Herman Stepp Heads West

My family recently lost a beloved cousin, Oliver C. Stepp. While his roots were sunk deep in the mountain, he lived his adult life in Westminster, California and thinking about him made me want to share some of his early experience with you. 

When Oliver was twelve years old, he left Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau with his parents, Herman and Delilah Stepp along with Herman’s sister, Opal and her husband Eugene Welch.  They were headed West in hopes the more arid climate would help Herman’s health.  Eugene and Opal accompanied them hoping to find work. 

Herman had been diagnosed with Tuberculosis and he certainly suffered from breathing problems.  However, he did not allow his illness to prevent him working in the Wilder coal mines while living in Martha Washington.  Now, I’ve mentioned here before how many men from the Campground, Martha Washington and Clarkrange communities  walked to Wilder each day to put in a hard day’s work and we’ve established that while the distance wasn’t insurmountable, the mountain they had to climb certainly seems impossible to us today.  Years after Herman’s death, his brother Edsil would remark that he may have been sickly but he didn’t let it stop him from walking across that mountain and working in the mines. 

Herman, Delilah and Oliver Stepp Taken just before they left Tennessee

Herman, Delilah and Oliver Stepp
Taken just before they left Tennessee

In fact, Herman was prospering while living in Tennessee.  He was one of the first in the community to own a car, as well as a radio.  This prosperity reveals just how hard he worked, for the miners were paid by the ton – the more coal a man pulled out of the earth, the higher wage he received. 

But prosperity cannot be measured by wage and property and in 1940 tragedy struck the Stepp family and undoubtedly sealed the decision to leave the mountain.  Herman and Delilah had two children at that time, Oliver and Anna Rhea.  Anna Rhea took sick with a somewhat mysterious ailment that was never really diagnosed.  I believe they were able to get her some medical care at Pleasant Hill’s hospital but she eventually passed away at age nine years. 

Herman and Delilah are remembered as excellent neighbors and Delilah’s heartbreak touched the entire neighborhood.  Studying history is sometimes a rather sterile process – it’s seems easy to recount dates and facts without empathy but my heart breaks anew as I imagine what that little family went through.  Death is a part of all our lives and certainly during the early twentieth century, especially in rural America, was almost accustomed to losing infants.  However, the loss of a child you have loved and cared for nearly ten years seems almost unbearable.  We have always believed the decision to move west was driven solely by Herman’s declining health, yet considering their loss I can’t help but believe that a fresh start in a new environment was a welcome prospect.

So the little band set out seemingly with only the wide West as their destination.  The first day they barely made it to Memphis and they quickly lost track of the number of time they had to stop and repair flat tires.   Eventually, they made it as far as Oklahoma when Herman declared they would stop for a while.  Four years later, Herman’s family resumed their westward journey while his sister Opal and husband decided to return to Tennessee.

The family made it to California, found work and began building their life there.  Unfortunately, the arid climate had not improved Herman’s health as they hoped and just four more years passed before he passed away.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I am continually struck by the difference in medical care today and yesterday and this is another example.  While Herman was hospitalized in his last days, he never once had a positive test for Tuberculosis.  His wife would always believe he died from Black Lung, contracted from his years in the coal mines where he started working when he was just sixteen.

We began with Oliver’s life with Herman’s passing the young man’s life was forever changed.  Prepared to enter college after high school, Oliver instead found himself the head of his family caring for his widowed mother and infant brother.  This began a lifetime of service which Oliver rendered with neither bitterness nor complaint.  He would be drafted to the Army and serve in Germany while sending his entire check home to care for them.  Even after marrying and fathering two children of his own, Oliver continued to selflessly care for friends and neighbors.

I am ashamed that I don’t better know these West Coast cousins and in talking with them there is no hint of our Southern-Appalachian accent but there is a definite sense of family.  Whether they realize it or not (and I sure hope they aren’t insulted by the observation), Oliver imbued his daughters with many values he learned on our mountain.  As I listened to his oldest daughter talk about her daddy, I kept hearing a description of his grandmother or his aunts and uncles who I have been very blessed to know.  I suppose you can take the boy out of Tennessee but you can’t take Tennessee out of the boy.

Finding our Way

Things move a little slower in the country – and we like it that way.  But, as we discussed a few weeks ago, change happens everywhere.  We know our way around the mountain roads as well as we know our own houses; even the wilderness paths are no stranger to many of us.  We know, and we’ve discussed here, how communities long since abandoned are still visible if you look carefully.  And yet our roads do change, and have changed many times through the years and I find it a fascinating challenge to search out routes of travel at different points in time.  And for that challenge, I have been on a quest for antique maps.  Knowing of my hunt, my brother-in-law recently came across an 1850 map of Tennessee and he was good enough to share it with me – thank you very much Derek.  Like so much historical research, this map leaves me with more questions than answers. 

