Harness race king Sanders Russell wins the Hambletonian, at age 62

Posted by Dave Tabler | February 23, 2017

[Walter] Sanders Russell (1900-1982), was born in Stevenson, Alabama. Sanders began harness racing while still in high school and won his first race in 1915. The U.S. Trotting Association’s official records credit him with 1,116 first places, 531 seconds and 503 thirds. He won more than 20 major stakes with world records in 1946 and ‘55. His total winnings were over $2,000,000. In 1962, at age 62 and recovering from a broken leg, Sanders won the famed Hambletonian on A.C.’s Viking.

—-Alabama Sports Hall of Fame

On A Clear Day from Tennessee’s Lookout Mountain you can even see Stevenson, AL, which, virtually motionless, snuggles a valley some 50 miles to the southwest as the crow and A. C.’s Viking, in the stretch, fly.

Motionless may not be quite the right word for Stevenson. This is the heart of the great power fountain, which is the Tennessee Valley Authority. This is also textile country, one vast stand after another of rich timber and a land its sweating forefathers never left to keep pressing west.

A 1951 harness-racing matinee at the Russell Stables training track.

The hard and fast population of greater Stevenson hangs at about 1300 persons all happily cloaked in seclusion and benign tranquility a few rolling miles off the main drag between Chattanooga and Birmingham. The Tennessee River meanders nonchalantly through the near by countryside, a true reflection of the people who live long lives along its verdant watershed. Peaceful is its countenance, but mighty is its industrial backbone.

Back to this land from faraway places each late autumn comes a solitary man who has been one of the very few hereabouts to seek and take his fortune elsewhere. The return of the native, you might say. And in truth, Sanders Russell has done more to put Stevenson on the map than Rand McNally or the Avondale Textile Mill and the Chicamauga Cedar Co. combined.

For nigh onto 25 or 30 years now Sanders Russell has been famous among harness people for disappearing back to “someplace called Stevenson, Alabama” after the racing season in the north, east and west is completed. But if one calls him famous amongst the harness folk for this, one should see how really famous he is for this in Stevenson, itself.

Particularly in November of 1962, a year when Mr. Russell and a great bay colt named A. C.’s (initials only) Viking had come thundering down the stretch at Du Quoin, IL, to capture the coveted Hambletonian. There had been 15 trotting horses in this annual 3 year old classic and the dash for home had looked like a cavalry charge, but in straight heats Mr. Russell and the Viking had exploded through what little daylight was available to whip the likes of Stanley Dancer and Del Miller and Johnny Simpson and Joe O’Brien.

Factually, Stevenson can’t remember when there weren’t some Russells around to whom it owed much. Sanders’ great granddaddy had taken over a large expanse of the good earth just outside of Stevenson away back in the days when Andrew Jackson, himself, was signing over land grants to worthy settlers. Towering majestically to the rear of Sanders’ farm spread is Russell Mountain, a foothill member of the beauteous Cumberland chain. Families that have whole mountains named after them are not exactly a dime a dozen.

From the very beginning up until the present time the Russells have, as the good citizens of Stevenson will voluntarily testify, been tremendously civic minded. Active in the church, charities and in all community projects from housing transient TVA workers to adding wings on the hospital, the Russells will leave much more than a mountain behind them as a heritage to Stevenson.

Strong as has been the general report that Sanders’ harness racing nickname of “Preacher” stems from his being a Methodist minister back in Stevenson during the winter months, it is not true. Mr. Russell is a member of the church board of stewards all right, but the “Preacher” tag actually came from an entirely different direction.

“I was racing in New York when the ‘What’s My Line?’ show first appeared on television,” Sanders grins, “and I had a Negro groom who practically insisted that I get myself on that show. ‘Put a Bible underneath your arm and clean all that horse stuff off the bottom of your boots, Mr. Russell,’ he told me, ‘and you’ll look like the sharpest preacher man ever to come out of the south.”

