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“Cotton Mill Colic”

Doffers and sweepers, 1908. Lewis Hine. New York Times

Doffers and sweepers in 1908

McCarn wrote “Cotton Mill Colic” in 1926. Released on record in August, 1930, it was soon being sung by striking Piedmont mill workers. Absolute truth about the lives of mill workers was real to the cotton mill families. Probably it is McCarn’s best composition; revealing with wry humour the often grim situation of the millhand unable to get straight financially.

When you buy clothes on easy terms,
Collectors treat you like measly worms.
One dollar down, then Lord knows,
If you can’t make a payment, they’ll take your clothes.
When you go to bed you can’t sleep,
You owe so much at the end of the week.
No use to colic, they’re all that way,
Pecking at your door till they get your pay.
I’m a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
‘Cause you can’t make a living at a cotton mill.

When you go to work you work like the devil,
At the end of the week you’re not on the level.
Payday comes, you pay your rent,
When you get through you’ve notgot a cent
To buy fat-back meat, pinto beans,
Now and then you get turnip greens.
No use to colic, we’re all that way,
Can’t get the money to move away.
I’m a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
‘Cause you can’t make a living at a cotton mill.

Twelve dollars a week is all we get,
How in the heck can we live on that?
I’ve got a wife and fourteen kids,
We all have to sleep on two bedsteads.
Patches on my britches, holes in my hat,
Ain’t had a shave, my wife got fat.
No use to colic, everyday at noon,
The kids get to crying in a different tune.
I’m a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
‘Cause you can’t make a living at a cotton mill.

They run a few days and then they stand,
Just to keep down the working man.
We can’t make it, we never will,
As long as we stay at a lousy mill.
The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer,
If you don’t starve, I’m a son of a gun.
No use to colic, no use to rave,
We’ll never rest till we’re in our grave.
I’m a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
‘Cause you can’t make a living at a cotton mill.

5. According to the photographer, everyone in this family photo works at the mill.

According to the photographer, this Spartanburg family all worked in the cotton mill.

16. This photo taken in May 1912 shows a young boy walking ahead of some adult workers.

The boy above was Eddie Norton, who worked in Saxon Mill, Spartanburg. He has just completed a twelve-hour shift, along with those behind him. He probably made around 40 cents an hour, but this contributed to the family’s finances.

High hopes and dreams of a weekly pay check, a home, and a steady job brought the first workers to the cotton mills. Leaving the Appalachian mountains, their lives became controlled by a mill whistle, but the families stuck together. Both young and old might stay “worn slap out,” but “if your blood kin, then ye stick together no matter what.”

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The Mill Village Company Store

When new mill workers left their homes in the Appalachian mountains. they brought little. A farm wagon carried both the family and their household goods. The mills provided houses to rent, schools for the children, sometimes a rec hall, and a company store.

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Looking back at his childhood memories, Gerald Teaster recalls the  Company Store where his parents worked.

The best way to describe the Company Store is to say that it was a smaller version of a Wal-Mart store today. It was way before its time. It had many more items for sale than a typical small town general store of that era. It was a combination hardware, furniture, grocery, clothing, shoe and sporting goods store, all under one roof. 

There was no other store anywhere close to Pacolet that had the variety and quantity of things for sale that the Company Store had. In looking back, there were almost no stores in the city of Spartanburg that had the variety of things it did. Probably, the only store that could have come close to matching it would have been a Sears store. Spartanburg did have a Sears but I don’t think that it was opened until the early 1950’s.

As a child, I remember my parents taking me to the Company Store to buy me shoes and boots, usually when school started. (Many children, myself included, went barefooted almost all of the time from about May 1 until the first day of school in the fall.) 

When I came to the store with my parents for other things, I always left them to go and look at the sports equipment, particularly the baseball gloves and bats. The store also sold all sorts of fishing equipment, and if I remember correctly, rifles and shotguns, .22 bullets and shotgun shells. I think that you could also order coal for your fireplace and ice for an icebox at the store.

During the Depression, the mill sometimes paid their employees with their own script. These paper coupons could be used in the company store just like money. Also, employees could set up a charge account at the store. Charging items one week would be subtracted from their pay checks the next.

John’s mother bought most of her staples at the company store at the Union Mill. Lois had a twenty-five pound bin in a kitchen cabinet with an attached sifter, so she would buy that size bag of Martha White flour to fill it up. She bought five pounds of dried beans, ten pounds of sugar, salt, hog feed all in cloth bags. All these cloth bags were recycled into either clothes or household uses.

