December 1, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
WHERE THE WILD ANIMALS IS PLENTIFUL: DIARY OF AN ALABAMA FUR
TRADERS DAUGHTER, 1912-1914
May Jordan, ed., Elisa Moore Baldwin.
May Jordan's diary was written on the wagon trips she and her father took for the purpose of buying and selling furs. It is a fascinating document, revealing a personal view of life in Washington County in the second decade of this century while providing information about the geography, wild life, flora, customs, manners and human relationships of her time and place.
May's diary also gives a vivid account of herself: a young woman in her early twenties who was happy, energetic, courageous, imaginative, witty, kind and hard-working. She was the oldest of a large and loving family; there is no hint of criticism or complaint about any family member in the diary. They were busy surviving the hardships or frontier life, and all seem to have worked together peacefully while growing food, hunting, fighting wild fires, sewing, fighting wild animals and enjoying themselves in talk, story-telling, singing, going to church, visiting with friends and listening to the "talking machine."
In the introduction the editor offers some possible explanations for May's diary, for very few women of her class and time left written records in the form of letters or diaries. They had neither the time nor the education necessary for such activities. The most obvious reason is that May did have the time since she spent long hours alone in the wagon while her father walked to houses off the road to buy furs. May also had a need to express herself, to communicate her love for the natural world, her love for beauty and the pleasure she took from observing. On Friday, March 7, 1913, she wrote, "Good morning this is a very pretty day but chilly all day the north wind is blowing. Everything looks dreary when all is not in their accustom Place. There is nothing so Pleasant as to look around And see everyone in his or her place." This passage indicates that her motive for writing was that of an artist: she had a need to shape and order her experience."
May also had a need for company, for someone to talk to. In the March 7, 1913, entry she mentions her loneliness: "I have often spent lonely hours when we were on our trips. So much time spent by my self When Papa was gone after fur when we could not drive to the houses. And have know one to talk to. I most generally sung or sew on my embroidery are [or] in drawing some fancy flower or vines to work Anything to while away the time while Papa was gone." She used her loneliness to express herself in music, designing patterns for her needlework and writing.
Trapping was a means of supporting the family in a place where there were few jobs, and the hunting and trapping season gave the farmers work and income during the winter months before the time to prepare for planting crops. It was also a necessity to protect the crops and livestock from the "plentiful" wild animals. May lists the furs at Mr. Noah Howard's place: "Bear Lynx Panther Wildcat fox Raccoon skunk Opossum Weasel mink Otter Badger and Beaver." There were also wolves and bears. She gives an account of a fight with a bear she, her father and their dog had, which ends in a matter of fact tone as they drag the bears "bones" home with them.
May participates in the struggles with wild animals they meet on the road or on hunting trips. There seems to be equality in the work place between the sexes in her world, for the females of the family hunt, fight forest fires, dig ditches and participate in all the activities of the family.
May's appreciation of nature is a constant pleasure for her. "I sure love the Beautiful Spring when all the trees and flowers are budding. For then when the dogwoods are in full bloom ever body is getting the fishing pole and bait gourd ready as old Fogy says. And away to the rivers and creeks and brooks for the finny tribes. I sure enjoy fishing as well as the Boys does. I like to see the fish struggle to keep from leaving the water. The tall majestic pines are waving their needles in the wind this evening as though they are trying to cheer the world that everything will be bright and Beautiful shortly now."
The spring meant more than beauty to May and her father. It was then time to return home to the family and a more comfortable existence. The roads were rough, the weather could be wet, cold and stormy, and the danger of wild animals was always present. She ends the February 24, 1914 entry: "We arrived home at five o’clock and was nearly froze. And had to call for help to get the mule unhitched for we could not straighten our fingers. And you can bet we was in A hurry to get to the fire. Well we sure enjoyed ourselves to A finish."
May's life was full of hard work and discomfort, but she hardly ever complains. Her accounts of discomfort and difficulty always end in the relief of getting home, getting to a fire, finding people to talk to and sing with or in just finishing a hard task. She considers herself fortunate to be who she is and where she is: "I certainly love A farmers life better than A city life. For our city Brothers are so crowded and never get to enjoy the free country Life. All of us country people are certainly blessed for we can work and enjoy ourselves with out dreading that we will be destitute When winter comes. While we are setting by the fire side on cold rainy days the poor people in the towns are working to buy food and fuel and to pay for shelter." Other entries show her love for her particular place in the country: Washington County. She had lived in Kentucky and Ohio before her family moved to Washington County in 1904 when May was fifteen. By 1912 May describes the family place they had homesteaded in 1905 as "the Prettiest Place on the old state Line road." She also compares Washington County to neighboring counties, always preferring her own beloved place to any other.
After the deaths of May and Mr. Jordan in the fall of 1914, the family's life became much harder. May's mother and most of the children moved to Mobile where the girls found work in the cotton mill and Mrs. Jordan lived with Gertrude in the mill village in Crichton. Mrs. Jordan had pellagra for some time before her death in 1929, a disease caused by the poor diet of the poor, which was deficient in niacin. The disease virtually disappeared after the addition of niacin to flour. It is unlikely that she would have had pellagra before moving away from the place where fresh vegetables, chicken, eggs, wild game and fresh fruit were plentiful.
The family's condition was so desperate that the four younger children were sent to the Protestant Children's Home or put in foster homes. The youngest, Dolly Ellen, later was lost to the family, her disappearance never explained. It is ironic that May's gratitude for their life in the country and her pity for city people was expressed just a few years before her family was forced to submit to city life and to experience its hardships. The diary survived, kept intact by May's sister Anna Jordan Busby, who later gave the diary to the University of South Alabama Archives. Elisa Moore Baldwin edited the diary and wrote the fine introduction, both of which give fascinating and valuable information about the history of Washington County when it was a wilderness populated by pioneers.
Baldwin has also provided the public with a work of folk art by a writer who had the ability to preserve her present in such vivid descriptions, preserving for posterity the "days gone by" she refers to so frequently in her diary.