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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Typical Mountain Woman

Part 3: Into the World
Ruby Howell belonged to the Brethren Church in her girlhood, and her mother was a member of Mountain View Methodist Church. There is no record of Sam Underwood's church affiliation in his younger days, but family stories mention that he drove the horse and buggy to church on Sundays, so it may have been to one of these denominations. Primitive Baptist and Missionary Baptist churches were also present in the mountain communities during the early years of Ruby's life.
In the early 1920s, Presbyterian mission schools were founded throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains. Pastors and young women teachers came to the mountains, bringing new ideas from cities and towns and founding new churches in the Meadows of Dan area. Robert Childress, a Patrick County native from Ararat, became a Presbyterian minister and was famous for the native field stone churches he built across Patrick, Floyd and Carroll Counties. Sam Underwood became a member of Slate Mountain Presbyterian Church, served as elder and deacon, and helped with the building of the church that now stands on the crest of the mountain above Rock Castle. There are two "rock crystals" or quartz stones embedded in the wall near the front door, which Sam brought out of the mountain. All of the remaining family at home attended this church after the congregation was formed.

Ruby's life revolved around church and family, but it wasn't long before a young man began to call. William Cruise Howell was the son of Jeff and Loucinda Howell and distantly related to the Underwood family. Jeff had a mill beside his home on Dan River, not far from Rock Castle. The Howell family was smaller than the Underwood clan, with only three daughters and one son.

Jeff Howell was a fiddle and banjo player in the old-time tradition. He was never a professional musician, probably playing occasionally with local bands at dances or for his own entertainment. He played with Charlie Poole when Poole's band came through the area. Poole was well known for entertaining at illicit drinking houses and local tradition has it that such a place existed not far from Jeff's home. Charlie Poole was well-known in Southwest Virginia as a gifted musician and his banjo style was unique for the time.

Cruise Howell inherited his father's love of music and his talent. He learned to play the banjo and guitar just as bluegrass was beginning to grow out of the old-time and blues sound of the mountains. He also did not become a professional musician, joining local bands to perform at casual entertainments in the community. A strong musical tradition existed in the Blue Ridge Mountains from the times of earliest settlement. The local performers in Meadows of Dan had a style all their own, developed in isolation before the improvement of the roads.

Even when Ruby had her sights set on education, she probably always assumed she would be married and raise a family. There were hints from family conversations of other young suitors. "Dating" or courting in those days involved going to family and church events with a young man; or with groups of friends for walks or rides in the community. By the late 1920s and early 1930s automobiles were becoming common in the area, thanks to the improving road system. Route 8 was built up the mountain from Woolwine to Floyd and present Route 58 came through Meadows of Dan on the way from Danville to Wytheville. A group of young people might ride with the parents to church or to shape note singing schools, a community gathering teaching music by the shape of the note head. There were gatherings called "box suppers" to raise money for church or school activities. The single girls would prepare a meal that was put in a box or basket and then at the supper the boys would bid for the right to share the meal with the girl. If the other boys knew a particular boy was sparking a special girl, they would bid against him to run up the price. He had to win, of course, because he couldn't let his girl eat supper with another boy. These activities were declining, with the introduction of new ideas from other areas. Dances became more common, although there were still religous groups that disapproved of dancing. In Meadows of Dan groups of people got together to play setback, a card game that was also frowned upon by some.

Cruise, Ruby and their first daughter, LaNita

Cruise and Ruby were married June 10, 1934, by a Primitive Baptist preacher, Matt Conner, who was a relative of the Underwood family. They set up housekeeping in the Mountain View area of Meadows of Dan, where Cruise farmed and was a convict guard for the county or state. Their first daughter, LaNita, was born in 1935 at home.

Ruby's life was affected more by changes in the outside world after her marriage. Travel was hard when she was a child; she was a teenager before she even rode as far away as Floyd, less than 15 miles from her home in Rock Castle. When she married the Depression was in full swing, although the economic crisis didn't change things much for mountain families, who lived by subsistence farming and saw little cash after the loss of the chestnut crop. The construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, however, had a huge impact on the small community where Ruby grew up.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was a Civilian Conservation Corps project that was implimented during the desperate days of the Depression to put men to work. Camps were set up at stategic locations and land was purchased from local people along the crest of the Blue Ridge. People assented with varying degrees of willingness to the sale of their land; some thought the Parkway would provide a good North-South route for pubic transportion and serve the community. Others were reluctant but eventually the land was purchased along the route.

Underwood Family at 'new' house

Along the Parkway, parcels of land were purchased to become part of the National Forest Service land. The reasons for the move are now obscure, but the government purchased the land surrounding the community of Rock Castle, and the remaining citizens moved out of what has now become known as Rock Castle Gorge. Sam Underwood owned property at the top of the mountain near Slate Mountain Church, and he and his wife, along with their remaining children, made their home on this parcel of the farm. Ruby commented that her father never voiced any resentment of the fact that the Parkway purchased the Rock Castle property.

The Works Progress Administration, created in 1935 to help boost the economy, provided jobs for many mountain men, including Cruise Howell by the end of the 1930s. In 1941 Cruise enrolled in mechanic's school in Roanoke under another government program. His year's training proved to be the only time that Ruby lived outside of Patrick County. Their daughter remembers going downtown to see movies on Saturdays and Ruby found that city life was very different than life in the country. They found out about cockroaches, crowds and how to deal with strangers. Cruise obtained a job with the railroad in Roanoke, but family ties called them home and they moved back to Meadows of Dan.

Ruby had two more children, and raised them through the turbulent 1960s. She raised gardens and hens, kept a cow and churned butter, and lived as a quiet mountain woman and farmer's wife. She was an excellent seamstress and quilter. Throughout her life she read constantly, and passed on her love of books to her children and grandchildren. One of her daughters graduated from college and her son served in the Air Force during the time of the Vietnam War. Her grandson, Sammy Shelor, is a well-known bluegrass muscian; Cruise taught Sammy to play on a banjo fashioned from a pressure cooker lid. Her granddaughter is a writer and artisan, inheriting the love of words and creating that run as deep as music in the mountains.

Ruby Underwood Howell's life is typical of the lives of Blue Ridge women during the changing times of the 20th Century. Much improved during those years; washtubs were replaced by wringer washers and then by sleek electric machines. Woodstoves gave way to electric ranges, gardens to grocery stores. Mountain people adapted, adopted, adjusted and accepted, with the stoic calm of their ancestors. But underneath the veneer of modern civilization that has spread across the Blue Ridge Mountains, the roots of the people are embedded deep. Ordinary people living quietly, passing on traditions, history, music, and a love of their gentle mountain home.

A Typical Mountain Woman, Part 1

A Typical Mountain Woman, Part 2

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  • At Thursday, 30 March, 2006, Blogger D L Ennis said…

    Leslie, this has been a fascinating journey and a rare opportunity to look into the history and lives of the kind of people who made these mountains truly special…Thank you for writing this and sharing it with us!

  • At Monday, 03 April, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Leslie, I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your story on Great-Aunt Ruby. You have a way of writing that is truly a gift. Thank you for a most enjoyable story.

    Linda Crabtree
    (Jim and Jewell Conner's daughter)


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