Upland Chronicles: Aunt Liddy Whaley epitomized strong mountain women

Jan. 04, 2014 @ 11:53 PM

She could quote the Bible from “kiver to kiver,” administer home remedies to the sick, deliver babies, weave baskets, lay out the dead, make shoes, hunt for game, and tailor men’s suits. Known as “Aunt Liddy,” Lydia Kear Whaley could do just about anything to which she set her mind.

Born on a farm at Gist’s Creek on May 24, 1840, she was a daughter of Joel Kear (sometimes spelled Carr) and Sarah Huff Kear. When Lydia was about 6, her family, which included nine siblings, moved to a farm at Mill Creek near Pigeon Forge. After a couple of years they moved into the Forks-of-the-River community (near the current location of Sugarlands Visitor Center).

On Feb. 9, 1860, Lydia married John Brabson Whaley. She was 19, and he was a few days shy of turning 18. Their first child, a son named Perry, was born on April 24, 1861, and a daughter was born July 1, 1863.

Lydia and John were grief-stricken when their 3-year-old son Perry died on Aug. 11, 1864, while John was serving in the Union Army. Tragically, Pvt. John Brabson Whaley was killed in action on Sept. 5, 1864. According to family oral tradition, he was trying to rescue a federal soldier at Fort Harry, an earthen fort built by the infamous Thomas Legion a short distance from what is now the Chimney picnic area.

Still recovering from the loss of her young son, Lydia was pregnant when her husband was killed. Their younger daughter, Lorsinda, was born Feb. 22, 1865. Lydia and her children resided with her parents for a short time before returning to the home John built for them in Gatlinburg (the location is now on Ski Mountain Road).

Accustomed to hard work, Lydia raised her daughters as a single parent. She provided for them by earning money any way she could. Along with farming, she was a beekeeper, a midwife, and a talented basket weaver.

Throughout her hardships, Lydia’s faith never wavered. She studied the Bible and quoted scripture to anyone who would listen. She frequently traveled several miles from her home by horseback to serve her neighbors as midwife. The payment for a midwife’s services was often something the family had available on the farm: chickens, a sack of cornmeal or a basket of apples.  

Before the time of funeral homes, it was customary to prepare the corpse in the home before burial. Lydia was often called to a home where a death had occurred because she was skilled at “laying out the dead.” Again, payment was usually whatever the family could afford to give her, and it was rarely cash.

Somehow Lydia was taught, or she taught herself, to make men’s wool suits. Those who could afford such a luxury placed an order at Ogle’s Store, where measurements were taken. She picked up the order and made the suit. This included shearing the sheep, carding, spinning, dyeing, and weaving the fabric.  

She tanned leather to make shoes for herself and her family and hunted game in order to have meat to serve with the vegetables she grew in her garden. Lydia gathered herbs and made medicine for numerous ailments. She traveled wherever there was sickness and unselfishly administered to the sick.

When Phi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women arrived in Gatlinburg in 1912, the teachers quickly discovered the fine craftsmanship in the baskets woven by Lydia, who by this time was called Aunt Liddy by most people in Gatlinburg.

In the fall of 1914, for the first time, attention was directed toward the industrial work such as quilting and basket weaving at Pi Beta Phi. At the age of 75, Aunt Liddy was invited to teach basket weaving at the school, and through the school she was permitted to sell her baskets. Made of hemlock bark, willow reeds, willow bark, white oak splits and corn husks, the baskets ranged in price from 40 cents for a small crochet basket to a fireside basket for $5.

In the 1920s, as word spread that the government was interested in establishing a national park in the Smokies, the first tourists arrived. This created a greater demand for the mountain crafts that had previously been sold mostly to Pi Phi alumnae.

On a hot day in July 1925, Aunt Liddy arrived at the school to find the ladies at Pi Beta Phi excited because a lawyer from Chicago had come in and bought every one of her baskets. They then told her that the gentleman said he’d buy all the baskets she could make and send to him.

The lawyer from Chicago was Clarence Darrow, the attorney who defended John T. Scopes in the Scopes “monkey” trial in Dayton, Tenn. After the conclusion of the trial, Knoxville lawyer Williston Cox escorted the famous defense attorney to Elkmont for a few days’ relaxation at Cox’s Appalachian Club cabin.  

Sadly, Aunt Liddy did not live long enough to see the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She died on Dec. 4, 1926, at age 86.

A melon basket made by Aunt Liddy is on display at the Appalachian Center at Berea College along with hundreds of other artifacts made by Aunt Liddy. Using a design her father brought from Scotland, she wove the the basket out of willow bark. Its handle is a solid piece of willow.

The objects were first gathered by Edna Lynn Simms. She exhibited them at her Mountaineer Museum in Gatlinburg. After her death, the collection was given to the college in 1961.

For the past several years, Ruth Carr Miller has presented a program in which she portrays Aunt Liddy. Wearing period mountain clothing including a long, white apron and a bandana tied around her neck; Ruth tells the story of Aunt Liddy in the first person. She is keeping alive the memory of a remarkable, self-reliant mountain woman.

Carroll McMahan is the 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 email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.