A Woman of the Hills: The Work of Maude Minish Sutton

Black and white photo of a couple dozen people gathered around a table, facing the camera

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 2, "Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South." Find more from that issue here.

Many North Carolinians in the 1930s would have recognized the name of Mrs. Maude Minish Sutton. She led the quiet life of a housewife and mother in a small town on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge, but the Sunday editions of three major state newspapers regularly carried her “Blue Ridge sketches” and feature articles on folk song. She was occasionally in the news as an officer of the state folklore society or as a speaker on its annual program. She was known to have given her own song collection to Dr. Frank C. Brown for the publication planned by the folklore society. When the volumes of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore finally appeared (many years after Mrs. Sutton’s death in 1936), they held 154 song texts and 112 tunes she had submitted, not to mention entries in categories like beliefs and games. The “General Introduction” to the first volume praised her as probably Brown’s “most loyal, and certainly his most highly valued co-worker.” 1 

Today Maude Minish Sutton is largely forgotten. In part this is because the Brown Collection did not serve her well. To take an example, her manuscript “Folk Games of North Carolina Children” — a collection of 119 games she recorded during 1927 and 1928 in Rutherford and adjacent counties — was broken apart and the games scattered among those contributed by other collectors. The editors put the game descriptions in Volume I and the tunes for the singing games in Volume V. They accidentally omitted the descriptions of eight of her 11 “Negro Games” and misattributed most of the tunes of this set. While intending Mrs. Sutton no injury, they managed to conceal the one piece of focused and intensive field work that she — or any other contributor — submitted to the Brown Collection

Mrs. Sutton probably would not have complained. Although her letters show that from time to time she thought of trying to publish a collection under her own name, she gave up her title to her materials in the interest of Dr. Brown’s project. She never really thought of herself as a folklorist. Collecting songs was her hobby, but what she most enjoyed was the teaching she did before her marriage and her work later with “Little Theater” in her home town, Lenoir. She had a knack for writing and did dream, like many young people in that day, of penning the Great American Novel. In the end, she turned to journalism, drawing chiefly on her experiences as a song collector. 

The awakening of her interest in folk song was accidental, although it followed a pattern not uncommon among the contributors to the Brown Collection or among other amateur and academic folklorists of tire day: her English teacher at Davenport College read “The Douglas Tragedy” in class. Maude immediately recognized the similarity of this British ballad to an old song she had often heard from a mountain woman, Mrs. Myra Barnett Miller. After the death of Mrs. Minish when Maude was ten, Myra came and lived with the family for years as a housekeeper and caretaker for the children. She could not read or write, but she had a capacious memory and sang old songs as a matter of course as she went about her daily work. Thrilled by the discovery that Myra’s songs had long histories and were printed as literature, Maude began, at the age of 16, to record them in a notebook. Later, when she took a position in 1917 as a rural school supervisor in Avery, a county deep in the Blue Ridge, song collecting was one of the few diversions open to her, and she made much of the hobby. Even after her marriage to Dennis H. Sutton in 1924, she never lived far from the mountains and often found time to hunt up singers. 

The vogue of the day among the emerging class of American professional folklorists was to capture a specimen of song and to mount it on a page amid the paraphernalia of nineteenth century textual scholarship. Mrs. Sutton set out with this as her model. She packed Kitteridge’s one-volume edition of the Child ballads in her saddle pocket when she rode about in Avery County. Frank C. Brown reinforced this orientation in later years by writing to dun her repeatedly for stanzas of songs she had mentioned or for tunes. 

Mrs. Sutton, however, moved beyond the gathering of texts. When she went to teach in the mountains she was a large, good-natured, young woman who enjoyed people and was alert to the comic side of her encounters. As she entered songs in her notebooks, she took to recording a vignette along with each text. These materials she later sent on to Brown. Some of her accounts appear in the published collection, but they are easily overlooked in the fine print of the headnotes. In any case the editors so excerpted and scattered them that they lose any effect they may have as a picture of the world within which she found the songs. Mrs. Sutton drew upon her notebooks for the more than 60 newspaper articles she wrote between 1927 and 1935; but these too lie scattered through bulky volumes that gather dust on library shelves. 


