The first African-American woman to serve in a legislative body in the US

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 10, 2017

On January 10, 1928 Minnie Buckingham Harper (R-McDowell) was appointed to succeed her late husband in the West Virginia House of Delegates, becoming the first African-American woman to serve in a legislative body in the United States. Harper was appointed by Governor Howard Gore to fill the vacancy caused by the death of her husband, E. Howard Harper.


Prior to her husband’s passing, Minnie Harper had been a housewife in Keystone. She did not run in the state legislative elections held later that year.

During the early part of the 20th century the southern half of the WV, and McDowell County in particular, attracted a relatively large number of African Americans from surrounding states who were looking for work in the coal mines.

Although the work was hazardous and hard, the pay was relatively good, especially given the limited career alternatives available to African-American men. By 1920, the state’s African-American population had increased to almost 86,000. McDowell County became known as a place where African-Americans could achieve considerable social mobility in an otherwise segregated society.

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Let the bells peal!

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 9, 2017

There are two places in today’s Appalachia where you can hear an authentic peal of the churchbells: at Breslin Tower in Convocation Hall at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, and at Patton Memorial Tower in St James’ Episcopal Church in Hendersonville, NC. “What are you talking about?” you may say. “Why, my own local church has bells in the tower!”

The Bells at Breslin Tower, University of the SouthThe Bells at Breslin Tower, University of the South.

But a ‘peal’ is a technical term which comes down to us from the ancient art of change ringing. Change ringing of bells produces not a specific song, but rather a cascade of sound, and requires special bells. They are large, ranging in weight from a few hundred pounds to several tons. Bells for change ringing are hung in stout frames that allow the bells to swing through 360 degrees. Each bell is attached to a wooden wheel with a handmade rope running around it. The harmonic richness of a swinging bell cannot be matched by the same bell hanging stationary, and each swinging bell requires one ringer’s full attention.

Change ringing is based on mathematical formulae in which every bell in a church’s tower is rung in a sequence, or a ‘change,’ followed by another sequence in which they are rung in a different order until a ‘peal’ is completed.

The more bells involved, the longer the bells can be rung without repeating a row. Five bells allow 120 changes. The numbers increase rapidly. Six bells yield 720 changes, seven bells 5,040. Eight bells can be rung through 40,320 changes. As a result of all the possible combinations, peals customarily last about three hours.

The changes, which are notated, are passed along through the sub-subculture of bell ringers just like folk songs. Change ringing is also called “ringing the changes.”

Early American churches outfitted for change ringing naturally patterned themselves after the British model, in which a small number of bells, usually no more than twelve, were used. The first peal was rung in England in 1715. The first peal in North America was rung at Christ Church, Philadelphia, in 1850.

Breslin Tower was built in 1886 and modeled after Magdalen College of Oxford. It was not initially engineered for change ringing, but at first had only clock bells (installed around 1900) that were struck with hammers and did not swing. As a result, the stress placed on the tower was relatively insignificant when compared to that which would occur with change-ringing bells.

To the casual observer the bell tower looks imposing and strong. In reality, however, it required significant renovation to accommodate bells for change ringing (see this Traditional Masonry article for a discussion of how 4SE Inc., a structural engineering firm based in Charleston, S.C., dealt with the challenge.)

Today the tower houses Sewanee’s Bentley Bells, which were made possible by a 2004 gift from Mrs. Donne Bentley Wright of Chattanooga. These English change ringing bells were cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry of London, England, which was also responsible for Big Ben and our Liberty Bell.

Early photo of St James & modern photo, showing Patton Memorial TowerEarly photo of St James & modern photo, showing Patton Memorial Tower.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry had also cast the bells for Patton Memorial Tower at St James’ Episcopal Church in Hendersonville. The tower and bells were dedicated in 1978, though the church congregation itself was by that point 135 years old.

In 1843, St. James was a scion emerging from the summers-only congregation of St. John’s-in-the-Wilderness at Flat Rock—the “little Charleston of the mountains.” St. James was carefully nurtured by the Rt. Rev. Thomas Atkinson, Bishop of North Carolina, who appointed the first rector, Nicholas Collin Hughes. The first church of St. James Parish was consecrated on September 19, 1863, with eight communicants.


