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Photo by John Rice Irwin
Close to home
Dollie Hoskins Turnbill lived at the foot of the great Cumberland Mountains, approximately three miles from Oliver Springs, Tenn., and only a mile or so from the ancestral Hoskins homeplace in Hoskins Hollow.
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National Park Service photo
Cherokee families were living in log homes by the 17th century. These homes were similar to the homes one would see on white-owned farms.
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Photograph Copyright 1910, by M. H. Gass
This photograph shows Mary Faust and her two children, “Coon” and “Sis.” Faust was born and raised in Anderson County, Tennessee, and this picture shows the Faust family in their cabin home near Andersonville. The entire family, although they lived within twenty miles of Knoxville, relied entirely upon their own labor to clothe as well as feed themselves. This photo, taken in 1910, speculates that Faust may have been the oldest woman in the United States at the time. Regardless of her age, she worked from early morning till sundown each day, with the result that her two children and she were entirely clothed with cloth she wove and garments she made. In addition to her spinning and weaving she aided in cooking and household duties. None of the modern commodities of 1910 were to be found in her home, but instead her cabin maintained the same appearance as it did 100 years prior. Faust said she was never sick nor were her children, and her old age she attributed to the simple life she led. She recalled visiting Knoxville in the early 1800s, and at that time there were only a few hundred people in the town. The trip from her home to Knoxville was made on foot and her husband travelled with her to join the band of men who left Knoxville to fight in the Mexican war. She returned alone and lived in that cabin for the remainder of her life.
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Photo courtesy of the family
Ibbie Jane Weaver Rice
Ibbie Jane Weaver Rice, Elaine Meyer’s great grandmother. She was born Feb. 4, 1874, and died June 17, 1956. She was the wife of Marcellus M. Rice.
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National Park Service photo
Cherokee women work on crafts.
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Photo by John Rice Irwin, Sept. 1979
Maude Martin of Panther Creek in Hancock County, Tenn., at age 83.
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Celebrating women's work
The century-old buildings at the Mountain Farm Museum in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee come alive each year as national park staff and volunteers pay tribute to rural women of the past through demonstrations of traditional women’s work at the Women’s Work Celebration.
Appalachian women endured much adversity and hardship in carving out a life from the hardscrabble mountains; however, they were the center of home life and its reflections of work, culture, and love.
“These women were a hearty bunch and joyful—but they didn’t do a lot for themselves, they focused around chores and things that needed to be done,” said Elaine Irwin Meyer, president of the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tenn.
Women did most of the caretaking. They made the family’s clothing, cooked and swept the fireplace, and tended to the garden. Many times they were responsible for caring for the livestock.
Clothing was handmade, including spinning and dying wool and weaving it into cloth. Most women kept looms on the front porch of their homes because the looms were so large. Being able to buy cloth was a luxury. “Appalachian people with money had access to buying processed cloth, so when they could, they did,” said Paul Koch of the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University.
Cooking often was done over a fireplace. “There was absolutely a lot of maintenance from using a fireplace,” Koch said. “House cleaning and sweeping were a big deal. A lot people have said it was very dangerous for women to be doing that work around fireplaces with their long skirts.” Food was a way to cultivate friendships inside and outside of their homes. Recipes that are still widely used today were created and passed from friend to friend, and the best way to show off those recipes was during family meals.
“When the men came in from the fields for dinner during the day and supper at night, everyone ate together,” Meyer said. Food preparation is a notable part of Appalachian life even today. “To us, it’s about a special dish that’s been handed down. It’s bonding time, preparing that meal together,” she said.
Appalachian women made lasting friendships by helping each other with their workloads. “While it may not seem like the things they did were a lot of ‘fun,’ women would get together to complete chores and it really was a social atmosphere,” Meyer said. Quilting, breaking beans, boiling molasses, canning, and various other means of preservation all represented a chance to work together. It also was not uncommon to see women get together for hog killings, and shucking corn was an exceptional social event of shared labor. When a woman would get married, the community would come together to help make a wedding quilt. “These women worked hard and prepared everything lovingly,” Meyer said.
Kathryn Stripling Byer, a poet and essayist and former North Carolina poet laureate, recalled one of the biggest differences between Appalachian women and other Southern women having household help. Byer, a Georgia native, said, “Mountain women tended their own houses and gardens; my kinswomen often had black women to help them cook and clean, and they had help cultivating and harvesting their gardens.”
There also are examples of women using work as a form of pleasure. Emma Bell Miles recorded in her 1905 book, The Spirit of the Mountains, that weaving work gave a woman quiet time to sit at her loom, sing, daydream, and enjoy watching the patterns of those beautiful and interesting coverlets take shape. It also was chance to display one’s artistic side, though it wasn’t until after the Civil War that such items began to be made and sold for their artistic merits rather than simply utilitarian purposes.
