The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Miss Ora and Miss Etta - Mountain Mission Teachers

By Esther Fox Maxey © 1984

Issue: May, 1984

miss oraSt. Johns in the Mountains - Located on Route 40, between Woolwine and Ferrum, Virginia. The building on the right was the school. The house on the left was the mission home.In the early years at the Missions, almost all the workers arrived by train as far as Ferrum. The Norfolk and Western Railroad was extended in the 1880's through Rocky Mount and Ferrum then twisted and turned around the mountains as it made its way to North Carolina. The railroad made Ferrum a busy little commercial center.

Miss Ora Harrison, who first came to Endicott in 1908 as a public school teacher describes her arrival as follows:

"After I taught four years in a rural school, I decided to go to Endicott and teach the one room public school nearest this post office. This section was considered the worst part of the mountains then. A twelve year old boy met me at Ferrum, the nearest railroad station. Ferrum is twelve miles from St. John's, but almost eighteen miles from where I boarded the first winter.

"This boy was riding a mule and leading another one for me to ride, and said, "Air you the new teacher?" I had never ridden a mule and was dreadfully afraid of one. My mule had a side saddle on it, and there was a long black riding skirt for me to wear. I mounted the mule. We started out on the eighteen mile ride, over rough mountain roads and into a strange and at first an unfriendly country. The boy whistled and hummed different tunes, but had very little to say, hardly answering my questions. After a while he got tired, for he had the long trip down, so, as he tells it now, he decided to have a little fun out of the new teacher. He realized from the start that I was not accustomed to riding and that I was afraid of the mule, so he watched his chance and when he caught me off guard he gave my mule a touch from behind with his switch, which caused him to jump suddenly; then when we would come to a level stretch in the road he would give a sudden yell, rise in his stirrups, and his mule would start off at a breakneck speed, my mule following, with me suspended in air, but when I came down I always managed to land on my mule's back. Then he would remark, quite innocently, "That wore a nice little trot." We reached our destination around sundown and I have often said, "What a day, and what a ride!

"I found at the place where I expected to board a deaf old man and a blind girl. The girl either talked or rocked herself in a chair or sang and rocked incessantly. I slept in the attic and looked at the stars through the holes in the roof, and washed my face many times during the winter in ice. When I asked my hostess if there was a place nearer my school to board, she said the only place was a family in Endicott and they would not board me because I was from town, and I would not stay in any other place if they paid me to stay. I didn't think I could possibly walk the distance of three miles to the school but decided to stay. I was almost overwhelmed with scholars for the rumor went out that I was a tight teacher (strict disciplinarian) and all the parents wished to send their children to that kind of a teacher. The next fall the people built another room to the school house and the County paid the salary of an assistant teacher. I had no difficulty in getting free board at the home near Endicott where the people would not take me the first year because I was from town. I taught this school six years and lived in this home. Then the man in whose home I had been living gave me some land and St. John's was started. One of the greatest joys of my life came when the Mission was opened. This was in the spring of 1914."

About twenty years later, Dr. A.D. Ramsey, County Superintendent of Schools, sent Miss Sally Lumsden to teach first and second grades at St. Johns Mission. She, too, arrived at Ferrum by train as did most visitors to the mountains. Miss Sally remembers her arrival in January of 1927.

"I had to go part of the way by train to Ferrum. Mr. DeHart, who ran a store on Shootin' Creek road met Miss Comstock and me. Miss Comstock, from Boston, was to teach high school at the Mission. Mr. DeHart met us with a horse and wagon. I never will forget the trip. It was a cold winter day, and the roads were almost axle deep with mud (red clay). We had to walk up Long Branch Hill because the wagon was heavily loaded. I was glad to walk because I was cold." (tape)

The story above is a selection from a new book by Mrs. Esther Fox Maxey, of Rocky Mount, Virginia. The name of the book is MISS ORA AND MISS ETTA, A FOLK HISTORY. It tells the story of remarkable people who built the mission schools in Franklin County. The following accounting tells only of the arrival of Miss Ora and another teacher, Miss Sally. The book is a story of faith and determination.

Copies of MISS ORA AND MISS ETTA, A FOLK HISTORY may be purchased at The Craft House in Ferrum, Va., The Christian Bookstore in Rocky Mount, Va., Peter's Market in Ferrum, Va, A & A Market in Callaway, Va. or you may write directly to:

Mrs. Esther F. Maxey
Route 4, Box 129-B
Rocky Mount, Va. 24151

Mrs. Maxey will mail order the books for $3.00 each. Prices may vary at other locations where they are sold.

(The section containing Miss Ora Harrison's arrival is from an unpublished account, "St. Johns-in-the-Mountains, Endicott, Va." through the permission of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.)

Mrs. Maxey is the wife of Rev. W. Melvin Maxey, Rector of St. Peters Episcopal Church in Franklin County.