A Belated Mother’s Day Story

I look to you for courage in my life
And I promise it’s not just foolish idolatry
That makes me gaze at you in wonder.

–Holly Near, “Something About the Women”

My mom’s a Smoky Mountain gal, and I’m in the process of writing a book about her life and times. I’m happy to finally be able to say I’m on the downhill side of the project, but it’s still a long ride. Thought I’d share a little of her backstory in her honor during this Mother’s Day week.

Mother as a teenager–at 4-H camp

Mother’s ancestors arrived in the Smokies with little more than they could carry. Those early pioneers spent their days working the land. The mainstay meat product was pork—hogs were more numerous than all other livestock combined, with farmers killing a hog or two annually for their families to live on until next hog-killing season. It was the era of subsistence farming. Most of the necessities of life were produced in the home or on the farm, and most exchange was by barter. There was little contact with the outside world, even in one’s own county. That’s how scarce roads were.

A record of early settlers’ homes and the sturdy, industrious people who built and occupied them was summarized by Edgar H. Stillwell, Mother’s second cousin once removed and former history professor at what is now Western Carolina University.
Stillwell wrote that no sooner were their rough, one-room cabins built than the pioneers began clearing the cheap, plentiful land for cultivation, making their crude farm implements themselves from whatever was available. He added, “All other necessaries were manufactured by hand . . . ” It was a world of do it yourself or do without.

Such were the conditions in the 1820s, when the family of Mother’s third-great-grandparents, Mary Nicholson and Barak Norton, were the first settlers of Whiteside Cove in the Cashiers community, which is now part of Jackson County. Barak lived to be 92, Mary to 95. Her 1883 obituary stated that she never had need of a doctor until her last year.

Barak and Mary Nicholson Norton

Meanwhile, other of Pam’s ancestors were moving into other sections of southwestern NC, most notably a bit north in the Oconaluftee area, most of it now lying within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Soon after Sarah and Jacob Mingus settled the area in the earliest years of the 1800s, the Stillwells arrived, and then the Holdens.

In the isolated coves where they settled, religious services were typically conducted in private homes, as was the case with Lufty Baptist Church founded in 1836. Lufty’s early meetings were held in the home of Dr. John Mingus, whose parents (Jacob and Sarah), Mother’s third-great-grandparents, were among the very earliest settlers in the region.

The Minguses were described by one old-timer in an oral history interview with the park historian. “They are ordinarily large, heavy built with a ruddy complexion having broad faces with a slightly Roman nose. They have soft blue or gray eyes, a grave expression yet comical. They are honest and thrifty. They as a whole delight in paying every penny they owe but it almost kills them to pay an unjust debt. They have a high explosive temper easily offended but quick to forgive . . . Most of the Minguses I ever knew was law abiding and God fearing people. I was raised on the Ocona Lufty river and her tributaries and I never saw a drunk Mingus in all my life . . . They use very little profanity. They have few habits. The women folks are mostly good housekeepers and cooks. They all work and teach their children to work.”

Mingus Mill, Great Smoky Mountains National Park–        Creative Commons photo courtesy of Brian Stansberry [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

John Preston Arthur, in his History of Western North Carolina, said, “It was the women who were the true heroines of this section. The hardships and constant toil to which they were generally subjected were blighting and exacting in the extreme. If their lord and master could find time to hunt and fish, go to the Big Musters, spend Saturdays loafing or drinking in the settlement or about the country ‘stores,’ as the shops were and still are called, their wives could scarcely, if ever, find a moment they could call their own.”
Edgar Stillwell added, “. . . at last, tired and worn out with the long day’s duties, [they fell] on the bed for a well-earned night’s repose, which was often broken by the cries of a sick baby or the return of some male member of the family late in the night. Thus our great great grandmothers served from day to day; thus they labored without honor, often with little reward, and always unselfishly. Heroines indeed they were.”

Indeed.

With few exceptions, not much is known of these women beyond what can be gleaned from various census records. That so little information is available may be due—aside from patriarchy—to the poor state of things like roads and communication systems in western North Carolina in its early, and not so early, days.

Even in this remote area, a few morsels of Mother’s matrilineage did make it into print or oral history.

