Life in the Bend

Gripping the cold, shaky metal, Buck stared intensely at the line where hair met skin on his newest client’s neck. A sensitive, 16 year old boy named Robert sat in the chair while he vented to Buck as if he was a father figure to the boy. Buck had owned this shop for two years now, but it got harder daily.

He had snickered at the thought of the pretentious new-money boys who had contributed to the recent stock crash. He never realized how hard that wind would hit him. Living in Vinegar Bend, Alabama, a small village in the rural south, everything else seemed so far away. The boy in the chair told Buck about his father losing his job. He had worked on a farm for a friend. However, with the recent turn in events farmers were struggling to keep their families healthy, they certainly did not have enough money to keep extra workers. Buck enjoyed listening because he was not much of a talker himself. He felt like he knew the town’s entire history because he would simply listen to anything people wanted to tell him.

Everyone in Vinegar Bend knew everyone’s business. If not by word of mouth, they probably witnessed it because there were so few people. Buck thought about how his barbershop used to serve as a home for this gossip. Men of different backgrounds, ages, and careers came into the shop for a haircut or shoe sign and found comfort in the relaxed surroundings in the environment. (Trainor) The chairs were a shiny, red leather and comfortable, not yet worn from the customers coming in and out for years, but how they gave in so easily now gave them a new kind of comfort. Something about sitting there gave these people the ability to let out whatever was begging to leave their head. They would speak of gossip, rumors, family drama, and hardships. Buck even found himself giving advice at times. This all slowed to nearly a holt with the recent economy and stock market. Buck’s feet scuffed the dirt path that led him to his home after work. The weather was often hot and muggy. Since the stock crash, he had only three clients most days. Some days, he would have none at all. He began accepting canned food or home goods in exchange for cuts or shoe shines. He tried to be understanding. (Stone)

Buck returned home most days just as dinner was finished being made. The smell of boiled potatoes and hotdogs brushed his face. His wife, Beulah yelled towards the kids playing in the other room that their dad was home. Buck tried hard to talk to Beulah about the things he had heard going on in the town, without letting the kids hear. He did not want to worry them. Cecil was only 5 now, but she understood when people were sad. Everytime Buck walked into the house and saw Beulah, he would think about their wedding day in 1919. Just on the cusp of the roaring twenties and they had no idea. What a time to honeymoon and experience the wonders of a fresh marriage. They spent nearly ten years together just adventuring, working, and loving, before they decided to bring a child into the world.

Buck believed having that time with Beulah, learning about each other and growing closer, prepared them for the hardships the 30s have brought them. Additionally, they felt very prepared when they had Cecil. Both were almost 30 years old and Buck had built a sustainable living being a barber. With all of that being said, he knew that nothing could have fully equipped them or anyone for the decade long turbulence the stock crash brought to rural Alabama. At the barbershop, he found himself doing much more than cutting hair just to make ends meet. Shoe shining had always been offered, but he ventured out to anyone who needed help and would pay him. The few stores that remained open near the shop, at least at the start of the depression, included a convenience store, a gas station, and a farmer’s market. Buck would offer to pump gas if the station was short handed, and sweep the store and market if needed. The owners all felt each other’s pain, some more than others. This enabled them to help each other when needed. Buck would do anything it took so that he could continue to come home to something cooking every night, for him and his family. The Great Depression hit the South unlike anyone could have imagined. (Biles) The North urbanized much quicker, but few knew to head there before it was too late. (Couch)

Unlike most shop owners, Buck did not have to worry about losing his shop. Despite the hardships, the shop was his. He did not have to pay any more dues to anyone. With money he had been saving, he had paid for most of the shop when he bought it from a man named Abe Baxter in 1931. Right when things had started to decline economically. Baxter was killed just a year after Buck bought the shop. Some people believe it was because he had tried to leave his family and run off with a younger woman. (Baxter) The killers got to him before he could do so, and left him in a barn outside of Vinegar Bend. As Buck walked to his shop, he thought about this intensively. It was now 1935, three years after the killing. Part of him looked down on Baxter, for trying to leave his family. Buck realized now that that was the only reason he sold the shop to him. After a few minutes of thought, he forgave the man he did not know. This slump made people act in crazy ways.

Buck started to notice his neighbors disappearing, although rather slowly. After a year went by, one would be gone, a few months later another had packed up and left. Even his cousins had gone further south into Mobile at this point. Buck only got customers maybe once a week now. It was 1936. He was less caught up on what was going on, because there was less traffic in his shop. He heard rumors about more opportunities in the north, but he winced at that. It felt like a whole different world up there. When he realized there was truly nothing left in the tiny village that was Vinegar Bend, he moved him and his family to Prichard, Alabama in Mobile County. (Stone) It took months to convince himself, and he knew he did not want to go north. He just hoped the bigger town would provide more opportunities for them. Additionally, they would be much closer to family. With people getting sick or dying from hunger, it started to become more apparent to him how important it was to be around loved ones.

Buck met Beulah in Mobile while visiting family. She grew up in Prichard, Alabama. After their years of exploring he convinced her to settle down in the small Vinegar Bend village. He promised her a happy, humble life. Their first home was nearly destroyed by a tornado just a month after their marriage. After that, he got her a house with a shelter. (Stone) It was difficult for him to not think about these little moments as they said goodbye to their life in Vinegar Bend. Buck prayed to God often, but was quiet about it. He encouraged his kids as soon as they could talk to do the same. For many like Buck, living where he did, they did not understand what needed to be done to end this slump. They thought the government must have forgotten how to do their job. Some thought maybe they just did not care about the south. (Couch)

The trip to Mobile was rough. They had a small car they had to pack with themselves, their children, and as much of their belongings as they could. Halfway there, Beulah thought something was wrong with Cecil. She had a fever and did not look well. Buck tried to reassure her it was just from traveling and she had not been getting enough rest. This was just to make Beulah feel better though. He had heard stories come in and out of his shop of people losing their children to horrible illnesses, especially when the depression hit.

They took Cecil to the nearest doctor they passed just as they got into Mobile. The doctor told them this could be influenza, and they started their tests immediately. Thankfully, they concluded Cecil just needed rest and something small to keep the fever down. It had not been anything more than a fever.
Buck’s cousins living in Mobile were able to help him provide more for his family. At first, he was often embarrassed to acknowledge he needed help in any way. These times changed people. Everyone in Alabama knew everyone else was struggling too. Buck missed his barbershop. Now he worked at a bigger shop, but he did not own it. He wondered if there were anyone left in Vinegar Bend. He gave the rights of the shop over to Robert, the same, now 20 years old, sensitive boy. He hoped one day Vinegar Bend could be revived, though he knew that would require the revival of the people. He would always talk to his children as they grew up and his new customers at the shop about Vinegar Bend and the beautiful simplicity of such a small town. He told them of his adventures before the depression hit. He made it appoint to spread the narratives of the people in that community, the tales and hardships that were spoken to him in his old shop. It helped to remind him that while the depression had taken so much away from so many kind people, the memories made with those people did not have to go anywhere. So he did anything to keep them alive.


Works Cited


Biles, Roger. “The Urban South in the Great Depression.” The Journal of Southern History,
vol. 56, no. 1, 1990, pp. 71–100., doi:10.2307/2210665.

Couch, J. F., and P. M. Williams. “New Deal or Same Old Shuffle? The Distribution of
New Deal Dollars Across Alabama.” Economics and Politics, vol. 11, no. 2, 1999, pp. 213–223.

Stone, Crystal. “Interview about Great-Grandpa Buck with Donna Stone (Grand Daughter).”
20 Mar. 2019.

Trainor, Sean. Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2016,