I could write pages about the differences in this map and a modern representation of the mountain and could include a long list of questions that arise from studying those differences.   But what most impresses me is our shifting perspectives and focus.

This map has no road names.  Of course there is no interstate system and it often appears there’s no good way to get from one major location to another.  Ah, but perhaps what was major has changed; perhaps where one would most need to go was very different in the mid-nineteenth century.  No railroad would cross The Plateau until 1890 so in 1850 to ride from Nashville to Knoxville, you would have to travel to Chattanooga, with a significant jaunt through Northern Alabama, and then ride northeast up to Knoxville (and I think you had to change trains a couple of times on that trip too).  The roads seem to connect one little town to another with no idea of traveling great distances. 

Every little creek and branch seems to be labeled on this map.  That seems a little funny to us since there aren’t lots of signs along the water.  I would imagine the nearest source of fresh water was a far better landmark than a road and therefore of greater importance to the map maker.  Have you noticed that our modern maps, so criss-crossed with interstates, streets and lanes no longer label the small bodies of water?  I even checked the highly detailed aviation charts and found only names of major waterways.  Today we can pull up a satellite image of our community and zoom down to identify individual houses and yet we would never know the name of the creek running nearby.

Cities have long been created or broken by the location of a railway or interstate highway and as I study this map I can’t seem to tear myself away from the names of towns  that were significant enough to be labeled and those that are missing.  The intersection of the north-south route from Crossville into Fentress County with the east-west route from Monticello (which is the only town noted in Putnam County) is called Long View.  Now, that’s not a community I’ve even heard of and it appears to have been a good bit west of present day Clarkrange.  I found a Fentress-only map from 1888 online that does show Clarkrange, but no north-south road through it.  Thirty-eight years later, Long View is not mentioned, although Fentress County then showed several more communities including Boatland, Orchard Grove, Armathwaite, Barren Springs and Tinch. 

As I said before, there are just more questions than answers and so my quest continues.  Some of these pathways predate the European settlers so I know that until modern road-building entered the picture those routes would not have changed much for centuries.  I still want to know the names those roads carried over the years.  And now I want to know what happened to these lost towns!

Please take a look at the close up pictures I’m including here and let me know what you see.


"The Crimson Path of Honor"

I want to start sharing some book reviews with you, maybe one every month or two.  This is purely my opinion of someone else’s writing so I really hope that you will share your own opinions in the comments section below.  The publisher has supplied this book for review.

Some of you have been having trouble entering comments and I am truly sorry about that.  The problem seems to be only with those using the browser Internet Explorer so if you wanted to pop into the Chrome or Firefox browsers you would be able to participate.  Squarespace, the company that hosts TennesseeMountainStories.com assures me they are working to resolve the issue and I will certainly continue to ask that it be resolved.

The Crimson Path of Honor
M.B. Tosi, WestBow Press 2013

The Crimson Path of Honor is an historical romance – heavy emphasis on the romance part.  It is primarily set in an Indian village in the Rocky Mountains where a young woman from Boston is taken when she is kidnapped by a Lakota raiding party.

Ms. Tosi is undoubtedly a greater expert on Native American culture than I, however, I found myself utterly unable to believe the characters that she presented.  I suppose I always put myself in the shoes of the protagonist and as Luci Garling was dragged away by a savage man in war paint and carrying fresh scalps, I imagined both terror and anger; I imagined fighting for my life and taking any chance to escape.  I think I would have been telling myself it would be better to go the way of my traveling companions whose scalps this man now carried than to be dragged into his village as a captive.  But incredulously, Luci is attracted to the man noting his “magnificently chiseled” face and locking her arms around his “ribbed abdomen”. 

The abductor turns out to be a chief’s son and therefore wields enough influence to protect the young woman’s purity for two years, allowing her to live with another captured white woman and leisurely learn the language and customs of the tribe.  She is a quick study of the foreign language and the bulk of the remaining dialogue is in the Lakota dialect which is amazingly structured just like English – even modern English.  Even the Lakota people see fit to refer to themselves as Indians which seems one of the more unbelievable points as we remember we get the name Indian from Columbus’ erroneous belief that he had sailed all the way to India.  I don’t think the Native Americans of the nineteenth century, especially a tribe such as this one which is not actively trading and interacting with the European settlers, would have even understood that terminology and would in fact have thought of themselves as The People or The Lakota.

