Personal Space


We in the Durham household are very honored to have a missionary family staying with us for a few weeks.  The Lyons have five children aged nine and under, add in my two and that’s a lot of energy.  A home with seven children is pretty out of the ordinary these days – if they stayed very long I’ll bet we could even get our own reality show out of it.  However, a couple of generations ago, this would have been a very normal household.

As we’ve talked about adjusting schedules and feeding the crew, I can’t help but imagine how my great grandmothers managed their own homes.  The families of my four sets of great-grandparents had five, ten, eleven and twelve children.  Even with very high infant mortality rates, they raised five, nine, and two families of eleven of those children. 

The story on The Printed Word two weeks ago prompted some precious reminiscing among my cousins when I posted the picture of my great grandfather’s steamer trunk.  Those cousins remembered it so well because it was in their own homes when he stayed with them.  For you see, just a couple of generations ago aging parents lived with their adult children when they could no longer care for themselves.  That added another person or two to full houses.

The concept of personal space certainly differs around the world.  I’ve heard folks who’ve lived in third world countries where large, extended families sleep on dirt floors in a single, common room.  In the morning, they roll up straw mats and prepare their meals in the same room.  Here, we have kitchens and dining rooms, living rooms and dens, as well as studies and playrooms – and would you believe that on average there are just about two and one-half people living in over two thousand square feet of house?  (The 2010 family size per was 2.59.  The same year, reported a median home size of 2,169 – that was the latest year data was available for the home size.)

About a year ago, I wrote a series of articles about historic homes around the area.  As I look back at some of those houses, I realize they seem spacious enough if I think of living there with just a husband and one or two children.  But those houses counted their families in double digits and their square footage in hundreds instead of thousands of feet.  I’ve shared the picture of my Uncle Lester Key’s house with you before.  The house I knew had been significantly enlarged from when the children were all home, and it was still pretty small.  That family of seven children slept in the loft of the house, the only son had a ‘room’ partitioned on one end by a curtain.  My grandmother who was born in the mid 1920’s remembers sleeping at the foot of her parents’ bed.  She doesn’t remember that as, “I had a bad dream and ran to their bed”.  Instead, it was just her place to sleep. 

Shawna wiht her brother in front of the Lockhart House, home of her great-grandmother.

Shawna wiht her brother in front of the Lockhart House, home of her great-grandmother.

One home I didn’t mention in that architecture series was the Lockhart house in Clarkrange.  Built in 1926, it was one of the finest homes in the community for many years and still stands proudly near the junction of Highways 62 and 127.  Dr. Joseph Lockhart was a second generation medical professional and I’m sure when he built this stone house he expected to both raise his family in it as well as treat patients.  In fact, his daughter, JoBlan LaRue tells in the 1987 Hitory of Fentress County book that she remembered her mother caring for people who were too sick to go home.  The house had two downstairs bedrooms – one for the Lockharts and a second reserved for patients.  Shawna Sibley, one of their great-granddaughters, remembers the house which had a whopping six bedrooms, but they were tiny rooms.  This house was larger than many of the era but I’m sure when the nine Lockhart children were home it seemed full to overflowing.

I’ve talked about my own grandparents’ home which was often overflowing with family.  For all of our connected-ness and social media we are not a generation that really enjoys each other.  That previous generation would ‘gang up’ every chance they got.  People would sleep on pallets on the floor or with four to a bed.  (John Denver’s “Grandma’s Featherbed is echoing in my head right now.)  We thought little about comfort in those days, we were just happy to be together.  You know there is much about yester-year that I miss and long for and this is certainly one of the biggies.  I’m always sad that we are losing touch with extended family and no longer sharing our stories and history.

As the days pass with my house filled, I’ll no doubt share some of the joys and the struggles.  I’m sure I’ll drive some of my guests absolutely crazy, but in the end, I believe we’ll all be blessed for the experience.

The Purpose of The Land of Saddlebags

I write fiction.  I read fiction.  It’s not that I’m opposed to non-fiction, it’s just that the reality of our world is often so bleak that in the limited time I get to read, I think I want to escape into a good book.  Understanding this desire, I’ll confess that my writing has been criticized as “too real”.

However, historical research must be conducted in the realm of facts – at least as much as is available, and a lot of the history I want to learn about isn’t recorded in detail.  So when I’m reading a book like The Land of Saddle-Bags, I often forget to ask myself why was this written?

