Tennessee Mountain Stories

Decoration Day 2017

I got a chance to visit the Whittaker Cemetery this week on Decoration Day and was reminded of a story Clyde Whittaker had told me about the origins of that cemetery.


The land for the cemetery was donated by one of Clyde’s ancestors, John Whittaker.  He lived near one of the corners of the land and when his mother passed away, they buried her in the back yard.  So, when the town of Monterey grew to the point that a public cemetery was needed, he donated this property. 

Relatives of John Whittaker Stone.jpeg

Mrs. Whittaker’s original stone has been lost but a modern stone marks that plot as the earliest grave.  Nearby are two graves marked by a single stone but with no names, only noted as relatives of John Whittaker.  And, there are no dates on Mrs. Whittaker’s stone.  nHowever, on Ancestry I found John Whittaker III who lived 1783 – 1869. 

Whittaker Cemetery Tent Grave A.jpg

This old cemetery has some of the tent graves we’ve talked about here before.  I was surprised to see a 1938 date on one tent grave as I would’ve thought that tradition had died by then.  And a son of John Whittaker III was buried in 1900 under a tent grave.

You know I’m always asking for the whys and hows of settlements and such so it’s exciting to hear an legend like this one about the origins of Whittaker Cemetery.

Wedding Memories


Well it’s the wedding season.  These days, June is the preferred month for brides, although only by a slim margin over August (0.6% more).   I love to hear stories about people’s weddings and as I’ve mentioned here before the old stories are very different from today’s. 

At a recent friends’ wedding someone commented that the bride’s day started before 7:00 because she had so much to accomplish before the afternoon ceremony.  I couldn’t help but think how different that day was compared with brides through history.

Diane Franklin recounted a story I love about her own wedding day.  It was 1965 and her family home had been crudely wired but there was still no running water.  But she was intent upon having a bath on her wedding day.  So she started her day by drawing water, heating it on the stove and filling a corrugated tub.  Her fiancé had moved up north to work in Ohio and picked her up in his 1964 Plymouth. 

There don’t seem to be any stories on the mountain of church weddings until the early 1960’s and I can’t seem to ferret out the inspiration to start this tradition – you will recall that all of the Appalachian stories I hear are about weddings in the preacher’s living room or the courthouse.  I suppose there were always some such ceremonies in town by the few somewhat wealthier families.  It seems like once a few folks started marrying in church the tradition took root pretty quickly.

Of course it helped that the groom in today’s story, Lewis, was doing pretty well.  He’d waited to marry until he found steady work and had good prospects for his future.  He bought flowers to decorate the church, someone took photographs and the bride’s sisters were attendants. 

So I’m curious about your stories.  What is the earliest church, or large formal, wedding you’ve heard about on the mountain?  Just click “comments” below.

Ya’ Don’t Say

You know that I’m fascinated by the origins our our mountain speech and you may recall an article here where an early 20th century author related our language to that of classic poets.  Well last Sunday the pastor brought to my attention just how much of our language is borrowed directly from The Bible and I wanted to share some of those phrases with you.

The website Unlocking the Bible lists 37 phrases and gives their scriptural reference.  Many we’d probably immediately peg as biblical such as:  “An eye for an eye” and “Forbidden fruit”.  But did you know that “Nothing but skin and bones” comes straight out of Job 19:20?  I would have attributed “Rise and shine” to someone like Benjamin Franklin, however he probably borrowed it from Isaiah 60:1.  “Wash your hands of the matter” seems decidedly Appalachian to me yet it originated in Matthew 27:24 with Pilate’s attempt to distance himself from Jesus’ crucifixion. 

“Go the extra mile” (Matthew 5:41), “Fly in the ointment” (Ecclesiastes 10:1) and “Wit’s end” (Psaslm 107:27) are so common I never gave any thought to their origin.

The website The Guardian doesn’t give the specific scriptural reference but offers a long list of phrases from the Bible which you might enjoy reading through.  “The powers that be,” “God forbid” and “Bottomless pit” often come from my mouth and I’m afraid I got them more from my mountain surroundings than directly from reading my Bible.

You know that I’m always a little fuzzy on which words and phrases are unique to the mountains – and I’m often asking ya’ll to tell me if you hear these things in your neck of the woods.  Since these lists came from off-the-mountain sources it makes me think they are widely used but I’m always eager to hear your input.

