The anticipation I felt when I turned west onto Highway 18 outside Blytheville, Arkansas, was almost palpable. I was finally on my way, nearing the place I had longed to visit for many years, Black Oak, Arkansas, birthplace of my father, Charles Edward Shoults seventy-five years ago. For many years I’d wondered what this town would look like; where my father spent his childhood; where my beloved Grandma Maggie had been born and lived. When I began my journey seeking who my Shoults ancestors were, I knew nothing other than Grandma Maggie moved to St. Louis with my dad and his sister Mable and her husband, Edgar Moore, many years ago. Grandma didn’t talk much about her life in Black Oak.
Since I had been exploring my family roots with Aunt Mable, I’d heard the names Lake City, Monette, Nettleton, Caraway and Black Oak, but now driving westward, I began seeing the road signs announcing each; first Monette, then Lake city and finally, the sign that read “Black Oak.” I turned down the road, not knowing what to expect. Thankfully, I had not many preconceived notions except for those that John Grisham may have conjured up in his novel “A Painted House.” The town of Black Oak consisted of only several streets and appeared to be almost uninhabited. Unfortunately, my personal urge to “gotta go, gotta go” struck me as we drove through the main street. I searched in vain for an open business and finally settled for taking my chances at the Post Office. I entered the small building and explained my business in Black Oak and then with much trepidation asked if I could possibly use their restroom. Much to my delight, I was immediately invited into the interior of the post office to take care of my urgent problem.
After attending to immediate needs, I asked the Post Mistress if she knew the whereabouts of Huckleberry Ditch. She laughed and said, “no, but I can tell you where Cocklebur Ditch is.” She not only told me where to find the location that Grandma Maggie had lived near Grandma and Grandpa Spears, she directed me to the woman who lived across the street from the Post Office. She said that Mrs. Mangrum had lived in Black Oak her whole life and she would be able to give me information. My son had accompanied me on this trip, so he and I walked across the street and knocked on the door. We were greeted warmly and when I told Mrs. Mangrum what my mission was, she invited me into her kitchen. We sat at her kitchen table and talked for over an hour. She remembered Aunt Mable and tried to direct me to other individuals who might have been able to give me more information.
As I had mentioned, I traveled to Arkansas with my fourteen year old son, Stephen, and when we left the Mangrum residence, we drove to the area on Highway 138 where Cuckleburr Ditch was located. Being from “up north” I didn’t know what a “ditch” was. Our interpretation of a “ditch” is that lower ground on the side of the road that collects water, trash and anything else people happen to throw out their car windows, but I was soon to learn that in the south, a “ditch” was what we call a creek. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but finally settled for driving down a farm road. Cotton fields, their cotton plants almost devoid of cotton bolls, lined both sides of the road. I stopped the Jeep, got out and approached the rear of the Jeep. I opened the hatch and retrieved a plastic bag and spoon. My son couldn’t believe it when I walked into the field and began scooping mounds of dirt into the plastic bag. “What are you doing?” Stephen asked. I know he thought I had lost my mind. “I’m taking back the dirt my father walked on” I replied. He only nodded, probably not understanding the need to know now, someone you didn’t know then.
Several years later, I made a return trip to Black Oak, taking both Aunt Mable and my mother’s sister, my Aunt Lucile with me. We visited with Aunt Mable’s Moore relatives and it is a trip I will never forget.
To my Dad, Charles Edward Shoults, August 25-1925 to August 30, 1970, I love you, I miss you and this is for you.
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