Tennessee Mountain Stories

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. 

“It Came to Pass”

Clarkrange Sunset - Photo by Derek Lane

Clarkrange Sunset - Photo by Derek Lane

The KJV Bible uses the term “It came to pass” some 453 times.  A devotion I read several weeks ago brought this to my attention and it’s stuck with me.  History is important in God’s Word.  Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  (The quote actually originated with George Santayana and Mr. Churchill was quoting him!  It’s one of my very favorite Churchill quotes and I know you’ve heard me use it before.)  Not to put Churchill’s wisdom on-par with divinely inspired scripture, but maybe it’s something we all need to learn – history matters.

The Bible gives us fully twelve books of history – there’s a ton of history throughout God’s Word, but these books are solely devoted to recording historic events and consequences in the national life of The Children of Israel.  History really seems to matter to The Lord.

I know I’m hammering this point home and maybe this whole article is justification for the hours I spend at this keyboard composing articles and even books inspired by our history.  I had the opportunity to speak to a group of genealogists a couple of years ago and chose to urge them to preserve not just facts but stories.  And that’s what we see in God’s word – we get to know the characters of these books of history.  Nehemiah served a Persian king and Esther would be a Persian queen.  We see in their stories the anguish of life in a pagan land, torn from the land divinely promised to their ancestors and to them.  We can see the real people behind the heroic acts – Esther is terrified when she approaches her husband without being summoned and while Nehemiah doesn’t detail his fears it’s not hard to understand fear as well as anger as he is taunted and ridiculed while rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls.

Maybe the stories of the Cumberland Plateau don’t have the eternal application of those biblical accounts but they can still be inspiring.  I’ve said before that the people of the mountain not only survived but thrived in a time and place that would have simply killed most of us.  They faced down disease and famine with the same staunch heroism we envision in the Shepherd David before a lion or a giant.

As I trace genealogical roots I get so excited to see a picture behind the numbers and dates presented in census records or death certificates.  I’ve recently been researching a mystery-man in my family tree.  He was born in 1877 and more skilled researchers than I have attributed him to my Great-great-great grandfather’s family. That man was born in Virginia and came to Tennessee with his parents and many of his 15 siblings.  I’ve always known of that Virginia history but never considered relatives left there.  Well in researching Calip Todd, I found one of his daughters on the 1920 census, living with her “cousin” – that’s the relationship given to the head of the household – back in Virginia.  I still can’t find much information on Calip but I began to see a story there.  The family came to Tennessee but 2 or 3 of the children were grown and already married so they opted to stay in Virginia and watch their whole family ride into the western horizon – just like a good ole’ Western movie, huh?   But they kept in touch, as much as they could in that day anyway.  Both those left in Virginia as well as the ones in Tennessee raised children and told them about their family living in another part of the country.  What took Bessie back to Virginia I don’t yet know but just like generations before and after she found a home with her cousin. 

I’ll keep working on that story and many others that peek out at me from among the data I’m mining from old records.  And I keep listening to the stories – and remembering stories I heard before like we talked about last week when a recent story reminded me of something from a man who passed away 13 years ago had told me. 

I want to end today’s blog with 2 challenges for you.  If you have not picked up your Bible today, do so now.  Or just click here to go to www.BibleStudyTools.com.  If you don’t know where to start, read one of the stories from the books of history, Joshua through Esther – they are the best stories ever written and never grow old.

Secondly I challenge you to share a story with someone else.  You’ve got ‘em, I know you do.  Stories you’re granny told you as she patted out biscuits for supper or your Mama as you sat breaking beans together.  Maybe you heard it from an old friend as he lay abed in his last days.  If it came to pass then it’s probably worth sharing and someone in this world would love to hear it.  If you can’t think of anyone, click on comments below and TELL ME – I always want to hear the stories.

Carrying Fire

Flaming Sword.jpg

The Bible tells us that man had fire pretty much from the beginning.  Now, Adam wouldn’t have needed fire in the Garden of Eden since he wasn’t eating meat then.  However, when he and Eve were expelled, in Genesis 3:24 we are told that God, “placed at the East of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way to keep the way of the tree of life.” And in the very next chapter (which would be years later) Abel is sacrificing a sheep which normally required fire.

Every child that ever played cowboys and Indians or pioneers has tried to create fire with dry sticks or a piece of flint if he could get it.  In fact, most children are overly-fascinated with fire! And it is essential to life.  If you have to spend any amount of time in the woods you’ll want to be able to produce fire – unless you are especially well equipped with modern equipment.  If you get wet from a fall in the creek or an unexpected downpour, you’ll have to find a way to dry or sickness will surely ensue.  Then there’s food – those the nuts and berries you can find will only take you so far – you’re gonna’ need the protein from animals you can catch or kill.  That game will need to be cooked to avoid the bacteria such as E. Coli or Salmonella that the animals can carry.  Not to mention the numerous steps we learned here last week that are required to use acorns.


Years ago I heard Conard Atkinson talk about carrying fire from a neighbor’s house.  Now I certainly didn’t dismiss his story, but that was not a concept I’d ever heard tell of so I guess I didn’t think much more about it.  (How many times I’ve wished I could sit with Conard and pepper him with questions!)  Well, my precious cousin Charlotte recently gifted me a tin box which her mother, Ethel Key Yeary, always said had been kept on Grandpa Key’s mantle to hold the matches.  The story she told me next echoed Conard’s because Ethel recalled that every once in a while they’d run out of matches and having no option to just run down to the Dollar General and buy a box – first because the only store was miles away and “running” for them largely meant running on their two legs not to mention the few cents charged for a box of matches may well have been more than the family had at the moment – so it was Ethel’s job to take a tin bucket and walk to the nearest neighbor’s house for hot coals.

If you’ve ever tried to start a fire with flint you may be thinking the option of a neighbor sounds pretty reasonable. 

We’ve talked here before about the necessity of keeping fire.  And despite my own struggles with the fireplace from time to time, I suppose I imagined my forefathers had such skill with fire that they would never need to build a new one – except maybe at the first sign of cold weather.  But when I think about it, the cookstove is nearly impossible to keep fire and if you’ve spent the day out in the woods – maybe cutting more wood for that ole’ fireplace, then you may well come home to cold ashes.  I guess there really were lots of times that generation had to start a fire afterall. 

Then there’s the question of neighborliness – what would you say if your next door neighbor showed up with her bucket and asked for some fire?  Even as I write this I can’t quite imagine what my first thought would be after that request.  But maybe everybody was in that situation at one time or another and everyone pulled together so they would all survive. 

What would your kids say if you pointed to the coal bucket and told ‘em to run down the road a fetch some fire?