The Celebrated Egg Hunt of Escambia County

Whether you’re a bible thumper, a holy roller or one of the frozen chosen; whether you’re an atheist, agnostic or otherwise unaffiliated, chances are you have, at some point in your life, participated in an Easter egg hunt. However, unless you are descended from or related to the Franklin family of Escambia County, Alabama, you’ve never experienced the absurd heights to which an egg hunt can rise.

Unlike most Southerners, I have been to church on Easter Sunday only a handful of times in my life. This mere fact should have earned me the self-righteous scorn of friends and family alike. However, since most (read: all) of them considered the church of my childhood a cult, every missed Sunday was a step in the right direction. (There’s no time to get into that. We’ll revisit it in a future post.)

While most Americans were tuning out the one sermon they would hear all year, we were packing up the spoils from the Easter Bunny, a couple dozen rainbow-hued boiled eggs and no fewer than a half dozen side dishes and desserts, all delicately piled around me in the back seat of our Ford LTD.

After an hour’s drive north up Interstate 65 (even longer prior to the opening of the so-called “Dolly Parton Bridge”) we’d arrive in Wallace. There’s no indication that this part of Escambia County, Alabama was ever the domain of wealthy plantations. There had been money in nearby Brewton, but Brewton and Wallace are different worlds, separated by the muddy waters of Burnt Corn Creek.

To call Wallace a small town would be an insult to small towns everywhere. When I was a child, Wallace featured two country stores, a shack in someone’s front yard that functioned as a bait shop and exactly zero stop lights. Then there was the long-since closed Franklin Grocery & Garage. It had been my great-grandfather’s store, where my father had worked as a child and fell in love with tinkering on cars – a love that became his career.

No matter how early we’d arrive in Wallace, we were never first. We’d pull into the empty lot beside the old store to find at least 20 cars there ahead of us. We’d clamber out of the car and add our contributions to the feast – 30+ feet of folding tables covered from one end to end in the most delectable samplings of Southern country cooking you’ve ever seen: lima beans and turnip greens, yeast rolls and casseroles, corn bread, ham and the ever popular deviled eggs – all prepared with the requisite helpings of lard, fatback and bacon.

No treats were better than my Great Aunt’s butter beans and chicken and dumplings. (I don’t know if it’s the red clay soil or the weather in South Alabama, but no place in the world grows tastier butter beans.) Dorothy “Dot” Mock is the eldest of my father’s aunts and has been the matriarch of the family my entire life. For many years, the Easter gathering would alternate between her house and that of her sister, Elma Lee Clifton, who lived only three doors down. But when Dot built a huge covered carport-cum-patio specifically for the Easter feast, the reunion found a permanent home.

Our arrival was never official until we had an audience with Dot. We’d always find her in the steamy, cramped kitchen with at least three of her sisters, putting the finishing touches on her dumplings. After checking in with Dot, we would drop off my mother’s cherry no-bake cheesecakes. One entire room of the host house was devoted to desserts.

RSM Wayne Franklin with uncle Ellisaw Mock in 1980

As the rest of the family and guests arrived, I would get into some kind of mischief with my cousins (or, as a teenager, find a private spot for some canoodling with my girlfriend du jour.) Meanwhile, my dad would make the rounds, harassing his family with his patented brand of smart-aleckry. Some years, the crowd would swell to nearly one hundred by the time one of my great uncles – either Ellisaw Mock or Herbie Clifton, depending on which was hosting – offered a prayer of thanks. The buffet line soon wrapped around the house.

Before dessert had even passed our gullets, another group of my great uncles would begin preparing for the main event: the famed Franklin Family egg hunt.  Most Easter egg hunts, whether they be in a suburban back yard or on the grounds of the local elementary school, are strictly kids-only affairs. That’s not the way the Franklins would do it. If you were old enough to crawl or young enough to still be walking on your own, you were in on the hunt.

Richard “Dick” O’Hara had come to the South courtesy of the U.S. Navy. A wiry man with a pointed nose, fiery eyes and a dark complexion that belied his Irish surname, Dick married my father’s aunt, Pearl, and never left the South. As my father would say of Dick, “He’s got his Yankee ways, but he’s alright.”

Maybe it was the accent that even five-plus decades of living in a Southern backwater couldn’t erase, or maybe it was just his natural charm, but Dick was usually the tax collector of sorts for the egg hunt. Going person to person, no level of pressure or guilt from Dick was too much, so long as he emptied the wallets of every member of the family for the vaunted “prize eggs.”

Savvy family members would remember to have no more than a couple of singles on them that morning. The goal, of course, was to leave with a net profit. After all, what better way to celebrate our risen savior than with the unbridled avarice of a treasure hunt?

The money would go into plastic prize eggs. The hiders would gather them up with the several hundred real dyed eggs and head off toward the hunting grounds. A simple backyard would not suffice with 70-plus people hunting hundreds of eggs. Sure, they could’ve chosen a pasture or clearing somewhere. The parts of Wallace that weren’t timberlands for the big paper mills in Mobile were mostly old farms. But where’s the fun of hunting eggs that are simply lying out in an open field?

“Oooh look, I think I see something pink behind that blade of grass!  I wonder what it could be…” It could be a lame way to spend an afternoon, that’s what.

