After the farmhouse fire, Minnie moved everyone east to nearby Texarkana , Texas, where a number of relatives resided. Her sons soon found work and could support the family. It was a good move and a fresh start. Minnie never remarried. One man had been plenty, she said.
The Hancocks were able to buy a small frame house on
W. 11th Street in Texarkana, Texas. Minnie, an inveterate gardener who could grow anything, soon had roses and hydrangeas planted in the front yard. She kept chickens in the back yard where she also kept a vegetable garden.
She stood 5’3” at age 12, had the beauty of a model and looked older. She was as fully grown as she would ever be. A faculty member at nearby Paris (Texas) Junior College, unaware of Jewell’s age, met her one day in downtown Clarksville, county seat of Red River County. He fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. She laughed and declined, she said, telling him she was only 12 and that her mama and daddy wouldn’t allow her to marry at such a young age.
When she was around 15, she was named Queen of the then-famous Tomato Festival in Avery, Texas, which was renowned for the huge crops of tomatoes that were grown there and shipped by rail in boxcars. A visitor in the area who claimed to be a talent scout offered to take Jewell to Hollywood for a screen test, but Jewell’s mother firmly nixed that idea. She was too young, Mama Minnie said. Plus, she added, “Good girls don’t leave home” – the same reason for quashing mother’s dream of going to college.
Jewell loved her parents. Her father, James Hancock, born in 1874 in Illinois, drank a bit and was said to be the black sheep relative of a wealthy Chicago family. He was 13 years older than Jewell’s mother, Minnie, who was born in 1887 in Jackson County, Alabama, where she was reared in a farming family on Sand Mountain. She claimed they were “Black Dutch,” as did some other people there. Minnie
cooked with a woodburning stove, lit the home with coal oil lamps and dipped Garrett white label snuff. Discretely.
James and Minnie Hancock with their second baby, Clida, sit for a traveling photographer on their East Texas farm around 1908. Their first child, Alta, may have died in 1906 at nearly age 2.
Jewell’s father, James, was as strong as an ox, but died of a heart attack at home in 1936 during the wee hours of a chilly February night. He was 62. Mother recalled that earlier that evening, her dad had popped popcorn for her, Zona and a friend of theirs.
When the sun rose the next morning after a night of tragedy, mother walked outside to collect herself. Rain had fallen the day before. And there in the mud around the house, mother saw a heartbreaking sight – her father’s footprints.
James was laid to rest in Boxelder, not far from the farm, in Salem Baptist Church’s cemetery. His family tried to continue to farm but soon were broke. Mother remembered Mama Minnie feeding everyone from one skillet of gravy made with flour, water and bacon grease with the one remaining egg stirred into it so everyone could have a bit of egg. Their days there ended around 1937 when their house burned down.
Brunette Jewell and red-haired Zona shared the same birthday, June 22. Jewell, born in 1920, was five years older. And they shared similar personal traits. They were brown-eyed, beautiful, highly intelligent and charismatic. Along with their dad, they had big brothers at home to protect them – strapping, strong farm boys named Caleb, Claude and Huey, all of whom taught Jewell how to play the guitar. Three big sisters – Clida, Alma Lou and Roberta – were grown and had left home.
Jewell’s passions were singing and dancing, especially the Charleston. She loved poetry, book learning and basketball, sinking shots from mid-court. She idolized movie stars and daydreamed about a career in show business.
At age 14, playful Jewell sported a glamorous Hollywood look.
Mother didn’t talk much about herself or her childhood, growing up poor on an East Texas sharecropper’s farm near Clarksville in Red River County. Born in Delta County, Jewell didn't live in the past. That was a place, it seems to me, that she preferred to forget. Life was hard, she said.
Birthdays weren’t celebrated. Flour sacks were fabric for dresses and quilts. Day-to-day survival was the order of the day. But she shared a few happy memories, and she would smile and laugh as she thought back to growing up in the ’20s and the Depression years.
I remember one story in particular she told of her childhood. There was an abandoned car in a field away from the unpainted frame house in which the family resided – the kids in drafty bedrooms on one side of a long breezeway. Her hard-shell Baptist parents, James – a tall, muscular farmer – and tiny, 5’1” Minnie Mae Treece Hancock, had a drafty bedroom on the other side.
That old car was a favorite getaway for mother and her little sister, Zona, the youngest of eight children. Inseparable, they loved to climb into the dusty front seat and pretend they were driving to New York City and other places, taking turns at the wheel. Acres of fields around them became exotic places they’d learned of from their parents’ friends and the movies – Chicago, Hollywood, Broadway.
At age 16, after her father's death, Jewell's appearance reflects a mature sense of responsibility.