Up On Singin’ Carr

Being The History Of A Little Schoolhouse That Began To Be Built In The Kentucky Mountains

By Olive V. Marsh

The Farmer’s Wife September 1921 (Page 534)

         Moving picture producers and novel writers have discovered that there is always a drawing interest in stories of the remote places of our great country were isolated communities live their lives and fight their battles for existence.   But fiction or part vision is never quite so full of interest as the real thing and in this story the mountain folk “up on Singin’ Carr,” written for THE FARMERS WIFE by special request of the editors, we have a true story that brims over with what is called technically “the humanities.”  Miss March  an Miss Weston, educated young women from “the outside”-- “foreigners”, in the speech of Singin’ Carrites--may be making great sacrifices in the act of lending a hand to these mountains seekers after education but there is no doubt concerning their honor and privilege in sharing the burdens and helping to make real the dreams of these citizens of the United States than whom there are none of finer original stock or of greater staunch loyalty to the fundamental principles of citizenship.  When the “weary mountaineer”  reigned in his horse after his twelve-mile ride and told Miss March and Miss Weston how he had come for help for his neighbors to “git goin’” in matters of education, he opened the door of Singin’ Carr to the great community urge of the twentieth century as well as a great door of opportunity for everyone who helps by even so much as a good wish, the builders of the school house among the pines “clost to whar Pap’s a-lyin’.--The Editors. 

            One dusty, blistering hot August day in the mountains of Kentucky, a weary mountaineer urged his equally weary horse to the finish of his twelve-mile ride.  He had come from Singin’ Carr, as it is familiarly called, the struggling community at Dirk, Knott County, Kentucky. He had made the long ride to get something for which the heart of him was sore, a teacher. 

            Two of us “foreign” women--meaning women from “outside”, beyond the mountains, where schools were good and teachers to be had, answered the call from “Macedonia,” Ruth E. Weston and I.

            “We ain't a bit afeared”, said the caller from Singin’ Carr or Carr Creek, “but what we can git a house fer ye to live in, ef ye'll just come an he’p us git goin.  We‘re poor but I reckon they's enough food on Carr to feed ye!” 

            The man who had come on this quest for help for the oncoming generation told us with a certain sort of patient eloquence, of the long, disappointing struggle. A year before, the little community had enthusiastically raised the frame of a schoolhouse. They had given the land and they gave the timber. The gift of “timber” meant actual hard work, chopping and hauling.  Then they gave their labor and got the framework of the building up. And then came the bitter dis-appointment. Promises had been made them that if they would give the land and timber--as they had--money would be supplied for the remainder of the material and labor. The county, a poor one, had already given all that was in its power to give. The promised funds, because of sickness and its inevitable costliness, failed to come. What were they to do?  They had heard of Miss Weston and myself and decided to make a bold appeal for help. So, we came.

            Aunt Lucy, ninety years of age, was our first hostess. She is the oldest member of the Carr Creek Community and one of the most interested. She took us two “foreign women” into her home for a month while we were waiting for the little cottage on the mountain side to be finished and for that month her home was headquarters of the Community Center.

            The story of that cottage which we have named The Patchwork Cottage, is perhaps unique in community stories. How it grew from an idea in the mind of someone to a place of shelter one could call home, is almost a miracle.

            Said Aunt Lucy to me one day, “I heerd you-all’s doors ain't come. They’s a door to Pap’s old log house. Hit's a good door--not like the brought-on kind. I'd like to hev hit up whar you-all are goin’ to live. Hit’d be right close to whar Pap’s a-lyin’. I reckon he'd kindly like hit thar.”

            So, it was through the generosity and “advanced thought” of Aunt Lucy and others like her, interested to have a school for the young mountaineers, that we finally were able to live in our Patchwork Cottage on the mountain side, about five rods from the peaceful spot “whar Pap’s a-lyin’.” Windows and parts of windows had been donated; old pieces of screen did their duty; the earnestness of the people to make it possible for a teacher to live among them, was such as to inspire and arouse the most laggard to utmost service. 

            Before the Patchwork Cottage was finished--so to speak -- Miss Weston began her primary teaching in the old storehouse that let in the rain and kept out the light. Hiram Taylor, a mountain storekeeper and teacher, been began teaching the older children in a small and still less habitable room of the storehouse. The only light in this room comes through the door when it is open or through the chinks between the planks. The seats are rough boards nailed together. There are no desk and there is a constant competition between the voices of the reciting children and Aunt Lucy's pigs who live not far off.

            Looking down from the mountain side upon this little temporary school in it's dark little hollow, stands the naked frame of a new school building. I'm looking at it as I write and I long for the help of some generous hand that will cover the skeleton and equip the school for the faith of these mountaineers, deserves to be met more than halfway!

            The “new school” around which clusters such fond hopes and dreams—the ninety-year-old Aunt Lucy ranks high among the dreamers--commands a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains and the bottom land through which Carr Creek those singin’ and its world-old, wordless song. 