In reviewing books for publishers, I recently got ahold of one whose agenda was immediately so clear and so contrary to my personal views that I had to return it and beg to be excused from reviewing it.  That was certainly not the case in reading James Watt Raine’s The Land of Saddle-Bags.  However, by the end, I realized he did have an agenda albeit not one that is particularly offensive to me.

Please recall that when I first began sharing this book with you, I was thrilled that he was nearly native to the mountains (having been born in Scotland and raised in West Virginia and Arkansas) as well as sympathetic to the mountain people.  Throughout the book, unlike so many early-twentieth century treatises about us, Mr. Raine proved his knowledge and sympathy.  Missing was the attitude that we are an ignorant, do-less people who must somehow be fixed by educated people from cities – and usually northern cities. 

Early 1930's Mountian Farmer - you can see the farm in the background with the split rail fence.  He's proud enough of his horse that he's posed for a picture with it.

Early 1930's Mountian Farmer - you can see the farm in the background with the split rail fence.  He's proud enough of his horse that he's posed for a picture with it.

Then I came to the final two chapters, Wealth and Welfare and The Challenge.  Here, the author began to summarize the needs of the mountain people and to theorize the method by which those needs could be met.  I wouldn’t argue with his summary – historically, there’s been little cash-flow in mountain homes, difficult transportation, only rudimentary education, and a lifestyle that reflects each of these limitations.  However, to see a challenge and to formulate a methodology, you have to find a desire for change. 

Herein lies the rub.  When I was in high school my English class was assigned a paper based on interviews with family and neighbors who lived on the Plateau before electricity was available there.  Now, this was a contest sponsored by either the local electric cooperative, or maybe by TVA.  We had learned how to interview and how to present a balanced and unbiased news story and silly me set off to complete my assignment with those lessons in mind.  The people I interviewed (my grand parents and maybe a great aunt or uncle) well remembered life without lights.  They remembered wood-burning cookstoves and keeping your butter cool in the spring.  They recalled the first appliances they bought – and my Daddy remembered the excitement at being able to freeze popsicles in their brand new refrigerator.  And they all remembered good times.

Now, it won’t surprise you that I didn’t win that contest – don’t remember the grade I got on the paper but since I completely missed the point of the essay it may not have been a very high score.  You see, the sponsors were looking for a thrill associated with the coming of electrical power.  They wanted to hear how dark and low was the life in the powerless home.  That just wasn’t what I was hearing. 

And as I listen to the mountain stories of yesteryear, I don’t envision the bleak life that posed a challenge for outsiders to overcome. 

This is a familiar theme on this blog – and I don’t mean to be repetitive.  I’ve talked before about how thankful I am that we have good medical care now.  And my generation has had far more opportunities for education than any previous generation on the mountain – and those opportunites have multiplied in the ensuing years. 

So the question I pose to you now is whether we are the same now.  Or, are we a totally different people?

Do good roads and cars change who we are or do they simply change where we spend our time?  Does literacy change the character of a people or does it merely enlarge our coast (as Jabez prayed in 1 Chronicles)? 

I hope you’ll comment below and share your thought; you can surely guess mine.

Many of the suggestions that James Watt Raine published in 1924 have been implemented.  Farm training was offered in the 1940’s, and many young men took it because they were desperate for cash and the government paid them to attend.  Strong cattle breeds are present on our farms now, and we have a lot of steep land lying fallow and rebuilding soil - we are constantly fighting the erosion that will always challenge our mountaintop.  And we now enjoy hard-surfaced roads that allow us to ship produce and stock anywhere in the world.  We have good schools and I’d wager out literacy rate outranks many urban areas. 

I would further assert that we are still the strong people that settled this difficult land and survived where so many others would not.  While we’ve learned new ways, many of us still remember the old ways – ways that have persevered for centuries and will sustain our people through the hardest of times. 

I get pretty protective of my people when I read derogatory reports – consider this my defense, even if the attack is nearly 100 years old.

What do you think?

The Printed Word

Last week my husband left my bible behind at church and I was without it for a whole week.  I grabbed it up on Sunday and it’s back in the house this week.  It’s rather like having found a lost friend.  But it made me think about the bibles we have in the house – in fact about all of the books that we have.  Our access to the printed word (both traditionally printed on paper and digital works as well) is really overwhelming if you think about it.  And you know that I can never help but make the historical comparison.


