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Posted: August 6, 2018 4:49 p.m.
Updated: August 7, 2018 1:00 a.m.

One often finds references to the term “lay-by” in historical works, in literary writings, in songs, in educational materials, etc. What is its origin and what does it mean?  Does it have present day meaning and significance?

In my younger days, I often listened to vocalists sing Nobody’s Darlin’ but Mine, whose opening line was “Come lay by my side, Little Darling.” The term lay-by in this case referred to matters of love. I often crooned that line to my sweetheart and future wife, Ella Catherine McLaughlin Teal. She stood, sat and lay by my side for 68 years and seven months until her death this past January 12. It was a cherished love song for us.

When both of us grew up on farms in the Cassatt Community, we learned there that “lay-by” had a very different meaning. It referred to a period in July and August each year when farmers quit plowing row crops such as cotton and corn and just let them “lay-by.”

Plowing was designed to kill grass. When cotton or corn plants grew to be a few inches high in the spring you could plow dirt over the grass three or four times a month to cover it up and kill it. As cotton and corn grew over the weeks to early summer, their root systems grew rapidly to a point where plowing would injure them too much. 

In the 1930s, we plowed with mules. Eventually, plowing up and down in rows of a crop was not feasible since the spreading limbs of the plants would suffer too much damage with a mule and plow going between the rows. Besides, the cotton and corn plants had grown enough to shade out most grass that might sprout up underneath them. The same principles would have applied if we had been plowing with a tractor.

To stop plowing on the farm created a period of about six weeks in July and August when farmers worked much less and had more leisure time. Fishing, visiting relatives, slicing watermelons -- since they were then in season -- or holding church revivals filled rural leisure time. This was the lay-by season

I shall now chronicle some educational activities which occurred during the lay-by season. First, let us move back in time from the 1930s to about 40-50 years and describe the public education system in South Carolina at that time. The Constitution of 1868 created the public education system of S. C. It called for the establishment of a Department of Education that was to set up a system of public schools in the state. 

In 1868, the African American population of the state was predominantly illiterate. The white population was not greatly different. The education of most was determined by what they could afford, since the system was not free, but largely one of private schools. A percentage of poor whites also were illiterate.

Support for public education grew slowly. For example, the city of Columbia did not place a tax on themselves to support public schools until the early 1880s and it was just one mill.

The state wrote a new constitution in 1895 which retained most of the educational programs from 1868.  However, this constitution and some laws passed then disenfranchised the African American community and most did not vote until after WWII. Women also first voted in 1920 due to a constitutional amendment.  

As early as 1914, Miss Wil Lou Gray had started a night school in Laurens to teach adults to read and write. She would go on to direct the Opportunity Schools for adults.  In 1915, the DAR in Camden owned the Robert Mills Court House and used it for an illiteracy program they sponsored.  

When WWI came along in 1917, the illiteracy problem in South Carolina was painfully revealed and publicized.  Illiteracy was a handicap to men in any area of military service.

A group of school trustees and representatives from across the county met in August 1919 to lay out a plan to combat adult illiteracy. Present was Miss Nell Wilkes, organizer of the Kershaw County Lay-By Schools. The county superintendent of education could approve a lay-by school for operation.  School trustees L. O. Funderburk and Pat McNaughton also attended this meeting.  

Many others in the county worked to wipe out illiteracy.  Judge Mendel Smith lent his voice and support to this endeavor. The textile mills developed programs to assist any of their illiterate workers to achieve literacy. The South Carolina Illiteracy Commission coordinated and lent assistance to most of the groups listed above.

The agricultural term, lay-by, had now become an educational term to designate an illiteracy school. For a time, these schools did help to greatly reduce the illiteracy rate in South Carolina.

For many years, agriculture continued to impact rural schools since students often went home at noon to pick cotton for a few weeks each September.  I did so in the 1930s-40s.    

Until 1941, the lay-by time on our farm was a time when I had the leisure to roam in the woods exploring as I liked to do. In 1942 and 1943, my lay-by time disappeared.

In 1929, when we moved from Chesterfield County to the Cassatt Community of Kershaw County, we left behind a tobacco growing tradition. At the time, no tobacco was grown in the new community. By 1944, we were growing tobacco.  

In the summers of 1942-43, I spent six weeks each year on an uncle and aunt’s Chesterfield County farm helping to harvest their tobacco crop.  I learned how to sucker, crop, grade and tie tobacco. I also learned how to fire and operate a tobacco barn. When we built a tobacco barn and began to grow tobacco on our farm, my father now had another experienced hand to help.  

For two years, my lay-by time got pre-empted, but I received a much appreciated benefit in the process. I became a much closer friend to my Chesterfield County cousins. Over the passage of time, now 90 years for me, I have cherished my time with them and often visit those who still survive. 

(The Kershaw County Historical Society provided this column, written by historian Harvey S. Teal, to the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)



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