“The Ladder by the Chimney”: Guest post by Chuck Shoemake

Artist & date unknown

Artist & date unknown

The byline to “The Ladder by the Chimney” might be the proverb “every picture tells a story” considering the memories this drawing evoked for Chuck Shoemake! Not only did I learn something new from Chuck’s essay, but I’m reminded that others’ memories, as well as our own, take us to an easily forgotten past. —vb

“The Ladder by the Chimney”

by Chuck Shoemake

Vikki’s recent post “White Farm Women Protest Confederate Abuse: The North Carolina Civil War Home Front” included the above sketch of an early homestead.  Upon seeing it, my eyes were immediately drawn to the ladder by the chimney.  I thought that there must be some significance to the ladder because it is depicted so prominently. And then I remembered a family story passed down to me about my Great Aunt Lennie.  I have been told it was common practice in the days of wood shingle roofs and catted (clay and stick) chimneys, to keep a ladder leaned against the house and next to the chimney for easy access to the roof to extinguish fires that were sometimes started by escaping sparks and embers.

Lennie Shoemake Odom

Lennie Shoemake Odum

Lennie, age 26 in 1915 and pregnant with her fifth child, ascended a ladder one August morning to extinguish such a blaze.  After descending she miscarried and subsequently died shortly thereafter.   I can only imagine Lennie’s perils; pregnant, going up the ladder in a long skirt, and most likely carrying a bucket of water to dowse the flame.

My dad was born in Jones County in 1914 in a log cabin built by his great grandparents, Thomas and Darlie Ann Hutto Holliman.  The cabin was constructed previous to 1870 and included a “catted chimney” made of woven sticks and plastered over and lined with clay. This type of structure was prevalent in our area due to the readily available materials, but was extremely vulnerable to catching fire, and often did with devastating results.  My dad’s sister remembers as a child that there were always ladders leaning against homes, barns, and other out buildings but never gave a second thought as to why they were placed there.  I’m sure that in the wet and humid climes of South Central Mississippi that shingles and chimneys were in constant need of repair.  And then there was the possibility of fires, all of which would necessitate quick and easy access to the roof.

Ladders next to a catted chimney, photographer, date and place unknown

Ladders next to a catted chimney. Photographer, date, and place unknown

So why am I so intrigued with the ladder by the chimney?  I like to personalize what I have discovered in my research; to wade in the creek where my dad and his siblings would have washed turnips as kids, to run my hands over the pine fireplace mantles that were hand hewn by my Great Grandfather, to sit and visit with folks at the Mount Moriah Cemetery and listen to stories of family I have found resting there, or visit the Masonic Lodge in Ovett where my Grandfather attended lodge meetings.  And now I have a depiction of a ladder by the chimney to go along with my Great Aunt Lennie’s tragic story.


Categories: Mississippi

5 replies »

  1. Chuck has been researching our family’s history for decades; not only online but with “feet on the ground.” I have always encouraged him to put his findings down on paper but to no avail. Perhaps this bit of “ink” will push him in that direction because I know he has something of benefit to say. Way to go bro.


    • Thanks for your comment, Ron, and for encouraging your brother to publish his knowledge! Chuck has been a great correspondent on Renegade South for sometime now, and I’m delighted to post his guest column.



  2. Ladder by Chimmey brought back memories of the similar constructed homes my Loftin grandparents & built in the Thicket in 1872 upon arriving from Mississippi! Several of their 12 children followed suit erecting similar cabins each with catted chimneys ! I know they had wooden shingle roofs but cannot recall whether ladders were positioned by the homes . Some of those homes were still in existence during the late thirties & early forties! Had the dog trot through the middle leading to the water well with a windlass the end! Two of my dad’s brothers living in Thicket , Texas had gourds hanging by the well for drinking purposes! Milk & butter in containers were hung down into the cool refines of the well for cooling! Good memories of a people who stubbornly held on to customs inherited from a long ancestral line! Civilization with modern conveniences existed a short distance outside the Thicket but some chose to plant their patches of corn, peas, sweet potatoes plus small vegetable gardens . meat from hogs running loose or wild game ! They laid crops by shape ton their porches dipped & spit snuff & let the world go by! They hung on to this way of life for years however some of their grandchildren got a taste of life outside and entered into different lifestyles! I now in my ninetieth yr I still have fond memories of these relatives of mine! Sent from my iPad



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