Photo Courtesy of the family
Elster and Bina Kerley
Elster and Bina Kerley were married on Dec. 28, 1913, a couple months shy of her fifteenth birthday. The ceremony was performed by Magistrate Jim Ashley and witnessed by Bina’s sister Stella Miller and Elster’s brother Perry Kerley. Like most brides of the day she did not have a wedding dress but wore her best dress which was blue serge. She remembered that the ceremony was very short and she was nervous and scared. They had pictures made when they moved to Wilkesboro where they rented a three room apartment for $5/month.
When preaching on the Raccoon Fork of Goose Creek, where there never was a church, my host, Uncle Zachariah Smith, told me of two remarkable Highland lassies whom he termed the ‘boss gals’ on the creek. Besides being good Christians, they were the best workers in the country. They could fell more trees, split more rails, hoe more corn, and raise more pumpkins than any women he knew. I concluded to hunt up these fine women, and get them to come to the little school-house where we were holding a meeting…”
So begins Presbyterian missionary Edward Guerrant’s story of a Highland wedding in the Appalachian mountains as chronicled in The Galax Gatherers: the Gospel Among the Highlanders, published in 1910. In settled communities, church played a major role in young folks’ courtship. If a young man was seen walking a girl to or from church, they were officially “courtin’.”
“Southern women, as a rule, married very young—younger than their northern counterparts and much younger than men,” details the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Women often wed as schoolgirls, bringing the average age of married women to 20. “Women who remained unmarried in the South were classified as spinsters at a much earlier age than elsewhere.” Such spinsters frequently became parts of other women’s families, serving surrogate roles yet denied the status a woman could achieve only through marriage. Marriage at an early—and fertile—age often led to the first baby making an appearance nine months after the wedding ceremony. A couple would normally have anywhere from six to 20 children. Large families assured that there would always be help around the house or out in the fields. Older children would usually help look after the “least ‘uns’.” However, it was not uncommon for children to die during or after childbirth due to hardship and ill health. Sometimes a pregnant mother, knowing the realities of childbirth, would secure a promise from a favorite sister “that if she did not survive the ordeal of childbirth, the surviving sister would look after the orphaned children.” Overall, the South’s rate of death during childbirth was nearly double that in the North, and spinsters would at times inherit entire families after the death of a sibling and subsequent marriage to that sibling’s husband.
Consequently, life and death were a matter of fact, though unromantic, consideration in marriage. Hardscrabble conditions partnered with the mountain’s seclusion and isolation meant that pickings were sometimes rather slim when it came to finding a mate. Guerrant, the Presbyterian missionary, brings this matter to life in his diary entry about the Appalachian wedding.
“Their log-cabin was so remote and secluded, I got lost in the wilderness trying to find it, and only succeeded by climbing a mountain and surveying the deep valleys below,” he writes. “Their home was a poor, little log-cabin, a big loom filling almost all the puncheon-shed in front of the only room. Their aged father and two boys made up the family. Over the home a mountain hung almost perpendicularly, but it was cleared and cultivated in corn to the top. On inquiry, I learned that these two girls had borne their part, with the elder brother, in clearing off the forest of great oaks, and splitting the rails, and fencing and cultivating it with hoes. It was that, or no corn.”
Young men typically courted girls from their own communities. At times, there would be stiff competition for a lady’s hand, and those within a community rebuffed the amorous intentions of outsiders.
Courtin’ lasted anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Once a young man was ready to propose, he could go about it in a number of ways, including a custom carried over from Welsh traditions, which was to present the girl with a love spoon. This was a spoon carved out of wood, usually decorated with hearts, Celtic knots, or wheels, meaning love, everlasting togetherness, and willingness to work for a loved one, respectively. The love spoon showed the girl (and, perhaps more importantly, her father) that the young man was skilled in woodworking and that he could provide for his bride and family. However, mountain marriages were not always a matter of love and were instead arranged for families’ mutual benefit as Guerrant’s diary shows.
