Living in the hills of East Tennessee, the tradition of storytelling, oral or otherwise, is often passed down through family members.
But just because someone moves away and leaves the smoky mysterious hills, doesn’t mean traditions die, but rather they travel with them, wherever they go. The result is a little piece of the Tennessee Mountains locked forever inside until one day the tradition is passed down and the story retold.
Such was the case for Mary Carr Johnson of Oklahoma.
Though she never lived in the Tennessee Mountains, she grew up hearing stories told to her by her grandmother Mary Ina Carr who was born in LaFollette in 1888. In her 70s now, Johnson remembers her grandmother vividly.
“My grandmother was one of the most fascinating characters I have ever met,” said Johnson.
“She had such a colorful and descriptive vocabulary that in a different day and when opportunities came to ladies like her later in the 1900s, she could have had a remarkable career,” Johnson said.
Her grandmother’s talents spread out in several directions, with music being one of them.
“I loved to hear her sit down at the piano and play by ear and sing in a lovely soprano voice,” recalled Johnson, as she pointed out that her grandmother had no formal musical training.
More than anything though, Johnson’s grandmother loved to tell stories, a tradition she may have picked up from her ancestral roots. Among Johnson’s favorite stories were the true adventures about the life of a mountain woman named Nancy Smith, or “Nannie”.
Born Mary Ina Baldock on March 29, 1888, Johnson’s grandmother was not raised in LaFollette, but rather in nearby Knoxville until she married John Wm. Carr in 1907 and moved to Chicago Ill.
While living in Knoxville as a child, Carr’s father’s health failed when he contacted Typhoid fever. His wife, Mary Jane hired between 15 and 20 seamstresses and started her own sewing business in their home. The seamstresses would bring their children and “Nannie” would watch everyone, including Carr. Nannie, however, became much more than a babysitter and employee of the Carr’s, over time she became one of the family. Her story is so winding and complex that it can only be retold as Johnson’s grandmother intended it to.
These installments have been retyped to correct grammatical errors only, but the dialect and wording has been left the same as it was typed years ago by Mary Ina Carr.
The life of a mountain girl, as recounted by Mary Ina Carr: Installment 1
Mary L. Johnson, Mary Ina Carr’s granddaughter submitted a true story, which was written out by her grandmother many years ago.
“Now you git going you honery mule, no time to balk-I got to git home or I’ll get whopped”. Nannie and I had been berry picking when we overtook this lad and his mule.
We were strangers in this small mountain village in the Cumberland Mountains in East Tennessee and were lonesome for friends left in Knoxville, so we were both interested in anything or anybody.
The fourteen-year-old lad was lame and when he saw our baskets of berries he said, “Do you like to pick berries?” We chorused that we enjoyed both the berry picking and the scenery and Claude said, “Shux, you think those are berries! You should see some out past the blast furnace-big juicy, fat and black, long as your thumb. Would you like to go there?”
Nannie assured him that we would be delighted and she made arrangements for us to meet him and his sister Agnes Myers the next morning around four a.m. Sure enough, Claude and Agnes were there waiting-Claude on the mule and our long five-mile walk began. By noon our “split baskets” were full and at Claude’s suggestion he would hold as many baskets as possible on the mule for our return.
But he reckoned without “Missy Mule” for neither mud, nor fire nor a twisted tail would budge her until each took their baskets of berries and started for home. Then “Missy Mule” followed with Claude astride.
But Nannie’s story started many years before that and often while berry picking and often when we alone at home she would tell me snatches of her life and as she tearfully told it to me, I cried in sympathy. The “Gay Nineties” for Nannie began in our home when she came to live with my parents in 1890.
The life of Nannie
Nancy Smith was born in a small mountain village in northeast section of North Carolina in about 1850 as far as we could figure-for Nannie didn’t know exactly how old she was.
She came to live with my parents in the fall of 1890 and remained until her death in 1919. Her mother died when Nannie was quite young-so Nannie never remembered her. Her father married again within the year so as to have a mother for his three children, Catherine, John and Nancy.
The stepmother acted like a demon and her abuse became unbearable. Being ignorant herself, she did not want schooling for the children, hence Nannie never learned to read and write although my mother often wanted to teach her, but Nannie would say she was too old to learn.
To get away from the stepmother and her unmerciful beatings she played with two neighborhood girls, sisters and often spent the night with them and the mother of the playmates was kind to her and often spoke of taking her over the mountains-away from the stepmother.
So one night that family set off-the father wanted to escape both the law for rustling horses and also to escape service in the Civil War. To his spring wagon he had attached, by ropes, two horses he had stolen and what meager furniture they had was put in the wagon with straw filled ticks and feather beds on top- where the three girls were placed for the journey.
The mountains were trackless except for one Indian road that now runs past Cherokee Indian Reservation and up through New Found Gap into Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Perhaps that is the route they took-perhaps on that rough ride the husband and wife talked long and earnestly and perhaps their consciences troubled them-one will never know, but on the top of one of those high mountains they left sleeping little Nancy-alone with only the clothes on her back to keep her warm.
Look for the second installment in next week’s LaFollette Press.