The Wade Sisters
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by Frank Shortt
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There are many ways that folks get displaced or are induced to move from place to place
just for the sake of making a living. Sometimes it is out of necessity, but oftentimes it is just thought of as temporary, and sometimes
it is because folks have itchy feet.
In the early 1930’s there was a census taken of the
whole state of Virginia. This was not trusted to the local governments but census takers were sent from Eastern Virginia to our area,
being the Southwestern region, as we were thought of at that time to be back-woodsy, ignorant, and a little slow about things.
Two of the ladies who came to our area were sisters and were hired by the government for the sole purpose of taking the census and
returning to Eastern Virginia as soon as possible. Little did they know that they were embarking on the greatest adventure of their
young lives! They were to encounter people of all walks of life, as the County of Buchanan had become a melting pot of various and
sundry characters and was, in the 1930’s, still in a relatively backward condition.
they started out on this lifelong journey, little did they know how far back off main thoroughfares some of these natives actually
lived. Had they known, they probably would have turned tail and headed back to their homes.
Lucy was a gentle, unassuming type, whereas Murtis was outgoing, assertive, and usually had things in hand long before they got out
of control. As I questioned Murtis before she died, she was sometimes hesitant to tell the whole story, for fear she would offend
someone. On the other hand, if the person in question was someone she had had a run-in with at sometime or other, she would tell the
whole story, gore and all. Lucy, being the younger of the two, would sometimes allow Murtis to egg her on to assertiveness.
“Why, when Lucy and I came to Buchanan County, there were no modern conveniences. We were shocked at the living conditions of some
of the residents. The farther back off the main road we traveled, the worse conditions we found. There was no running water in the
majority of homes, indoor plumbing was unheard of to most mountaineers, and what was worse, a lot of the log cabins had dirt floors.
All the cooking was done on wood burning cook stoves, having to be constantly fed with whatever wood the men and boys were able to
cut and stack. As one entered one of these kitchens, the heat was unbearable in the summer, but warm and cozy in the winter. The means
of heating water, was that each stove had a reservoir adjacent to the oven and water was heated as the bread and cakes were baked.
Constant attention had to be paid to whatever was being cooked as the temperature gauges were not always accurate. Most housewives
became expert at using these old fashioned contraptions after repeated use. In order to take a bath, water was dipped from the reservoir
into a round washing tub and the tub taken to one of the adjacent rooms, usually a bedroom, and that was all the privacy a person
had. Many homes kept up this method until the 1960’s.” “Oftentimes, the only partition between the kitchen and the other rooms was
some type of curtain material or burlap.”
“Many of the families, she continued, were dirt poor
and were never taught the amenities of cleanliness. The children were poorly dressed. Their noses dripped on their clothing, being
used as a handkerchief, was dirty and unsanitary. I’m sure that the mothers would have liked better conditions for their children,
but necessity outweighed the means.”
“ Lucy and I did all we could to educate some of the
mothers we came in contact with in the short time we were with them, but old habits die hard. Even when indoor plumbing came to some
of the families, the older folks would still prefer the outhouse because they had never seen an indoor toilet and therefore they were
scared to use it. Even when hot water heaters were installed in the kitchens, the women would still heat their dishwater and bathwater
on the old woodstove. They would say, that old thang (hot water heater) don’t heat it hot enough.”
Murtis and Lucy continued with the census until its completion, but meanwhile they had come in contact with the Wade Brothers. It
must have been love at first sight because after short courtships Lucy married Roy and Murtis married Earl. These girls, having attended
college back east, were granted teaching credentials in the state of Virginia and started teaching in the Buchanan County School Department.
They were required to continue their studies by mail at their perspective colleges. Lucy chose the lower elementary grades, first
through third, and Murtis chose the upper elementary grades, fourth through seventh. In those days kindergarten was unheard of. When
a student finished seventh grade he or she was shipped off to high school if there was any way to get there, but the usual trend was
that not many of the ‘hillbillies’ from the deep ‘hollers [ mountain hollows] ever attended high school. I know that my mom went through
seventh grade three times because she couldn’t attend high school. Usually when a student attended Murtis and Lucy’s school, they
were almost finished with a couple years of high school. They demanded excellence in academics. Most of their students were able to
get a pretty good paying job with the education they gained under these two excellent teachers.
When Murtis took over the Grassy Creek School [actually Grimsleyville School] at the head of Buchanan County, she was faced with many
challenges. Some of the students came to school very poorly dressed. In winter some came barefoot, in summer, shoes were never used
at all by most of the children. The older boys from Horn and Osborne Mountains had never had formal education, therefore, they were
unkempt, unmannered and usually a little wild in nature. Some were old enough to shave and were still in the elementary grades. Murtis
had to use the coercion of a paddle carved out of poplar wood to enforce the rules that these ‘men’ had never been subjected to. Of
course, not all the students were that way. Some were as meek as lambs and were even shy to a fault.
I can remember one incident when Murtis was trying to teach one of the Baldwin boys how to say ‘it. Every time he read or talked he
pronounced it ‘hit”’. She used the paddle on him several times but finally gave up in disgust explaining to the other children that
he was using ‘it’ incorrectly, but that he would have to learn how to say the word by listening to the more ‘proper’ children. Most
of the other children used ‘hit’ also. The Baldwin boy and these other folks continue to use it until this very day. There are just
some things one cannot unlearn.