Stereotypes and Mountain Culture 

The best of what Mrs. Sutton wrote is worth reading, but one must not approach it unprepared. Her schooling was in a small North Carolina Methodist junior college for women, and in such a place in the years before World War I, modern literature to both teacher and pupil meant John Fox rather than Theodore Dreiser or Henry James. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Sutton’s writing shows the influence of local color fiction. She tended to accentuate the quaint, indulge in word-paintings of mountain vistas, and sentimentalize her subjects. It was probably her reading of mountain stories that caused her — before she made her first trip to Avery County - to discuss with her high school class the “arrested development of our own mountaineers.”2 She went to Avery expecting the stereotypes of local-color fiction — “feudist, “blockaders,” picturesque cabins, primitive superstitions — and of course found them. Her notebook describes, for example, one hike during which she and a gentleman friend met on the trail “a typical mountain procession”: 

In front stalked the lord and master, behind him the “dawg, ” behind that the wife “totin” the baggage, a basket and flour sack. “Bo ” had my sweater and my arm and was his usual very attentive, gallant self The mountaineer stopped, stared a moment, and burst out: “Mister, is yer woman sick?”3 

The stereotypes of mountain fiction were in fact matched by actual people and customs in Avery County. Mrs. Sutton found moonshiners. Granny women offered her love charms. She attended a “lassy bilin”’ and went square dancing at a “frolic.” But she quickly learned that mountain culture was more complex than fiction had shown her. She spent one evening in a cabin where “red pepper, beans, and cut up pumpkin strung on long strings, hung from the ceiling” and the woman of the house sat by the fire smoking a clay pipe. The host, who would shortly do time at a federal penitentiary for “blockading,” astonished her with heirlooms from an aristocratic Virginian ancestor: his “great-grandfather’s uniform of a colonel in the continental army, and a letter from Washington to him.”4 She knew well another mountaineer living on land settled by his family in the eighteenth century. Far from being a cabin, his home was a substantial rambling two-story frame house. He ran a prosperous farm and proved to be traveled and well informed. 

Mrs. Sutton came not only to share the mountaineer’s resentment of writings that stressed the stereotypes, but also to repent of her own condescension toward the mountain people who did fit them. After criticizing the fiercely Puritanical outlook of one couple, she wrote, “I looked down upon the beauty of the cove where their home is — a far view. Maybe if I knew it from a daily struggle with its barren soil and grim sides my own soul would believe in such a harsh revengeful god.”5 In some encounters she got a flash of insight into how mountain people regarded her own cultural assumptions. Much as she appreciated ballads, for example, she could not work up enthusiasm for the mountain singing style, which she once described as being in “a nasal tone and so very strained that my throat ached in sympathy.” She could not “see how a human voice can get the tone that the mountaineer women sing ballads in. It is as if the voice was placed in the upper part of the mouth and nose. It has charm, but never sweetness.” Her sister Pearl — a trained musician who sometimes went collecting with her to take down the ballad tunes — was asked by a group of people at a home in the Brushy Mountains to sing a song. When she had finished, an old lady asked, “Do they learn you to sing so deep down at college?” Mrs. Sutton suddenly saw that these mountain people “liked her singing as little as she liked theirs.”6 

When Mrs. Sutton wrote of mountain life, however, her saving grace was her sense of humor. It makes her writing resemble the humorous sketches of the Old Southwest as much as the local-color stories she grew up reading. She drew her material from actual life and retouched it for comic effect. Like the early humorists she produced popular journalism at times fresher and more true to a regional culture than the efforts of many a fashionable literary figure. But Mrs. Sutton also shared some of the weaknesses of the early humorists. Though her ear for vernacular speech was good, she let phonetic spellings cloud her transcriptions of it. She was more skillful in presenting dialogue and sketching a character than in constructing a plot or integrating action and setting. In her authorial paragraphs, stilted diction and respectable attitudes sometimes incongruously intrude. In short, she could write a paragraph or page that has more liveliness or stern veracity than anything in such novels as The Time of Man, but her stories and articles are in the end neither completely successful as writing nor completely reliable as fact. Mrs. Sutton wished for informed criticism of her writing. A rather low-key Southern Writers’ Conference in 1935, however, offered the only opportunity she ever had even for shop talk with fellow authors. 


Castle Walls and Foot Pages 

For the study of folklore, however, her writing has value. Few if any collectors of her day showed such interest in traditional singers and the place of song in their lives. One of her more intellectual friends — an astronomer and amateur composer from Vermont — claimed that his own music did not express himself but offered him simply an escape. From her own experiences with mountain singers, Mrs. Sutton concluded that their songs bore a more direct and simple relation to their lives. One lovelorn girl who sang about a jilted damsel who hanged herself “looked as if the heroine’s solution of her problem had its appeal for her and her mother said, ‘Lulu’s been singin’ too many lonesome tunes sence her trouble.’”7 Mrs. Sutton believed the songs even played a part in molding a mountain girl’s expectations in courtship. She took down one “warning song” that began: 

Come all you fair and tender ladies 

Be careful how you court young men 

They are like bright stars of a summer’s morning 

They first are here and then they’re gone. 

She commented that this 

lugubrious wail came well from Zorah. She’s the type that any long lanky scoundrel with a gray Stetson on one side of his black head, and a devil in his heavily lashed black eyes could make a fool of They are so vital that they have a certain easily explained charm, but there’s no sense in the he’s-got-to-sow-hiswild- oats attitude of these fool women. I believe these songs have a good deal to do with it. I’ve heard at least forty in this same strain.8 

Many of the older women sang ballads from the early British repertory that seemed to contradict Mrs. Sutton’s theory of the relationship between life and song. She puzzled over what meaning castle walls and foot pages and ladies with milk-white hands could have for these singers. The comments she quotes, however, show that the singers passed over these exotic features without notice. In anecdote after anecdote, their concern is with the behavior of the characters. All her main informants regarded the young lovers in the ballads as true to life and thought their actions typical of human folly. 

