The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Living Heirloom

By Marie P. Perry © 1986

Issue: October, 1986

Nellie Stevens poses with a couple of the dolls she makes.Nellie Stevens poses with a couple of the dolls she makes.More precious than an heirloom handed down through the generations is a "living heirloom" named Nellie Stevens. Better known as "Nell" she resides presently on Johnson Hollow Road in North Cove, North Carolina with her daughter Margaret. Nell was born in Mitchell County, 1893 at Bear Creek. Her age of mightiness exceeds the scripture in Psalms 90:10 "In themselves the days of our years are seventy years; and if because of special mightiness they are eighty years...," Nellie Stevens is 93 years of age.

Master artists paint and photograph the very type of home that Nell was born in. A picture of their three room log homestead hangs in the den where Nell presently sits and works through the day. Her father's name was Ed Putnam and a harder worker was not to be found. Mr. Putman worked for fifty cent a day when Nell was just a wee infant. He worked on one occasion for a Professor Wing. The Professor had a library built in the town where Nell resided and Nell recalls as a young girl she use to tote her library books home in a flour sack. Nell speaks highly of her father and his skills. Her daddy used to make caskets for the area. Nell can even remember the names of the two children that were buried at the first funeral she attended in 1901 (Dalton Davis and Christina Blaylock).

Later on in years Nell's father became a weaver man, thereby checking cloth for two mills. Nell's mama, Etta, stayed at home and brought her children up; there were fourteen children to raise.

Nell married Baxter Clay Stevens, May 23, 1909. Not trying to outdo her mama, she gave birth to eight children. Margaret Stevens still resides with her mother, Valerie Stevens Young, Marcella Johnson, Mrs. Margie Johnson, Tracy, Brown and Marvin live in McDowell County.

Now that a brief history has been given in which to acquaint you with Nell, lets be on with our portrait of a "living heirloom."

Poetry expressed in different settings stirs one's emotions to either laughter or sadness. When listening to the lady "Nell" recite "You See My Ruffled Dress" brings not only laughter and merriment to the soul but deep appreciation for the "heirloom" before us. Visualize a sweet, petite lady of 93 years sitting in her rocker with the sun shining through the window on her silver gray hair. With hand gestures and a smile that warms the heart Nell begins:

"You see my ruffled dress
And you see my tiny locket
I thinks I'm most a lady now
Cause its got a pocket.
And there, down here is my new shoes
that I walks my feet in
Of course it wouldn't do to wear
carpet toed shoes to meetings.
While Grandpa's hitchin up
Jack and Gray, they just keeps a prancin,
Horses don't wear Sunday clothes
Nor they don't know they're dancin.
I never takes no cake to church
And I never thinks of eating.
Don't you want a nice sweet kiss
Before we go to meetin?

Her mood changes and a slightly serious look comes over her face momentarily. We ask her to recite another poem. Nell says, "Now just a minute," pauses and then begins:

"This woman was old and wrinkled and gray
Bent with the chill of a winters day
The streets were wet with winter snow
This woman was old and wrinkled and slow
Lest the carriage wheels or the horses feet
Should crowd her down in the slippery street
Down the street with a laughing shout
Glad in their freedom that schools let out
Come boys and girls like a flock of sheep
Hailing those snowballs white and deep
And from past the old woman so old and gray
And hastened the children on their way.
At last came one of the merriest troop
The gayest laddie of all the group,
Who paused beside her and whispered low,
I'll help you across if you wish to go
Her aged hand on his small young arm
Was placed beside him without hurt or harm.
She's somebody's mother, boys you know.
Although she's old and wrinkled and slow.
And I hope somebody will lend a hand
To help my mother you understand
When she gets old and wrinkled and gray
And her own dear boy lives far away.
Somebody's mother bowed low her head
At her home that night, and the prayer she said
Was God be kind to the noble boy
Who is some mother's son pride and joy.

Not once did Nell have to stop and think of what the next line was. She paused at the end and said, "learnt that when I was little, found it in a magazine." She said, "thought I'd lost it and when I picked up that magazine with the words of the poem, it was as good as if I'd of found a hundred dollar bill! It was nineteen hundred and two when I was eight or nine that I first learnt that poem." Eighty four years later the poem was still fresh in Nell's mind, truly a "living precious heirloom."

