In 1877, in Union County, Tenn., 17-year-old Adam “Boy” McCoy married his pretty cousin Anna Langley of the same age. Three years later, with baby in arms, they migrated by covered wagon to Texas County, Mo. Adam’s deteriorating health, caused by tuberculosis and pneumonia, resulted in his early death in the spring of 1892. Anna was left with seven children, the youngest 6 months old. William Harvey, fifth in birth order, was four-years-old when his father died.
The following year, Anna married dark-haired, 18-year-old Frank Pittman, 15 years her junior. With him, she added 20 more years of marriage and seven children, plus one adopted.
The five McCoy boys became known locally as good hunters and fast runners. It was said in Old Success, the “McCoy boys could let the dogs loose on a rabbit, go catch the rabbit and wait for the dogs.” (Texas County Heritage Vol. II) They were respected for their knowledge of nature. They knew the trees and plants, the hills and hollers as well as they knew their own skin.
In 1913, stepfather Frank was dying, and he asked 25-year-old Harvey to take care of Anna and the family. He knew he could count on Harvey, a caretaker by nature. Throughout Harvey’s life, the spare bed that stood on the loose boards laid across the attic rafters of his home provided rest for many friends and family, for extended periods of time.
FAMILY MAN: HARVEY AND ISABELL
As Harvey provided for his mother, his eyes settled on someone to help him start his own family. Nancy Isabell Ramsey, was a local, dark-haired girl, short and sturdy (5’3”) with her birthday just three weeks after his. They were married the next year, July 22, 1914.
Harvey and Isabell moved to a nearby, 40-acre farm with a two-room, wood-shingled house. The pine, tongue and groove floor would be scoured smooth and spotless over the next decades with mixture of crumbled sandstone and Saturday’s laundry rinse water.
The next year, an infant girl was stillborn at home. But soon after, little Zella arrived. In all, Isabell birthed 14 children. Two died from diphtheria, three-year-old Clinton and four-year-old Bernice, their deaths separated by only nine days.
When Edra was born early, her tiny head fit into the palm of Harvey’s hand. She was kept warm in a home-style incubator heated by a diligently maintained hot water bottle.
The only son to survive, George, was born in 1930, and Lena, the youngest, was born in 1931.
SHARING SPACE, “SLEEPING ON AIR”
As Harvey and Isabell’s family grew, Harvey hired someone to square the house with the addition of two rooms. Each room had a door with a rock step to the outside. A tin roof replaced the shingles, but allowed a fine drift of snow to cover the bed quilts on cold mornings as if someone had burst open a sack of flour and shaken it over the room.
Screens were added later; until then, it was one of the kid’s duty to keep the flies circling and not landing on the food during mealtime.
Doors were kept open in warm weather, but none of the nine family dogs, the numerous unsocial barn cats, the chickens, the free range beef cattle or hogs ever thought about sticking their noses in the door. Harvey had made it clear – if any animal came in the house, “they better know how to get out.”
Two brown mules, Jack and Kate, watched the commotion of daily life from the fenced area of the barn and pond. They were too valuable to be allowed free roaming.
Harvey and Isabell slept in one of rooms just off the kitchen. Their room doubled as a pantry, its outside door blocked in the winter by piles of potatoes, cabbages, dried beans and black-eyed peas. A Victrola and a small table, its legs protected by sections of cut stove pipe to keep mice away, held the winter’s supply of one 100-lb. sack of flour. A wall shelf held jars of blackberries, of which one summer, Isabell canned 100 gallons.
Harvey and Isabell shared their bed with the youngest McCoy baby, the legs of their iron bed resting in jar lids filled with kerosene, making it impossible for bedbugs to invade a mattress packed with freshly shredded corn husks.
The room farthest from the kitchen had two beds where, in each, three little bodies slept crosswise until the assortment of arms and legs grew too long, and they had to turn to the length of the mattress. Usually, someone could be heard at bedtime shortly after the sun went down, “Scoot over, I am sleeping on air!”
A dresser and a row of nails on two walls that met in the corner held daily clothes. Isabell’s treadle sewing machine at the foot of one of the beds sat ready to crank out new underwear made from flannel outing.
