Tennessee Mountain Stories

The History behind Margaret’s Faith

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Last week I told you a little about the story in Margaret’s Faith and I have been hearing great things from you readers – I want to thank each one of you who have read the book and said such kind things.  And, as always, I want to urge you to leave your thoughts in a review at Amazon.com – or any other book review site you choose.  That is really the best way we can get the word out that this book is worth your time to read.

I’ve told you here before that my books are inspired by my people.  The mountain people are notorious storytellers.  It’s a culture that I relish and I’m always trying to get folks to tell me their very own stories.  Well most families have stories that they’ve passed down through the years.  They are stories that grow with the retelling until they become legends.  And that’s what my family did with the life of our most recent immigrant.  He was my Great-Great-Great Grandfather and he and his brother came from Italy just before The Civil War. 

We’ve kept alive the story that his mother wanted her boys safe from the troubles in 19th century Italy and in the great land of opportunity that America promised to be.  She worked at any job she could get to save their fare.  Then she sent them off across the sea – and that’s the end of what we remember about that precious woman! 

The boys came to America and settled in Chicago, IL just in time to be drawn into their new nation’s great civil war.  Grandpa Philip Perie was patriotic until his dying day, often posing in an Uncle-Sam-type suit before an American flag.  We tell of his service to the Union Army as though he were a great war hero. 

He was raised in the Catholic faith, though we have neither evidence nor stories that he was devout.  His Italian-Catholic values differed from those of our Appalachian-Scots-Irish ancestors and those difference are often emphasized in the legend.

He married a young girl from what is now North Cumberland County, Tennessee and took her back with him to the big city.  It’s not hard to imagine the shadow that beginning would lend to any story from the mountain. 

So these are the characters that I began with when I started writing Margaret’s Faith – that combined with the story my family has been telling for better than 150 years  I always want to stress that the novels are fiction (as the very definition of “novel” demands) and the stories behind them are only inspiration.  There is never enough information from these stories to create an historical treatise so I’ve opted to use the heart of the story and create the rest based on lots of research and long knowledge of the people of the mountain. 

 

Learnin' Music

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Music is a huge part of our mountain history.  It came with us from the old country and the sounds of Ireland and Scotland can still be heard in it.  It’s a subject I’ve visited here before (more than once actually) and no doubt I’ll light on it again somewhere down the road.  I’m not particularly musical although I’ve always longed to be able to make music as my ancestors did.  Childhood piano lessons have served a few congregations who were hard-up for a piano-player and my squeaky fiddle is a joy to me if no one else.  Still I am determined.  So I’m going to teach my children – or rather have them taught.

Ruthie kept asking to play my fiddle so a tiny instrument was under the Christmas tree this year.  Caleb got his guitar last Christmas and we’ve been making a little progress on it. 

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T.E. Hixson was my Great-Great-Grandfather and he made instruments and taught and played with his children and grandchildren.  In fact, my grandmother remembers having child-sized instruments and hearing that with each birth he would declare what instrument the child would play and immediately begin making it for him or her.  These precious toys were so commonplace in their home and family that when they moved out of the house they left them behind. 

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Grandpa Hixson’s children all played – in fact none of us knew my Great Grandmother (and his eldest child) could play until she was an old woman and I pulled out one of his fiddles.  She took it in her hands and said, “I don’t know if I can even pick out a tune anymore.”

As we embark on this journey of teaching and learning, practicing and improving I’m thrilled every time I hear them pick up their instruments and make their own little music.  And I can’t help but wonder what the Hixson home sounded like all those years ago.  As the day’s work wrapped up and a calm moment could be found, did different ones go back to their guitar, mandolin and fiddle?  Did one hear a few notes picked out and immediately want to join in?  Can’t you see the living room with one young son on his guitar and a sister comes trotting in, fiddle in hand?

Yet I know that they were not immediately proficient at the art.  There would have been years and years of missed notes, squeaky licks and slow improvement.  Were Grandma and Grandpa excited to hear their little musicians trying and trying?  Or did they grow tired of the noise and long to listen just to the birds or the crickets?   I imagine it was a little of both.  And how many times did Grandpa join in with the children?  Was he more often the instigator of their family-jam-sessions?

