Comer and Annie Burks Family

Often as we go along in our daily lives, our paths cross with others, and at the time this happens, we don’t pay too much attention to it even happening. This is the case with myself and a lady named Edna Burks Booher who recently shared with me the story of her family and how it was to grow up as one of 13 children.

Comer and Annie Burks had 13 children, clockwise from 12 o’clock position, Edna Booher, Hauda Hensley, Irene Hutchison, Jessie Stubbfield, Kenneth Burks, Sonny “Bud” Burks, Bill Burks, Mont Burks, Paul Burks, Myrtle Andrews, Jean Hooks, and Katherine Dixon.


Edna and I have probably seen each other many times over the years since our children attended Independence Elementary School, and I feel sure we have both been at the school on various occasions for pie suppers, ball games, and other functions, but during those years, we were not well acquainted at all. And since spending an afternoon in her home to gather information for this story, I realize what an interesting person I’ve missed knowing.

Edna’s family story reminds me of a real life Walton family, and begins in Dry Creek of Clay County, where Edna’s parents, Comer and Annie (Boles) Burks, were living until 1939, when they moved to a farm in Collins Cove in Overton County where they completed the raising of their large family.

Comer Burks was not only a farmer, but was considered a very good horse and mule trader. He could judge the worth of an animal by looking at it, and even without a close inspection, was able to tell the weight and age very accurately. If he had traded a mule or horse with someone who became dissatisfied with the animal, he was always willing to take the mule or horse back if he was asked to do so. He was a man who was probably considered a strict parent, and he wanted his children to grow up with good morals and high principles.  Both he and his wife did their best to teach each child what living a good life meant. His and Annie’s home was open to anyone, and this was especially true around the time a meal would be served, and included even strangers passing along the road. He was known time and time again to invite someone passing by to come in and eat with his family, and the invitation was usually taken up by those being invited.

Men who came by the Burks home to see Comer about trading for a mule or horse would also be asked to share a meal with his family. But everyone knew an invitation was not needed to sit down at the table for a meal at the Burks home, especially on Sundays when on more than one occasion, Annie Burks fed as many as 70 people, some relatives, other just neighbors and friends  who came to visit.

Providing a meal for that many people was nothing out of the ordinary for Annie, and Sundays were always a day lots of visitors could be expected at their home. Annie was a wife and mother who rarely ever left home, and even though she was asked to go various places to visit, one of the answers she would laughingly give was that she couldn’t leave home, that “the kids would all probably get in a fight and kill each other.”

The large white framed house the Burks family lived in had three rooms downstairs with a fireplace in the front room, one in the back room, and one in the kitchen. There were two large bedrooms upstairs, and the third room upstairs was unfinished.  The kitchen had a large homemade eating table with a bench for seating on one side, and a wood stove to cook on.  A homemade meal chest sat in the kitchen also. A porch ran across the entire length of the front of the house.  The roof was made of wooden shingles.  Kerosene lamps were used for lighting. Edna said they had a terrible time keeping lamp globes.  It seemed those got broken quite easily in the Burks house. No grass grew on the front yard since sweeping the yard was something everybody did.  It was always swept completely clean, and Edna remembers how much fun it was to play in the yard after it had been given a good sweeping. One of their favorite things to play with out in the yard was their homemade version of a ball. The kids used an old rosebud salve box rolled up in an old sock, and spent many hours playing with this homemade toy.

The names of the children in the order of their birth were: Irene, Jessie, Hauda, Mont, Katherine, Edna, Jean, Myrtle, Bill, Sonny (who was known as Bud), Kenneth, and Paul. The youngest child, Barbara Sue, died when she was only 2 days old. Edna told me that each member of the family shared in the workload. None of the family worked away from home until the shirt factory opened in the early ‘40s and three of the girls took jobs there. The many chores around the farm included helping with the hogs, cattle, and horses, working in the garden, gathering corn, getting in hay, ploughing fields, which some of the girls helped with as well as the boys, (and one daughter in particular was considered by her father as being really good at this job), cooking meals, and washing clothes. Picking blackberries was another chore the Burks children shared.  On one blackberry picking day, Edna remembers how they all walked across the mountain into Copeland Cove to get a good cold drink from a cave in that area. While they rested there after their walk, one of the kids noticed that off in the distance of the cave, a small light could be seen weaving back and forth. And as could be expected, this unexplained sight was very frightening, especially to Mont, who became terribly upset, but his fears, along with those of the other children, were put to rest when two of the neighbors came out of the cave carrying a lantern which turned out to be the source of the unexplained light shining in the distance of the cave.

