Today I enjoyed a visit from an interesting gentleman from Pineville. Mel Tidwell brought me stories about his growing up in Oklahoma. Mel and Sue are beloved citizens of Pineville, McDonald County, and I would like to share with you his stories “John and Cozette Smitson 1880-1968, as remembered from grandsons Melvin and Marvin Tidwell – 2002.”

“John Anderson Smitson was born April 17, 1880, in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). His parents, William J. and Elizabeth Anderson Smitson were traveling by covered wagon from Arkansas to Missouri. Shortly after entering the territory they were forced to turn back by Indians and had to take a different trail. John was born shortly after the turn-back while still in the border of the territory. John had older siblings: one brother and three sisters.

“Granddad and Granny Smitson came to Coalton, Okla., from Oak Grove, Mo., in the year 1910. Grandad worked in the coal mines for several years. Mining was hard, dirty, dangerous work. The coal in that part of Oklahoma was in thin veins, maybe 18- to 36-inches in thickness. The underlying formation was shale and the overburden was probably shaley sand stone. There was some strip-pit mining (removing the overburden from the surface until the coal vein was exposed) but the most common method was slope mining to get to the coal that wasn’t near the surface.

“My earliest memories of Granddad was of him sitting by the coal stove in the evening, quietly chewing his “Mail Pouch” tobacco. I don’t believe he ever smoked. Granddad only slept five or six hours a night, so he stayed up later and arose earlier than anyone else in the house. Along about midnight as the fire burned down, he would close down the damper and bank the coals so there would still be live coals in the morning. About daylight, he would shake down the ashes, add a small amount of coal and start a new day. Marvin and I slept on a fold-out couch (duofold) that sat in the front room, so we were usually able to hear Granddad performing his heating task.

Granddad Smitson was a man of very versatile abilities. He was a miner, carpenter, owner operator of a grocery store and a ‘silent’ movie theater. And, if you think of a very large garden as farming, he was a farmer. They raised much garden produce which Granny canned and preserved to provide for themselves from one season to the next. Our Dad says Granny could put a meal on the table from collecting and preparing wild, edible plants from the woods and fields.

“My Dad worked in a gasoline plant where some of the machinery was belt-driven from an central power source.  As these wide, flat leather belts would wear out, Dad took the pieces to Granddad who would use them to put heels and half-soles on their shoes. So, I guess you could call him a cobbler also. One of his sayings was, ‘A pair of shoes can be too small, but they can never be too big to wear.’

“Granddad had dug and cemented in a large cistern at the corner of his house. Unlike wells, cisterns have to be filled, usually from rainwater collected from the roof of the house. Rainwater was diverted away from the cistern for long enough to wash away dirt, etc. from the roof and then directed into the cistern. This water was then drawn out with a bucket and used for drinking, washing, bathing, and all. Coal oil lamps provided the light at first, then natural gas was piped in and gas-fired lights were used. In later years, long after the family was raised, electricity came to Coalton. Partially because of cost, it was used very sparingly – one drop light to a room.

There was a terrible flu epidemic during the First World War, which killed many people. The government banned large indoor gatherings, due to the infectious nature of the disease. Theaters, of course, were not supposed to operate. Since Granddad had already paid for his films, he turned his projector around and shined the film onto a make-shift screen out in the field and ran the movies. A goodwill collection was taken up each night and he said he made more than he would have made inside the theater! (Was he the inventor of the first outdoor theater?)”

Mel describes the interesting people as “they were two of the finest people ever to walk this earth. They were honest, sincere, caring, hard-working and happy.” Would that all of us could be remembered in such a heroic manner.

Mel and Sue are members of the McDonald County Historical Society and we treasure these memories he has shared with us. If you would like to preserve your precious memories, do contact us, you can call and leave a message at 223-7700 or come by the historic old courthouse on the square in Pineville. Visit us online at the McDonald County Historical Society’s Facebook page.

Thank you, Mel, for sharing.  

Alberta Anders writes a weekly column for the Daily News.