Tag Archives: SC

The “Dumb Bull”

(Adapted from “The Land Between the Rivers” by John Paul Poston, 1999. Used with permission.)

In the spring of 1936 several teenage brothers in the Poston area of South Carolina were bored for something to do. One brother had his friend Joseph Furches visiting, and as boys will be boys, they came up with something. Paul Poston, about ten years old at the time, joined in his brothers’ fun and relates the story.

“Lance, the usual leader of mischief, decided that they should make a dumb bull. “What’s a dumb bull?” I asked. Lance explained as they began to create it. They took a nail keg and knocked out both ends, then stretched a piece of cowhide over one end as tight as possible. A small hole was bored in the center of the cowhide and into the hole went a string heavily waxed with beeswax. They tied a knot in the string on the inside of the keg so it wouldn’t pull completely out.

When they set the keg on the ground and pulled the waxed string, it made the most awful sound ever heard in that part of the country.

“Our equipment complete, we started moving about the countryside so the terrible noise could be heard from different locations. ‘Uncle’ Jessie Ellison and two of his grandchildren lived in a house across the swamp and ‘Aunt’ Sara Eaddy lived down the road with five of her daughters. We decided to start in the swamp between Uncle Jessie’s and Aunt Sara’s house. When we pulled the string and changed the rhythm of the beat, it sounded monstrous.

The quiet night was shattered when all the dogs in the community started barking and howling; even the mules started braying. Then we heard some pounding coming from Uncle Jessie’s house. The next morning we learned that he had nailed all the doors and windows shut!

“We worked our way down a ditch in front of Aunt Sara’s house. On hearing the horrible noise, Mr. John Henry and his wife left their house and ran like a streak to Aunt Sara’s, about two hundred yards away. About the same time, Mr. Cooper was returning home from Poston and heard the noise. He hollered out, ‘John Henreeee, did you hear that?’

John Henry stuck his head out of the window and yelled, ‘I sho’ did.’ Mr. Cooper called back, ‘What did it sound like?’ John Henry yelled, ‘I don’t know but I believe it’s the devil!’

“About that time we cut down on the string and Mr. Cooper yelled out, ‘Close the door and open the window, I’m coming in!’ We could hear the women and children screaming and all the dogs around were having a fit. We thought it was hilarious, but when Dad learned what we were up to he made us stop.

“The next morning everyone in the community wanted to find out exactly what had happened the night before. Uncle Jessie found a track in a ditch where two dog feet had come together, and he was sure something big had been through there.

Now, normally my Dad wouldn’t stand for our foolishness but he reluctantly went along with it this time. He agreed with Uncle Jessie that probably a ‘big tiger’ was on the prowl.

“Preparations were made all day Sunday in case the monster returned. Folks borrowed gun shells, rifle bullets, axes and pitch forks to protect themselves from this unearthly creature. By nightfall there was so much tension, few people got any sleep.

“That night Uncle Jessie thought he heard something outside his house. He opened the window just wide enough to stick his gun barrel out and let go with two or three rounds, increasing the anxieties of everyone else. There were no beastly sounds Sunday night, however. Monday morning everyone figured the creature had moved across Lynches River to Snow Island, or into the swamps of Marion County.

Later in the week we had a bit more fun with the dumb bull but when Dad heard about it, he put a stop to all our shenanigans. He was afraid somebody was really going to get hurt.

“Well, since we weren’t using it any more, Lance’s friend Eddie decided to borrow the dumb bull. He tried it out one night in the woods near Ariah Davis’s house. He pulled the string a time or two and Ariah pulled the trigger on his shotgun. Eddie had to lay flat on the ground until Ariah ran out of shells, then he got up and ran for his life.

He kept the dumb bull silent a few days, then set it up behind Doward Perry’s haystack. He was squatting down pulling away on the string when Doward eased up in front of the haystack, poked his shotgun barrel through it into Eddie’s face and yelled ‘Stick ’em up!’

