Mattie Ruth Johnson, 2004 presentation

ohnson: 6/17/04

Life on Newman’s Ridge

by Mattie Ruth Johnson

Presented at Fifth Union
Kingsport, Tennessee
Thursday, 17 June 2004


Newman’s Ridge

I learned later in life that growing up on Newman’s Ridge was more beautiful that I had imagined as a child. Its beauty, the colorful seasons that came and went. The view, to be able to look our far, far away and see the sunrise and sunset in all their glory. To reach out and feel the moisture of clouds hanging so low.

You could see storms and cyclones long before they came near. If they came our way, and they were severe, you took shelter in the dairy. Dairies are built mostly under the side of a small hill with only the front exposed. This was a safe place to be if the storms were pretty severe.

Sometimes the snows would be so deep we had to dig trenches to the barn and spring. The  animals had to be fed morning and night, and we had to have fresh water daily. During those bad days of winter, schools were out and people stayed in their homes and enjoyed playing their musical instruments. Cooking over the fireplace was fun. We popped popcorn and baked potatoes in the ashes, which certainly gave them a better taste than baking them in the oven.


Mattie Ruth Johnson’s family

As we sat around the living room near the fireplace, we told stories, played games, and had Bible readings. There was always plenty of wood for the kitchen stove and fireplace. Sometimes you could buy coal to burn.

Icicles would form off the roof and sometimes be all the way to the floor of the porch. I remember some being a foot wide, and we children enjoyed breaking them, sometimes eating the smaller icicles. If the snow got too heavy on top of the house, Dad had big long poles for him and my brothers to rake it off. We had a tin roof so snow came off pretty easy.

These were fun days, especially when we could make snow cream, and sometimes play in the snow. If you wore a hole in your shoes you only had a piece of cardboard to put in your shoe until Dad had time to put a new sole on it. Our shoes were the heavy brogan shoes. I remember when we came in with wet shoes Mom would put some in the oven and the rest she turned sideways in front of the fireplace to dry out. This dried them, but the next morning your shoes would be hard as a rock. You had your church clothes and school clothes. Church and school clothes were not worn to work or play in.

During the freezing times Mom had special bricks she heated, wrapped in towels, and placed at our feet when we went to bed. If you had warm feet the rest of your body seemed to stay warm. The fireplace and kitchen stove had to warm the whole house and sometimes the bedrooms would be very cold.

In February we burned tobacco beds to plant our seeds in. This kept grass and weeks out. After planting these seed beds a long mesh cloth covered them to protect them from birds and other animals. By April and May (which was planting time) we had plenty of large plants to set out. You saved some good seeds from year to year. To have a good crop of potatoes, they needed to be in the ground by Good Friday. Then came plowing the fields for planting. The ground had already been turned in the fall, and was now ready to be disked and plowed. A drag was used to break up clods of dirt and made your rows good and soft. We grew all kinds of stuff, and in large quantity. We shared in planting, hoeing, and strewing fertilizer. All plants had to be kept weed-free. We also had a large garden near the house.


Mattie Ruth

After many weeks of working the fields and garden they were “laid by.” This was music to our ears, for this meant you did not have to work them any more. By May we children were ready to go barefooted and could hardly wait to get out of those shoes. Of course we were not allowed to go places without shoes.

Back in those days seasons were mostly true to their name. Winter was winter and very cold. You had spring and everything budded out during April and May. A little cold snap (as they would say) did not kill off all your plants and it did not snow in May and kill blossoms on the fruit trees and vines as far as I can remember – not like today where it gets warm early, causing things to bloom, then freezes and kills the blooms. Happens to me every year. In summer we enjoyed all the different fruits of the trees and vines. You could make your jellies and jams galore.

When harvest time came you canned or dries foods for safekeeping, enough to last until the next season. People lived off the land. We did not have grocery stores to buy fruits and vegetables like today; even if they did, people did not have enough money to buy for large families.

Young adults and children of today have no idea of all the labors of living off the land, for as it turned out, with all the brilliant minds everything was invented and modernized to make life easier for us all. Even with all our moderation we easily take things for granted, for people of these generations have had no exposure to working and living without electrical help. Most things we have today people had back in earlier days, but those things were run by hand. On Newman’s Ridge, we did not have refrigeration until 1949, and then things started to change, replacing what you had with electrical items.

