By Susan M. Thigpen © 1984-2012
Issue: September, 1984
(Update Note: The photos accompanying this article were recently discovered in the archive and the dress shown here has a remarkable history.)
Saturday, August 4th, 1984 we were privileged to attend the Cooley Family Reunion at the Coal Creek Community Center in Carroll County, Virginia, within sight of the original Cooley Homeplace. They were just winding up a cook out in the yard out back as we arrived for "the main event", a play presented by family members for the family enjoyment. The play, directed by Jack Cooley of Hillsville, Virginia, was based on the journal kept by Elizabeth Ann Cooley McClure. She was 17 when she started the journal and kept it until her death of typhoid fever when she was 22. If you're thinking you haven't heard of any cases of typhoid lately, you're right. The journal was kept from February 20, 1842 until 1848.
Elizabeth Cooley's journal is the record of a girl growing into a woman, attending to the responsibilities of everyday farm and home life, marrying and moving westward in a covered wagon, and traveling down the Mississippi River seeking a new home in Texas, only to find war raging there. Next there is another trip back up the Mississippi to Missouri, where she and her husband settle. Unfortunately, she was not to live very long after reaching Missouri. Her entries provide a clear picture of day to day life in that time period as well as an insight into human nature.
But, back to the play. The part of Elizabeth Cooley was played by Rufus Cooley's great-granddaughter, Becky Helton, who wore a dress in the last two acts which was actually made by Elizabeth Cooley. Elizabeth Cooley also spun the wool and wove the material in the dress. It was made of a brown linsey-woolsey material with a black tape trim on the collar. Other props on stage, such as the spinning wheel, were also authentic family heirlooms.
Between acts of the play, the audience was entertained by the dancing of Jack and Joanne Redd of Galax and Royal Sykes and Darlene Cooley in the old style of clog-flat footing. The musicians who played lively mountain music for them were Mark Taylor on the guitar and Bob Johnson on fiddle.
Perhaps the most moving moment was at the end of the play. The cast all came on stage and the music began - fiddle, guitar and Barton Cooley at the piano. The song was "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny." I was sitting on the back row and I could see family members old and young, one by one as their voices blended with the people on stage. More and more joined in, remembering the words in their hearts, until when one on stage asked all to join in, it was really unnecessary - most were singing already.
Family members had traveled from all over the United States for this reunion, and the words to this song must have brought a lump to their throats as they sang. You could feel the sense of family unity in the air.
From the porch of the Community building, you can see the site of the original Cooley homeplace and family cemetery across peaceful green hills and valleys of the Virginia Blue Ridge. I'm sure the spirit of all the Cooley’s of the past were joined in that moment as the singing drifted through the air to the old homeplace.
Editor's Note... We gratefully appreciate the Cooley family's permission to print the story of E.J. and E.M. Cooley appearing in this issue. Beginning with our next issue, and continuing over the next several months, a portion of the Elizabeth Cooley Journal will be printed in The Mountain Laurel.