It’s true. Gentle in voice and manner, easy to smile and chuckle and with piercing blue eyes beneath well groomed white hair, Sanders Russell could easily be taken for a man of the cloth instead of a man of the silks. Except on the racetrack, that is, where he is a demon with a trotting horse. Yes, quiet, patriarchal looks be hanged. Sanders Russell is actually a salty old dog and a calloused old veteran when that starting gate pulls ahead and swings closed. He won the Hambletonian with an ankle that had been so badly sprained in an accident that he had to move to and from his sulky on crutches.

There have been horses in Sanders Russell’s life ever since he can remember. As a sideline to farming his daddy raised and sold road horses, the type used for buggy transportation in those days. From these horse and buggy days and back road racing between neighbors evolved, of course, the modern day racing animal and sport. When he was 15 Sanders drove his first goose pimpling victory, behind Sammy R at the Winchester, TN fair.

It hasn’t been any other way since. His brother, I. Pickens (Pick) Russell III, manages the large Russell farm spreads majoring in top beef cattle & hogs, and Sanders deals strictly in Standardbred horses. During the winter months on the half-mile track below the two Russell homes Pick also helps Sanders train a public stable that has reached 50 head for 1963.

Small southern fairs and the more fruitful Indiana and Ohio fair circuits provided Sanders Russell, Mrs. Russell (the former Evelyn Willis of Stevenson) and their two sons, Walter and Henry, with a comfortable living during those earlier times. Prestige of the Russell stable grew rapidly, accelerated by Sanders’ seemingly inherent ability to artistically train trotting colts. His patience with young horses, his knack of drawing out the best qualities of a trainee Standardbred, was obvious from the start.

“Horses are like children, exactly,” Sanders says. “You must be patient with them and realize every minute that each of them will present you an entirely different ‘personality’, an entirely different problem. You must coax them, cajole them and yet be firm with them on certain pointers. A horse that grows up without manners will give you headaches ’til the end.”

It was only fitting that A. C.’s Viking, serene and imperturbable in his new barn stall these days, in his role as the latest star to fall on Alabama, should hand Sanders Russell his greatest thrill last summer at Du Quoin.

“He is the most well mannered horse I have ever seen anywhere, the perfect race horse,” Sanders reports. “He will take and accept any signal you give him, will race any type of race you want and doesn’t fall into any kind of habit by having sometimes to race the same type of race two or three times in succession. His power is doggone near secondary.”

There were other horses before A. C.’s Viking, horses that carried the Sanders Russell brown and tan colors off the fair circuits to the large pari mutuel tracks and the Grand Circuit and kept them there. Hal Tryax and Sir Laurel Guy were memorable ones, as were Tronita, Spring Hill, Dr. Billy, Pete Spencer, Junior Counsel, Try Wyn, Johnnie Brown, Queen Wilkes, Aimee Scot, Jewelry, Graydon and Kedrie.

On a living room wall in the Russell’s sprawling ranch home is a large colored picture of Sanders behind Chestertown, taken the August day in 1947 when the 4 year old bay colt won the big Roosevelt two-mile trot in 4:192/5. In a loaded trophy case in the same room are testimonies of his 1959 win in the Batavia Downs Colt & Filly Stake behind Farand Hanover, his triumph in the Bloomsburg Fair Stake the same year with the same horse and a conquest in the 1961 Hanover Hempt Farm Stake with a 2 year old colt named A. C.’s Viking.

A. C.’s Viking was to win $198,000 in 1962 (including the Yonkers Futurity and the Hambletonian, two of the three jewels in harness racing’s triple crown), more than any other 3 year old trotter in history. Sanders assures that the addition of A. C. Peterson’s horses including the Viking to his stables was one of the nicest things that has happened to him in these latter day years.

Six years ago Sanders convinced Joe MacDonald, the Scotsman from Canada, that he should join forces with the Russell stable as assistant trainer and driver. This is listed by Sanders as another most important recent day development. The canny Scot did much of the stakes driving this year, for instance (winning 90 odd races), while Russell concentrated on training and conditioning the two-year olds and Viking.

In a day and age when the average age of the nation’s leading drivers is plunging lower and lower, it was only natural, it is supposed, that a newspaper man asked Sanders Russell if he had any retirement plans.

“I think not,” Mr. Russell responded gently, “Bi Shively won the Hambletonian when he was 73, you know. I quite frankly am looking forward to next season and a string of them after that.”

