SOUTHERN MEMORIES: Guntown mother who can’t swim rescues baby daughter in 46-foot well

By Judd Hambrick Special to the Daily Journal

Guntown, Miss., June 14, 1941: Friday the 13th, yesterday, was the luckiest day ever for the Boyd Goodson family of Guntown. Stella Goodson, 26, was ironing clothes on the back porch in mid-afternoon. Her 2-year-old daughter, Nancy, was playing in the backyard. Stella was distracted for only a moment. Suddenly, she heard wood snap; she heard the splash; she knew.
Shouting to her own mother, Hessie, in the house, “Nancy’s fallen in the well!” With instinct-driven speed, she was atop the well; grabbed the well bucket and the chain on which it was attached; forced herself through the tiny broken space on the wooden well cover. She plunged into the dark hole in free fall, thinking the chain would unwind on the spool and stop. It didn’t. Reality replaced instinct. The chain unwound but was not attached. Stella hit the cool water and kept on sinking. As she sank blindly into the watery darkness, she touched the soft and familiar – her daughter.
Instinct returned as this mother, who cannot swim, wrapped her daughter in a life-saving bear hug and struggled upward toward the tiny jagged hole of light far above. When she broke the water’s surface, both were wheezing as one. She couldn’t tread water; she didn’t know how. But she did know how to survive. Stella pressed her back against one side of the well and pushed her feet against the other side, wedging herself in safety – at least for the moment. Then, with Nancy on her chest, she started shaking and hugging little Nancy, trying to expend the water deep inside her. When Nancy gurgled up water and began crying, Stella knew that instant death was behind them. But now what? As the silence of immediate death faded, muffled screams could be heard from the light. Hessie was frantically calling for help. Railroad workers on the tracks about 100 yards away heard the helpless pleas and came running.
Tiny railroad worker heads framed in the well light way up top shouted, “Are you OK?” “Are you hurt?” And, “How long can you hold on?”
Stella’s answer was calm, cool and emphatic, “As long as it takes; now get us out of here.”
But how? There was no rope. No chain. One of the workers, Bob Strain, raced to his railroad handcar and furiously pumped the mile to the Guntown Depot to retrieve a rope. He was back in record time.
First life-saving try? The men tied a rope to a washtub and lowered it. No good. Every time they tried to haul Nancy up, the little girl would scream and fall out, reaching for the love she knew, as opposed to the unknown high above.
Second try? Fred Norton, 18, was the only person slender enough to fit through the broken well hole. The workers put a rope around him and lowered away. Within minutes, both mother and daughter were free. Norton was drenched with water and blood, as the rope had cut into his skin as he hauled them out. Miraculously, neither Stella nor Nancy had any cuts at all. During their 45-minute ordeal, more than 100 townspeople and neighbors had gathered in the yard. They cheered loudly when all were safe. Mother carried daughter into the house to absolute safety and for dry clothes.
Husband and father, Boyd Goodson, 26, heard the news after it was all over and rushed home from his work way out in the county. Before the sun set last night, he had put a concrete slab over that old water hole and had made it a hand pump well. Danger gone, as Stella and Nancy fed the chickens late yesterday. So, an abnormal day ended normally, but it was a Friday the 13th never to be forgotten.

2011 update
I spoke to daughter, Nancy (Bruce), who is now 72 and lives in Sherman and mother, Stella, who is now 95 and lives in Fulton to get information. Remarkably, Stella remembers this event as if it were yesterday, recalling also that the New Orleans Times Picayune, the Memphis Press Scimitar, and even the New York Times covered this story. She recalled that Fred Norton, the boy who pulled them out of the well, carried a scar from the rope burns all his life. This story has been told and retold many times by the Goodson family that now includes four children, 10 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. Stella told me, “The Lord must have had a plan for us. I hope somehow we have paid him back in all our lives.” A poignant hope that is now a part of all our Southern Memories.