Special senior a piece of living history

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 15, 2000

91-year-old Orrie Burkett relaxes with his friendly yellow tabby "Kitty Cat" on his front porch swing, one of his favorite spots at his little white frame house in Avant.

Mr. Orrie can remember the days when

Avant was a busy community with several businesses, churches, a school and a family farm every half-mile or so up and down the unpaved roads. Avant is much changed with the places and people of old gone now; Mr. Orrie misses most the sense of community and family once found there.

Photo by Angie Long

As of April 12, 2000, Mr. Orrie Burkett, a life-long resident of the Avant community in rural Butler County, had spent 33,238 days on this planet, equaling 1,093 months.

Simply put, Mr. Burkett

is now 91 years old.

In the nine-plus decades he has lived here on God's green earth, this handsome, silver-haired gentleman (who hardly looks a day over 75) has seen an amazing amount of change, both in his beloved community and the world as a whole.

Orrie Burkett

vividly recalls the time when Avant was a bustling community with

three grocery stores, two grist mills, a saw mill, a school and a blacksmith shop with living quarters overhead. One very special place in his heart is the Camelite Church (Church of Christ ) where he and his beloved

wife, Grace, had their first "date" together.

Yes, Avant was a community in the truest sense of the word.

"It was really like one big family, with everybody knowing everybody else.

If a fellow got sick during harvest time, others would step in to help him out, for example.

Busy as we were, we still found time to visit with our neighbors . . .not like that anymore, though."

Mr. Orrie says, his wistful words ending in a sigh.

The Avant he grew up knowing and loving is no more.

The businesses have long since closed; no visible traces of most remain.

The last grocery store still stands across the road from Mr. Orrie's white frame house, but it has been vacant for a long time now.

Last December, Grace Burkett died in the same white house in which she was born and lived her entire 86 years, sharing 66 of those years with "the only man she ever loved." Mr. Orrie, the youngest in his big family, is the only surviving sibling.

Yes, times have changed.

Yet, the Avant of old still lives on in the memories of Orrie Burkett.

With a young man's twinkle in his faded eyes and a good-humored smile often crossing his lined face, he is a precious piece of living history who willingly shares stories of "the way it was."

Mr. Orrie can remember the days when there were none of the modern conveniences we now take for granted.

There was no electricity, running water, central heating or hot water heaters in his childhood.

"You had to do all your studying by lamplight in those days."

Mr. Orrie recalls.

On chilly winter nights, you backed up to the fireplace for warmth, and any cooking was done on a cast-iron wood-burning stove. Mr. Orrie remembers all too well the need for a good supply of fuel, saying "With all the firewood we needed for the stove and fireplaces in the winter, we spent many a hot summer day chopping wood."

That kind of work could certainly build up a thirst, but you couldn't count on having yourself a tall, ice-cold glass of tea or lemonade to cool you down.

"No, we didn't have any ice, except maybe two or three times in the summer.

That's when we'd get together and have a community homemade ice cream social.

You had to go to Georgiana to the ice house and then haul it home in a big blocknothing like today." Mr. Orrie says, then adds, "Course, we could keep our milk cool by letting it down with a long rope deep into the well."

Mr. Orrie has great respect and admiration for the homemaker of yesterday.

"I tell you, those ladies sure had a lot of work to do, and not much to help make it easier in those days.

On wash days, clothes had to be boiled, then beaten and scrubbed with homemade lye soap, rinsed and finally hung out to dry, he explains. "Of course, you had to heat up your water for washing on the range. We were lucky, because our range had a big water reservoir on one side and that made things a little easier." Mr. Orrie adds.

There were many other routine tasks: milking cows, churning butter, hauling bucket after bucket of water from the well, baking, cleaning . . .truly a woman's work was never done in the early days of the last century.

Those were horse-and-buggy days on dusty, unpaved roads, days without school buses, requiring young Orrie and his nine siblings to walk the two miles to school, be it hot, cold, or rainy.

"Let me tell you, that old North wind sure was bitter some days", Mr. Orrie recalls with a rueful shake of his head.

The "Hoover Days", as he refers to the Great Depression years, definitely left this gentleman a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat.

His father had worked hard to save some money; when the crash came, bank officials calmly and sincerely assured him his deposit was safe and sound.

Mr. Orrie shakes his head as he describes what happened. "The very next day, they closed the doors of that bank.

He finally got back some of what he lost, a few dollars at a time.

But it sure left me with a bad taste in my mouth for those Republicans."

Work was not always easy to find, even before the very lean years of the 1930s.

But this never stopped Mr. Orrie, a man with a strong work ethic.

He spent the last 33 years of his working life with

Powell Ford Tractor Co. in Greenville, retiring at age 75, though he would return from time to time to "help out."

But he was a busy fellow long before those years.

Mr. Orrie was the first person in Butler County to farm with a tractor rather than a horse or mule drawn plow.

His first cultivator came in many pieces but after the

happy discovery of instructions buried in the box, he was able to assemble the machinery properly.

In addition to his farming and tractor work (he still has dreams about tinkering with his beloved old blue Fords) he has also worked in garages, pumped gas, painted houses, made jewelry deliveries at Christmas, and was once known

to little children as "The Coon Man", for his prowess in hunting and selling raccoons.

At one time he owned his own filling station in Chapman.

He'd even go trapping down in the Everglades periodically to make ends meet; as he says, he's "done a little bit of everything, that's for sure."

Orrie Burkett is an humble man of great faith.

His advice to young people is to " get involved in a local church and strive to live a good, clean Christian life." He credits his own church for helping him through the difficult times following his wife's death.

He also believes in the strength of family.

His son and two granddaughters are doing their best to look out for "Pawpaw" even if it means frequent trips from their own homes in south Alabama.

While he is amazed by all the modern innovations of today, he is greatly saddened by the "loss of community" he sees across his county and his country, and he has so much more he would love to share with you all . . .

Tell you what.

Let's drive out to a little white house in Avant.

The roses are in bloom and the honeysuckle smells heavenly; there's a friendly little yellow tabby who'll cuddle with you and a comfortable porch swing.

Let's sit a while with Mr. Orrie.

He'll take us back to the days when communities were still one big happy family; when people were always willing to lend a helping hand.

Happy birthday, Mr. Orrie Burkett, and many, many more.