Of course their day without televisions and tablets, phones ringing or texts dinging surely made it easier to appreciate the efforts their children were putting into music.  It’s harder these days with so many things vying for our attention – not just the children’s attention but mine as well.  And it’s harder still because we have to find a teacher and get to him at the appointed hour.  How beautiful it is to imagine a father just slowly and quietly teaching his children, and teaching by example as he played each instrument.

I already know we’ll soon revisit the music of the mountains for I have a friend who has fiddles her grandfather handmade.  I’m really looking forward to getting that great story and sharing it with you!

Changing Time

The time changed this past weekend and we are supposed to be enjoying an extra hour of sleep each night.  Instead, my body refuses to adjust and I’m just up early.  Every time the clocks have to change to accommodate Daylight Savings Time I have to adjust – well we all do, don’t we?

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As I began to think of Daylight Savings Time from an historical perspective I did a little research and found that I really did not know the history at all.  “Fast Time” was implemented during World War I to save lighting fuels for the war effort.  I had thought the concept was much older and had been designed to support the Industrial Revolution.

I’m always fascinated when I see old factory buildings with their numerous tall windows that remind me they were built and used before the rows of fluorescent lighting we’re so accustomed to in commercial buildings now.  Its’ not hard to imagine the importance of sunshine during working hours in those buildings.  Often you see the big arched spaces have been filled-in either with plywood or brick as they are now more of a security concern than a necessity.

In the Tennessee mountains however factories were of little concern as the hours of sunshine shortened with the approach of winter.  The schedule on a farm is set by the sun and the weather instead of a clock.  My daddy always said a dairyman should start his milking about 4 a.m.  As I think about that rule I suspect the time was more because many modern farmers work a public job and have to finish their milking in time to get to work.  On an earlier farm with no electricity, why would you go to the barn before daylight?  Coal oil was a precious commodity that cost hard earned pennies, it would not be burned to light chores that could be just as easily accomplished in another hour. 

We always think of farm families going to bed with the chickens.  Certainly after a day of hard physical labor you’re ready for a good night’s sleep, but as I think about this lighting issue I’m betting that was a big factor too.

A Passion for Picklin’

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I’m not much a fan of pickles, but I realize I’m in the smallest minority – at least that’s the way it seems among all my family and friends.  Recently some friends were over for a meal and asked, “Do you make pickles?”  Well I’m not a very good hand at it but through more of that Christian compassion that brought last week’s beans, I’m well stocked with pickles.

It got me to thinking, is this passion for picklin’ everything a Southern thing?  Or are pickles universal?

Statista reports that in 2017 73 million Americans consumed at least 1 jar of pickles in a year, and nearly 4 million people consumed 6 jars or more.  The United States consumes 5.2 million pounds of pickles each year.

And a little research tells me that pickles are popular the world around.  Historians believe that the Mesopotamians first began pickling about 2400 BC.    At some points in history, pickles were thought almost magical in their benefits to the body.

Well, as with most things, Southerners claimed pickles for their very own and transformed the food.  I found this great article from the State Archives of Florida detailing a handwritten cookbook from the 1850’s or 1860’s with recipes for pickling everything from watermelon rind to cabbage (and that one was new to me).

Then there’s the protein-packed pickled pig parts.  Pickled pigs feet are probably the most popular of these foods but did you know folks also pickle the lips, snouts, ears, and hocks of the hog?  Now this just proves that you can truly use every part of the pig if you set your mind to it! Pickled eggs are also a great source of protein.

What strikes me among this list is the perishable nature of these foods.  Surely pickling was historically very practical.  Vinegar is easily created from fruits that will perish quickly.  And while smoked or salted pork can be made to last for months, it would be pretty hard to cure the feet enough to keep them.  So if you’re wanting to use a whole hog, pickling parts of it makes a lot of sense!

While we seal our pickles up tight in Mason jars, commercial producers actually cure them in open vats stored outdoors.  So even before self-sealing lids and glass jars were widely available, pickles could be put up and kept just in crocks. (Okay I’ve got to research what all you can actually preserve in crocks!)

My family tends to stick with cucumbers, but I can’t wait to hear what ya’ll pickle.  If you leave a comment – and I dearly hope you will – please be sure to tell me where you live or where you’re from as I’m very curious where the customs originate.

