Petticoat Politics

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 8, 2016

On June 8, 1948, the town election in Clintwood, VA drew national and international attention when the voters elected an all-female town council and mayor. The Petticoat Government consisted of Mrs. Minnie “Sis” Miller, mayor, and Mrs. Ferne W. Skeen, Mrs. Buena H. Smith, Mrs. Ida M. Cunningham, Mrs. Kate Friend, and Mrs. Marion Shortt, town council.

Letters poured in from around the world wishing them luck and expressing amazement that an all woman government could be elected anywhere. The State Department featured the story in its Voice of America broadcast.

The idea shouldn’t have seemed so far-fetched. It had already happened twice before in US states.

The Petticoat Government: Marian Shortt, Beuna Smith, Minnie Miller (mayor), Ida Cunningham, Ferne Skeen, and Kate Friend. Courtesy Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park.

The Petticoat Government: Marian Shortt, Beuna Smith, Minnie Miller (mayor), Ida Cunningham, Ferne Skeen, and Kate Friend. Courtesy Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park.

In Oregon, women gained suffrage in 1912, eight years before much of the nation, and by 1916 the women of Umatilla, OR took control of city government through their electoral option. Mrs. C.G. Brownell held a card party and the women attending decided what roles each could take in city government.

They did not inform the men of the community and the elections proceeded quietly. Since candidates did not have to declare themselves, E.E. Starcher and C.G. Brownell confidently expected re-election. But the town of 198 people elected Laura Starcher as mayor, Lola Merrick as treasurer, Bertha Cherry as recorder, Florence Brownell, Gladys Spinning, Anna Means and Stella Paulu to council positions.

In her acceptance speech, Laura Starcher promised to provide Umatilla a progressive administration, replace failing electric street lights, install sewers, and clean up the town. The womens’ administration accomplished Starcher’s promises and more, installing warning signs at railroad crossings, adding a library to the community budget, and framing ordinances for speed limits, parking regulations, and fire protection.

By 1920, the women of Umatilla, “Having accomplished what they had set out to do four years earlier,” bowed out of the political scene.

And in 1925, shortly after the 19th Amendment was passed, the voters of Winslow, AR elected an all female government consisting of Mayor Maude Duncan and Council members Lyda Cole, Florence Marley, Audie Crider, Bee Chervery, Daisy Miller, Etta Black, Martha Winn, Virginia C. Dunlap and Stella Winn. It worked so well that every single woman was elected to a second term.

By all accounts, Clintwood’s Petticoat Government, which took the reins in September 1948, was highly successful. Miller’s administration undertook many important improvement projects, including: clean-up campaigns, expanding parking in town, installing parking meters in the downtown area, purchasing a fire truck, organizing a systematic garbage disposal plan, and improving traffic hazards throughout town. Six of the women served only one term, however, Mrs. Ferne W. Skeen and Mrs. Buena H. Smith successfully sought re-election.


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But there was a class, and they were the poor white trash

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 7, 2016

There was a class that were ignorant and no-account. They never had much of a chance; you’ve got to say that for them. Once in awhile, one of them would sort of pull himself up by his bootstraps and make something of himself. He’d work hard enough and not give everything to his no-account relatives. But there was a class, and they were the poor white trash—well, up there above my grandmother’s, the people who lived further up the mountain, they’d raise a garden, can the beans, then open the cans of beans instead of going out to the garden and picking them, because it was easier.

junked car, Ashe County, NCThey’d kill a hog, eat every bit of it right away, never try to keep any of it. They just wouldn’t go to enough trouble to have anything, because you could have things if you’d go to the trouble to. And the thrifty colored people and the people who tried to help themselves could make a very good living, take care of things by themselves. But you had to conserve, you had to be thrifty, and you had to go to extra trouble.

It just wasn’t worth it for them, so they lived on the verge of starvation; they inbred—they had all sorts of deformities due to the inbreeding—and while they never had much of a chance—it wasn’t that they never had a chance, it was just that they weren’t willing to take advantage of a chance when it was given to them. And they had all sorts of devious ways to try to get things from other people. One man, for several years, worked in different sections of the country on the fact that his wife had just died. She always died under very bad circumstances which left him in dire need. He made a lot of money that way.

And they were always ready to sell their votes at election time—and they did very well at selling their votes—they’d get cows, and sometimes they’d pay as high as a hundred dollars for a vote, I’ve heard. When it was close, every vote counted, and they would go down and hang around the polling places until the end of the day, and regardless of the fact that the vote was by secret ballot, it was pretty well known how it was running by the end of the day, and then they’d just get higher and higher in the bidding for the votes.

There were some sheriffs who, if I could remember their names, I wouldn’t—the one who sent his constituents candy boxes with five dollar gold pieces under each piece of candy—as I say, it’s not new.

Mrs. Mary J. Jones
(b. 1910 in Clifton, NC)
Interviewed June 7, 1976
Southern Highlands Research Center
Louis D. Silveri Oral History Collection,
D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections,
University of North Carolina at Asheville
Online at

4 Responses

  • […] via Appalachian History » But there was a class, and they were the poor white trash. […]

  • Rhonda Partin-sharp says:

    This is an interesting article – my Daddy was one from a similar background who raised himself up from his bootstraps and didn’t give all of his money away and he and most of his brothers and sisters actually rose above it.

    I did want to ask a question – I notice you have a link to share to twitter, google,and kindle but you only have the ability to like on FB. Is it okay for people to share your articles on FB and their FB pages or their websites? This is your property, so I thought maybe I’d better just double check.

  • Dave Tabler says:

    Hi Roni,

    I’m happy to have folks share my articles on Facebook, just so long as you link back to the App Hist blog, and give me credit as the author of the piece.

  • Rhonda Partin-sharp says:

    Thank you, Dave. Definitely I will give you credit. Thank you for your great work on this Appalachian History site.

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A Cherokee stickball legend

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 6, 2016

It started back when the animals of the forest had a ball team.

The forest animals had a rough line up, a big line up. The Big Bear was the captain. In his lineup he had the Fast-Running Deer. And he had the Big Wolf, and the Big Bob Cat, and the Big Panther.

The Big Bear liked to boast. He’d get in front of all his ball players and show them how strong he was by picking up boulders and tossing them, or maybe picking up a big log, and tossing it. He said there’s no team can win over us.

While he was talking and boasting about his team and himself, there was someone trying to get his attention. And this someone was so small that he couldn’t get the Big Bear’s attention. All he could do was tap him on his toes. Maybe Big Bear would feel that tapping and get the signal and look down.

And sure enough, the Big Bear wondered what was tapping him, and when he looked down it was a little mouse about as big as your thumb looking up at that big giant.

He said, “I come to play ball with you. I can join your team. I’m a forest animal, you know.”

The Big Bear thought that was the funniest sight he had ever seen. He fell backwards laughing at that little mouse. Then when he finally got up, he pointed his finger at that little mouse and said, “I want you to tell me what in the world you can do in a ball game? Just look at you, and look at your size! I don’t know about you!” And then he kicked that little mouse way out into the bushes.

And when that little mouse landed, of course his feelings were hurt. And then he said, “That’s no way to treat a person.” He got thinking he wasn’t going to give up. He got thinking, there’s another team way in the distance. They’re getting ready to play ball. I think they’re having a big ball dance before they play ball. So the evening before the game he thought he’d go see that team, and maybe they’d let him play on their team.

He walked for miles, and he finally arrived. There was a big eagle, Captain Eagle, a fowl of the air, who had a team. And they had the Falcon and the Big Hawk, and the Big Buzzard, and all those big birds of the forest. And they were getting ready to put on a ritual.

And the little mouse explained to the eagle the story of what happened between him and the Bear, what the Bear did to him. And he said, “I still want to play ball.” He said, “May I join your team?”

The Eagle said, “Why sure! You can join us. But one thing, though, you don’t have any wings. You need wings to play with us. You’ve got to fly.”

They looked around real quick and they found a piece of leather, and they cut him out a little set of wings. And they attached them to the little mouse’s sides. And after they’d finished, they took him high up into the sky, the Eagle did, and dropped him. When they dropped him, he could fly. The little mouse could fly, and he fluttered all the way down to the ground.

And they were so proud of him because he could fly. And they said, “You can play with us tomorrow. We’re going to play the Big Bear and his team.”

Cherokee stickball sticksPair of Cherokee stickball sticks, made 1916. Split oak bent in half to form head at one end; net made of woven wire. Names of Soco team members and owner’s name—Robert Crow—written on sticks.

Well, the next day was ballgame time. So after all the speeches were made, the rules were set up: twelve points is the ball game. Whoever gets twelve points, wins the game. The goal post is two little bushes that are cut and set in the ground about eight feet apart. You’ve got to carry that ball through between those little bushes.

When the ball was tossed up for the center man, they batted the ball — I don’t know who batted it, the Bear or the Eagle.

But before that ball ever hit the ground, that little mouse with the new wings swooped down and grabbed that ball, and went between all those big vicious animals — they were trying to knock him down with their paws as he passed. And he went in and out, in and out. And he went out into the clear, and he was gone! He scored!

Again and again and again he scored. And he dominated the game. And he beat that Big Bear who had kicked him out into the bushes. He won over that Big Bear.

Don’t ever underestimate the size of a person or the looks of a person or the color of a person when he wants to join you. Whatever you have going, always welcome him in, because if you don’t, he just might turn and beat you.


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Tempted by the reward, they massacred several of our friendly Indians

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 3, 2016

About the year 1756, Col. Peter Randolph, Col. [William] Byrd [III], Mr. [John] Campbell, and other persons, were sent upon an embassy by the Governor of Virginia to the Cherokee country, in order, if possible, to cement more strongly the friendship and alliance which subsisted at that time between our colonies and those savages, and to engage them more heartily in our cause.

William Byrd III of Westover, by Cosmo Alexandre

William Byrd III of Westover, by Cosmo Alexandre

The business was in train, and likely to succeed, when unfortunately the following most flagrant and atrocious act of treachery immediately put an end to the negotiation, and eventually involved us in a new and bloody war with the very nation, whose friendship and aid it was the object of the mission to cement and make more firm and lasting.

The reader should be informed that the cruel depredations and ravages committed by the Indians after General Braddock’s defeat had induced government to offer a considerable premium for every scalp of a hostile Indian, that should be brought in by any of our rangers: this unfortunately opened a door, and gave occasion to many acts of enormity; for some of the back-settlers, men of bad lives and worse principles, tempted by the reward, insidiously massacred several of our friendly Indians, and afterwards endeavored to defraud government of the reward, by pretending that they were the scalps of hostile tribes.

Detail from lithograph titled “A scene on the frontiers as practiced by the ‘humane’ British and their ‘worthy’ allies.” Artist William Charles, 1812.  British character says “Bring me the scalps and the King our master will reward you.”

Detail from lithograph titled “A scene on the frontiers as practiced by the ‘humane’ British and their ‘worthy’ allies.” Artist William Charles, 1812. British character says “Bring me the scalps and the King our master will reward you.”

Amongst others, a back-settler in Augusta county, a captain of militia, whose name ought to be delivered down to posterity with infamy, treacherously murdered some Cherokee Indians, who had been out upon a military expedition in our behalf against the French, under a pretence that they had pilfered some of his poultry.

He had received and entertained them as friends; and when they took leave of him to return to their own country, he placed a party in ambush, murdered several of the poor unsuspecting Cherokees, and then endeavored to defraud government, by claiming the premium assigned for the scalps of hostile Indians.

A few of those who escaped the massacre arrived at the Cherokee town with the news of this horrid transaction, just at the moment when the embassy was upon the point of concluding a very advantageous treaty: a violent ferment took place, and the Cherokees, in the utmost rage, assembled from every quarter, to take instant revenge by putting all the embassadors to death.

Attakulla Kulla, or the Little Carpenter, a steady friend of the English, hastened to the embassadors, apprized them of their danger, and recommended to them to conceal or barricade themselves as well as they could, and not to appear abroad on any account.

He then assembled his nation, over whom he possessed great influence, in the council-room; inveighed bitterly against the treachery of the English; advised an immediate war to revenge the injury; and never to lay down the hatchet, till they had obtained full compensation and atonement for the blood of their countrymen.

“Let us not, however,” said he, “violate our faith, or the laws of hospitality, by imbruing our hands in the blood of those who are now in our power; they came to us in the confidence of friendship, with belts of wampum to cement a perpetual alliance with us. Let us carry them back to their own settlements; conduct them safely within their confines; and then take up the hatchet, and endeavour to exterminate the whole race of them.”

Foremost among the Cherokee diplomats in the eighteenth century was Attakullakulla (c.1712- c.1782), known to the English as the Little Carpenter (depicted far right).

Foremost among the Cherokee diplomats in the eighteenth century was Attakullakulla (c.1712- c.1782), known to the English as the Little Carpenter (depicted far right).


