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George Pretty

From: Florida

American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)

Viola B. Muse, Field Worker
Palatka, Florida
November 9, 1936


George Pretty of Vero Beach and Gifford, Florida, was born a free man,
at Altoona, Pennsylvania, January 30, 1852. His father Isaac Pretty was
also free born. His maternal grand-father Alec McCoy and his paternal
grand-father George Pretty were born slaves who lived in the southern
part of Pennsylvania.

He does not know how his father came to be born free but knows that he
was told that from early childhood.

In Altoona, according to George, there were no slaves during his life
there but in southern Pennsylvania slavery existed for a time. His
grand-parents moved from southern Pennsylvania during slavery but
whether they bought their freedom or ran away from their masters was
never known to George.

As in most of the southland, the customs of the Negro in Altoona
abounded in superstition and ignorance. They had about the same beliefs
and looked upon life with about the same degree of intelligence as
Negroes in the south.

The north being much colder than the south naturally had long ago used
coal for fuel. Open grates were used for cooking just as open fireplaces
were used in the south. Iron skillets or spiders as they called them,
were used for cooking many foods, meats, vegetables, pies puddings and
even cakes were baked over the fire.

The old familiar, often referred to as southern ash cake, was cooked on
the hearth under the grate, right in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The north
because of its rapid advance in the use of modern ways of cooking and
doing many other things has been thought by many people to have escaped
the crude methods of cooking, but not so. George told how a piece of
thick paper was placed on the hearth under the grate and corn dough put
upon it to bake. Hot ashes were raked over it and it was left to cook
and brown. When it had remained a long enough time, the ashes were
shaken off, the cake brushed clean with a cloth and no grit was
encountered when it was eaten.

Isaac Pretty, George's father owned a large harness shop at Altoona and
made and sold hundreds of dollars worth of saddles and harness to both
northern and southern plantation owners. (1)

There was a constant going and coming of northern and southern owners;
southern ones seeking places to buy implements for farming and other
inventions as well as trying to locate runaway slaves.

Abolitionists were active in the north and there were those who
assisted slaves across the boundary lines between free and slave states.

Negroes in the north who were free and had intelligence enough saw the
gravity in assisting their slave brothers in the south. Some risked
their lives in spreading propaganda which they thought would aid the
enslaved Negroes in becoming free.

In and around Altoona, Negroes were very progressive and appreciated
their freedom, and had a great deal of sympathy for their fellows and
did all they could to demonstrate their attitude toward the slave
traffic. Money was solicited and freely given to help abolitionists
spread propaganda about freedom.

It is striking to note the similarity of living conditions in
Pennsylvania and Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas. Ex-slaves who live
in Florida now but who came here since the Emancipation of the Negro
tell of living conditions of their respective states; they are very
similar to the modes of living in Altoona, during slavery. (2)

Soap was made from grease and lye just as it was made in the south.
Shin-plaster (paper money similar to green back, which represented
amounts less than a dollar) were very plentiful and after the Civil War
confederate money of all kinds was as so much trash.

Food stuffs which were raised on the farm at Altoona were: corn,
peanuts, white potatoes and peas. Enough peas were raised to feed the
stock and take care of the family for 18 months. Potatoes were raised in
large quantities and after they were dug they were banked for the
winter. By banked, it is meant, large holes were dug in the cellar of
the house or under the house or inside of an outhouse; pine straw was
put into this pit and the potatoes piled in; more straw was laid on and
more potatoes piled in until all were in the pit. Dirt was shoveled over
the lot and it was left until for using them. Northern people used and
still use a large amount of white, or Irish potatoes.

In curing hides of cows for making leather the same method was employed
as that used in the south. Hides were first salted and water was poured
over them. They were covered with dirt and left to soak a few days. A
solution of red oak bark was made by soaking the bark in water and this
solution was poured over the hides. After it soaked a few days the hair
was scraped off with a stiff brush and when it dried leather was ready
for making shoes and harness.

George's father dealt extensively in leather and when he could not get
enough cured himself, he bought of others who could supply him.