One woman who sang Mrs. Sutton “The Nightingale” was amused by the heroine’s comeuppance. The forward damsel first enjoyed her dalliance with the handsome soldier and then proposed marriage, only to learn too late of his wife in Fair Flanders and his children three. “That was a right peart gal,” said the old woman. “I’ll bet she never axes another man to have her.”9 

Another sardonic assessment of a ballad character came from Mrs. Ann Coffey, when Mrs. Sutton met her on the Yonahlossee Turnpike one summer afternoon: 

She strode along with several boys and men, sons and grandsons. Her slat bonnet was folded in the middle and lay across her head .... Her smoky gray eyes had the film of age, but she smiled when I recalled myself to her and wanted to know if I were still “traipsin ’ over the country huntin ’ old songs. ” 

She had “riccolected” one that I might like, she thought, and she stopped, sat down on a log and sang it for me. . . . The story was of a girl who loved too well and followed her lover as his “foot spade” through rivers, forests, across swamp and mountain to the home of his ancestors. His mother was puzzled at the beauty and charm of the page and warned her son that his wife might notice the “boy. ” I had my ballad book with me and showed the singer the original ballad. 

“Lord, I don’t know B from Bull’s foot, ” she said. “If I had to git my songs from ballits like you do, I’d have to quit the practice. ” 

“It would be mighty nigh as hard on the old womem to quit singin’ as it was to quit stillin’, ” one of the men in the party volunteered. She withered him with a glance. 

I read the ballad to her. Then I told her how old it was and how many generations of singers had sung it. 

“Well, they’s been a-many of a womem with jist about that much sense,” the old woman observed. “When a womem gits her head set on a man she’s apt to do any fool thing. ”

It was another encounter with Mrs. Coffey that best confirmed Mrs. Sutton’s theory of a direct relation between song and life in mountain culture. At a ball game one Saturday afternoon, two Brushy Mountain boys had gotten “likkered up” and quarreled over a girl. In the shooting that followed, one killed the other. The murderer was Mrs. Coffey’s son, and he was put on trial for his life. His lawyer was a long-time friend of the Minish family and telephoned Mrs. Sutton to say that Mrs. Coffey was in his office during a court recess and had offered to sing her some ballads. Mrs. Sutton says that when she entered the office, Mrs. Coffey “was as friendly to me as she would have been to anyone, and greeted me with a calm, Howdy,’” She sat there, a “dark, impassive” woman with “smoky gray eyes” and “heavy hair coiled in a huge knot at the top of her head,” her hair “strained so tightly from her forehead that it raised her brows, and gave her a slightly startled look.” 

The first song that Mrs. Coffey volunteered to sing was “The Gallows Tree”: 

Hangman, Hangman, slack up ye’r rope, 

Oh slack it up fur awhile, 

I’ve looked overyander and seed Pap a comin ’ 

He’s walked fur many a mile. 


Oh, Pap, oh Pap have you bro’t me any gold? 

Any gold fur to pay my fee? 

Er hev you come fur to see me hanged 

Hanged high on the gallows tree? 


One by one, father, mother and sister come to the condemned man and bring no gold. They come to see him hanged high. Finally his sweetheart comes declaring,


Oh yes, oh yes, I’ve brought some gold 

Some gold fur to pay your fee, 

My own true love shall never be hanged 

Hanged from the gallows tree. 


Mrs. Sutton writes that as Mrs. Coffey sang this song, her son’s lawyer, 

obviously moved, wiped his brow and I fidgeted in my chair and tried to ignore the fact that the ballad story was similar to her own. 

She turned to the lawyer. “I don’t think this song’s right,” she said, “I know the boy’s mother would-a got up the money. ” 

“I’m sure she would, ” the old man said in a choked voice. 

Then she turned to me and asked if I had “The Ramblin ’ Boy. ” I told her I did not, and she sang the following eighteenth century highwayman ballad: 


They call me the rude, the rambling boy, 

Through many bright shores that I’ve been through. 

Through London city, I made my way, 

And I spent my money in a ball and play. 

I married there a darling wife. I loved her dearly as my life, 

She caused me to rogue, to murder and steal, 

She caused me to rob the king’s highway. 


I robbed them all I do declare, 

I robbed them on James Island Square, 

I robbed them of ten thousand pound, 

One night when I was a-rambling around. 


And now I am condemned to die, 

For me a-many a poor girl will cry, 

But all their tears can’t set me free, 

Nor save me from the gallows tree. 


Mother says she’ll weep and mourn. 

Father says he’s left alone. 

Sister says she’ll meet despair, 

With a diamond ring and curly hair. 


Come all young men take warning by this, 

Never to marry a feisty twist.

She’ll cause you to rob, to murder, and to steal, She’ll cause you to hang on the gallows tree. 


The lawyer, veteran of a hundred mountain murder trials, was pale and trembling when she had finished. I was shaking and cold, but the woman, mother of a boy who was to be found the next day guilty of first degree murder, was calm and collected. 

“Do you have the song about Jesse James?” she asked. I managed to say that I did, and my old friend looked as though he was delighted to hear that there was one murder ballad that I didn’t want to hear her sing. He’d stood about all he could for there were very few mitigating circumstances connected with this particular case, and he had put up a maryelous battle for the life of her son.11 


Mrs. Sutton says that one lawyer in the court later told her that Mrs. Coffey’s “face never altered its expression for the entire trial — not even during the solicitor’s final appeal to the jury nor the judge’s charge — not even when the verdict of guilty of first degree murder was returned and the boy was sentenced to death. Her mountain reserve held her apparently unmoved .”12 

In all her travels in the mountains, Mrs. Sutton never met another singer she respected as much as Mrs. Ann Coffey, but it was the woman’s character, not simply her songs, that impressed her. She wrote of Mrs. Coffey many times — first in the early 1920s in a poem that told how she was widowed as a young wife. A sheriff who had come to arrest her husband for moonshining shot him dead in the doorway. Between 1927 and 1935 she took Mrs. Coffey as the model for a character named Aunt Nancy, who figured in many of her Blue Ridge stories and sketches. All of these hover between fact and fiction. Some stories appear to be based upon Mrs. Coffey’s anecdotes or attitudes, but dress them up as fiction. In others, Aunt Nancy blends the features and words of several ballad singers Mrs. Sutton knew, or has a role in a factual incident not originally involving Mrs. Coffey. 


“A Woman of the Hills” 

The piece most clearly based on Mrs. Sutton’s personal observation is the one that follows: “A Woman of the Hills.”13 Its first section reports her actual first encounter with Mrs. Coffey. In other more prosaic accounts Mrs. Sutton described the woman as having been dressed that day in drab gray homespun rather than in red calico with an apron of Alamance cloth. Her picture of the mob in the courthouse square must record a composite memory of those Court Week scenes. In the next section, the narrator talks with Lyin’ Bill on the Yonahlossee turnpike. Their conversation may or may not be invented, but Bill’s account is faithful to what Mrs. Sutton elsewhere reports of Mrs. Coffey. The third part of the story seems to be based on a lawyer’s yarn, but no other mention of a scene like this appears in Mrs. Sutton’s writing. The incident that composes the fourth and final section was invented. Mrs. Sutton served as school supervisor in Avery County, not Caldwell, where Mrs. Coffey lived. The setting, however, is probably a reasonably accurate, if romanticized, picture of Mrs. Coffey’s home. Taken together, the four sections of “A Woman of the Hills” form her most considered statement of what she had learned of mountain character. 

She also uses the sketch to show changes that had taken place in her own outlook. She had grown up in a county that rises from rolling foothills on the southeast to Grandfather Mountain on the northwest. At Lenoir, the county seat, the prosperous farmers of the valleys and piedmont mixed and contrasted — with the “cove gulls” of the Blue Ridge and Brushy Mountains. This social gap grew wider when a railroad pushed into Lenoir in 1884, opening a possibility for the development of industrial wealth. Maude Minish’s family had been farmers in the foothills (she once found a dulcimer in her great-grandfather’s corn crib, six miles from Lenoir), and in the early years of the century her father helped establish furniture manufacturing in the town. He was for decades not only a business leader but “the best Democrat in Caldwell County,” a power in local politics. 

Men of the rising middle class in the county, although firm in their own values — their commitment to goals such as good roads, education, and progress, or to Methodism and the Democratic party — looked tolerantly on the back-country people. Mrs. Sutton charged that the middle-class women, on the other hand, tended to have aristocratic pretensions. They “fostered the tradition of the plantation life of the Old South” and “tried to cover up the fact that their ancestors worked with their hands.”14 This was a common Southern failing, and one that particularly irritated her when she encountered it at the Southern Writers’ Conference in 1935. She tired of hearing all the talk of plantation fiction like So Red the Rose. At least in her later years, Mrs. Sutton was a Jacksonian. “I don’t like any character in the early days of our country more than I do Old Hickory,” she wrote; “he really believed in the ideals and desires of the common people.”15 

