Mary Vaux Walcott


Mary Morris Vaux with her ice axe at the foot of the Illecillewaet Glacier,
British Columbia, 1899

Although her name is not widely known, Mary Vaux Walcott (1860—1940) was a true trailblazer during the Victorian era, and left a remarkable legacy encompassing the diverse fields of art, photography, glaciology, botany, and mountaineering.

Mary Morris Vaux was born July 31, 1860, into an old and prominent Philadelphia Quaker family. She received a “guarded” education at the Friends Select School in Philadelphia, where the curriculum included Catechism, daily Scripture readings, and weekly Meetings for Divine Worship, in addition to academic subjects. Following the death of her mother soon after graduating, Mary assumed the family’s domestic responsibilities, caring for her father and two younger brothers and managing the family homes in Philadelphia and nearby Bryn Mawr, where she also oversaw the family dairy farm.

Mary first visited western Canada at age 27 with her father and her brothers. The year was 1887, the second summer the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) offered transcontinental railway service, and the first year it offered lodging at Glacier House near Rogers Pass, British Columbia. The completion of the CPR had opened the alpine region of western Canada, and ushered in the development of tourism and the sport of mountaineering. Captivated by the breathtaking majesty and unspoiled grandeur of the region, Mary returned with various family members nearly every summer for four decades beginning in 1895.


             Mary and her brothers undertook the study of glaciers in Alberta and British Columbia, surveying, mapping, photographing, and measuring glacial movement. These studies remain vital to scientists today in understanding climate changes and land-shaping processes. Mary’s contributions were rewarded with election to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1892; she was among the first women to receive this recognition.

Mary had learned the platinum photo printing process from the noted Philadelphia photographer, William H. Rau. She handled the technical aspects of the glacier photography, printed the photographs, and took many landscape photographs used by the CPR for promoting rail travel. Mary was a member of the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, and an associate member of the Photo-Secession, founded by Alfred Stieglitz in 1902. She showed her photographs in exhibitions sponsored by both groups, published them in numerous publications including National Geographic Magazine, and gave frequent magic lantern lectures with her own hand colored slides about her travels and research. More than 2,500 of the Vaux family’s original glass and film negatives and lantern slides are now in the collection of the Peter and Catharine Whyte Museum in Banff, Alberta.


             Mary became an avid outdoorswoman, hiking, camping, and exploring the Canadian wilderness on horseback. On July 21, 1900, ten days before her 40th birthday, she became the first woman to climb Mount Stephen—and the first woman to ascend a peak over 10,000 feet in Canada. In 1908 a peak was named for her: Mount Mary Vaux rises prominently to 10,881 feet over the Maligne Lake valley in Alberta’s Jasper National Park. She was a charter member of both the Alpine Club of Canada and the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies. Mary estimated that she had ridden some 5,000 miles on horseback through the Canadian wilds in her lifetime, and she celebrated her 77th birthday with a 20-mile ride in the mountains.


Mary photographing wildflowers in western Canada

In 1907, Mary Vaux met Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850 —1927), noted paleontologist and Secretary of the Smithsonian, during his first visit to Canada. The two were married in June 1914, and Mary became a first-time bride the month before her 54th birthday. Mary and Charles lived in Washington, and spent three to four months each year in Canada for the next 12 years. It’s important to recognize the hazards and harsh conditions during these months-long excursions in the rugged Canadian mountains: it was a true wilderness where sudden snowstorms, cold, drenching rains, grizzly bear encounters, and pack horses carrying supplies and specimens falling to their deaths were not uncommon.

Mary had taken watercolor lessons in her youth and was an accomplished watercolorist. She later recalled, “Wildflowers were a joy and inspiration in the happy days of my childhood when I was taught to observe and sketch them under the direction of a skilled artist.” Years later in Canada, a “botanical friend” asked her “to portray a rare and perishable alpine flower so as to preserve its beauty, color, and graceful outline as a living thing.” She began to focus her attention on wildflowers. Her goal was to “collect and paint the finest specimens obtainable, and to depict the natural grace and beauty of the plant without conventional design.”

Prickly Pear, watercolor on paper

Prickly Pear, watercolor on paper

Mary carried her paint box and pads on the back of her saddle, and painted wherever specimens were encountered. Often, that meant warming her stiff hands by a fire in high passes and on mountainsides, or painting in the “diffused light of the white tent,” which she found “a great handicap.” The unpredictable weather conditions created challenges, as did the short lives of alpine blooming plants, which limited the number of sketches that could be completed each season. Not only did she find that wild flowers wither quickly, but sudden frosts killed them, and unusually warm, dry weather or cold, wet weather prevented their blooming at all. “For these reasons,” she explained, “desirable specimens of many of the fragile alpine flowers are difficult to secure, and in some instances were seen in perfection but two or three times during the many seasons on the trail. The limited habitat of others made it necessary to take long rides and climb high above the timberline to procure them, and frequently no trails were available.  Our sure-footed mountain ponies were a large factor in our success.”


Maypop (Passiflora Incarnata), watercolor on paper

Over the years, her botanical watercolors grew in number, and in 1925 the Smithsonian published North American Wild Flowers, a five-volume set of 400 color lithographs of her watercolors accompanied by her written descriptions of each plant. This seminal work led to her designation as the “Audubon of botany.” The original 809 watercolors are now housed in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


Trumpet Honeysuckle, watercolor on paper

In 1927, both Mary’s husband Charles and her brother, George Jr. died. George had served on the United States Board of Indian Commissioners, a watchdog group charged with investigating and overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Mary was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to fill his vacancy on the Board. She was reappointed by President Herbert Hoover and served until 1933, when the Board was disbanded. During her tenure with the Board of Indian Commissioners she traveled across the country nine times by car, made some 100 visits to Indian reservations, and presented her findings in written reports to the Board.  She took the opportunity to collect Indian artifacts on these trips, and donated a number of the pieces to the Smithsonian.

Mary Vaux Walcott made her final visit to western Canada in 1939. She died of a heart attack August 22, 1940, just after her 80th birthday, while visiting friends in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. She is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, next to Charles Walcott.

—Lynne Adele


Every Object Has A Story: Botanic Blood Balm and the Patent Medicine Craze

It’s no secret that Steve and I love antiques. We have no idea how many antiques shops we’ve been in together, and rare is the week when we don’t poke around in at least one. We love the thrill of the hunt, just looking at odd and interesting old things, and incorporating our finds into our lives in meaningful ways.

An early Tennessee folk carving and a Bill Monroe 78, recent serendipitous finds.

An early Tennessee folk carving and a Bill Monroe 78, recent serendipitous finds.

Like most people, we have a few regrets over missed opportunities (the antiquer’s equivalent to the “one that got away”): the now legendary “Whore Sofa” in Wisconsin, “The Lamp” in Kentucky, the stereoscope on a stand in Tennessee. But these are balanced with the “finds” that have made it home—a rare Currier & Ives print of “the Wonderful Albino Family” we found in Nebraska, a delightful early 20th-century folk carving from East Tennessee, and our most recent purchase, a late 19th-century patent medicine crate which is enjoying a new life holding a portion of Steve’s collection of pre-war hillbilly 78s. We love these objects for the stories they tell, the mysteries they don’t, the adventures we have finding them, and the warm patina that only age can impart.

Botanic Blood Balm box, found in East Tennessee.

Botanic Blood Balm box, found in East Tennessee.

So, what originally attracted us to an old wooden box, whose original purpose was to protect a dozen bottles of a quack medicine from breaking during shipping? First, it appeals to us visually and meets the aesthetic criteria we’ve established for our home. Second, we are huge fans of both late 19th-century advertising and the “patent medicine” craze that paralleled it, and you just don’t see these kinds of crates every day. Third, it’s useful: we’re always looking for attractive storage solutions. And finally, the price was right.

What we have since learned—because we try to research everything we buy after hauling it home—is that, like all objects, our box has its own story to tell. Even the humblest objects have value as cultural artifacts if we take the time to examine them within the context of their original creation and use.

Asa Griggs Candler (1851—1929) was born into a well-connected, prosperous, slave-holding family in Villa Rica, Georgia, just west of Atlanta. He had originally hoped to become a physician, and spent his childhood concocting pretend potions and doctoring sick animals. The Civil War interrupted his schooling and devastated his family’s finances, ending his dream of higher education. Instead, he was apprenticed as a teenager to learn the pharmacy trade. At 21, his training complete, Candler arrived in the booming city of Atlanta.

