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Jun 4 , 2016

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Dishwater Gals

by Frank Ross
Dishwater Gals

Slowly and methodically, with the precision of a surgeon, Elbert Willis trods behind a borrowed mule and hand plow, slicing the dusty earth near his Seffner home, preparing it for sweet potato planting. "A good man can plow 'bout as much with a mule as he can with a tractor," said the 72-year-old farmer. "I used to plow 10 acres a day with two mules and a cultivator. I could do more now if it weren't for my bad heart. I just been to the doctor this week," he said, patting his chest.

Mildly understated, Willis does more than most men his age. Almost every morning he can be found walking behind the plow or feeding a pen-full of young hogs. He rises every day whether or not there is any work to do.

Elbert Willis calls up his mule and trods the furrows to plant sweet potatoes.

"I can't sit still when there is not work, so I get up and just walk around," he said.

That is the life to which he is accustomed, he explained. He knows no other way; leisure is a word with no place in his lexicon.

He rents a small house trailer from a former employer, drives an aging Chevrolet, tills a one-quarter-acre tract out of a 15-acre plot owned by his son, and functions as an unofficial advocate of mule farming and living close to the land.

"I never had no training," he states. "I just grew up watching my father, seeing what he'd do. And I'd do the same."

He speaks slowly, with the weight of his years resting on each word, measuring out each sentence before speaking as if he realized that only so many sentences were left to a man his age, and he wasn't going to waste any.

A bald, black master of his tiny farm, he is the last living child born to a one time slave, a Georgia cotton farmer. He attributes his ability to his father – and to himself. "Some folks just say I'm just a natural farmer."

The rising morning sun becomes a fireball, scorching the freshly plowed soil and baking it dry. Sweat running from under Willis' large, western-style hat collects in rivulets and runs off the end of his ebony nose. He pulls a large white handkerchief from a back pocket and wipes his forehead, starting his mule toward a shady spot.

He rests between a stack of watermelons and the trunk of a huge oak tree. Reaching into another pocket of the worn pair of trousers, he produces a red can and a packet of cigarette papers. With obvious experience, he pours a carefully calculated amount of tobacco onto the tissue, rakes a little back into the can, and with a twist and a lick, a smoke is born. No gesture made by the Marlboro Man ever displayed the cool exactness and economy of motion the old man just revealed.

"I started out smoking in 1916," he muses. "Started out on Dukes Mixture, and then there was Piedmont. But I quit that too, and I've been smoking P.A. ever since," he said, referring to the tin can with the familiar royal figure emblazoned on it.

For a while, Willis is at peace with the world, tobacco smoke swirling about his head. His mule munches lazily on a clump of grass.

He is roused by the sound of grunting hogs. With the nub of his cigarette clenched between his teeth, the old man pulls himself up, straining somewhat.

Taking a melon under each arm, he walks to the edge of the pig sty, raises each melon high over his head, and smashes it to the ground midst the delighted porkers.

"My boy planted these melons," he says, shaking his head at the waste. "But they ripened too early in the season, and we couldn't sell them, so I just feed them to the hogs."

He returns again and again to the stack of aging melons until the hungry animals are satisfied.

Despite the mid-morning sun, he rousts the mule from beneath the tree and returns to the plowing. With plow in hand, he calls. "Hea, Mule, get up there now."

She does.

"I never try to force her; I just let her plow, and I follow," he began. "She's gentle. Some are, some ain't. But you can't ride her. She ain't that gentle, ya understand." 

With that admonition he added a grin.

The plow bites deep into the moist Florida soil, overturning an occasional clod of dirt which he kicks unconsciously as he walks to a rhythm set by the mule. With another row finished, it is time for another rest in the shade. Willis breaks the near silence of the Florida summer. "My father was a farmer. He was just eight years old when freedom finally came. He used to tell us kids about it now and then, but that was so long ago. I don't remember so good now.

"My last brother died last February," Willis said. "He was a hundred and something."

He was the Reverend C. W. Willis, a preacher. Willis went back up for the funeral. Most folks there didn't know him, and he didn't know them.

"Most everybody I knew are dead now – been dead," he said. "My wife left me in '47. She died too. But she was my second wife. I've had three."

Pausing for a puff, he added, "My first wife was a Warren before I made her a Willis. That was back in '20 or '21. I can't remember which. She was what we called a dishwater gal."

He explained that girls back then would take dishwater grease and do up their hair in long braids.

"We would walk down the road with them real proud, thinking they were real pretty; we didn't know any better then," he admitted.

Occasionally, a quail can be heard calling in the bushes bordering the field, or a covey can be spotted scampering across the freshly plowed rows, looking for a lazy meal. An obnoxious blue jay hurls insults from the oak, out of reach and sight.

Recalling the early days, he said once a man came up to Georgia, intent on bringing him back to Florida. He'd heard about Willis and his farming. He wanted Willis to come to Florida and plant some for him. Willis made up his minmd and came down in 1950.

"I planted 150 acres of watermelons for him, and I've been here ever since," he said. 

Willis admits to having worked at different vocations, but he always returned to the land. He has picked a little fruit before and done some ranch work too, but mostly he's been a farmer.

"I did some extra gang work for the Central of Georgia Railroad back in '47," he said. "That's hard work; you have to teach them young ones how to do the work as you go. I worked for the Seaboard when they paid 80 and 90 cents a day for hard labor. When I tell people that, they don't believe me."

But Willis doesn't worry much about what people think. In fact, he doesn't worry about much of anything these days; he is a man at peace with himself and the world.

He relates without emotion how his house was burned to the ground last year, taking with it all of his possessions except the ones he was wearing on his back.

"I just walked out into the front yard one day and looked back. Smoke was pouring out of the house. I ran back inside to save what I could, but there was too much smoke. I couldn't see."

Willis speaks of his life with the air of confidence attained only by those who know that they have mastered their destiny as well as they could ever care to. When asked of his ability at his craft, he answers without hesitation, pride beaming from every word.

"Yes sir, I'm a good farmer. I like it. If I couldn't do anything else or never had anything else, just give me a little spot of ground where I can plant me a garden and watch things grow."

When asked about the hereafter, he considered for a minute.

"If people were to remember me when I'm gone," he mused. "I'd want them to say, 'He was a farmer – always was. He was a good farmer.'"