When I visit Bell Hill in Thomastown, I am struck by the strong work ethic that went into making this land a home and a place to raise a family. This is my family’s land and has been for three generations. It’s also where I have spent holidays and summers, traveling from south Mississippi to visit my extended family. It was here that I pretended I was a farm girl, and where I felt my truest version of a Mississippian.
My grandfather would walk the property with me, showing me where the corn, cotton, peaches, peas, squash, and watermelons were once planted. My grandmother would tell my brother and me stories about adventures that happened on the farm—she and her sisters running from snakes in the pond, making imaginary playhouses in the nearby woods, and her brother hurrying to milk the cows before they went to school. I am proud to know that so much hard work and prayer went into this place that is now used for family gatherings.
In 1931, my great-grandfather Thomas Bell, also known as Pappy, bought these 40 acres of land, built a house here with his bare hands, and started his family here. Later becoming known as Bell Hill, it also became a place where many Mississippians would come to buy Thomastown rocking chairs. Pappy was known for his craftsmanship in creating these heirlooms, many of which had backs and seats woven of bamboo cane by the Choctaw Indians.
Life then was very different for my family. My grandmother can recall Pappy bartering his rocking chairs for food and supplies during the Depression. The resilience and self-reliance that took place on this family farm and in his chair workshop are how my great-grandfather provided for his family’s well being. Taking nearly 25 hours to make, the specific style of handcrafting these rocking chairs is nearly a lost art. Many think of these rockers as keepsakes, and they are renowned for their quality. To me, they represent much more. Since 1976, one of these rockers has been given to every United States president. Today, Greg Harkins, who also has Thomastown family roots and apprenticed with Pappy in the 1960s, continues this tradition of creating rocking chairs made from the finest woods.
It seems that this high-tech world we live in has transformed so quickly from where we once were. I use my laptop and smartphone everyday, and I don’t have a clue what I would do without email and text messaging. We often forget that those who came before us made it just fine without these luxuries. When I think back to my great-grandfather building rocking chairs to make a life for his family, I hope to always remember to recognize that stories like his, those of perseverance, are the reasons we have the lifestyles we enjoy today.
Just like one of Pappy’s rocking chairs, Mississippi is full of deep family roots, memories, and testaments of hard work that will stand the test of time. I am proud to say that I still have one of these antique treasures made by my Pappy, which sits at my desk in my bedroom.