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Yalobusha Historical Society Minutes – Oct 21, 2010

Bobby Hutchins

Panama Canal

The Yalobusha Historical Society held its regular monthly meeting Oct. 21 in its headquarters,  the former Presbyterian Church in Coffeeville. There were 27 members and guests present.

   Chaplain John Moorman spoke the opening prayer. President Mike Worsham  told of the recent meeting of the Board of Directors, and its decision to purchase a printing machine from Crawford Business Equipment in Batesville. The expense of printing our quarterly, THE PIONEER will be less than half the cost of having it done commercially. John Moorman, Editor, and his wife, Kerron, have an issue almost ready to print. Three more are in the works, which will all be for the current year. . The printer will be used only for mass printings, such as THE PIONEER and other Society publications, and is not to be used  for regular copying. Membership in the Society is $20.00 per calendar year, and all members will receive THE PIONEER. Dues, as well as memorials and honorariums, may be sent to YHS, Box 258, Coffeeville, MS   38922.                                                   

Program Chairman Opal Wright,  prior to introducing the day’s speaker, stated that the Nov. 18 program will be brought by Mickey Howley of Water Valley. His subject will be “The Main Street Association” and the work being done in  the downtown area of Water Valley.

  The day’s speaker was Bobby Hutchins, a long-time Society member. He and his wife, the former Bobbie Norris, of Duck Hill, live in Oxford. They have three children: Nan, Bob, (Bobby, Jr) and Lesli, four grandsons and three granddaughters.  

  Bobby and his family moved to Coffeeville from the Big Creek area when he was eight years old. He graduated from Coffeeville High School in 1951 and entered the U. S. Air Force soon thereafter, where he served four years.  He attended Miss. State  and worked for a while in the fledgling video/cable industry in Grenada and Greenwood before beginning a long career with the Federal Aviation Agency in 1960. He retired in 1990, moved to Oxford in 1991 and opened his own computer business, which he still operates. He also has an online business with his daughter, Lesli.

    During the years with the FAA, Bobby and Bobbie lived in various places across and outside the country, and he took courses from several Universities, as well as FAA courses. They lived in Panama from 1962 until 1969, so he has first-hand knowledge of the subject of his program – “The History of Panama and the Panama Canal.” He also brought in a Coffeeville Connection” to Panama. (more on that, later)

    Panama is one of several small countries that comprise Central America, the narrow strip of land that stretches from the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to the huge continent of South America. It lies between Costa Rico and Columbia. The word ‘Panama’ means ‘abundance of fish,’ and with a huge ocean on either side and with bodies of water of its own,  it certainly can live up to that name.

  Panama was known to early explorers, such as Columbus and Balboa. It was known, also, that it was a very narrow country, and many people dreamed of a waterway to connect the Pacific Ocean, on the West, to the Atlantic, on the East. It was not until the late 1800s that this dream began to take shape, when France began work on a canal. From what Bobby said, they didn’t know that the rainy season lasts for eight months of the year, or that the terrain was not conducive to a sea level  canal. Another serious problem was the MOSQUITO. This tiny insect was responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths from Malaria and Yellow Fever  during the construction process. Thousands more lost their lives while working on the tedious and labor-intensive project .France was forced to abandon the job, and it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the U. S. took over the construction. Many lessons had been learned from the previous attempt, but it was still a difficult and expensive job, and many more lives were lost in the ensuring years (a total of 27,500).

  The U. S. connection to Panama began in 1904, when President Teddy Roosevelt came to the aid of the Panamanian rebels who were attempting to gain independence from Columbia. The U. S.’s intervention resulted in Columbia relinquishing control of the country, thus allowing it to be an independent nation. Panama, by the way, is a little more than half the size of Miss., and its population about the same – three million.                                                      

   Bobby spoke of the creation of The Panama Canal Zone by the U.S., a 10-mile   wide strip that goes coast to coast, where the Canal is located.The U. S. paid Panama ten  million dollars for a lease on the land, and for  rights in perpetuity. A quarter of a million a year was to be paid to Panama, and that amount was increased over the years.  The rights to perpetuity were given up  in 1977 when  President Jimmy Carter signed a deal with Panama, giving everything back to Panama. And so it was that on Dec. 31, 1999, the U. S. did, indeed give everything back to Panama.   

   Bobby told of the actual construction of this waterway, and the huge impact it has on shipping and travel on the two great oceans. The distance of this short-cut was almost 6,000 off the distance down one coast of the country of South America, and back up the other coast, the shipping route before the Canal was opened in 1914.

  Bobby explained why there has to be a series of locks to transport ships through the Canal. He said that, due to high surf and tides, sea level on the Pacific side is about eight inches higher than on the Atlantic side. The purpose of the locks is to bring the water level up, or down along the Canal, so that ships can be at sea level when they emerge from the canal. There are three sets of locks with two rows each, 110 feet in width and 1050 long, one taking ships to the Atlantic, the other to the Pacific. The ships are pulled through the locks by vehicles nicknamed “mules,” reminiscent of the real mules that pulled barges through the Erie Canal in the U. S. Bobby said that sometimes, there is only a clearance of a couple inches on either side of he huge ocean liners that traverse the Canal, a distance of approximately 50 miles.

  There are many very interesting aspects of the Canal that Bobby covered, and his use of the slides made it even more interesting. He then moved on to the “Coffeeville Connection.” Seems that during the hard times during  “The Great Depression,” the 1930s, Coffeeville’s Dr. Beadles helped several young men find jobs with the United Fruit Company on banana boats from New York and Boston to and from Central and South America.  An ambitious young man, Frank Griffin, was hired by UFC, and soon found himself managing a huge plantation. After a couple years, he returned to Coffeeville, and opened “The Hatchery,” as it was known. (The building was behind the Fred Pittman home, and is still standing) Frank went back to Panama, married a nurse from Boston, and worked for UFC all those years. Bobby told about Frank’s visits back home, and about his sending a parrot from Panama to live with his parents on the corner of Center and Main St. (It is still standing, also) The parrot would sit in the bushes near the house, ‘talking’ to passers-by. Bobby was friends with “Sonny” Baddley, Frank’s nephew, and the parrot did not like Sonny at all, for some reason. Bobby said that Sonny’s cousins, Irvin and Van Griffin, Jr., had taught the parrot to ‘cuss.’ One day when Bobby and Sonny were playing in the yard, the parrot  got its feathers ruffled, and started cursing them. Instead of attacking Sonny, however, the bird made a bee-line towards Bobby’s head. Bobby, touching his ear, laughed “He hit his target, and I’ve got the scar to prove it!!” (This writer’s sister, Sudie R. Knortz, remembers the parrot) Bobby said the parrot died a few days later, of pneumonia, and guess who got blamed, wrongfully, of course, for  its demise!!  

  The Society is very grateful to Bobby for taking the time to share his knowledge of Panama, the Canal, and all the other interesting things he covered.  

    ATTENDING: Bobby and Bobbie Hutchins, Jimmie and Francine Pinnix, Thelma Roberts, Opal Wright, Betty Miller, Billy Gene and Josephine Davis, Tom and Alma Moorman, Mike Worsham, Dave Hovey, Kay McCulley, Dot Criss, Julia Fernandez, Betty B. Pechak, Sarah H. Williams, Tom Cox, Steve Cox, John Moorman, James and Polly Simpson, Bob and Mary Barton, James Person and Steven Criss. (Steven will be filming the meetings now, for viewing on Channel 7 in Bruce)

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