Her principles were rooted, no doubt, in loyalty to her father’s traditions. Strangely enough, it was her love of ballads that actually carried her across the barriers of class and background. Though making no mention of balladry, “A Woman of the „ Hills” traces this development. The small child frightened by an alien hillcountry matriarch grows into the young teacher who could appreciate the tradition her work helped to undermine. In actual life it pained Mrs. Sutton to see the effect of the schools. One old lady would scarcely sing ballads to her for fear she wanted to ridicule them. “She can’t understand my interest otherwise, “Mrs. Sutton wrote. “She suffers from an educated (!) daughter-in-law who depreciates mountain culture.”16 In her ballad collecting and in the Blue Ridge sketches Mrs. Sutton makes recompense, leaving a report on a vanishing way of life. Ann Coffey had died. Her “cabin home is abandoned,” Maude Sutton wrote. “It isn’t far from the falls of Gragg’s Prong of Wilson’s Crest, and is included in the new boundary of the Pisgah National Forest. 1 hope the wardens and foresters will leave it alone and let it stand as a type of the homes that were built by the earlier pioneers.” 17 



1. Newman Ivey White, ed., The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, I (Durham, N.C., 1952), 18. 

2. Maude Minish, “A New Way of Vitalizing the Study of History in Schools,” Current Opinion, 62 (April, 1917), 242. 

3. Maude Pennell Minish, [Ballads Collected in Avery County, 1917-181, I, [16], in The Houghton Library of Harvard University. 

4. Ibid., II, 53. 

5. Ibid., III, 39. 

6. The Frank C. Brown Collection, Maude Minish Sutton Papers, “The Gallows Tree,” p.2, in The Perkins Library of Duke University. 

7. [Ballads Collected in Avery County, 1917-18], III, [48], 

8. Ibid., [341. 

9. Ibid., I, [38], 

10. Maude Minish Sutton, “Blue Ridge Folk Songs: Kitty Wells,” Raleigh News and Observer, July 25, 1935. Mrs. Coffey’s Variant of “Child Waters” is not printed in the Brown Collection. Many of Mrs. Sutton’s song notebooks have disappeared since her death. 

11. “The Hangman,” Raleigh News and Observer, March 24, 1935. 

12. “Old English Folk Songs in Caldwell County,” Lenoir News-Topic, April 28, 1927. 

13. “A Woman of the Hills: A Blue Ridge Sketch,” Raleigh News and Observer, Dec. 18, 1927. 

14. “Coming Down My Valley,” Lenoir News-Topic, Sept. 6, 1935. 

15. “Coming Down My Valley,” Lenoir News-Topic, Jan. 17, 1935. 

16. [Ballads Collected in Avery County 1917-18], I, 16. 

17. Raleigh News and Observer, July 25, 1935. 


A Woman of the Hills: A Blue Ridge Sketch

by Maude Minish Sutton, 1927 


It was the first Monday of Court Week in Lenoir, a long time ago. The back lots of all the stores were full of covered wagons, surreys, buggies, carts and all varieties of wheeled vehicles. Little camp fires still smoldered in these lots, for it was soon in the morning. A few belated campers were frying meat in iron skillets on these low fires. Others were hanging the skillets and coffee pots, in which they had cooked breakfast, on the high green sides of the covered wagons. The courthouse square swarmed with folks. Aunt Nancy had come down from her cabin home, under the sheer sides of the Grandfather, to attend court. She was indicted for “blockadin’.” Her tall, spare figure was striking even in that interesting assembly. She wore a bonnet, a red calico dress with a very full skirt and a close-fitting basque. Around her slim waist she had tied a long full apron of tan and blue checked cotton cloth. She called this cloth “Alamance.” She stood at the north door of the old square brick courthouse, which was in the exact center of the town square. Her smoky gray eyes watched the shifting crowd with an impassive stare. “Hoss traders” led their wares around in the crowd, or galloped them at full speed around the congested square and up and down the streets leading from it. Aunt Nancy’s neighbor, “Lyin’ Bill,” led an old white horse, badly afflicted with string halt, near where she was standing. As he passed he said: 

“I alus gits a leetle, jist a leetle, bit the best of the other feller in a hoss swap.” 

On the outskirts of the crowd an itinerant peddlar of “Ruteena” cried his wares. One red-coated Negro danced on the medicine wagon to the jig that another one played on a banjo. This unusual sight won little attention from Aunt Nancy. Her eyes roamed incessantly over the crowd, watching for the other members of her gang. They should have been there a long time ago. At last they appeared; three tall, rangy men of the same swarthy breed as herself. Their blue-black hair and smoky gray eyes proclaimed their Gallic ancestry as loudly as did their determined sense of the rights of the individual. The four formed a compact isolated group at the corner of the steps. A short, very fat man, who spoke with a loud wheeze between sentences, formed an interesting contrast to the group of “hill billies” he was talking to. 

They were all deep in a low-voiced conversation when a little child made her way timidly through the congested crowd and stole up the steps. Sent on an urgent errand from home to find her father in the courthouse, she was torn between fear and eager fascination at the crowd. As she was halfway up the courthouse steps she heard Aunt Nancy make this statement to the lawyer: 

“I can prove by God that I never made nary drap of liquor on this side the Caldwell County line.” 

In startled terror the little girl paused and turned to look at the blue mountain sky. No sign of an avenging deity en route to earth to establish proof of Aunt Nancy’s innocence was to be seen. Slightly reassured, but cold with fright she went on. A few moments later, reinforced by a protecting parent, she came back. Aunt Nancy was standing at the town pump, just above the courthouse, drinking from a tin cup, which was chained to the body of the pump. 

“Papa, who is that woman?” the child whispered. 

“The shrewdest person in Caldwell County,” he answered. 

“Please don’t let ’em put her in jail,” the little girl begged earnestly. “She’s goin’ to get God to come down to prove she hasn’t made any liquor on this side of the Caldwell County line.” 

The hearty laugh with which her father greeted this remark puzzled the little girl for a long time. 



It was 15 years before I saw Aunt Nancy again. It was on the Yonahlossee Turnpike one August Day. She was walking along with two men and a girl. The girl carried a tiny baby in long clothes and walked far to the rear of the men. Aunt Nancy, contrary to all precedent and good usage in the Blue Ridge, strode along ahead with the men folks, their equal in all things and so recognized by them. She had aged incredibly in the length of time, but so striking was the impression she had made, I recognized her immediately. Just behind the group was “Lyin’ Bill” on the seat of a huge covered wagon, heavily loaded, to which were hitched four big mules. He stopped to talk. 

“Isn’t that Aunt Nancy?” I asked. 

“Yes’m,” he replied. “She’s on her way home. You know the judge sentenced her to leave the State ’bout five years ago. The Governor has jist let her come home. I’m glad, fur hit purt nigh killed her to go. Her lawyer’s been a workin’ ever since an’ this here new Governor, he’s let her come home. Hit’s a powerful good thing, fur the old woman was a grievin’ her life away. She’s the homiest body you ever seed any how.” 

“Where has she stayed?” I asked, watching the spare body of the old woman as she strode along the mountain road. Just as she turned out of sight down the side road that leads in a tortuous trail to Carey’s Flats, under the side of the Grandfather, he answered: 

“Yon side o’ the State line, ’bout half a mile. She says she used to climb the Roan and look at the top of Old Grandfather an’ jest lonesome fur home. Hit shore was a hard dost fur her to take.” 

“It’s a wonder she didn’t slip home,” I said, with the pathos of that lonely figure on top the Roan gazing at her homestead heavy on my heart. 

“No’m hit ain’t,” replied “Lyin’ Bill.” “Aunt Nancy give the Judge her promise an’ she’s alus been a fool about doin’ jist what she said she would. Hit’s a good thing they let the old soul come home fur she’d a mourned herself to death purty soon.” 

“Do you suppose she will stop making whiskey?” I asked. 

“Not while her head is hot,” he replied. “I’ll bet they never catch her any more though. From now on she’ll pick her crowd with better jedgement.” 



The trait in Aunt Nancy’s character which so puzzled “Lyin’ Bill” is responsible for her next appearance in this chronicle. She was on the witness stand in the Avery county courthouse, as a defense witness in another of the whiskey cases to which she was so accustomed. 

The prosecuting attorney, with the stinging sarcasm of which he was past master, was subjecting her to a merciless cross-examination. In the course of this expert questioning he referred, with telling effect, to every case in which she had been defendant. She parried these thrusts with scornful skill and a wit fully equal to his own. Her lean figure was proudly erect. Her old slat bonnet lay across her lap and the fires of her indomitable spirit flashed in her smoky gray eyes. Finally, he referred to her lonely exile, “Yon side the State Line.” It was a dramatic moment. The spectators in the courtroom winced, for all of them knew the torture that this exile had cost the old woman. They sympathized with her keenly in this suffering, for the mountaineer understands the pangs of homesickness as few people do. A devotion to the particular cove in which his cabin stands is one of his dominating passions. The questioning solicitor had called Aunt Nancy, in the reference, “A menace to the peace of this great commonwealth.” The words went home. With a tone of utter contempt she asked the judge: 

“Air ye a tryin’ me?” The lawyer for the defense grinned. The prosecuting attorney blushed. One of the jurors hid a smile behind his hand. His Honor was baffled, but he looked at the old woman kindly. 

“No, you are not on trial,” he replied. 

“Then, they hain’t nary bit o’ use of that thar upstart a rakin’ up ever thing I was ever accused of doin’ and a blame sight 1 hain’t done, and a tryin’ to shame me into sayin’ I lied about this here case. I don’t lie. That thar old devil right down thar,” pointing her long finger at one of the most distinguished members of the Western North Carolina bar, “has spoke agin me in four trials, but he knows I tell the truth. Don’t ye?” in a tone of fierce challenge. The lawyer nodded his head. “Thar,” went on Aunt Nancy triumphantly. “I never axed to come here today. I hain’t even suspicioned of ’no crime agin this here commonwealth.’” Her telling use of the solicitor’s pet phrase provoked a little wave of laughter in the courtroom. 

“I come here, cayse ye made me, to help you and them thar juries over thar find out the truth about this case. Then he puts me on trial, tries to make a fool out o’ me. Young man, you’re a wastin’ time. Smarter lawyers than you air hain’t been able to do that. Have they?” again appealing to the distinguished lawyer who had vindicated her previous statement. This time he preserved a discreet silence. “Go ahead,” finished Aunt Nancy, her good humor perfectly restored by the expression of her sentiments, “Cut yer patchin’.” 

The judge intervened and the district attorney excused the witness. 

At a recess in the court’s procedure, Aunt Nancy sought out the lawyer who had testified to the integrity of her word. 

“I’m much obleedged to ye,” she said. “You air the last person on Gawd’s earth I’d a ’spected to say a good word fur me.” 

“Why, Aunt Nancy,” said the courtly old gentleman, with the utmost courtesy. “I do not bear any malice toward you. It was my duty to appear against you. I never enjoyed it.” 

“Yes, you did, Gov’nor,” contradicted the old woman of the hills, with a flash of whimsical amusement in her eyes. “You like a good fight well as I do. Air ye a runnin’ fur anything now?”

“I am not,” said the barrister stiffly. 

“Well ye needn’t hist yer tail on yer shoulder over me a axin’ ye,” she said. “Ef you ever run agiain, let me know an’ I’ll vote my crowd fur ye. They hain’t nary ’nother durn lawyer in North Carolina got as much sense as I have.” 



The last time I saw Aunt Nancy was at her home, a little cabin at the end of a tortuous trail down the sheer sides of Grandfather Mountain. The autumn day was as beautiful and as still as the day when the footsteps of God hollowed out the beautiful valley and bulged up the majestic mountain. We had followed the winding trail down from the Yonahlossee along a clear cold stream that plunged down the mountain from waterfall to pool, and from pool to waterfall. The path wound in and out, now by the stream, now back into the silence of the forest, now making its difficult way through a thicket so dense that the ground had not known the warmth of the sunlight for years. There were a few shortcuts along its dizzy windings, where the initiate “cooned” logs, swung from limb to limb of the great trees or climbed a stairway of jutting rock. Aunt Nancy’s cabin, of big logs, was very near the last leap that the little stream makes in its hazardous journey down the mountain. The lacework of water on the sheer granite cliff was visible from her door. The cabin, nestling against the mighty wood, fitted into its surrounding as no other type of dwelling could. Aunt Nancy, shading her rapidly dimming eyes with a gaunt hand, watched our approach. 

“You’re a ridin’ ‘Walker’s Express’ today,” was her greeting. 

“May we rest here a little while?” I asked. “We are going over to the school but we are out of breath.” 

“Come right in,” said Aunt Nancy hospitably. “I drapped my dishrag twice’t this mornin’ an’ I knowed somebody was a-comin’ hongry. They hain’t no use o’ ye a-goin’ to the schoolhouse. Miss Molly’s mammy died day before yistiddy and she shet down school an’ went home. The younguns is a huntin’ chestnuts an’ galack all over the country. Set down gals, you must be half dead. That thar road is a back-breaker.” 

We sat down. A long low room with the sylvan charm of an utterly primitve dwelling. Every piece of furniture in the room, except the tiny cookstove, was hand-made. The chairs were ladder-backed and bottomed with woven withes of split hickory. A corner cupboard, of dark red cherry wood, filled one corner. Across the opposite one was nailed a shelf of wide planks on which the cooking vessels of smokened iron lay. Between these corners was the huge fireplace of great slabs of great rock. In it smoldered a log fire between two big stones which served as andirons. A long table covered with a red oil cloth with two long benches thrust under it, was by the window opposite the door. In the back of the room were two handmade beds of dark walnut, their tall posts reaching nearly to the overhead ceiling. One of them was covered with a blue hand-woven worsted coverlid in the exquisite pine bloom pattern. The other was covered with a hand-tufted spread that was equally attractive. At the foot of one of them stood an old walnut chest. The heavy antique brasses on it were tarnished but very handsome. This was the only piece of furniture of any apparent value in the room. Folded and lying over the top of this chest were several quilts, beautifully hand-pieced in the “Log Cabin,” “Star of Bethlehem” and “Rising Sun” patterns. The intricate handwork that it took to make these quilts seemed very foreign to Aunt Nancy’s well-known habits, but this day was to reveal several other sides to her versatile personality. The room was spotlessly clean. The wide boards of the floor were white with innumerable scourings. The scouring broom, handmade, of the same kind of hickory withes as those with which the chairs were bottomed, stood under the shelf; by its side was a “bresh-broom” of sedge, tied with a string. Hanging over the high mantel was the handsomest deer head I ever saw. Another pair of widely branching antlers hung over the door. Laid across them was a double-barrelled shotgun, a powder horn swung by it. 

