Christy and Leonora: City Girl, Country Gal

Posted by | November 3, 2011

Please welcome Marilyn Dean Mitchem, a nationally recognized commentator on Catherine Marshall’s novel ‘Christy.’ Marilyn has been active in the Christy internet community since the summer of 1995 (you can find her currently on ChristyFest’s Facebook site). She first attended ChristyFest in 2000, and was a planning team member from 2004 to 2006. Marilyn is in the process of writing the first-ever book on the history of Ebenezer Mission, tentatively titled ‘Sifting through the Ashes: The History of Ebenezer Mission.’

Catherine Marshall, author of "Christy."

Catherine Marshall, author of "Christy."

In writing Christy, Catherine Marshall wove elements of fact and fiction, mystery and humor, grief and joy. She honored her parents’ service at Ebenezer Mission, and, from their stories, created the timeless characters we readers know and love.

But important differences exist between the fictional character, Christy Rudd Huddleston, and her real-life counterpart, Leonora Haseltine Whitaker.

Although both women were born and raised in Buncombe County, North Carolina, sheltered Christy knew little of rural life. En route to El Pano, she wondered why her parents hadn’t told her “that such awful conditions existed within a day’s train ride from Asheville, right in our mountains.” Leonora made infrequent trips to Asheville. Shy and reserved, she likely felt underdressed and out of place in the hustle and bustle of Pack Square.

Let’s compare each woman’s environment.

*Christy, the eldest of two children, was born circa 1892 to upper middle class parents in Asheville, North Carolina, and lived on Montford Avenue.
*Christy attended the historic downtown First Presbyterian Church.
*Christy enjoyed tea parties and dances. She shopped at the Bon Marché department store.
*Christy attended the Asheville city schools and is the most famous fictional student of Flora MacDonald College in Red Springs, North Carolina.
*While at Montreat during summer 1911 Christy volunteered to teach for the American Inland Mission, founded by Dr. Mercer Ferrand of Arkansas. She had no previous teaching experience.
*Christy arrived at El Pano in January 1912. After no one met her at the train station, Christy stayed overnight with Mrs. Tatum at her boarding house.
*Christy’s supervisor and mentor was Alice Henderson, a Quaker missionary from Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
*While at Cutter Gap, Christy was courted by two suitors: Rev. David Grantland and Dr. Neil MacNeill.
*A native of Cutter Gap, Dr. MacNeill cared for his fellow neighbors. He had formerly been married to Margaret Henderson, Alice’s daughter, who died of typhoid while pregnant with their first child. Neil was a widower when Christy arrived in 1912.

Runnion General Store in Del Rio, TN. This location was the inspiration for the book and TV series "Christy". The actual Christy mission is about 5 miles from here up into the hills. Photo from 2008.

Runnion General Store in Del Rio, TN. This location was the inspiration for the book and TV series "Christy". The actual Christy mission is about 5 miles from here up into the hills. Photo from 2008.

In contrast,

*Leonora Whitaker, the eldest of eight children, was born October 26, 1890, on her family’s farm near Dillingham, North Carolina. Her family was self-sufficient; trips to Asheville were rare and important.
*Leonora knew the working end of a cow and how to gather eggs.
*She helped her mother put up food for the winter.
*Leonora worshiped at Dillingham Presbyterian Church, itself a mountain mission congregation founded by the Asheville Presbytery during her girlhood.
*Leonora attended country school through grade eight in the Dillingham community.
*Since Buncombe County operated no public high schools until 1907, Leonora attended Weaverville College, a private academy owned by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
*Leonora taught country school for about three semesters before coming to Ebenezer Mission.
*While at Montreat during summer 1909 Leonora volunteered to teach for the American Inland Mission, founded in 1897 by Dr. Edward O. Guerrant of Wilmore, Kentucky.
*Leonora arrived at Ebenezer Mission, southwest of Del Rio, Tennessee, shortly after Christmas 1909. After no one met her at the train station, she stayed overnight with Joseph and Mildred Burnett at their boarding house in Del Rio.
*Leonora’s first supervisor at Ebenezer Mission was Margaret Allison of Hopewell, North Carolina. About ten years earlier, Margaret had been Leonora’s third grade teacher at Dillingham. They had lost contact with each other during the intervening years.
*While at Ebenezer Leonora was courted by John Ambrose Wood, the mission’s resident pastor, who came to Ebenezer in September 1909. They married on May 3, 1910, four months after meeting.
*Residents of the Old Fifteenth District, where Ebenezer Mission was located, relied upon Dr. John Ruble of Del Rio for medical treatment. No trained physician lived near Ebenezer.

