The work of the mountain mother

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 22, 2015

The work of the mountain mother is burdensome and she bears more than her share of responsibilities of the household. Her housework includes washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning, sewing, and often spinning and knitting for the family. Handicapped by lack of modern conveniences, her task involves undue hardship.

In most of the homes cooking is done on a small wood stove, with none of the modern conveniences; often the only implements are iron kettles, pots, and ovens which may be used interchangeably on the stove or in the fireplace; the latter is still preferred by many for baking corn bread and sweet potatoes. A scant allowance of fuel is provided from meal to meal. During a rainy spell, or when the father is away or sick, or the children off at school, the mother may be left without fuel, though wood grows at her very door.

McDowell County NC woman with infant, early 1900sWoman holding an infant, early 1900s. McDowell County, NC.

Carrying water, a toilsome journey up and down hill several times a day, usually falls to the lot of mother and children. No one of the families visited had water in the house or on the porch, and only 1 out of 5 within 50 feet of the house. Twenty families carried water over 500 feet and 8 families were from an eighth to a quarter of a mile distant from their springs.

The wash place, consisting of tubs on a bench and a great iron wash pot in which the clothes are boiled, is usually close by the spring. Much straining and lifting and undue fatigue are involved in this outdoor laundry. Sometimes even a washboard is a luxury, substituted by a paddle with which the clothes are pounded clean on a bench or a smooth cut stump.

Much of the family bedding is homemade, the work of the women and girls in their leisure hours, after the crops are laid by or in the evening by the fireside. Besides the time-honored log cabin pattern, their collections of patch-work quilts include such quaint and intricate designs as “Tree of Life,” “Orange Peel,” and “Lady of the White House.” Many a mountain home has its spinning wheel still in use and occasionally one finds an old-fashioned hand loom.

Some homes display a collection of coverlids and blankets, handmade at every step of the process. The wool was grown on the home farm; sheared from the sheep; washed, carded, and spun by the women and girls of the family; dyed, sometimes with homemade madder, indigo and walnut dyes; and woven on the loom into coverlids and blankets. Even the designs are often original or variations of old favorites, like the “Whig Rose,” “Federal City,” and “High Creek’s Delight by Day and Night.”

The other duties of the mother are largely seasonal. From December to August the children are home from school and she has their help. Together they make the garden; help plant the com and peas for winter; gather them when ripe ; pull fodder and dig potatoes ; feed the stock; and perform the usual farm chores of milking, churning, and carrying water. In many homes the mother may be found doing chores which are usually considered a man’s work, unduly prolonging her working hours and exposing herself to more stress and strain than is compatible with her own health or that of the children she is bearing.

McDowell County, NC woman spinning, early 1900sA woman spinning thread, early 1900s. McDowell County, NC.

It is uncommon for help to be hired in the home, except occasionally for a few days during confinements. Moreover, with the exception of sewing machines, household conveniences are totally lacking. Hard-working women complained that the men have planters, drillers, spreaders, and all kinds of “newfangled help,” but that nothing had been done to make women’s work easier.

Practically all the mothers visited, besides their housework and chores, had helped in the fields more or less — hoeing corn, pulling fodder, and so forth. Of 212 mothers, 188, almost nine-tenths, had worked in the field before marriage; 167 since childhood; and 166, or three-fourths of the mothers visited, had helped in the field after marriage.

A woman’s field work in the mountain country is not so extensive or fatiguing as in the lowlands where the cotton crop requires the constant labor of the entire family many hours a day during a long summer and autumn. In the mountains, little farming is done, the average family raising no appreciable farm produce for sale. The woman helps plant and hoe the corn and in the autumn helps harvest the crops — stripping fodder, carrying it to the barn, making sirup from sorghum cane, picking beans, gathering apples, and digging potatoes. Her field work is not arduous in itself, but only because it is undertaken in addition to her already numerous duties — caring for the children, housework, sewing, canning, and chores.

“Rural Children in Selected Counties of North Carolina,” by Frances Sage Bradley, MD, survey published in 1918, U. S. Department of Labor, Children’s Bureau
online at

One Response

  • Janet, says:

    Mountain women worked very hard and it took it's toll on them. You can look at pictures of women and see how they aged in just a few years. I recently acquired my grandmother's wedding ring, it was very thin and a piece was missing from it. I was told that it wore thin and a piece finally broke from it from all the wood chopping she did. Women deserve a lot more credit and recognition than they get for all they contributed to their families back then.

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Cotton mills move upcountry

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 21, 2015

The South in the days before the Civil War had despised manufacturing, but the men who rebuilt the war-ravaged Southern states were well aware of the importance of industrialization.

The new era began with the opening of the Piedmont Mill in the upper part of South Carolina in 1876. The textile industry grew quickly after 1880, and South Carolina was one of the leading textile-producing states in the nation for the next forty years. By 1892 there were fifty-one mills in South Carolina, making the state first in the nation in power looms and second in spindles. Textile mills became a major element of industry, commerce, and society in the upcountry.

William Ashmead Courtenay of Charleston was one of the pioneers of the industrial movement which transferred the bulk of the American cotton industry from New England to the Southern states where the raw material is produced. Courtenay served as mayor of that city from 1879-1887, where he was lauded for his handling of a major earthquake in 1886.

William Ashmead CourtenayIn weighing a location for the cotton mill he wished to build, Courtenay selected the Piedmont section of South Carolina for proximity to the growing fields, and narrowed his choice to Oconee County with its river resources flowing vigorously out of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Among other criteria he considered was the expanding rural population with its eagerness for “real pay” and more favorable living conditions. He knew that a new, clean village with more conveniences and steady pay would draw the sharecroppers. And indeed, many unsuccessful farmers did turn to the textile mill for employment.

Of a nervous temperament, his was an impetuous and in some respects aggressive nature, involving constant effort to restrain impulses and check too hasty action. He possessed quick perceptive power, tireless energy, strong facility for organization, wonderful capacity for work and marked executive ability. Impatient of unnecessary delays, this with some left the impression of needless austerity and impulsiveness, but under all this seeming brusqueness there was a genial disposition.

—-Description of William Ashmead Courtenay from History of South Carolina, by Yates Snowden, Harry Gardner Cutler, Lewis Publishing Company, 1920

On April 21, 1893, Courtenay and his associates received a charter from the South Carolina secretary of state “to establish a factory in Oconee County for the manufacturing, spinning, dying, printing, and selling of all cotton and woolen goods.” Courtenay built his cotton mill and a village of workers’ houses along the Little River, naming the town Newry in memory of his ancestors’ original family home in Ireland.

There was a rumor about William Courtenay using funds allocated for earthquake relief in Charleston in order to start the mill community, says Henry Cater, who worked for Courtenay Manufacturing Company from 1952 to 1964, in an oral history. Even the location of the mill is key to the story, as it was claimed that the community was essentially “hidden” by its location in the valley.

Cater says the corporation formed by Courtenay with Frances J. Pelzer, William B Smith Whaley, R. C. Rhett, W. B. S. Hayward, and John C. Carey in fact raised stock aboveboard and was innocent of that charge.

“It was in a sparsely settled and unfrequented corner of the county,” Courtney wrote of the new site to his stockholders. “Labor had to be brought there, shelters built for them; in fact all the primitive conditions of the distant border had to be dealt with, machinery for brick making and other purposes had to be transported from distant points, one and a half miles of railroad must be graded and built.”

Courtenay Mill was constructed in a typical New England textile factory design. The design is attributed to William B Smith Whaley. On June 14, 1894, water first turned one of the mill power wheels. The mill was in full operation by the end of that year. The plant was originally operated by hydro power, but about 1905, steam engines and boilers increased production.

aerial of Newry, SC; Courtenay Manufacturing CompanyMany of the structures at Newry, including the mill, mill office, post office, store, church, supervisors’ houses, and many of the workers’ houses, were built between 1893 and 1911. The houses are excellent examples of buildings in a planned textile village.

Courtenay also built a house at Newry which he called Innisfallen and lived there until 1902. That year he told stockholders in the company’s annual report: “Under the Company’s By-Laws it has not been possible for me to be absent for more than a few days at a time during these ten years. I may be obliged to have a vacation in the coming spring.” But it was more than a vacation. He moved to Columbia, the state capital, where he spent the last years of his life, dying in 1908.

The mill itself closed in 1975, and The Newry Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.




One Response

  • Chip Mack says:

    Hi Dave,

    Saw one more thing, you may want to correct. There is another participant in the Felzer corporation, William Burroughs Smith Heyward.

    And yes, I notice the different spelling of Burrows vs Burroughs, which is of continuing debate. Certain branches may have elected to a more eloquent form of the name. It may have been easier to gravitate to the spelling of the day.

    The Heywards were a very prominent family in the sea island cotton aristocracy and milling endeavors. You can see his headstone at the following link:

    Chip Mack

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I took to the dry goods line

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 20, 2015

“When I started I didn’t have very much. Didn’t need very much, didn’t have many customers. Course I would see them go into the store across the street. I worked over there at one time and at the building that burned down. I’ve been fooling with [the grocery business] all my life. Before we came here, my uncle had a store in Hineytown. He had a little old store there. It was just along the road there. It was on a big farm and we’d go out and work. When a customer came he’d ring a dinner bell or blow a horn. I’d be away up on top of a hill a’hoeing corn and I’d have to go down and wash, sometimes I’d forget to wash, just go in and wait on them.

“We’ve given credit. That’s a great ____. But a lot of headaches. People move away or just don’t pay and there is no way you can make them pay. It used to be that you could mark up merchandise month after month and prices would be about the same. Very little variance. I have never seen them like they are today. Seasonal stuff would sometimes be a bit out.

Palmer's Market in Montgomery County, VA“Lots of the distributors, a lot of the merchandise come out of Baltimore. I took to the dry goods line. Groceries were from all different places. Some I bought from wholesale grocers in Stanton. Some from different places in this state, grocery houses, one or two. Of course we had salesmen, plenty of them. Elkins had two or three wholesale houses and their salesmen came here on that Western Maryland train.

“That was the only way to get here unless they drove all the way over the mountains. They would get their horses at the livery stable here and their vehicles, that is the grocery people. The dry goods and notions people located in Baltimore, they had their own outfit, but it was done by horse and hack. Until they got, one time they had a dry goods company, Treek, Ellis, Hertel & Company, in Baltimore, had an old chain model drive truck. First one we ever had. It just excited people to death to see that fellow coming in that. His baggages, his samples they just covered it with something to keep it dry.

“We’d laugh when we saw him come into town. Sometimes he couldn’t get it started and he’d lay over a day or two. Nobody understood them very well around here. Finally it would start and he would take off. Just like an old traption engine going up the road.”

Mr. Matheny (b. 1885)
interviewed at his grocery store
in Bartow, WV, summer of 1975



related posts: “Mom & Pop meet the Supermarket”

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Managing the business end of Gold Fever in Dahlonega

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 17, 2015

It was the original Gold Rush, and it kicked off 21 years before the California event we usually associate with that phrase. Gold fever raged in Lumpkin County, GA till the close of the nineteenth century, and Dahlonega attorney Wier Boyd placed himself in the midst of the myriad legal dealings.

Boyd was admitted to the bar in 1856, and later represented his county and district in both branches of the Georgia legislature. He and his son Marion formed Boyd & Boyd in 1870 and acted as a broker, collector and liaison for a number of mining clients.

Correspondence to Colonel Boyd (he served in the Civil War) now online at the Digital Library of Georgia documents the activities of the Rider Mine (1868-1883), the Yahoola and Cane Creek Hydraulic Mining Company (1868-1883), the Consolidated Mines (1879-1882), and the Phoenix Gold Mining company (1891-1892).

Wier Boyd of Dahlonega GAHere’s a typical example, a letter from an F. E. Dickie, secretary of the Phoenix Gold Mining Company, to Wier Boyd, dated April 28, 1892. Dickie promises to pay Boyd for costs associated with preparing the Exter v. Etowah Gold Mining Company case for argument before the Supreme Court.

Dickie asks to compare Boyd’s bill of exceptions with that of his own lawyer in preparation for the case. He argues that because F. C. Exter accepted stock in lieu of monetary compensation, he does not have a valid claim against Etowah Gold Mining Company for monetary compensation. On those grounds, Dickie believes they can get the case dismissed.

