(EDITOR"S NOTE: The following article was originally published in the September 4, 1964 edition of the Scott County News — one of Esther Sharp Sanderson’s "Profiles In Courage" columns. It is reprinted here from the Scott County Historical Society’s publication Profiles of Scott Countians.)
There is a little bit of gypsy in all of us. Now that the scent and feel of fall is in the air, how about loading up our tents, pots and pans, the old "Womern," and "younguns," the dogs and cats, and heading for the wide open places. But before hitting the trail, let’s take a few minutes of our time to stroll around to a gypsy tent that was pitched near Huntsville before the outbreak of the Civil War.
This roving gypsy family pitched their tent on the land where the First Baptist Parsonage now stands. They spent several days before wandering on to greener pastures. In the light of the harvest moon long after their customers and visitors had disappeared, they visited the farmers field, orchards and chicken roosts. If the good-natured farmers missed the loot, they never mentioned it. Thought they, "There’s no use locking the stable door after the horse has fled."
Late in the evening, the gypsies cooked their supper on an open fire outside the tent. The aroma of the coffee boiling and the sight of the hoecakes fried a golden brown was a tempting sight for the villagers who gathered around at twilight to swap trinkets and have their fortunes told. A shady, dark-haired damsel, with a faraway look in her dreamy eyes, would read their palms with one hand and pick their pockets with the other.
According to tradition, there was with this dark-complexioned roving tribe a fair-complexioned, golden-haired blue eyed girl in her early teens. She seemed shy and was not allowed to mingle freely with the visitors. Lifting up the rear of the tent, a curious native saw this sad faced young girl taking care of a gypsy baby, evidently the child of the fortune teller. Whether the gypsies had kidnapped her, or whether she was a homeless waif, who had fallen in with them, was a matter of conjecture and concern among the villagers. Early one morning, before pulling up stakes to leave, the gypsies found their baby sitter missing. However, they left without making any effort to rescue her from her abductors. Homeless, and without a name, only MARY, she wandered from house to house and worked for her board and lodging. Eventually she found a permanent home with a JEFFERS family.
Truth is often stranger than fiction According to tradition, there came into the Huntsville settlement a young man without a name, only RANSOM. Out of nowhere he came upon the scene and like Topsy he just "growed up." Loss of virtue of young women during the pioneer period was considered an unpardonable sin. They were not branded with the letter "A", but they were ostracized in the community. Sometimes the irate parents gave their daughters their "walking papers," or forced them to leave the fledgling on the door steps of the wayward parent who had wandered down the primrose path. Whether orphaned by neglect or by death, like the old ballad, "Motherless children have a hard time, when mother is gone." So the lot of both MARY and RANSOM was not an enviable one.
During the early history of Scott County homeless children were bound out to anyone who would provide them with a home. Close relatives of Uncle JULIAN SEXTON say that after being bound out to him, RANSOM was given a surname of SEXTON. Somewhere along the line, MARY had "borrowed" the name of WEBSTER, then Jeffers. RANSOM continued to live with the SEXTONs until the outbreak of the Civil War. Like other young men in their very early teens, RANSOM answered the bugle’s call and marched away to fight in the Union Army. After the close of the war, RANSOM returned to Scott County, tall and straight, and jauntily clad in his blue uniform which he wore with pride. He had earned a Name for himself; he longed for a home of his own. Young MARY, "Purty as a pink" came upon the scene, and it was a case of love at first sight. They were married by a Justice of the Peace and immediately left on their honeymoon. MARY had "nothing old, nothing new, nothing borrow, nor nothing blue." She was standing right in the middle of her wedding gown and her going away costume. With a little "grub" in their ginseng bags, and two homemade "sang" hoes they set out to "sang" their way to Alabama. Occasionally they would stop at some village store and exchange their "sang" for a poke of meal, some "terbaccer," snuff, and coffee. Love was young, and the gypsy was in their blood. Leisurely on they trekked through the forest that provided them shade by day and perfect solitude by night. The Bard of Avon would have said, "Under the greenwood tree, Who love to lie with me, And turn his merry not, Unto the sweet bird’s throat; Come hither, come hither, come hither; Here shall he see No enemy But winter and rough weather".
The honeymooners finally reached their destination down in "Alabam." Returning by ginseng route, they made their way back to Scott County where they setup housekeeping and started to raise their family. Regardless of how hard they worked they just couldn’t seem to make ends meet. So RANSOM applied for his "givernment" pension, and after many months, he eventually established identity, in a roundabout way, and the draw day" each month partially provided the family with food, "terbacker," and snuff. If the food gave out, the family could visit and forage, but, if the "dippin" and "chawin" gave out, the whole "kit and bum" would suffer from dyspepsia and mental anguish,
Since neither RANSOM or MARY could read and write, they didn’t worry about "ificating" their family. The oldest son, JOHNNY, went to the Presbyterian Academy only a few weeks. JOHNNY had to "chaw" and likewise to spit, in spite of what "old Arnore" MOORE (ARNOLD) said. No amount of persuasion on the part of Reverend MOORE, the principal, could keep JOHNNY from decorating the wall as far up as he could hit. Finally in desperation, he sent for MARY to come to the Academy for a consultation. After a heated argument, Mrs. RANSOM and her son, JOHNNY RANSOM, (all the family went by the father’s first name) left the school ground with JOHNNY looking back only long enough to give Rev. MOORE a "nasty" invitation with one hand, and a "dirty" implication with both hands. Thus ended JOHNNY’s education and the remainder of the family followed in his footsteps.
