The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Oma Craig Handy - A Century Of Memories

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1989

Issue: February, 1989

Euell and Oma Craig Handy at Mrs. Handy's 100th Birthday Celebration in 1988.Euell and Oma Craig Handy at Mrs. Handy's 100th Birthday Celebration in 1988.I must admit I am not writing this article from an interview, but from memory. Not a memory, but many memories of one very special lady, Oma Craig Handy, and whatever flows from my pen and my mind onto this paper will only be a fraction of her personality and experiences. Mrs. Handy isn't a story, she's a whole book.

On January 2, 1989, she was 101 years old, over a century of lively wisdom contained in one frail body with a gold capped smile and hair not yet completely gray. Her mother let her sister Lula pick out a name for her, and she chose Oma. Oma Handy, who just about everyone calls "Aunt Oma," was the youngest of ten children born to Peter and Sallie Wood Craig. Her father fought in the Civil War. She told me the family had one slave during that time period and in the last days of the Civil War, a man offered her father a hundred dollars for the slave. With such a large family, Mrs. Handy's father decided to keep the slave because much help was needed around the house. A few days later the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and the slave left, on her own accord, a free person.

Mrs. Handy has a large framed photograph of her father. It is a portrait of a dignified, elderly gentleman with a flowing white beard. As the youngest child, Mrs. Handy and the next youngest sister, Lula, stayed with their parents until their dying day and cared for them loyally. As she showed me the photograph, she remarked on the long beard. When her father became bedfast, she combed and braided the beard for him.

Oma Craig HandyOma Craig HandyThe Craigs were one of three families who lived in a hollow at the foot of Lovers Leap Mountain in Patrick County, Virginia. All three families were large, having around 10 children each, so it formed a small community all to itself. As far as I know, there were no roads into the hollow in the time of Mrs. Handy's childhood, only paths. One was a path that lead up the mountainside and followed a small stream. In winter it was icy and very difficult.

From all I have heard, the Craigs were well known for two characteristics. One, they were called the "Walking Craigs," because they thought nothing of walking great distances. They attended church regularly on top of the mountain at Conners Grove and Conners View Primitive Baptist Churches. The other trait the Craigs were well known for was their longevity. It seemed as if every member of the family who did not die of an accident lived close to the century mark.

When I met Mrs. Handy, she was already in her 90's, but still fully taking care of her household - milking a cow, churning, growing her own garden, canning, piecing quilts. In short, she was still doing everything a person one-fourth her age could have done.

When I moved to Virginia, I became a neighbor of the Handys and visited them at least two or three times a week. I immediately realized what a treasure this woman was. She knew everything there was to know about farm life. She was independent and as self sufficient as possible in this day and age. Besides that, she had first hand memories of the rapidly vanishing mountain way of life, handed down from the first pioneers. Family was the center of all mountain life and names and relationships were committed to memory. She could clarify every family line of old families for miles, knew where they lived, who they married, where they were buried.

Oma and her sister Lula did not marry as their older brothers and sisters did, and remained at home to care for their parents, in the hollow above Woolwine, Virginia. After their parents died, Oma and Lula made a big decision. They were ready to experience something of the world. With the help of relatives, they built a large boarding house in Bassett, Virginia. Mrs. Handy and her sister took in boarders who probably worked in mills and cooked meals and ran a successful business for several years.

Then along came Euell B. Handy. He was newly widowed with two small children and was from the Belcher Mountain section of Meadows of Dan, on top of the mountain.

(To clarify this term for you, people around here refer to any place below the chain of mountains starting to rise to Lovers Leap as "below the mountain". Any place from Lovers Leap westward is referred to as "above the mountain." So, someone traveling to Stuart, Virginia is "going below the mountain." If you happen to be in Stuart or points east, and going to Meadows of Dan or points west, you are "going up on the mountain.")

