Please welcome guest author Jan Loveday Dickens. Jan is an artist and educator who celebrates her Appalachian roots. Her interest in local history was first sparked by a high school English assignment to research her community’s past and culture back in the late 1970s when the Foxfire series was so popular.
Jan’s efforts expanded to genealogy, which she has pursued since that time, honing her research skills as she continued her education with a bachelor of fine arts degree and a master’s in teaching. She eventually began to share her adventures online via her Passed and Presence blog, which is “dedicated to the memory of those who have passed before us and to the presence of those who bless us today.”
Jan’s career at various colleges and universities that embrace their own Appalachian foundations provided her access to academic programs and lectures that spurred greater curiosity, insights, and reflection. Her experience includes involvement in promotion of the arts, revitalization of downtown areas, the preservation of historic places, and publication of various articles and books, such as a history of Milligan College. She more recently returned to the classroom in her hometown, where she teaches art and history and was the recipient of the 2014 award for Outstanding Teaching of the Humanities for Tennessee.
Everyone loves a mystery. Sometimes solving a history mystery is a serendipitous event!
This drawing of Mt. Harmony Baptist Church was based on Luther’s description and drawn by his son, Dr. D. F. Johnson, retired University of Northern Colorado art professor.
While researching my East Tennessee church’s past, I came across a couple of photocopied pages referencing titles of material that appeared to include information from the late 1800s about my church.
I did an online search for the mentioned author and the titles, only to find that no physical or digital copy I could get my hands on seemed to exist. The material was written by Luther Ray Johnson (1880-1960), who had grown up in my community.
He had then become a preacher as a young adult and moved to Kansas. The titles were referenced by his son, D. F., in a book of family history that alluded to larger collections of details about my community. But what and where were they?
I began by looking in the McClung Historical Collection of our Knox County public library system, but even the professionals there could not help me find the mysterious volumes. I also called libraries, archives, and historical societies in Kansas, to no avail.
When I finally found a Kansas phone listing for a D.F. Johnson, I was doing the math as I dialed the number, knowing the man I was looking for would be quite advanced in age. I called the number off and on for months, but I had no option to leave a message, and no one ever answered. When I eventually got a “discontinued service” alert, I was deflated, but I shifted my search to other names of people in Kansas who might be related. Please note the very common last name: Johnson!
Imagine my elation when I finally connected with the correct Dr. Johnson’s son! Yes, he told me his father was still living independently and was mentally sharp at the age of 94. With my subsequent phone call to Dr. Johnson began a friendship I treasure.
He was happy to hear from someone in his father’s beloved hill country, a place that had held a cherished mystique for the family because of his father’s often-told adventures there. He explained that the two referenced volumes of his father’s [copyrighted] memoirs were hardbound and on a shelf in his bookcase, but he was happy to share them with me.
The next thing I knew, he had entrusted them to me through the mail, and I was in temporary possession of more than 600 typewritten pages of wonderful stories that were often related to familiar families and places in my community! I was quite anxious until I could safely return them, but I first obtained his permission to have them copied for local collections.
His father’s words took me to a time in my area of Appalachia when basic education was a luxury, hard physical labor was the norm for country folks, and things like steamboats, bicycles, and trains held a novel allure. He also spoke of homemade rabbit traps, drafty log cabins, typical gardening techniques, challenging farm chores, quaint medicinal cures, and simple elements of faith, all included within stories of everyday experiences, complete with names and specific locations.
Luther Ray Johnson, the author of the memoirs.
I live less than two miles from the farm where his family lived, so because of his stories I began to see my surrounding landscape through new eyes.
The river spot where two young boys were tempted by the majestic spray from a steamboat’s churning wheel that filled their boat and drowned them, is just behind my house.
The gravel pike on which Luther and his father drove their horse and wagon to take vegetables to the market is today a paved road I travel almost daily. The location of the ferry they used now has a bridge I have always taken for granted.