I have a great old heirloom in my home – it is an antique steamer trunk that belonged to my Great Grandpa Key.  His youngest daughter was born in 1931 and she remembered that Grandpa always kept his clothes in that little trunk (reality check number one:  would your entire wardrobe fit in there?).  Also stored in the trunk was the family’s only bible.  She explained that many of the kids had a little testament but Grandma, Grandpa and their eleven children shared the single bible.   She revealed that memory with me as she told how her mother would read where her name, Lois, was mentioned in the bible.  She would go to the trunk, get out the family bible and read to her from Second Timothy 1:5.  The young Lois was sure that her name was mentioned in other places in the bible and she determined when she could read that she would find them.  Her sweet smile as she told me that story is one of those mental snapshots that I can see clearly in my mind’s eye.

I have books stored in that steamer trunk now… it’s chocked full of books!  Books are so cheap for us and so readily available that they seem to multiply on us.  In fact, I have a box in my truck that I keep meaning to take to the used book store to exchange – see, then I’ll have just as many books but different ones! 

Now, the Keys were literate people – which wasn’t terribly common in their generation.  My father remembers his grandpa reading every newspaper he could get his hands on, and he read from front to back.  He studied the trends of the stock market and really seemed to understand it.  Yet, we would have to call him rather ignorant simply because he had no access to the vast collection of written knowledge. 

Lots of people have worked hard to make books available to children; of course, rural locations still struggle with that.  On the mountain, you still have to drive into town to get to a library, and that doesn’t seem very practical if your kids are in school close to home and you are maybe working on the farm.  Some counties have their libraries only open to city residents.  However, I recently discovered that the Tennessee library systems are working to make a digital collection available for free download and that’s pretty exciting as we see the internet in nearly every home these days, even in remote locations.  A love of books is a wonderful gift to give a child.  I’m not sure where I got this love but clearly I did. 

I am not what you would call wealthy – in fact, I’m far, far, far, from it.  Yet, when I make these historical comparisons and realize that books were possessions of very wealthy people in years gone by, I realize how much I really do have.  The ability to read was prestigious and it was often flaunted whenever possible.  In the Victorian era, a parlor would have a table in the center of the room with books upon it as a symbol to any visitors that educated people lived here. 

In mountain families where every hand was needed to scratch from the earth enough food to survive the cold months of winter, the luxury of reading or even learning to read was not to be had.  I’ve been amazed as I’ve worked on genealogical research to find ancestors who accumulated significant land and ran successful businesses yet when I find a land deed I find it signed, “by my mark”.  Of course many of our ancestors could scribble a signature and read a just little bit.  I find that many parents longed for “learning” and because they couldn’t have it themselves, it was a high priority for their children. 

These good ole’ days we recall and study had a lot going for them.  But sometimes I do get a bit of a reality check when I see something like books where we enjoy such great access.  With our social woes and overpopulation, amid growing persecution of Christian people around the world and governments that seem to encroach more of our personal liberties every day, we do enjoy many benefits in this modern world.

Apple Stack Cake

After sharing the story of my delicious failure at boiled icing, one of you treasured readers mentioned Apple Stack Cake and I thought I needed to make one soon.  Now, this rich cake needs people to eat it, so I had to wait for an event and the church homecoming seemed like an ideal time. (We need to talk about homecomings sometime, don’t we?)

Just between you and me, I’m not a big fan of potlucks and I’ll tell you why.  I cook old fashioned.  Learned from my grannies, loved their cooking and I find again and again I go back to their recipes and their methods.  That’s just fine and my table is often filled, however, my rather homely dishes can’t often compete with brightly colored jello, Cool Whip and canned cake icings.  As a result, I tend to bring a lot of my food back home after a potluck and it’s just a little depressing.  But just for you I made the stack cake and proudly put it on the table amid all those beautiful sweets.

I polled the folks in my little country church and several knew about stack cake and had very fond memories of eating it.  A whole lot of others were brand new to this Appalachian delicacy.  One friend who hales from Texas did not know about it but quickly became a fan.  Another from Michigan had neither eaten nor heard of it but loved it.  She was so surprised that it wasn’t dry.

I took the opportunity to chat with some folks who remembered their mother’s apple stack cake and they universally told me it was a special treat reserved for holidays.  We often think of this as a Christmas cake and I’d assumed that was because it actually takes a good bit of time and work to create it.   One precious daughter had tried her hand at making the cake when her father craved it and learned firsthand the many steps required.  But these folks told me that their families simply could not afford to eat cake throughout the year – it was a special treat for a special time. 

I did a little research and found one of my favorite bloggers writing as a guest at about the history of apple stack cake. Dave Tabler notes in this article that some historians claim the stack cake came to Kentucky with James Harrod in 1774; however, flour wasn’t readily available for another 100 years. I always imagined the sugar in the cake and in the apple filling was the most valuable ingredient.  However, on the Cumberland Plateau, flour was still pretty precious well into the twentieth century and cornbread was the staple on most tables.  That makes me look again at the ingredient list. 