They accordingly adopted this counsel; they conducted the embassadors safe to the confines; and as they could not obtain satisfaction for the murder, by having the offender delivered up to them, which they demanded, and which ought to have been done, a dreadful war ensued, in which the different tribes of the Cherokee nation became gradually involved; and which did not cease, or relax from its horrors, till terminated by Col. Grant in the year 1761, with still more horrid circumstances, than any that had been exercised during the carrying of it on.

This account was communicated to me by one of the gentlemen engaged in the embassy.

Mr. Jefferson, in his ‘History of Virginia,’ page 99, has related the following circumstance that occurred during this awful and interesting transaction.

Speaking of the strict observance and fidelity of Indians in regard to their promises and attachments, he says, in a note:

“A remarkable instance of this appeared in the case of the late Col. Byrd, who was sent to the Cherokee nation to transact some business with them.

“It happened that some of our disorderly people had killed one or two of that nation; it was therefore proposed in council that Col. Byrd should be put to death, in revenge for the loss of their countrymen.

“Among them was a chief called Silouee, who on some former occasion had contracted an acquaintance and friendship with Col. Byrd; he came to him every night in his tent, and told him not to be afraid, they should not kill him.

“After many days deliberation, however, the determination was, contrary to Silouee’s expectation, that Byrd should be put to death, and some warriors were dispatched as executioners.

“Silouee attended them, and when they entered the tent, he threw himself between them and Byrd, and said to the warriors: ‘This man is my friend—before you get at him, you must kill me!’

“On which they returned, and the council respected the principle so much as to recede from their determination.”


from Travels through the middle settlements in North America, in the years 1759 and 1760 
with observations upon the state of the colonies, 
Edition the 3d : rev., cor., and greatly enl. by the Rev. Andrew Burnaby, 1798, T. Payne, London

One Response

  • Jewell Davis says:

    Col. William Byrd III is my 8th Great Grand father. I am trying to find all the information I can! Thank you so much!
    Jewell Davis

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It is to be regretted that our people have taken so seriously to cotton farming

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 2, 2016

“It is related that the late J.J. Jones, during the palmy days of the seventies (1870s) when the virgin soil in that Red Belt section was at its best, and before erosion had marred the face of the fields, raised on a certain year on his farm nearly 1500 bushels of wheat, and that Jason Conley the same year produced more than 1000 bushels.  Such was the fertility of the soil that it was not uncommon to produce from 30 to 40 bushels per acre.  At that time, too, there were few insects to interfere with growing corps and fruits as we experience them at this day.

picking cotton in Whitfield County GA, 1938

Workers picking cotton on the farm of R. Lee Davis, Whitfield County, Georgia (the county adjacent to Walker County), 1938.


“Noxious insects and weeds as we have them today are not as a rule indigenous to the soil.  They have come in by transportation.  Our forbears were not concerned about so many troublesome insects and plant diseases as we experience.  Neither were they worried with the many troublesome weeds that vex us today. Wheat, corn and other crops grew to perfection.  No need to spray fruit trees.  Most old people recall the time in their youth when peaches, apples and other fruits were faultless.

“Likewise many noxious weeds have been brought into our county to distress us. The bitter weed so common everywhere is a comparatively new arrival—probably about 20 years.  The boll weevil and bean beetle have been here a dozen years.  Other insects and weeds have come in at various times.  No doubt others are to arrive by and by.  This is one price that we must pay for our civilization.  If we had had no railroads or other convenient communication, we might have existed many years without these undesirable pests.  It is likely that the Civil war helped to spread these among us.

“Cotton of course is one of the principal crops in the county at present.  It is to be regretted that our people have taken so seriously to cotton farming.  Cotton impoverishes land.  Cotton year after year for a few years and hardly anything else will grow there profitably—not even cotton. Examine the fields of the county; observe the bare hills and knolls in every field where cotton is raised.  Lack of humus has caused erosion.  We endeavor to overcome this by the use of commercial fertilizers, thus further impoverishing the land.”

from “History of Walker County GA,” by James Alfred Sartain, AJ Showalter Co, Dalton GA, 1932,  online at

2 Responses

  • Just curious. We’ve been “taught” that only black people picked cotton in the South. Why are these folks doing so?

  • Dave Tabler says:

    Don’t confuse small-plot mountain farmers with the plantation owners of the low country. These are the owners picking on their own land, not slaves.

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