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Published on June 1, 2021

We called him ‘Paw’
My memories of growing up in a small sharecropper shack

By Shirley Prihoda
The Bulletin

My grandfather was a sharecropper, and we lived in the house provided by the owner of the farm. To say the house was modest would offer it more grace than it deserved.

We stopped to look at the house 50 years after I had lived there. One side had fallen in, and cows were standing in what had been the bedroom my sister and I shared. I was lost in memories when I looked up at my husband.

The look of compassion on his face was tangible. He choked out, “Honey, I’m so sorry for its condition.” I responded that it actually didn’t look that much different from when we called it home.

It is strange, the things you remember most from your childhood. Mine are not about being dirt poor, outhouses or using Sears catalog pages and dried corn cobs for toilet tissue.

My memories are of front porches and catching a certain smell in the breeze. The smell of sawdust will immediately transport me back to when I was five years old, and life was wonderful!

My grandfather allowed us to live with him on the sharecropper farm, and we called him Paw.

He smelled of sawdust and would not be considered intelligent by today’s standards since he couldn’t read or write.

But he knew when to plant, when to harvest and how to build houses without plans or electric tools. During World War II, Dow Chemical in Freeport sent out petitions for carpenters to come build small duplex houses for the plant’s workers. He responded with his pencil and hammer, and some of the homes are still standing today, over 70 years later.

Paw always wore overalls, and he carried a square carpenter’s pencil in the bib, even if he was just going to the fields. When he needed to sign his name, he would wet the tip of the pencil with his tongue and very slowly make an X on the signature line. He did this with such a sense of pride that only now with many years under my belt am I beginning to understand and appreciate.

Our farmhouse had a front porch, and it was full of old straight chairs and rockers to “sit a spell come th’ evenin” and wave if a car happened to pass by. Some chairs were covered in an animal hide of some sort. Others were made of strips of inner tubes from old tires, latticed like a pie crust, and these were my favorite.

There were always plenty of chairs to sit in, but to be lucky enough to get one of the rocking chairs, oh, my! What a loss for the children of today to have never known the magic of rocking on the front porch at evenin’ time.

Most of my treasured memories of that time centered around that front porch, whether it was shelling peas, eating roasted peanuts we had harvested that day, or watching for lighten’ bugs. It was on the front porch with the lighten’ bugs dancing and the smell of daffodils and wild onions gently blowing in the wind where stories were told.

Paw may have been considered an unintelligent man by the world’s measuring stick, but he was an amazing storyteller. I’ve often wondered if the stories were passed down to him, or if he made them up as he went along. The thing I do know is his voice rang with deep authority for a quiet man, and I was taken captive and believed everything he happened to be telling, which most often was about ghosts and cemeteries!

For years, I kept my “sharecropper” heritage a secret because I thought it somehow diminished me as a person. Now with some age and sawdust under my own belt, I’ve come to realize the value of growing up as “not good enough for prime time” helps me evaluate what’s really important in life.

When you grow your own food, it never occurs to you to dislike what’s on the table. You sat down, drank sweet tea from jelly glasses and ate whatever was before you. I was glad when it was fried potatoes that stuck to the bottom of the pan!

Stick-to-the-Bottom Fried Potatoes

If you haven’t eaten “Stick-to-the-Bottom Fried Potatoes” you’re in for a real treat. In some ways, they’re similar to German fried potatoes, but with the added kick of browned crusty parts that stuck to the bottom of the pan, scraped, and repeated several times to create some “good eatin’”, as my mama would say.

For a true country spread, you’ll need two large hunks of buttered cornbread, one to eat with the potatoes and the other to crumble into a cold glass of milk. Did you just give me “The Look?” That won’t work if you haven’t tried it!

You’ll need:

Large cast-iron skillet with a lid
½ Cup Crisco shortening (Lard would be better, but we won’t go there!)
6 Russet potatoes
Salt and Black Pepper

Peel, wash, and cut the potatoes into one-inch cubes over medium heat. If we were still on the farm, that would be two 12” logs stacked just under the burner in the old cast- iron wood stove.

Melt the shortening in the skillet until it begins to sizzle and pour in the potatoes and sprinkle a little salt and pepper on the top. Cover with the lid. This dish needs a lot of attention at first to make sure the bottom of the potatoes are not browning too quickly. When the potatoes begin to stick to the pan, scrape the bottom of the pan with the spatula and turn them over.

Keep a glass of water handy and occasionally add about a tablespoon to the skillet to help create steam. Continue scraping and turning ever’ so often.

Total cooking time is about 30 minutes.

Season again with salt & pepper. Enjoy and come sit a spell on the front porch!

(To contact Shirley, please send emails to john.bulletin@gmail.com or write to The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, Tx. 77516)