Clinton and Hickman County, Kentucky, have had a plenty of such characters, but in 30 years of talking to folks here, we have found only one Cage Viverette - literally, and in terms of personality. When we moved into the old Cage Viverette house" in 1982, people began bombarding us with anecdotes of this colorful figure (gone for 40 years then!), and we began collecting the stories for posterity.
There are probably many good tales we haven't heard, and some we have heard will require a bit of creative editing for publication! Possibly the funniest, at least to lots of our neighbors, is that a Baptist preacher and his wife bought a house whose walls had absorbed enough profanity to peel the paint!
Almost immediately, people began asking, "When are you going to have a dance on the third floor?" It is a finished single "ballroom," with cathedral ceiling, dormer windows on each side, and tongue-in-groove lumber. The Viverettes had 4 daughters, and rather than letting them go out to dances, bands were brought to the ballroom so their friends could visit. (By the way, my consistent answer was, :As soon as West Kentucky Baptist Association votes to sponsor it!")
The house reflects French influence, probably through river connections either from New Orleans or from the north. Mr. Viverette was born in Illinois, and the house in some ways resembles the earlier Pierre Menard house at Kaskaskia. According to local historian Virginia Jewell, the house was built in 1815 by John A. Harpole, a building contractor, at a cost between $2,500 and $3,000. Mr. Harpole operated a brick kiln northeast of the site of the present Hickman County High School. The specially fired bricks are 13 inches thick, and were hauled by a wagon and team from the kiln to the site (less than 2 miles). According to MR. Harpole's son Homer, he personally hauled the ballroom windows look out on all four sides, possibly to watch for the law; evidently the "ballroom" was the scene of many a "bootleg" party and card game. The dormer windows may have had weather-efficient. The 13-inch brick walls, not several bricks thick but one 13-inch brick plastered inside, will hold heat in or out. With high ceilings and windows on all sides, the house has natural "air-conditioning" in summer. By opening a cross draft on the third floor, the room is fairly comfortable except on the hot-test days, and that helps cool the lower floors. The house is set above a low area, drained by Cane Creek, and on the side of a low hill. There is always a breeze from that side. (Recently, two of the Viverette grandchildren, Viverette Lee of Florida and Louise Callahan of Charleston, Missouri, Visited briefly. One of her childhood memories was the breeze on the wrap-around from porch, and it was blowing on the hot afternoon of their visit! They were able to answer some of out questions, making this writing easier.)
The gentle slope continues to the north, peaks, and dips about a quarter of a mile north. Winter winds are raised by that peak; so that they go over the top of the house rather that hitting it head on. If the winter sun shines all day, it shines into every room in the house, including the center rooms on the north side of the first and second floors. The angle of the sun in summer is such that the north side rcieves little heat. Four fireplaces and warmth from the kitchen gave a lot of easily held comfort, and the kitchen is separated from the core of the house by the same 13-inch brick in a wall with a two=sided chimney. IT is said that MR. Viverette was very much afraid of fire, and it is true that there is little flammable except floors, ceilings, and contents. All in all, it seems that the builder and considered many issues in planning and carrying out construction.
Mrs. (Flo) Viverette, who kept books for the farm, died in 1936, and Cage in the 1945 at the age of 81. Apparently he never learned to read and write (but he could count!) Concrete bridge abutments, probably from the WPA/CCC era, and one wall over a storm cellar that my date to the 1917 tornado has the painfully inscribed letters "C A G V I V (E)." We have one of the bridges abutments, which had fallen off, at out front entrance set on concrete blocks that were evidently foundation stones for the barn.
He made a million dollars before the Depression, mostly by selling and trading mules in the 1920's. The common tale is that no one could bet ahead of him in a deal, and any who tried were "skinned" for their efforts. But if anyone came in saying, "Mr. Viverette, I don't know much about mules, but I need a good pair to begin farming," he would have the best mules at the fairest price.
OF course there was a large farm, 1400 acres, north of Clinton, west Springhill Road, with a large orchard and possibly as many as 100 tenant houses. The last of there was still on the farm in 1982, when we bought the house and 4 acres, but was remove before we could get a photo. It was a 2-room wood structure on ground level, with a loft. I am told that many black families still in Clinton came from the shout to work here, and that field workers were paid up to a dollar a day, $ .50 till noon Saturday, a little done on Sunday. There was a garden space at each house, and each family had a brood sow, chickens, and often a cow. The days were long before sun-up till after sunset, or from kind to kain't: - and the work hard, with mainly hand tools. But "Mr. Cage" worked with the hands, and as hard as they did, and was evidently respected.