George, the only son, slept in the other room off the kitchen where a staircase climbed into the attic. Under the staircase were Isabell’s jars of homemade sausage from the fall butchering of six of Harvey’s free range hogs. The pork had been ground, seasoned, cooked, packed and covered with rendered lard. The jars were stored upside down until the hot grease had safely sealed the lids. The supply would last into the summer.
Also, under this staircase, when the outside weather was very cold, sat a barrel, its contents sugar water, corn mash and yeast.
This was the room, that upon the occasion someone showed up after dark in the accompaniment of a fiddle player, the sparse furniture was moved out, the fiddler took up residence on the stairs, and a dance ensued. Those too little to participate lay eavesdropping in the next-door bedroom, counting the days until they were big enough to participate. Occasionally with a little luck, they would be short a partner, and 12-year-old Lena would be pulled from beneath the quilt to join in.
NEVER HUNGRY, NEVER PICKY
The kitchen was the heart of the home. The family gathered here first in the morning and last at night. It had a wood cook stove. There was a pie safe that held leftover cornbread and sweet potatoes cooked early for the evening’s cold dinner and a cupboard that held assorted daily dishware, including Isabell’s treasured, square, honey dish with a imprinted honeycomb. It came out only for the city relatives from Tulsa and was passed carefully.
Breakfast began at four or five each morning. One day, spread out on the table, which was an oversized door, was George’s record harvest of 17 squirrels, whose now-fried carcasses had soaked overnight in salt water.
Every morning, (except Sundays which were biscuit days) Isabell pulled two large pans of cornbread out of the oven. They were not your normal pans. Friend and blacksmith, Jess Owens had made them for Isabell from the doors of an old Model-T. There was leftover cornbread every night for supper, including enough for the nine dogs, who that day also feasted on the skins of 17 squirrels.
Every day, little McCoys jammed onto the bench, their backs against the wall, the others perched on nail keg stools or in one of the two chairs, spoons poised for whatever was served on that door tabletop – sausage, gravy, eggs, oatmeal, coon, groundhog (fried if young, boiled if old), beans, corn, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, squirrel, rabbit or the three possum it took to feed the family that Isabell baked with sweet potatoes and marshmallows. There were no picky eaters and Harvey never tolerated waste. Food was food, and it never occurred to the kids to prefer one thing over the other. George said, “We were never hungry but treats such as cake, pie or ice cream were only on a holiday.”
This story was written for a symposium hosted by the Missouri Arts Council. The focus of the event was “conflict in the lives of people living in the early Ozarks.”
Many early settlers of Scotch-Irish heritage arrived in the Ozarks by covered wagon from Kentucky and Tennessee. Esther Kellner in her book, Moonshine: Its History and Folklore, describes the descendants of the Appalachian mountaineers as “hardy, strong and lean with wary ears, and silent steps…They had incredible endurance and wily resourcefulness…They were proud, independent, restless, suspicious, ingenious and unconquerable…”
Conflict was a way of life for the young men and women who aged quickly under the backbreaking effort of coaxing a land of rocky beauty into one that produced corn, oats and wheat, and whose large families brought love, but multiplied grief with early deaths.
The early and resourceful Ozarker had little formal education, but a man trying to feed his large and often extended family could easily see 30 cents for a half bushel of corn was considerably less than the $12 of moonshine it could produce.
In Kellner’s book, a federal revenuer recalled the advice given to him by a local sheriff: “You will be investigating and arresting people who cannot read or write their own names…but remember this; just give them credit for having 10 percent more brains than you, and you won’t have any regrets or make many mistakes.”
The need to feed hungry mouths never ceased, and the demand for moonshine (white lightning, mountain dew, or hooch) never dried up. Neither, did the supply of revenuers and lawmen, resulting in one of history’s longest and most colorful conflicts.
William Harvey McCoy, born in 1888 in Texas County, near the area known as Old Success, was a moonshiner, a mountaineer, a farmer and a family man. He embodied all of the above textbook characteristics with the addition of two – he was slow to anger and a gentle man. “Except for the moonshine,” said his daughter Lena, “he was near perfect.”
Harvey McCoy’s story is written from an interview with Harvey McCoy recorded by Mike Duff in 1970, and interviews with his children George McCoy and Lena McCoy Ward who shared their memories.