Now this is Christian Fiction and we make an assumption that Luci’s family were Christian people and gave her a proper upbringing in Boston – none of this is declared in the first chapters of the book nor does Luci’s comportment indicate such a past.  And, I think again of what I might be doing or thinking in such a situation – praying.  This is the time I’m praying, “Please God!” or “Lord help me!”  (Oh for the presence of mind to pray like King David in those moments and deliberately ask the Father to rain down fire or swiftly bring defeat to my enemies.)  About half-way through the book, we begin to see Luci seeking the Lord’s guidance and purpose in this situation.  But that is only after the chief tells her that he will die the following day and Luci (now called Morning Star) sees no need to witness to this savage warrior who surely has never heard the Gospel message. 

Ultimately Morning Star obtains a Bible, begins teaching her friend both English and God’s word and sees her come to salvation, along with about fifteen others in the tribe, including her abductor.  She falls in love with the whole tribe and adopts them as her own people. 

The climactic battle scene is very well written, including the heroic act of the white woman to save her husband’s life.  That section reintroduces a character we met in chapter one but have not heard from since.  Captain Sam Towers fell in love with Luci the first time he met her and the next day he whisked her away westward.  He traveled with her to the plains then sent her own her own toward Oregon and a teaching job.  That was of course the point at which she was abducted.  We learn that he has been searching for her and has carried a torch for her the three years of her captivity.  He negotiates for her release even risking his cavalrymen’s lives to obtain it but of course Luci has no desire to leave The Lakota.

Ultimately, I’m afraid I can’t really recommend this book since I prefer more history in my historical romances.

Happy Thanksgiving

Just a few weeks ago we talked here about Godey’s Lady’s Book and the influence that periodical had on nineteenth century women.  The magazine’s editor for forty years was a lady named Sarah Josepha Hale.  Our national holiday for giving thanks can largely be attributed to her and therefore I thought we should mention her today.

Contrary to what every American schoolchild learns, the turkey-laden tradition of Thanksgiving Day did not really start with the pilgrims and the American Indians.  Sure, they broke bread together and thanked God for the provision He’d given them in their new land and a bountiful harvest.  Given the difficulty of life in the seventeenth century and the religious persecution that drove those first settlers to our shores, it’s ironic that we celebrate just that one day of giving thanks because I’m betting they were breathing prayers of appreciation for every breath, sip of clear water or morsel of food.   Still we have some documentation of a particular feast in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts and that is traditionally the first Thanksgiving Day.

If we fast forward through history two hundred years, we find no national holiday for Thanksgiving, nor do we find Thanksgiving Day anywhere near universally celebrated.   Where it was remembered, it was largely a northern or New England holiday and was virtually unknown in the South. 

Enter one persistent lady:  Sarah Hale.  Sarah believed that The United States should be universally celebrating Thanksgiving Day and she expressed that belief to the President many times.  In fact, she expressed it to five different presidents – remember her tenure as Editor of The Lady’s Book far outreached any presidential administration – and finally a well-timed letter to Abraham Lincoln yielded the results she sought. 

As I read about Sarah Hale, it’s difficult for me to compare her to any of our modern female types.  She is not a women’s lib-er for she advocates women ruling and influencing the world from the home and through the family.  Yet, she was an early proponent of higher education for women and surely one of the very first female-American executives. 

Married at twenty-five, she was a widow by the age of thirty-four.  She was left with five small children.  Despite parents who believed in equal education for both their sons and daughters, Sarah had received no formal education learning only at the feet of her mother and brother.  As a widow seeking to feed her household, she began writing and her husband’s Masonic brethren helped her to get her first book of poems published followed by a novel expressing her views on slavery.  That novel brought her to the attention of magazine publishers and her editing career sprang from there. 

In the third year of a civil war which was supposed to end quickly – the first Confederate volunteers were asked to pledge just ninety days of service -  President Lincoln finally began to see the tide turning in his favor.  It was at this time that he received Mrs. Hale’s letter and believing the nation should be truly thankful at that time, chose to issue the proclamation she requested. 