In 1775 or so, a fort was raised on the land of Mother’s third-great-grandparents, William and Rebecca Cathey in what is now McDowell County, NC, to protect their family and neighbors against Cherokee raids during the Revolutionary War period. It was the westernmost military outpost in the state. A historical marker sits along Highway 221/226.

From that battle came this tale about Catheys Fort and the mother of one of the Cathey men, whose specific identity I’ve not yet been able to confirm. The Catheys were familiar with Cherokee attacks on their property and fort. Mrs. Cathey knew there had been attacks on several nearby communities by the Cherokee/Tory Army, led by Dragging Canoe, war chief of the Chickamauga Cherokee, “and she dang well was ready to alarm McDowell residents” of the coming danger, so she mounted a horse in her stable “astride and at quarter speed” to warn the settlement to flee to the fort.

They barely made it to relative safety before the fighting began. Then one of the defending party cried out that all the powder was gone, an admission that could have spelled doom for the fort’s occupants. At that point, “old Mrs. Cathey” (I’m not sure if this was Rebecca or another family member) once again came to the rescue. She “pulled off a pair of red flannel pockets and called out that there was powder aplenty.” At just that moment one of the attackers was shot and the invaders retreated. The ploy was a ruse—her pockets were empty, but “the bravery and quick wit of Mrs. Cathey saved the party.”

Though there is some confusion, the woman in this photo may be Catherine Cathey (Mother’s second-great-grandmother), daughter of William and Rebecca.

When John Holden left to fight in the Civil War in 1862, Mother’s maternal great-grandmother, Arminda, was left to care for their five young children, ages 5 months to 7 years, give birth to another, and manage all aspects of the family home and farm on her own. After John’s return in 1865, Arminda gave birth to another eight children. That was fourteen children over twenty-six years.

John and Arminda Norton Holden

Mother’s grandmother, Martha Jane Henry Dillard was only eleven when her older brothers went off to war, their father having died that same year. That left Martha Jane, her nine-year-old brother, and their mother, Sarah Elliott Henry to fend for themselves during those dangerous times.

Martha Jane Henry Dillard with grandchildren–Mother is the baby, bottom left

And back to Mary Norton. According to John Preston Arthur, “It is a well authenticated fact that Mrs. Norton, then living in Cashier’s Valley, was awakened one night while her husband was away from home, by hearing a great commotion and the squealing of hogs at the hog-pen nearby. Her children were small and there was no ‘man pusson’ about the place. The night was cold and she had no time to clothe herself, but, rushing from the cabin in her night dress and with bare feet, she snatched an axe from the wood-pile and hastening to the hog-pen, saw a large black bear in the act of killing one of her pet ‘fattening hogs.’ She did not hesitate an instant, but went on and aiming a well directed blow at Bruin’s cranium, split it from ears to chin and so had bear meat for breakfast instead of furnishing pork for the daring marauder.”

Such is the stock from which Pam Dillard Coates comes.

Mother in her late sixties

Mother in her upper eighties

I suspect most, if not all, of us have similar stories somewhere in our family histories, even though we may not know them. So, on behalf of children everywhere, thank you to the mothers of the ages—today and every day—for your struggles, your determination and strength, your survival, and the amazing genes that you carried and passed on. We’re here because of you.

 

Weeds Are Flowers, Too!

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” ―A.A. Milne

I love this quote, and it’s so true. Another equally true saying is “Weeds are plants whose virtues we haven’t yet learned.” Many decades ago, The Gnome and I discovered that the hundreds of wild purple violets popping up in our back yard could be turned into jelly, as delicately eye-popping as it was tasty.

Dandelion is the bane of many a gardener and lawn-lover, but it is actually an herb worthy of respect—a cheery little plant with more uses than you can count on all your fingers, whether culinary, medicinal, or otherwise. You can use virtually all parts of the plant, though you’ll want to avoid the sticky stems.

Dandelions are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. With the leaves, you can make everything from salad greens to classic Irish colconnon to quiche.

Did you know dandelions aren’t native to the U. S., but were imported by European immigrants for their culinary and medicinal uses?