Aunt Nancy gave us each a drink of water in a gourd, polished by long usage. She accepted our compliments on its sparkling coldness with calm pride. 

“That thar comes from the best spring on the mountain,” she said. “Hit’s a bold spring and hit comes right out of the pyore rock.” 

I never saw a mountaineer who did not think that the water from his home spring was not the best on earth. It is a typical boast. 

“I don’t relish water away from home,” Aunt Nancy went on. “All the rest of the water is brackish an’ don’t taste right to me. I’m glad you’uns got here soon as ye did. When I drapped my dishrag this rnornin’ I went out an’ kotched me a little chicken and salted hit down in the spring house. Then my grandson fetched me a squirrel. I’ve got hit a parboiling now. Let me hole up a few taters in them ashes an’ we’ll have some dinner by the time the sun’s a hour higher. Cornin’ down that thar Jacob’s Ladder of a road must to a got you ’bout ready fur a few vittles.” 

“I’m very glad you can give us some dinner,” I said. “We will be hungry before we get back to the road.” 

“They hain’t never nobody left my house hongry ef they had any business in hit,” she answered, and set to work preparing dinner. She cooked it on the tiny stove and on the fireplace. She prepared the entire meal with very little disorder. She worked with great deftness and the inherent neatness of the very efficient person. In a very short time she had on the table a delicious meal of fried chicken, broiled squirrel, sweet potatoes, roasted in the wood ashes with the flavor that only that kind of cooking gives, cornbread, made of water-ground meal, salt and water, baked in a three-legged skillet over the coals. It also had a woodsy flavor that made it indescribably delicious, dark-brown homemade molasses, golden butter, the inevitable apple butter which makes as regular an appearance as bread in the wellmanaged mountain home, sourwood honey, foaming milk as cold as the icy mountain stream which flowed through Aunt Nancy’s spring box. We did ample justice to this delicious meal. 

“I don’t make many brags,” Aunty Nancy replied to our enthusiastic praise, “but I shore can cook. They’s mighty little satisfaction to be had in settin’ down to a meal’s vittles ye cook jest fur yerself. I’m proud when folks come. Some of my grandchildren would come an’ stay with me ef I’d let ’em, but hit’s a lonesome place fur young folks. My cow an’ my pigs an’ chickens is company fur me but they wouldn’t hardly satisfy a young’un. I been a pickin’ some galax, an’ fern, an’ sprays fur the last little while. I tended a purty good patch o’ ground last year. I et my last mess o’ sallit yestiddy, but I got a right smart chance o’ taters, an’ apples, an’ turnips back in the tunnell. My son-in-law carried a purty good load of my cabbage to Lenoir last week. I’ll sell off the apples purty soon. This here son-in-law says to me when he fetched me the money fur the cabbage: 

“‘Maw, some o’ these days we’ll find you here dead by yourself.’ 1 told him that I ’lowed I’d have to travel that road by myself any how. Course I don’t know what’s a coinin’ by tomorrer’s sun up. You don’t nuther. When you’re a ridin’ ’round a twisty road, you don’t know what’s jist around the next bend, but you don’t quit yer travellin’ just becayse o’ that. You’re a goin’ somers. They hain’t no use of keepin’ one o’ them young folks shet up way up here with a old woman that wants to spend her time a studyin’ back. Hit’s yistiddy fur me, tonrorrer fur them. My courtin’s so fur back I jist ricollict hit when hit’s so dark an’ rainy I can’t see to do nothin’ but set. They’re a thinkin’ courtin’ all the time. But, I’ve spent 76 year a learnin’ myself all I could about folks, an’ courtin’ is one thing that don’t never change. The crap o’ sweethearts is as reg’lar as the crap o’ leaves.” 

Here she lighted her pipe and asked us to come out and look at her trees. They were truly magnificent! A mighty oak shadowed the foot log over the little stream that ran by her dooryard. 

“Ever’ year when.hit puts out,” she said, in answer to our comments on the beauty of the oak, “I think hit hain’t never been this purty before. God must to a put in more time studyin’ out oak trees than any other sort. Looks like He hain’t shore yit whether to have ’em shed their leaves or not. This here un alus keeps the most of hits old leaves till the new uns come in. Hit must be a sight o’ satisfaction to The Almighty to look at the trees. They’re the best day’s work He ever done. When He’s a studyin’ over folks an’ the way most of ’em messes up things hit must rest Him to look at that thar oak tree, er that big spruce over yonder. When I see them trees an’ the water a runnin’ down that thar rock I know why He was proud when He got through makin’ the world.” 

A shaft of dazzling golden sunlight filtered through the big hemlock on her head as we waved goodbye from the road above the waterfall. Her gesture of farewell was as free as her soul.