Earlier this week I attended a funeral at Live Oak Church for Mrs. Iris Harris. “Aunt Iris”,as we knew her when we are growing up, was a beautiful lady, inside and out. She was always neatly dressed, wearing a smile and had that naturally sweet personality that always made you feel blessed to be around her. Her children, Craig, Wiley and Ginger, were roughly the same age as my sisters and me. She was a friend of my mother, so we saw a lot of her when we were growing up. But the most important relationship seemed to be that she was one of our Underwood cousins. Actually she was my Daddy’s first cousin, but how and what degree we were related didn’t really matter. She was an Underwood and if you grew up in Watson in the old days, that was all that really mattered.
Being an Underwood is more than just a happenstance of genealogy. It’s really a state of mind; something that defines who you are. Way back when Watson was a little community up the road from Denham Springs, everything revolved around family. There were several ‘old’ families in the Watson area. Even when I was growing up, a common first question that was typically posed to someone you weren’t sure of was “Who’s your Momma and Daddy”. The answer to that question told everyone more than just who your parents were. It generally told them everything about you, because they were really asking “who are your people”. And the answer usually revealed what clan you belonged to; Ott, Jones, Allen, Thames, Easterly, Garrison, Chandler, Graves or some other family. But by far the biggest bunch were the Underwoods.
The Underwood clan in Watson traces its roots back to my great-great grandfather, John Zachary Underwood, who we all know as “Grandpa John”. His father, William Underwood, emigrated from England and eventually settled in St. Helena Parish, by way of Georgia and St. Tammany Parish. Grandpa John was born in 1835. He eventually became a school teacher, served in the Confederate Army and after the war, married one of his former pupils, Rebecca Hill. Eventually, around 1892, John and Rebecca settled on Chandler’s Bluff near Watson and John founded the first Live Oak School. John and Rebecca were well thought of in the community. Not only was John the local school teacher, they were devout Methodists and were faithful members of Live Oak Church.
And, being good Methodists, they apparently took literally the Biblical admonition to “be fruitful and multiply.” John and Rebecca had 11 children, six boys and five girls, which eventually provided them with 72 grandchildren. My paternal grandmother, Mildred Underwood Harrison, was one of those grandchildren. Her father, Walter Underwood, was John and Rebecca’s oldest child. He and his wife had 9 children, 2 sons and 7 daughters and had 29 grandchildren. Which was about average for an Underwood in those days. So, as you can see, in just a couple of generations, the woods around Watson were plumb full of Underwoods. And the family tree continued to branch out.
And, since there were a lot of girls in that Underwood family, they did not all carry the Underwood name. A quick run down on the old Watson families will tell you what I mean. Back in the day a partial roll call of Watson families looked something like this: Mixon, Story, Hancock, Nesom, Rose, Erwin, Kinchen, Webb, Philpot, Everett, Harris, Harrison, Truax, Rasberry, Justice, Meinke, Curry. Yep, you guessed it, they were all Underwoods. Oh, and I forgot to mention that two sets of Joneses and some of the Easterlys and some of the Fuglers were Underwoods too.
Live Oak School students and faculty, 1910. I bet most of them are Underwoods!
And, believe it or not, all those Underwoods were a close bunch. When I was growing up, I always thought it was neat that I had all these people that I was related to, although I wasn’t always sure exactly how. But that is one of the things about being Underwood. The legal degree of relationship is immaterial. It doesn’t matter whether you were my first cousin, or if our parents were fist cousins, or if our grandparents were first cousins. We are all still Underwoods and that means we are cousins and that’s all that really matters!
I remember as a child sitting in services at Live Oak Church. Even at that age, I realized that I could look around the building and count on both hands the people that were not my “cousins”. I sometimes joke that when I was in high school, you still couldn’t throw a rock in Live Oak Church without hitting an Underwood. I realize now that is not true. You would hit at least two.
The old Underwoods were quite a bunch. Most of them were blessed with good health and longevity. Living into their nineties was quite common. I hope I inherited that gene. They were people of faith, who loved family and loved the outdoors. Even when I was young, those two things centered around two venues; Live Oak Church and the Amite River. Both of those places are special if you are Underwood. We spent many a 4th of July down at the end of the Bend Road at Aunt Margie Goodman’s place, swimming in the river, eating watermelon and just visiting.
