Those awful sore eyes!

My sister called and asked, “Bill, what are you writing about?”

I answered, “My memories of August when we were children!” We often share our memories of growing up on the old cotton mill village. She amazes me to the things she remembers about those times long ago.

Bill Shepard

Bill Shepard

“You’re writing about ‘sore eyes’,” she said.

“Not this time!” I said, and I didn’t. I wrote about working in the tobacco and cotton fields and other things that I did as a child during the month of August.

I tried, I really did, but I just could not allow August to pass without my writing something about the dreadful sore eyes that seemed to be more dreadful during the month of August.

Once when I wrote about the sore eyes, someone reading said she could remember those times, and it made her eyes hurt to read my article.

I don’t believe there is a place on the planet where the sore eyes were as bad as they were on the village where I lived. Just ask any “old timer” if you can find one, who grew up on the mill village in Darlington during the 1920’s and 1930’s of the past century, and you will hear a painful story! Don’t be confused, the term “pink-eye” that we hear about today, is not the same as mill village sore eyes!

Why Darlington? Why the mill village?

Little children; babies; too young to understand what was happening, would awaken in the mornings and not be able to open their eyes. Their eyes would be swollen and glued shut with matter caused by an infection in their eyes. They would scream and rub their eyes in an effort to get them open, only making the situation worse.

This writer can remember the above scene happening more than once when he was a little boy. Mama with her pan of warm water, moved from one of her children to the other, bathing their eyes to get them to open. The tender touch of my Mama’s hand could do wonders.
I remember how painful the bright morning light, shining through our shade-less windows would be. Mama would hang quilts over them to keep out the light that was so painful. I can remember sitting in a dark clothes closet for hours, hiding from the light that caused so much pain.

The village nurse was kept busy during those times. She was a welcomed visitor as she moved from house to house where she was needed. For the sore eyes, her remedy was a brown liquid, “Argy Oil!” This spelling is probably incorrect; I have not seen it since I was a boy! Before leaving each house, she would leave a large size bottle with the instructions to use several times a day, and to avoid the light as much as possible! The sore eyes would last for weeks, and long after they were gone, the eyes would remain weak.

Years after becoming an adult, I spent time in the upstate of South Carolina. Often I would meet folk who had lived on the village in Darlington for a short time. One of the things they would talk about was the sore eyes!

Earlier in this article, I asked a question as to why this condition existed on the mill village at the time of which I write. I did not know the answer when I was a boy, but I do now! Simply stated, it was the unsanitary conditions under which we lived!
There were rows of open toilets (privies), breeding places for every kind of flying insect, gnats, flies, and mosquitoes. Once a week, a man, driving a mule hitched to a small cart, came along and hauled the body waste to a pasture near the village and dumped it in the open pasture. It would remain there until it was disposed of by the wild animals and the elements.

The mill houses had no screens over the windows and doors, (they would come later) so the flies and mosquitoes would enter the houses, bringing their germs with them.

All that I have written happened a long time ago! Perhaps we should have known better, but we did not!

Could that be the reason there were so many short graves in the village cemetery? Childhood diseases such as whooping cough, measles, chicken pox, diphtheria, and others claimed the lives of many small children during that period. I remember standing at a distance and watching the small groups as they gathered at the spot where the child’s body would be placed. I would watch, and wonder. After a few words were spoken, words that I could not understand, the small crowd would disperse. Some would be weeping and wiping tears from their eyes. Yes, I remember!

In the days following, I would pass the cemetery and pay attention to the fading flowers at the grave site, and again I would wonder. Today, all these years later, I remember! How can I forget?

Mr. Shepard is a native of Darlington, S.C., and a current resident of Piedmont, S.C. and author of “Mill Town Boy” and “Bruised”. He has been sharing his tales of growing up in Darlington for decades, and we are delighted to share them each week.
His mailing address for cards and letters is: Bill Shepard 324 Sunny Lane, Piedmont, S.C., 29673.

Author: Duane Childers

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