Tennessee Mountain Stories

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

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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.

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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?

 

Eating Acorns

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Last week’s article about Potatoes, Butter and Wealth already had me thinking about how well off we are today as compared to our ancestors – then I read this article about how to eat acorns!  Well, that got me to wondering what your food situation would have to be to resort to eating this often abundant, wild nut.

I suppose our Native American ancestors may have relied on these nuts, as well as many other wild fruits, grains and nuts that we’ve completely lost the use of.  But even the depression-era stories of hunger and need never included acorns - at least not the ones I’ve heard. 

As I was reading the instructions on how to prepare and eat acorns I couldn’t help but remember a comical story Daddy always tells about Mr. Cross moving up to Fentress County from Pickett County.  He went back home for a visit and was goaded for his decision.  When asked what he was eating out there on the mountain he said, “Pine needle soup”.  Farmers always question why you would move from fertile valleys onto the rocky mountain top and I don’t have a good answer for the mystery.

Still, our woods have long offered provision for the wise hunter or gatherer.  I’ve mentioned before that one Cherokee traveler reported the area was flagged by his tribe as a bad hunting ground but many families found meat for their tables in deer, squirrels or even opossums when necessary.  Of course as more and more people called the mountain home, there was less room for wildlife, and over-hunting left depleted populations at times. 

You may remember reading Callie Melton’s account of hunting salad in the early spring here.  This was a familiar story for me as I’ve heard of my Great grandmothers on both sides of the family picking greens as well as herbs they would use for cooking as well as medicine. 

Stories of the great Chestnut trees that covered the entire Appalachian mountain range are legendary among woodsmen.  These trees provided nuts as wells as strong, lightweight logs and lumber that were used for everything from furniture to rail fences.  The Chestnut Blight began killing off stands in the late 1800’s and by the 1930’s the American Chestnut tree was practically extinct.  While their rot-resistant logs and stumps hung around into the 1950’s – and in fact you still might find remnants of some of the stumps – the nut-bearing live trees were only a memory by my Daddy’s time.  I’ve mainly heard of the Chestnuts being eaten as nuts and not really ground or used in cooked foods. 

Is this just a limit in my own knowledge?  Why do you suppose our mountaineers did not adopt this staple of their Cherokee forefathers?  Certainly there’s a lot more work involved in using acorns than either chestnuts or little hickory nuts.  While you can eat a chestnut raw, acorns are high in tannic acid that must be leeched out before it can be eaten.  The Indians did this by soaking them in running water, but the Farmer’s Almanac says you can boil the acid out of them – although it takes several times and you have to keep at it, not allowing the nuts to cool between the pots of boiling water.  So that really is a lot of work and the process may well have contributed to its lack of popularity.

Again I’m reminded to count my blessings - while eating acorns is fascinating to me, I’ll have bread today without grinding flour from acorns.

If you’ve heard stories about people using acorns I can’t wait to hear them.  Please click Comments below.

 

Potatoes, Butter and Today’s Wealth

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the wealth we enjoy in this time and place and you know I’m always weighing these thoughts against our history. 

 My thoughts first began to turn this direction when Mama mentioned that the winter’s potatoes are rotting.  I found her assessment to be fully accurate when I noticed that awful smell of rotting potatoes emanating from my cabinet.  So I decided to mash a big bowl for supper and began peeling them and cutting away the bad parts.  As the scrap bucket grew fuller and fuller I wondered if that sight might have panicked my grandmothers.  Here we are in the early part of September, the potato crop has already been fully harvested because worms were threatening and the vegetables are showing signs of spoilage.  If my family’s well-being rested with those tubers I might be wondering already if this would be a lean winter. 

Do you ever think about the reliable food chain America enjoys?  Now my rural upbringing means my larder is usually pretty well stocked and we could go a few weeks without visiting the grocer – IF we were willing to eat cornbread made with water and all-veggie meals for a few days.  And I can do without potatoes mostly because I’ve tried to trim some starches out of my meals and so I don’t cook them every day like my grandmas did.  But for those families that raised pretty much everything they ate, failure of the potatoes would surely mean they’d see some hungry days.  And that reminds me that our Scotch-Irish roots are still planted pretty deeply.

The thought process continued after a cousin gifted me with my great-grandma’s butter mold.  Daddy and I were talking about what good shape it’s still in and he mentioned that Grandpa Key never kept more than one cow so the amount of butter they had would have been limited.  This mold is for 1 pound and it takes about 3 gallons of milk to produce a full pound of butter.  A cow can only produce about that much each day and if you let the calf have part of it then how much are you carrying to the house?  Certainly not much more than a large family can drink – and the Keys raised 11 children although no more than 6 or 7 were at home at the same time.

A neighbor shared the picture of her mother’s butter mold and it appears to be only ½ pound which would certainly be easier to produce.  Of course you don’t have to have a mold at all, and you can just mold the butter by hand on a plate. 

My own little family of four goes through nearly 3 gallons of milk each week – which we buy at the store because we’re worse off than Great Grandpa and have NO milk cow.  (I’m reminded of Ellie Mae Clampett saying of their Beverly Hills’ Mansion, “this is all we’ve got.”)

It’s sometimes hard for me to think of myself as well-to-do when I look around at the big toys my friends and neighbors often buy.  And my children have yet to grasp the concept that “we can’t afford that” when they ask for anything they can imagine (my son wants a “camper you can drive” and a flying car).  Yet when I look back at how very little my ancestors survived on and when I realize that I have little memory of hunger and almost no fear of it; I don’t believe in waste and always try to curb it but I know I can pretty easily get a gallon of milk, pound of butter or bag of potatoes.  When I look at it like this I thank The Good Lord for His manifold blessings and grace.