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It was the last week of June 1939. Heat waves danced off the parched Bermuda grass. I was spending two weeks with my grandparents, Bob and Della Noble, in the northwest section of Sabine County in East Texas. I was 9.
Grandmom sat at her bedroom vanity and loosened the hairpin from the bun at the back of her neck, letting her gray hair fall to the floor. “They’re going to build a brush arbor on our land,” she said.
“What’s a brush arbor?” I asked.
Brushing her hair slowly, she described the temporary structure made from green tree trunks and limbs built for a preaching revival—usually every night for two weeks.
“Don’t they have a church?” I wondered.
No, she explained, most are sharecropper families that are very poor. Many don’t have a church building and live so far out they can’t attend a town church. They want to hold a revival; to do it, they need a temporary structure to protect them from the elements.
She told me that brush arbors and their revivals were fading into history. This could be my last chance to see one.
The next morning, I trotted down the red dirt lane. Men were already at work. For three days, I watched them fell trees with crosscut saws and trim away unwanted limbs. The strongest workers used a post-hole digger to bore two-foot-deep holes in the hard red clay—one at each corner of a rectangle about 20 by 30 feet.
After limbs had been trimmed away, the workers set the poles in the holes and tamped the dirt firmly around each. They constructed a frame, and hog wire went on top. With that in place, pine tops and limbs heavy with green needles were added to form a thick cover. As sawdust, hauled in by wagons, was spread and leveled for the floor, rows of benches made from split logs were arranged. Finally, a large log was dragged in and placed up front. I was surprised to see the arbor could seat 40 or 50 people, and with no walls, they could expand even more.
The first night of the meeting, Grandmom agreed to go with me. She and I didn’t go to take part in the ceremony, but to watch. As darkness deepened, we were nonplussed to see pine-knot torches were providing the sole light source.
The assemblage parted into two distinct groups, worshippers and sightseers—30 or so each. Everyone seemed to be welcome no matter his or her reason for being there.
Two local men, blessed with confidence and guitar-picking talent, opened the revival with “Amazing Grace.” They followed with “Shall We Gather at the River.” It was pure poetry and stunned the onlookers into participation and tears.
Then, like an apparition, he appeared out of nowhere. Tall and erect, he stood there in hunter’s boots that laced to his knees, a green plaid shirt and a World War I doughboy hat. “Children of God, I am Brother Baldree,” he said, introducing himself as an inveterate coon hunter and a maverick preacher serving the Lord. He invited us to bow our heads in prayer and then promised to “take the hide off the devil.”
The sweltering night air, too bloated with humidity to allow a breeze, quickly soaked bodies with sweat. Funeral fans appeared in female hands while men wiped their faces with large red handkerchiefs. Bugs arrived in massive waves. The light emitting from each torch turned the flames into suicide traps.
Almost all of the men wore patched overalls with faded blue work shirts, the same attire they wore to town on Saturday afternoons. All wore brogans.
The women wore flowery print dresses made from feed sacks. Though the gathering occurred at night, some wore bonnets. Their faces, in unguarded moments, reflected deep weariness.
Tobacco in various forms played an important role. For the men, Prince Albert in the can or Bull Durham in a drawstring sack were favored; they would roll their own. The women went for snuff, and almost every bottom lip concealed a pinch.
What a market for underarm deodorants! Unfortunately, in 1939, it was seldom used and thought to be a luxury. A wide range of body odors permeated the hot night air. Some mild, some mingled with the smell of soap, while others made you gasp and hold your breath until you managed to get out of range.
We left while the preacher still chased the devil. But the next night, I got there just as daylight disappeared. Brother Baldree’s powerful voice thundered across the crowd and continued on, reverberating through Palo Gaucho Creek bottom. When he spoke of fire, damnation and brimstone, he delivered the words with force.
The night air became thick with emotion. A scattering of amens turned into outstretched arms reaching for deliverance from the wrath of hell. Individuals cried out for mercy and wept in repentance if their ways followed the path of wickedness and sin; others wept tears of joy for they had found salvation.
A woman went to her knees, rolled on the ground and began talking with words I didn’t understand. The preacher paid special attention to her, and then another lady began rolling in the aisle and speaking the same strange words. I learned later they were speaking in tongues.
I didn’t miss a night. I was accepted as an observer, and Brother Baldree handed me a bucket and dipper with instructions to keep a full pail of water near the kneeling log for those who needed a drink or to be cooled off.
When the revival came to an end, so did the arbor. Abandoned, it took on the slow decay of death. Months later, with nothing to salvage, my grandfather handed me a can of kerosene and a box of matches. The wood and needles were dead, and flames devoured everything—leaving nothing but a smoldering pile of ashes.
It was the last brush arbor meeting I ever saw.
Harry Noble, frequent contributor