Last year, we made the most exquisitely subtle syrup from the flowers. I’d have been hard pressed to tell it apart from honey. Dandelion tea and wine are other favorites. Dry the root for a coffee substitute. Fresh roots can be used instead of or alongside other root crops. Make a hand lotion or moisturizer from the flowers. Pollinators love dandelions.  And who can forget the sheer joy of blowing on a dandelion puff?

Lamb’s quarters fill the fields with buttery yellow blossoms in springtime. Just before they get to that stage, the stems can be harvested and eaten as a broccoli substitute. And the young leaves make an excellent addition to a green salad.

Chickweed, invasive as it can be, is another nutritious green. Add spinach-y chickweed stems, flowers, and leaves to salads or cook them up like other greens.

Star chickweed is only one of  twenty-five varieties of Stellaria, a member of the carnation family. All are edible and all except the mouse-eared variety can be eaten raw. 

By looking at so-called weeds through a different lens, we can find beauty, peace of mind, and functionality. Not to mention a veritable grocery store in our own back yards.

* If you’re thinking of joining the foraging movement, find yourself a good field guide that will also alert you to similar-looking but unfriendly plants. You’ll also want to (1) ask permission before foraging on private property; and (2) avoid areas that have been exposed to chemical pesticides or herbicides as well as roadsides. They retain automotive emissions you wouldn’t want to ingest.

 

 

 

Spring! Is it Here to Stay?

A couple of weeks ago, we packed up the car for an errand of love. On that day, spring had been teasing us off and on for a couple of weeks. The daffodils were on the wane, but not much else had bloomed up here at our elevation–and another spring snow was in the forecast. What a surprise when we returned home almost a week later to find that our meadow had sprouted a field full of green grass and sunshiny dandelions!

Not just sprouted, but in need of a haircut. Most of our deciduous trees are still bare, but other signs of spring are everywhere. The asparagus bed was bare when we left—on our return we had stalks a foot tall! Our young crabapple is on the verge of bursting into a froth of pink blooms.

But for me, the real promise of spring is the serviceberry, and those snowy white blossoms were the first thing I noticed as we reached our driveway. We may still have a cold snap or two, but the serviceberry is my assurance that spring has kept its promise.

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It’s a sure sign of spring when these dainty flowers come into bloom.

See how bare things are all around this serviceberry?

Most of the two dozen or so species of serviceberry are native to the U. S., and they grow in practically every state. Depending on where you live, you may know them by another name. Maybe shadbush, juneberry, shadblow, or their Native American name, saskatoon. In the east, it’s just plain serviceberry, or sarvisberry in our southern mountain dialect.

There are lots of stories about how the serviceberry came by its name. The one I’m particularly fond of says that back in the day, the tree came into flower just as the roads in the Appalachian mountains became passable enough that a circuit-riding preacher could finally travel this way again to hold service—or sarvis. Time for marryin’ and buryin’ to resume. That explanation may be a bit fanciful, but I find the notion charming.

There’s more to the serviceberry than its early blooms and the tales associated with it. A member of the rose family, it’s a good landscaping choice with its pretty spring flowers and its striking fall foliage.

And though I’ve been known to boil and eat milkweed pods like okra, make jelly out of native hawthorns, and fry up locust and elderberry blossom fritters, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I (only recently) discovered that the serviceberry actually bears fruit. (Duh! Just look at the name, Carole!)

In my defense, our trees are tall, and it would be hard for the naked human eye to spot those small berries. But, hey, I’m a homesteader and a follower of foragers like Euell Gibbons (Stalking the Wild Asparagus, etc.) and Ellen Zachos. How did I miss that?!

About a month from now, the careful observer will notice small red berries. By mid-summer, they’ll be a deep purplish-blue. Like blueberries. They taste a lot like blueberries, too. And like blueberries, they can be eaten raw or used for jelly- and pie-making or any of the other myriad ways blueberries are used.

Most of the serviceberries around here are natives, as much as sixty feet tall. With their upward-stretching limbs, it’s hard to get at those berries. Maybe it’s just as well, since the birds love them, too, and we love the birds.

The good news is you can purchase shrub varieties to make berry collecting ever so much easier. The Gnome and I have added them to the ever-growing list for our nascent fruit orchard.

If you see a serviceberry in bloom, make a note of it. Then check back in July or so for some tasty—and free—eating. You won’t be sorry.