Introduction

Highway 80 is a stretch of road that ran at one time from California all through Georgia and was once part of the early auto trail known as the Dixie Overland Highway.

However, the entire segment west of Dallas, Texas, has been decommissioned in favor of various Interstate Highways and state highways. Currently, the highway’s western terminus is on the Dallas–Mesquite, Texas city line. The highway’s eastern terminus is in Tybee Island, Georgia, just past Savannah.

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My focus will be the stretch from Dallas to the other side of Macon, Georgia.  I will tell the narrative of nine families going back to when they first came to America and more specifically when and how they got to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia.

These stories will be told in song.

Clara Sprague Robison (1911-1993)

Clara Sprague Robison was born in the mountains of north Georgia, in early 1911.  Her father was a sustenance farmer but after a series of deaths from influenza in the early 1920s, first her younger brother then her father, the family fell on hard times. Eventually, a fellow from off the mountain heard about their situation and stopped by their farm one day on his way back after delivering a piece of furniture to offer this help.  This was Johnny Campbell, a local carpenter and general handyman who lived in the valley.

There was an attraction felt immediately between Clara and Johnny but they did nothing to act on what they both felt, initially somewhat scared of the power of the emotions.  It wasn’t until he came to her mountain church, a not insignificant journey, did Clara allow her feelings to grow into love (see song “A River Running Wild“).

Clara and Johnny would soon marry and have three children, Marcus, Nora and Emily before Johnny is killed in WWII.

Clara is the great-grandaunt of Pearl Robison.

“A River Busting Free”

This story takes place in Conyers, Georgia, early 1933.  Clara Sprague Robison (1911-1993) sees her future husband, Johnny Campbell (1905-1944), at church one Sunday.  Clara had met Johnny before, but only briefly, and she knew he lived off the mountain. The fact that he came to her church as opposed to the one he regularly attended was significant to her, letting her know that he made the trip specifically to see her.  Clara is the great-grandaunt of Pearl Robison. Clara and Johnny would have three children, Marcus, Nora and Emily before Johnny is killed in WWII.

A River Busting Free
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Johnny came to our church that Sunday,
Him on the mountain was a surprise
I’d have to walk right past him
Lord I thought I might die

I seen the look in his eye
Like there was no one but him and me
Something rose up in my heart
Like a river runnin’ wild busting free

Johnny touched his new wool cap
As I hurried past him up the steps
All through the preachin’ I felt his eyes
On the back of my neck

I seen the look in his eye …

Soon as the service was over
Goin’ outside filled me with dread
Johnny took my hand, we started walkin’
I couldn’t tell you a word of what we said

I seen the look in his eye …

© 2018 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Tullison Monroe Tate (1866-1948)

Tullison Monroe “Tully”Tate was the direct descendant of the major landowner and planter of Perry County Alabama, Thomas William Monroe but was not considered an heir because he was an illegitimate offspring.  Tully was just another cotton sharecropper, on his grandfather’s land with no more status than any other black farmer  in Alabama around the turn of the 20th century.  The reason he was not acknowledged as a true Monroe heir was not simply because he was born outside of marriage, but more importantly, because his grandmother was a slave whom Will Monroe had impregnated in 1844.  The result of this miscegenation was Tully’s mother Celsie Monroe.

Celsie was briefly married to a white man, Joshua Tate, and Tully was their only child before separating.  Tully was a cotton farmer whose status within the community was complicated by the fact of his heritage, which everyone knew, calling him Monroe’s Tully (see song “King Cotton“). After leaving Tully’s father, Celsie would go on to marry Mingo Harper, also a former slave, and they would have four other children, two of whom would play a not insignificant role in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s.

Tully Tate would marry Pearl Robison, the daughter of Ruby Robison and Levi Motts resulting in the birth of Hazel Tate.  Hazel would in turn marry Virgil Raney, descendant of Lonsom Raney producing a son, Vernon Raney, husband of Molly Motts. This created the complicated reality that Tullison Monroe Tate’s mixed blood ran through the various strands of the Tate, Raney, Motts and Robison families.

Almost exactly one century later there would be another Tully Tate, the son of a country singer in Louisiana.

“King Cotton”

It’s July 1899 and Tullison Tate (1866-1938) is sitting in his wagon, loaded with cotton, in line waiting for it to be ginned.  The Monroe family has owned most of this Perry County, Alabama, town’s businesses including the gin. Tully’s grandmother was a slave from a neighboring plantation, Jessie “Crawford” (1828-1905), who was impregnated by Thomas William Monroe (1812-1909), producing a mixed blood daughter, Celsie in 1844, Tully’s mother.  Tully’s status in the community is as complicated as his blood.

