Eureka professor uncovers rich history of Appalachian church community

Tom Batters
Kathy Whitson

A little girl sat on the floor of a rural Tennessee cabin, oblivious to the terror that was marching up the mountain side on its way to the front door.

When the bushwhackers kicked down the door and rushed into the cabin, she let out a cry and her mother careened her into her hip with a fierce look that said, “You’ll have to kill me, if you plan on harming my little girl.”

The bushwhackers (that’s what they were called back in the late 19th century; today we would just call them hoodlums or burglars) stole all the food, and, when they could not find anything else worth taking, one of them stuck a poker in the fire and threw it on the bed. The blaze spread quickly and burned half the cabin to the ground.

The little girl was OK, but she never forgot that early encounter with the ravenous, wild-eyed bushwhackers who stalked the Tennessee mountains like animals looking for prey.

The story is not taken from a novel or some folk tale.

It is true.

That little girl was Kathy Whitson’s grandmother, and the Eureka College English professor cherishes the story as if it were part of her own fabric, which, in a way, it is.

Whitson, whose family migrated from Appalachia to Missouri three generations ago, has spent the past three years researching the history of rural Appalachian church communities, particularly the 165-year history of the Cedar Springs Baptist Church in Grainger County, Tenn.

She will deliver a presentation entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of the Dynamics of an Appalachian Church Community” at 3 p.m. April 25 in the Melick Library at Eureka College.

She has uncovered many stories, but that one about her grandmother really hit home.

“That story placed me in the moment,” she said. “It told me of an experience that my ancestors had. It was fascinating.”

Whitson’s interest was piqued about three years ago when she found an Internet document that outlined her family history in great detail.

“Less than a week later, I was in Grainger County, Tenn., for the first time ever,” she said. “I’ve been going back at least once a year since then.”

Whitson’s mother was ill at the time, and Whitson recited stories of the family history to her when she returned from her trips.

“Those stories seemed to enrich my mother’s life,” she said. “We’re still related to a lot of those people in some way, so I was able to gather a lot of stories about our family. I even found our family Bible. The first entry was from 1776.”

 On her visits, Whitson talks with the residents of Grainger County, particularly the members of the Cedar Springs Baptist Church, which her fourth great grandfather helped start in 1846.

She also is in the process of studying 165 years worth of church records, which is a tedious, daunting task, since much of the handwriting is difficult to read and some words are spelled differently or used in different contexts.

“For example, I had an uncle whose name was ‘Ausbon.’ Well, sometimes it was spelled ‘Ausborne,’ or ‘Osbourne.’ It can be problematic.”

Whitson asked and was granted permission by the church elders to have the records taken to the East Tennessee Historical Society so they could be transferred to microfilm.

“I told the pastor that the records were in bad shape, and they needed to be preserved, and he said, ‘Oh, I take pretty good care of them.’ But, thankfully, he let me have them microfilmed.”

Whitson said she is intrigued by contents of those documents and how they are able to illuminate the picture of an old Appalachian church community.

“I’m not a historian, and I’m certainly not a theologian, but I try to put my interpretive eye to those records, so I can piece together what was going on in these people’s lives at that time,” she said.

The true rewards come when she is able to solve mysteries from the past.

She painstakingly researched all of the 23 founding members of the Cedar Springs Baptist Church, and was able to gather information on just about all of them.

One of the founders was listed simply as “Colored Betty.” Nobody knew anything else about her. Was she a slave? If so, how did she become one of the founders of a church in Tennessee in 1846?

With the help of her growing network of friends in Grainger County, Whitson finally lifted the “Colored Betty” veil.

“I got an email a couple weeks ago, telling me all about her,” she said. “I was so excited. It turns out she had been a nanny with the Hayes family, who moved to Grainger County from North Carolina. When the family moved, they took Betty with her...”

Whitson, a published author of several stories, poems, articles and books including “The Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature,” said she does not plan to write a book about her findings — at least not yet.

If she did, she would have plenty of stories to choose from — like this bizarre, but true tale that could have easily come out of a William Faulkner novel.

“Way back (late 19th century), there was a young girl who was bitten on the hand by a copperhead snake, which, of course, is very poisonous. Well, her father grabbed a live chicken, ripped it open and stuck the girl’s hand inside the chicken. The chicken’s heart beat drew out the poison from her hand. The inside of the chicken was all black and sulphurous from the poison. Now, that’s a great story.”

Whitson’s presentation, which is part of the Faculty Colloquium Series at Eureka College, on April 25 is free and open to the public. For more information, call 467-6333.