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Isolated but not alone

Mountain Stewards
Diane Wells, left, shares stories and smiles with Susie Helton in front of Helton's house in the cove in White County, Ga. Photo by Don Wells


By Don and Diane Wells

More years ago than I care to remember, Diane and I became interested in and read many of the Foxfire series books. The Foxfire books are a compilation of stories about mountain living written by the students at the Rabun-Nacoochee School in Rabun County, Ga., while mentored by their English teacher, Eliot “Wig” Wigginton.

These stories captured the pioneer lives of folks who occupied the mountains, valleys and coves of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Their lives were a struggle to eke out an existence with little money for basic necessities. They made almost everything they needed to support their plain living style and grew or gathered foods to eat.

Thirty-four miles southwest of where these stories were written, we discovered some of the pioneering families living similar lives among the mountains and coves of the Blue Ridge Mountains in White and Lumpkin counties. That is where Susie’s family has lived for more than 150 years. Her ancestors’ stories could have been part of the Foxfire series had they known about her family.

After making a presentation on the “Mystery of the Trees” in White County in early March, we were contacted by Susie about an Indian marker tree on her property. Visiting Susie to see the tree opened our eyes to a bigger story that needed to be told. It also added to a growing account of how many families were living under the burden of hiding their Indian heritage to avoid potentially having their property seized and being removed to Oklahoma. Diane and I interviewed Susie, May 3, 2013. This is her story.

Susie was born in 1936 to James Marvin Helton and Dorothy Stancil Helton. She is one of four children who grew up in the cove where their family owned parts of four land lots in White and Lumpkin counties. Susie was 8 years old before she ever saw a person outside her family.

She was home schooled along with her siblings by their mother until they were old enough to walk two miles to the local two-room schoolhouse. Their mother taught them to read and write using the King James Version of the Bible. In her two-room school in rural White County, the high school kids were taught by one teacher and all other grades were taught by another teacher. Susie said, “You had to come to school with clean socks and a clean handkerchief every day and bring your own lunch.”

They got up very early in the morning to get ready for school. They walked to school in the dark over a mountain ridge on a small path. Rain, sleet, snow and other weather conditions did not matter. They made it to the school every school day. When Susie reached the fifth grade, White County consolidated many of its small schools, and she and her siblings walked about a mile over another ridge to reach the school bus stop by 7 a.m. If students were late, they missed the bus.

Susie said they lived an isolated life but they were not alone. Susie and her brothers and sisters had chores to do every day, but when they had free time, they played games with each other. Susie and her sister cut out dolls from a Sears Roebuck catalog and played make-believe. They had a box of watercolors and they could paint their dolls to spruce them up. They painted pictures as well. When they could find a piece of rope, they would jump rope, and, sometimes, they would play hide-and-seek. Their mother didn’t let them wander far from the house due to the many poisonous snakes around and a fear of being attacked by a “mad” dog (one with rabies).

One of Susie’s daily chores was collecting milk from their cow and putting it in the spring box. She also collected butter and buttermilk that either she or her mother made and put it in the spring box. A spring box is a wooden structure built around a natural spring, which allows water to collect up to the top of the box before spilling over. The cold spring water would chill the milk, butter and buttermilk throughout the year and keep it fresh.

Susie said they did not get electricity until 1954, just before she graduated from high school. Telephone service did not reach them until sometime in the 1960s. When block ice became available, her father would drive their truck to Cleveland, to pick up a large block and bring it home to use with an icebox that was chilled using the ice.

For the most part, everything Susie’s family needed to live was built by her father and mother, including their house. When we visited the home in which she grew up, she showed us the table where they used to eat their meals and do other chores. It was built by her father, probably in the 1930s. The original hutch, built by her father, was also in the house.

On the porch, Susie showed us the two-compartment box built by her father to store flour and cornmeal. They grew corn and had it ground into cornmeal at the grist mill nearby every couple of weeks. They also grew sugarcane, which they processed by hand to get sugar and syrup for sweetener. They had a hog every year which they would butcher for meat and grease for cooking. They cooked all their meals on a four-burner woodstove, which also provided some heat for the uninsulated cabin. The stove also was used to heat an iron used to press their clothes. Susie’s sister was the ironer in the family.

Next month we will continue Susie’s story and then share stories of other families similar to Susie’s.

Part One - The legacy of indian removal still impacts lives today

More Mountain Stewards articles describing our rich heritage ...

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