Your favor of the 25th inst [instant] at hand and noted. In reply will say, please prepare the case for the Supreme Court, and on Monday or Tuesday of next week I will send you a check for $50 to pay costs in the matter.

When you have prepared your bill of exceptions inasmuch as the suit that we contemplate bringing at this end against the old management might be affected by the suit at your place, if agreeable I wish you would forward the bill to me so that I could refer it to my lawyer who being more thoroughly acquainted with the whole matter might be able to suggest some things that would benefit us in our suit here and which could be put in the bill of exceptions as prepared by you. I think we would have time to do this.

In regard to President Cheney will say, that we must go to the Supreme Court without his appearing in the case at all. We do not question the employment of Mr. Exter, but we do question the consideration that he claimed for the employment; his consideration for the employment was the large amount of stock that he held and for which he did not pay a nickel. If he did not receive the stock then he would be entitled to a money consideration, but he did accept the stock, and as you will notice in his testimony swore to having sold some of it and kept the proceeds. This of itself ought to be sufficient to throw his case out. We can prove by the Vice President that he was to receive nothing as Gen’l [General] Manager, except as stated above.

Yours truly,
F. E. Dickie

Gold mining continued on a limited scale in Dahlonega until the turn of the twentieth century, when the advent of new mining technologies gave rise to a flurry of new activity. Amory Dexter, a gold mining entrepreneur with business interests in Dahlonega, had alluded in letters to Wier Boyd that board members of the Yahoola Mining Company of Boston, MA would probably decide to erect a mill in Dahlonega.

Consolidated Gold Mining Company,  Dahlonega GAConstruction of the Consolidated Gold Mining Company began in Dahlonega in 1899, during a revived interest in the area’s gold. The company was the largest gold-processing plant east of the Mississippi River.

Several companies did indeed set up new gold-processing plants locally. The one erected by the Dahlonega Consolidated Gold Mining Company in 1899 on Yahoola Creek was the largest ever built east of the Mississippi River. None of the operations were able to turn a profit, though, and they soon went out of business.

Wier Boyd did not live to see that turn of events. In November of 1893, in company with his son, he was returning from an inspection trip to one of his gold mines on the outskirts of town. In front of the residence of E. E. Crisson, on Clarkesville Street, Col. Boyd suddenly exclaimed that he was very sick; and as he spoke, he dropped dead.



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He probably gave it to someone who liked moonshine

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 16, 2015

“My great uncle Ellis, being the youngest of the family, lived at home with his mother Martha until her death. I remember my grandmother (Ellis’ sister Fannie Mainous Botner) and my mother going up there from Travelers Rest to help care for her. They did the laundry for her and Ellis.

“Ellis inherited the 30 acres that was left of the homestead. The house was a 2 story log house. Ellis’ father Hampton had owned many acres, but according to my mother, had sold much of it. Ellis was a playboy of sorts, and drank too much. Mother always said that her grandpa had sold land to keep Ellis out of trouble. By this I am assuming that he got put in jail for public drunkenness, and his daddy bailed him out.

“My mother and daddy bought the last 30 acres from Ellis about 1940. The log house stood for a long time and Daddy rented it. We were living at Travelers Rest at this time. But finally the log house was torn down, Daddy built a one story house, and my parents lived there until Daddy died and Mother went to the nursing home.

“I can remember my maternal grandmother very well, although I was only 7 years old when she died. There was few days in my young life that I did not spend time with her. The day she died she was on her way to Levi with the mail carrier to buy her some boots.

Fannie Mainous Botner

Fannie Mainous Botner.

“She had come over to the post office to see if he had room for her to go along to the store at Levi. She ran back to the house to get her money. They were a mile from Travelers Rest post office, when the mailman (Bobby Farmer) heard a noise in the back seat. He immediately knew there was a serious problem and brought her back to our house, where she was pronounced dead. They assumed it was a heart attack.

“The funeral home at Beattyville came to our house and embalmed her. She is the first person in Travelers Rest to be embalmed. Visitation took place at our house. Her funeral was at the Travelers Rest Presbyterian Church and she was buried in the Mainous Cemetery near the home place of Daniel Mainous at Vincent.