“The daily grind of life could have so easily worn mountain women down, but they were able to turn their tasks into opportunities for self-expression. To make and cherish their ‘pretties,’ whether quilts, or flowers, or songs,” Byer said. “How can we not celebrate these accomplishments? They enriched women’s life in the past and continue to enrich our lives today.”
Towns were small in the Appalachian Mountains, often with a meeting area and a church, said Florie Takaki, park ranger and coordinator at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Women weren’t pastors, but they were extremely active in religious life, and that carried to the homestead. Protestant Christianity dominated in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee, and many people converted to the Baptist faith from other denominations like Presbyterian where religious leaders had to be formally educated. Churches were a luxury in many towns that didn’t even have a town center, so pastors would often make house calls and religious services were conducted were inside the home, Koch said.
“Women were very instrumental in religion; they were the spiritual leaders of the home,” Meyer said. “This was most likely to be a role model for the children.” Children and adults often used church as a form of socialization, and many people met their spouses at church.
If the community did have a church pastor or a circuit preacher, it “was considered a big deal to have the pastor over for lunch,” Meyer said. Women would spend hours preparing Sunday meals and hold cottage prayer meetings, often in anticipation of revivals or other church-related events. The camp-meetings (large outdoor revival meetings that lasted several days) were one of the times families left their homes for extended periods of time.
Otherwise, people tended to stay home—women especially, since a primary duty was to tend to the children. “That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t see a woman out working a plough or men making cornbread,” Takaki said.
As part of the caretaking role, women often treated illnesses when doctors weren’t available, according to Anthony Cavendar’s book, Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia. For example, putting sulfur in a sufferer’s shoes was used to treat the flu. Both Cherokee and other Appalachian inhabitants believed in “sweating out” diseases; often times this would lead to death due to dehydration of the body.
“Both men and women used home remedies, some plants introduced to them by Cherokee neighbors,” Takaki said. “[Western North Carolina] is the most diverse area in the country in terms of plant species other than the Everglades and the Pacific Northwest.”
Granny women—an expression unique to the Southern Appalachians that refers to a midwife—were essential for Appalachian women. The number one cause of death for women at the time was in childbirth, Takaki said. Granny women were usually elder women in the community and were often the only healthcare practitioners. Many times a granny woman played the role of obstetrician, pharmacist, psychologist, and birthing coach. She most likely learned these skills from other granny women.
Doctors were few and far between and did not always have the highest medical credentials or equipment and often could not make it to the home in time for the birth, Koch said. Midwives and granny women were seldom paid, but they were considered the authorities on childbirth. Often times home healing and midwifery overlapped as home remedies and plants were used to cure medical problems during childbirth. Plants were aids during childbirth—Cherokee women would drink cherry bark to speed delivery. Women were often back to working in the homes very shortly after delivery.
Nearly all of the homes of southern Appalachia until the early 1900s were log cabins. Appalachian architecture of log cabins can be attributed the unique combination of German, Scotch-Irish, English, and Scandinavian cultures that migrated to this area, according to the essay, “Historical Survey of Log Structures in Southern Appalachia.” Most structures were basic—one or two room homes. There was often a day room, and perhaps a bedroom shared among several children and family members. Cleaning would have been constant and necessary to keep order even in smaller spaces. Cherokee women also were living in log homes by the 17th century. The Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, N.C., features replicas of 18th and 19th century cabins that were similar to the homes one would see on white-owned farms.
After the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Cherokee Indians who were allowed to stay in Western North Carolina had to portray exceptionally good living conditions. Tyler Howe, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Historical Preservation Office, said, “Cherokee people were very clean in practice; there are a lot of accounts of Cherokee women doing things like sweeping their yards.” Cherokee homes were clean because “they had to be,” Howe said. In the 1870s, writers from travel and religious magazines from the North visited Western North Carolina and wrote colorful tales about the experience. Because of their cleanliness and temperament, the Native American community was well portrayed versus tales of the uncivilized whites. Outsiders noted the phenomenon of women doing things during the Victorian era that were not typical women’s work or observed that their farms were unkempt, Koch said. However, agriculture in the mountains was different from west Tennessee or eastern North Carolina. Appalachians practiced “slash and burn” of crops and letting them grow on their own. Appalachian people did not typically fence in their animals, and they would often roam from farm to farm. The philosophy of Appalachian farming was considered far wilder than neighboring states.
Women often would sell or trade surplus from their gardens and livestock in order to earn income for the family.
“I don’t think that women had large roles in providing income, but they would often earn a little money and provide pockets of income, like selling chicken,” Meyer said. Women canned their food for preservation but would sometimes sell items like canned sausage, salt pork and beans.
Cherokee women also sold their surplus to white townspeople, and while both white and Cherokee women’s roles were not necessarily equal to men, they played a large role in decision-making and providing for their family.
According to Howe, Cherokee women had a unique role in the fact that they were a part of government. Quallatown council meetings were open to women and they were active participants. There are records of women suing for personal property, and they often spoke up in attempts to persuade others not to sell land.