No, Dick and his cohorts – great uncles Bill Creeden and Ken Kendall of Pensacola, Ellisaw, Herbie, Herbie’s son Tony and others – would choose a more exotic locale. It could be a patch of young pines on Dick’s property or an area of dense woods down a rutty dirt lane, somewhere beyond the fire tower that overlooked mature timber stands. For several years, we hunted in an abandoned gravel pit. I had particularly good luck there – probably due to the coloration of the pink and white gravel. It’s tough to overcome a red-green deficiency in the middle of the woods.

Shortly, the hiding team would return and lead a caravan of dozens of vehicles to the hunting grounds. Every car would be packed to overflowing; kids would be piled into pickup truck beds; at least one bold iconoclast would be on a motorcycle. Together, we’d train back into the woods.

Wayne's mother, Alice, and daughter, Savannah in 2003

Once unloaded, all the hunters would jockey for position at the ad hoc starting line – sizing up both the grounds and the competition. But no one was allowed to step onto the hunting grounds until the rules had been laid out. Whether it was Dick, Bill, Ellisaw, Ken, Herbie or one of the other men, the instructions always went something like this:

“Alright. We got 360 real eggs, 60 candy eggs and fifteen money eggs. The money eggs got anywhere from a buck up to about twenty dollars in ’em. Some of the prize eggs got a slip of paper like this one here. You get a slip of paper with a number, come see me and get your prize over here. We got chocolate bunnies, full baskets, all kinda stuff.

“All the eggs are hid from right where I’m standing to that tree over yonder by Bill, back to that clay bank back there where Ken’s standing and over to that big oak. Now y’all step back. We’re gonna let the little ones go out there first. Then you can get your chance after that.”

For the next thirty-plus minutes, family members old and young combed the woods, raking up pine straw with their feet, climbing small trees, digging in the dirt. The nature of the hunt was such that one thing was certain: no one wore their “Easter best” on Easter.

When most of the real eggs, candy eggs and low-value money eggs had been found, the hiders would begin giving clues to the top-dollar prize eggs. You could be sure they would either be wedged slightly higher than your reach in a tree or, more typically, buried at least six inches deep in a hole somewhere – sometimes a gopher tortoise burrow or an abandoned (hopefully) snake hole. Like a family of prairie dogs, adults, children, teenagers and the upwardly aged would huddle around the presumed hiding place of a money egg, slinging dirt, grass and straw in every direction until, in a mad last-second scramble, someone would rise victorious, the orb of their victory held aloft for all to see.

When the last money egg had been found and everyone had either gloated over their winnings or wallowed in abject humiliation, we all made the slow, ambling trek back to the feast. The numbers had inevitably dwindled by then. As kids, we’d go for another round of desserts and then do something brilliant – like having a boiled egg fight.

As dusk approached, we’d load back in the LTD. Empty dishes sat where full ones had been only hours earlier. Exhausted from the day and stuffed with good country cooking, I would fall asleep on the way home. I wouldn’t see most of the family until the next Easter. Ultimately, it wasn’t about the food or the money or even the hunt itself. It was about doing something special – something predictably, madly special – with my family. The egg hunt was uniquely ours, and no one could take it from us. No one but time…and loss.

RSM Wayne Franklin (center) with mother Alice, grandmother Alma Hammac and daughter Savannah in 2002

We rarely go to the egg hunts these days. Living in Birmingham, it’s too difficult to drive down and back in one day. My grandmother passed earlier this year. Dick, Ken, Ellisaw, Herbie, Elma Lee and others are gone, too. Without them, the heady days of the egg hunt to end all egg hunts are gone. No one in my father’s or my generation stepped into the breach to keep the tradition going – a tradition that had been around since well before I was born.

And that’s how everything great about the South will die if we’re not careful – one life at a time, one tradition at a time – until we no longer recognize our home.

Today is Easter. My wife, my children and I will do what I never did as a child by going to our church for Easter services. Then we will come home and host a small gathering of friends – just a handful of adults and children – for an Easter meal. Afterward, I will go out and hide eggs on our four-acre property. You can bet some of them will contain money, and at least one will be buried down a hole. For Dick and Ken and Ellisaw and Herbie and Tony and all the others we’ve lost.

It’s a small start, but it’s what I’m doing to keep the tradition alive.

Happy Easter, everyone.

7 Responses to “The Celebrated Egg Hunt of Escambia County”

  1. Fantastic post, Wayne! This brought back memories of MANY Easter egg hunts with my aunts, uncles, and cousins in Randolph County, AL. I remember once finding a beloved prize egg three months after the big hunt. Now THAT was special.

  2. Thanks, guys! I could’ve gone on for another 2,000 words on this. So many rich characters and situations…

  3. Wayne, Thank you for sharring part of your heritage.There was a time when all we had was each other, and if your like me, I did’nt relise I had so much!!

  4. Thanks for this, Wayne. You took me to a place I’d never been. You’re right. We can’t let these traditions die.

  5. We have become scattered.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Real Southern Men Get Personal | Real Southern Men - June 14, 2011

    […] Or maybe it’s Wayne Franklin’s love letter to the Easter Sundays of his childhood in “The Celebrated Egg Hunt of Escambia County.” […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: