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.

31 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

  • Anne Wagner says:

    Thanks for your comments, Marilyn; it’s been over a year and I’m wondering if your book is nearing completion.
    As to fiction in the novel “Christy”, I believe lots of her writing was based on actual happenings somewhere, just not those in the life of Leonora nor in her time as the mission teacher. One non-fiction aspect may be the novel’s skewering of John Wood; calling Grantland “indecisive and indefinite” in more than one situation. I have read the people of Morgan gap did not, in fact, care for Wood’s stance on moonshining, nor his aggrandizing vocabulary. I saw bits of the television series based upon this work, and loathed it. My grandparents were married that same year, 1909, in the heart of those mountains, and I trust never in their lives saw a fellow in the next hollow wear a kilt–or going barefoot in six foot snows!

  • Marilyn Mitchem says:

    Dear Anne,

    I’m working hard on gathering my material into chrabbinical files by year over the thirty-year period Ebenezer Mission was in operation. I am amazed at the amount of material I’ve found and so excited to share it! John Wood had his supporters and detractors at Ebenezer, that’s for sure. He had a forecful personality and went after people he thought were not living the Christian life. Where did your grandparents live?

  • Anne Wagner says:

    Hi Marilyn, I am glad to hear your book is coming along, and still enthusiastic about the history of the mission!
    My Grandparents were born and raised in Greene County, Tn., as was I, lived there their whole lives and are buried there. I lived there until I left Tusculum College midway thru. Of course you know John and Leonora moved to Greeneville and he pastored the Cumberland Presbyterian Church there. Altho Greeneville was a small country town then, the creme de la creme attended the town churches, so it was quite a leap, socially and economically, from “Cutter Gap” to Main St. My greats and I attended Shiloh CP church in Greene County and it was modest by comparison. Presbyterians are not big on evangelism so I wonder how he adapted to “town” audiences who drank as much as the hill folk did, just dressed up and sitting at tables spread with white cloths!

  • Gail Vercher says:

    HI Marilyn, Am very interested in reading your book. I read Christy back in the 70″s as a young girl of 15. Of course, to most young girls who read it, I was scandalized, and fantasized about the time and the characters in the book. I have read most of Catherine Marshall’s books. I was never a fan of the Christy TV show. Somehow bringing those characters to life for me took something away from the book. I still read it now, even though I know that some of it is fictional. It keeps me ever mindful of my youth.

  • Love Ellis says:

    I found this article to be very insightful. I have recently read the Christy book and was curious about what actually happened and what didn’t.
    After reading this article I am now wondering about the “Highlanders”(As they were called in the book). Were the mountain people that Lenora taught actually Scottish like they were in the novel?

  • Dave Tabler says:

    Not Scottish, but Scots-Irish. Yes.

  • Love Ellis says:

    I see, and was the tale of their migration true?

  • Anne Wagner says:

    Scots-Irish people pioneered that region of the country, the tale of McNeil’s migration is fiction; because there was no doctor–McNeil or otherwise– near the mission during Lenora’s time there. There also was no Quaker Miss Alice, no epidemic of typhoid, no moonshiner’s shootout or murder, and on and on til you have mostly a book of fiction. I grew up not far from this area, the descendant of other Scots-Irish settlers, and never once did I ever see anybody wear a kilt. That was really over the line television writing. Presumably if 2/3 to 3/4 of the novel is based on true events, they must have been true events elsewhere. In fact the region was mired in poverty and there were few fun times for anyone; mostly a life of dawn to dusk hard labor.

  • Marilyn Mitchem says:

    Hi Anne and Love,

    I’m glad to read your posts. I just returned from attending ChristyFest 2015 at Del Rio, Tennessee, the historical setting of Christy. I was a planning team member and did a presentation on various facets of Ebenezer Mission’s history. (Cutter Gap Mission in the novel.)

    Dr. John Ruble lived in Del Rio and came to treat people at Morgan Gap from time to time. His daughter, Mary Ruble, served as one of Catherine’s advisors for Christy. Ebenezer Mission had various female superintendent in charge during its existence. Leonora was supervised by several during her time there. Catherine Marshall admired Hannah Whitall Smith and drew heavily from her life for Miss Alice’s character. Leonora’s supervisors wouldn’t have counseled her like Miss Alice did Christy. That was fictionalized. No kilts out there, that’s for sure. As for the typhoid epidemic Leonora did say later in her life that she visited typhoid patients.

    Catherine Marshall said that 2/3 to 3/4 of the events in Christy had a factual basis. Based upon my research I think the percentages are pretty accurate. There were people of German origin who lived near Ebenezer as well as Scot-Irish. Life was difficult in the Appalachians but people found time to sing and fellowhip. I look forward to sharing this information more about Ebenezer Mission with you in my book!

