Foot-Washing Day at Crooked Oak | Mt. Airy News (2022)

Foot-Washing Day at Crooked Oak | Mt. Airy News (1)

Crooked Oak Primitive Baptist Church, established in July 1878, still stands on Pine Ridge Road in Surry County, a quarter-mile south of Crooked Oak Crossroads. The official name is “Zion Hill,” but locals call it “Crooked Oak.” There it sits under the shade trees with three windows on each side, a tin roof and two outhouses out back; a “His” and a “Hers.

As I remember, with no electricity the inside got a little toasty in the heat of summer and everybody fanned the hot air with card-board fans from the funeral home. Come winter-time, it was like being at the North Pole; even with a wood heater going full-blast. Whatever the weather, come Meeting Day, they preached, prayed and sang a joyful noise unto the Lord. When they sang, my grandma sang highest and loudest of all. When she hit an extra high note one memorable day, a dog howled outside. Then all the kids howled. Then everybody laughed. Grandma? She never missed a lick.

Foot-Washing Day always came on the fourth Sunday in July; the high social event of summer and the best time to meet all the neighbors who had not seen each other since the last Foot-Washing or the last funeral. It was the one day of the year when everybody went to church; including Pa, Mama and us boys. (So much for those who said about us, “Them Heathens never go to church.”)

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The meeting came at just the right time to give everybody a hard-earned break from tending crops in the burning fields of mid-summer and they could hardly wait to get together, celebrate and share their huge back-logs of gossip, jokes and news.

On a bright July Sunday morning, they came “from all over” to that little white church on Pine Ridge Road. From Scrap-town, Garbraley, Flower Gap, Lambsburg, Pine Ridge, Round Peak, Beulah and Low Gap they came: along the hot dusty roads, riding in A-Models, T-Models, and some newer models. By farm wagon, buggy, horseback, muleback, bicycle and on foot they came and all wore their very best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.

The kids and dogs chased each other in the dirt and dust until all became the same color; the color of dirt. The women wore ankle-length dresses, home-made slatted cardboard sunbonnets and they too fanned themselves with cardboard fans from the funeral home. They bragged about their wonderful families, how well little Joey was doing in school, their gardens, how many cans of green beans they had “put up” so far and gossiped about the women not there.

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The men wore brand-new bib overalls, with wind-up watches in the bib pockets, “chawed ‘baccer,” dipped snuff and smoked “roll your own” cigarettes made from “store-boughten” Prince Albert tobacco or from small cloth sacks of Golden Grain, also from the store. Those who had no money to buy smoked their own “home-growed ‘baccer” from Golden Grain sacks and nobody knew.

Some of the year’s best farming was done right there in the shade of the oak trees on Foot-Washing Sunday. With a cloud of tobacco smoke in the air and a sea of tobacco juice on the ground, the men traded guns, knives, horses, mules, cows, jokes, lies and talked about the good old days and the more they talked about them, the better they became. The discussions never ended about who got caught doing what and who did not, whose horse could out-pull whose mule and whose could run the fastest. “My mule can smell rain coming and your horse can’t.”

Every man was the proud owner of “the best durned huntin’ dog ever put on God’s Green Earth.” “My Ol’ Blue treed a coon one time and clomb right up the tree after it. That ol’ coon come tumblin’ down scared half to death and seein’ Ol’ Blue up in that tree scared me too.” “My Ol’ Bessie, she run a fox for two days one time and I thought I was gonna’ have to shoot ‘er to git ‘er to stop, but she finally did.”

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On a Foot-Washing Sunday to remember, a red-headed girl from Lambsburg, Virginia came dressed as a cowgirl: complete with cowboy hat, vest, boots and two guns on her gun-belt. She was an instant hit with every man and if prizes had been given, she would have won by a landslide. Even with no horse, she was the main attraction and even I was impressed, because I had never before seen a real live cowgirl. (For some unknown reason, not a single woman was impressed.)

Zion Hill Cemetery was located just across the road; with a wooded area beyond, where some of the men sneaked in and sampled moonshine hidden there. As the day went on, they became experts on everything under the sun. Their fields of corn and tobacco became bigger and better and some almost became millionaires right there in the woods. Those who drank too much “took a little nap,” while their wives threatened to “burn them woods to the ground.”

One of our neighbors (Frank Coalson by name) parked his Dodge pickup under the shade trees and sold cones of ice cream and cups of lemonade from a brand-new No. 2 galvanized wash tub that had a chunk of ice floating around in it. According to my Pa, Frank’s lemonade was “Made in the shade, stirred with a spade and the best old lemonade ever made.” I agreed and figured I could have put away the whole batch all by myself.

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Except for lemonade and ice cream, I’d had nothing to eat since breakfast and was in mortal danger of starving to death. To my way of looking, “all that preaching, praying, singing and foot-washing was a waste of time. Them people shoulda’ washed their feet at home like I had to do last night after wadin’ them mud holes. One good thing about the whole mess; if anybody died from hunger, there was Zion Hill Cemetery right across the road.”

Finally, just when I was about to meet my Maker, the meeting came to an end. Every family had brought food from home and the long tables (covered with white sheets) were loaded with more good stuff to eat than I’d ever seen. There were pies and cakes as far as the eye could see and it looked like every chicken in the country had been fried and brought there, which told me there were some tired people close by. Our chickens back home ran free and when we needed one to eat, we had to chase it down, which sometimes took the whole family and the dog. (We never failed.)

For most kids, (including me) it was the biggest and best meal of the year and nobody cared who ate how much. It was an awfully long time until next year, so, like everybody else, I dived in. No way was I about to go back home hungry. Until the eating began, it had been a slow day, but the sun then raced across the sky and all of a sudden, all the food was gone, all the big tales had been told and everybody headed for home. It was the end of a perfect day, but a sad time, because Foot-Washing Day at Crooked Oak Church would not be back until next year.

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In the photograph: Crooked Oak Primitive Baptist Church in April, 2019.

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