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The Singin’ Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow, a persona

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 6, 2017

Jean Thomas called him the “first primitive, unlettered Kentucky mountain minstrel to cross the sea to fiddle and sing his own and Elizabethan ballads in the Royal Albert Hall in London.” She presented to the American public a man she said spent his life in the mountains, never to come into contact with the modern world, still retaining vestiges of his English ancestry.

James W. Day (1861-1942), from Rowan County and Ashland KY, went by many names in his life… known in childhood as Willie, then later as “Blind Bill Day” because he was blind. He often went by J.W. Day as an early adult, but after he was ‘discovered’ by Jean Thomas, who became his agent, he became best known by his stage name of Jilson Setters, the Singin’ Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow.

The left-handed Setters played his fiddle for many years in the American Folk Song Festival held in Ashland, composed tunes such as ‘The Rowan County Troubles,’ a popular local ballad, and recorded on the RCA Victor label in the late 1920s. He also recorded in the 1930s for folklorist John A. Lomax, whose collection is now in the Library of Congress.

Jilson SettersIn February 1930 Jean Thomas, who said she was a circuit court stenographer, wrote “Blind Jilson: The Singing Fiddler of Lost Hope Hollow” for American Magazine. The article describes how Thomas arranged for an operation that gave him sight, and how he appeared on a radio broadcast from New York City. It ends: “Jilson Setters, whose Elizabethan ballads broadcast over a hook-up from coast to coast and relayed half way around the world, delighted millions last night…Jilson Setters is a modern survival of the ancient minstrel. Who knows but that his primitive turnes have paved the way for American grand opera.”

In 1931 Thomas took Setters to London, where he performed in the Albert Hall at a folk song festival. On his return, Harvard professor George Lyman Kittering pronounced Setters’ composition “London Town” ‘a classic of American folk song.’ By 1934 Thomas was affecting Elizabethan garb, and Setters had become the featured performer at the National Song Festival organized by Thomas under the umbrella of her American Folk Song Society, which included on its board Carl Sandberg and Ida M. Tarbell.

Thomas had first asked another Kentucky fiddler, Ed Haley, to take on the persona of a character she was creating, Jilson Setters. When Haley refused, Thomas turned to J.W. Day. He wasn’t blind from birth as she’d said, but his sight had failed while he was young, and Thomas had arranged to have the cataracts removed from his eyes.

There’s no such place in Kentucky as Lost Hope Hollow. Day was an itinerant town beggar who made money not by performing ancient ballads, but by playing a mix of topical songs of his own composition. And Thomas was not a circuit court stenographer, but a Hollywood scenario writer—albeit an amateur folklorist.

Accompanied by songwriter/guitarist Carson Robison, Day recorded ten traditional songs for RCA Victor in NYC in February 1928 using the Setters name. But there is no record of him ever appearing on live country music shows, or performing with other authentic Kentucky musicians on the radio. Jean Thomas had him under contract and wanted him to be represented as an Elizabethan relic, so too much exposure might have threatened the careful image she had crafted.

Maybe folk music fans didn’t buy the image and therefore the records? Certainly Kentucky newspapers weren’t paying him much notice.

“When he arrived in Manhattan to sail his baggage consisted of one extra shirt, a quilt his grandmother had made, a gourd for a drinking cup, a corncob pipe and his fiddle wrapped in an oilcloth poke,” said TIME magazine. “He came, he said, from Lost Hope Hollow and he was going to see the King. Ashlanders have since said that there is no such place as Lost Hope Hollow, that Jilson Setters’ real name is William Day, and that he was never much of a mountaineer, but an oldtime beggar.”

So anxious were various forces in American society to find something that represented their vision of what was really American that Setters was heralded as the genuine article. Thus, William Wolff, in a 1939 article entitled “Songs that express the soul of a people” in the left-wing The People’s World, noted of Jilson Setters: “He has probably never heard of Marx or Lenin, but there can be no doubts about where his roots lay, as he sings.”