The family grew larger, and it became necessary for RANSOM to supplement his income to keep the family "something to go upon." He started preaching in the home. The young men of Huntsville frequented his Saturday night services. The sermons were short and void of meaning, but all were required to kneel at the altar for a lengthy prayer while son JOHNNY picked their pockets. After the first picking, the boys "wised-up." The next time they knelt at the altar only a short time, and one by one, they slipped out the door and listened. JOHNNY said, "Darn it Pap, stop your braying; the ‘pickins’ are all gone." On one occasion the boys slipped out the door and locked Ted Foster in from the outside and proceeded on to join a bunch of girls on their way to a stir-off.
SCOTT and ETHA HARNESS had pulled the fire from beneath the molasses pot and gone home for supper. The young people added plenty of wood to the fire and stirred off the molasses. Much to the disgust of the owner when they returned they found the young people sitting around the pot, licking and lapping. Returning to the home of Mr. RANSOM, they peeped through a crack and saw their "prisoner of love" seated on one side of the open fireplace and daughter, SALLY, on the other side. The other members of the family had retired for the night. The boys opened the door, yelled, "Geronimo." Out came TED, gathering rocks as he came, and the boys left in double high gear with the rocks flying thick and fast.
•The late Elvin Jeffers (father of HOWARD and HORACE) enjoyed visiting his close neighbors especially after draw day. Said he, "They were always living high on the hog and in a jovial mood. MARY would be baking a week’s supply of cornbread in a huge iron oven, covered with live coals. Ransom, chewing his twist, would hit a crack in the floor dead center, while he spoke triumphantly of his daring feats in the war. The Jenny (Genet) would be standing in the door booking plaintively on. Once ELVIN asked, "Aunt MARY, who drives the Jenny?" MARY answered, "My’ SALLY gal drives the Jenny when she’s dry."
RANSOM continued to preach on until shortly before his death, and Aunt MARY got renewed at almost every fall revival and was baptised in New River with the other converts at the May meeting the following spring. Everyone in the neighborhood seemed to feel sorry for the widowed gypsy who had outlived her husband and her entire family except one child, a daughter who still lives in Huntsville. Because of her background, she has been unable to establish her identity to draw her’ deceased husband’s pension. The Honorable J. WILL TAYLOR, member of Congress from the Second Congressional District, through a special act of the Congress, managed to get her a pension. In the meantime, the family was destitute; but by sheer will power and determination, Mrs. SEXTON managed to keep her remaining family together. Her husband had been content to live from one draw day until another while she raised the family, namely: JOHNNY, SALLY, DORA, LONNIE and another daughter who had the distinction of being named after several of the ladies in Huntsville. Aunt MARY admired: Eva Lina Teamie Nancy Becky Ann Nancy Jane Delaner. Said Aunt Mary, "We call her LANNER for short."
One by one, Aunt MARY’s family passed away until there was only one daughter left. She saw generations come and go, and according to all available statistics, she had the distinction of being the oldest resident ever to live in Scott County. Her exact age was not known, but it was several years beyond the century mark. Like a gnarled old oak, that is toughened by the years, she continued to work for the townspeople in Huntsville even after the century mark. We need not hunt for courage among the high and mighty only; it can be found in the lowliest hovels as well as the most imposing mansions. Consideration of the poor among us tests the courage of those more fortunate. As they pass our way, we might well say, "Only through the Grace of God, there go I." illiterate, but honest and hard working, Aunt MARY found joy in living.
Many of us dream of great deeds and high positions away from the pettiness and humdrum of ordinary life. Yet success is not occupying a lofty place or doing conspicuous work; it is doing the best that is in you — that is measuring up to your potentialities. Fluttering around in a job that is too big is worse than filling a small one to overflowing.
"If you can’t be a pine on top of the hill, Be a shrub in the valley — but be The best little shrub by the side of the hill; Be a bush if you can’t be a tree."
"We can’t all of us be captains, we’ve got to be the crew, There’s something for all of us here, There’s big work to do, and there’s lesser to do, And the task you must do is the near.
"If you can’t be a highway, then just be a trail, If you can’t be a sun be a star, It isn’t by size that you win or fall Be the best of whatever ‘you are!"
FNB Chronicle, Vol. 8, No. 3 – Sprint 1997
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
This page was created by Timothy N. West and is copyrighted by him. All rights reserved.