Now George's mother was very handy at the spinning wheel and loom. He
remembers how the bunch of cotton was combed in preparation for
spinning. Cards with teeth were arranged on the spinning wheel and the
mass of cotton was combed through it to separate it into fibers. The
fibers were rolled between the fingers and then put upon the spinning
wheel to be spun into thread. As it was spun, it was wound upon spools.
After the spools were filled they were taken off and put on the loom.
Threads were strung across the loom some above others and the shuttle
running back and forth through the threads would make cloth. All that
was done by hand power. A person working at the loom regularly soon
became proficient and George's mother was one who bore the name of being
a very good weaver of cloth. Most of the clothes the family wore were
home spun.

Underwear and sleeping garments were made of the natural colored
homespun cloth. When colored cloth was wanted a dye was made to dip them
in so as to get the desired color. Dyes were made by soaking red oak
bark in water. Another was made of elder berries and when a real blood
red was desired polk berries were used. Polk berries made a blood red
dye and was considered very beautiful. Walnut hulls were used to make
brown dye and it was lasting in its effects.

In making dye hold its color, the cloth and dye were boiled together.
After it had "taken" well, the cloth was removed from the dye and rinsed
well, the rinse water was salted so as to set the color.

Tubs for washing clothes and bathing purposes were made of wood. Some
were made from barrels out in tew parts. In cutting a stay was left
longer on each side and holes were cut length wise in it so there would
be sufficient room for all of the fingers to fit. That was for lifting
the tub about.

A very interesting side of George's life was depicted in his statement
of the longevity of his innocence. We may call it ignorance but it seems
to be more innocence when compared to the incident of Adam and Eve as
told in the Holy Bible in the book of Genesis. He was 33 years of age
before he knew he was a grown man, or how life was given humans. In
plain words he did not know where babies came from, nor how they were

Whenever George's mother was expecting to be confined with a baby's
birth, his father would say to all the children together, large and
small alike, "your mother has gone to New York, Baltimore, Buffalo" or
any place he would think of at the time. There was an upstairs room in
their home and she would stay there six weeks. She would go up as soon
as signs of the coming child would present themselves. A midwife came,
cooked three meals a day, fed the children and helped keep the place in

In older times people taught their children to respect older persons.
They obeyed everyone older than themselves. The large children were just
as obedient as the small ones so that it was not hard to maintain peace
and order within any home.

The midwife in this case simply told all of the children that she did
not want any of them to go upstairs, as she had important papers spread
out all over the floor and did not want them disturbed. No questions
were asked, she was obeyed.

George does not remember having heard a single cry the whole time they
were being born in that upper room, and he said many a baby was born
there. Decorum reigned throughout the household for six weeks or until
their mother was ready to come down. When the time was up for mother to
come down, his father would casually say, "children your ma is coming
home today and what do you recon, someone has given her another baby."
The children would say, almost in concert, "what you say pa, is it a boy
or girl?" He would tell them which it was and nothing more was said nor
any further inquiry made into the happening.

The term "broke her leg" was used to convey the meaning of pregnancy.
George relates how his mother told him and his sister not to have any
thing more to do with Mary Jones, "cause she done broke her leg." George
said "Ma taint nothin matter wid Mary; I see her every day when the bell
rings for 12; she works across the street from Pa's shop and she and me
sets on the steps and talks till time fur her to go back to work." His
mother said, "dont spute me George, I know she is broke her leg and I
want yall to stay way frum her." George said, "Ma I aint sputing you,
jes somebody done misinform you dats all. She aint got no broke leg,
she walks as good as me." His mother said "then I'm a lie." George
quickly replied, "no ma, you aint no lie, but somebody done told you

Nothing was said further on the question of Mary Jones until that same
evening when Isaac Pretty came home from the shop. The mother took him
aside and told him of how she had been disputed and called a lie by
George and added that she wanted George whipped for it.