Asa Griggs Candler

Asa Griggs Candler

It was the golden age of patent medicines, and Atlanta was about to become the patent medicine capital of the South. Rife with post-war illnesses, poverty, malaria, and yellow fever, as well as ringworm (which roughly half of Southern children suffered from), the South offered great marketing potential. Candler quickly saw that the pharmacy field might be more lucrative than being a physician.

The ascent of print advertising in the post-Civil War decades and the lack of government regulation over proprietary medicinal compounds contributed to the dramatic rise in “miraculous” and “curative” tonics, elixirs, ointments, and waters, often advertised to the public with false or misleading claims. Simultaneously, the development of electricity led to “medical” inventions like Dr. Dye’s Celebrated Voltaic Belt with Electric Suspensory Appliances, which promised the speedy relief of impotence. In the 1890s, patent medicines “offered the ad-writer his greatest opportunity,” wrote advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins.

A group of 3 rare Botanic Blood Balm medicinal bottles. Even without their labels, these bottles are highly collectible today.

A group of 3 rare Botanic Blood Balm medicinal bottles. Even without their labels, these bottles are highly collectible today.

At their best, patent medicines could be harmless or even moderately useful; at their worst, they were downright dangerous. Many of them contained grain alcohol, opium, or cocaine (which did make people feel better—at least temporarily), while others contained toxic chemicals including arsenic, mercury, strychnine, and lead.

Asa Candler began buying the rights to a number of patent medicines, including Bucklen’s Arnica Salve (for all manner of fever sores, tetter, chilblains, “positively cures piles”); King’s New Discovery (for consumption, colds, and coughs); and De-Lec-Ta-Lave (to whiten the teeth, cleanse the mouth, harden and beautify the gums). By 1886, Candler (himself a hypochondriac who was likely dabbling in his own products) was advertising his Electric Bitters, touted to cure depression, poor appetite, headaches, nervousness, and more, at the price of 50 cents per bottle. In 1888, he purchased the rights to the elixir for which he is best remembered, Coca-Cola.

In 1890, Candler bought the once venerable Botanic Blood Balm Co. (B.B.B.), which had been a big seller for its inventor, Dr. J.P. Dromgoole. (Candler probably picked it up at a rock-bottom price, after an 1889 landmark Georgia Supreme Court case significantly reduced the value of the company by finding in favor of a plaintiff who sued after taking 3 bottles “as directed” for a rash on his leg, and ended up with “his head, neck and breast . . . covered with red spots and the inside of his mouth and throat filled with sores [and finally] a large part of the hair fell from his head.”

B.B.B. bottle with label intact

B.B.B. bottle with label intact

Botanic Blood Balm, which Candler marketed at the price of $1 for a large bottle, was claimed to make the blood pure and rich and stop all aches and pains. This “scientific wonder” promised positive and permanent relief from “blood poison,” and to quickly cure “old ulcers, scrofula, eczema, itching skin and blood humors, cancer, festering sores, boils, carbuncles, pimples or offensive eruptions, pains in bones or joints, rheumatism, catarrh, or any blood or skin trouble,” as well as “female weakness” and “hereditary taint.” It was also boldly claimed to be a perfect cure for syphilis. There was just about nothing B.B.B. couldn’t cure!

Newspaper advertisement for Botanic Blood Balm, 1891

Newspaper advertisement for Botanic Blood Balm, 1891

In 1891, Candler sold his entire stock of pharmaceuticals to focus on Coca-Cola, and became one of the South’s wealthiest self-made millionaires. He sold B.B.B. to J.B. Brooks, one of his part-time traveling salesmen. The passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 marked the beginning of the end for the patent medicine industry. B.B.B. again changed hands, and was operating under William R. Warner & Co. of Philadelphia by 1916, when the company was fined $200 for misbranding and making false and fraudulent claims regarding the product’s efficacy; a chemical analysis found it to contain 14.6 % alcohol, along with senna (a purgative), arsenic, and other ingredients.

Newspaper ad extolling the many virtues of B.B.B.

Newspaper ad extolling the many virtues of B.B.B.

