The Great Battle of Sitting and Spitting: Whitney, Texas, 1949

"Why, they must spit two or three gallons a day!  They ain't died fast enough, these old men!"--Mrs. T.E. Bagley, Whitney, Texas, 1949

John Ptak comments on a story from a 1949 issue of LIFE. The photos are fantastic.

It isn't, I guess, so much a story about their sitting as it is a story about their not sitting, about how it came to be that their lumber was removed and the men forced to find another place to take in the sights and construct their great edifices of commentary and asides.

The story appears in LIFE Magazine of 15 August 1949, and lays the whole drama out in two splash pages, with bare editorializing and some great photos.

The story goes like this: "In 1922 D. (Doctor Dee) Scarborough, the druggist in Whitney, Texas, put up a bench outside his store, and immediately it became a loafing headquarters for the gaffers of the Brazos River Valley. 'Year after year they sat there looking like a jury of irritable terrapins, whittling, spitting and passing judgment on everything that passed. But finally reform caught up with them." It caught up to them, even if everyone was wearing a collared shirt.

The Great Battle of Sitting and Spitting: Whitney, Texas, 1949


    1. Yeah, the bench is still there and in the google map link posted by devophill you can see the plaque the commemorates the event. The guy closest to the camera looks like Leonard. He lived to be about a zillion and would dig holes down there in the solid rock ground with a rock bar and a worn out pair of Wells Lamont’s for a buck an hour.

        1. @John: I don’t have any first hand experience with the event but when I was a kid in the 60’s I did have a lot of first hand experience talking to Leonard while watching him dig holes in that rock. He had been a college professor and was fascinating to talk to. He would never take more than a buck an hour and didn’t need it anyhow as he had maxed out FDIC insured accounts at several banks. I don’t even know if that guy in the picture is Leonard but like I mentioned, He looks like Leonard. I have the rock bar he used to chip away at the rock in my store room and when I look at it I can still see the man.

  1. Feeling torn here. On the one hand i’m glad they got their bench back, but also wondering their if their conversations were really as charming we’re led to imagine.

    They look to me like a geriatric lynch mob

  2. Police Depts. just aren’t what they used to be. Uniforms have changed for sure.
    It’s interesting that many of those people were alive during the Civil War. Some may have faught in it. Things were different then. Maybe better.

  3. As a young child I used to wonder, when visiting Texas, why old men sat around and whittled. Now that I am an old man with wars and failed or successful companies gone to yesterdays – now that I’ve seen too much – I just want to find a bench with some of the same kind of men who were put out to pasture. Maybe they can teach me how to whittle with an old Buck pocket knife. Beats hell out of a bayonet. Ray Bedingfield

  4. Yup, men who’ve seen their best days, passing time. Respect them, they’ve earned it and if you live as long as them? You may want to try it yourself?

  5. By 1949 anyone who fought in the US Civil War (1861 – 1865) would have to be nearly 100. Surprisingly, several in the photo might qualify.
    Is it a trick of the photo or did that small town have only one store that sold only one men’s shirt and one men’s pant?

  6. many of those people were alive during the Civil War. Some may have faught in it.

    Not so sure about that. The end of the Civil War was 84 years back in 1949. A few of these men might have been alive at the time, but they’d have to be at least 99 or so to have had a chance of fighting in it.

    Still, it’s not too far removed. If we think in terms of our grandparents’ grandparents, we can get pretty far back in history.

  7. This is my hometown. How weird finding this on a site that I often love to visit. The Battle of the Benches put us on the map. Whitney has changed much since those days. It is a tourist town due to nearby Lake Whitney. During that time the population for Hill County was around 48K. As recently as ten years ago the population was 1/2 that. We are far enough away from Dallas/Ft. Worth that we do not get caught into that growth explosion.

    I have many photos of my hometown if anyone is interested. You can check out my flickr site:

    I actually have several shots of that bench and the plaque. Use the “whitney, tx” tag to find the pictures.

    Actually the people that live here are very nice and friendly.

  8. Moral of the story: don’t gossip and spit. People 60 years later might still be talking about it.

  9. I’m the guy who wrote the story and I’d be very interested in hearing from any Whitney folks, if you get a chance. I can be reached through my blog. I’d love to talk to some folks who have any first-hand memories of the event. Thanks!

  10. I find it strange that people are fascinated by this article. If you actually had to live in Whitney, you’d probably have a much different point of view on the article and the people. I had the displeasure of attending high school in Whitney during the 80’s. My parents pulled me out of the Magnet program I was in and dragged me to this podunk town because they were afraid the big city was going to corrupt me. The people were the most bitter, nasty, judgmental people I have ever met, and carried a distinct hatred for anyone that wasn’t born in the local hospital. Exchange students were tormented so much by the people in the schools that they left early.