"Come here George," came a commanding voice shortly after the mother and
father had been in conference. George obeyed and his father took him
apart from the family and locked himself and George in a room. He said
"George I know I haven't done right by not telling you, you are grown.
You are 33 years old now and I want to tell you some things you should
know." George was all eyes and ears, for he had been told when
previously asked how old he was, "I'll tell you when you get grown."
That was all he had heard from his parents for years and he was just
waiting for him to tell him. His father told him how babies were born
and about his mother confining herself in the upper room all the
different times when she expected babies. He told him that his mother
had never been out of town to Boston or Baltimore on any of the past
occasions. In fact he told George all he knew to tell him.

Now the startling thing about it all is that when he had finished
giving the information about babies he said, "Now George your mother
told me that you called her a lie today." George at once said, "Pa I
didn't call her a lie, I jes told someone had misinform her 'bout Mary,
that she aint got her leg broke cause I see her every day." His father
said "I know 'taint right to whip you fur that George but your Ma said
she wanted me to whip you and I'll have to do it." That settled it.
George received his first lesson in sex and received the last flogging
his father ever gave him. He was now grown and could take his place as a

Afterwards the mother took all her daughters aside and told them the
same as Isaac had told George. (That is she told the grown girls about
sex life.)

George and his older sister talked the whole plan over after they got a
chance and decided that since they were now grown, they did not have to
give their earnings to their parents any longer. They decided to move
into one of their father's houses on the place and furnish it up. They
were making right good money considering the times related George, and
with both of them pulling together they soon would have sufficient money
saved up to buy a piece of land and start out on a plot of ground of
their own.

George told his father their plans. His father asked how much money he
had. He told him 200 dollars or more. His father said "you've saved 200
dollars out of what I've allowed you?" George answered in the
affirmative. His father said, "do you know how far that will go?" George
said he did not, his father answered "Not far my boy."

A few days after the conversation, Isaac Pretty furnished one of his
houses with the necessary equipment and let George and his sister live
there. They had their own bed-rooms and each bought some food. The girl
and George both cooked the meals and did the main thing they had set out
to do, letting nothing stand in the way of their progress.

When a few months had passed both children had accumulated a nice sum of
money. George was prepared to marry and take care of a wife. His sister
Eliza, who lived with him had saved almost as much money and when she
married she was an asset to the man of her choice rather than a

George had close contact with nature in his early life. The close
contact with his mother for 33 years had done something for George which
was lasting as well as beneficial. She was a close adherent to nature.
She believed in and knew the roots and herbs which cured bodily
ailments. This was handed down to her children and George Pretty claims
to know every root and herb in the woods. He can identify each as they
are presented to him, says he.

Doctors were never used by the ordinary family when George was growing
up and during his stay at Altoona. He was called in to sew up a cut
place which was too much for home treatment. He was also called in to
probe for a bullet but for fever or colds or even child-birth he was
considered an unnecessary expense.

Herbs and roots were widely utilized in olden days and during slavery
and early reconstruction. The old slave has brought his practices to
this era and he is often found gathering and using them upon his friends
and neighbors.

George Pretty knows that black snake root is good for blood trouble for
he has used it on many a person with safety and surety. Sasafras tea is
good for colds; golden rod tea for fever; fig leaves for thrash; red oak
bark for douche; slippery elm for fever and female complaint (when bark
is inserted in the vagina); catnip tea is good for new born babies; sage
tea is good for painful menstruation or slackened flow; fig leaves
bruised and applied to the forehead for fever are very affective; they
are also good to draw boils to a head; okra blossoms when dried are good
for sores (the dried blossoms are soaked in water and applied to the
sore and bound with clean old linen cloth); red shank is good for a
number of diseases; missing link root is for colds and asthma. George
said this is a sure cure for asthma. Fever grass is a purgative when
taken in the form of a tea. The blades are steeped in hot water and a
tea made. Fever grass is a wide blade grass growing straighter than most
grass. It has a blue flower and is found growing wild around many places
in Florida. It is plentiful in certain parts of Palatka, Florida.