One of the things that seems to have really set people off in Kentucky about Jilson Setters, says genealogist Steve Green in a thread at, was when Jean Thomas got carried away with her remarks in the early 1930s about how Jilson Setters (who was traveling with her at the time) was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to be back in his cabin in the Kentucky mountains to celebrate Old Christmas on January 6. Many people did not like her portrayal of eastern Kentucky as a backward place– for some reason, they felt that the references to Old Christmas were ludicrous and were harmful to the image of the region.

In a slew of letters to newspaper editors around the state, they fervently declared that people in Kentucky celebrated Christmas just as it was everywhere else, on December 25. What’s interesting is that most of the people who wrote in protest were unaware that there was in fact an “Old Christmas” that was indeed celebrated by some grassroots people. Nevertheless, the whole thing caused a brief public controversy, and along with Miss Thomas’ continual claims about the supposed Elizabethan ancestry of mountaineers, it generated quite a few skeptics.

Sources: Constructing Country: Fakery and “Strictly American” Music, by Kevin Yuill, Reconstruction 8.4, 2008
Old-time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, By Jeff Todd Titon
Creating Country Music, By Richard A. Peterson
Big Sandy, By Jean Thomas
Time magazine, Traipsin’ Woman, Monday, Jun. 18, 1934
Steve Green on Jilson Setters thread at—

4 Responses

  • Jessica says:

    How I love these stories about fiddlers and their music! I would love to see more of these please! :)

  • Billsheep says:

    I live in England and I’m doing some research into the impact over here of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Setters is on disc 3 and I’ve just found out he visited the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 1931. So it’s fascinating to read more about how that came about. I wonder whether Dave knows anything else about his stay in England? As far as I can see, there were only two other artists on the anthology who made it over here and that wasn’t until they were “rediscovered” in the 1960s. So Bill/Jilson was a real transatlantic pioneer.

  • Dave Tabler says:

    No, I don’t know anything further about his stay in England.

  • Granny Sue says:

    Fascinating, and yet how sad that she chose to create a persona rather than find a truly authentic oldtime fiddler, which would probably be as easy as tossing a stone in a creek. Great story, Dave!

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Oh, I was one of Al Capone’s gang

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 5, 2017

E-d-i-g-i-o R-o-m-a-n-o. He was known as Frenchy LaRue. He was not known by his Italian name, he was known by his name of Frenchy LaRue. One afternoon the finance officer came down to my office, and this little man, he was about my size, very neatly dressed, his clothes were beginning to show wear—

But before I went overseas I had a friend in—From Camp Davis I went to Fort Bragg [North Carolina], and I had a friend in Fort Bragg that I often babysat for him. He had a little boy and I’d go down and babysit for him so he and his wife could have a night out together. And when I found out I was—He had been in Italy, in Caserta, and when I found out that I was going to Caserta I went right straight to see him.

Nina M. Greenlee, WWII WACNina M. Greenlee in uniform, 1943-1945.

And he told me that one time while he was over there they were having trouble with their telephone lines, and he decided one afternoon he was going to—Somebody was cutting the telephone lines. He decided one afternoon he was going to try to find out who it was. So he got a jeep and he went out into the country, and he came to a crossroads, open space, no trees around anywhere. And he was sitting there in his jeep trying to decide whether to go to the right, whether to go to the left, and while he had his head turned, somebody approached from behind and said, “Can I help you ?” in perfect English.

And it was Frenchy LaRue. He had been deported, but he served as a spy for the Allied forces. And Colonel Williams told him what he was after and he said, “Well, you go down here to so-and-so, so far down the road, and you will find out.” Frenchy was correct.

Well, anyway, getting back to the finance officer. He brought this man down to my office and he said, “Sergeant, this man is not a prisoner of war, was not a prisoner of war, but I want you to see if you can help him collect the money that’s coming to him.” The U.S. paid volunteers for their service. While he was spying for the U.S. and British armies, Frenchy received money for food and clothing. What he came to collect was extra. And the man handed me this huge folder and asked me to look at it, and he went over and sat down and was talking to the GIs in the office, and every once in a while I’d catch a word that he was saying.