“She was a kind, gentle person and in my entire life I have never heard an ill word said about her. Uncle Conley used to talk to me about what a good woman she was. He always told me I looked like her.

“Conley Mainous was a beloved uncle, whom I grew up seeing almost every day of my young life. He and Aunt Myrtle were a constant presence in my life. It was a highlight in my week when I got to spend the night at their house. Their younger children, Jack and Peggy, were still at home, and we enjoyed each other so much. Aunt Myrtle would make fresh blackberry jam for us for breakfast, and I gave it the name of hotty jam–a dish that to this day is a family tradition.

“Jack and I spent lots of time in the summers fishing and wading in the creek. I think he is about two years older than I. I was always the younger tag-along around Travelers Rest. I remember baking potatoes outside on a fire that we built, and cooking fish that we had caught in Sturgeon Creek.

“Conley delivered the mail on horseback from Travelers Rest to Wild Dog and places in-between and beyond. He started delivering mail after his return from WWI. Sometimes he delivered groceries from our store or Aunt Sarah’s, when one of his patrons was out of meal or sugar or some other staple item. Many times he was paid for the extra service with a pint of moonshine. But no one ever saw him drink this or any other form of alcohol. He probably gave it to someone who liked moonshine. I bet, if the truth was known, he gave some of that stuff to Sigsbee Scott, our Travelers Rest postmaster (because Sigsbee liked a little nip now and then).

General Store at Travelers Rest KY

Aunt Sarah\’s General Store at Travelers Rest, KY.

“Conley spent his last 2 or 3 years in the Veterans Nursing Home in Ft. Thomas, KY, just across the river from Cincinnati. At his death, he was the oldest veteran of WWI from KY, but he was listed as being from Ohio, because that was the state he was living at the time he joined the army.

“My daddy, William “Bill” Vickers, did many things in order to make a living for his family. He had driven coal trucks, farmed, owned a general store with our mother. She did more of the clerking in the store than he did.

“Daddy liked to be on the outside, so he took his truck into adjoining counties and bought produce from the farmers–chickens, eggs and most anything that he could put in the lot. We never knew what he might bring home.

“I remember having a peacock at one time. When the birds accumulated, he would take them to Lexington. This was once a week or every two weeks at the most. While in Lexington, he bought groceries for the store. During WWII, when some things were hard to get from the grocery companies who came by to take orders, Daddy would get hard-to-get things in Lexington.

“He always managed to get Milky Way bars when the other stores couldn’t. After the grocery business, he went in the excavation work. He built many of the farm ponds you see today in Owsley County.

“My mother Gladys was a rather quiet individual. She never worked outside our home except during those years that we had the General Store at Travelers Rest. She worked so hard during that period; not a bean, apple, or any other kind of vegetable or fruit that we had went to waste. Between trips down to the store to get groceries for customers, she was working in that garden and preserving everything she could for the winter. She really enjoyed cooking and canning. We may have not have had a lot money, but no one in Gladys Botner Vickers’s home ever went to bed hungry. When she cooked for work hands, she cooked as though it was Sunday and the preacher was coming for dinner.”

—Glenna Vickers Burton
online at

One Response

  • Lori Erdman says:

    I was so excited when I stumbled upon this article. Conley and Myrtle Mainous are my grandparents. My mother is Pauline. And we visited often. I’m Pauline’s youngest daughter. And I remember Aunt Sarah’s general store. I also remember Conley’s (Papaw) brother, Ellis. All of those names like Gladys,are familiar to me. My Aunt Peggy and Uncle Jack were all very close to the rest of their siblings: Sigsby, Helen, Steve, and John who I know is the only one who remains in Owsley Co. Helen, Steve and John are still living. My older brother and sisters remember so much more than I do. But I do know that papaw did deliver the mail on horseback. We loved to sit on their front porch swing and talk for hours. Watch the cars go by (one every 30 minutes or longer) and wave. My sister spent summers with Myrtle and Conley. They bathed in a galvinized tub outside behind the smoke house. So funny. Papaw smoked a corn cob pipe, and greeted us every morning with “how’s your ears this morning”. I asked him once when he was over 100 years old his favorite invention, thinking he’s say a jet, or heart transplant. He replied, “screens”. He said the flies were terrible. That really made me think.

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