Saturday, June 10, 2017


A few months ago, fires ravaged Gatlinburg, TN and parts of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, but the little town of Townsend in what natives call the “peaceful side of the park” was spared the destruction. Although we set out for a brief excursion to Maryville, TN, we found more activity in this small town of 500, and the high point was a visit to the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center just at the edge of the Park.

Although many of the exhibits in the Heritage Center focused on the history and culture of the Cherokees in this area of the southern Appalachian foothills, I spent a lot of time viewing the displays that depicted the life of mountain folk in the 19th century, particularly those that showed the hardscrabble life of women during that time.

An exhibit featuring the image of a female mountaineer held a card depicting the woman’s typical day, beginning with bringing in wood, building a fire, milking a cow, feeding chickens, then preparing breakfast before the family got up. The display caused me to question an image of myself as an industrious morning person. The word “mountaineer” denoted a strong man or woman individualist descended from Scots/Irish stock whose roots ran deep in the southern Appalachian soil. According to Mountain Home by Wilma Dykeman and Jim Stokely, the word mountaineer morphed into a catchword for a picturesque, inadequate character who divided his time between the homemade dulcimer and the home run distillery…then changed into the word “hillbilly,” that described a cartoon character quick to become involved in a feud, slow to work, and indifferent to progress. Readers can imagine the tension that resulted between the mountaineer and encroaching curious visitors to the region.

A small display devoted to folk medicine toward the end of the Heritage Center’s exhibits showed a picture of a character who typified the medical practices of the late 1800s and early 1900s: the “granny woman.” Since I’ve published several young adult books about a Cajun folk healer, the information about these women interested me. Granny women were active practitioners in poor rural areas of southern Appalachia and gained important status as midwives. They also practiced herbal medicine probably passed on by the Cherokees who had roamed the area.

A granny woman gained most of her authority as a healer because of her expertise in midwifery. Some of her methods for inducing labor seemed to be a bit extreme to me; e.g., she advocated using drinking water with a spoonful of gunpowder (thar she blows!) and making the expectant mother drink tansy tea. Just before labor commenced, she’d put a knife or ax under the birthing bed to cut the pain of the expectant woman’s childbirth.

Although the granny woman was a superstitious character, she possessed abundant common sense and a gentle touch, and experience had given her valuable survival techniques.  She was also industrious and did not charge for her healing services, often using the term “resting” to indicate those times when she sat down to patch clothes or to shake a jar of raw milk until butter formed. Like the Cajun healers (traiteurs) about whom I’ve written, granny women inherited their healing abilities from their parents and were keen observers and shrewd judges of character.

We did spend time photographing wildflowers along the highway toward Cade’s Cove in the Park but turned back when we saw traffic backed up for miles ahead. We were excited to read in The Appalachian Voice about the launching of a reclamation initiative to restore native plants in the Appalachian Headwaters area that have been destroyed by mining. Workers will be employed to collect seeds and grow native plants, as well as beekeepers who will return pollinators to the area. Although this initiative is concentrated in Virginia and West Virginia, any attempt to restore native plants in the Appalachians is an environmental step forward.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan

Purple-flowered Raspberry
Wild Hydrangea

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