The Burks family had a ritual very similar to one the Waltons had, but somewhat different, too. We who watched the Waltons can remember how after all the lights were turned off every night at the Walton house, they each told one another good night, but the difference with the Burks family was that each night after the family had turned in for the night, Annie would call out the name of each and every child, and would ask the same question every single night, which was, “Did you wash your feet before you got in bed?”  And as each child’s name was called, that one would answer, and if the foot washing had not been done, that child got up and got the wash pan and performed the expected task before getting back in bed.

Comer Burks was what I would consider a whiz when it came to math. He never used a pencil or tablet to add up figures, and his math skills were passed along to each of the children by what I think is quite an unusual method. This was also something that was done on a very regular basis and was also performed after everyone had gone to bed each night: Each one of the children’s names would be called out and that child was given a math problem to solve. If that child couldn’t give the correct answer, it was passed on to another until the right answer was given. Edna said she thought at the time it was just her father’s way of playing a game with them at night when in fact, he was giving them a math lesson which helped each one of the children achieve the skills they all have in math even today. Comer’s ability to add sums up in his head saved the neighborhood general store owner, Joe Vaughn, some money on one occasion when Comer went there to buy goods for his family.  After adding up the total for the things Comer was buying that day, Mr. Vaughn told him what the items came to, and Comer replied that it couldn’t possibly be right, that it wasn’t enough. Joe Vaughn went over the figures again and again before he was able to determine that Comer was right, or otherwise he would cheated himself out of the cost of one stand of lard.

The Burks children received their education at the Henard School that was located where the Overton County Fairgrounds are now. Henard was a two-room school with primer through the fourth grade in the “little room”, while the fifth through the eighth grades were in the “big room”. The Burks children walked from their home to Henard while school was in session. During one of the years they attended school there, a prediction was made that the end of time would arrive on a certain day and at a certain time that year. Just before the predicted time came for the world to come to an end, all the children in school that day sat down in a circle around the well in the school yard, held hands, kissed each other, cried, said their good byes, and waited for the world to end. And of course, nothing happened, and when Edna got home after school that afternoon, she asked her mother why that story was told. Her mother replied that it was just something that someone got started and there was nothing to it. But earlier that day, the children at Henard were completely convinced they would never see each other again after that day.

Of all the children in the family, Edna was considered by her father as the brave one. Edna remembers how a neighbor lady who lived across the road from their house would visit their home several times each day.  One particular day, she didn’t come to their home at all, and as the day wore on, Edna told her mother she hadn’t seen this lady all day. Edna was sent to her house to see if she could find her.  She said she knocked at the front door, which was locked, and hollered several times for her, but she didn’t answer. Edna returned home and told her parents she couldn’t find her. Her father decided then he should go to the home of some relatives of the lady for help.  While waiting for Comer to return with the neighbor’s relatives, Annie sent Edna back to the neighbor’s home with a flashlight, which she shined through a window on the front of the house. The neighbor was laying quite still on her bed, and Edna said she felt sure she was dead.  When her father returned with the relatives, they took an axe and broke down the door, and sure enough, the lady had died, probably that night as she slept.

One of the favorite times the Burks children had were on the occasions their Uncle Fred came to visit. Fred Burks, father of the late Senator Tommy Burks, was a brother of Comer Burks, and he owned a big, shiny Cadillac. He made sometimes weekly visits to his brother’s home, bringing with him a flour sack full of candy to give to Comer and Annie’s children. He was always dressed in a suit and hat, and when he came for his visits, he would load the children in his Cadillac and take them for a ride. And he wasn’t too fussy about his car since he allowed the kids to eat the candy he brought for them in the car as they rode up and down the road.  Edna said Uncle Fred was their “Santa Claus in July!”