And there were letters of recommendation from General [Harold R.L.G.] Alexander, who was—I think his name was Alexander—he was the English officer there—General Mark Clark, various officers that he served under, and every one of them praised him highly for the work that he had done for the Allies. And right at the end there were pictures of him in civilian clothes and officer’s uniform, noncom’s [noncommissioned officer] uniform and what have you, hobnobbing with the big brass. And a letter from Mark Clark to the immigration department recommending that Frenchy LaRue be allowed to return to the United States. And when I looked at that I said, “What were you deported for?” And he said, “Oh, I was one of Al Capone’s gang.” [chuckling]

Palazzo di Caserta, ItalyPalazzo di Caserta, north of Naples, where Greenlee worked. Its 1,200 rooms served as the Allied Forces Headquarters from 1944 to the end of WWII.

And about a year later after I got out of service, I was leafing through the newspapers one night and I saw this little article about so long about ‘Al Capone’s Henchman Commits Suicide in Trieste [Italy]’. And I read it, and it was Frenchy. He had been summoned to appear in court for some minor something or other offense, to appear in Italian court, and rather than face the court he committed suicide.

But after I called around and found out where he should go, I took him down there because telling him how to get there was just almost impossible: “You go through so many doors and you turn right so many doors and you turn right again”—you know, that sort of thing. So I took him down to the—I’ve forgotten now what office it was that I took him to, and he thanked me very profusely. And in about a half-hour or so he came back and thanked me again and said that he would get his money the next morning. So the next morning after he got the money, he came back and thanked me a third time. His manners were impeccable. He was cultured, his English was perfect. He was just an admirable person, to tell you the truth.

I asked him what he was going to do. I meant to tell you, the government was paying people who had volunteered their services. The government was giving them a small stipend of some kind. I never asked him how much he got, but he said he was saving it till the time he got back to the States. But he didn’t make it.

Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Nina M. Greenlee (1907-2004)

Greenlee was born and grew up in Old Fort, NC. She served in the United States and Italy with the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) from 1943-48. Hermann Trojanowski interviewed her in February 1999 for the Women Veterans Historical Collection at Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Full interview online at:

Al (“Frenchy”) LaRue (real name: Egidio Romagnoli), ex-triggerman for the Capone mob, was deported from the U.S. to Italy in 1938, and later tagged along with invading G.I.s as a scout (for which he got the Bronze Star). He shot himself at the age of 60 during a police checkup in Trieste, on February 14, 1949.

One Response

  • Maike says:

    Hi there! I have a simple question and I hope sombeody can tell me – Is the word “Hillbilly” still an insult?
    I realy want to know!

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Its wild spirit is true to the life of the West

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 4, 2017

Zane Grey is rightly known today as the “Father of the Adult Western.” The author wrote more than 80 books, featuring rich western imagery and highly romanticized plots with often pointed moral overtones. He’s the best-selling Western author of all time, and for most of the teens, 20s, and 30s, had a least one novel in the top ten every year, inspiring scores of imitators.

Yes, but what’s that got to do with Appalachia? Well, Grey’s ancestors had been vigorous pioneers in America’s “First West”, the historic Ohio Valley, and his boyhood thrill at their adventures would eventually motivate the grown writer to novelize both his family’s own story and the stories of many another pioneer, as the great migration Westward coursed across the continent.

Pearl Zane Gray was born on January 31, 1872, in Zanesville, OH. The town was founded by Ebenezer Zane, an ancestor of his mother, Alice Josephine Zane Grey. (The spelling of the Gray family name was changed to “Grey” sometime during the late 1890s.)

author Zane Grey and his childrenZane Grey with his three children, Romer, Loren and Betty in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, ca. 1916.

Ebenezer Zane’s exploits played a very direct role in the shaping of Zane Grey’s book ‘The Spirit of the Border': “The writer is the fortunate possessor of historical material of undoubted truth and interest,” he explained. “It is the long-lost journal of Colonel Ebenezer Zane, one of the most prominent of the hunter-pioneers, who labored in the settlement of the Western country.

“The author does not intend to apologize for what many readers may call the brutality of the story; but rather to explain that its wild spirit is true to the life of the Western border as it was known only a little more than one hundred years ago.”

‘The Spirit of the Border’ was the final book in Zane Grey’s first trilogy, which had begun with ‘Betty Zane,’ followed by ‘The Last Trail.’