            “I'm glad the school’s up that-a-way,” said a mother of twelve children, “fer hit’s right smart healthy for the chaps among the pines.” Just beyond the school there is a natural spring from which gushes pure clear water, unpolluted with the vicious typhoid germ, the scourge of the bottom lands.  This too will be “right smart healthy” for the school children.

            Just beyond the unfinished schoolhouse in the pines is our Patchwork Cottage near “whar Pap’s a-lyin’.”  In its tiny livingroom the primary school has its “books.” The seats are just planks of wood resting on movable blocks of wood.

            Through two windows we get “light a-plenty.” There are two other windows, boarded up temporarily, one with planks, the other with the door.  Only the first plank floor has been laid and as it had to be made of unseasoned wood, the cracks grow steadily wider. On sunny days, we wrap up in whatever we can find and have school out in the sunshine. But the children do not mind the cold. They have in them the sturdy spirit of their native pines and their truly wonderful ancestors.

            “Cold or no cold, I'm a-comin’ every day,” and Willard smiles sturdily into the Teacher’s face. “There ain't no turnin’ me!”

             Willard is one of nine children. The family lives in a typical two- room cabin. But they are out and bound for an education. It is a sight to see three of them riding to school on a kicky old mule, these snowy days. *This story was sent to The Farmer’s Wife in midwinter, but we understand that the struggle and the need still go on.  They have to cross Carr Creek in order to reach the Patchwork Cottage. And, it seems, to the mule’s ears, the voice of Singin’ Carr must have charms, for says Willard to Teacher:

            “Does you-all count it late if the mule stands in the middle of the Creek an’ there's no stirrin’ him?  If ‘twas that-a-way, I reckon you just wouldn't.”

            And I reckoned I wouldn't--and didn’t.

            The mountain mothers are all hard working. Whole-heartedly, they want “learning” for their “young-uns,” and somehow, they find time and somehow, they find cloth to put patch upon patch so that the children will be decently covered for school.

            The older women spin and knit. In many cases, the blankets have been made by ancient handlooms. Miss Weston and I are going to try to revive this fine old industry which has begun to die because women with families of from ten to fourteen children have little time for weaving. Aunt Lucy was one of the champion weavers of her day and she still wears a linsy woolsy skirt which, she tells us, she wove “jest atter my last man went to that other war and never came back.” Its black-and-red checks are still bright and is nonetheless warm for its huge patches.

            When our building is habitable--may all good hearts help us speed the day! Miss Weston and I plan to have a room where we can set up a loom and teach weaving to the young girls.

            Corn is a food staple. Unless it can be made to grow there will be no food. All the members of each family must work in the corn field, spring, summer and fall. And the field is the steep mountain side, so steep that at first glance--and second and third--it seems impossible for even a mule to stand there and much less to plough. But it is done.

            On hot summer days, men, women, and children climb the mountain side, hoes over shoulders. To hoe in the upper row, is an honor, so there are many contests and proud is the “chap” who wins first.

            In the fall their leaves are pulled from the stalk to be preciously hoarded for fodder. The corn in the ear is left on the stalk till it has been touched by frost three or four times. This corn, planted and cultivated and harvested by such hard work on the part of all, is food for pig and chicken and folks. From the meal the women make the famous Kentucky cornbread and I defy anyone to prepare a more appetizing meal than Aunt Lucy does of fried chicken and cornbread.

            In spite of poverty and crowded, chilly cabins, these people are happy, and their religious spirit is deeper and more genuine than any I have met elsewhere. Every month, meeting is held at the head of Carr. Everybody goes on Sunday, men and women riding double on mules; whole bunch is a beautiful children astride ambling farm animals.  The preacher waits for inspiration before they preach, and it is miraculous what words comes from the lips of these illiterate mountaineers.  “Stuttering Johnny” will preach for an hour without the least sign of hesitation.

            And so, in spite of a chilly patchwork cottage, we two “foreign women” are glad we answered the call of the weary horsemen who road twelve miles to deliver the Community appeal in person. We know that the people have done all they can. They have no money to buy materials and it is our work to get it for them. We know that the solution of the mountain problems lies in establishing these community centers. Through them, feuds will be erased, and the moonshine still will be a thing of the past. If good men and women out in the world who have to spare of this world's good, will close their eyes for a moment, and see the mists and the grayness of the mountains, the swirling creeks, the muddy roads and the stony path, and seeing, understand and love and help, because the spirit of love is in their hearts, then the Patchwork Cottage will disappear, and in its place, “clost to whar Pap’s-a-lyin’” there will be a sturdy community cottage with real glass windows letting in the sunshine, doors that stay close when the wind blows, a “sure enough” floor, through which you can't lose a pencil , if you happen to own such a treasure, and a school--a real school--with desk and a blackboard and light and warmth and happiness and—a future!