12 Responses

  • Ken Richards says:

    Thank you so much for this information. It is most helpful in my research regarding Riverside Cemetery, Montford Historic District and Montreat. Is it possible to clarify the area regarding Dillingham Presbyterian Church. According to the church archives, and my wife Irene Dillingham Richards, the following is stated: Sept. 1897 Rev. E. Mac Davis, pastor established the Upper Ivy Church. It had 66 members by Sept. 1898 as reported to the Asheville Presbytery. In 1901 it changed its name to Church of the Covenant at Barnardsville and then Covenantors Presbyterian Church. In 1934 the current sanctuary was built with members actually doing the work with Vestal Dillinghams Sawmill and each family gathered rocks from the river for the facing. The church changed its name to Dillingham Presbyterian at that time. Is it possible that for expediency in your article you used the name for the church as Dillingham all the way through?
    My wife, b. 1924, recalls two lady “missionarys” Ms. Bertha Abernathy and Aunt Rena _______.
    Again, thanks so much for providing great support for my efforts.
    Cordially, Ken Richards

  • Marilyn says:

    Dear Ken,

    As you surmised, I used Dillingham Presbyterian Church for expediency and also to give the current name, in case someone wanted to contact the church. Four names was too confusing in such a short article. I will name the church correctly in my book.

    Aunt Rena Brown. She was Bertha’s aunt. And you say your wife knew Bertha? I’d love to get your wife’s memories of Bertha, as she served as a missionary to Ebenezer Mission.

    Is your wife kin to Floy? We’ve visited her twice. That area around Dillingham is so beautiful. I’m so glad to hear from you.

    Regards, Marilyn

  • Ken Richards says:

    Good evening Marilyn,
    Irene is related to Floy Dillingham Maney.
    We’d love to have you visit the Big Ivy Historic Association. Denny Dillingham, who lives on Sugar Creek just above Democrat, NC, is president.
    Regards, Ken

  • Anne Wagner says:

    Greetings Marilyn,

    I read Christy while I was still in college, and that was Many years ago, and guess I still consider it one of the most personally inspirational books ever written, especially for a person who grew up in appalachia, not far from “Cutter Gap”.

    However, now readng the contrasts you have compiled between CH and LW, I realize almost none of the book was authentic.
    Without Miss Alice (no Quaker story, and no illegimate daughter and no mentoring), without Dr. MacNeil (no romance and oneupmanship with David and no epidemic and no dead wife turning him from God to science) and the list goes on. Really what’s left is a young woman teaching school in a backward region day after day of probably very mundane events without any drama. Good Grief!!
    When’s your book being published? I want to read it.

  • Marilyn says:

    Dear Anne,

    Thanks for your comments. Ten years ago, I would have thought the same as you do.

    Far from mundane, the actual history is fascinating. Catherine Marshall said that between 2/3 and 3/4 of Christy is based on true events. While there was no love triangle, John and Leonora’s love story is so poignant. They married only four months after meeting. Leonora’s accomplishments before arriving at Ebenezer Mission are amazing for a teen-aged girl.

    I’m hard at work on my book; researching is nearing an end.


  • Marilyn says:

    Dear Ken,

    I’ve spoken with Denny on the phone. He was very helpful.


  • Clarissa says:

    Hi—very interesting website— I’m just wondering, was John Wood ever married before he married Leonora? Thanks for any info you can give me. Clarissa

  • Marilyn Mitchem says:

    Dear Clarissa,

    John was married only to Leonora. Thanks for asking

  • Kathy Davis says:

    Good morning – I am in the middle my first reading of Christy. I am fascinated by the story. We are hard at work on my husband’s family history as his grandfather and his family were from Cocke County- Del Rio. We visited there over Thanksgiving but didn’t get very far into the mountains. We will go back soon. I have also purchased the book Over The Misty Blue Hills. Please keep working on your book – I will be anxious to read it as well.

    We have been able to trace back some – to Sarah Davis who’s son was John A. Davis – we found information where Seth Bible and a John Davis were involved in a murder … but we keep looking for more. We would love to talk to anyone who may be able to help us in our search.

    Thanks !!

  • Donna Murpy says:

    In the 1990′s I worked on a letter writing campaign to bring Christy back to CBS. I visited Townsend often during the 1990′s. Had the pleasure to met Ken Wales at ChristyFest. I got to know Larry Myers thru ChristyFest and the Christy the Musical that was in Townsend. I have countless articles and photos taken during that time. If you would like to see any of the photos or articles please let me know.

    Donna Gibson Murphy

  • Marilyn Mitchem says:

    Dear Kathy,

    Wonderful to hear from you! I wish you well in your family history search in Cocke County. The research I’ve done for my book will add to the body of knowledge about Cocke County. I’m working hard on my book.

    Regards, Marilyn

  • Marilyn Mitchem says:

    Hi Donna,

    I first attended ChristyFest in 2000. Did you attend that year? I knew the organizers of the first ChristyFests in 1997-99, just didn’t attend.

    Yes, I’d be interested to see your photos and articles. Thanks for offering! Marilyn

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