E.E. Patton: ‘I want to go back’

Dr. Jim TumblinFountain City, Our Town Stories

“I want to spend Christmas in the country and get off the Christmas tree one stick of candy, one orange, and one penny pencil. The rich ones gave their children a French harp, and the night was filled with music and the cares that infest the day folded their tents like the Arabs and as silently stole away.” (E.E. Patton, 1942)


E.E. Patton (1874-1961) was a graduate of Holbrook Normal College, the third principal of Central High School, a Tennessee state senator and, later, mayor of Knoxville (1944-45). He wrote regularly for the Knoxville Journal on local, state and national history. Perhaps his most famous essay, “I Want to Go Back,” published in 1942, was reprinted and distributed widely by Security Mills. Enjoy his essay:

E.E. Patton

I have lived in the heat and dirt and smoke of this man-made town until I am ready to scream. I have heard the braying of horns and jackass politicians until I want to get back on the farm and hear the bray of a real, simon-pure jackass. The change would be sweet music to my ears. Here the land is all kivvered with bricks and concrete and the hearts of many of the people are as hard and flinty as the sidewalks.

Yes, I want to go back to the country where the air is soft and pure; where the neighbors will come in and “set up” with the sick and help dig a grave and shovel dirt on their departed friends, dropping a genuine tear of regret at their passing; where they go to meetin’ and “pitch” the tune with a tunin’ fork, and sing through their noses with the fervor and spirit of the faithful. All church services were held at “early candlelight” if in the evening.

I want to go back where all of the common everyday towels were made of salt sacks and where there was only one “store” towel which was put out when the preacher came. I want to see the man of the house take his table knife of chilled steel and whet it on his fork tines before he carved the sow-belly that had been cooked with the beans. Did ye ever eat any lye hominy or “shuck beans?” If not, you have never really lived; you have merely existed.

Let’s go into the “bighouse” and set by the fire and see the old-fashioned dog-irons and the wrought iron shovel and tongs, made in the country blacksmith shop. There was no such thing as daylight-saving time then; they got up at three o’clock in the mornin’ and went to bed at seven unless it was apple-butter-makin’ time; then they stayed up until around eight.

But the “parlor” was the sacred place; there was where all the sparkin’ was done; there was the bed the preacher slept in; and what a bed! Two straw ticks; one big feather bed, with fat bolster and pillows. When the bed was not in use — and that was seldom — the pillows were covered with what was known as “shams” which had mottoes worked on them. I remember the one: “I slept and dreamed that life was beautiful; I woke and found that life was duty.” That was calculated to hold you for some time.

On the “center” table was the old family album with plush backs. It held the pictures of the family dating back to the Civil War and in some instances, the likeness of a great uncle who fought with Gen. Winfield Scott in Mexico. Those in civilian clothes always had one hand on their knee and the other folded placidly over the stomach.

I want to spend Christmas in the country and get off the Christmas tree one stick of candy, one orange, and one penny pencil. The rich ones gave their children a French harp and the night was filled with music and the cares that infest the day folded their tents like the Arabs and as silently stole away.

Yes, I want to go back to the country and get my fill of cracklin’ bread; I want to see the old whatnot in the corner of the big house; I want to engage in a spelling match in Webster’s old, blue-back speller, the finest in the world; and read from McGuffey’s Reader — none better; I want to see little children one after another, raise their hands and say: “Teacher may I go outdoors?”  I want to see the people eat again and shovel it in with their knives; I want to go to the neighbor’s to borrow the gimlet; I want to go back to where they eat three meals a day: breakfast, dinner and supper and where the word “lunch” will never be heard again.

Yes, I’d like to see the old saddle hangin’ on a peg on the front porch, covered by a satteen riding skirt; the women did not ride astraddle then. I’d like to “prime” the ash-hopper; and get a sassafrack stick to stir the soap.

“Backward, turn backward, O Time, in thy flight; make me a child again just for tonight.”

O’ Lord! Let me go back once more to this land of simple things.

Jim Tumblin, retired optometrist and active historian, writes a monthly series on Fountain City for KnoxTNToday.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *