- [S9] Smoky Mountain Historical Society Newsletter, Smoky Mountain Historical Society, Vol. XXV, No. 3, p 7-8.
- [S9] Smoky Mountain Historical Society Newsletter, Smoky Mountain Historical Society, Vol. XXV, No. 4, p 12, Winter 1999.
- [S106] The Mountain Press, 16 Jan 2012.
Life with Aunt Lydia: Ruth Miller personifies woman who was there before park was created
by GAIL CRUTCHFIELD
Ruth Miller speaks as Aunt Lydia Kear Whaley during her presentation at Wilderness Wildlife Week.
Ruth Miller shows off the apron she made to go with her Aunt Lydia wardrobe.
Ruth Miller points out interesting facts about a basket made by Aunt Lydia Kear Whaley.
PIGEON FORGE — Slipping off her dangling earrings, Ruth Miller slipped into the role of Aunt Lydia Kear Whaley, a woman whose history is tied to Great Smoky Mountains National Park even though she died just as talk was beginning about its creation.
Whaley, Miller said, didn’t think it was right for women to wear earrings. Short hair was also frowned upon, she added, before donning and a bonnet to cover her shorn locks. The bonnet with its long drape in back is similar to one Whaley would have worn around the time of the Civil War.
“She didn’t believe in short hair,” Miller said. “That was a sin. And certainly she wouldn’t have worn earrings. That would have been a Jezebel.”
To complete the picture, she tied a red bandanna around her neck and a long, white apron around her waist, one she made over nine hours last year during a winter snowstorm.
Miller surmised that the bandanna was used as a sweat rag as Whaley toiled in the summer garden, and that the style of bonnet became popular when the women were working the homestead while their husbands and sons were off to war.
Miller was one of the speakers at last week’s Wilderness Wildlife Week. She packed the Ukelele Room at Music Road Hotel and Convention Center with people wanting to hear about one of the area’s historical figures.
“A lot of the writers who wrote about Aunt Lydia say she was an earthy woman,” Miller said. “I thought, well that sounds like she was from the hippie generation. I never heard that term until the hippies came to be. But this woman really was an earthy woman. She lived off the land. If I had lived the life that this woman lived I don’t think that I could have survived, and I don’t think many people today could.”
Before she got too far into her presentation, Miller gave a quick lesson in geography and terminology, explaining where some things were located in reference to where things are now and how the mountain dialect would changed the pronunciation of words like panther to sound like painter. She explained where places like Guess’s Creek, White Oak Flats, Forks of the River Community and Holly Branch were located and what’s there now.
“White Oak Flats is what they called Gatlinburg before it became Gatlinburg,” she said.
The Forks of the River Community was located in the Sugarlands area of the National Park. “As you enter the park, Fighting Creek Gap meets the Little Pigeon River and that is called Forks of the River Community,” Miller said.
“Holly Branch, that is at the foot of Ski Mountain as you would start up to the ski resort,” Miller said. “If you’ve ever been up that way, there’s a little old motel on the right that is called Watson’s Motel and it’s closed down, but right there at the office is where Aunt Lydia’s house used to set after she was married.”
For a brief time that area used to be called Butt Branch, Miller said, because people thought that’s what the mountain formation looked like when they viewed it from around the area of what is now the start of Highway 321 in downtown Gatlinburg. Whaley, however, quickly nipped that in the bud by calling it Holly Branch when she referred to it.
Ogle’s Store, first built in 1850, was located where the Mountain Mall is. White Oak Flats Cemetery can be found by walking to the back of The Village to the outside restrooms. A driveway can be found back there that leads to the cemetery that was started in 1830.
She also explained maladies like “dropsy” and “milk sickness.” Dropy was a heart condition and milk sickness was a fatal condition that affected young children for more than 100 years before its cause — from drinking milk collected by cows that ate the snake root plant — was discovered.
Miller traced Whaley’s heritage back to Scotland, where her grandfather was born, and to the family’s migration to America. The man, who was a blacksmith on the coast of Scotland, kept hearing about America and how great it was. When he turned 18, he was supposed to join the army, but decided instead to head to America where he was introduced to beets, corn and barley.
He made his way to Radford County, N.C., where he met and married Missy Shelton. They had three children, the oldest of whom was Aunt Lydia’s father, Jewel. When he was 12, the family decided to move, heading down through Warm Springs, N.C. and down the French Broad River to Richardson’s Cove where they settled for a year so.
They moved into Fair Garden, where Walters State Community College is located today around Harrisburg.
Jewell Kear married Sarah Huff and bought a farm on Guess’s Creek.
“They were happy there,” Miller said in her role as Aunt Lydia. “When I was about 6 years old, a lot of those kids started dying and they really didn’t know what was going on, so Mam and Pap decided that we better get out of there. We better move.”
The family moved to Pigeon Forge, renting a farm on Mill Creek. After a couple of years, they moved into the mountains, into the Forks of the River Community where they bought a farm and he built a house.
“I remember Pap calling it the Garden of Eden,” Miller/Aunt Lydia said. “I often thought it was so pretty with those big trees that had never been cut, and Pap said the garden, it just grew so well. He said there weren’t insects like we have today. He said it was the Garden of Eden.”
Miller’s historical accounts through Aunt Lydia continued, including the arrival of Radford Gatlin and his wife to White Oak Flats, whose short stay in the community ended up with the community being renamed Gatlinburg after a post office was opened at his store.
“Some way, that man just got the name of this town changed,” she said. “I don’t know how he did it, but it was changed to Gatlinburg after him.”
Whaley’s life story continued to her marriage to John Brabson Whaley, the birth of two children (Perry and Isabella), the death of their son Perry, the death of her husband during the Civil War and the birth of their final child five months and 17 days after that.
She stayed on in Gatlinburg, first at her father’s home and then in a house that John built at the bottom of Ski Mountain. Along with farming, she was a beekeeper, a midwife and she wove baskets.
The years passed with the arrival of logging companies and then the hotels and resorts that built up around those, plus the railroad line.
When Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women arrived in Gatlinburg around 1910, she taught the students there how to make baskets, becoming an teacher when she was 75. Her baskets became popular items among the tourists, with one of those tourists supposedly being Scopes Monkey Trial defense attorney Clarence Darrow.
“I was down at the school and the ladies there at Pi Phi were so excited,” she said. “They said, ‘Oh Lydia, there was a man that came in here the other day and he bought every one of your baskets, and he said he’d buy all the baskets that you would make and send to him.’ They told me he was a lawyer from up there in Chicago, and he had come down here to Dayton, Tennessee, to a trial called Scopes Monkey Trial. They said he was the defender of John Scopes, and that he’d come over here to the mountains to hike and he found my baskets.”
A while after that, Aunt Lydia overheard the folks at Ogle’s Store talking about some men from Washington coming to talk about forming a national park. “Uncle Steve said, ‘Why fellas, I bet some day they’ll be a half a million people that come through this town.’ I thought, Lordy Mercy.”
Whaley died of dropsy in the winter of 1926.
“I died, December the 4th, 1926,” Miller/Aunt Lydia said. “I was 86 years old.”
The program ended with a slide show showing objects from Berea College museum, where hundreds of Aunt Lydia artifacts found a home after the closure of an early museum.
Barbara Weiser of Townsend was pleased with the program.
“She was simply wonderful,” said Weiser, who, along with her husband, booked a room in the county during Wilderness Wildlife Week. Last year’s snowstorm convinced them of the need to make reservations this year, just in case, since they were unable to drive up then.
She chose to attend Miller’s program in hopes of learning about the Whaley family, to determine if any of the Whaleys she knows may be related.
Weiser said she loved learning about the different names of the towns and what they used to be and where they were.
“There were a lot of interesting facts,” she said. “I really enjoyed it. And playing the part of Miss Lydia, you could almost see her standing there.”
- [S106] The Mountain Press, 4 Jan 2014.
Upland Chronicles: Aunt Liddy Whaley epitomized strong mountain women
Aunt Liddy on her spinning wheel.
Lydia Whaley with baskets and umbrella.
Aunt Liddy holding her beloved Bible; she quoted scripture to anyone who would listen to her.
She could quote the Bible from “kiver to kiver,” administer home remedies to the sick, deliver babies, weave baskets, lay out the dead, make shoes, hunt for game, and tailor men’s suits. Known as “Aunt Liddy,” Lydia Kear Whaley could do just about anything to which she set her mind.
Born on a farm at Gist’s Creek on May 24, 1840, she was a daughter of Joel Kear (sometimes spelled Carr) and Sarah Huff Kear. When Lydia was about 6, her family, which included nine siblings, moved to a farm at Mill Creek near Pigeon Forge. After a couple of years they moved into the Forks-of-the-River community (near the current location of Sugarlands Visitor Center).