The layers of the cake are essentially molasses cookies.  The recipe I have adds some sugar but the traditional sweetener is certainly the readily available sorghum molasses which were created in every community from the sorghum plant that grew well in mountain soil.  I’ve mentioned molasses-making in previous posts, but there’s a lot to be written about that subject. 

Mr. Tabler notes that variations of the stack cake exist throughout Appalachia.  It’s curious that my Texan-friend had not experienced it and I wonder if the difference goes right back to available resources.  Today, Texas is growing a lot of wheat so I imagine the pioneers had better access to flour in that area from the beginning.

My recipe card for Apple Stack Cake.  I copied it from Grandma's as a young teenager.  you can see that it's had a lot of use from the stains on the paper!

My recipe card for Apple Stack Cake.  I copied it from Grandma's as a young teenager.  you can see that it's had a lot of use from the stains on the paper!

Another article I read mentioned that cooks are insistent that the traditional recipe be closely followed, or it just isn’t stack cake.  That made me smile because I have to confess that I don’t personally enjoy dried apples.  I find their flavor to be very strong and frankly it’s just easier for me to can my apples.  Therefore, the cake I made this weekend was smothered in apple butter I cooked down from those canned apples.  One friend mentioned, “Well then it ain’t stack cake.”

I also noticed the pictures I see online have either apple butter or even apple slices topping the cake.  Now, I learned this recipe from my sweet little Grandma and the one thing she insisted upon was that there was nothing on the top layer – I’m not entirely sure why, but I do try to follow her rules.  After all, I doubt my cooking will ever hold hers a light.

The stack cake was well-received even among all the brightly colored competition.

The stack cake was well-received even among all the brightly colored competition.

A reader requested the recipe for Apple Stack Cake - here's mine:

1 cup Molasses (can use 2 c. sugar)
1 cup Butter
2 well beaten Eggs
6 cups Flour
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Vanilla
1/2 cup Buttermilk
Mix together and pat into 6 or 7 nine inch pans
Bake at 450 degrees until slightly brown

1 lb Dried Apples
1 tsp Cinnamon
1/2 tsp Cloves
1/2 tsp Allspice
1/2 cup White Sugar
1/2 cup Brown Sugar

Wash Apples, cover with water and cook until tender.
Mash thoroughly; add sugar and spices

Spread filling between layers.

Let stand 12 hours before serving.

Quilting In India

Tennessee Mountain Stories is supposed to be a blog about the history of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau.  And one of our greatest traditions is quilting.  So when I saw an advertisement that explained the “Kantha” created by the women of West Bengal, India, I was naturally fascinated and wanted to share this with you.

The verbatim text from the advertisement for Southeastern Salvage is:

For centuries, village women in West Bengal, India have stitched together scraps of cloth and old saris to create stunning quilts for their families, to keep them warm.  The tradition of kantha (meaning “old cloth”) has been passed on for generations, from mothers to daughters.  It is believed that old cloth keeps the user safe from harm, so each piece is an investment of time, skill, creativity, patience and love.

Reflecting the culture of the region, vintage recycled saris are layered and painstakingly hand-embroidered with thousands of small and delicate kantha stitches to create one-of-a-kind quilts.  Each woman has her own personal style and stitch, making each piece entirely uniique and truly a work of art.

Saris are the traditional dress for women in South Asia.  It’s a long strip of fabric, five to nine yards, that is wrapped around the body to create a dress with one end draped over the shoulder.  So that’s a lot of fabric to work with – certainly makes for a different kind of quilt than the scraps of a standard 1940’s shirtdress.  I once met a retired missionary to India who had worn the traditional dress for many years.  She showed a group of ladies how to wear the dress and it was pretty fascinating – as was her story of the first time she was handed one and sent into a room to put it on.  I can’t imagine what I would have come out looking like if I was expected to wear nine yards of fabric without scissors or needle and thread!

Yet the tradition of teaching younger generations to create this kantha was awfully reminiscent of my own grandmothers teaching me to quilt.  We may not believe our scrap quilts have any kind of protective power over our loved ones but we have always known they would ward off winter’s chill and that was enough protection for us.

It amazed me in reading this the similarity of women caring for their families half a world apart.  I’d wager we couldn’t find a single Kantha maker who’s ever heard of our mountain yet for generations they’ve been frugally re-using worn out dresses to create warm coverings for their family just was we were.  It’s a pretty small world after all.