Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Monday, February 15, 2010

Byron Herbert Reece: Balladeer of the Blue Ridge Mountains

The Juan Wellborn Reece and Hannah Emma Lou Lance Reece Family about 1925.
On Emma's lap, Emma Jean Reece (b.03/29/1923).
Standing (l. to r.): Eva Mae Reece b. 08/25/1911); Byron Herbert Reece (b.09/14/1917); T. J. Reece (b. 07/30/1915); and Nina Kate Reece (b. 06/16/1914).
The first born child in the family, Alwayne, died at age 13 months with meningitis.

He was tall and lanky, a man of the earth, a mountaineer. He was a farmer, a poet, a genius, a novelist, a philosopher.

Union County has a right to be justly proud of the work and accomplishments of Byron Herbert Reece, poet, lyricist, extraordinary balladeer of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Byron Herbert Reece was born on September 14, 1917 in a one-room log cabin that stood in a meadow now covered by the waters of Lake Trahlyta at Vogel State Park in Union County, Georgia. The community where he was born was named Choestoe after the Cherokee Indian word meaning “The Place Where Rabbits Dance.” Intrigued by his place of birth, he memoralized it in a poem by the same name, “Choestoe.” In the long poem published in 1944 in The Prairie Schooner are these lines:

It’s not that rabbits ever really danced here,
Though sometimes in the dusk when nothing happens
We could believe they danced and wish them dancing;
They came to sport forever in the name our country bears,
One that the Indians gave it.
The son of Juan (pronounced Jew-ann) and Emma Lance Reece, the poet-to-be, had one brother, T. J., and three sisters, Eva Mae, Jean and Kate. Another sister, Alwayne, died in infancy.

Life was hard on the dirt farm along Wolf Creek in the shadow of Blood Mountain where they lived on acreage that had belonged to Emma’s ancestors. Emma cooked the family’s meals in a lean-to built onto the cabin by her grandfather.

Emma Reece recognized early-on the precociousness of her son, Byron Herbert (whom they had named—not for the noted English poets Lord Byron and George Herbert, but for Byron Mitchell, a hog trader from Gainesville, and for Herbert Tabor, an insurance salesman from Ellijay, both of whom were friends of the Reece family).

Emma read to her children from the King James Version of the Bible and from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Before “Hub” (as Byron Herbert was called) began school at Choestoe Elementary School, he could already read from both books. He loved the cadence and rhythm of the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, and in that metrical tone many dramatic stories would be turned into ballads later as Hub’s poetic genius budded and grew to fruition.

Days found Reece working hard on the farm. His parents were both beset with tuberculosis and more and more of the farm work became Hub’s responsibility. As he worked, he listened to the melody of Wolf Creek singing against the rocks. A keen observer of nature, his natural introspection turned his insights into poetry.

At night by an oil lamp, he wrote with a passion and expertise uncharacteristic of one with his limited education. That is why, when his poems began to be published, some critics questioned both his genius and his ability to phrase such flawless verse.

The lyrics of literally hundreds of poems came from his pen. Ballads, sonnets and lyrical verse were his forte. He pursued themes of death, wind, time, the brevity of life, changing seasons, nature, beauty and innocence. Many of these thoughts tortured Reece in his life. And upon reading his poetry today, his concerns haunt readers as they contemplate his short life and tragic death.

Nights were short on rest, days filled with tasks taxing to his waning health, for he himself contracted the dread tuberculosis. He arose to seasonal duties: turning the land, harrowing, seeding the rows in spring, cultivating in summer, harvesting in fall. Winter had its tasks: wood to keep the fires going in the Reece house, livestock to feed and tend, fences to mend, and poems and novels to write.

Many of his poems speak of the earth and its call upon his time and energies. In “The Stay-at-Home” (1955) he wrote:

The fields of Hughly held him,
The land where he was born;
With fence to mend,
And cows to tend,
And care of wheat and corn.

He had no lief to wander
Beyond his place of birth,
But often he would ponder
The luring lands of earth.

When a critic claimed Reece’s farm life was just a pose and wanted to know ‘Why not write full-time and leave the farm work to someone else?’ Reece’s cryptic reply was, “Anybody can plow potatoes, but no one is willing to plow mine but me.”

In an article he wrote for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine for August 16, 1953, he stated: “On a small farm on Wolf Creek in north Georgia, I combine writing and farming. Here, in the last few years, I have grown several crops of corn and vegetables and four books of fiction and verse. By nature, I would rather cultivate a cash crop than the critics; and in my own way of life, a garden is equally as important as a garland. Reviewers have sent raspberries my way, but I am more familiar with those that grow on vines.”

[Next week: More on the life and works of Byron Herbert Reece.]

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Oct. 30, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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