King Cotton
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Line of wagons filled with cotton
Moving up one by one
Line ends at Tommy, Jr.
Ol’ man Monroe’s son

Monroe owns the gin, an’ smith
The bank, an’ the store
It’s been a Monroe town
Since before The War

Heard ’em say cotton is king
Well, I ain’ seen one yet
The more I work, all it seems
The more I get in debt

Price of cotton keeps fallin’
Soon it won’t make sense to plant
Most are still plantin’ and pickin’
A few walked off their land

Sittin’ in a wagon of cotton
Won’t get ginned ’til ‘roun’ four
Tommy says what I got comin’
Less my bill at the store

Heard ’em say cotton is king …

They call me Monroe’s Tully
Makin’ sure I know my place
Tom Monroe is my granddaddy
But my grandma was a slave

© 2018 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Ruby Jones Robison (1955)

Ruby Jones Robison is Pearl Robison’s aunt, on her father’s side. Ruby was also from Conyers, Georgia and for whatever reason, wanted to get as far away as she could. She chose Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas when she went off to school, over 1,100 miles away.

She was a freshman when she met Darrel Haynes, a senior and with his wiry frame, Restitol hat and slow Texas drawl, he swept her off her feet. He was an engineering student and had a job in hand upon graduation at Baker Oil in Midland, Texas.

Ruby just managed to graduate before marrying Darrel in 1977.  An engineer at Baker Oil makes good money, and compared to her upbringing, Ruby felt like she was rich.  They lived in a 3,000 square foot house, to her a mansion, and she drove a Mercedes Benz. They had a good life and were happy for the first few years, but things started to sour when it became obvious that marriage was not enough to keep Darrel from succumbing to the attractions of single women in the local bars.

When Ruby lost their first baby, a little girl, and Darrel’s reaction was crudely insensitive, the next piece of evidence that she found of his cheating pushed Ruby over the edge and out the door. It took some courage for Ruby to walk away from the kind of life she had, but she was made of strong stuff.

She rode a bus the entire 1,000 mile journey back to Conyers, nursing a bottle of bourbon the whole time. By the time she got back home she had pretty much put Darrel behind her. What she grieved over more than anything was the loss of her little girl, whom she named Catherine Jane after her mother and grandmother.

Ruby stayed in Conyers and went to work for an attorney, who later proposed, and remained a close confidant to Pearl. Eventually Ruby told the story of the failure of her first marriage to her sister Ruth Ann Robison long after the fact (see song “Feel Like Dirt“).

 

“Feel Like Dirt”

Ruby Jones Robison (1955) is Pearl Robison’s aunt, her father’s sister. Ruby met Darrel Haynes (1951) at Texas Tech in Lubbock, TX, and they were quickly married settling into a house in Midland in 1977 where Darrel had gotten a job at Baker Oil right out of college. They were happy for a few years, but when they lost their first child, a girl, it broke the marriage up. Ruby was 32 in 1981 when she decided to leave Darrell and go back to Conyers, Georgia, her hometown. This song encapsulates a conversation she had with her sister, Ruth Ann, told in both of their voices, several years after the events.

Feel Like Dirt
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

She got on the Greyhound with her suitcase
And her little patent leather bag
Had two Cokes, a package of peanuts,
And a fifth of Ancient Age

“I nursed that bottle all across Texas,
But I was sober when I crossed the Georgia line, in fact.
Lord, I cried those first few weeks
But I didn’t look back; couldn’t look back.”

“It was either kill the man or leave
Killin’ was more trouble than he was worth
Gettin’ on that bus made sense to me
First time in a long time I didn’t feel like dirt”

She left everything in the house
And nothing of herself behind
She dropped her keys on the kitchen table
Along with the reason why

It was a matchbook she found in his jeans
A heart with a phone number inside
All those loads of laundry
The dreams she compromised

“It was either kill the man or leave …

She got on the Greyhound with her suitcase
And her little patent leather bag
Had two Cokes, a package of peanuts,
And a fifth of Ancient Age

© 2018 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). (Hat tip to Dorothy Allison for the image that inspired this song.)

“My Pocketknife”

It took a couple of years longer than in other towns, but The Great Depression finally hit Oil City, Louisiana in 1932.  The price of oil plummeted and work ground to a stop.  They capped the wells and hauled the rigs away, to wait for better times.  In 1934, out of all other options, Lee Allen McLemore and his thirteen year old son Charlie hit the road looking for work, and like many others head west to California.

My Pocketknife
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Charlie and his father crawl up the embankment
Hidden by the bend they crouch and wait
The train’ll have to slow down maybe just enough
With any luck they’ll grab that freight

Charlie and his father left Oil City at dawn
Somethin’ called The Depression had arrived
Work was for the takin’ out in California
Pickin’ cotton under sunny skies

Long as I have my pocketknife
I’ll be alright, be alright
I can make it through the coldest night
Long as I have my pocketknife

Charlie and his father join a migrant army
Ride the rails with tramps an’ hoboes
Tent camps were jungles, danger everywhere
Do your best to hang on to your coat

Charlie and his father dodge a railroad bull
Hidin’ in the tender ’til he’s gone
A man was crumpled in the corner, frozen overnight
It’s a damp and cold L.A. dawn

Long as I have my pocketknife …

© 2018 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Lee Allen McLemore (1903-1965)

Lee Allen McLemore was the son of a oil strike wild-catter and the father of a multi-national corporation executive. His life bridged the wildest years of the oil boom, it’s crash during the Depression and then the economic surge after the Second World War.

