Tennessee Mountain Stories

New Kin and Old Paths


I met a new family member recently… Dale Welch was telling me about his great-great Grandparents who lived in the Martha Washington community.  He mentioned the grandmother’s maiden name was Elmore and that got my questions started.  Turns out she was a sister to MY great-great-great Grandmother!  We parted with a ‘good-bye cuz’ and a promise to get together soon to share information.  (I have much to learn from Mr. Welch’s wealth of historical information!)

You know that as soon as I could get settled in front of my computer with a decent internet connection I was probing for information about this branch of the family.  Well I still have work to do on it, but it led me to a census record from 1880 where I found Margaret Elmore Wilson living with her husband Joe in the 4th Civil District of Fentress County, Tennessee. 

1880 Census Wilsons.jpg

One fascinating thing the Census Records show is who was living around your ancestors and I love looking through these records and seeing familiar family names as well as families I’ve never heard of before.  While Bagwell, Nation and Whitehead aren’t families that I grew up around, several family names are still well represented in the Martha Washington community:  Ashburn, Neely, Wilson, and Miller. 

For years I’ve been recording genealogy of not just my ancestors, but also of every family that touched my own family tree.  Now I find this a fascinating endeavor because I have cataloged most families in Martha Washington and Camp Ground, then as members of the families chose spouses from off the mountain, the tree extends even further.  (So much for the jokes people make that mountain family trees have no branches – I’ve got news for them, we’ve got roots they can’t even keep up with!)

Joseph and Margaret Elmore Wilson were the people I started looking for.  Right before them are Berry and Julia Wilson with two children still at home:  Artemia and Laura, and a boarder living with them named Davis Ashburn.

I found a Davis Ashburn in my database who was the son of Robert Wesley and Hettie Smith Ashburn.  His age matches up with this boarder, and his father is living in Cumberland County at that time with five children still at home. 

As you so often hear me mention, this research left me with more questions than I started out with.  Turning the page to entries the census-taker made on June 18, 1880 the Emily Norris family is listed with her 6 children.  She is my paternal grandfather’s great grandmother and their family home was always in Roslin – so seeing her with her children in Clarkrange presents a real mystery.

Even with the new and unanswered questions, this is a fascinating glimpse of the neighborhood nearly 140 years ago.

The Printed Word

Last week my husband left my bible behind at church and I was without it for a whole week.  I grabbed it up on Sunday and it’s back in the house this week.  It’s rather like having found a lost friend.  But it made me think about the bibles we have in the house – in fact about all of the books that we have.  Our access to the printed word (both traditionally printed on paper and digital works as well) is really overwhelming if you think about it.  And you know that I can never help but make the historical comparison.


I have a great old heirloom in my home – it is an antique steamer trunk that belonged to my Great Grandpa Key.  His youngest daughter was born in 1931 and she remembered that Grandpa always kept his clothes in that little trunk (reality check number one:  would your entire wardrobe fit in there?).  Also stored in the trunk was the family’s only bible.  She explained that many of the kids had a little testament but Grandma, Grandpa and their eleven children shared the single bible.   She revealed that memory with me as she told how her mother would read where her name, Lois, was mentioned in the bible.  She would go to the trunk, get out the family bible and read to her from Second Timothy 1:5.  The young Lois was sure that her name was mentioned in other places in the bible and she determined when she could read that she would find them.  Her sweet smile as she told me that story is one of those mental snapshots that I can see clearly in my mind’s eye.

I have books stored in that steamer trunk now… it’s chocked full of books!  Books are so cheap for us and so readily available that they seem to multiply on us.  In fact, I have a box in my truck that I keep meaning to take to the used book store to exchange – see, then I’ll have just as many books but different ones! 

Now, the Keys were literate people – which wasn’t terribly common in their generation.  My father remembers his grandpa reading every newspaper he could get his hands on, and he read from front to back.  He studied the trends of the stock market and really seemed to understand it.  Yet, we would have to call him rather ignorant simply because he had no access to the vast collection of written knowledge. 

Lots of people have worked hard to make books available to children; of course, rural locations still struggle with that.  On the mountain, you still have to drive into town to get to a library, and that doesn’t seem very practical if your kids are in school close to home and you are maybe working on the farm.  Some counties have their libraries only open to city residents.  However, I recently discovered that the Tennessee library systems are working to make a digital collection available for free download and that’s pretty exciting as we see the internet in nearly every home these days, even in remote locations.  A love of books is a wonderful gift to give a child.  I’m not sure where I got this love but clearly I did. 

I am not what you would call wealthy – in fact, I’m far, far, far, from it.  Yet, when I make these historical comparisons and realize that books were possessions of very wealthy people in years gone by, I realize how much I really do have.  The ability to read was prestigious and it was often flaunted whenever possible.  In the Victorian era, a parlor would have a table in the center of the room with books upon it as a symbol to any visitors that educated people lived here. 

In mountain families where every hand was needed to scratch from the earth enough food to survive the cold months of winter, the luxury of reading or even learning to read was not to be had.  I’ve been amazed as I’ve worked on genealogical research to find ancestors who accumulated significant land and ran successful businesses yet when I find a land deed I find it signed, “by my mark”.  Of course many of our ancestors could scribble a signature and read a just little bit.  I find that many parents longed for “learning” and because they couldn’t have it themselves, it was a high priority for their children. 

These good ole’ days we recall and study had a lot going for them.  But sometimes I do get a bit of a reality check when I see something like books where we enjoy such great access.  With our social woes and overpopulation, amid growing persecution of Christian people around the world and governments that seem to encroach more of our personal liberties every day, we do enjoy many benefits in this modern world.