And there was time for pleasure. When Hickman County was "wet," the DX Tavern was on his property line, across from the present Harper's Hams. U.S. 51 had opened along the west side of the farm. One hot afternoon Cage and his lady were out riding horseback, and decided they were thirsty. We're not sure if there were "swinging doors," or if the saloon door was just open because of the heat, but the Viverettes rode their horses through the door, ordered, and drank on horseback (sort of the first "drive-through window!")
The one remaining fireplace, which we use on many a chilly night, has a "slope back." With a "gooseneck" for a draft and no damper. Heat bounces back into the room so that two rooms downstairs are easily warmed by it. And their stairs are located so that a good deal of fireplace heat reaches the second floor. "Pocket doors" can be closed to direct the heat (to downstairs, and one on the second floor). Bedrooms can be closed off as needed. Four of those rooms had plates each with the name of one of the daughters, and the spots can still be noted.
The story is told that when Cage failed to have enough firewood in, Flo would get even by taking long, uncut logs, putting them in the fireplace and on the floor, and pushing the logs in as they burned. As silent witness, flooring in front of at least two fireplaces has been replaced with an obviously different lumber.
Flo seems to have threatened to quit keeping the records when she wanted Cage to do something, and the threat evidently worked. He signed checks with an "X" and told people, "The bank knows me." And evidently they did; he is listed as one of the first Board of Directors of the reorganized First National Band of Clinton in 1934. How the books were kept after Flo's death is not known to this writer. But there were plenty of books to be kept. When the Depression hit, Cage came near bankruptcy, but bound back by adding sheep and hogs. He "counted" stock going through a chute by raising and lowering his arm for each one, saying "one sheep, one sheep, one sheep ?" and giving the correct number at the end.
Once he took a load of hogs to market in the St. Louis area by train, coming straight out of the barnyard to ride with his stock and sell them. When the deal was done, he took a cab to "the best hotel in town," where the clerk, shocked, asked: "Are you sure you can afford a room in this establishment?" To which Cage pulled out a thick roll of hundreds from the sale and asked, "How much for the whole !@$%#% place?" (He got his room!)
When U.S. 51 was being built, originally as a rock road, traffic was detoured along a road on the Viverette farm to Springhill Road. Cage, seeing cars on his road, put up a toll gate and sat at it, collecting a dime from each.
He expected hard work and thrift, but we haven't heard of any one who died as a result (though one of his favorite sayings was "kill a mule, buy another; kill a man, hire another!") His attitude toward property was interesting. He wanted things to show his rise to wealth, but used them casually as if to say, "I can get more."
He had a good Ford in the late '30's, of course before air conditioning. In warm weather he drove, on the road or on the farm, with all windows down, so that the inside was often as muddy as the outside. He chewed tobacco, and would spit out the window, with " 'baccy juice" often hitting anyone careless enough to sit in the back, and marking the car till the next rain. The farm was well kept, as was the house- "a showplace," it was called. A large and well-built mule barn was on the site where we have a garden. When it burned, it was the front-page story in the count weekly. When we plow, we find (and save) metal items- shoes, harness buckles, nails, and other reminders of those days.
There was a carriage house (now almost gone), a solid smokehouse, and a double-walled milk-house (later a well house). A huge set of Romanesque columns now mark the Viverette gravesite at the west side of Clinton Cemetery, but were first set at the front of the drive. We are told that he was often afraid, and that after dark it was not wise to pay a surprise visit.
In his last years, his bedroom was on the first floor (where my study is now, and where I'm preparing this account). As he neared death, his daughters and sons-in-law gathered around his bed in this room, and he told them, "Girls, I've wasted my life." "Oh, Daddy no! Look at the farm, look at the barns, look at the stock- you can't say that!"
"Yes, that's what I mean; made a profession as a boy, never followed through, never was baptized, never joined the church-wasted my life."
Mr. Viverette had often been asked if he was ready to die, and his consistent answer was his favorite by-word: "Great God Amighty! (sic) Can't die! Can't die! World'd stop! World'd Stop!" But, more that 60 years later, the world goes on, and "Mr. Cage" is nearly forgotten. Many of the people who have told us these stories are already off the scene as well. In the conviction that such tales should be kept alive, and in appreciation for the good house he built for the preacher and wife (and for others before us), we dedicated this article to the memories of Cage and Flo Viverette.
Charles and Alma Blair, 2001
(Mr. Balir has served 20 years as Director of Missions for the West Kentucky Baptist Association, and now is a consultant for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Mrs. Blair is secretary for the association, a member of the Great River Road Association, and currently President of the Clinton-Hickman Country Chamber of Commerce. Both are Kentucky Colonels.)
1. Lickskillet, by Virginia Jewell, 1986, and private communication from Mrs. Jewell. Pages 239-240 in Lickskillet.
2. Hickman County History, Kenny Rose, Publisher, 1999, p.22.