She filled her own metal cans from an available metal drum; Tom and John lugged it home for her. The Excelsior Mill made socks and threw away the tops when they were trimmed. All the women went to the mill’s trash bin to gather up the sock tops. Then they made hot pot pads with them. The boys used those pads to carry the kerosene can. (Those pads also made good Christmas presents.)

King Syrup was another staple in her household. This maple syrup in a one gallon can didn’t last long with four sons. Lois baked biscuits every morning, and they were drenched with homemade butter and syrup. A church key opened the can, and it had to be wiped clean after use to keep the ants away.

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Sewing notions were a popular item at the company store. Lois bought material, buttons, snaps, zippers, and thread. Using her pedal-driven Singer sewing machine, she was a whiz at creating clothes from her own patterns that she had made from newspapers.

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Mason jars were another staple in the Ingle household from the Company Store. Lois put up everything from her garden and fruit trees. Then whatever anyone else shared was canned for use later.

John and Tom owned a Radio Flyer. Each time, Lois went to the store, the wagon traveled with her. Empty on the way there, but filled to overflowing on the road back home.

Tomorrow, I am meeting some friends at a restaurant here in Spartanburg. The name is The Standard, and it is located in the old Company Store at Drayton Mills.”The building has a cruciform layout, a slate hipped roof, and pressed tin ceilings inside. During the mill’s heyday, the building housed a grocery store, post office, business offices, and other operations.”

Isn’t it a good thing when buildings can be restored? I believe I will wonder where the King Syrup and bolts of cloth once were available.

 

 

Christmas at the Cotton Mills

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There was always a Christmas program at the mill school. Children memorized parts of the Christmas story from Luke, stood in a row, and recited it, verse by verse. The children learned carols, and some sang solos. The school presented its program during the week of Christmas during school  hours. If parents weren’t working the first shift, they attended, sat in uncomfortable straight back chairs, and beamed at their children’s performance. Mothers were the mainstay of those in the audience.

The company filled the bags with just the right amount and variety of fruit, candy, nuts, peanuts, and jelly. Because fruit was scarce and sweets were dear, these bags were appreciated.  Folks who were unable to come to the mill received home delivery. Some mills gave each family a turkey for Thanksgiving and a ham at Christmas.

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Most mills presented to each employee of one year service or longer, a check in the amount of one week’s salary. Those who had been in the employ of the Mills for less than one year received checks in proportion to their time of employment. The workers, who were children, would receive monetary gifts of $1-$3.

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Fireworks were part of the celebrations in the village. Early in November, catalogs from distant companies arrived in the company store. Orders would be shipped by railroad express. Packages of All American Boy, Noisy Boy, and others would arrive for only a few dollars.

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Parents worked hard to put food on the table during the Great Depression. Sometimes the dad would trade for silver bombs for their sons. It made a powerful popping sound, and soon the air was full of those pops. Late-sleepers had a sudden awakening when a silver bomb was thrown on their porch.

Most families had a tree. Christmas trees were decorated with lead icicles and small  snow  flakes that the mothers crocheted. Strings of popcorn and berries were woven around the limbs.The cut trees were either a small pine or holly found in the woods and nailed to a wooden base.

The wives baked chocolate and coconut pies, fruitcakes, and chocolate and coconut cakes. They were for company and family who might drop by and couldn’t be touched until Christmas day.

Mill families lived a hard life. It took the adults and children working to make ends meet. Christmas didn’t erase this life style, but for a day they were forgotten.

 

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Bill Shephard writes about what he bought for his family in 1935 with money he earned by selling trees he cut down and splitting some wood for a neighbor.

My Christmas earnings now totaled ninety cents! If I didn’t earn another penny, I could purchase a gift for every family member and have some left for myself, and that is exactly what I did!

A small tea-set for my sister cost a dime. A pretty box of ladies handkerchiefs for Mom cost another dime. A necktie for Dad, which he never wore, and a pair of socks for each of my brothers, cost ten cents each. I still had forty cents left for myself! I purchased a box of ten rolls of caps for the cap-pistol I knew I would get from Santa, and six boxes of firecrackers, along with two boxes of sparklers. I still had a nickel left with which to buy a large bag of p-nut brittle for me.

Mr. Shephard learned early how to stretch a dollar.

Depression Hobos and Aunt Annie Mae

The two-story boarding house proudly graced the corner of Green Street and Boyce Street in Union, South Carolina. It faced the Union Mill.