—Lynne Adele

Grandpa Maschka’s Violin

I don’t have many memories of my grandfather, Frank Anton Maschka. He died before my 5th birthday, and in my vague recollections of him, he’s either helping me learn to turn backwards somersaults, or I’m sitting on his lap in his Victorian platform rocker. I also recall that he played the violin and wore suspenders and string ties.

Frank Anton Maschka (1882-1959) with his violin, c. 1910.

Frank Anton Maschka (1882-1959) with his violin, c. 1910.

Born in Witków, Poland, on April 14, 1882, Frank was the first child of August Maschka, who had been a soldier in the Prussian army, and his wife, Rosalia Wesierski. August emigrated to the US in 1881, and Rosalia arrived with the newborn Frank in 1882. They went first to Ohio before settling along with numerous other Polish immigrants at Ashton, in Sherman County, Nebraska, five years later. There they built a sod house (soon replaced with a large frame structure), began farming, and raised a large family. I remember visiting the old homestead many years later, by that time long abandoned.

The Maschkas were musical and had a family band that enjoyed regional success. Frank played violin, and when he married my grandmother, Helen Jamrog, in 1913, she joined the band as pianist. Frank and Helen adopted their only child, my dad, Richard, in 1923. (Naturally, they provided Richard with music lessons from early childhood; he became an accomplished saxophonist and pianist, earned a music degree, and played with both Artie Shaw and Claude Thornhill.)

Frank owned and operated a grocery/general merchandise store in the small, largely Polish community of Ashton, and with his brother, Alfonzo (Uncle Ollie), ran a successful sausage shop. Maschka’s Sausage is still in operation today in its original location. Ashton reached its peak population of 488 in 1940, before declining to fewer than 200 today. Some of my fondest childhood memories are set in that tiny Nebraska town.

I’ve always loved this photograph of my grandfather, taken c. 1910 when he was about 28 years old. He chose to have his portrait taken holding what was undoubtedly his most valued possession, his 1907 Johann Dressel violin. I haven’t been able to find much information on Johann Dressel beyond that he was a violin maker in Berlin, Germany, and that his violins were imported between 1890 and 1925 by the Chicago music business, Lyon & Healy. It is my understanding that these instruments were considered to be of fairly high quality and were relatively expensive for their time. Lyon & Healy advertised them as having “graceful outlines, workmanship of high order, [and] a tone of unsurpassed volume, great beauty and richness.”

A hundred years after the photo was taken, the violin came into my possession, along with the bow my Grandpa Maschka holds in the photo. It hasn’t been played since he died in 1959, and it needs some work to return it to a playable condition. I hope to have the instrument restored so I can listen to it once again.

—Lynne Adele

“Christmas Bells”: Longfellow’s Holiday Poem of Hope Amidst Despair

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), the most widely known and best-loved American poet of his time, was deeply sorrowed when he put pen to paper on Christmas Day, 1863.

He was still grieving the tragic death, just two years earlier, of his beloved wife Fanny, who died of burns received when packages of locks of her children’s hair, which she was sealing with matches and wax, burst into flame and caught her dress on fire. Longfellow tried unsuccessfully to save her by smothering the flames with a rug, and was burned so seriously he was unable to attend the funeral. He turned to ether and laudanum to ease his physical and emotional pain.

After Fanny’s death, Christmas lost its joy for the poet. On Christmas Day, 1861, he wrote in his diary, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” The following Christmas he recorded, “’A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA, where the poem “Christmas Bells” was written

Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA, where the poem “Christmas Bells” was written

While he was a staunch abolitionist, Longfellow was also a pacifist. By the time Christmas arrived in 1863, the American Civil War had been raging for more than two years, and had taken a decidedly personal turn for the poet. Earlier that year, against Longfellow’s wishes, his elder son, Charles, 18, had joined the Union Army. In November, Charles was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church, Virginia. He was brought home to recuperate on December 8.
Charles Longfellow in uniform, 1863

Charles Longfellow in uniform, 1863

Longfellow wrote the poem, “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day, 1863. The poem tells of the narrator’s despair upon hearing Christmas bells, that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” It concludes with the bells carrying a message of renewed hope for peace among mankind.
Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863

Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863

The poem was first published in 1865. It was set to music in 1872 by the English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, becoming the carol with which we are familiar. In his version Calkin removed the stanzas relating to the war, a purge that diluted Longfellow’s powerful message. The poem follows in its original form.