Not only for reciting pieces is Nell noted, but for putting "pieces" together but that of a different nature. Nell sits in the restful atmosphere of her den and makes dolls for her many great grandchildren and grandchildren. She designs and sews all the clothing attire for her dolls. Nell has 21 grandchildren, 43 great grandchildren, 2 great, great grandchildren. (Pictured in the photograph are a few of the dolls she has made.) Her radio plays softly as she stitches and sews the hours away.

Nell relates a story of years past when thread was something to be desired. (Today we purchase it for a slight amount of money). Her story went: "A peddler sold my mother a pretty beige towel with a picture of a lady's face adorned with a wreath of flowers on it. It was so pretty she wouldn't use it so she just hung it on the back of the rocking chair in the front room. It stayed there maybe one or two years the best I could remember and it began to fade and get old. (With a chuckle, Nell went on) I'd slip in behind and see a strand of thread hanging down from the towel. Maybe I'd started to make a doll dress and couldn't find enough thread to make it. I'd slip in behind the chair and pull me out a strand of thread. Us children kept pulling on that... maybe it went on about a year and the next thing we knew the towel got "thread bare!" Daddy saw that I liked to sew so good that he went to the store and bought threads and needles and give it to us." "Every woman," says Nell, "I reckon could make their own clothes."

My only thought to the story was "would every woman have the desire to sew if they had to pull a strand from a towel."

Designers look for new fashions and bring back old names in the clothing world. The name Nell was about to pull on me was one that I would have never associated with the dressmaking industry. When Nell asked if I knew what a Gimp was, she could tell from the expression on my face I did not. "Well," says she, "let me tell you about my new gimp..." "I was about to travel to Jackson County to visit my brother. My daddy bought me new shoes, a new hat and some pretty material to make me a Gimp. A gimp's a jumper as you would know it by. My aunt sewed the material into a dress that very day; it was the prettiest blue dress. She told my daddy she had a pretty lace blouse she had purchased from Sears, it was a mite to small so he could have it for a dollar. My hat looked splendid, everyone wore a hat back then. No one went anywhere without a hat."

"I got gone on my trip," says Nell, "And I saw my first street car in Johnson City and I rode on it too. I got my first coat then, it was black, red and green tweed. Back then little girls wore cloaks so this was really special."

"It took three days of traveling, you can make it in three hours now," said Nell.

"I arrived at the camp where my brother lived, there were just four houses in the camp, a commissary and a mica house. I worked panning sheet mica for 1 cent a pound.

Nell had me studying the map of Tennessee as she was reliving her travels. I was lost in the Balsam Mountains but never the less I listened attentively as she went on with her story.

"We used to go to Balsam Mountains and have picnics most every Sunday. I used to watch my sister in law develop the pictures we took. She did it in a little dark room and they'd come out so clear."

Nell went on, "I'd been to my brothers nearly seven months and I was getting real homesick. So no one would know my feelings, I'd climb up in a big old maple tree and cry to myself. My brother finally realized what was happening so he told me if I'd stay just one more month he'd buy me a new trunk and take me home. I kept my end of the bargain and he kept his. I was so excited to know I was going home at last. It was a long travel home in those days and when I saw the old mill, I was really happy!"

Nell lets me in on another one of her talents. We know how the expression goes "he's a carpenter's son." Well, Nell informed us she was a carpenter's daughter. She claims to have been able to use any tool in her daddy's chest.

When God said he was holding back the four winds in the corners of the earth, I reckon one corner must have let loose a belch according to the incident I'm about to relate. About ten years of age Nell set out to make a house to play in. Her Daddy let her use his tools and she set about sawing down trees with a cross cut saw. (Today most cross cut saws are hanging over mantels as antiques.) Little Nell worked industriously all day long sawing and hammering, making a door and a window, even covering the roof with shingles. She brought in flat rocks from the fields to make her a cooking stove and had everything in place by the end of the day. When she finished she got so tickled with her project that when she got back to her daddy's place she couldn't sleep a wink. The next morning she leaped from her bed, ate her breakfast and then made rapid her feet to the open field where her little house was. To Nell's amazement she found the wind had blown it down in the night. She chuckled as she related the tale of the "carpenters daughter."

A finer foundation Nell built in her later years. No wind could blow down the firm foundation Nell and her husband had through their married years.

Like the "White of the Snowball Bush" outside her home, so is the purity found in the heart of Nell Stevens. She reads her Bible every day of her life and becomes a "living heirloom" to all of us. Proverbs 31:31 "Give her of the fruitage of her hands, and let her works praise her even in the gates."