     Painted white, like all of the other mill village houses, the windows sparkled in the June sun. Annie Mae Bobo was an excellent cook, but she also took pride in keeping her household spic-and-span.

     Her eight male boarders felt blessed to pay room and board for one dollar a week. Two men shared each of the four upstairs rooms. The bachelor’s ages extended from sixteen to nineteen.

     Annie Mae and her daughter Noddie, a family nickname for Norma, washed the sheets and swept the rooms once a week. She provided her own handmade quilts for warmth in the winter. Opening the two windows in each room brought in fresh, and sometimes cool, air in the spring and summer. Available for spit baths and shaving were a pitcher, bowl, mirror, and towels.

          A single, light bulb in a brass socket, dangling from the ceiling, provided pale light at night. Two, black wires loosely crawled up the walls and across to the socket from the switch beside the door. Green tape partially held the two wires together.

     The outhouse was only yards from the back door. That forty-yard dash was not inconvenient to anyone, and it was a two-hole necessary house.

These are the opening lines of the short story, “Annie Mae” in my new book, Tales of a Cosmic Possum. (available October 14, 2017) Annie Mae was one of my husband John’s aunts, and she had a open heart. She often reminded her children, as well as all within earshot, to “do right by the good Lord, he’p yer own kin, he’p others ye meet along the way.”

Hobos lived a life on-the-go; most of them traveled from one job to another by train.

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In the hobo villages, family safety was a concern, and ingenuity was the answer.

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Finding food was a constant problem. Hobos often begged for food at a local farmhouse. If the farmer was generous, the hobo would mark the lane so that later hoboes would know this was a good place to beg. They took jobs no one else would take.

Hobos created items to sell for some spare change. This cup was made from a tin can, a hollow stick, and some copper wire.

The Hobo Code was quickly learned; it was a survival tool. Life as a hobo was difficult and dangerous. To help each other out, these vagabonds developed their own secret language to direct other hobos to food, water, or work – or away from dangerous situations. The Hobo Code helped add a small element of safety when traveling to new places.

The diverse symbols in the Hobo Code were scrawled in coal or chalk all across the country, near rail yards and in other places where hobos were likely to convene. The purpose of the code was not only to help other hobos find what they needed, but to keep the entire lifestyle possible for everyone. Hobos warned each other when authorities were cracking down on vagrants or when a particular town had had its fill of beggars; such helpful messages told other hobos to lie low and avoid causing trouble until their kind was no longer quite so unwelcome in those parts.

Since Annie Mae and her husband Roy’s house wasn’t far from the railroad, their home would have seen many of these hobos. This couple had little in the way of worldly possessions or ready-money, but they believed in and daily lived out the Golden Rule.

Matthew 7:12 (NIV) “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and Prophets.”

Whether a cup of cold water from their well, several apples picked from the apple tree in the back, or a left over biscuit from breakfast, Annie Mae shared what she had. She loved her neighbor.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But…the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

Perhaps the question for me and you today is “Who is my neighbor?” Annie Mae would tell us anyone we meet “along the way.”

 

 


 

 

Flour Sack Dresses

Until I started researching about the lives of Appalachian women who worked in the cotton mills, I had never heard of flour sack dresses.

We tend to think that recycling as a new thing, but Solomon tells us plainly that, “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9

During the Great Depression, all had to be salvaged; scrimping and saving was a way of life. It was not an option. Clothing for growing children was, of course, a necessity, and cloth was expensive.

Going to buy one of their staples, flour, at a mill’s Company Store created a new market for the flour sacks. Mothers made dresses, shirts, pillow cases, curtains, and kitchen towels out of empty sacks.

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Manufacturers weren’t slow on picking up on this, so they packaged their flour in printed bags of cotton. Even animal feed sacks followed suit to help their consumers out. Notice the variety of patterns in the Sun Bonnet Sue Flower below.

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During World War II, there was a shortage of cotton fabric for the civilian population, and the recycling of bags became a necessity, encouraged by the government. The military was using cotton for their uniforms.  Using feed sacks for sewing was considered patriotic, and women still enjoyed finding attractive prints on feed sacks  One feed sack could have easily made a child’s dress or shirt, and three identical sacks to make a woman’s dress. One study said that over three and half million women and children were wearing clothes created from feed and flour sacks.