“I noticed that the elder brother seemed to be dressed up, having on a new pair of shoes and pants, on a week day. I made no inquiry, as it was not my business. It is safer in this country to attend strictly to one’s own business,” Guerrant writes. “After awhile, I saw a young man riding a mule over the top of a mountain, bearing aloft a flag. Knowing the martial spirit of the Highlanders, I inquired if that was a declaration of war. Dave (the elder brother) said there was a wedding on Possum Creek, and the man was the brother of the bride coming after the groom.
I then understood why Dave was dressed up, and inquired if he was the groom. He ‘admitted the soft impeachment,’ as the newspapers say, and explained that when a Highland lass was to be married, she sent her big brother after the groom to avoid any delay or disappointment.
Dave appeared resigned, and told me the name of the bride was Polly Cynthy Ann, and they would be married as soon as Uncle Zebedee, the preacher, could cross the river and get there sometime that evening. Soon the big brother, fully armed, came prepared to bring the groom—dead or alive. Riding up to the rail fence in front of the cabin, he inquired of Dave, if he was ready. He answered ‘yes,’ and donning his coat, mounted his mule and rode away. He forgot to insist on my going, as I had no horse to ride, otherwise I would have gone, as everybody is welcome in the Highlands.”
It was often the case that an entire community would show up for a wedding, which included singing, dancing, eating. Weddings were celebrated with “in-fares” where people gathered to party, dance, and eat potluck food. Guerrant writes, “My good host, Uncle Zachariah, went, and returned to tell me that Polly Ann was the ‘boss gal' on Possum Creek, saying, ‘Old Bill, her father, gave her a big wedding dinner, of pork and beans and sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pies and sweet-cakes enough for everybody.’”
Because wedding cakes were so expensive, community members often brought cake layers to donate to the bride’s family. The number of stack layers on her wedding cake gauged the bride’s popularity. The dried apple stack cake is the most “mountain” of all cakes baked and served in Southern Appalachia. The story goes that James Harrod, one of Kentucky’s earlier pioneers and the founder of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, brought the stack cake recipe with him when he traveled the Wilderness Road to Kentucky. Along with weddings, the stack cake was served at family reunions, church suppers and other large gatherings.
“I inquired of some of the wedding guests what presents the bride received,” Guerrant writes. “They were astonished at my question, and replied that they had never heard of such a thing. I told them of our custom down in the ‘settlement,’ and the appropriateness of such a custom, and tried to set them an example. There were two other evangelists with me, and we searched our saddlebags and found a spare Bible, a few white neckties, a paper of pins, a set of horn cuff-buttons and a few handkerchiefs. Armed with these wedding presents, I found the bride mending Dave’s old pantaloons, and overwhelmed her with embarrassment when I laid these gifts in her lap, with the compliments of the missionaries and our prayers for long and happy and useful lives for her and Dave.
A paper of pins consisted of several small straight pins woven in and out of a piece of paper. Such pins were used in sewing and were relatively costly. An old folk ballad called “Paper of Pins” illustrates the way these pins were used for marriage proposals:
I’ll give you a paper of pins,
And that’s the way my love begins,
If you will marry me, me, me.
If you will marry me.
This gift, however, does not seem to be good enough for the young woman in the song. She answers back:
I’ll not accept your paper of pins,
If that’s the way your love begins,
And I’ll not marry you, you, you,
And I’ll not marry you.
The young man keeps offering his girl better gifts until, once he offers her gold, she finally accepts. However, by this point it is too late. The young man rejects her acceptation of his offer by saying,
Oh you love coffee and you love tea,
You love my gold, but you don’t love me
And I’ll not marry you, you, you,
And I’ll not marry you.
The exchanging of rings also tended to be prohibitively expensive for many mountain brides and grooms, and it is believed that the wedding ring quilt pattern developed as a symbolic exchange of rings. There is both a single wedding ring pattern and a double wedding ring pattern. Capper’s Weekly first published the double ring quilt pattern in 1928.
One possible explanation that has been given for its creation is that a solider was wounded in the Civil War and thereby his wedding was delayed until he could return home. When he finally arrived he had no rings for the ceremony. The bride’s grandmother had made a quilt with a circular pattern that was until then unnamed, but the grandmother said that the bride and groom could have the quilt as a gift and it would be called the double wedding ring.
