If the baby is a girl, please name her ‘Arizona’

Posted by | January 31, 2017

Arizona Houston Hughes (1876-1969) taught elementary school in Avery County, NC for 57 years. In 1953 she was honored by the state, receiving the North Carolina Teacher of the Year award at the annual North Carolina Teacher’s Conference in Asheville. She “was selected as honor teacher because of her record as the State’s active teacher with the longest continuous record,” reported the Asheville Citizen. Gloria Houston tells her story in My Great Aunt Arizona, published in 1992 by HarperCollins:

My great-aunt Arizona
was born in a log cabin
her papa built
in the meadow
on Henson Creek
in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
When she was born,
the mailman rode
across the bridge
on his big bay horse
with a letter.

The letter was from her brother,
Galen, who was in the cavalry,
far away in the West.
The letter said,
“If the baby is a girl,
please name her Arizona,
and she will be beautiful,
like this land.”

Arizona was a very tall little girl.
She wore her long brown hair in braids.
She wore long full dresses,
and a pretty white apron.
She wore high-button shoes,
and many petticoats, too.
Arizona liked to grow flowers.

She liked to read.

And sing.

And square dance to the music
of the fiddler
on Saturday night.

Arizona had a little brother, Jim
They played together on the farm.
In summer they went barefoot
and caught tadpoles in the creek.

In the fall
they climbed the mountains
searching for galax and ginseng roots.

In the winter they made snow cream
with sugar, snow, and sweet cream
from Mama’s cows.
When spring came,
they helped Papa tap
the maple trees
and catch the sap in buckets.
Then they made maple syrup
and maple-sugar candy.

Arizona and her brother Jim
walked up the road
that wound by the creek
to the one-room school.
All the students
in all the grades
were there,
in one room.
All the students
read their lessons
at the same time.
They made
a great deal of noise,
the room was called
a blab school.

The students carried their lunches
in lard buckets made of tin.
They brought ham and biscuits.
Sometimes they had fried apple pie.
They drank cool water
from the spring
at the bottom of the hill.
At recess they played games
like tag
and William Matrimmatoe.

When Arizona had read
all the books
at the one-room school,
she crossed the mountains
to the school
in another village,
a village called Wing.
It was so far away
that she rode her papa’s mule.
Sometimes she rode the mule
through the snow.

Arizona Houston Hughes of Avery County NC

Arizona Houston Hughes

When Arizona’s mother died,
Arizona had to leave school
and stay home to care for Papa
and her brother Jim.
But she still loved to read-
and dream
about the faraway places
she would visit one day.
So she read and she dreamed,
and she took care of Papa
and Jim.

Then one day
papa brought home a new wife.
Arizona could go away to school,
where she could learn to be a teacher.
Aunt Suzie invited Arizona
to live at her house
and help with the chores.
Aunt Suzie made her work very hard.
But at night Arizona could study-
and dream of all the faraway places
she would visit one day.

Finally, Arizona returned
to her home on Henson Creek.
She was a teacher at last.

She taught in the one-room school
where she and Jim had sat.
She made new chalkboards
out of lumber from Papa’s sawmill,
and covered them with polish
made for shoes.
She still wore long full dresses
and a pretty white apron.
She wore high-button shoes
and many petticoats, too.
She grew flowers in every window.
She taught students about words
and numbers
and the faraway places
they would visit someday.
“Have you been there?”
the students asked.
“Only in my mind,” she answered.
“But someday you will go.”

Arizona married the carpenter
who helped build the new Riverside School
down where Henson Creek joins the river.
So Miss Arizona became Mrs. Hughes,
and for the rest of her days
she taught fourth-grade students
who called her “Miz Shoes.”

And when her daughter was born,
Miz Shoes brought the baby to school,
to the sunny room
where flowers grew in every window.

Every year Arizona
had a Christmas tree
growing in a pot.
The girls and boys made
paper decorations
to brighten up the tree.
Then they planted their tree
at the edge of the school yard,
year after year,
until the entire playground
was lined with
living Christmas trees,
like soldiers guarding the room
where Arizona taught,
with her long gray braids
wound around her head,
with her long full dress,
and pretty white apron,
with her high-button shoes,
and many petticoats, too.

The boys and girls
who were students in her class
had boys and girls
who were students in her class.
And they had boys and girls
who were students in her class.

For fifty-seven years
my great-aunt Arizona
hugged her students.
She hugged them
when their work was good,
and she hugged them
when it was not.
She taught them words
and numbers,
and about the faraway places
they would visit someday.
“Have you been there?”
the students asked.
“Only in my mind,”
she answered.
“But someday you will go.”

My great-aunt Arizona
taught my dad,
Jim’s only son.
And she taught
my brother and me
in the fourth grade.
With her soft white braids
wound a round her head,
she taught us about
the faraway places
we would visit someday.

My great-aunt Arizona died
on her ninety-third birthday.
But she goes with me
in my mind-
A very tall lady,
in a long full dress,
and a pretty white apron,
with her high-button shoes,
and her many petticoats, too.
She’s always there,
in a sunny room
with many flowers
in every window,
and a hug for me every day.

She never did go
to the faraway places
she taught us about.
But my great-aunt Arizona
travels with me
and with those of us
whose lives she touched.

She goes with us
in our minds.

sources: My Great Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston, HarperCollins, 1992
Remembering Avery County: Old Tales from North Carolina’s Youngest County, by Michael C. Hardy, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2007

5 Responses

  • Ana says:

    I was reading this with my 6 year old for the first time. This is so touching. It made me weepy. Thank you for posting a picture to go with the name.

  • Dooris Wiseman Boulton says:

    Thank you Kimberly for this post of Mama. I grew up in her home and she instilled all the history, culture religious heritage and curiosity that has stayed with me for 78 years.

    I have just been thinking about posting a little bio of her life – fascinating. Her mother died when she was 7, eventually went away to school, then to Macon stenography college before coming home to teach at 18 and began working on a Lifetime teaching certificate at App. (Most other teachers in the 1800s were volunteers from their community. What a commitment!)

    My mother, Helen,later taught children of her earlier students, then in the 60’s I taught children of those children.

    “Arizona” is now the name of her great, great grandchild.

    I see that I am not replying to Kimberly but ….to whom it may concern:-) Sorry.

    ps. Helen is the baby in the box!

  • Ann Greene Barrs says:

    I had a teacher (I never knew her first name) at Crossnore elementary school. 1st or 3rd grade. In 1944 or ’45. I was only 6 or 7. I’d love to know if my Mrs. Hughes was Arizona.

    My great-grandmother’s name was Indiana Virginia Setzer.

  • Ellen says:

    Vickie Olander I am not sure if this is where Mom’s name “Revonda Arizona Penley Johnson” originated or not. She would have been about 35 when mom was born in Fontana Village (not in Avery Co.) where Grandma Mindy was cooking for a logging camp. Folks were enamored with the west so it might well have been. Quite a handle for quite a Lady even if she didn’t particularly care for her name.

  • John houston says:

    My dad and uncles talk about “Aunt Zona” quite often. I never got to meet her but would love to hear some stories.

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