The Bible has fallen out of vogue in a lot of America today – specifically in main stream media.  I suppose I’ll be listening to those anchors and actors to hear how many bible-terms they use without even knowing they’re doing it.


I am always amazed at how quickly the weeks and month speed by me.  Well now it’s graduation season again!  I have already received three invitation (all for the same day at different schools of course!) for my cousins’ children and I’m so proud of them for reaching this milestone.

But it’s really a modern milestone for our region, isn’t it?

A couple of years ago I introduced you to Mr. Elbert Hall who overcame a lot of obstacles in order to earn his high school diploma.  In fact this man, as did most others  of his pre-WW2 generation, had to earn a lot more than the grades to finish high school.  

Most recently we’ve talked about Clyde Whittaker who graduated from Monterey School in 1943 and was probably the first in his family who could claim this accomplishment.

None of my grandparents finished high school.  Of their combined37 siblings, only 3 finished high school.  Over the years I’ve asked the family why they didn’t go to school and the answers varied.  For some it was all about money – either not having enough to buy books and such, or needing to earn money for the family.  Many, many male relatives went to work either in the fields or mines at a very young age.  Then there was a matter of location.  I don’t want to minimize Clyde’s accomplishments, but he did live within walking distance of the Monterey School.  His aunts and uncles growing up in Martha Washington didn’t have the same advantage.  Still, we know that where there’s a will there’s a way and as we talked about here, the whole community worked together to keep their high school and therefore many families took in student-boarders who didn’t live close enough to get to school everyday.

When I was in high school in the 1980’s I boarded a bus at the end of my driveway.  My books were provided by the state and while my parents didn’t promote idleness, neither did they expect me to leave school to contribute to the family budget.  Yet with all of that convenience the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the rate of graduation in 1980 was just 74% and in 1995 it was down to 71%.  In fact, they report that the percentages have been generally declining since the 1960’s. 

Do you suppose that my generation and those that followed me did not hear stories like Elbert Hall’s or Clyde Whittaker’s and therefore couldn’t really appreciate the blessing and privilege of compulsory state-funded education?  Winston Churchill predicted, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” 

So as you watch a sea of mortarboards stream toward a stage laden with diplomas in the next few weeks, remember the hard fought victories for education and literacy.  Say a prayer of thanks for your own diploma or GED.  And even if you have neither, you can read – you just read this!

Cooking Trends and Convenience Foods


This is a history blog.  I love history and I love learning about and even practicing the way my ancestors lived.  In fact, have I told you that I grind my own flour and bake bread a couple of times each week?  We’ve talked many times on this blog about the modern conveniences that I also enjoy and would really hate to give up.  Well have you ever thought about the modern conveniences your grandmother may have enjoyed?

I’m sure every busy woman was thrilled when she could throw her family’s clothing into an electric washer and stop scrubbing them on a board.  It was a universal relief to turn a knob on an electric stove and start cooking without having to build a fire.  And we won’t even start talking about refrigeration.

But have you ever thought about the nature of the food they were cooking? 

I’ve been assembling family favorite recipes as a gift for my niece’s upcoming wedding.  I specifically asked everyone to share recipes they’d gotten from our older relatives and my aunts really came through for me.  They gave me recipes from my Great-great Grandmother and my Great-great Aunts as well as distant cousins.  And I know these were favorite recipes or they would not have been saved so long.  So you can imagine my amazement at seeing boxed cake mix and packages of Jello among the ingredients. 

Like I said, I enjoy baking my own bread but somehow I always know that in a pinch I can run get a loaf off a shelf.  Those packages of sliced bread have only been available since 1928.  You know my grandmothers never made their own loaf bread despite baking cornbread or biscuits for almost every meal.

Baking a cake with sifted flour, adding in the baking powder and salt, then folding in the eggs seems nostalgic and is actually the healthiest way to get a dessert.  But when boxed cake mixes became available in 1947 they must have seemed miraculous.  And we’ve passed down a lot of recipes that start out with one of those boxes.

Just having self rising flour was a convenience.  While this baking combination was created way back in 1845, somehow it wasn’t readily available in rural areas for many years after that.

As we’ve become more aware of the impact that chemical preservatives have on us we seem to be cycling back to more basic foods and the old-fashioned cooking-from-scratch.  Yet I can’t help but remember that the quick trip to the store when I run short of time is a modern luxury in itself.

Now, I’d really love to hear what “convenience foods” you remember your grandmothers relying on.