Tennessee Mountain Stories

Engagements, Rings and Weddings

Over the Christmas holiday my niece, Anna Grace Lane, accepted a marriage proposal and a ring from Mr. Cody Hull.  So you can imagine the big topic of conversation these days is wedding plans.   As usual, I’ve found myself comparing what seems to be the norm today with the approach my grandparents’ generation, and those before, took to weddings. 

I had already been thinking along these lines after the proof-readers of my latest novel asked for more details of the protagonist’s wedding.  Each one of them was disappointed when I expressed that mountain weddings of the late 1800’s weren’t very grand.  So I thought I’d share some of my research with yu’ns.

The very stage of being engaged is the first difference.  Remember the Christmas story?  Mary was “espoused to be married” to Joseph, not a term we use today and their process of marriage was different too.  The first step of marriage in ancient Israel was a betrothal which involved a would-be groom giving a gift to the girl’s father and reaching an agreement with him.  This was a firm commitment.  Months or even a whole year would pass before the wedding festivities which might last for days.  Only then would the couple be considered married.

In fact there seems to be a difference between being engaged and just plannin’ to get married.  In the past, couples simply decided to marry and did so pretty quickly thereafter.  You may recall the recent article about my Aunt Janavee Sisco whose intended husband was working up north.  Janavee had spent a few weeks visiting her brother in Dayton, Ohio when she and Willard Sisco deepened a lifelong friendship.  The two had grown up just across the holler from each other and Willard’s sister had already married Janavee’s brother.  They decided they would marry but it was time for Janavee to return to Tennessee.  Willard came home shortly thereafter and as he told me he decided he’d better go ahead and marry her before someone else did.

It seems like a familiar sentiment; another great aunt remembers asking her mother’s advice on a proposal.  “If you don’t marry him somebody else will,” was the wisdom my great-grandmother imparted. 

Willard and Janavee drove to Georgia because Tennessee required a blood test and two week wait for results.  Clyde Whittaker and Ellen Bilbrey drove up to Jamestown, Kentucky and why they went north instead of south Clyde doesn’t remember sixty-eight years later.  He does recall that most folks who didn’t want to wait two weeks for their blood tests went ‘down toward Chattanooga’.

We’ve talked here about some traditions when we talked about  a traditional Appalachian wedding cake and the saying that the number of layers in a bride's cake reflected how beloved she was.  However, among our mountain folk, I can’t find any stories of church weddings – even simple ones before 1950, and not many until the mid 1960's.  June Howard told me a few years ago that “most people got married at the preacher’s house, usually in front of the fireplace.”  That’s the exact location Clyde and Ellen chose, however, they didn’t particularly know the Baptist preacher who married them – they’d stopped in a restaurant and asked where they might get married.

Then there’s the question of a ring… I heard an advertisement for Tiffany’s recently claiming they invented the modern concept of engagement rings.   However, Wikipedia traces the tradition back to Rome.  Either way, we’ve come to expect an engagement ring and I see lots of young ladies wearing diamonds that I can’t imagine their grooms paying for.  Remembering our comparison with Israeli traditions?  That region doesn’t use engagement rings and actually wear their wedding rings on the right hand.  The tradition of diamond rings really rose after the output from African diamond mines exceeded one million carats per year in 1872.  That tradition greatly declined in America after World War I and certainly during the Depression years. 

Still the secluded Appalachian peoples had their own traditions when preachers rode a circuit and gold was reserved for coins that rarely entered a mountain home.  When I’m researching genealogy I’m surprised how hard it is to find marriage records.  It was a long way to the county seat in those horse and buggy days and I wonder how many vows were said before a preacher that were honored for a lifetime despite never being officially filed?  Early marriage licenses were issued by churches; in 1837 the United States began issuing marriage licenses from the state. 

The idea of a church ceremony was completely foreign on the mountain except for the very well-off.  I’ve tried to question why simple church weddings weren’t conducted without flowers or pageantry and the only answer anyone could offer was that so many people went to Georgia that it was never practical to plan even a simple wedding.