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Wednesday, May 20, 2009


At the Backwoods Bean yesterday sipping coffee and talking with Dan and Dave, Farmer Bob across the street on the courthouse lawn caught my eye in the window. The sun was on half his face and the shadow side was dark, a kind of yin-yang going on out there on Robert Lee Doughton's head. I had the camera and excused myself, walked across the street between cars all the way, up the steps, turning the camera on, getting it set.
This is the only piece of public art in Alleghany County. It is also the most unseen in-your-face object in Sparta, as unseen as the thousands of staples in the power pole on the corner. It is an excellent work of sculpture. I have not been able to find anyone who knows who the sculptor was. I'd guess he was a sculptor in DC that probably draws several sculptors for all the city's big dogs. This sculptor was able to get a living likeness, which means he had a price tag that was way on up there. He might have been the one who had the name of "the best" in his time. Going by the quality of the work, I'd say he might have been.

Farmer Bob was one of Dixie's congressmen in the Solid South. As a child in KC, the only thing I remember from the tv news at election time was the Solid South. I was fascinted by the South, and every time I'd see that big block, The Solid South, I wanted to be in the South. I thought Strom Thurmond, Lester Maddox, George Wallace and them were about it. Rebels like I wanted to be. In the 4th grade, for what reason I don't have any recollection, all the boys had to have Civil War hats, like the time of Davy Crockett hats a year or two earlier. All the others wore blue. I wore gray. It wasn't a political conviction by any means. I wanted to be in the South and a gray hat was as close as I could get. And I sure wasn't wearing a Yankee hat. I think I'd read a book in 3rd grade or so about Robert E Lee and converted.

Many years later I saw Lester Maddox ride a bicycle backwards in the St Patricks Day Parade in Savannah, Ga. I thought: That's the Lester Maddox I thought was so great when I was a kid? He was just a man. In that time of my life I couldn't say I favored Maddox politically, but it was still fun to see him performing street theater as Governor. It was like seeing Buffalo Bob from the Howdy Doody Show walk on stilts in a parade. That childhood affection was still in there getting a kick out of seeing him when my grownup political mind was trying to deny it.

Muley Bob Doughton evidently got the Blue Ridge Parkway routed through North Carolina instead of Tennessee that wanted it too. He was on the House Ways & Means Committee 18 years. Maybe the biggest thing he's known for is overseeing the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935. He died in his home at Laurel Springs age 90. His generation was the last of the Old South.

His head on the courthouse lawn has been the prop for a lot of pranks over the years. I have put sunglasses on him a few times. I've seen a hard hat on him. Saw a do-rag on him once. A graduation cap. The pupils of his eyes are little holes, and one time I saw somebody stuck a pencil in one. The pencil stuck straight out from his eye. It was kind of chilling to look at. I believe old Uncle Bob Doughton would slap his knee laughing to know the pranks pulled with his head on the marble post. They may be the only times anybody sees the thing. It's so taken for granted, it's like it's not even there.

Ten or more years ago a small group of exburbanites here from the suburbs of various cities decided they knew what Sparta needed. One of them washed the patina off Doughton's bronze head, which by the way was beautiful, with acid. The head went from the pale turquoise of aged bronze to the brown of rusted steel in just a few minutes. And stayed that way for several years. It's gradually growing patina back. If teenage boys had done that, there'd have been hell to pay. As it was done by a committee, nobody noticed. Except that guy TJ. He pointed it out in his column in the paper at the time and they got real mad.
Bobby Lee Doughton listened to old-time music through the first half of his life. That's a given. He was born in 1863, just a few years after the Civil War to a veteran who named him for the great Robert E Lee. He knew how to flatfoot and square dance for certain. You know he grew up hunting and tasted some good white liquor somewhere along the way. Might have even kept some in his office in Washington. That's totally conjecture, but he was of a generation that did that. Share it round with the boys. Good liquor from back home. He didn't go to college, yet he spent much of his adult life in Washington DC, a respected North Carolina congressman. Like Del Reeves on Music Row in Nashville, that's no small thing.

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