Mary Louise Bailey remembers when the big attraction in downtown Hendersonville was an embalmed, four-legged chicken on display at Shepherd’s Undertaking Parlor. It was the talk of the town and people came from miles around to see it.
They would have left their mules and wagons on First Street, still a dirt road, although Main Street had recently been paved all the way to Sixth Street, and a traffic light had been installed. “Everybody knew everybody back then,” Louise says. “Now you don’t see many people stopping to talk on Main Street.”
Louise also remembers when Hendersonville was considered “the dancingest town in America,” with a casino in Laurel Park and a dancing pavilion at the old Wheeler Hotel, and when about the only snack one could find on Main Street was possum meat, the brainchild of an early entrepreneur who intended to sell live possums to passing housewives. “The delicacy never caught on,” Louise notes.
Mary Louise Howe Bailey, to use her full panoply of names, has been Henderson County’s unofficial historian practically since her birth, in 1915, on a house atop a hill where the Food Lion on Greenville Highway now stands. “I’ve always enjoyed writing from the time I was a little girl,” Louise says. “I remember sitting on the porch, off in a corner with a notebook, while the rest of the family played music or talked.” Except for her college education at Winthrop University and at Columbia in New York, and a teaching career in South Carolina schools that followed, she’s lived in the county all her life, collecting stories and mountain lore that have appeared in forty-two years’ worth of “Along the Ridges,” her regular column in the Hendersonville Times-News.
“My father’s constant advice to me while I was growing up was ‘Don’t be a rubber stamp — be yourself’,” Louise wrote in Remembering Hendersonville County, one of her eight published books.
William Bell Howe, one of the county’s best-known doctors of the early twentieth century, made sure to take his daughter along on his rounds. He was called (even by his own children), “Old Doc,” and it was Louise’s visits with him to far-flung corners of a rural mountain county that whetted her appetite for the unique, historical, or downright odd.
It was her father who explained to her why the impressive mustaches worn by many men were angled upwards on one side, so that a stream of ejected tobacco juice wouldn’t stain the whiskers. He spoke respectfully of what he called “granny women” encountered in his travels through the hills and their herbal recipes that were the first line of defense against illness, before Old Doc would be called in as a last resort. There were summer vacations at the cabin of a family friend on Pinnacle Mountain, a seven-mile drive over rough roads followed by a one-mile hike through the woods. Days there were spent swimming, picking herbs and fruit, washing clothes in the cold mountain creek that ran by the cabin; nights were spent outdoors around a fire, where her father would tell stories of Howe ancestors and mountain pioneers.
“People lived well, they ate well,” Louise says of those pre-Depression days, remembering the beans, corn, honey and locally raised meat and poultry that were set down three times a day on the kitchen table. “People couldn’t live that way now, or survive.”
The Depression was the great dividing line between those more bountiful times and the hardships that followed. “It’s sad to see that old lifestyle gone now,” Louise says. She remembers how during the years leading up to the Second World War her father was often paid for his services, if he was paid at all, in farm produce or even in wool, uncombed and un-spun. “Some people said they’d pay, but they never could,” she says.
In the early 1960’s, Louise was asked to speak to one or two community groups about her knowledge of local history and tradition, and her appearances were so well received that the Times-News approached her about a series of weekly articles. “I thought it would be just a few short pieces, so I said yes,” Louise remembers. “Seventeen articles later, I said I thought I should stop, because I didn’t think I had anything left to write about. But they convinced me to keep on with it, so here I am 42 years later, still writing the columns.”
Among her other books, in addition to Remembering Henderson County, are works on Carl Sandburg’s connection to the county, on St. John In The Wilderness, and on Pardee Hospital. And she’s waged a long campaign to dispel outsiders’ misconceptions about rural America, like the woman she met on a flight from New York to Asheville in the 1970s, who was worried about keeping up with the news about Watergate. “Do you get the Watergate story in North Carolina?” she wanted to know. Louise made sure to set her straight.
Louise Bailey’s long and productive writing life will be honored at this month’s Blue Ridge Book and Author Showcase on Saturday, May 9th, at Blue Ridge Community College. Louise will speak about her work as part of this daylong celebration of the written word. She’ll be in distinguished company, sharing the day with Henderson County native Robert Morgan (Gap Creek, The Balm of Gilead Tree), who will also serve as honorary chairman of the event, and Sharyn McCrumb, author of the Appalachian Ballad series of novels.
Among the fifty speakers and teachers on hand will be North Carolina Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer and historical novelist Sheila Kay Adams, who will join their fellow writers in leading a number of workshops in creative writing, poetry, and the business end of getting work published, among other topics. Special attention will be given to young writers from area schools, who will be given an opportunity to read and discuss their work.
The Showcase takes place on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend, so guests are invited to bring mom along in appreciation for the role mothers play as first teacher and first reader.
For details, visit blueridgebookfest.org.