  • Anne Wagner says:

    Hi Marilyn,
    We are looking forward to your book!! Do a lot of people show up for Christyfest?
    Are they mostly viewers of the tv series (I didn’t care for it), or the novel (I treasure it)? Yes, several German families in Greene County and environs, one of my great grandfathers was a German immigrant who received a land grant in those mountains for his service as a soldier. Keep up the good work.

  • Anne Wagner says:

    Marilyn, I meant to add that I thank you for reminding me that my grandparents’ lives were not totally spent in stoop labor; they each felt they had fine lives, the lives their parents had had, did not wish to live anywhere else, relished growing crops and stock, and always had smiles on their faces. They married in 1909, the same year “Christy” went to teach at the mission–I need to remember that she, and them, and all their neighbors were in living in vivid color and not the stiffly posed, black and white photos that have survived.

  • Marilyn Mitchem says:

    Hi Anne,

    We had about 25 attendees at ChristyFest this year, a smaller crowd than last year. Illnesses and schedule conflicts prevented some of our regulars from attending. The Christy book is what we focus upon with nods to the CBS series and PAX movies. I loved the TV series for the most part, just a couple of episodes were weak to me. It was interesting to learn at previous ChristyFests the process by which the TV writers went about crafting an episode. When a large cast is present and being paid, writers work more people into each episode than the novel did. There is a six month period where Christy and Neil don’t even see each other in the novel, for example. Impossible to accomplish in a weekly series, of course!

  • Anne Wagner says:

    Thanks for always giving me information, Marilyn! I did watch every episode of the tv series, always hoping I would like it better as time moved on. I do see the need to include the actors on site in all the episodes, but hadn’t considered it until you explained. One of my favorites, which I reckon tied in with the film “Songcatcher” was the guy who stole Miss Hattie’s songs. An acquaintance of mine from western NC played music in that movie and was the ‘voice coach”…if you watch the film you will see that imparting that accent to actors from outside the mountains was difficult and you can “hear” the effort. I don’t recall the background music from the tv series of Christy, nor any kind of “mountain” music being played at the Mission, altho Christy plunked away on the Lyon and Healey as best she could, despite Miss Ida’s frowns!

  • Teresa says:

    I’ve watched and re watched Christy many times. I never get tired of watching it. I always wished some producer would have made a Christy Christmas movie

  • tina says:

    I read the book when I was about 8, and many times since then. Just found out there’s a series of books, too! I watched the show and believe there is a mini movie too? With my grandma I have a quick eye to point out the difference between both—there was much difference between them, unlike most!

    When will your book be coming out?

  • Donna says:

    Did the book not ever get out?

    I’ve found out that my great-aunt went to teach in what I call the Appalachians, only in Pulaski County, KY, only she taught in the public school systems, not sure how she came to since she came from the other end of the state; haven’t been able to find out anything about the history, though been trying.

  • Marilyn says:

    I an hard at work on my book, Donna, and so excited to share it when finished.

  • Heather says:

    I just finished reading Christy for the first time, even though I’ve loved Catherine Marshall’s non-fiction writing all of my life. I enjoyed the novel, and of course as soon as I finished, I wanted to know what was fact, and what was fiction! So I ended up at this site, and I appreciate your taking the time to research the true facts of Ebenezer Mission and the life of Leonora Whitaker Wood v. the fictional Christy Huddleston.

    It’s so interesting how the daughter told the mother’s story, yet fictionalized some aspects to give it wider appeal. It reminds me a bit of the way Rose Wilder Lane “helped” her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, create the Little House on the Prairie books. (Rose was a very gifted writer, and they both needed some cash after losing their savings in the stockmarket crash of 1929!)

    I’m looking forward to watching the whole Christy TV series, which I’ve found available online, though I’ve had a harder time tracking down DVDs of the three feature-length films. I’d love to attend ChristyFest someday — is it held every year?

  • Laura Rebecca Orland Murdoch says:

    My grandmother was recruited at Steele Creek Presbyterian Church after graduating from Queens Collage to teach at a mission in the mountains. Her name was Laura Rebecca Watt and I understand she taught two years, 1912-1914. We also believe she was there just before or just after
    Leonora Whitaker Wood (aka Catherine Marshall’s mother”Christy”)
    Do you have any information about either of these women? I am trying to verify the information about Laura Watt and identify where she served.
    Thank you for any information you may have.

    Laura Rebecca Orland Murdoch
    Sent from my iPhone

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