—Lynne Adele

Christmas Bells

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Bessie Harvey, East Tennessee Visionary Artist

Five Sorcerers

Bessie Harvey, Five Sorcerers, 1986. Clay.

I’ve spent about a quarter of a century studying and writing about the work of self-taught artists, especially focusing on the work of African American artists. So I was pleasantly surprised to find two examples of the work of Bessie Harvey on a recent visit to the Knoxville Museum of Art. All too frequently, self-taught artists like Harvey are excluded from such exhibitions as “Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee”; their work tends to be segregated in shows specifically dealing with the self-taught genre. I applaud the KMA for including this important self-taught artist among her academically trained peers in celebrating the region’s rich artistic tradition.

Bessie Harvey (1929—1994) is considered among the top tier of 20th century American self-taught artists; her work has been shown in virtually every major exhibition of “folk” art in the past 25 or so years, is included in numerous museum collections, and in 1995 was selected for the prestigious Whitney Biennial. Harvey, born in Dallas, Georgia, moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in the late 1940s, and then to nearby Alcoa, known chiefly for its aluminum smelting plant, where she created her entire artistic output.

bessie harvey

Bessie Harvey

There was little in Harvey’s early life to indicate any likelihood of future success. Born into abject poverty, she was the 7th of 13 children, her father died when she was a child, and her mother was an alcoholic. She later recalled, “There was nothing. In the morning, you’d just get up, go looking for whatever you could find, and if you had one meal that day, then you’d made progress.” Harvey’s formal education ended in the fourth grade, and she worked as a domestic in private homes for many years. She first married at the age of 14, and endured years of domestic violence. By the time she was 35, she was the mother of 11 children, struggling to survive with little but her religious faith to see her through.

Harvey was deeply spiritual and loved nature. Based on visions that she believed were inspired by God, she began creating sculptures in 1972. She first displayed her art at the Blount County Memorial Hospital, where she was a member of the housekeeping staff, in 1977. Although she also worked in clay, Harvey is best known for her mixed media sculptures in which she combined embellished found natural forms with manmade objects.

poison of the lying tongues

Bessie Harvey, The Poison of the Lying Tongues, 1987. Found wood, cowrie shells, paint.

Harvey’s work belongs to a widespread African American visionary tradition that has been described as a unique “collaboration between the artist, God, and nature.” The ability to see anthropomorphic forms in roots, limbs, and driftwood—materials held sacred by African artists for their great spiritual powers—is not uncommon among African American visionary artists, and points to the survival of cultural Africanisms on this side of the Atlantic. Harvey is one of many African American artists who echo the belief that their role is to give physical form to spiritual presences already inherent within the materials. The artist’s role is to “bring out” these presences, usually by adding elements that might include shells, hair, cloth, paint, and other found or improvised items. The resulting forms are raw, powerful, and charged with energy.
Faces of Africa

Bessie Harvey, Faces of Africa II, 1994. Painted wood, wood putty, glitter and found objects.

Celebrated by her community and lauded by her state as one of its leading artists, Harvey received the Governor’s Award, Tennessee’s highest artistic honor, in the year of her death, 1994; the street in Alcoa where she lived has been renamed Bessie Harvey Avenue. Like many of her fellow self-taught artists, Bessie Harvey’s compelling story is one of perseverance and personal triumph against all odds, in which an artistic individual is inspired to create objects of great beauty and power amidst the most formidable circumstances.

—Lynne Adele

Anna Catherine Wiley, American Impressionist

Untitled, c. 1913, oil on canvas

One of the many pleasures of moving to an entirely new part of the country is learning about the history and culture of the region. This past weekend we visited the Knoxville Museum of Art. Among the highlights in the Museum’s ongoing exhibit, “Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee,” are several Impressionist paintings by the greatly undersung artist, Anna Catherine Wiley.