His tale of fearing an encounter with the “ghost mule” of his era’s folklore led me to a friend’s family farm, known only to the old-timers as Mule Hollow. Now we know why.
And what of the church where Luther and I have both been members? Though the oldest church records have only a few names and dates and are totally void of information for decades, Mr. Johnson’s memoirs are a treasure trove of details!
He writes, “The rural church in my early days was extremely democratic. Often the church building suffered for want of a housekeeper: someone to sweep its floor, dust its furniture, lock its door, ring its bell, make its fires, and look after things generally so that worship might be conducted ‘in decency and in order.’
“Since there was no person in charge of these duties, often the sanctuary was unpresentable on meeting days…. Men used to bring their saddles into the church and pile them down in the rear to prevent molestation by mischievous boys. One might go from the service to find a stirrup cut off from his saddle, or the saddle loosed and turned around on the horse, or the stirrups locked together under the horse.
He might even find a great gash cut in the saddle. Now and then there would be a theft of a good saddle. Sometimes the horse would be turned loose, and he would be found at home waiting to get into the stable. Or a man might go out to find the wheels of his buggy reversed or staggered; but of course he could not take the buggy into the church.”
He continues, “Boys sometimes stood at the church windows in summer and smoked cigarettes and purposely blew the smoke into the room to annoy the people. Boys would sit a while in church and then get up and go out to the disturbance of the services. They spat on the floor and walls of the building until there were ugly streaks and spots on the walls and sickening puddles on the floor. In the wet weather great clots of mud were carried in and scuffed off on the floor, and when these dried, they were crushed into dust making a terrible condition.
“Boys whittled on the pews, cut their names on the backs of the benches or whittled on sticks while the preacher delivered his message. Whittling and chewing tobacco was a common pastime even at church.
“This was not confined to the unregenerate youth, but even old men, maybe deacons, would engage in this dawdle as they sat on the rail fence waiting for Sunday school to be out and for the bell to ring for ‘church’ – whittling, chewing tobacco and telling jokes or talking generally about everything and everybody, maybe never referring to the church or its activity at all.
“Then when the big bell sounded its solemn tones, these men would click the blades of their knives, slowly come down from the fence, and saunter into the church for the preaching.” He even witnessed preachers who would rinse their mouths with water, spit on the floor in the presence of the people, preach for an hour, and return the following month without consequence!
As in many country churches, its door was never locked and sometimes it stood open during the week. Occasionally, youngsters would step in and ring the bell for fun, just to make the community wonder what was happening! In winter, logs were never ready for the stove and had to be fetched from the woods while the women sat and shivered.
Luther recounted an incident when two dogs fought for a spot near the stove during the service, until his father carried the main offender by the legs like a rabbit to the door and slung it out into the yard where it landed with a thud and a yelp! The other dog comfortably remained in his warm spot, the preacher continued his sermon despite lingering snickers, and a fellow (whom his father once had caused to be arrested for disturbing public worship) threatened to call the law. He said the event was talked about for years.
Swan Pond Creek runs lower left corner to upper right corner, past the Mt. Harmony Church, as shown in this 1895 map.
Another story told of the day a member was retrieved from the service by a neighbor, leaving the wife to ride home with friends in their wagon, only to find the two men grieving over the couple’s log home, which was in ashes. I realized that my parents had bought our farm from the same family’s descendants! I learned about the appearances, personalities, and habits of our early pastors, some for whom I had previously had only initials and a last name. His words also gave me an inside look at the aspects of regular services and revival meetings and led me to the swimming hole in the nearby creek, where baptisms were held.
It was a different time in our Appalachian community, and his memoirs helped to put flesh on the bones of our church’s portrait! What would we know about it if Luther hadn’t continued to love and long for the mountains he had left behind?
So… keep telling the stories. Collect them. Write them down. Celebrate them, for they are stepping stones to the past and a part of our own foundations!