Before electricity, we had to take our clothes near the spring, heat the water and scrub them on a wash board, hang them on lines, and then iron them with an old cast iron which had to be heated on the wood-burning kitchen stove. These were important items to have. People walked up and down the Ridge, for only a couple of men around had vehicles, and my Dad was one of them. There were certain days he went to town and people knew those days and he would pick up anyone who was walking. You either walked or rode a horse, sled, or wagon. Most people walking threw a short pole across their shoulder with a tote bag or sack to put what they bought in to carry back. The stick also served as a walking stick like a cane. People never minded walking up and down those ridges.

We weren’t very familiar with deaths, and never dreamed of a death in our immediate family. Suddenly our mother died and everyone was so heartbroken. Our family and friends were so close, but our lives were shattered and would never be the same. We loved and appreciated each other for we were taught this, but even stronger after her death. This took a toll on all of us. We learned to appreciate life and what we had more. Where she walked and lived became sacred to us all.

My father sold the farm and we moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, where we started a new life much different than what we had been accustomed to. In time each of us would have moved away for jobs anyway. My brothers and sisters got jobs, married, had children, and Dad remarried. I left home and moved with the Echerd family to New Jersey. I enjoyed all kinds of Broadway plays and visited lots of sites there while doing some assistant teaching in schools. After about three years we moved back to Kingsport and I started my nursing career. While living in New Jersey so far away I really missed my family and where I grew up, and I knew by then that my nieces and nephews, all living in big homes with paved streets, had no idea about how life was for us only a few years ago. I wanted to write a story about the way things were so I started making notes about everything I could think of, from a sprig of grass to swinging on a grapevine. I put all my notes in a shoe box starting 1960.

I knew the children would not understand all the things we did, like sweeping the yard ands having buckets of water hanging on the porch with a dipper. “What is a dipper,” one niece asked me. “Why do you sweep the yard?” I realized their view and mine were completely different for they thought there was a yard of grass, and how on earth can you sweep that, and why?

When I started writing my story I separated all my notes starting as early as I could remember – what happened when you lived here or there? I put them into five to ten year time period frames – what went on here or there. Suddenly I had too much for a short story. I had also done some research on our families and I knew we were kin to the Melungeons. I found out the people being written about were my relatives and owned a lot of the land all around us, including where we lived at one time. I found out we were right in the middle of a Melungeon colony. I knew by this time up to my fourth generation grandfathers were part of the Melungeon and were owners of a lot of this land. As a child I was told we were kin to the Melungeons.

I started spreading the word for I was so proud of this. Many a time in the beginning I was put down, but endured for I knew these people and most were good-hearted Christian people that would give you the shirt off their backs, or see to it you had food if you did not. That made me want to write about them more.

As I wrote and rewrote to get my stories straight and in order, a friend of mine, Joanne, and English expert, advised me, but I mostly wanted to use old English which was mostly the way people talked back them.


Mattie Ruth Johnson and My Melungeon Heritage

People started saying, “Why don’t you write a book?” I thought, “Book? I don’t know anything about writing a book” until one day a doctor friend of mine said to me, “Aw, you can’t write no book.” Then and there I thought to myself, “If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll show you” and so I did. You don’t need to count your letters and lines like I started out doing. Today the printers have your book edited and the lines don’t always come out like you have them, close, but even better. They keep your pictures and chapters together and do a layout that all fits in. They want to make sure your book is understood by the reader. I have a lifetime of stories yet to tell. I’m collecting notes now for number two book.

You can take everything you write about and make it readable and into a story. For instance, a chicken: they sing, look after and protect their babies, scratch around, holler and cry when their chicken coop is broken into by a fox, snake or other animal. They sneak off and hide their eggs until they hatch babies, hide under bushed when a hawk flies over. They will wait longer than you can to go back to their nest so you won’t find them. The rooster crows to tell you it’s time to get up. There is more to a chicken than just chicken.

Getting a lot of these stories in a book about a way of life that is no more really fulfilled more than the dream I had. I’m no expert. People keep asking me what happened to the little children and the rest of the family. Hopefully someday the rest of the story will emerge.