Self-portrait, c. 1910s

Wiley (1879—1958), was born into a wealthy and intellectual family at Coal Creek (now Lake City), Tennessee, where her father owned and operated two coal mines. She grew up in Knoxville, studied at the University of Tennessee from 1895—1897, attended the Art Students League in New York from 1903—1905, and spent six months studying with William Merritt Chase before returning to Knoxville in 1905, where she taught art at the University of Tennessee from 1905—1918. She continued her art instruction under the Knoxville painter, Lloyd Branson, became an influential member of the local art community, and organized a successful exhibition for the Appalachian Exposition of 1910. She spent several summers painting in Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island.
Pencil study of a collie, c. 1895—97

Pencil study of a collie, c. 1895—97

Wiley is best known for her masterful brushwork and exuberant play of natural light in her Impressionist paintings. Typical subject matter included women and children of the upper class in quiet scenes, often painted out of doors where Wiley took maximum advantage of natural, dappled light. She won numerous regional awards, and her work was shown at the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but she did not achieve the level of national acclaim she desired during her lifetime. Her work, The Lily Pond, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but most of her work remains in regional museums and private collections.

Lady with Parasol, c. 1915, oil on canvas

Wiley never married and was close to both her parents. It has been suggested that she suffered from bipolar disorder. The deaths of her father in 1919, her mentor (and possible lover) Lloyd Branson in 1925, and her mother in 1926, were also factors that probably contributed to a serious emotional decline that culminated in a mental breakdown in 1926. Sadly, her siblings committed her to an institution in Philadelphia, where she spent the remaining 32 years of her life. She had no access to art supplies and never painted again. When she died in 1958, her body was returned to Knoxville. Anna Catherine Wiley is buried in Knoxville’s Old Gray Cemetery, not far from her childhood home and the art museum that now features several examples of her lustrous and appealing work.

—Lynne Adele

Millenium Manor

Millenium Manor

Millenium Manor

Steve and I are extremely fond of vernacular visionary architecture and folk-art environments. We’ve been known to take some fairly extreme detours to visit these fascinating places, and we’ve experienced the delight of stumbling across others unexpectedly in our travels.

The artists who create these site-specific constructions are typically self-taught, eccentric individuals who are driven to follow their personal visions, and labor extensively and steadfastly over long periods of time to create a single great work of monumental scale. Whether created as private sanctuaries for solitary reflection or to make public statements for intended audiences, these works often give expression to powerful underlying philosophical, religious, or political views. Created with improvised construction methods and readily available materials, they are often inherently fragile. They are forced to withstand weather extremes, often face misunderstanding and ridicule from unsympathetic neighbors, and are vulnerable to acts of vandalism. Upkeep can be costly, time consuming, and challenging, and in all too many cases, they are destroyed following the artist’s death.

We were intrigued to learn about a structure in nearby Alcoa, Tennessee, known locally as the Old Stone House or Millennium Manor, so naturally, we decided to check it out.

W A Nicholson

W. A. Nicholson

William Andrew Nicholson, a mason and carpenter from Pickens County, Georgia, constructed the Old Stone House along with his wife, Fair, the mother of his ten children. Nicholson had come to Alcoa in 1937 during a worker’s strike at the aluminum smelting plant, as a “replacement for striking workers”—more commonly referred to as “scab labor.” (By the time the strike was over, 28 people had been wounded and 2 killed in a violent clash between striking workers and the company’s police force, and the National Guard was called in to restore order.) Following the strike Nicholson stayed on at Alcoa, and the following year he purchased a lot overlooking the plant and began building the house. He was 61 years old when he began his great project.

Nicholson’s goal was to build the house to last. Specifically, he wanted it to survive Armageddon and a thousand years beyond. He took a literalist view of the Bible, and was inspired by Revelations 20:6, “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” Nicholson had somehow calculated that the Apocalypse would take place in 1959; when that year came and went uneventfully, he revised his calculation to 1969. He believed that he would be one of 144,000 righteous people to survive and live for a thousand years.

To that end, Nicholson built the house with materials that would not corrode or decay—no nails or wood were used with the exception of window and door frames. The house is constructed primarily of local granite and Tennessee pink marble quarried at nearby Friendsville, and more than 4,000 bags of cement. There are 14 rooms and a 2-car underground garage, for a total of about 3,000 square feet under a 3-foot thick roof said to weigh more than 400 tons. The walls vary from 19 inches to 25 inches thick, and the floor is more than 4 feet thick. The entire lot is enclosed within a rock wall.