Euell Handy set out seriously courting Oma Craig and they were married when she was 42 and he 41. Mrs. Handy was quick to point out that she didn't wait to get married until age 42 because she wasn't asked. Once, sitting in her parlor, looking at her photo album, she said, "I still have a picture of every boy I went with." In reference to her marriage to Mr. Handy, she jokingly told me, "I walked through the reed patch passing all the tall, straight young reeds until I came through it to the other side and had to take an old bent one." This of course was said in front of Mr. Handy and loud enough even his deafness could pick it up, as a challenge sent out. He responded with a chuckle and threw back a retort of his own. "Oma came from up in the woods at the foot of the mountain. That's why I liked her. She was such a wild cat." Even though she tried not to acknowledge this remark, a smile of pride shined off the gold caps again. They fussed and argued back and forth constantly, but in a contented, familiar way. Very little animosity seemed to exist in their lives. It was more of a contest of wits and wills. Both people having a large portion of both, it was a pretty even contest, but a continuous one none the less.

Mr. and Mrs. Handy lived quiet rural lives, but their lives touched everyone who met them. In the book, "Walking with Spring," by Earl Schaffer, who was the first man to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in 1947, he mentions an encounter with Mr. Handy. (The Appalachian Trail used to go right by the Handy farm.) When we read this book and realized this, we mentioned it to Mr. Handy. Remember now, this was some 40 odd years ago. But, Mr. Handy replied as if it were yesterday, "Oh yes, I remember. He was hiking. It was raining. I was plowing my field next to the road." Mr. Handy had fed Mr. Schaffer a meal, given him a bed for the night and became a page in a book still in print today by the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia!

Another day, a few years ago, I happened to be walking through the furniture department in Sears in Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I stopped short and looked at a print of a painting hanging with a furniture grouping. The painting was by Bob Dance and was titled, "Mr. Handy's Gate." You guessed it - the same Mr. Handy. Where there was a gap in the fence around his field and the barnyard, Mr. Handy had pulled an old horse drawn hay rake to fill the gap; an improvised gate, but a practical and aesthetically beautiful one. It seems Bob Dance's father in law lived in Stuart, Virginia and had taken him to visit the Handys. The Handy farm must have provided many sights to stir creativity in a painter or poet.

Mrs. Handy went through her daily chores as a matter of common routine. To her, there was nothing special about milking or making butter (among other such things). She had been doing them all her life. In the later years, she used to pull herself up after milking by holding on to the cow's tail.

I can tell you, though, if you have never tasted homemade butter or buttermilk or whole milk with thick cream on it, you don't know what the commercial dairy industry has done to flavor! Milking and churning are two obsolete chores that left a flavor gap in this world.

Each year the Handys slaughtered a hog and Mrs. Handy cured the hams, shoulders, side meat, etc., but she canned the sausage, tenderloin and backbone meat. She didn't have a big freezer. If you haven't tried it, you have no idea of what the delicious flavor of canned tenderloin is like over frozen meat.

Mrs. Handy, in an old time custom, invited all of the neighbors to Christmas dinner. People came at different times of the evening and she had the table set and reset for each group. I've never seen a hostess more prepared for a continuous sit-down dinner. She apologized for the place settings. She said it was cheap and old, but it was the only set of dishes she had that had enough pieces for that many people. When I entered her dining room, the table was set for eight with more depression glass than I had ever seen in one place. A complete matching set including glasses, cups, saucers, bowls, water pitcher, gleamed like new. She admitted she didn't use it often.

Mr. Handy played host and offered eggnog as a pre-dinner appetizer. I won't even bother going into details about the bounty of food she served that one meal.

Mrs. Handy took a special pride in her garden. She worked in it constantly all summer and it was as neat and clean as her yard. When she went to the garden, she always wore an apron with pockets. She would pull wire grass and weeds and put them in the pockets, to be dumped in the field, well away from her garden in case they might take root again. She grew a row of six shooter sunflowers at one end of the garden, just to make it more attractive. A lot of the vegetables, especially the beans were saved from year to year, for replanting seed. Mrs. Handy always left the last four plants at the end of each row for seed. She named the seed for the person who gave her the first ones. For example, she shared some of her "Susie Conner" seed beans with me. When you visited, you always went for a look at the garden. Mrs. Handy would always share whatever was ripe at the time. She would tear off a large cabbage leaf and wrap other vegetables in it for you. She grew beautiful potatoes. This rich dark mountain soil is especially good for growing the biggest, whitest potatoes and the biggest, sweetest cabbage to be found. Each winter Mrs. Handy would wrap the potatoes in clean discarded clothing and pack them in huge barrels in her spring house. They kept all winter.

The water piped into her house was gravity fed from a spring in the field and fed through pipes from the spring house. That spring was also the head water of the Dan River. On another farm just up the road, there is a spring which is the head water of the Smith River. To me, it was a remarkable fact for the head waters of two mighty rivers to be within hollering distance of each other. Mr. and Mrs. Handy considered themselves to be very ordinary, but everything about their lives seemed remarkable to me.

I asked Mrs. Handy many questions about cooking and farming. The Handys had cows, sheep, chickens, pigs, a pony named Polly and a border collie so smart that Mr. Handy could go out in the field and mumble a few phrases I couldn't even understand and the dog would take off like a streak of lightening and round up every one of the sheep and bring them to Mr. Handy's feet. They once had turkeys and there came a sudden big snow and no one knew where the turkeys were. Mrs. Handy said for the first and only time, she donned a pair of Mr. Handy's pants to protect her legs from the cold, and went out to help hunt for the turkeys. Her near perfect eyesight spotted one lone feather sticking up out of the snow and they started digging. They found the turkeys still alive, buried under the snow.

Remarkable story? They had many of them. Once Mr. Handy's sister Callie was visiting with them when I visited and we sat in shade on the porch on a hot summer day, smelling the sweet bubby bush blossoms and she told me of an incident that happened in her youth. It was the spring of the year when there were sudden rain storms and terrific gusts of wind. The darkening clouds forewarned that a big storm was brewing. Their wagon was setting outside with its white canvas top on it. Her father, Will Handy, wanted to take the top off and put it in the barn. Callie said the canvas top and frame were not very heavy, just awkward to handle. She got under the front of it and her father got under the back of it to carry it into the barn. All of a sudden a frantic wind arose and swept under the covered wagon top as they were carrying it. It lifted the top and both people with it off the ground. Callie panicked and let go of it and dropped off before it got as high as the roof of the house. When she did, the top flew back and hit her father in the throat. She said it nearly killed him. For weeks he was unable to speak or swallow solid food. They would soak bread in coffee and put it in his mouth.

Euell Handy's father was a bigger than life character. He had a bear skin coat that still hung upstairs in the Handy house along with Oma's side saddle. In her day, a lady never rode astride a horse. It was a part of a social ritual of young people. When a lady rode up, a gentleman would help her get off the horse. I imagine it was the beginning of many a romance. There were many such subtleties in her day. It is a pity we have been robbed of so many excuses for romance in the name of progress.

Around 1975, Mrs. Handy fell and broke her hip. She was in the hospital for a long time, and many people thought she would never walk again. Many people thought she would be nursing home bound. Remember, she was already close to 90. She fooled them all. Not only did she mend and go home, she hardly ever even used so much as a cane for support, and went right back to tending to her chores.

When she got married to Mr. Handy, she moved to his farm on Belcher Mountain, but she did not give up her house in Bassett. I do not know if she still owns it, but I know that as late as five or six years ago she did and rented it as a regular source of income. She is a good manager of money and once told me she had never drawn one cent of her savings out of the bank, only had drawn on the interest. There aren't many people who can say that.

Mrs. Handy never had any children of her own, but had what must amount to hundreds of nieces and nephews and probably a thousand others who affectionately call her Aunt Oma because she nurtured them in one way or another.

Mrs. Handy is a plain and simple cook. In the past ten years she gave up her wood cook stove for an electric one, but the foods are still the same. She cooked bread for every meal, always vegetables, sometimes meat and sometimes deserts. (Mr. Handy had a sweet tooth.) She made a ginger cookie that looked a lot like a thin biscuit, but was delicious. Those ginger cookies are a treat from the past that few have sampled in the present day.

One day she mentioned a molasses pudding and I asked her how it was made. She started by saying you baked it like a pound cake and this is the recipe (in her own words) that followed:

1 cup molasses
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
a lot of butter
and enough flour to make a decent batter. Add ginger and nutmeg to taste. Bake it like a pound cake.

Mrs. Handy made strawberry preserves the same way her mother made them. Since she showed me how, I would never make them any other way. I guarantee you they have more flavor this way, especially if you make them from wild strawberries.

Cap and wash strawberries. Cover them with sugar. Let them sit over night. The next day, pour off the liquid that has formed and bring it to a boil. Pour it over the berries. Let it sit over night. The next day, pour off the liquid and bring to a boil and pour over the berries again. On the third day, pour off the liquid. Bring to a boil and continue until it thickens. Then add berries. Boil another 15 minutes. Pour into jars and seal. Nothing artificial added.

When Mrs. Handy was a girl, she had to learn ways of preserving food to last the winter that didn't involve freezing or even the use of many canning jars, because canning jars were precious and expensive. They were usually reserved for meat. Therefore, much of the food was dried. Mrs. Handy remembered that even greens were dried for winter. She said huge trays filled with greens were placed under her bed to dry and that greens smelled terrible drying. She also dried many an apple in her day, making apple jelly with the peelings. Green beans were strung on a needle and thread and hung to dry. People called them "leather britches" beans. To use them, you would take a string of them and soak them in water over night and cook them with a piece of cured pork seasoning.

Once I noticed fuzz sticking out of Mr. Handy's ears which I assumed was an unusual growth of ear hair, but I found out later it was sheep's wool he had placed in his ears to keep wind out and ward off earaches. He said his mother dosed the children with home remedies such as herbal teas on a regular basis. In the spring she would make spicewood tea for a blood tonic and if they got sick, it was boneset tea. He remembered that boneset tea had a terrible flavor which she didn't ease by adding sugar.

Mr. and Mrs. Handy threw out every rule of modern dietary medicine. Well into their 90's they continued to eat as they always had, a diet heavy in starches, breads, eggs, dairy products and fried fat pork meat. Both people were lean and did not suffer from high blood pressure, cholesterol or hardening of the arteries. Their diet varied only by an occasional fried chicken or freshly slaughtered lamb. Neither partook of tobacco, but Mr. Handy loved a nip or two of good brandy. He once told me, "When I was a lad, you could go over to a neighbors and get a pint of his homemade apple jack, drink it, have a good time and feel pretty good. But now this government liquor - you drink a pint of that and the next day you might as well be dead!"

Mrs. Handy didn't like for him to keep his "spirits" in the house, but if a man was visiting, he would be invited down to the barn for some hospitality.

I haven't had any contact with the Handys in several years. I do still hear what is going on from time to time though. A couple of years ago both fell into ill health at the same time and Mrs. Handy went to stay with a niece while Mr. Handy's daughter moved in to take care of him.

Mr. Handy continued to drive his truck up until that time, stubbornly refusing to give it up, even after being forbidden to drive it. I heard once his daughter had left him alone for a little while and he went out into the yard, picked some flowers, got in the truck and drove the mile or so to where Oma was staying. It was one of the most romantic things I ever heard of.

Last year, in celebration of Oma Craig Handy's 100th birthday, a big celebration was held at the Meadows of Dan Community Center. Mr. Handy was brought and they got to spend the day together. The next week, Mr. Handy passed away.

Oma and Euell's birthdays were only about a month apart and she was one year older. He said once that the Craigs were known for living so long that he hoped he lived one day longer than Oma, just to say he had outlived a Craig.

Oma Handy has seen a lot of changes in 100 years. She has had to adjust over and over again, but she is the sort of person that met life as a challenge, ready for whatever it would bring. I can remember one thing that symbolizes how great those changes were. I asked her once, what one thing she had experienced in her life that she would wish her mother could have had. She replied a stove. Just that plain and simple - a stove - even a wood cook stove. Her mother had spent her entire life cooking in a fireplace.

There won't ever be another Oma Handy, but thank goodness there was this one. The hundreds and thousands of lives she has touched will never forget her.