Inspired by the life and adventures of the author’s great-great grandmother, ‘Betty Zane’ tells the story of the last battle of the American Revolution, in which the heroine was a young, spunky, and beautiful frontier girl named Betty Zane.

In ‘The Last Trail,’ a woman is kidnapped from Fort Henry by a band of renegades and hostile Ohio Valley Indians, and Lewis Wetzel and Jonathan Zane set out in pursuit, with little hope of survival.

Finally, in ‘The Spirit of the Border,’ Lewis Wetzel must single-handedly save Fort Henry, armed only with his long rifle and knife.

The true-life narratives of Betty Zane & Ebenezer Zane weren’t the only stores of family tales Zane Grey had to draw from.

Ebenezer’s youngest brother was one Isaac Zane.

It has long been the family history of all the Zanes that Isaac, who was captured in his youth and brought up and remained with the Wyandots, was adopted by the Chief and made a member of the Chief’s family – and it was a part of that well understood history that he married what they were pleased to call an Indian princess, the daughter of the Chief.

That he was in the family of Chief Tarhe is almost unquestioned for Tarhe was the Wyandot Chief in this section of Ohio for many years,-his home town being Solomonstown, near to and just south of Richland in this county – and somewhat known by all persons trading and trafficking with the Indians.

Isaac Zane was captured and carried away from Virginia in the year 1762, being at the time nine years of age and being the youngest of five brothers. He was carried to Buffalo, thence to Detroit, thence to Sandusky, and to what is now Logan County. His brother Jonathan, who was captured with him, was ransomed and released and returned to Virginia.

Isaac was adopted into the family of the Chief of this particular tribe and like hundreds of other captives became enamored of Indian life,–and sometime in 1796 or 1797 must have married for in 1786 when General Logan came from Kentucky to destroy the Indian towns in the Mad River Valley, Zane was living in what is now Zanesfield, and what was then his home protected by a fort, or blockhouse, and had some four or five children.

He was not disturbed, it being understood that he was friendly to the whites. His eldest daughter married William McCulloch, the eldest of the three McCulloch brothers, William, Solomon and Samuel, all of whom were brothers of Ebenezer Zane’s wife of Wheeling.

Before the time of his (McCulloch’s) marriage, Tarhe, the Crane, had removed his village from Solomontown to the crossing of the Hock Hocking, at Lancaster, and it is family tradition that William McCulloch, who with his brother Jonathan was assisting Ebenezer Zane in cutting the road from Wheeling to the Limestone, there met the daughter of Isaac Zane, Nancy, who had gone to the home of Tarhe, her grandfather, on a visit and they were married in the year 1797, and afterward lived for a time at Zanesville.

—“Tarhe and the Zanes”, by E. O. Randall, in Ohio History magazine, Volume 26, No. 1, January 1917

Zane Grey didn’t stay in Zanesville. He lived for a time in New York, and spent most of his adult life in Altadena, CA. But Zanesville most surely stayed in him.


2 Responses

  • Marie says:

    This is a fascinating article! Not only have a I read about Betty Zane, I have also visited Zane Grey’s cabin at the Mogollon Rim here in AZ before it burned. Thanks for sharing such an interesting bit of American heritage!

  • Gayle H "Scott" McColloch, Jr says:


    A couple of corrections: I want to correct the record. Betty Zane was Ebenezer Zane’s sister and Elizabeth “Betsy” McColloch Zane was Ebenezer’s wife and Zane Grey’s great-great grandmother.

    Elizabeth’s brothers were Samuel, John, and, my immediate ancestor, Abram McColloch. There were also two additional sisters. I’m not sure where William and Solomon fit in, but there have been multiple Samuel and John McCollochs, for example. I have access to good, carefully researched genealogy to check, but don’t have it with me. We are an old lowland Scots family where names are repeated frequently through the generations, a good way to confuse historians.

    Although few of my ancestors have spelled the name McCulloch. That generation spelled it McColloch. I have seen their signatures myself.

    We would love to get a copy or even a look at the Ebenezer’s Journal, but Zane Grey’s descendants are naturally very much into protecting literary works.

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