Grandpa Walter, Uncle Willie and grandchildren in the Amite River, around 1930. One of those boys is my Daddy
The Underwoods were and always have been a close knit bunch. The height of the social season in Watson used to be the annual Underwood Family Reunion. All of the descendants of Grandpa John would descend on Live Oak Church on a Saturday in the fall for a day long family get together. Everybody was there and you would consider missing ‘the reunion’ about like you would consider skipping your Momma’s funeral. It just wasn’t done. The day usually started out with a couple of hours of just visiting and catching up. In those days, Aunt Ethel Hancock, John and Rebecca’s youngest daughter was the family matriarch. She seemed to have been 100 yrs old when I was five. Then around noon there was dinner on the grounds. And believe me it was good. Sweet tea and all the food you could imagine. After lunch everyone would gather inside the church for some old time gospel singing and reminiscing. Then it was back outside for dessert and coffee. Think about it a minute. If John and Rebecca had 72 grandchildren and those kids all married and had 3 or 4 children a piece, and that generation had some of there own, by the time I was born there were easily 300-400 people at those reunions. Those were some good times. Here is a video captured from an old 8mm home movie:
They also loved to travel. I can remember my Grandma and her sisters and brother-in-laws taking long driving vacations together. Grandma Harrison used to keep two suitcases packed and ready in her bedroom closet. One had an extra nightgown, a change of underwear, a toothbrush and a few dollars. That was her hospital bag. The other one had a week’s worth of clothes, a week’s worth of medicine, extra shoes and around $100 in cash. That one was in case somebody came along and said “We’re going to …… You wanna go?” That way all she had to do was change her clothes, grab that bag and call somebody and let them know how long she would be gone. Not strange at all if you are an Underwood.
The Underwoods also have quite a connection to public education around Watson. Grandpa John started the first school in Watson. His children, Walter and Posey, became school teachers. Walter eventually was superintendent for Livingston Parish. Their brother Willie was the school board member for the Watson area for many years. When he died, Walter was appointed to his seat, which he held until his death in 1944. My Daddy was later elected to that school board seat in 1960 and held it until 1976. I can remember my Grandma telling about her Daddy teaching her to read as a child, using the King James Bible as a primer.
Walter Underwood and family, 1937. Pretty gal on the far left is my Aunt Mary.
The Underwoods were always active in church and community affairs. Walter attended his first Methodist Church Annual Conference in 1894. He went on to attend 50 consecutive conferences, a record that likely still stands. Willie was the point man for getting folks to sign up with the REA during The Depression and was largely responsible for bringing electricity to Watson. Every Sunday at Live Oak Church looked like an Underwood family meeting.
Underwoods are also easy going and friendly, but on the other hand they tend to be hard headed and stubborn once they make up their mind. In 1976, the Bicentennial celebration was in full swing. One of the events was a trail ride along Hwy 190 through Livingston Parish. Folks from each community were supposed to ride from their place to 190 and join up with the main group. Aunt Ethel, who was in her 90’s at the time, caused something of a stir in the family when she announced she was going to ride a horse, sidesaddle, from Watson to Denham Springs. The excitement went on for a week or so, because she wouldn’t budge, To everyone’s relief, , a compromise was eventually reached; she was still going, but agreed to drive a buggy instead. Being an Underwood was never dull!
So, when I went to Live Oak Church Monday for the wake, I pretty much knew what to expect. I was going to know just about everybody there and more than half the crowd would be my Underwood kinfolk. I was right. Not only the Harris kids, but my sister Cindy, the Curry girls, Jackie and Claudia, Hal Rasberry, Tim Truax, Johnny and Robbie Hancock, Laurie Taylor and Dawn Rush, just to name some around my age. Of course, the current generation of “old” Underwoods were there too. Mr. Dan Truax, Mr. Leon Kinchen, Mr. Hewitt Underwood, Carol Justice, my Aunt Lela and my Aunt Mary, to name just a few. Leon, Dan and Carol are my Daddy’s first cousins. Hewitt, who was the same age as my Dad, is one of those generic “cousins” I was talking about. But if I have the story straight, he is actually my Grandma Harrison’s first cousin, but as usual I might be little fuzzy on this. A little discussion quickly revealed that Aunt Mary, who is 90, is now the oldest Underwood in captivity. Mr.Hewitt and Mr. Leon, both 88, are running a close second. Aunt Lela and Carol are not far behind.
On the young side, I ran into Ethan and his younger brother Evan. Ethan is 11 and Evan is 7. Ethan is one of the boys in my Scout Troop. Ethan is a great kid, but to be honest, I don’t remember every laying eyes on him until him and 9 of his friends visited and subsequently decided to join our Troop last year. But, true to form, when I found out who his people were, I knew what I needed to know. Yep, you guessed it; he is an Underwood too, by way of the Webb branch. We have sort of a tradition in our Troop. I am not real good at remembering names. I think it is just rude to keep referring to someone’s child as “Hey you.” or “Hey boy, whatever your name is”. So, when we get new blood, I usually give each of them a nickname I can remember until I get their real names fixed in my head. Usually the nickname I pick is something that will hopefully help me to eventually remember who they are. The kids think it is funny, and sometimes the nickname sticks. Picking a nickname for Ethan was easy. When I found out who he really was, there was really only one choice. So, forevermore, he will always be known to me as “Cuz”. After all, he is an Underwood!
My cousin, Ethan!