    I had already started dressing in black by the time I was 12, so I was an immediate target as soon as I arrived in Whitney. When Geraldo did his infamous interview with Manson and the religious right had all the Xtians whipped up in a Satanic Scare frenzy, it was not the best time to be wearing black. My locker was continually raided for ‘Satanic Information’. I even had my book covers photocopied by the local police at night. They’d haul me in any time something happened to question me about my ‘Satanism’. I’m sure all the Cure and Misfits lyrics didn’t help my cause, but I was kid and that’s what I liked. The teachers admonished or made fun of me in front of their classes, and the coaches told what few friends I had that they would never play ball as long as they associated with me. It was the coldest, darkest, dreariest time of my life, and the first time I ever thought about suicide seriously. I spent the last year I went there carrying a gun in my bag to all my classes, but eventually decided that moving away and being successful would be the best revenge. Two decades later, I know I made the right choice.

    Eventually, I ended up in therapy, and most of my problems can be traced to the five years I spent in Whitney. I guess people idolize the quaint country life because they look at it from afar. For any intelligent person who has to endure it, it’s anything but fun, and the damage is lasting.

    1. I feel you, brother. I grew up in a midwestern small town, and it was mostly a happy wonderful experience, but i am extraordinarily grateful that my parents moved to the east coast BEFORE i reached my teens. I remember the charming old men in front the town store. There was one of them who earned most of his money with illegible cockfighting and made lewd comments about every woman who went by. He’d entertain anyone who’d listen with old-timey humor. I remember he said the real answer to “What’s black and white and red all over? was “a nggr eatin a typwriter” At least i think thats what he said. The greasy old fuck only had about three teeth in his disgusting old slobberface.
      The first time i saw a black people passing through town i was about 6. I saw they had a few kids with them who seemed around the same age as me. I started to walk towards them, and the nice churckfolk who were babysitting me, dragged me away, and told me not to look at them because “it wasn’t their fault they looked like that”
      Small town America was NEVER an egalitarian utopia. Nostalgia is poison.

    2. Funny, we probably know of one another since I graduated from Whitney High in the early 80’s. I read your entire comment and it struck me just how much difference there was in our experiences in Whitney. Where you found a conservative prison where darkness and angst were frowned upon, I found a hometown that was nurturing at every level and with fond memories and, since I moved back four years ago, comfort from the insane, fast paced world where I had spent two decades running in tortured circles.

      I would venture to say that small town Texas does not suit all people. Perhaps some feel threatened or sickened of the raw friendliness that people show every day with no thought of any ulterior returns, except kindness in turn. Where one finds prejudices everywhere, I can confidently share that blacks and Hispanics have always enjoyed equal footing here. There was, for years, the proverbial “black part of town” where one street was lined with modest frame houses; one of my best friends grew up on this street. I would swing by to pick him up on Saturdays on the way to the grocery store where we both worked. He was just as popular as any other in school. That’s what Whitney gave and still gives: the opportunities to rise above your beginnings and grow into a happy citizen.

      I lived in Dallas for 8 years and decided to move back to Whitney after an illness in the family. It was wonderful to back to a place where people knew me and knew my background. It is hard to hide oneself in a small town. People are sincerely concerned for one’s happiness and well-being. I haven’t locked my doors in four years. I have been forced to stop driving everywhere in such a rush and have become a courteous driver once again after years of the turmoil of traffic in Dallas. The only road rage one may be susceptible to here is being tested when behind a slow-moving farmer tooling along 25 miles below the speed limit. I will take patience and courtesy any day over hyperactive living and anger.

      In my experience, those who had difficulty adapting to the social norms in high school have no one to blame but themselves. If one had the attitude of rebellion or some sinister, rock and roll darkness, that choice to be the outcast and garner the attention falls directly on themselves. This was another boon in growing up in Whitney. One could play sports, strive in studies and love rock and roll. I know, this is exactly what I did and I would not change that for the world.

      1. Whitney sounds like great place for anyone played sports, strived in studies and loved rock and roll.

  11. Having grown up in small, Gulf Coast town similar to Whitney, I can tell non-Texans that there isn’t anything cool about these towns. Myself and my fellow ‘refugees’ in Austin have plenty of war stories about our hometowns.

  12. Nostalgia is poison. Good line. And yep, I bet the wit of those old Whitney boys (sons of Confederate soldiers most of them I figure: them’s ain’t 100 year old) is not the wisdom we need today. . .but History, my friend! Lest we forget. . .

  13. [I here-by embrace non-sinisterness, and promise henceforth to conform to Whitney’s boon-ful social norms.]

    Does anyone know of a compressive compendium chronicling every time a group has removed (or tried to remove) a thing that people whom they found undesirable were sitting on?
    I know this isn’t the first post on this topic her & it is a fascinating illustration of tribalism/primate territorial signaling.

Comments are closed.