Tennessee Mountain Stories

Changing Time

The time changed this past weekend and we are supposed to be enjoying an extra hour of sleep each night.  Instead, my body refuses to adjust and I’m just up early.  Every time the clocks have to change to accommodate Daylight Savings Time I have to adjust – well we all do, don’t we?

DST History.jpg

As I began to think of Daylight Savings Time from an historical perspective I did a little research and found that I really did not know the history at all.  “Fast Time” was implemented during World War I to save lighting fuels for the war effort.  I had thought the concept was much older and had been designed to support the Industrial Revolution.

I’m always fascinated when I see old factory buildings with their numerous tall windows that remind me they were built and used before the rows of fluorescent lighting we’re so accustomed to in commercial buildings now.  Its’ not hard to imagine the importance of sunshine during working hours in those buildings.  Often you see the big arched spaces have been filled-in either with plywood or brick as they are now more of a security concern than a necessity.

In the Tennessee mountains however factories were of little concern as the hours of sunshine shortened with the approach of winter.  The schedule on a farm is set by the sun and the weather instead of a clock.  My daddy always said a dairyman should start his milking about 4 a.m.  As I think about that rule I suspect the time was more because many modern farmers work a public job and have to finish their milking in time to get to work.  On an earlier farm with no electricity, why would you go to the barn before daylight?  Coal oil was a precious commodity that cost hard earned pennies, it would not be burned to light chores that could be just as easily accomplished in another hour. 

We always think of farm families going to bed with the chickens.  Certainly after a day of hard physical labor you’re ready for a good night’s sleep, but as I think about this lighting issue I’m betting that was a big factor too.

The Great Night Sky

Meteor Shower.jpg

It seems to me that we are increasingly an indoor society.  We drive inside our cars which we park in garages which we access with a remote.  We pick up our food at drive through windows, have goods delivered to our door – it makes me wonder how long could you really go without your foot actually touching earth.

Now I’m a farm girl and somehow that means I gotta touch grass occasionally.  When I was in college – my first experience in the big city and surrounded by asphalt – I would get homesick for grass, I would crave the sun and wind on my face.  That’s never really left me yet I find myself getting caught up in running the house and running errands and my time walking in the woods or sitting in green pastures is frittered away.

Last week I did find the opportunity to sit out under the great night sky and watch the Orionid Meteor Shower and it renewed my need for open skies and fresh air.  I was out there at 5 a.m. and it was pretty chilly but it was wonderful.  My children were a little slower to join me but when they finally got out there they too could see the wonder of God’s work in the heavens and the cold faded into the background. 

I look at the vast expanse of space and see simple things (bright lights, twinkly stars, beauty).  But my husband was explaining how to navigate by the stars and teaching the children that men have been doing that for centuries, in fact they set out in tiny wooden ships across unknown waters guided only by those stars.  I’m way more comfortable marking my way by the rising of the sun against a mountain, unique trees or rock formations and other landmarks.  But never have I faced West and just started walking with no hope of a road sign or GPS signal. 

Those generations that went before were so brave.  Sure some immigrants were practically chased from their homes and they may not have been any more fearless than I when they climbed into the hold of a ship and drifted out to sea.  And the westward migration was driven by a quest for fortune, for a better life.   Still there were women who left everything they knew with no hope of ever seeing it again.  They left parents, siblings and friends.  They lived in a day when letters were their only hope of communication and regular mail deliveries were still a century away.  Yet that same bright sky I sat under just last week blanketed those adventurers so long ago; the same stars twinkled at them.  

I’ve been mourning the losses of several elderly relatives lately as I feel like so much history dies with them.  There are so many stories I haven’t heard and documented.  There are so many people I will never know from their memories.  Realizing the constancy of things like the night sky is somehow a comfort, isn’t it?

A Lifetime Gift

A couple of weeks ago I shared a quilt my great-grandmother made and I was thinking at that time how we all have a lot of stuff these days.  It seems there’s a storage facility on every corner and I think someone is making a fortune off of all our stuff!

Well you certainly know that I treasure every little trinket I can get my hands on from my ancestors – we can talk about whether or not that’s really healthy another time… But we also know that it’s easy to lose stuff.  My family lost my paternal grandmother’s home and all the plunder she’d collected over 84 years.  Our farm was burglarized and we lost things we’d been collecting for our whole lives.  Both of these losses were tough and frankly even after several years they are still tender subjects.

We enjoy giving gifts (maybe I should wait till Christmastime to publish this!) but in this time of plenty far too often our presents are quickly put aside and forgotten.  My Great Grandmother was a giver – I don’t think I ever left her house without some little thing in my hand.  Even if it were only a magazine, she found something she could give us – and most all of those things are long gone by now.

However, I have a couple of gifts Grandma Harvey gave me that no one can take away – skills!  She taught me to tat – now you may not even know what that is, but it’s an ancient method of lace-making.  And she taught me to knit.  I’m ashamed how long it’s been since I put one of these treasured gifts to use but I still have them.  Sure I’m slower now than I was when I practiced regularly and my stitches were never as even and steady as Grandma’s but once learned a skill like this is with you forever.

As she taught me I remember Grandma telling me that she was no hand at all to knit compared to her mother.  Grandma Hixson raised her family down in the Sequatchie Valley and she said girls would come from all over the valley to have Grandma teach them to knit, her skill was that widely known and admired. 

While I’m certainly a supporter of formal education, it seems a shame that America has more college graduates today than ever before yet we are losing skills like knitting and tatting.  Folks wouldn’t travel across the road to learn to knit and an old woman is often seen as a burden instead of an source of great knowledge. 

