While I don’t rush to purchase every new device produced by modern technology, I am guilty of allowing some of the older devices to fall into antiquity.
When I read of the death of Ronnie Kemp, I realized I no longer own an audio cassette tape player, and oh! how I want to listen again to Ronnie’s recording, “Humorous Stories with a Southern Twist.” Some of his tales are perhaps in print, a few in old Tribune columns and elsewhere, but even there we lose a bit of the nostalgia in the written word where there is little hint of our Southern dialect.
Ronnie knew how to tell a story. He probably learned in self-defense since his Uncle Phil could spin a few tales down at Dean’s Store, admittedly Woodstock’s Comedy Central. In Ronnie’s obituary, we are told that “he spent much of his childhood and teen years in his beloved Woodstock…. Those precious memories of growing up in a rural small town became the subject of his many stories that entertained countless audiences and family dinners over the years.” It might be safe to say that he probably embellished the details a bit, just to give background and to involve his listeners, many of whom could relate to the happenings.
He had an advantage in that he lived in the very midst of the town’s activities. He grew up in the newer of the two Kemp Houses. They are still standing. The 1892 Kemp House is now occupied by IPP’s. Originally it was owned and occupied by the Henry Kemp family. In 1904, one of the Kemp sons, Phil (Ronnie’s grandfather), built the house next door. Many of today’s citizens can recall the 1904 House Restaurant which was in business at the location for many years. More recently it was the location of Christine’s Creations. It has been sold, but is now vacant. Or perhaps not. A popular legend has it that the house is haunted by a lovely Cherokee Indian lady who was the “water girl” for early residents.
No doubt Ronnie observed first-hand the comings and goings of daily small town life, while absorbing his family’s own history and folklore. While we might tend to describe some of the stories as legendary, there is confirmation of the circumstances surrounding Henry’s death. They say that Henry decided to put up fences around his property during the time that Phil was building his house next door. He did the work himself, and according to his grandson, B.P. Robertson, he was “scratched by wire.” Blood poisoning followed, and he died. Dr. Will Dean, practicing medicine from his home just across the railroad tracks, records in his patient log a total of five daily visits to Henry, beginning on April 1st. Each visit was for “dressing hand.” Cemetery records indicate that Henry Kemp died on April 7, 1904.
Kemp family members are found often in accounts of Woodstock’s history, and rightly so. My favorite was Ronnie’s Aunt Jessie Kemp Robertson. She was the public face of the family as she completed 31 years of active service with the Woodstock Post Office. To all of us who knew her, she was Miss Jessie.
There is one Ronnie story that bears repeating. Not surprisingly, it had to do with Halloween, the trickster’s favorite holiday. I have an idea that some of the Halloween pranks of that era are perhaps not printable material. In describing the pitiful condition of the city’ s only fire truck, he tells how some citizens just outside the city limits took it upon themselves to organize their own volunteer fire department, and how they purchased their own fire truck that had bells and whistles, a real “si-reen” and a pump and a very loud air horn. In the middle of the night on Halloween, they would crank up for a round trip run out of their territory, up Main Street a mile or so. They would turn on every noisemaker on the truck, and folks would rush out of their homes, waving and cheering them on. Their masks and bandannas did little to hide their identities. They would turn around in the schoolyard, and zoom back through town. Ronnie did not comment on his involvement in this escapade. Although some of his tales contain belated confessions of his childhood, he often was vague in identifying his “partners in crime.” His contemporaries had no problem in figuring out those identities. His stories comprise a time capsule of Woodstock in the 1950s. He would later serve in the military. He was married to Linda for 59 years, and while they resided and were active in community and church life in Roswell, a huge hunk of his heart remained in his forever hometown. He was a highly regarded member of the Southern Order of Storytellers, a product of the culture and heritage instilled in him by the Woodstock of his youth. We are saddened by his death. It’s time to honor him, to retrieve those old tapes, just to hear his voice and those hilarious stories, time to laugh, time to remember. We are blessed.