Regardless, the double wedding ring pattern was then and is still now considered a special pattern and it remains popular in modern quilting. Making the double wedding ring pattern is a challenge not recommended for novice quilters. Quilting could be an individual or group activity. The top layer of a quilt was usually made from leftover scraps of cloth, worn out clothing, and cloth sacks. The middle was stuffed with pieces of old clothing, old quilts, feed sacks, or sheep’s wool, and the bottom was simply whatever other plain material was available. The following excerpt from “Our Appalachia: An Oral History,” edited by Laurel Shackelford and Bill Weinberg, tells of quilting and part of its role for women.
“They'd have two or three quilt tops and you'd pad them with sheep's wool. Man, it was a sight in the world what was going on! There'd be a lot of girls there, 17- and 18-year-old, helping them quilt. We all would come in of an evening and we'd want to shake the cat. Four girls—one at each corner—would get hold of that quilt and another one would throw the cat in, and they got to shaking it as hard as they could shake and whichever one that cat jumped toward was going to get married first. That's a fact. There's no joke to it. It happened all over this country at all the quiltings."
For the lucky, love blossomed naturally and would lead to marriage, or love grew between those who found themselves joined by necessity. My own grandmother, who lived in West Virginia where I was raised, found her love in these mountains. I remember her telling me stories of how my grandfather would walk her to church and wait outside smoking cigarettes until it was time to walk her home. My summers spent on the family farm are in large part why I love the Appalachians so much. The Appalachian people are themselves wedded to a rich cultural heritage born of hardship, practicality, and a certain poetic beauty that breeds the fierceness with which we live and with which we love.
Love letters from the Civil War
“Though we are far apart at present, my heart is with you every moment for I often think of you when you are asleep. When traveling the lonesome roads in middle Tennessee the thought of your sweet smiles is all the company I have. I trust that you are sincere in what you have wrote to me. Your sparkling blue eyes and rosy red cheeks has gained my whole affections. I hope for the time to come when we shall meet again, then if you are in the notion that I am, we can pass off the time in pleasure.”
— Letter from William F. Testerman, a first lieutenant in Company C of the 8th Tennessee Cavalry to Miss Jane Davis. Written from Gallotin, Tenn. on July 25, 1864.
“And how happy the thought that years increase the affection and esteem we have for each other to love and be loved. May it ever be so, and may I ever be a husband worthy of your warmest affections. May I make you happy and in so doing be made happy in return. A sweet kiss and embrace to your greeting.
But maybe you will say it looks ridiculous to see a man getting grayhaired to be writing love letters, so I will use the remnant of my paper otherwise...”
— Letter from Harvey Black, a surgeon to the Army of Northern Virginia, to his wife Mary, whom he affectionately nicknamed Mollie. Written from Brandy Station, Va. on Nov. 1, 1863.
The double wedding ring pattern is part of the Appalachian Quilt Trail. The trail extends from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Cumberland Plateau and is bisected by the Clinch, Holston, French Broad and Tennessee Rivers. Examples of the pattern can be found on decorative painted quilt squares that adorn the outsides of buildings all along the trail. The double wedding ring pattern can be seen in LaFollette, Mountain City and Tazewell, Tenn. as well as Ewing, Va. The single wedding ring pattern can be found along the trail in Jefferson City, Tenn. For more information about the trail, visit vacationaqt.com.
In North Carolina, the Quilt Trails of WNC spans Yancey and Mitchell counties and features the double wedding ring in Green Mountain and single wedding ring in Bakersville. For more information about the trail, visit quilttrailswnc.org.
The Courting Dulcimer
The mountain dulcimer is a stringed instrument that is played by strumming. The instrument sits in the player’s lap. A courting dulcimer allowed for two players at once. The story goes that a couple could be left alone in a room to play the dulcimer, which allowed them to sit in close proximity to one another, face-to-face and even touching knees and toes. As long as there was music being played, it was presumed that the young couple couldn’t be getting into too much trouble. If a couple could play well together, they were meant to be with one another.