Upland Chronicles: Wanda Fisher is passionate about genealogy

May. 10, 2014 @ 11:22 PM

Wanda Howard married Emert Hayes Fisher when she was very young. She soon found out that one of her husband’s favorite pastimes was fishing. After a few months accompanying him on his fishing trips, she mustered up the nerve to tell him she was tired of “going up and down the river banks fishing.” He replied, “Well, you need to find you a hobby.”

She wasted no time finding a hobby that held her interest. Wanda began researching genealogy. She went to the Sevier County Courthouse when records were stored in the attic, to verify oral histories. At first she traced her family: the Howards, Blalocks, Yarberrys and McMahans. This led to other families, so she began compiling information about numerous longtime Sevier County clans.

Meanwhile, Wanda was very busy taking care of her family, which grew to include four children, Patricia, Pamela, David Timothy and Teresa. Known by his middle name, Hayes, her husband worked as a schoolteacher and basketball coach in the Sevier County School System.

It wasn’t long until Wanda was researching genealogy as often as Hayes was fishing. Much to her children’s chagrin, she brought them along on visits to cemeteries throughout Sevier and Cocke counties, to record birth and death dates.

When she started researching at the old Sevier County Library on Court Avenue, the facility had only three short shelves set aside for genealogy. The collection included one copy each of the 1850 and 1880 federal census, a Daughters of the American Revolution roster and a few donated family histories.

At the time, the library owned an antiquated microfilm reader. Wanda spent countless hours using the microfilm to study Sevier County families. Her grandchildren recall many boring hours they spent at the library while she pored over old newspaper articles.

She joined lifelong acquaintance Grace Etherton and Sevier County Historian Beulah Linn researching and swapping information. Not only did Wanda assist curious people with their family trees, she usually included interesting anecdotes about their ancestors as well.

While it would appear she spent all of her time researching the past, Wanda took breaks long enough to enjoy another pastime. She and Hayes loved square dancing and traveled near and far to attend organized square dancing events.

When her husband was teaching school and coaching basketball, it seemed there were always a few extra kids around her house. She later recalled, “I often had to count heads in the morning to know how many biscuits to bake.”

Sadly, Hayes died in 1980 at age 56. Her son Tim resigned his position with the military and moved his family to Sevier County to be close to his mother.

Along with Charlotte Conner and other friends, she also found time to distribute used clothing, gathered by Gatlinburg churches, to remote locations in the mountains of Cocke County.

Thanks to the efforts of Wanda, Grace Etherton, Beulah Linn and others, a genealogy department was established at the Sevier County Library. In the late 1990s, Wanda suffered a series of mini strokes. Aware of Wanda’s knowledge, Sam Maner, who worked in the new department, persuaded her to volunteer there. As a result of being active doing something she loved, her health soon improved.

She was assigned the task of answering genealogy inquiries received by the library and the Smoky Mountain Historical Society. She answered questions submitted from all over the United States and some foreign countries.

She also copied volumes of microfilm for the genealogy department and loved to talk to people and listen to their stories. Wanda often commented that people asked her why she wanted to ask questions about their families and sometimes; they called her nosy for being so inquisitive.

Although she never published a genealogy book, Wanda is credited with helping numerous authors with their research. Wanda has also provided assistance to many who are currently active in various local historical organizations and tirelessly researched and assisted others in gathering information for “Sevier County and its Heritage, Volume 1,” published by Don Mills Inc. in 1994.

Wanda recorded information from numerous gravestones throughout the county for the book “In the Shadow of the Smokies,” also published by Don Mills Inc. for the Smoky Mountain Historical Association.

For more than two decades she clipped newspaper articles and placed them in the archives at the genealogy department.

Health issues have recently curtailed her involvement, but she continues to occasionally volunteer for the new Rel and Wilma Maples History Center at the King Family Library. Her son Tim joined the staff there several years ago, and he helped facilitate the move from a cramped space in the Benson Building, next door to the old library, to the third floor of the new library building.

Theresa Williams stated, “When I started to work at the genealogy department in 2005, Wanda was a tremendous help to me. She showed me where to locate records and how to deal with the public. I will always be thankful to her for her kindness.”

At the new history center, increasing numbers of genealogist have access to a wealth of information lovingly accumulated by Wanda Fisher. The residents of Sevier County owe a great deal of gratitude to Wanda for her contribution to the preservation of the county’s heritage.

Wanda has always been a devoted mother and grandmother, and since today is Mother’s Day, it is all together appropriate to call her the “Mother of the Genealogy department.”

Carroll McMahan is special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or cmcmahan@scoc.org.