By the way, my friends around the supper table quickly put away half a quart of Grandma’s Bread and Butter pickles!  They were so excited by them I sent the rest of the jar home when they left.

 

 

When God and The Devil Divided up the Dead

 

In ‘Pon my Honor, Carrie Melton attributes this story to the Knoxville News-Sentinel but gives no further citation.  I tried to search their website for it without success.

As I said in last week’s post I’m not prone to telling stories of haints but your response to The Logston Tide was overwhelming so I thought I’d share another of Mrs. Melton’s stories from the section “I Wouldn’t A-Believed Hit if I Hadn’t Seen Hit Myself”

Once there was this here old man who was all crippled up with rheumatism.  Fact is, he hadn’t hardly walked a step in years, and the only way he had of getting around was having his boy carry him.  The boy wasn’t grown yet, but he could get his pa up on his back and tote him around the place anywhere the old man wanted to go.  The old man was an ornery old cuss, just as cross and crabby with his old woman and the young’uns as he could be.  His old woman would get so put out with him sometimes that she’s just out and tell him that he was so mean that when he died God wouldn’t have him and the devil wouldn’t want him even if he did have to take him.

Come one fall and it was powerful hot weather…hot and dry.  The old man got mighty tired of just setting in his chair all day long, doing nothing but sweating and cussing the flies and the heat.  So, he got in the habit of having his boy tote him to different places around about in the cool of the evening.

Now, not far from where he lived there was a graveyard.  It was off down in the woods like, and a lonesome place even in broad daylight.  The boy didn’t much fancy taking his pa there after dark, but for pure devilment on these hot, dry days the old man would make the boy tote him down to the graveyard might nigh ever evening.

It was powerful hot one day…much hotter than usual.  The old man could hardly wait for dusky-dark to come and the air to cool off.  It did seem like the graveyard was the coolest place to be found in such weather.  And, too, it did pleasure the old man a sight to go set among the graves of his friends and kinfolks and to watch the starts and the lightning bugs come out.  So, this time as soon as the old woman got supper on the table, the old man rushed the boy through eating so he could pack his pappy out to the graveyard.  Much against his wishes, the boy got his pappy on his back and started off down the road to the graveyard.  They had to go down the big road a-piece, then off to the right in the scope of woods.

It just happened that two of the neighbor boys had been pawpaw hunting that evening, and had stayed out later than they meant to, so dark had caught them on the way home.  They decided to set down and divide their pawpaws there at the graveyard, for the road forked just beyond, and one went one way and the other went the other way.

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As they went in the graveyard one boy was carrying the sack of pawpaws and the other one had his pockets full.  Just to be a-doin’, the boy with his pockets full stopped and laid a pawpaw on each gate post as he went in.  Then the two boys walked on down in the graveyard a-piece and set down by two headstones that were close together.  Then they started to divide up the pawpaws.

Now, the boy had toted his pa down to the graveyard gate, and since it was a right smart piece and the boy was tired, they stopped to rest.  The boy set the old man down by one gate post while he leaned up against the other one.  It was while they were resting that they heard talking coming from the graveyard.  They were all ears, and this is what they heard.

“You take this ‘un, and I’ll take that ‘un.  You take this ‘un, and I’ll that that ‘un.”  Then another voice said out loud and as plain as day, “Yes, and there’s two down by the gate posts.  You take one, and I’ll take the othern.”

At this the boy started over to pick up his pa and get out of there quick, but the old man beat him to it.  He jumped up, shoved the boy out of his way and said, “Iffen you can’t run, move over and let somebody run that can.”  And with that he took off down the road so fast that his shirt-tail fairly stood out in the wind behind him.  He beat the boy home by a long shot, and purt night scared his old woman to death.  She hadn’t seen her old man walk a step in years, let alone run!

“Lord-a-mercy! What’s the matter?” she yelled, thinking that the world was coming to an end.

“Hide me! Hide me quick, old woman,” begged the old man.  “We’ve just been down to the graveyard, and we heard God and the devil down there dividing up the dead.  I plain as day heard the devil say that there was two down by the gate posts, and that he’d take one and God could have the othern.  And, old woman, you know…good and well which one the devil was atter!”