On Feb. 9, 1860, Lydia married John Brabson Whaley. She was 19, and he was a few days shy of turning 18. Their first child, a son named Perry, was born on April 24, 1861, and a daughter was born July 1, 1863.
Lydia and John were grief-stricken when their 3-year-old son Perry died on Aug. 11, 1864, while John was serving in the Union Army. Tragically, Pvt. John Brabson Whaley was killed in action on Sept. 5, 1864. According to family oral tradition, he was trying to rescue a federal soldier at Fort Harry, an earthen fort built by the infamous Thomas Legion a short distance from what is now the Chimney picnic area.
Still recovering from the loss of her young son, Lydia was pregnant when her husband was killed. Their younger daughter, Lorsinda, was born Feb. 22, 1865. Lydia and her children resided with her parents for a short time before returning to the home John built for them in Gatlinburg (the location is now on Ski Mountain Road).
Accustomed to hard work, Lydia raised her daughters as a single parent. She provided for them by earning money any way she could. Along with farming, she was a beekeeper, a midwife, and a talented basket weaver.
Throughout her hardships, Lydia’s faith never wavered. She studied the Bible and quoted scripture to anyone who would listen. She frequently traveled several miles from her home by horseback to serve her neighbors as midwife. The payment for a midwife’s services was often something the family had available on the farm: chickens, a sack of cornmeal or a basket of apples.
Before the time of funeral homes, it was customary to prepare the corpse in the home before burial. Lydia was often called to a home where a death had occurred because she was skilled at “laying out the dead.” Again, payment was usually whatever the family could afford to give her, and it was rarely cash.
Somehow Lydia was taught, or she taught herself, to make men’s wool suits. Those who could afford such a luxury placed an order at Ogle’s Store, where measurements were taken. She picked up the order and made the suit. This included shearing the sheep, carding, spinning, dyeing, and weaving the fabric.
She tanned leather to make shoes for herself and her family and hunted game in order to have meat to serve with the vegetables she grew in her garden. Lydia gathered herbs and made medicine for numerous ailments. She traveled wherever there was sickness and unselfishly administered to the sick.
When Phi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women arrived in Gatlinburg in 1912, the teachers quickly discovered the fine craftsmanship in the baskets woven by Lydia, who by this time was called Aunt Liddy by most people in Gatlinburg.
In the fall of 1914, for the first time, attention was directed toward the industrial work such as quilting and basket weaving at Pi Beta Phi. At the age of 75, Aunt Liddy was invited to teach basket weaving at the school, and through the school she was permitted to sell her baskets. Made of hemlock bark, willow reeds, willow bark, white oak splits and corn husks, the baskets ranged in price from 40 cents for a small crochet basket to a fireside basket for $5.
In the 1920s, as word spread that the government was interested in establishing a national park in the Smokies, the first tourists arrived. This created a greater demand for the mountain crafts that had previously been sold mostly to Pi Phi alumnae.
On a hot day in July 1925, Aunt Liddy arrived at the school to find the ladies at Pi Beta Phi excited because a lawyer from Chicago had come in and bought every one of her baskets. They then told her that the gentleman said he’d buy all the baskets she could make and send to him.
The lawyer from Chicago was Clarence Darrow, the attorney who defended John T. Scopes in the Scopes “monkey” trial in Dayton, Tenn. After the conclusion of the trial, Knoxville lawyer Williston Cox escorted the famous defense attorney to Elkmont for a few days’ relaxation at Cox’s Appalachian Club cabin.
Sadly, Aunt Liddy did not live long enough to see the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She died on Dec. 4, 1926, at age 86.
A melon basket made by Aunt Liddy is on display at the Appalachian Center at Berea College along with hundreds of other artifacts made by Aunt Liddy. Using a design her father brought from Scotland, she wove the the basket out of willow bark. Its handle is a solid piece of willow.
The objects were first gathered by Edna Lynn Simms. She exhibited them at her Mountaineer Museum in Gatlinburg. After her death, the collection was given to the college in 1961.
For the past several years, Ruth Carr Miller has presented a program in which she portrays Aunt Liddy. Wearing period mountain clothing including a long, white apron and a bandana tied around her neck; Ruth tells the story of Aunt Liddy in the first person. She is keeping alive the memory of a remarkable, self-reliant mountain woman.
Carroll McMahan is the Special Projects Facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian.
The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to email@example.com; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- [S94] Sevier County, Tennessee Census, family 260, page 404a, line 8, 29 Aug 1850.
- [S34] In the Shadow of the Smokies, Smoky Mountain Historical Society, (1993), 579.