Fights were a common occurrence at ‘Grassy’ school. When
one of the Osbornes had the opportunity to pick a fight with one of the Davis or Horn mountain boys, the melee was usually hot and
heavy. The ensuing battle usually ended with bloody noses or black eyes. Murtis ended the fracas by wading in on boys that were almost
as big as she and swatting left and right with the paddle until the fight ended. The perpetrators were taken to the front of the class,
bent over a desk and paddled soundly on the backside until the smartness brought tears to the miscreant’s eyes. If no tears came,
she paddled until tears appeared. She started to paddle one of the Shortt boys once and he held out his huge knuckles, stopping the
forward motion of the paddle, thereby breaking it into splinters. Another young man of the Lowe clan tried the same thing on another
occasion with the results being ‘implanted’ knuckles. Murtis was a very strong and assertive woman.
Lucy, on the other hand, was more apt to try to talk the child into being good. She had the younger group and by the time they reached
the ‘Big Room’, as the upper grades were termed, they were ready to ‘shape up’ as they had already heard of the terrible things happening
next door. Lucy was a kind and gentle sort, usually being able to get her methods across by encouraging the child. I sometimes think
that I was one of her ‘pets’ as I was a very apt student who had already been taught to read and write before I entered first grade
by my older siblings. I was nicknamed ‘Frank Sharp’ by the older boys in the school and they used to carry me around on their shoulders
‘putting me up to’ a lot of unnecessary mischief. I usually received a paddling at school and one when I arrived home. I was allowed
to help the other children with their spelling and reading as I was already able to do both. Lucy was a very great influence on my
life. She encouraged me to read and lent me the books to read at night. I got in trouble at home many nights by reading into the wee
hours. A flashlight under the covers was a common occurrence of my childhood.
in those days was not only a teacher, but also the janitor, nurse, principal, and whatever the events at hand required. Murtis and
Lucy would even help us fight fires, taught us how to play baseball, football, and many other games that still linger with me.
one thing that Murtis simply did not allow was for any student to play in the mud after a heavy rain or when the winter snows thawed.
Once when the spring thaw had made the whole play area a veritable mud spa, I asked to be allowed to go to the outhouse. The reply
was affirmative, and I proceeded to attend to the business at hand. As I returned to the classroom, another student, Kenneth Wade,
was allowed to go to the restroom and I met him about halfway back to the room. We, being healthy robust boys, decided to do some
sliding on the little hill adjacent to the outhouse. In doing so, we invariably fell on our behinds, mussing up our faded overalls,
and incurring the wrath of Murtis when we finally decided to go back to class. She asked us,
“Did you boys fall accidently, or did you try to slide down the embankment out there?”
We had no alternative but to admit that we had intentionally tried to slide down the hill as we both were covered with Virginia clay.
The night before, my dad had made her a new paddle, even boring holes in it with a red hot poker, and sent it to school by one of
my older siblings. It is not hard to guess who received the first paddling with this hated instrument. After paddling Kenneth, she
made us stand up the rest of the afternoon by the old ‘Burnside’ heater to dry out our clothes to the derision of the rest of the
class. Children of America today will never experience the joy of being paddled in front of a whole room full of gaping urchins. Murtis
invented the dance called the twist. She provided the energy and we twisted all over the place!
The only means we had of obtaining a drink of water in this two-room school was by means of an old hand pump in a little pump room
adjacent to the ‘little room’. Murtis and Lucy taught us to make cups with the old rough writing tablet paper by cutting the middle
of the sheet half way across and folding the halves inward creating a cone. As one student pumped the large handle of the pump, the
one getting a drink must hold the ‘cup’ underneath the spigot, and wait until the iron colored water came spilling out of the spout.
Nine times out of ten the cup fell apart before one could obtain a drink. There had to be a better way!
Recesses, on warmer days, were spent playing all kinds of games in which most students could participate. The most enjoyable times
I ever spent were down by Grassy Creek digging in the bank for arrowheads. The Cherokee Trail ran just above Grassy Creek and the
roving bands of Native Americans that traveled from Tazewell County, Virginia to Kentucky all used this trail. The school was built
on one of the level meadows adjacent to the creek. This being a level piece of ground, even in the days of the Cherokee, it was used
for a camping ground by the roving bands. Many times I have dug up arrowheads, stone implements, spearheads and chards of Indian pottery.
I have even found clay pipes by one of the many feeder creeks of that area. We did not have the foresight in those days to make a
museum of sorts in the little schoolhouse, and I’m sure that Murtis and Lucy were too busy teaching us ‘reading, writin’ and rithmetic’
to be wasting time on some ‘old Indian relics’. There was not a zeal for archeology at that time. Some of those very arrowheads remain
with me today.
Another pastime for some of us, especially in the autumn, was to sit underneath
an old beech tree down by the water and eat beechnuts. If you have never tasted beechnuts, you have missed a special treat. The beechnut
has a triangular shaped shell that when cracked between the teeth just a certain way will produce a nut about the size of the end
of your smallest finger. The taste is between a filbert and a hickory nut. The nuts do not become disengaged from the burr until around
the first frost. I always looked for the fattest, most brittle variety which produced the largest, best tasting meat. I just knew,
from experience, which ones would produce this.
Murtis would ring the bell to ‘take up
books’ but sometimes we would be so engrossed in our eating that we would not hear the clang of the bell. When we arrived late to
class, we knew to just go to her desk and wait for the oncoming storm. The taste of beechnuts was worth all the punishment.
Murtis and Lucy Wade have been gone for many years but their influence will be felt until the last Grimsleyville School student has
gone on to their reward. It would be interesting to see how many students are actually left from the old two-roomed school. This would
be a glorious reunion.