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Rooster Cogburn 1903-2007


RoosterROOSTER TURNED 104 ON MAY 9, 2007, and passed away in December 2007.

Melvin Mitchell "Rooster" Cogburn

 My friend, Rooster Cogburn, lives in the isolated mountain community of Shady. Here the living is easy, laid back, and neighbors must trust and count on neighbors. He and Bessie lived in this mountain "shack" (his description) for over 60 years. (Rooster lost his dear "sweetheart" Bessie in 2000.)

Rooster was born in a log cabin with a loft and a lean-to, on May 9, 1903, near Fancy Hill in Montgomery County, just across the Caddo River from Highway 8 East, (about 13 miles).

At the age of five Rooster, his mother, Martha (Whisenhunt) Cogburn, daughter of Dick Whisenhunt, and the other children came to live with his mother's folks on Mine Creek, near Shady. "Little George," his father, had been forced into a shooting scrape, killed two men, and had to go "on the scout" for the next 15 years. His mother, with no way to make a living went to live with her family. Rooster grew up on Mine Creek helping his grandfather Whisenhunt with the farm work.

 Rooster tells this story of his father: "Little George" was running a cold drink stand at a 4th of July picnic in 1903 near Fancy Hill, when he got into trouble. He'd sent his rifle to a neighbor to have some repair work done and it was returned to him at the picnic. Two men rode up and started shooting, knocking off "Little George's" hat. He reached down, picked up his rifle, and began shooting back. It ended quickly with both men dead. The two men were Jim West and Dave Perrin. All the trouble was laid on to George, unfairly he felt, so he went on the "lam". He had many friends, and it wasn't too difficult to hide out all those years. Eventually he was offered a pardon if he would become an informant against other men in hiding. Although he didn't like the deal, he finally accepted it. One interesting aspect of the story is that Little George would hide in a mountain top graveyard inside a vault that was on top of the ground. He said he "peeped" out and watched lawman who came to look for him, but they never discovered his hiding place.

 Rooster was nicknamed for the original "Rooster Cogburn," of True Grit fame. The first Rooster was his great-uncle who was born around Caddo Gap, but grew up and lived in the Fort Smith area. (Actually, several profiles of early lawmen were combined to create the character of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, which also starred Arkansas native Glen Campbell of Delight.)

 Most of Rooster's boyhood was spent on the mountain doing farm work and working in the timber. When just a young man, he blazed a trail walking across the mountain to reach his future wife, Bessie Hendrix (born September 11, 1916, daughter of Frank and Lila Hendrix.) Rooster and Bessie were married December 4, 1932. They have lived all their lives in the Shady area, except for a short time when Rooster went to Angelfire, New Mexico to work in the timber.

 Sawmilling and working in the log woods was hard in those days, when a man was lucky to get 10 cents an hour and even luckier if he was able to put in a 10-hour day. On weekends Rooster plowed out the garden and truck patches, while the women and children pulled weeds. It took everyone working to eke out a living in these mountains.

 Rooster says the old-timers may have been a bit on the rough and tough side, but they cared more about each other. There was a lot of visiting among friends and neighbors once the crop was laid by. When a man was sick, the neighbors would come in and work out his crop and look after his family. At hog killing time the neighbors came and helped out and the meat was shared. It was hard work, but fun, and a man could hold his head up and know he had done his best and earned an honest living. A bushel of corn could only feed the family for a few meals, but made into "moonshine'" it would bring in a year’s cash income.

When things really got tough for the mountain folks they turned to moonshine. The townspeople always had money and seemed to be willing to pay the price for a gallon of good white lightening. The sale of ten gallons of "good stuff" could stake a man's crop for the coming year.

Rooster still lives on the mountain and spends his days visiting with tourist and neighbors.  Rooster took to whittling several years ago and has sold his rolling pins, wooden spoons and folks, and handmade canes all over the country. He has been featured in several major publications, but the publicity hasn't gone to his head. He is still just "Rooster" of Shady Mountain.

You will notice the cap Rooster is wearing in the photo. It has "92" on it. Several years ago Rooster's neighbors started giving him new caps denoting his age. As the years have gone by and time grows shorter, they have started giving him one at the 1/2 year as well. When you visit, and please visit, you will see his wall of cherished caps.

If you will listen, Rooster will tell you how he happened to start making his "Hippie Sticks". It seems some "dude" from Texas was traveling the mountains by foot and stopped by to ask Rooster for a staff to help with the steep climb and to ward off snakes. Rooster told him he looked like a Hippie and the "dude" admitted he was.

Rooster began whittling his "Hippie Stick" in case another Texan came by and needed a little help getting up the "hills". You see, in this part of the country a man and his animals are naturally born with one leg shorter than the other so they can walk the mountain sides without falling off. Well, maybe not, but the story has been around for a while.

Rooster sells his rolling pins and says that if a young (or old) lady isn't married and buys one of them, she will be in six months. If she is married and wants a divorce, a purchase will soon put her on the "free" list again. I'll testify to the truth in both statements.

Bring your camera along when you come to visit, as Rooster will be sitting on his front porch whittling. Although he has been stricken with severe arthritis, and his hands are gnarled from the disease, he is still out there, rain or shine, hot or cold. As a matter of fact, his son John put up some boards around the potbellied stove on the porch and with his ragged, but sturdy old chair and a box for the finished items, he is set for the day.

Rooster puts the date on each item. He whittles from scrap timber his sons and neighbors bring him. He uses, cedar, oak, walnut, and cherry. If you ask him, he will add a special name or sentiment.

Bring your camera along when you come to visit, as Rooster will be sitting on his front porch whittling. Although he has been stricken with severe arthritis, and his hands are gnarled from the disease, he is still out there, rain or shine, hot or cold. As a matter of fact, his son John put up some boards around the potbellied stove on the porch and with his ragged, but sturdy old chair and a box for the finished items, he is set for the day.

Rooster puts the date on each item. He whittles from scrap timber his sons and neighbors bring him. He uses, cedar, oak, walnut, and cherry. If you ask him, he will add a special name or sentiment.

One of my favorite memories was when I was talking to Rooster and he was sort of bragging and Bessie popped up and said, “It may be the Rooster that does the crowing, but it’s the hen that lays the eggs.”

 Note: Rooster passed away Dec. 2007.

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