The good life in Stevenson, AL, is very apt to keep Mr. Sanders Russell on course and steady as she goes.

“Sanders Russell….. Pride Of Dixie!” by Earl Flora, ‘Harness Horse Magazine,’ December 1962


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You murdered that you and your wives might have palaces

Posted by Dave Tabler | February 22, 2017

Mary Harris Jones (1837-1930), better known as Mother Jones, was an American labor organizer and one of the founders of the Social Democratic party (1898) and the Industrial Workers of the World (1905). Her August 1912 speech to striking coal miners in Charleston, WV was one in a series of organized activities which were blamed for violence in the state’s coal fields, and led to her conviction of conspiracy to commit murder, which was later commuted. This excerpt is from the last portion of the speech.

Oh, men [speaking of mine owners], have you any hearts? Oh, men, do you feel? Oh, men, do you see the judgment day on the throne above, when you will be asked, “where did you get your gold?”

You stole it from these wretches. You murdered, you assassinated, you starved, you burned them to death, that you and your wives might have palaces, and that your wives might go to the seashore. Oh God, men, when I see the horrible picture, when I see the children with their hands off, when I took an army of babies and walked a hundred and thirty miles with a petition to the President of the United States, to pass a bill in Congress to keep these children from being murdered for profit. He had a secret service then all the way to the palace. And now they want to [re-elect] that man! What is the American Nation coming to?

Manhood, womanhood, can you stand for it? They put reforms in their platforms, but [we] get no reform. [Roosevelt] promised everything to labor. When we had the strike in Colorado he sent 200 guns to blow our brains out. I don’t forget. You do, but I don’t. And our women were kicked out like dogs at the point of the bayonet. That is America. They don’t do it in Russia. Some women get up with $5 worth of paint on their cheeks and have tooth brushes for their dogs and say, “oh, them horrible miners. Oh, that horrible old Mother Jones, that horrible old woman.”

I am horrible! I admit, and I want to be to you blood-sucking pirates!

I want you, my boys, to buckle on your armor. This is a fighting age; this is not the age for cowards; put them out of the way. Take your medicine [Governor], because we are going to get after you, no doubt about it.

I want you to be good. Give the Governor time until to-morrow night, and, if he don’t act then it is up to you. We have all-day Saturday, all-day Sunday, all-day Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday if we need it.

Mother Jones in Charleston WV 1912Mother Jones brings shoes for children in union camps during West Virginia miners strike.

We are used to living on little; we can take a crust of bread in our hands and go.

Boys, stay quiet until tomorrow night. I think it would be a good thing to work tomorrow, because the mine owners will need it. The mine commissioner will get a pain in his skull to-night and his wife will give him some “dope.” The mine owner’s wife is away at the seashore. When she finds no more money coming she will say, “Is there any more money coming?” He will say, “Most of the miners are not working.” She will say, “Take the guards and shoot them back into the mines, those horrible fellows.”

The Governor says, if you don’t go to work, said he, in the mines or on the railroads, I am going to call the militia, and I will shoot you…I said we can get ready too.

What militia can you get to fight us? Those boys on Paint Creek wouldn’t fight us if all the governors in the country wanted you to. I was going yesterday to take dinner with them, but I had something else to do. I am going some day to take dinner with them, and I will convert the whole bunch to my philosophy. I will get them all my way.

Now, be good, boys.

Pass the hat around, some of these poor devils want a glass of beer. Get the hat. The mine owner robs them. Get a hat you fellows of the band…

Another thing I want you to do: I want you to go in regular parade, three or four together. The moving-picture man wants to get your picture to send over the country.

The hat is for miners who came up here broke, and they want to get a glass of beer. And to pay their way back — and to get a glass of beer. I will give you $5. Get a move on, and get something in it…

The National Government will get a record of this meeting. They will say, my friends, this was a peaceful, law-abiding meeting. They will see men of intelligence, that they are not out to destroy but to build. And instead of the horrible homes you have got we will build on their ruins homes for you and your children to live in, and we will build them on the ruins of the dog kennels which they wouldn’t keep their mules in. That will bring forth better ideas than the world has had. The day of oppression will be gone. I will be with you whether true or false. I will be with you at midnight or when the battle rages, when the last bullet ceases, but I will be in my joy, as an old saint said:

O, God, of the mighty clan, God grant that the woman who suffered for you, Suffered not for a coward, but oh, for a man. God grant that the woman who suffered for you, Suffered not for a coward, but oh, for a fighting man.

Source: www.infoplease.com/t/hist/jones-coal-miner

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Modern carpenters would not know what cracking a log was

Posted by Dave Tabler | February 21, 2017

Those who never lived in a mountainous country are often surprised at the sight of what we call sleds, slides or sledges, made of the bodies of small trees with crooked ends, turning upward like those of sleigh runners, though much more clumsy and heavy.

As these runners wore down they were “shod” by tacking split saplings under them. Sleds can be hauled on steep hill-sides where wheeled vehicles would turn over or get beyond control going down hill. Our “Union” carpenters of this day could not build a house with the materials and tools of their pioneer ancestors, nearly all of whom were carpenters.

Modern carpenters would not know what “cracking” a log was, for instance; and yet, the pioneer artisans of old had to make their boards by that method. It consisted in driving the blade of an ax or hatchet into the small end of a log by means of a maul, and inserting wooden wedges, called “gluts.” On either side of this first central “crack” another crack was made, and gluts placed therein.

cross-tie maker working a logPhoto caption reads: “Mr. Stewart, cross-tie maker, working a log in Brasstown, NC.” (about 1932)

There were usually two gluts placed in each crack and each was tapped in turn, thus splitting the log uniformly. These two riven pieces were next placed in a “snatch-block,” which were two parallel logs into which notches had been cut deep enough to hold the ends of these pieces, which were held in position with “keys” or wedges. The upper side of this riven piece was then “scored” with a broad ax and then “dressed” with the same tool, the under edges being beveled.

The length of these pieces, now become puncheons, was usually half the length of the floor to be covered, the two ends resting on the sleeper running across the middle of the room. The beveled edges were placed as near together as possible, after which a saw was run between them, thus reducing the uneven edges so that they came snugly together, and were air tight when pinned into place with wooden pegs driven through augur holes into the sills and sleepers.

Hewed logs were first “scalped,” that is the bark was removed with an ax, after which the trunk was “lined” with a woolen cord dipped in moist charcoal, powdered, which had been made from locust bark. This corresponded to what is now called a chalk line. Then four of these lines were made down the length of the log, each pair being as far apart as the hewed log was to be thick-usually four to six inches-one pair being above and the other pair below; after which the log was “blocked” with an ax, by cutting deep notches on each side about four feet apart. These sections were then split from the sides of the log, thus reducing its thickness to nearly that desired. Then these sides were “scored” and then dressed till they were smooth.

The block on which the “Liberty Bell” of Philadelphia rests still shows this “scoring” or hacks made by the broad-ax. Houses were framed on the ground by cutting the ends of the logs into notches called “saddles” which, when placed in position, fitted like joiner work–each log having been numbered while still on the ground. When the logs were being placed in position they were lifted into place on the higher courses by means of what were called “bull’s eyes.” These were made of hickory saplings whose branches had been plaited into rings and then slipped over the logs, their stems serving as handles for pulling.

source: Western North Carolina, A History (1730-1913), by John Preston Arthur, published by National Society Daughters of the American Revolution of North Carolina, Edward Buncombe Chapter, 1914

7 Responses

  • Tom Paine says:

    This is a very interesting and informative article, but I have two quibbles with it. The vast overuse of “quotes” was very “annoying” and made it “harder to read”, in my opinion. Also, while true, the tone of the headline and references to modern carpenters not knowing how to employ these ancient techniques was unnecessary and condescending. Those wise old carpenters wouldn’t know how to use a circular saw or a laser level either, but how is any of that relevant to an otherwise very interesting article about old methods of carpentry?

  • Dave Tabler says:

    Tom, your quibbles are well taken, and I in fact agree with you on both points. This article is an exact rendering, quotes and condescension intact, from “Western North Carolina, A History (1730-1913)”, by John Preston Arthur. So perhaps your quibble should be that I haven’t made clear enough that the words are John P Arthur’s, and not mine.

  • Amanda Dymacek says:

    This is a fascinating read! Thanks for sharing. It was great to meet you at the alumni event in Naples, I have sent a few notes to make connections. Stay tuned and keep up the great work with your blog!

  • Tom Paine says:

    Thanks for the response, Dave. It was still a great read and I did enjoy reading about how they used to do it.

  • Sandra says:

    Well, that’s the bottom line here. Old carpenters do not know how to use the modern equipment while most carpenters don’t know the old methods. But, the carpenters nowadays have the chance be to be Jack-of-all-trades. What I mean is that they can master the use of modern equipment while learning how the old method goes. Did you agree with me? By the way, thanks for posting and sharing Dave! Have a great day.

  • Kevin Wease says:

    the pic of the lamp black factory was actually taken in Creston Wv, we also have some of them printed showing our house and boats

  • Granny Sue says:

    She was a firebrand for sure, a rabble rouser of the first order. I wonder, would the men have done what they did without her? Did they need her to inspire and motivate them? I think they did. Controversial as she was and still is, she made history happen.

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Hang down your head Tom Dula

Posted by Dave Tabler | February 20, 2017

Hang down your head Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Hang down your head Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you’re bound to die.

It’s the most famous murder ballad in American folk music history. And chances are, if you know it, you know the version popularized by the Kingston Trio. Their recording of the song became a major commercial hit in 1958, selling over 6,000,000 copies. That hit single spawned a movie and helped spark the folk music revival of the 1960s. How did the song make its way to the Kingston Trio? Therein hangs a tale.

May 1st will mark the 149th anniversary of the criminal execution of North Carolinian ex-Confederate soldier Tom Dula. Not Tom Dooley? Think of the written word opera pronounced opry, as in Grand Ole Opry. Standard regional southern Appalachian pronunciation at work. So the Kingston Trio simply transcribed the name as it sounded to them.

Dula was hanged for the murder of his lover Laura Foster. The two lived in the North Wilkesboro, NC area. Tom Dula was a wild young buck, running around with two or three women at the same time. Foster, according to the ballad, gave him syphilis. He inadvertently passed it on to Foster’s first cousin, Mrs. Ann Melton. A third woman, a Pauline Foster, was in the background as well at the time.

Tom Dula gravestoneBoth Laura and Ann were pregnant by Dula. When Mrs. Melton realized that her longtime affair would be exposed by the pregnancy, that the baby’s health was seriously endangered, and that her own health had been compromised, all to her way of thinking because of Foster, she insisted that they—Dula and she—murder Laura Foster in vengeance.

As revealed in the case’s court records, early one morning in 1866, Laura Foster took her best clothes and her father’s horse and left for her rendezvous with Dula, who had supposedly gone to meet the justice of the peace so they could be married. Laura disappeared and Tom Dula fled Wilkes County.

The earliest known recorded version of the song was laid down on October 1, 1929 by GB Grayson & Henry Whitter. Whitter and Grayson met at a fiddlers’ convention in Mountain City, TN in 1927. They teamed up, and by autumn of that year, Whitter had gotten them two record deals. They recorded eight songs for the Gennet label and six for Victor, among them ‘Tom Dula.’ Grayson & Whitter’s recording of ‘Tom Dula’ is especially significant, since it was Grayson’s uncle that tracked Dula in 1866.

The ballad of Tom Dooley tells us that Dula, fleeing the murder scene, was captured before he got to Tennessee by a sheriff named Grayson. Actually, Dula made it over the state line and worked for a week in Trade, TN, at the farm of Col. James Grayson, a member of the Tennessee legislature, in order to make enough money to buy a new pair of boots and continue his journey.

Dula was captured in Tennessee around July 11 by two North Carolina deputies, with the help of Colonel Grayson, and brought back to the Wilkesboro, NC, jail.

Sign along Blue Ridge Parkway, NCFolk music historians Anne & Frank Warner collected the song in 1938 in Beech Mountain, NC from a local banjo player and singer named Frank Profitt Sr. Frank’s grandmother, Adeline Perdue, lived in Wilkes County and knew both Tom Dula and Laura Foster. Alan Lomax, of Library of Congress collecting fame, learned it from the Warners and sang it all over the country and on his radio shows. He went on to publish it in his book “Folk Song USA,” and it’s THAT version that came to the attention of the Kingston Trio.

In 1962, a settlement was reached with the Kingston Trio that divided any subsequent royalties between Frank Profitt, Frank Warner and Alan Lomax.

The song lives on even today. Bobby McMillon, whose ballad singing was featured in the film ‘Songcatcher’ and who is the youngest recipient of the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, performs it regularly. He went to school with relatives of Tom Dula.

Jeff and Gerret Warner, sons of Anne and Frank Warner, are continuing their parents’ legacy. Jeff researched and edited for his mother’s book “Traditional American Folk Songs.” Gerret assembled and prepared its photographs, taken by their parents. The sons organized their parents’ notes, manuscripts and photographs, which now form the Frank and Anne Warner Collection at Duke University.

sources: www.cmt.com/artists/az/grayson_whitter/bio.jhtml

Special thanks to Rosalie Friend for setting me on the right path with this story!

4 Responses

  • John E. Fletcher, PhD says:

    Almost all the “facts” in this story are untrue. Neither Laura Foster or Ann Melton were pregnant by Tom Dula. The source of the disease was the promiscious woman Laura Foster. The Ballad was sung as early as 1868 in Wilkes and nearby counties. The first poem was written by Col Thomas C.Land in 1868 entitled “The Murder of Laura Foster. The ballads were widespread in the tri-county area after 1870.

  • Laurie Allen says:

    Ann Melton is my great grandmother- my father was George Clyde Allen Jr.died in1976 at 56. I have postcards of Ann and Laura that I just found and posted on my facebook. Dad’s mom was Lena Page. I’d appreciate any information on my family history. I was born in 1960, both parents have died, never knew any grandparents- met one great grandmother in Fl. around 1965? she was 102 I think. There were a bunch of old people that were my Dad’s relatives. I remember the names Winne, Annabelle, I was a bit scared. We drove down from NJ to see my step grandad- Capt. Jessie O’Hyden. Lena Page Allen O’Hyden had died some time before. Not sure how- rumors that she was garden society and a bee sting to the foot killed her. Then, I hear my Dad’s family in NC owned Allen’s mountain at one time and it was like the Hatfields and McCoys, stills and all.
    Seems there is much more to my family history and I’d like to hear about it. I can be reached at laurieallen55@msn.com

  • John E. Fletcher, PhD says:

    The true facts about this case and the story of the Ballads can be found in my new book, “The True Story of Tom Dooley: From Western North Carolina Mystery to Folk Legend”, published by History Press, April 2013. It is available on Amazon and most book stores.

  • Heather Miller says:

    I cannot find any source directly linking Carlotta Foster to a man named Francis Triplett. I have found, however, where a woman, Frances Triplett, married Luke Hendricks, and another female of that name who married Thomas Bell Foster. The name Hendricks/Hendrix is interesting indeed–a contemporary newspaper cited Ann Melton as being the natural daughter of a Hendricks, a prominent Wilkes citizen. Couldn’t a possible Hendricks connection help explain that family’s motive to single Dula out for the murder of Laura Foster as a manner of shifting the blame? One thinks the family’s prominence would have been an additional factor in covering up any perceived stain on their reputation….

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Shivarees, Spin the Bottle, and Post Office

Posted by Dave Tabler | February 17, 2017

If you’ve taken part in a shivaree and played post office and spin-the-bottle, chances are you’ve been around a half-century or more.

In fact, you’ve been around so long the anthropologists may come looking for you to get information about those fine old East Tennessee customs of courtship and marriage.

Joseph Andrew Nelson and Mary "Mollie" Jane Pratt, on their wedding day in 1898. Taken in front of White School, Shooks Gap, TN, where Joseph was a teacher.

Joseph Andrew Nelson and Mary “Mollie” Jane Pratt, on their wedding day in 1898. Taken in front of White School, Shooks Gap, TN, where Joseph was a teacher. They most likely were familiar with the courtship rituals discussed here.

Dr. Charles H. Faulkner, a UT anthropology professor, sent me a copy of a book called ‘Glimpses of Southern Appalachian Folk Culture.’  It is a memorial collection of term papers by students of the late Dr. Norbert Riedl. Before Bert Riedl died of a heart attack, he and his students were studying folk culture in the Southern mountains.

It has chapters on several subjects, but the one that got my attention first was Philip Conn’s piece on ‘Traditional Courtship and Marriage Customs in the Appalachian South.’

Philip talked with his elders in Hardin Valley, Shady Valley, Ocoee Birchwood, Tellico Plains, TN, and Damascus, VA. He came up with lots of courtin’ and marriage customs before most people had dates and went on honeymoons after the wedding. They walked home from church together, sat up together with dead neighbors. They met at candy-pullings and corn-huskings.

After all the candy was pulled or the corn shucked, the young folks played post office. (Girl in separate room would call a boy and say he had a letter. He’d go and kiss her.) Or they’d play spin-the-bottle. (Boy spins the bottle and kisses the girl whom it points when it comes to rest.)

When a couple married, they didn’t go on a honeymoon. Most went to live temporarily with the groom’s parents, or, less frequently, with the bride’s parents.

The young folks in the neighborhood gave them a shivaree, called a ‘serenade’ in some communities. Nearly always, the groom was given a rough ride on a fence rail, and the bride was carried around in a big zinc wash tub.

All this was good-natured fun. But, according to the findings of Philip Conn, people in some communities went farther. They would abduct the bride or groom or both and keep them awake and apart ‘until both became thoroughly disgusted with the institution of marriage…The common denominator of shivarees was a ransom given either in the form of money, food, or wine to buy peace and privacy.”

A girl usually married a boy of her own community. Young men of some communities helped enforce this custom by hiding in ambush and throwing rocks at any outsider who called on a neighborhood girl.

One of the superstitions concerning weddings was that a bride should not bathe on her wedding day, because if she gets her belly wet, her husband will be a drunkard. Another was that if the bride’s father tapped her lightly on the left cheek with an old shoe, it would bring good fortune to the marriage. The bride’s mama sometimes gave her a poke of wheat to make certain mama would have many grandchildren.

Church weddings were rare back then. Lots of weddings were at the bride’s home, often outside in the yard if it were a spring wedding. Engagements were brief and sometimes not at all. When a boy and girl decided to get married, they wasted no time doing it. Without telling anybody, they sometimes went to a preacher or justice of the peace and got married.

But marrying at home was better. For it was considered good luck in some communities if the family cat was at the wedding.

Then there was the elopement, in which the boy ran off with the girl, usually against the wishes of her parents. ‘In cases of elopement, the ceremony was very simple, with the couple usually getting married in their everyday clothes,’ Mr. Conn wrote.

I can verify that. For I once drove the get-away car for an eloping couple. I think it must have been in the late 1930s that this young fellow came to my uncle’s general store in Mooresburg. I’d never seen him before. He wanted to borrow a car and a driver. My older cousin Bill was tending store and couldn’t go. So I took the fellow and Bill’s car.

He wore an old black hat, overalls, and a beard that must have escaped the razor for at least a week. I have seen people nearly as clean come off a day’s work with a threshing machine.

I drove him to within 100 yards of his intended’s home. He got out of the car and headed toward the house, He was bent over, hurrying, trying to make no noise. He looked like a fellow hurrying to get a shot at a deer about to move out of range.

Pretty soon, he came back with her. Both were hot, sweaty, excited. I took them to the nearest justice of the peace. The ceremony was very brief. And the groom never took off his hat.


Source: “Remember Shivarees and Spin-the-Bottle?,” from the column: Mountain Stories as told by Carson Brewer, Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 26, 1978

Carson Brewer  (1920-2003) attended Maryville College and the University of Tennessee. In 1945, he joined the Knoxville News-Sentinel staff. He began in the 1950s a weekly column, which expanded to three columns per week. Through this column, he supported local folklore and the region’s natural resources. He wrote several books on the Smokies and Tennessee, including “Valley So Wild: A Folk History” and “Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains.”

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