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Isolated but not alone


By Don and Diane Wells
Susie Helton’s great-grandmother, Abigail Hester Helton, was part Cherokee Indian, and her great-great-grandmother, Katie Owl Helton, was a full-blood Cherokee. The Helton family lived in Georgia in an almost hidden cove among the Blue Ridge Mountains. In that cove, every generation of her family, for at least the past 150 years, has struggled to maintain a life, existing on what they could grow and gather from the land.

  Mountain Stewards
  This Appalachian banjo is on display at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tenn. The inset picture is the base of Susie's father’s banjo, which was handmade by him. This is a typical example of the banjos made by the people of Appalachia. Photo by Don Wells

Many of the pioneering families in the Southern Appalachian Mountains lived a frugal life, making almost everything they needed. Quoting Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” Susie said they lived by biblical principles, never wasting anything and never taking more than they needed.

They were the original recyclers. They saved the cloth flour sacks to make underwear for the kids and to make other clothes. Susie said her brother Bobbie didn’t like the shirts his mother made for him because the name of the flour was on the back of his shirt. Sometimes they would unravel a cloth flour bag to get the thread, which they used for sewing and crocheting. They unraveled the sacks that oranges came in, as well, to get the thread.

In their lifestyle, nothing was thrown away. Pieces of cloth they gathered were ironed flat and cut into squares to make quilts. Containers made of wood or metal were saved and used as needed.

There weren’t many jobs and times were hard. Susie’s father worked at timbering near Blood Mountain. Susie said, “My father hoboed on the train to North Georgia at the start of the week and then hoboed home at the end of the week.” During the week, her mother cared for the family and kept the home safe.

For food, they grew most of what they needed. They ate a lot of berries and wild foods gathered from the mountain. There was no money for doctors; Susie’s mother knew how to make medicine from the wild plants, which she may have learned from her Cherokee ancestors. Susie said they always had medicinal plants on hand to help cure some of the basic ailments they encountered.

They made their own soap. There were two kinds: one for washing themselves and one for washing clothes. During the week, they washed themselves using a wash rag and a small basin of water. On the weekend, they put water in large kettles that were heated by the sun, and they all got a bath outside. The clothes were washed once a week in the large kettles, also. Water was brought to a boil and the clothes were washed by hand or using a scrub board. One of Susie’s chores was to gather the wood and build a fire to wash the clothes.

Living an isolated life far from civilization and with limited money, they could not go to town for entertainment, to see a movie or to shop. But that never stopped Susie’s family from having fun.

Susie said her mother and father were very musically gifted. Her father, using recycled materials, built a banjo for himself and cured a hide to make the banjo top. He also made a guitar for Susie’s mother. Susie remembers them gathering together to play music and sing songs. Susie’s mother, being of Scotch-Irish heritage, knew Gaelic songs and would sing them to the family. Some of Susie’s schooling included basic piano lessons, and she picked it up quickly.

Not being able to afford a piano at home, Susie made a cardboard piano keyboard and practiced at home with her imaginary piano. Her brother William, in later life, learned to make electric guitars and played them regularly with some of his friends.

Susie played on the basketball team in high school and also worked with the school newspaper and other reporting activities. This helped prepare her to venture into a larger world. It was a world very different than the mountain cove she was accustomed to.

When Susie finished high school, she enlisted in the Air Force with her parents’ permission. She had to go to Atlanta for her induction, then fly to Texas for her training. This was the second time for her to venture into the big city and to ride on an airplane and a train.

Her high school senior class had traveled to Washington, D.C., by train the year before her graduation. It is hard to imagine what that may have been like for a young country girl growing up in the mountains.

After basic training, she returned home briefly, then was sent to an Air Force base north of Detroit, where she served her enlistment as the chaplain’s assistant. After four years in the Air Force, she returned home. She found temporary employment in Atlanta and, eventually, got a job with a large insurance company. After a few years, Susie was sent to the Chicago office, where she worked until her retirement in the early 1980s. By then, her mother and father had died. She packed up her belongings and moved back to the cove in White County and into the house in which she was raised.

Her brother William was still living on the property but he was in poor health. In the interim period after her mother and father died, other people used the family’s property as a dumping ground, and some were growing marijuana on the property. Susie never had walked their entire 140 acres, but she began trekking over the hills and valleys to learn about the land. She ran off the people who were abusing the property. This is when she found the Indian marker tree high on a ridge above her home.

Today, although having some support from her retirement and social security, Susie has reverted back to a lifestyle of her early Southern Appalachian years. She lives frugally, making do with little. She no longer can grow and tend the fields of corn and sugar cane, so she buys the food she needs at the store in Cleveland, Ga. The house is still heated by wood, but she does have an electric range to cook on and a refrigerator.

Next month we will continue this story of people who lived off the grid and share a story of Stan Cartwright’s family who, like Susie’s, lived a pioneering life in Meriwether County.

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