Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Amy's Extraordinary Alabama

By Amy

I went to college at Jacksonville State University in the same county where I grew up. I remember one day toward the latter part of my college years a friend, who grew up in the neighboring county, and I were talking and somehow an old relative of mine came up. This friend didn't believe this old relative was my great-great uncle.

Soon I'll be introducing you to the area of Alabama where I was born and raised, but today I want to introduce you to this member of my family. He passed away in 1999 at the age of 81, but in the area where I grew up he was a legend, thus my friend not believing that he was my uncle. It seriously took me 15 minutes to convince this friend that I was related to him.

His name was Pink Edward Burns, or as everyone in the area affectionately called him, "Pinky". And in case you're wondering, I'm not sure why my great-great grandparents decided to name him Pink either. He was the baby of 4 children. The only boy, he was so premature he fit inside a coffee cup. Considering he was born in 1918 it was a miracle he survived.

My mom remembers her family saying he was spoiled by his mom and his 3 older sisters, one of whom was my great grandmother. A member of the United States Calvary, he was discharged after an injury caused him to lose one eye. A little known fact my mother just learned recently.

He lived in Rabbittown, a small community in the northeastern side of Calhoun County, with his parents. His dad passed away in 1965, but I still vaguely remember his mother Roxie, my great-great grandmother. My mom would take me to visit her in the nursing home when I was a little girl. She died in 1980 when I was 6.

Most of that may seem fairly normal, but that's not even close to the whole story. You see, Uncle Pink lived in an old, old house way out in the country. His parents lived there and he grew up there. And honestly most today would consider it "out in the middle of nowhere".

Uncle Pink nor his parents ever even owned the house, which by the way never had indoor plumbing. The outhouse was still in use until he died in 1999. The land was once owned by the Greenleaf family, a wealthy family in Jacksonville. The mountain area behind it was called Red Mountain and the Greenleafs ran a mining operation there.

A small one-room log house was built as the community's first school. Later a few additions were made and it became the home of my Uncle Pink's parents. When the Greenleafs sold the land or their estate was settled or something like that, a paper company bought the property and gave my great-great grandparents and Uncle Pink a tenant at-will agreement that allowed them to occupy the property as long as they lived. Later the Forestry Service acquired it and honored the tenant at-will agreement.

But what made Uncle Pink something of a legend was who he was -- a trapper, hunter and fisherman. I don't ever remember Uncle Pink having a "real" job. He lived off the land, trapping and hunting and trading the animal skins and such. He knew more about the woods and how to fish than most hunters will ever know. He knew the land. As the seasons changed, he changed what he hunted and trapped. He drove an old jeep around that he called Lula-Belle. I think it was an old army jeep and everyone who knew of Pink knew of Lula-Belle.


Oh and the house never had electricity. My mother remembers spending the night there as a little girl and seeing chickens under the house through the cracks in the wood floor and her great grandmother piling blanket after blanket on top of them so they wouldn't get cold.

Many, many people from our county and neighboring counties knew of him. I guess he was a mountain man, living alone and close to nature which tends to make people larger than life. Which is kind of funny because he was a small man.

Rows of fish jaws, turkey legs and other animal mounts lined the old porch and many hunters learned a great deal about hunting and fishing from him. There's an art to living off the land and trapping and hunting the way he did. I would dare say there are very few like him left around. Friends always brought him moon pies and "Cokie Colas" as he called them. When the house was being cleaned out after his death there were many unopened shirts he had been given that he never used.


It's hard to put into words what a character he was to the surrounding areas. He was a storyteller for those who would listen, telling stories of days gone by. Photos of him and some historical artifacts from his life are now a part of a permanent exhibit in the halls of the Calhoun County Administrative building in Anniston celebrating the heritage of county. He represents Rabbittown, the community he called home.

When he died, the land and home went back to the U.S. Forestry Service. Four and a half years after he died, the Burns Trailhead was dedicated as part of the Pinhoti Trail. The house was no longer safe, but there had been hope to turn it into some sort of cabin for those enjoying the trail.

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In March of this year (2009) arsonists decided to set fire to the old house. Very little remained of the original house. I'm amazed it had not caught fire in a thunder storm before this. Needless to say the community and area were outraged. The old home was like a piece of history for the area. A few of the outbuidings survived and the rock chimney. The arsonists were arrested and it's my understanding that it was a federal crime since the house was federal property.

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So what about you? Did the area where you grew up have men or women that were something of a legend?


MamaHen said...

I love this post. I love reading real history like this. And that is terrible about the cabin. How neat that you have this as AL history and your family history!

Rachel said...

That is an amazing story, Amy! I am always amazed at the stories and lifestyles of people in that generation.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone! This is one of those stories I've been meaning to get written so I'll have it and not forget.

Trina said...

Wow that is so cool. I've never known anyone that strictly lived off the land like that.

My mom grew up in a small house with 12 siblings and slept about 4 to a bed. They had an outhouse for several years but they eventually got indoor plumbing. My grandparents always had a garden too and would eat from it, but my pawpaw worked at a local shop and my mawmaw stayed home to take care of all those youngins :) I'm sure we all have those stories, but wow, living strictly off the land takes a special person.

Jennie said...

Amy, I love your story! I'm a Jacksonville girl, myself. My parents and grandparents were born and raised there and I've lived there several times throughout my life. What a neat story to have as part of your family history! Thanks for sharing!

Jill said...

That's a great story! I hate that the cabin got burned down. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I am shocked to hear this story. He was my great-uncle, my grandmother's (avis') brother, and i had been there in 1999 for the funeral and had went to the cabin. i had planned to go back and see it sometime and i had just randomly thought about it and googled it, and found out it burned.. although i had only visited it a few times while i was younger, i still remember walking around there with uncle pink and collecting rocks and such, it still hit pretty hard to hear that some jerks would do such a thing.. what would compel someone to do this?

Benji said...

I just found your site after looking for information about the Greenleaf family. I grew up in White Plains (on Red Road 55) in a house that was built by my great-grandfather in 1948.

My Dad called when the house was burned and my heart sank. At least they got the punks that did it.

I have got to call Dad and ask if he remembers Pinky. I'm sure he'll have stories. What an incredibly small world! Thank you for sharing your story. It reminded me of bygone days of bicycle riding to Jack Benny's for a blow-pop and an ice-cold coke..in a glass bottle.

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