I will try not to jump off preaching here but I can’t let the moment pass without noting that the only truly lasting thing is from God and is, as Romans 6:23 says it, “…the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  If you’ve not claimed that one please feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to preach it for you – or better yet I’ll put you in touch with a real preacher!  No storage fees will be charged for this precious gift!

So what kind of skills do you have that are rare these days?  Do you make the best Pumpkin pie in the state?  Or can you sew anything you can see – or even imagine?  Does music flow from your fingertips on any instrument?  The next question is even bigger…who have you shared this gift with? 

Just as I’m trying every week to pass along the stories of yesteryear we need also to pass along our skills.


Remembering the Beginning

Are you ever amazed at how much time has passed since you saw someone or since some momentous occasion?  If you have children I’m betting you frequently look at them and think, “Where have the years gone?”

Well it’s been 5 years since I started Tennessee Mountain Stories and I can scarcely believe it.  Like so many things on the one hand it seems like only yesterday and on the other it seems that I’ve always shared these stories with you. 

The site actually launched on September 28, 2013 – but that was just introductory remarks.  Five years ago this week on October 12th was the first real story – and it’s still my very best one I think. So I wanted to share it with you here again.


 1940’s era Station Wagon

1940’s era Station Wagon

Lacking good work opportunities on the Plateau, many families headed to the blue collar jobs in Ohio and Indiana.  When Uncle Tom decided he must move north, he loaded up his whole family - wife, six kids and his father-in-law, Bob.  Such belongings as would be needed for the journey and the stay up north were crammed-in wherever they would fit.  In fact, it seemed so many belongings had been packed that the kids were about to pop out of the car.  There was a head hanging out of every window.

Oh, and mountain folk are rarely guilty of letting a good hog-killing day pass… so you guessed it, Tom had butchered a hog before setting out.  There was no time for slicing, salting or smoking the pork, so the whole hog (minus the innards) was tied on top of the station wagon.

This is the picture that greeted his youngest sister when they stopped by her house.  Aunt Cecil stepped out on the front porch to speak to the family and see them off.  Grandpa lived with Aunt Cecil at the time, his wife having passed-on some years before. 

Grandpa was leaning against the house in a split-bottom chair and he scarcely stirred as his son and grandchildren pulled in.  He was unmoved by the hog resting atop the wagon. 

After a few words and well-wishes, but before the final round of good-byes, Bob managed to get his head out a window and called to Grandpa, “Dan’l (which is how you say Daniel in Appalachian) why don’t you come with us?”

With the invitation, Grandpa dropped the front legs of his chair to the porch, surveyed the situation and declared, “Ya know, I b’lieve I will.”

Aunt Cecil could hardly believe her ears.  She looked at her father.  She looked at her brother.  She looked at the station wagon.  She looked at the poor dead pig.  “Where are you going to put him?” she wondered.  But she said nothing.

Grandpa returned with his brown-paper luggage in hand, waved to his daughter and somehow managed to squeeze into the station wagon.  Miraculously, no children popped out.

And the family was off to find fortune – or at least livelihood – in Ohio.

But Grandpa Daniel’s hasty decision was not well thought-out.  After just a few days he was homesick and Tom had to load him back in the station wagon and drive right back to Tennessee.  The hog stayed in Ohio.


Grandmother’s Dresses

When we lose a loved one there is much to deal with – not the least of which is a lifetime of stuff.  We have a lot of stuff these days but all generations have died off leaving at least a few clothes.  What to do with those is never easy – you don’t really want to just throw them all away and often they don’t fit or suit the folks left behind.

Sometimes among the “estate” there are treasures that children and grandchildren have long coveted.  Other times things are hidden away and practically forgotten.  At my Great Aunt Margaret’s recent estate sale I found a couple of quilts her mother and my Great Grandmother Cecil Harvey had created.  They are such treasures that there are tears in my eyes even now as I share them with you.

Now Grandma Harvey was from a very practical generation yet she was still a sentimental soul.  I was blessed to have her in my life into my early 20’s – having a great grandmother living within a few miles for that many years isn’t something a lot of people enjoy and I wish I’d truly appreciated it at the time.  Grandma wanted her children and grandchildren to have a piece of their heritage and quilts were a great way to do that.

Grandma Harvey found a great solution both to how to deal with her mother’s clothing and created a memorial to her at the same time.  She pieced the dresses into a colorful block quilt.  I don’t know if there were more quilts made – I’m asking my aunts that question now – but I can certainly imagine Grandma Harvey doing that for each of her 5 daughters. 

Quilt-makers today carefully purchase coordinating fabric and cut and piece them in intricate patterns.  I doubt many people can appreciate the big blocks on this quilt but few that have ever held a needle can scorn the precise stitches.  And the love poured into these rags is immeasurable.  I can imagine Grandma remembering times her mother wore each dress – Grandma Hixson never had so many clothes that you wouldn’t remember them all in great detail.  She died when I was just 7 years old and I suppose I mostly remember her from the pictures and stories.  Still, it’s not hard for me to see her slender frame in the prints on these fabrics. 

 Euphemia Alexander Hixson

Euphemia Alexander Hixson

How I wish Grandma Harvey was here to tell me a story about each block.  “There was a big purple stain on this one where she spilled blackberry juice making jelly,” or “This blue dress was her favorite church dress; I’ve seen her a hundred times wearing it with her purse over her arm and her bible in her hand as she started down the road to church service.”

I may not know the specific stories but I’m eager to share the memories I do have with my own children as I teach them how to quilt and how to treasure these quilts.