Edna described Christmas at the Burks home as, “We always had a big Christmas. We never got gifts, but we had lots of candy and fruit. That was our Christmas.” And her mother had a special way of distributing the Christmas treats. Each child had a certain place where the treats were placed, and each one received the identical number of treats that everyone else got.  Edna said she always hoped her special place would be the plate sitting on top of the churn because it always held a lot. And sometimes she got her wish, and sometimes she didn’t. The day would begin with finding what was in your special place, and as the day went on, additional treats would be placed there again at different times of the day.

Myrtle was always one who could save part of what she got each Christmas, and several weeks later, would tantalize the other children by eating some of the candy she had saved when theirs had all been eaten long before. Many times, she would have to fight with some of the others to keep the things she had saved, but she always managed to win, though sometimes had to have the help of her mother to do so.

Some of life’s rules Annie believed in and taught her children to live by were to always be fair, to never start anything, but if they were forced to defend themselves, to take their part, and lastly, to always tell the truth and to never steal. As the children grew up, one of the rules their father had was that the boys could go to the movies, but it wasn’t a fit place for girls to be. As the girls got older and began to date, they were not allowed to go alone. It was always necessary that sometimes as many as three of the younger sisters went along on an outing with a boyfriend.

One of the special treats Annie did for the girls was that they each could have a dime when they went to town for the 4th of July celebration or to attend the Overton County fair, and with that dime, not one but two ice cream cones could be bought at either the B&O Drug Store or at Lansden and Coward Drug Store. Edna remembers how very good the ice cream cones that were hand-dipped tasted on a hot summer day.

The first of the children to leave home was Jessie, and Edna remembers what a tearful day that was, especially for her mother. She said Jessie was gone from home about three months when she came home the first time for a visit, and that day was a very happy one for everyone in the family. All the kids ran out to welcome her home on that very special day.  They were all so happy to have her home again. Even though it had only been three months since she had left, to them it seemed much longer.

And as many who lived in the south during this period of time, five of the Burks boys went to Dayton, OH, all at different times, but each one of them landed a job in the same place, which was the Van Clev Hotel, where each one started out with dish washing jobs. But as time went on, both Kenneth and Paul became chefs, and Kenneth eventually became the owner of a supper club in Sidney, OH.

Annie Burks was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1952 when Paul was only 6 years-old.  And because Edna was the brave one of the family, she was given lessons by Dr. Frank Sidwell’s nurse on how to give Morphine shots to help ease her mother’s pain as the terrible disease progressed. One of the things Annie asked of each of the girls after she learned she would not get well was that they each make Mont a quilt so he wouldn’t ever get cold. During his childhood, Mont came down with typhoid fever, and after surviving that disease, he had always been a cold natured person. His mother was worried that he wouldn’t have enough cover to keep him warm after she died, and because of this, she made this request of each of her daughters. And of course, Mont wasn’t the only one she was worried about leaving behind when death knocked upon her door.  The summer before she died in October, she canned over 300 cans of fruit and vegetables in order to make sure her family had food to eat for quite some time after she was gone.

As the time drew near to Annie’s death, one of the things she asked was that Edna bathe her regularly. Edna said her mother told her over and over again that she didn’t want to die without being bathed, and that she certainly didn’t want to die with rusty feet. Edna said their home was never the same after her mother passed away.

Other than the baby of the family who died when she was 2 days old, only Mont and Bill have passed away. The remaining family members are close knit and keep in touch with each other on a regular basis.

Edna is one of the caregivers of Mrs. Estie Newberry, who lives in the Independence Community. She is very dedicated to her work, and has nothing but praise for Mrs. Estie. She told how Mrs. Estie helped her through the loss of her husband, Junior Booher, several years ago, and how a close bond has formed between them.

Edna’s life reflects the type of raising both her parents instilled in her. I’m very glad she so graciously shared with me the stories about her life at Collins Cove, along with her school days at Henard.

Through her sharing, she has helped preserve these treasured memories, and other folks who have never experienced life as she has can catch a glimpse of how growing up in the country as one of many children was for her and her family.

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