The name might be Small, but the order of biscuits was large

Posted 9/29/20

Willie Mae Small’s history in Madison County is interesting yet not totally substantiated. She was born June 5, 1906, but, so far, we know not where. Neither do I know where or when she died. Between birth and when age crept up on her, she spent plenty of time in a kitchen.

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The name might be Small, but the order of biscuits was large

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Willie Mae Small’s history in Madison County is interesting yet not totally substantiated. She was born June 5, 1906, but, so far, we know not where. Neither do I know where or when she died. Between birth and when age crept up on her, she spent plenty of time in a kitchen.

Young workers usually aren’t immediately given kitchen privileges. There’s too much chance of food waste and fire. Instead, Willie Mae began working as domestic help in various local households by the time she was 15. She remembered having worked for the parents of John Dean Carter (1918-2003) when John Dean was just ten years old.

Willie Mae’s story contains more cast that I’m adding now. In 1926, Howard Brothers Construction and brothers Herman and Oscar Howard moved to Madison County from Arkansas. The third-generation road contractors had been awarded the contract to build sections of Highway 21 and 75. Starting out with mules and hand labor, they changed dirt roads to asphalt highways.

Though the brothers soon decided to make Madisonville their families’ permanent home, the construction jobs grew and required constant moving as the work progressed. The workers lived in tents near work site locations. A tent city served workers for several weeks at one location, and when it got too far from the daily work, the tents were torn down and moved farther down the road.

When the company first arrived in Madisonville, it hired many local workers. At that time, Willie Mae was married to Frank Brooks, who went to work for the Howards building roads. Soon, Willie Mae was also hired.

Later she explained, “I was the cook. My baby, Mary, was three years old, and she went right along with us. We lived in a tent and I cooked three meals a day for 50 men every single day.”

Every morning, Willie Mae rose long before sunrise to cook breakfast, which included 275 biscuits plus an abundance of eggs and bacon. The hungry work crew gathered to eat by six each morning. Years later she recalled, “I remember one big black man that ate ten biscuits every morning! He was big! There were two rows of long tables. One was for the whites and one was for the blacks.” (Remember, this was during The Great Depression and long before integration.)

The one-woman cooking machine hardly finished serving breakfast when she started lunch preparations. She explained, “I worked by myself, because they just paid $1 a week, so nobody else would do it. There was one man, called a flunky, that stayed around to help me, cutting wood and building the fires. Later on, when the pay was a little better, I’d get another woman or two to help for a little while, but after they got a paycheck or two under their belts, they were gone.”

Willie Mae claimed her job was not really that difficult because she had big vessels to cook in, so she just added more ingredients. As soon as one meal was finished, she washed the dishes in an oversize tub and scalded them in a separate tub that had Clorox added for sterilization.

At least once a week, sometimes twice, Willie Mae and the flunky traveled to a grocery store to purchase supplies. She said, “Mr. Howard told me not go over $500 a month. I never did, but I got close to it! You know, I cooked a hundred pounds of potatoes a week!”

In the early years, with mules and wagons the main source of working equipment, progress was slow. The introduction of machinery increased construction speed. Then Willie Mae packed the noon meals which she and the flunky carried to the work sites, since the men were too far from the dining tent to come eat. Then she would hurry back to her make-shift kitchen to prepare the evening meal, which was always served at 6 p.m. promptly.

As equipment improved, the tent city was continuously moving. Road construction was a seven-day-a-week job, and Willie Mae said, “We didn’t know when Sunday come. We just worked from Monday to Monday. When it come time to move, long trailer trucks would load up our tents and household goods and move us to another place. I worked all over Texas and Louisiana.”

Besides serving the usual meals of chicken with dressing and chicken and dumplings, Willie May used ingenuity to help keep the food costs down. Whenever someone caught an armadillo, she would serve it as the main course. Of one such incident, she told, “One day there was one hind leg left from a fried armadillo meal. I had a man bring it back to me and tell me to put it up because he wanted it with two eggs the next morning.”

The experiences of feeding fifty men three times a day every day of the year were sometimes hilarious and sometimes exasperating. She explained the last feeling, saying, “One time we had some frog legs. I’d never eaten any so I was looking forward to trying one after everyone finished eating. I just served them on the white table. Do you know that they ate every one of those frog legs? Even the crumbs! I never even got to taste one!”

Having worked as cook and towards the end as head cook for Howard Brothers for 23 years, and having her wages raised from $1 a week to $25 a week, Willie Mae finally retired at the age of 49. (If I calculate right, that must have been about 1955.) Little did she know that her days of feeding others were far from over.

Willie Mae was no longer married to Mr. Brooks. One day, she dined at Small Café, which was here in Madisonville on Trinity Street, at the back of where the Trin-Elm Building now stands. There she met the owner, Wesley Small, and seven years into “retirement,” she married him.

Mrs. Small joined her husband working at the café, again cooking food in bulk and for others. She stated, “We raised a big garden plus 500 chickens and two milk cows. I’d get up every morning, pick peas, shell them, and have them ready for lunch. That was how we got our food for the café. I’d bake $30 worth of sweet potato pies every morning and we sold out every day. I also had an electric churn and an old butter mold, so I sold milk and butter on the side.”

Ultimately, Mr. Small suffered health problems that forced the café’s closure. It had operated here for a total of 33 years, the early ones with him alone and the later ones with the couple.

In 1979, Mrs. Small became a widow. By 1991, plagued by arthritis, she decided to move to California to live with her daughter, Mary Francis Henderson. Before she left, she shared her memories with Meteor staff. Remembering all the work, she said, “It was fun. Just looked like everybody loved one another more in those days. I just wouldn’t want to live in a tent again!”

Willie Mae’s story and memories were included in a 1991 Meteor article that recently came to my attention. Because of that, I was able to entertain us here. I hope it made you consider her life then. Never before have I thought about making 275 biscuits! I’ve never fed 50 men, much less day in and day out!

Mrs. Small’s life story did not end immediately after the Meteor’s interview, and I wish had more facts and details. I would love to have some of her recipes! If you can add any details, please contact the Museum.

THE MUSEUM HAS OPENED BACK UP! Normally it is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and it is located at 201 N. Madison Street. The mailing address is P.O. Box 61, Madisonville, TX 77864. You also might enjoy the Madison County Museum Facebook page, which has been full of fascinating photos and facts lately

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