Growing up in the first quarter of the last century was
no cup of tea in the years leading up to the Great
Depression, but what Willard Brush remembers as hard,
lean years sounds like a piece of paradise in the modern
He was born on April 27, 1917, the sixth child of seven
born to Henry and Louellen Brush. The couple raised
their children on a 106-acre farm in the 15th District
of Weakley County where they raised cotton, corn, okra,
yellow wax beans - "We raised everything, we had big
gardens," recalls Brush - in addition to livestock that
included hogs and cattle, as well as mules and horses
that were used for work and transportation.
"It was pretty rough," said the 84-year-old Brush,
shaking his head, "Nobody had any money or anything, and
they all had big families."
In those days, big families meant more hands to work as
well as more mouths to feed and Brush remembers his two
main activities as a youth being attending school and
"plowing the mules." He attended Dunlap's School in
Weakley County, finishing the tenth grade at the
two-year high school in the community where he lived
near Crawley's Store, a small country market about nine
miles from Greenfield.
Farming was only part of the work being done at the
Brush homestead. In the fall, Willard's dad, Henry,
would set out on Monday to bale hay throughout the
district all week, coming back home on Saturday after a
hard week's work.
"He had a gasoline hay baler," Willard explained, "and
pulled it with four mules." It took five men to operate
the hay baler in addition to the man in charge of the
mules: two to pitch the hay onto the table, one to feed
hay into the baler and two to tie the bales out.
Come winter, a new job arose when weather conditions
kept the town doctor, Dr. Jether Crawley, from his
"Nobody went to the office; he went to see every patient
he had," says Brush.
The doctor generally made his rounds in his automobile,
but cars were still in their early years, with the
assembly line not introduced by Ford until 1913, just
four years before Willard's birth, and roads in rural
Tennessee were generally dirt or mud and easily rutted
during times of inclement weather.
In times like these, the doctor, who lived about a
quarter mile away from the Brush home, would summon
Henry Brush or one of his two older sons, Willard or
Lawton, who was four years older than Willard.
Willard, grinning, makes cranking motions in the air to
illustrate the method of making a phone call in those
"He'd call us to go to a patient's house or maybe four
or five in a day," he says.
Using a team of horses and a buggy, the family made sure
the doctor was able to visit those who were sick or
otherwise in need of the doctor's services.
Another job performed by the Brushes was hauling goods
to Crawley's Store. Leaving out at daylight with a wagon
pulled by four mules, they picked up groceries from the
wholesale market in McKenzie that was run by Lovelace
Farmer, then traveled to Modle Mills to pick up flour
and feed, arriving back at Crawley's Store after dark.
The day's work earned the family $5.00.
The family's horses were a valuable commodity to a boy
growing up in the country, as Willard says, "About the
only way to go when you were a boy was to get on a horse
When he was around 18 years old, Willard's friend, Leon
Barner, asked him to go along with him and his girl
friend to see a movie.
"But, I don't have a date!" Willard protested.
"Carry Nell!" his friend suggested, referring to his
15-year old sister.
Nell was no stranger to Willard: "I was raised with
her," he says, "I went to school with her near all my
life and went to church down there (at Meridian
Cumberland Presbyterian Church.)"
So, Willard took Nell to the movie and ended up having a
great time. "I enjoyed that pretty good and kept a'going
back," he says with a satisfied nod.
The couple's conversation as they rode home from the
event planted the seeds of the future for the
"It was leap year," Willard relates, "and I said to
Nell, 'Let's get married next leap year,' - and I never
thought no more about it than talking to you - and we
did!" he said with a wide-eyed nod.
But Nell was still young, and when he was 19, Willard
moved from the farm to McKenzie where his first job was
carrying the Commercial Appeal.
Willard Brush relaxes
with R.C., a dog given to him by the home health care
nurses who cared for his wife during her prolonged
Not long afterward, he started
work at Modle Mills, working 72 hours a week for $12.
The mill produced flour, cornmeal and feed for
"I started out sacking feed and wound up as a salesman,"
he says. His territory ran from "Milan to Murray and
from here to Reelfoot - all the country grocery stores
in there," he related.
McKenzie was much smaller in those days, Willard says.
He recalls baling hay all over the spots now claimed by
Richardson and Moore Subdivisions.
"It took two men to take care of all the garbage in city
and up town," he laughs, adding that the houses and even
the roads around his residence on the east side of
McKenzie didn't even exist at the time.
When he was around 21, three years after their first
date, Willard and Nell began dating in earnest. She was
19 when they married on November 29, 1939.
"When we first got married, we rented a room and a
kitchen and shared a bathroom for $6 a month, " Willard
says incredulously of their first home that was located
on Forest Avenue.
Though both salaries and the prices for goods were low
in those days, he recalls that money didn't stretch any
further than it does now. In fact, he says, "Back then
you just spent what you had and you did without the rest
until you got the money."
The Brush's had a little girl, Nellie, who was two years
old when he was called into military service in 1945. A
gunner's mate in the U.S. Navy, he handled ten mounts of
four guns each aboard the U.S.S. New York. He saw 205
air raids over two years in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He
adapted to the stressful environment, recalling, "When
you was really in attack, you was nervous right then,
but when that was over you relaxed and went to sleep."
Back home in 1946, he and his brother, Lawton, bought
out a local feed mill to form the Brush Brother's Feed
Mill, an enterprise he ran for 28 years in McKenzie.
In addition to their daughter Nellie, Willard and Nell
produced a son, Joe Frank, after the war years, and
today have six grandchildren and two
A doting grandfather, Willard helped his grandson, Joey,
get started in the lawn mowing business when he was in
the eighth grade.
"I bought him a mower and helped him get started," he
says modestly. "He kept that up through college, then my
son took over when Joey went to teaching."
Sadly, Willard lost Nell seven years ago to breast
cancer, a disease she fought for eight years.
"We used Tri-County Home Health Care," he relates, "I
really did like those nurses and I think they like me
He enjoys the company of "R.C.", a good guard dog and
pleasant companion given to him by the nurses who cared
for his wife during her illness.
"I'm old and curious but I make it pretty good here by
myself," he says. Though spry and full of witty wisdom,
he has had more than his share of health problems.
"I've had about ten operations," he says
matter-of-factly, recounting two open-heart surgeries,
appendicitis that set into gangrene, a hernia repair and
a blockage brought on by previous surgeries, as well as
an amputation due to poor circulation.
"It didn't slow him down a bit," says a friend who
marvels at his resiliency.
Willard has been a member of the Cumberland Presbyterian
Church for 55 years. "I haven't got throwed out yet," he
He has one remaining sister among his six brothers and
sister, Vaughnell Webb of McKenzie, who, he says, is
known for selling Stanley in her younger years.
His daughter Nellie is married to Clennon Dailey and
works as an officer at the Union Planters Bank in
Martin. Nellie and Clennon have two daughters, Debbie
Son Joe Frank Brush works for the railroad. He and his
wife, Toni, have four children: Joey, Dean, Buffi, and
Evan. Willard has two great-grandchildren: Will, who is
the son of Joey Brush, and Alise, the daughter of Dean