Even after 42 years of weekly columns for the Hendersonville Times-News and nine books, Louise Bailey never ran out of stories to tell and share about the people and places of Henderson County.
When she died (peacefully, and just as sharp as ever) at 94 just two days after Christmas last year, she left behind unpublished work on her computer, which her son Joe and friend Terry Ruscin have compiled into a new book, Historic Henderson County: Tales From “Along the Ridges,” to be released by The History Press this month. Featuring a foreword by author Robert Morgan, the book includes some of Bailey’s previously published columns, along with a wealth of new material about Henderson County’s rich natural heritage and colorful characters.
Louise Bailey was born in 1915, the great-great granddaughter of Judge Mitchell King, one of the first Lowcountry elites to build a “cottage” in what would become the Little Charleston of the Mountains: Flat Rock. Generations of the family stayed in the mountains, but kept close ties to Charleston. Those who knew her said that although she certainly had the bona fides to be a member of high society, Bailey had no interest in that sort of social distinction. “She was no social butterfly and she put on no pretense,” says Joe Bailey. “She accepted people for who they were.” That genuineness was part of what made her a great writer and what made the breadth and scope of her stories so wide and varied.
The daughter of a country doctor, William Bell White Howe III, Bailey spent much of her childhood accompanying her father on rounds to patients of little means who lived in cabins with no electricity or plumbing. Dr. Howe would often trade his services for goods when they couldn’t pay. One such woman, Mary Stepp, became Bailey’s nanny. From Stepp, who is featured in many of the stories in the new book, Bailey learned mountain lore, the names of native plants, and stories that had been handed down since the pioneer days. At the same time, she was surrounded by the history and society of old Charleston. “I think she recognized that she had some unique experiences in her life,” says Joe Bailey. Capturing and recording for posterity the wide range of people, experiences, and places in Henderson County became Bailey’s life work.
After earning a degree in biology at Winthrop College in South Carolina, and later graduating from Columbia University in New York with a degree in library science, Bailey married another doctor—Dr. Joseph Bailey—who also became well known around the county. After getting to know Carl Sandburg, Bailey worked as an assistant for the author, and even typed the manuscript for Remembrance Rock. But it was her own writing about local history that earned her respect across the county. With her “Along the Ridges” column each Sunday in the Times-News, Bailey chronicled the seasons and gave voice to the surprisingly wide spectrum of local residents. She expressed her love for the natural world and the beauty of the region while teaching readers about local flora and fauna. She shared and recorded stories that would otherwise have been forgotten, but add greatly to historical record.
The Louise Bailey Archives at Blue Ridge Community College now house Bailey’s writing and some artifacts, as well as an oil painting of the writer and historian.
For Ruscin, who met and became close to Bailey after relocating from California in 2004, compiling and editing his dear friend’s work was a labor of love and “a bittersweet process.” While it was in some ways “like visiting with her again,” he says, “there was no one to ask when I had a question.”
Joe Bailey thinks his mother “would be delighted” with the new book, which in the last years of her life she had hoped to be able to put together. In his foreword to the book, Morgan writes, “One of the most important genres of writing and scholarship is local history. It is the local historian who gathers and communicates the intimate details, the fine print and the oral traditions of a region’s past. The local historian is a crucial link between oral history, folk narrative and preservation of a written record in public media. I can think of no finer example of a local historian than Louise Bailey.”