Eddie fell over backwards, hands and feet flopping in the air. When he got a grip on himself, he got up and ran away as fast as he could go, leaving the dumb bull behind. Well, the cat was out of the bag then, that was the true end of our dumb bull adventures!”

Aunt Myrtle Played for Silent Movies

Colonial TheaterMyrtle Veronica Motte Snyder Boekhout was my daddy’s sister. She was born in November 1900 and died in March 1984. She was quite a personality. She is why I have been a musician most of my life.

Aunt Myrtle played for silent movies, she told me many years ago. Last year I asked her son Bill Snyder if it was true. “Yes,” he said, “she played for the silent movies, probably in New Orleans in the 19-teens.” I wondered where in New Orleans that might have been but Bill didn’t know.

Since then I’ve found that probably Myrtle played for the silent movies right here in Florence. She was too young when her family moved permanently back to South Carolina (her father’s home state) to have played for New Orleans movies. But Florence had quite a few theaters in the 19-teens and Myrtle was the right age to have put her musical talent to good use here. For quite a while, the Colonial Theater served as a combination Opera House (live performances) and movie house (first for silent movies, later for “talkies”).

I was curious about how the music and silent movies worked. Did the film companies provide the music to the theaters? Did they only send a list of pieces to be played, along with the frames they went with? You know, fast giddy-up stuff for the western chase scenes, slow dreamy-romances for the love scenes? Or did the theater manager pick the pieces? Or hire a musician and then let her pick?

You know, it’s hard to get that sort of information today. I am grateful to the internet for the answers to that question, and now I understand Aunt Myrtle’s stacks of stuff. She had reams and boxes and folders of piano music in her apartment on West Evans Street. Atop the piano and the dining room table were stacks of music. Underneath the popular sheet music were books of classical music; everything she’d ever needed for the films was still there at her fingertips. She entertained us with great rolling renditions whenever we visited her.

I discovered that in big cities, an upscale theater would have an in-house orchestra to accompany the films. Imagine that! The production company would ship the entire score along with the film canisters and the orchestra would rehearse like mad to learn the material before the first showing. (And you know, they still do? Silent movies still circulate in the big cities, in theaters especially dedicated to them!)

In smaller cities the theater might only have an organ, perhaps calliope-style. The organist in some cities rose out of the floor on an elevator. This was a full-time paid position. The organist might receive the score with the film, or if the film company only provided a suggested list the theater manager (if he was generous) or the organist (if he wasn’t) would go out and buy the music.

In smaller towns like Florence there was only a piano. The film came with a suggested music list and the pianist provided her own music. She watched the film as many times as it took to decide what pieces to use where. It must have been a lot of work.

I never did learn how the pianist was paid. Was it by the showing? By the movie? By the difficulty? Was she reimbursed for the music she bought? I have no idea and I don’t know who to ask.

Now, this wasn’t Aunt Myrtle’s only occupation. She was a ladies millinery specialist who worked for some time in a Richmond, Virginia department store. She knew all about ladies hats and she never went anywhere without one herself. Aunt Myrtle lived here in Florence when I was a child, but she didn’t insist I learn all about ladies hats — no, she wanted me to learn how to play the piano. So I did.

Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Tchaikovsky, big band numbers, movie themes and church music — if she loved it, she knew I would too. At the age of six I began taking lessons from Myrtie Berry Wescott, and for ten years I went twice a week during the school year. I learned how to read music, play scales, do finger exercises, and memorize long concertos. I worked hard, determined to play like Aunt Myrtle.

Long, trilling runs up and down the keyboard were her trademark. Fast or slow, soft or loud, crashing major chords or eerie minor ones, octaves and arpeggios galore. Somehow, however, these beautiful runs escaped me. A glitch in my finger joints has interfered, so I don’t play exactly like Myrtle. But I do play, and I love to play, and that is her doing.

I was born several generations too late, but I wish I could have attended a silent movie with Myrtle at the keyboard. That would have been a blast!