Flower Sack Dresses From the Flour Mills

Looking at these old patterns, it is obvious that manufacturers aimed to please a variety of tastes in their consumers. They are bright, beautiful, and useful.  It was a great marketing ploy as women picked out flour, sugar, beans, rice, cornmeal and even the feed and fertilizer for the family farm based on which fabrics they desired.  Some sacks displayed lovely border prints for pillowcases.  Scenic prints were also popular.  Manufacturers even made preprinted patterns for dolls, stuffed animals, appliqué and quilt blocks. Rodkey’s Best Flour sold a bag with Alice in Wonderland characters printed on it.

One of the vignettes at the Textile Museum in Englewood, Tennessee, includes this quote, “I washed five feed sacks and made me a bedspread.”

I have several flour sack kitchen towels that were my Nanna’s. Even after all these years, they are the best drying cloths I own. And if you want some similar ones, try the Vermont Country Store. You won’t have to buy flour with these!

The 1930’s Flour Sack 
by Colleen B. HubertIn that long ago time when things were saved, 
when roads were graveled and barrels were staved
and there were no plastic wrap or bags, 
and the well and the pump were way out back, 
a versatile item, was the flour sack.

Pillsbury’s best, mother’s and gold medal, too
stamped their names proudly in purple and blue. 
The string sewn on top was pulled and kept
the flour emptied and spills were swept. 
The bag was folded and stored in a sack
That durable, practical flour sack.

The sack could be filled with feathers and down, 
for a pillow, or t’would make a nice sleeping gown.
it could carry a book and be a school bag, 
or become a mail sack slung over a nag.
It made a very convenient pack,
That adaptable, cotton flour sack.

Bleached and sewn, it was dutifully worn
as bibs, diapers, or kerchief adorned.
It was made into skirts, blouses and slips.
And mom braided rugs from one hundred strips
she made ruffled curtains for the house or shack,
from that humble but treasured flour sack!

As a strainer for milk or apple juice,
to wave men in, it was a very good use,
as a sling for a sprained wrist or a break,
to help mother roll up a jelly cake,
as a window shade or to stuff a crack,
we used a sturdy, common flour sack!

As dish towels, embroidered or not,
they covered up dough, helped pass pans so hot,
tied up dishes for neighbors in need,
and for men out in the field to seed.
They dried dishes from pan, not rack
that absorbent, handy flour sack!

We polished and cleaned stove and table,
scoured and scrubbed from cellar to gable,
we dusted the bureau and oak bed post,
made costumes for October (a scary ghost)
and a parachute for a cat named jack.
From that lowly, useful old flour sack!

So now my friends, when they ask you
As curious youngsters often do,
“before plastic wrap, elmers glue
and paper towels, what did you do?”
tell them loudly and with pride don’t lack,
“grandmother had that wonderful flour sack!”

Flour sack dress from the 1930's

There’s something “that long time ago” that we shouldn’t forget.

America’s First Woman Newspaper Publisher and Editor

I have always been excited to learn about women who were first at something, and Elizabeth Timothy wins in that category in South Carolina and the United States.

When her publisher husband died in 1738, Elizabeth Timothy became the first female newspaper publisher and editor in America.

Timothy Print Shop in Charleston

Elizabeth was born in Holland and immigrated to America in 1731 with her husband and four children. They sailed with other French Huguenots fleeing persecution.

Timothy met Benjamin Franklin, who hired him to be librarian of Franklin’s Philadelphia Library Company. Then Franklin trained him in the printing business at the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Franklin had helped establish the South Carolina Gazette in Charlestown. When the publisher died, Timothy took his place in 1733. They signed a six year contract with Timothy’s son Peter as the next in line as publisher. The Gazette became the South Carolina’s first permanent newspaper under Timothy.

The family joined St. Philip’s Anglican Church and became quite active. Timothy organized a subscription postal system that originated in his printing office. In 1736, he obtained 600 acres and a town lot.

Lewis died in 1739, and Elizabeth took over. She was the mother of five children and momentarily expecting the sixth, but she took on another job. She ran the Gazette under the name of her 13-year-old son Peter. There was a year left on the contract, but not an issue was missed.

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Elizabeth added a personal touch to the Gazette by adding woodcuts for illustration and advertisements. In the first issue after her husband’s death, she included a sentimental message asking for continued support from their customers.

Typical Printing Press of 18th Century

Besides the Gazette, she printed books, pamphlets, tracts, and other publications. Franklin said that she was superior to her husband in her accounts; she “continu’d to account with the greatesr Regularity and Exactitude every Quarter afterwards; and manag’d the Business with such Success that she not only brought up reputably a Family of Children, but at the Expiration of the Term was able to purchase of me the Printing House and establish her Son in it.”

