By DELANIA TRIGG

Register Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story.

LEO — Word has it a southwestern Cooke County town was named “Leo” because it is easy to spell and because the place was considered tough as a lion.

But “tough” isn’t the word that comes to mind when one drives to the little isolated community of Leo.

The community of Leo in southwestern Cooke County was named by a Dr. Stamper. There are small hills with clusters of trees, lakes with houses nestled close by, wildlife such as deer and coyotes and an isolated, soul-soothing peace that some residents say is hard to explain to an outsider.

Leo was first recognized in 1894, according to “Early Days in Cooke County” by C.N. Jones. But the community is thought by some people to be much older — possibly having been founded as early as 1848.

For those who have lived here for a long time — people such as 88-year-old Iris West — who said she loves the view from the window of her small lakeside home, Leo is beautiful.

West and her husband Charlie built their own home in Leo and later sold it to move to a smaller place near family.

When West and her twin brother “Bud” were born, she said the pair were premature and weighed five pounds together.

“They weighed us in a cotton scale,” she said.

West had an older sister Yonna Vale whom she described as an “indoor person.”

She said she has good memories of growing up in Leo, but times were hard.

She said working hard is one thing she remembers about her childhood — not that there was another unusual about that. People of that era were accustomed to hard work, she noted.

As Prairie Point resident Nell Nolan said in a previous interview about growing up in Rosston, “we did what we had to do to survive.” She said everybody was pretty much in the same boat financially and no one was extraordinarily prosperous.

“We chopped cotton, hoed corn, fed the animals, helped with the garden. We just did everything that had to be done,” West said.

She said almost all the land that comprises Leo once belonged to the George and Jane Hall family.

Women, apparently, worked as diligently as men. They cleared land, built homes and outhouses and cared for livestock along with other more traditional feminine duties such as cooking, cleaning and canning.

One of the things women of 1800s did was, according to a hand-written document prepared by West’s grandmother Louisa Jane Overton, making sorghum from corn.

The sorghum canes were stripped of their blades and squeezed to release the juice inside. The juice was then placed into a vat over an open fire and cooked until it became a thick syrup. The women put the syrup into containers and saved it to use during winter.

Along with canning jellies, fruits and vegetables, women also collected honey.

According to Overton’s notes, women would take a man’s straw hat and cover it with a cloth. They would add a drawstring to the bottom to protect themselves from stings.

The women would then cut out a piece of screen wire so they could see what they were doing as they smoked the bees into something called a “gum.” From the gum, they harvested honey.

West’s grandmother was part Chickasaw Indian, and she used her knowledge of plants to help heal local people. She delivered babies and even according to Overton’s notes, amputated damaged or diseased limbs.

Like many other tiny nearby communities Leo had a school, stores, a post office and at least one church.

There was also a cotton gin owned by Mount Dillon and Will Campbell. The gin was dismantled around 1908.

Robert Heilman was the first person to operate store in Leo.

Postmasters included Tom McBride, H.C. Eason and M.J. Harvill.

Some of the people who helped settle Leo — families such as the Mosses and the Cogburns no longer live in the community. West said many families left Leo when World War I broke out.

“Many people went to get jobs like they’d never had before. That’s the reason they left these small communities. Because of opportunities,” she said.

West said people referred to the depression as the “Dirty ’30s.”

She said the Depression came on gradually and that times were harder than anyone who didn’t live through the Depression could ever understand.

One of the things that sticks out in her mind is a program the government implemented for farmers and ranchers in the county.

Government agents would buy rancher’s livestock and kill it because private individuals could not afford to buy the livestock. She said the meat could not be preserved or sold or used in any way — that was part of the deal with government made with the livestock owners.

The day her family’s cattle were killed is a day West said she will never forget.

“They came out and killed our cattle. (President) Hoover left us in such a shape. They would kill them (the cattle) and pay us something for them. I remember my mother took us in the house so we wouldn’t see it,” she recalled.

She said after the government workers left, families had to dispose of the cattle however they could. She said she doesn’t remember exactly what her family did with the bodies of the livestock.

But as bad as things were during the 1930s there was also time for fun.

She said the creek close to her home was a “wonderful place.”

“My brother cut off a grape vine and we’d swing off into that creek. There was a hole just right for swimming. It was spring-fed and so cold it would make your teeth chatter,” she said.

She also said she and her brother had many friends.

As in many rural areas during the 1930s, clothing was usually homemade.

“You had one Sunday dress,” West remembered. She said her mother was an excellent seamstress.

“I never had a pair of pajamas that wasn’t made out flour sacks,” she said. Fabric flour sacks were a mainstay, especially for country people.

The first flour sacks were simple made of white fabric.

“Then they got to making those printed ones. Then, Momma would make us little shirts and blouses,” she said.

Reporter Delania Trigg may be contacted at dtrigg@ntin.net

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