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Friday, March 10, 2006

A Typical Mountain Woman

Part 2: Out of the Hollow

Ruby Underwood and cousins.

Ruby was five years old when she started school at Stamping Birches. Attending this, the closest little schoolhouse to her community, involved a walk out of the mountain, along a high ridge and then down into a cozy little hollow near the present Villa Appalachia Winery. The walk would have begun after the small chores a little girl would have been expected to do, feeding chickens or helping with the huge breakfast that Addie prepared every morning. When Ruby started the long walk with her cousins and siblings, the family would already have been up for hours, tackling the daily chores necessary to keep the farm running smoothly.

Ruby's first lessons at the little school would have been the basics, reading, letters, simple sums and deportment. Learning to read opened up an exciting new world to the little mountain girl from the sheltered hollow in the Blue Ridge. She read everything that came into her hands; especially the books the family owned and whatever she could beg or borrow from neighbors. School became her greatest pleasure, in spite of a hike up hill and down that would be considered intolerable for a child of today.

As Ruby learned that a very different world existed outside of her Blue Ridge Mountain home, that world was plunged into war. The mountain families had been living quietly on their small farms since the Civil War. Sam Underwood, Ruby's father, like many of his neighbors, probably kept up with current events through the newspapers he received in the mail. Discussions at the little country store at the top of the hollow probably turned from local gossip to national happenings as war tore across nations. Every gathering would have included talk of what was happening in Europe, and what it would mean to America. Ruby's earliest years were probably shadowed by this concern, although as a small child in a large family she felt safe in her remote mountain home.

Ruby's oldest brother, Guy, joined the army and was soon sailing on a troop ship to Europe. He was only sixteen or seventeen when he left. Many of his young neighbors also joined the fight. Many of these young men had never set foot out of their native counties before they left for battle in foreign countries. Guy Underwood returned home, many others did not. The different attitudes and experiences that these young men brought home with them must have had an effect on the isolated area.

Influenza struck hard in 1918, and there are records of many deaths in Patrick and Floyd counties during those dreadful months. Young men and women suffered most and the number of children left orphaned must have been staggering. Ruby's immediate family all survived, although whether they suffered from the disease isn't known.

Ruby and other young women of Rock Castle

Through these signs of change in her world, Ruby attended school. Education fueled her ambition, and she worked hard to earn "good marks" in her studies. Even though she studied, read and had chores to do at home, there was plenty of time spent with other young people in the community. "Frolics" at Bear Rocks, visiting among relatives, and church activities were also part of the young girl's life during her years of growing up. Ruby joined Stuart Brethren Church, not far from her home, in her teenage years. An older sister, Stella, was ill for a time after the birth of a child, and Ruby spent a great deal of time helping tend the baby and look after her sister's home. Stella recovered, although she never seemed to regain her full health. But another tragedy struck the Underwood family, when Ruby's older brother Charles died of spinal meningitis in his teens. The loss of her brother deeply affected Ruby and the family. Sam and Addie buried their son on top of a high hill on the family farm. The single grave is enclosed with a wall made of fieldstones.

Loss and duty to her family did not stand in the way of Ruby's ambitions. When she had learned all she could at Stamping Birches School, she attended Harris Chapel, at a distance that required her to board with a family that lived closer to the school. These were probably relatives, and young Ruby would have felt comfortable with them, despite the separation from her immediate family. Then, when she had completed all of her elementary education, Ruby set her sights on high school, which required a journey of four miles into the neighboring community of Meadows of Dan.

Ruby Underwood and Eva West

Ruby boarded with the West family, riding a black mare named Molly every Sunday evening and returning home Friday night. Molly was pastured while at home in a big field at the top of the mountain, along with some of the cattle and other livestock. The mare learned that when Ruby came to get her that she was going to have to work, and would retreat to the far reaches of the field, avoiding capture as long as possible. Young Ruby would become frustrated with the stubborn animal, chasing her around until at last Molly finally gave in. Ruby led the horse back down to the house, where she was saddled and burdened with the necessary books and clothes for the week. An outcropping of stone in front of the house served as a mounting stone, and Ruby would set off from home alone, to ride the four miles to Meadows of Dan for her education.

Some of the rides must have been pleasant, with spring blooming across the fields, or autumn leaves blazing over the mountains. But some rides were difficult, as snow blew across the path with bitter winds, drifting over the roads and settling into hollows, disguising the well-known path. Sometimes the horse just walked over fences, so deeply buried in snow that they couldn't be detected by her young rider. Both horse and rider were probably relieved when they sighted the West homeplace, where the mare could rest in a shed near the house and Ruby was welcomed by the family.
Ruby Underwood, Unknown Location

High school at that time in Meadows of Dan only reached the 11th grade, and Ruby, with her sights set on college, took every advanced course available to her. Algebra and Latin were two of the subjects mentioned by her, although mathematics were not her favorites. At some point she was helped to apply for a space at Ferrum College in Franklin County. She was accepted, but her father opposed the continuation of her education. Without his support and permission Ruby could not fulfill this long cherished ambition, and although she outwardly accepted his decision, as a dutiful daughter, she never quite forgave him for standing in her way.

Sam Underwood was an intelligent man, and progressive in some of his attitudes. He built a Delco plant on Rock Castle Creek behind his home to provide electricity for the first electric lights in any home in the area. He enjoyed good horses, and it was hard for Addie to keep him from racing the other men in the area on their way to church. It is hard today to understand Sam's attitude; outside the mountains, even then, things were changing for women. Just a few years later Ruby's youngest sister, Virginia, was allowed to further her education and become a nurse.

Ruby settled back into family life, the long years of schooling behind her. A picture from about this time shows a healthy, pretty girl with a bright smile and intelligent eyes. Although her ambitions were crushed her spirit remained lively, and a long life in a changing world lay ahead.

To Be continued....

Part one of "A Typical Mountain Woman"

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  • At Friday, 10 March, 2006, Blogger Thistle Cove Farm said…

    Leslie, your stories about mountain women are interesting and informative; enjoyable reading.

  • At Friday, 10 March, 2006, Blogger The MacBean Gene said…

    This is realy good stuff, Leslie. I so enjoy learning more about the people in this area we have come to love as home.
    BTW, stopped last night to say hello but it seems you had gone off the the big city, Stuart.

  • At Friday, 10 March, 2006, Blogger Leslie Shelor said…

    Sorry I missed you! I had to work yesterday evening; hope you'll try again.

  • At Friday, 10 March, 2006, Blogger D L Ennis said…

    Leslie, I love reading this kind of thing and you are doing a great job of telling the story. Looking forward to the next part!

  • At Sunday, 12 March, 2006, Blogger Redhen said…

    'Looking forward to reading the continuing story.

    We've got friends who do work here for us on our farm named Underwood.


  • At Sunday, 12 March, 2006, Blogger Dawn said…

    Wonderful story Leslie! Looking forward to the next part eagerly! Btw, this is a very nice blog all around. Enjoyable and educating. Good combo!

  • At Sunday, 12 March, 2006, Blogger Leslie Shelor said…

    I bet they are relatives, Red. Where you live isn't all that far away from Rock Castle Gorge!

  • At Tuesday, 14 March, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I certainly enjoyed the story, Leslie -- more, more! Thank you - Beth


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