Riding vehicles in early days were called buggies. The first one George
remembers was the go cart. It had two wheels and was without a top. Only
two people could ride in a go cart. The equilibrium was kept by buckling
the harness over and under the horse's belly. The strap which ran under
the belly was called the belly girt. There was a side strap which ran
along the horse's side and the belly girt was fastened to this. Loops
were put to vantage points on the side strap and through these the
shafts of the cart were run. The strap going under and over the horse
kept the cart from going too far forward or backward.

During George's early life plows looked very much like they do today.
They had wooden handles but the part which turned the ground was made of
point iron, (he could not describe point iron.) Plows were not made of
cast iron or steel as they are today.

Two kinds of plows were used so far as George remembers. One was called
the skooter plow and the other the turn plow. The skooter plow he
describes as one which broke the ground up which had been previously
planted. When the earth needed loosening up to make more fit for
planting, this plow was used over the earth, leaving it rather smooth
and light. The turn plow was used to turn the ground completely over.
Where grass and weeds had grown, the earth needed turning over so as to
thoroughly uproot the weeds and grass. The ground was usually left a
while so that the weeds could die and rot and then men with hoes would
go over the ground and make it ready for planting.

When freedom came to Negroes in the slave territory, George remembers
that Sherman's army drilled a long time after the Civil War had ended.
He saw them right in Pennsylvania. He was much impressed with their blue
suits and brass buttons and which fitted them so well. Some of the men
wore suits with braid on them and they supposedly were the officers of
the outfit. Negro and white men were in the same companies he saw and
all were manly and walking proudly.

As George was fifteen years of age when freedom came much of which he
related happened after Emancipation. He being out of the slave territory
did not have as much contact with the slaves, but he lived around his
grand parents who had been slaves in the southern part of the state.
After slavery they moved up to Altoona, with George's parents and
brought much in the way of customs to George.

Grandfather McCoy and also grandfather Pretty told of many experiences
that they went through during their enslavement. The Negro and white
over-seer was much in evidence down there and buying and selling of
children from their parents seemed to have left a sad memory with

Isaac Pretty's family was large. He had seven girls and seven boys,
George being the eldest. George remembers how his heart would ache when
his grandfather told of the children who were torn from their mother's
skirts and sold, never to see their parents again. He went into deep
thought over how he would have hated to have been separated from his
mother and father to say nothing of leaving his brothers and sisters.
They were brought up to love each other and the thought of breaking the
family ties seemed to him very cruel.

When George was told that he was grown as formerly related, he saved his
money and when the great earth quake in Charleston occured he went down
there to see what it had done to the place. Before that time in 1882 he
remembered having seen the first block of ice. When he got there, the
Charleston people had been making ice for a few years. It was about that
time that George saw the first pair of bed springs.

George remained in Pennsylvania and other states farther north for a
long time after freedom. His first trip to Florida was made in 1893. He
came direct from Altoona, Pennsylvania, with a white man whose name he
has forgotten as he did not remain in the man's employ very long after
reaching the state.

Since that time he has farmed in and around different parts of Florida,
but now he resides at Tero Beach and Gifford, Florida. He makes regular
trips to Palatka, being as much at home there as in the cities on the
East Coast.

George says that he has never had a doctor attend him in his life,
neither while he was in Altoona, nor since he has been in Florida. He
claims to be able to identify any root or herb that grows in the woods
in the State of Florida having studied them constantly since his arrival
here. Before coming to this state he knew all the roots and herbs around
Altoona and it still acquainted with them as he makes regular visits
there, since he moved away 43 years ago. (1)

George Pretty is a dark complexioned man; about five feet three inches
in heighth; weighs about 135 pounds and looks to be much younger than he
is. When asked how he had maintained his youth, he said that living
close to nature had done it together with his manner of living. He does
not dissipate, neither does he drink strong drink. He is a ready
informant. Having heard that only information of slavery was wanted, he
volunteered information without any formality or urging on the part of
the writer. (1) (2)


1. George Pretty, Vero Beach and Gifford, Florida

2. Observation of Field Worker

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