His father was Jacob Mac McLemore and his son was Charlie McLemore.

Lee Allen might be seen as having been over-shadowed by both of these other men but he was a capable and resilient individual who made it possible for both his father and his son to realize their dreams.

His life was cut short by a oil rig accident, he died at the age of 62 when a over-pressurized well exploded.

“Oil City”

Charlie McLemore, Jake’s father, talks about growing up in his hometown of Oil City, Louisiana. During the first decades of the 20th century oil was discovered in Texas and Louisiana and until the Depression forced the speculation to pause, fortunes were made and lost. Oil City and the McLemore family were a small part of that history.

Oil City
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Oil City is my home
Ain’ pretty but I belong
Grey and gritty, right or wrong
Oil City is my home

Aught-five oil came from the ground
Oil City was a wildcat town
Wooden sidewalks and hitching posts
Boom towns ain’ got no ghosts

Aught-six grandpa McLemore
Had a little money but wanted more
Oil City was where grandpa came
Gamblin’ on the big oil game

Oil City is my home …

Few years pass and the fever died
Were other towns, other strikes
1917 it almost burned down
The whores all left town

Dad went to work at J.M Guffey
We stayed in Oil City
Grandpa went broke in the Depression
Kept chasin’ oil, died in Odessa

Oil City is my home …

© 2018 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Charles Taylor “Charlie” McLemore (1921-2001)

Jake McLemore’s father was Charles Taylor “Charlie” McLemore.

Charlie grew up during the depression, traveling with his father, Lee Allen, on trains, with other hobos, with the putative goal of finding work. When the crash hit the oil industry, it took longer than for most other industries, but eventually the bottom fell out of the oil business in 1932. The wells were capped and the rigs hauled away, leaving the men who had depended upon the work stranded in small oil patch towns with no other opportunities for work. Many of them joined the large numbers of itinerant men riding the rails. Some looked for work but many had given up and made do as best they could.

But when we think of hobos riding in boxcars we don’t usually think of children doing the same thing. But when families had no money, little food and nothing on the horizon, they simply sent their children away to fend for themselves, as best they could.

“At the height of the Depression, as many as a million teenagers traveled the rails looking for work and community, moving in vagabond packs and living in hobo jungles, finding both charity and brutality in the broken-back cities of America. They crowded the cars and hid down in the tenders where the coal and water were stored; they squeezed between cars and clung atop their bucking roofs. In 1932, about 75 percent of the nearly six hundred thousand transients on the Southern Pacific line through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona were under the age of twenty-five.”

“Fathers, and sometimes sons, stayed in the network of “jungles” along the route, tucked amid the timber and hidden from view. Each camp had its own division of labor—one person went into town to find a potato for soup while another brought salt or an extra spoon. Pots and pans hung from tree branches; crude shelters were made from cardboard or tin scrap and sometimes built up in the trees. Pocketknives were like gold in the jungles. Blades were “hired out” in exchange for soap or a bowl of stew. In a pinch, a knife could be traded for a pair of shoes or sold for cash. Men cooked possums and jackrabbits caught in snares along the brush lines and traded their hides for food.” (Mealer, Bryan. The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream. 2018.)

This was the kind of life Charlie McLemore lived during his childhood.

Charlie and his father worked picking cotton in California for a few weeks and also fruit when they could. They managed to work just enough to feed themselves, as well as, put a little aside. Eventually they got back to Oil City just as things were starting to come back.

By the time World War II started, and a need for oil exploded, Charlie was in his late teens. His father got work immediately at a refinery and from then on, the Lee McLemore family did okay.

Charlie went into the oil business as well, but oil was not the only resource product that supported the Oil City economy. Natural gas was even more abundant and Charlie got a job at United Gas Corporation, headquartered in Shreveport, Louisiana, and moved his family there in 1960 a year after Jake was born.

Charlie worked at United Gas and survived the hostile takeover by Pennzoil in 1968, and became part of the management of Pennzoil United, Inc. He did pretty well, well enough to send his son Jake to Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Retiring at the age of 70 in 1991, Charlie lived long enough to see Jake get married and have children.  Charles Taylor McLemore died in 2001 at the age of 80 from a heart attack a few months before 9/11, and several years before his grandson Lee’s death in 2004 in Iraq.

Despite surviving the Great Depression by riding the rails with his father, he was among the generation that experienced the economic boom after WWII.  Charlie McLemore saw nothing in his lifetime that undermined his faith in the American Dream.  A dream he lived out to the fullest.