By David Tulis
The story of Bob Creswell, a Chattanooga businessman, is one of local economy. His boyhood on a farm also offers glimpses into the transformation of the economy in the South from agrarian subsistence, sweetened by Christianity, to a money- and credit-based industrial economy peopled by corporations.
The story is related in a homespun volume by Jean Huddleston, a Chattanooga writer who creates brief memoirs such as that of Mr. Creswell, an illustrated 34-page narrative with a bit of tributary hoopla in an appendix.
Mr. Creswell runs Creswell Richardson on Amnicola Highway, a ball bearings supplier with nearly 50 people working for him, including sons who’ve taken over the business. He was born to a farm family by French Broad River in Sevier County, along the edge of the Smoky Mountains. The last of 11 children he was born in 1934 with help of a doctor who thundered in on a horse. The family house didn’t get indoor plumbing and electricity until 1947, two years after World War II had ended.
Mr. Creswell speaks approvingly of the nationalization of American life and economy under President Roosevelt. TVA, school lunches, roads in remote areas, electrification are seen as a plus. The Creswells “would ultimately benefit from Roosevelt’s foresight,” he says.
The money economy and industrialization worked long to alter Tennessee and the South. But in the 1930s many mighty American customs of mind were strong. The people of that era were sturdier, plainer, healthier, and in the South Christianity was vibrant. Today’s cultural faults stand in high relief. The devaluation of mealtimes, the infantilization of boys, families shrunk to one or two children, importation of food staples from China and refusal to honor the Lord’s Day, we can see in Mr. Creswell what Americans and Chattanoogans have lost.
Big families, local food
The Lord’s Day was important to the Creswells. “I always liked Sunday because it was a chance to get out. We never missed church at Ridgeway Methodist Church in Knox County. By the time I was in high school everyone was married or in the Army and it was nice to see people. Sunday was a day of worship and rest and Mother took it seriously.” Once Mr. Creswell’s father took upon himself to harvest at least part of a field of ripe cantaloupes. “Ellis, you will lose every bit of that money of you work on our day of rest,” Mrs. Creswell warned.
Local food and a noncash economy mark life in rural America. The family ran a tobacco farm that could generate $4,000 an acre and it also raised hogs. “We canned fruits and vegetables to set up stores for the winter.The chicken coop gave us plenty of chicken and eggs. We were totally self-sufficient except for sugar, which we had to buy. Everything else we needed we could swap for with neighboring farmers in nearby Sevierville at the Co-op. Daddy always grew plenty of peas and sweet potatoes, which everyone could afford.” By the time Mr. Creswell was in high school, the family had 100 head of cattle for milk.
Local economy involves sharing in risk, and sharing in profit with neighbors. The Creswells arranged with other families to share in crops. At season’s end, the sharecropping families got half the proceeds in the crops on which they worked. From these people, Mr. Creswell learned cigarette smoking at 6 and chawing, secret habits both.
Sharecroppers shared in communal meals, everyone sitting at a 20-foot table with long benches. “There were always huge quantities of everything. Standard fare included ham, sausage, chicken, gravy, a giant bowl of beans, biscuits and cornbread.”
Becoming a man quickly
Mr. Creswell’s family was part of subsistence economy, almost totally local but slowly shifting toward national. He did not get boxes of toys for Christmas, but usually shoes or a pair of overalls, along with apples and oranges. The siblings made slingshots and other toys. Boys in that day were tough. Mr. Creswell gave up playing on a ballteam, only because seven miles was too far to walk. Had it been five, he might have persisted.
Children worked hard, and were as important to family capital as the 550 acres John Ellis Creswell owned or its barnfuls of drying tobacco leaf. “Hard work defined us and everyone always had a job to do,” he says. “Mother worked as hard as any farmhand. I can still hear the sound of her beautiful voice singing Amazing Grace as he did her chores. *** I started working when I was five or six. I cut the weeds out of crops, sprayed insecticide, hoed the garden and carried wood. But the time I was seven I was driving one of our two tractors used to till the earth and get the rows ready for planting. We were always up long before daylight to get the horses ready to pull the plow. Mother and the girls were also up getting breakfast ready and preparing for the day.”
Enroute to school he maintained rabbit traps. He sold the pelts to Knoxvillians for 75 cents apiece and supported tobacco and rolling paper purchases. In repairing a motor, Mr. Creswell’s brother Jim would take the thing apart and lay each part neatly near related parts on a burlap bag until the worn piece could be found.
Peek at coming national economy
The collapse in the paper money economy did not affect independent rural families as badly as those in cities, Mr. Creswell indicates. Farmers were self-sustaining, outside the money economy in most ways. World War II also squeezed local economy, but the effects of federal rationing programs were felt less sharply in the countryside. “Rationing of supplies did not have a significant effect on our lives because we were already mired in poverty,” Mr. Creswell says. Well, the poverty of those times seems like rich fare, indeed, to us moderns, with our gadgets, Internets and servitudes as employees working for strangers.
National economy also interposed on rural Southern life through the public schools and the drawing away of the young into factories. Siblings left the farm to work at Alcoa’s aluminum plant. A brother was drafted into World War II. Mr. Creswell went to college, living with two sisters who had jobs in Knoxville.
The nature of Mr. Creswell’s narrative changes as local economy recedes before national. Mr. Creswell serves as an Army cryptographer, marries and works in sales. He is the “bearing king” in a national and global economy, helping his customers’ to keep manufacturing equipment running. “I am so blessed to have two great sons running the business with skill and competency,” he says of Creswell Richardson. “I know my sons, Robbie and Greg, will carry the bearing business *** into the future with excellence.”
When he had started his own business, he had four children, and his wife, Clioreta, cried for two months in anxiety. A friend, Jim Ervin, invested F$30,000 in his fledgling business, giving it to him in a paper bag at Ankars without legal paperwork, just an admonition to give it back to him when he needed it.
Creswell Richardson is a local economy player competing against national distributors, says Amy Brant, company spokeswoman.
Sources: Jean Huddleston, A Lifetime Conversation with Robert Paul Creswell Senior; my story (Chattanooga: Lifetime Conversations, 2013), 40 pp. Mrs. Huddleston’s calling is writing brief biographies of local people as described on her Facebook page.
For more about agriculture and local economy, see How industrial farming destroyed local economy; the rise of the CAFO