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When her son Peter turned 21 in 1746, he assumed the operation of the Gazette from his mother. She turned right around and opened her own business, a book and stationery store next door to the printing office on King Street. Of course, she advertised in the Gazette. (I wonder if she had to pay?) In an ad in October, 1746, she announce that she had books available like pocket Bibles, spellers, primers, and books titled Reflections on Courtship and Marriage, Armstrong’s Poem  on Health, The Westminister Confession of Faith, and Watt’s Psalms and Hymns. She also sold bills of lading mortgages, bills of sale, writs, ink powder, and quills to local Charlestonians for reasonable prices.

Elizabeth ran her business for about a year before she left Charlestown for a season. She was back by 1756. She died in 1757, and her estate included three houses, a tract of land, and eight slaves. She was a wealthy woman.

As the mother of six children and the wife of a wealthy and influential publisher, Elizabeth Timothy enjoyed a social position attained by only a few women printers of the colonial period. But her success of the newspaper and printing business after Lewis Timothy’s death can only be attributed to her own business acumen and management skills.

As the first woman in America to own and publish a newspaper, she played a vital role in the development of Charlestown and South Carolina. As official printer to the colony, she was closely associated with the South Carolina Assembly and colony’s government. And as the proprietor of a commercial printing business and bookstore, she printed, published, and offered for sale numerous books and pamphlets, and was at the center of the colony’s cultural and literary life.

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In 1973, Elizabeth Timothy was inducted into the South Carolina Press Association Hall of fame. She was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 2000.

Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore.  Dream. Discover.”

Elizabeth Timothy was a South Carolina woman who didn’t need these encouraging words. In reading about her life, I believe she had some similar words as her motto.

 

Unaka Springs Hotel

Unaka Springs Hotel was located about 18 miles from Johnson City in Unicoi County, a few miles past Erwin along a mountainous portion of the Nolichucky River. The river was originally named Nolachucky, meaning “Rushing Water.”

There were two ways to arrive at the springs. A hack/a horse for hire that could be used for riding or driving could be rented; the hack line from Jonesboro would take a half day. The last couple of miles along the river included breathtaking views. Some preferred a  journey by train. A time card from 1893 shows Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio’sRailroad’s “No. 1 Daily” leaving Johnson City’s Carnegie Depot at 7:30 a.m., traveling to Okolona, Fagans, Marbleton, Rose Hill, Unicoi, Erwin; and arriving at Unaka Springs at 8:45 a.m. Rather than a half day’s ride, the journey was an hour and a quarter.

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This site of the mineral springs included a wide view of nature with ears filled with the soothing, river waters. Mountain peaks enclosed the gorge, so a sense of peace fell on the guests.

Unaka Springs was considered one of the finest mineral springs in the south. Chalybeate water became popular with folks who believed in its health enhancing qualities. A physician from early times gave a unique description of it: “The colic, the melancholy, and the vapours; it made the lean fat, the fat lean; it killed flat worms in the belly; loosened the clammy humours of the body; and dried the over-moist brain.” He further stated in rhyme: “These waters youth in age renew, Strength to the weak and sickly add, Give the pale cheek a rosy hue, And cheerful spirits to the sad.” (Quite a claim, wouldn’t you say?!?)

Built in 1899, the hotel was a three-story frame structure with modern plumbing and a full porch along the front. There were forty rooms, with a bathroom on each floor. Rental rates were $2/day, $10/week and $30/month. An ad from that era firmly stated, “no consumptives.” And then there’s the pleasure of fishing, hunting, boating and being serve all you can eat.

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The railroad had an office on the premises, where guests could be rail tickets or send and receive telegrams. The train schedules were such that day trips were possible; Sunday School picnics and Sunday dinner at the hotel were popular.

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Mountain climbing before lunch, swimming in the river in the afternoon, and dancing after dinner were daily activities. For church on Sunday, someone played hymns, rather than dance tunes. Rocking chair sitting was conducive to visiting, politicking, or courting. The manager made his rounds, with an oil lamp in hand, to be sure all the rockers and benches were empty each night at 10:30.

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A July 1889 “Comet” newspaper article asked the question, “Where are you going to spend the month of August?” Often the answer was. “Unaka Springs Hotel! Mr. A. V. Deaderick’s place, just like last year.”

Then in the 1950’s, the hotel closed. Another era vanished

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 Unaka Springs still flows; it is the restful stay at the hotel in the middle of those gorgeous mountains that is no more. Perhaps someone might build another hotel that gives respite to its guests.
“Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”
―Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now