You can read Lincoln’s proclamation here and I encourage you to do so as we enjoy a day of feasting and family-fellowship; maybe we should think about the nature of the holiday he suggested.  He attributed the peace and bounty of our nation to, “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy”.  While he speaks of the Civil War when he urges the people, “while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers,” this is surely good advice for our present day as well as, “fervently [imploring] the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation”

I find Sarah Hale’s story absolutely inspiring.  In a day when work for women was largely menial and unrewarding, when a woman’s voice was scarcely heard outside her home and her sphere of influence was confined to the walls of her own house Sarah Hale stepped out and provided for her family while encouraging women across the country and even around the world.  While hers is not a name taught and remembered along with Lincoln or Lee, she left a legacy that we will all enjoy today.

On this Thanksgiving Day I enjoy more blessings than I can even count and I include you precious readers among them.  You have been so kind in continually returning to visit TennesseeMountainStories.com and giving me feedback on the articles and stories here.  Thank you and God bless you!

Midwife's Records

Last week we talked about the writings of Lottie Todd and I am amazed by the information we can glean from her simple journals.  According to the Reagan Foundation, the Reagan library contains, “over 60 million pages of documents, over 1.6 million photographs, a half million feet of motion picture film, tens of thousands of audio and video tape, and over 40,000 artifacts.”  How I wish I had a fraction of that information from my ancestors.  Unfortunately, that is not how most of us live our lives.  A politician at President Reagan’s level is constantly videoed, photographed and documented; for my ancestors I’m thrilled to have a handful of pictures, and a letter he wrote is a great treasure. 

I recently was absolutely blessed to read through sixty-five pages of official documents that once again told me so much more than their author could ever have imagined.   I’ve been researching Mrs. Gracie Todd, who faithfully served the women of Campground, Martha Washington, Clarkrange, Grimsley and Rinnie  as midwife and friend.  Gracie Todd was still “catching” babies in her late seventies and her grand-daughter shared these surviving documents from her career.

There are three booklets that were printed by the Tennessee Department of Health and labelled “Physician’s Record of Birth” and issued to Aunt Gracie (as she is very widely known).  These three span 1932 through 1937.  They are surely not an exhaustive record of her work during those years – in fact, there is a vast gap from 1934 through 1936.  These booklets contained birth certificate blanks with the right portion of the page being the mother’s copy and the left portion the physician’s receipt. 

Many pages are inexplicably blank, the baby’s name is almost never recorded and the location of the birth or address of parents is omitted.  Still, these are precious records that reveal a little glimpse of the lives of the community in the thirties. 

It’s hard to know what kind of statistics hospitals are keeping on us these days, but these forms recorded legitimacy, occupation of both father and mother, number of children of this mother and number of children of this mother now living.  They do not record any data on the baby such as length, weight or head circumference.    I can’t help but read these documents through my twenty-first century eyes when the first question is “how big” when a birth is announced.  My family has a small scale that my great-great grandmother bought with coupons from Arbuckle’s coffee for the express purpose of weighing her babies, and I am unaware that she ever served as a midwife however she had ten children of her own and she wanted to know their birth weights.  Perhaps that is an indicator that most midwives did not try to chart birth weights.

Nova Todd.jpg

I am also fascinated by the infant mortality rate as recorded here, as well as the age range for the mothers.  Again, from today’s perception, there are a number of very young mothers – one sixteen year old delivering her second child.  And women were successfully birthing babies well into their thirties and forties- one Matilda Lewis is shown at age forty-two having her eighth baby (and all eight were living).  In 1935, about five out of every one hundred babies would not survive, and maybe if I did the math, Aunt Gracie’s records would reflect the same percentage but just flipping through the pages, I’m amazed at how many mothers had six or eight children and all of them were living.  Of course, it’s hard to think about babies as statistics and I know the loss of any one is heart wrenching.  There are certainly a number of sheets showing one or two babies that didn’t make it; then there’s the record of twenty-nine year old Nova Todd’s 1932 delivery reflecting ten births with only two living.  I would like to note that these documents do not reflect the condition of the baby, whether or not this particular child survived.

We’ve talked before about the availability of medical care in this era and we know that hospitals were few and very far between.  So it isn’t hard to imagine how revered a good midwife would have been.  I wonder what women of the early nineteenth would have said had they realized how much safer they were in the hands of midwives.  You see, as more women went to hospitals to have their babies, the rate of both infant and maternal mortality sky rocketed.  Instead of caring for a single woman in labor, doctors were seeing many women.  Without a good understanding of germs and hygiene, they often introduced deadly infections.  Therefore, Aunt Gracie’s tender care, one mother at a time, resulted in page after page detailing healthy babies.

Finally, a note on the time.  She rarely annotates whether the time in a.m. or p.m.  I can’t help but wonder after labor which might have taken many hours, even spanning more than a day and night, perhaps morning and evening were blurred and relatively unimportant.