunt rabbits,” Ralph recalled. “Dad was a coon hunter all his life. All my people hunted. We used to hunt in self-defense, you know, something to eat. We used to get a dollar and a quarter for a possum. Now you can’t get enough to pay for the bullets to shoot them.
Ralph is a deacon at Unity Baptist Church where he has attended church virtually his whole life.
I went there when I was about five or six years old and I’ve been going there all that time except for four or five years (in the mid-1930s) I went to Spearsville when it (Unity) was closed down.
“The first few years I went there, we went in a horse and buggy,” he said.
He recalled when the church was heated by a potbellied stove and men and women sat on opposites sides of the aisle. Reverend Bill Smithers performed baptisms in a nearby creek.
In his youth, the old Bethel Baptist Church was still standing and he and the Bell children would sometimes attend morning services there before walking up the holler to Unity for afternoon meetings.
The couple are ready members of the Bean Blossom Boosters and are nearly permanent fixtures at the annual Old Settlers festival held each summer in Clupper’s Grove.
“I haven’t missed but one or two in the 125,” Ralph joked.
“I went there the year before I was born,” countered Garnet. “Mom never missed the Old Settlers and I was born in December.”
The couple had two children separated by 17 years.
Wanda (Bunge) was born in 1939, attending the old Helmsburg High School and Franklin College. She became a teacher, taking time off to have three daughters.
John, born in 1956, attended Brown County High, Butler University, and Southern Seminary. He became an ordained minister, who currently occupies the pulpit at Plainfield Baptist Church. He has two sons. Rob, the youngest, has inherited a love of his grandparents’ old Brown County farmstead.
“He does like the farm and the animals,” Garnet said.
Ralph said when he was younger Rob would go out to greet the dogs before his grandparents.
“There’s one dog out there he saw the other day, he’s crazy about, he wants her,” he said. “I’m trying to get her to tree before I get to where I can’t get to the woods. I’ll let him have her if he wants her.”
“He (Rob) killed a coon two or three years ago when we took him coon hunting,” Ralph said. “He’s a good shot. Of course, he’s shot more shells now than I’ve shot in a lifetime.”