When we think of migration, we think of birds going south for the winter ... smart birds.
If you watch the skies in September and October, you can see geese and cranes heading for a sandy beach vacation down somewhere warmer than Nebraska. Ducks head south, hummingbirds head south, retired couples from Michigan head south. And people sometimes like the warmth so much they move south, not just visit for a season like the birds.
My mom migrated when she was a kid and it’s a twisty-turny story on how she ended up in Dalton finally, able to meet my dad and eventually get to the day I was born here. Here’s part of her story and some of the highlights along the way.
No-show on a wedding day
So many people have moved into Dalton since after World War II that our town has grown and prospered. Bringing in fresh faces and fresh insights has been a real boon to my hometown. Some have come by car, some have come by plane and some, like my mom, have come by train.
My mom’s parents (my maternal grandparents) were from up around Athens, Tennessee, in the area known as Riceville, now only about an hour drive or so north from here. It’s a farming area. They both grew up on farms with farmers for neighbors. They met at some point and my grandfather courted my grandmother once a week on the front porch. She was in her early 20s at the time and figured she was so old she would never get married and would just spend her life living with her parents and helping on the farm.
My grandfather finally asked her “So, do think we should get married?” According to her, she answered by saying “Sure, but who would marry us?”
He explained that he meant she and he should marry each other.
On the wedding day he didn’t show. I was sitting with them as they were telling me this story. He explained the creek was up and he couldn’t get to her house. I turned to her and asked if she was worried when he didn’t show. She said of course not — the creek was up and she knew he couldn’t get to her. The next day became the date they celebrated their wedding anniversaries on.
They lived in a house or cabin with no electricity and no indoor bathroom at the beginning of their married life. They had three daughters. My aunt, the oldest of the three, was born in the farmhouse in Tennessee. Kids were born at home back then and sometimes the doctor would even come by to help.
Go north, young man
My grandfather’s family was spread out, but my grandmother’s parents and brothers and sisters were all in the vicinity. Nice to have family about. But this was in the worst years of the depression. My grandfather needed work.
Through a series of, in retrospect, fortunate misfortunes, a cousin ended up in Chicago. Not to go into details on the half-whispered family story, but let’s just say the extradition laws weren’t what they are now. The cousin sent for his wife and soon word came back that there was work to be had in a factory up there. My grandfather and grandmother went to scope things out. This would have been in 1934. There’s was a World’s Fair going on at the time and my grandparents went to it.
There was also a famous event in June of that year. Bank robber John Dillinger was shot dead in front of the Biograph Theater by FBI agent Melvin Purvis and other “G” men. My grandfather drove by the theater the next day and witnessed people breaking up the sidewalk where Dillinger had been shot and selling the chunks with his bloodstains on it.
He secured a job at a machine factory and they returned home to pack up what they had, get the baby and head north. At the factory he became a machinist and helped make things out of metal. He had a mechanical mind and moved to a supervisor role. They got a small basement apartment nearby.
My grandfather, the Tennessee hillbilly, didn’t know much about big city life or that there were different neighborhoods for different types. The apartment he found for them turned out to be in a Jewish neighborhood. The neighbors welcomed him and told him if any of the kids caused any trouble to call them, not the police, and they’d take care of it.
It was there my mother and her younger sister were born. That was a long way from Tennessee. Unlike the older sister, they were born in a hospital in Cook County. My mother was almost born in a taxi cab on the way to the hospital — such is the traffic in a big city — but luckily she made it to the delivery room before making her debut in the world. I’m sure my grandmother was grateful for that. And to think a doctor was actually present! Would modern marvels ever stop coming?
Mom has many fond memories of the apartment there and she still remembers the address. She remembers there was a park nearby that they would go to and play at. A little ways out of the neighborhood there was a church they attended. She remembers in the winter there was a concrete pad that they filled with water and let freeze so the park would have an ice skating rink. Mom had ice skates but was too little to really master the skating part. She tells me she looked really good running across the ice on her tip toes and standing on the side.
One winter the kid sister crawled out the basement apartment window in the snow. She had on a diaper. They rushed out and grabbed her, but keep in mind that winter there is colder than anything we have around here.
Now there were three girls in the second bedroom of the two-bedroom apartment. My grandfather continued to do well at work but would come home tired. My grandmother’s nerves were on edge from worrying about making ends meet. In case you didn’t know things got really bad again during the depression in the second half of the '30s and there was always fear of the factory closing. But as bad as things were, they were about to get tougher ... a World War was coming.
During the second World War, my grandfather got a pass from the military as his job was deemed essential to the war effort. He didn’t make the weapons but he made the machines that made the weapons.
But many family and friends did volunteer or get drafted. His kid brother got drafted into the Army and like so many people they knew, passed through Chicago on their way to somewhere else. Everyone “back home” in Tennessee would say “Well we have family up there, stop in and see them." My oldest aunt remember counting more than 20 people in the apartment on one night as travelers stopped off to visit and maybe get a home-cooked meal. Some never came back. My grandfather’s kid brother went down on a troop transport in the North Atlantic Ocean.
During summers, when the girls were old enough, my mother and her sisters would come to Tennessee and visit family. They would take the train south and come into the station in Chattanooga. If you’ve seen the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel in Chattanooga, that’s the station they would arrive in. Then they would make their way into the countryside.
In Chicago it was streetcars and movie theaters. In Riceville it was mules and sitting on the front porch. They got to know their cousins and aunts and uncles and grandma and grandpa. It was a totally different life but one they looked forward to visiting. But then the war ended and things were about to change permanently.
During the years in Chicago my grandfather had been saving money. When the war came to an end he had enough to buy a farm back home, 200 acres and a tractor. The family moved south and now what had been a summer vacation for my mom and her sisters was now going to be a way of life. They migrated south.
When school started they were such an oddity that the other kids would gather around them at recess just to hear them “talk funny” with their Chicago accents. They went from the big city to a farmhouse with a well and a garden with vegetables in the back. My aunt thinks my grandfather might have been trying to grow tobacco as a cash crop but we don’t know for sure.
The farm experiment lasted only a couple of years. Small-time farmers didn’t fit in so well with the post-war economics. But there was work in Dalton, Georgia, where the textile industry was growing. There were machines to be built and worked on. That is what my grandfather went back to.
He brought his daughters with him and bought a small house south of town in the Antioch community and the kids went to Valley Point. And in that community is where the paths of a migrated northerner crossed with a young man born in Murray County who had only moved as far as the width of a Georgia county.
My mom says the migration south proved that when God made her a yankee, he was only kidding.
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.