Millenium Manor 2

Working without formal plans, Nicholson used the stone arch technology developed by the ancient Romans some two thousand years ago. Nicholson first created wood forms. Upstairs, to make smoother interior walls, he placed rubber tarps over the wood. After stacking the stone on the forms, he set the center keystone to keep the rocks steady. He poured cement over the stones to fill cracks and hold the rocks in place, and then removed the wood form and tarp.

William and Fair hauled all the rock themselves, some weighing up to 300 pounds each, on their flatbed truck. Fair mixed the cement for the mortar. They toiled together on their project over a period of 9 years, working from 6 to 8 hours per day after William had put in a full shift at the plant.

Millenium Manor Interior

Fair died in 1950, and the grieving William followed her in 1965, four years before the predicted Millennium. The house stood abandoned for a number of years, was briefly used as an Odd Fellows lodge, and was run as a Halloween haunted house by the local Jaycees before falling into disrepair. It became a drinking place for local teenagers, was ravaged by vandalism, used as a trash dump, and encased in a jungle of vines until, facing demolition, it was rescued in 1995 by its current owner, Knoxville fire captain and paramedic, Dean Fontaine. He has been working for 17 years to restore the house. He took time out to give us an impromptu tour of his home yesterday afternoon.

Of course, no architectural oddity would be complete without tales of hauntings, and it is said that you can still see candlelight through the windows and hear Mr. Nicholson working on the house at all hours.

—Lynne Adele

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Punkin and Melinda: A Love Story

We in The Victor Mourning always appreciate a good tale of eternal love. Whether it be Adam & Eve, Johnny & June, or Lux & Ivy, nothing warms the heart more than a story about two people who seem made for each other finding one another against all odds—especially when those two people are relatively unique sorts.

Recently in our reading we came across the story of John Wayne “Punkin” Brown of Parottsville, Tennessee. Punkin was a devout fellow. He believed in following the “five signs” as outlined in Mark 16:17-18: casting out devils, speaking in tongues, laying hands on the sick, drinking poison (usually strychnine or lye), and taking up serpents. Punkin was well known amongst the followers of the five signs, and he preached at little churches all over the southeast.

Punkin Brown

Punkin Brown

Sometime around 1981, when Punkin was in his late teens, he attended a “homecoming” for serpent handlers at a church in Kingston, Georgia. During the service, he spotted 14 year-old Melinda Duvall in the crowd. His brother Mark tells us, “Punkin had seen her down there handling big rattlesnakes, speaking in tongues, and shouting. He seen all that and that just hooked him right there. He found a woman who liked to do the things that he liked to do.” After Punkin got back home to Parrotsville, he told his brother, “I’ve met me a tongues-talking, serpent-handling Holiness woman and I’m going to marry her!” Punkin and Melinda were married a year later.

Like all the best stories of true love, this one lasted till the very end. On August 6, 1995, during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, Melinda was bitten by a black timber rattler she was handling. Within two days, the 28 year-old mother of five was dead.

Three years later on October 3, 1998, Punkin Brown was preaching a service at the Rock House Holiness Church of God in rural Jackson County, Alabama. During his sermon he was bitten by a yellow timber rattler. Punkin looked at the bite and said, “God don’t ever change. It’s gonna be all right.” Soon after, he uttered what may have been his last words, “No matter what comes, God’s still God.” He was dead within minutes.

Rock House Holiness Church of God

Rock House Holiness Church of God

Punkin and Melinda died as they lived. And most all the folks who knew them are certain that they’re together again, no longer following the five signs. For as all good Holiness people know, there are no serpents in heaven.

—Stephen Canner

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;

The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:

Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;

Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

—William Shakespeare

John Dana Guildner (1949-2011)

John Dana Guildner - 1949-2011

The Victor Mourning regrets the passing of our fellow musician, John Dana Guildner, known to his friends as Dana, after a brief illness.

An extraordinarily talented musician, Dana had played the string bass with the Minnesota Symphony, and more recently, he played accordion and string bass with our friends, the Geneva Witnesses. He was also known for playing traditional hymns on his 1880s pump organ, pumped by a vacuum cleaner operated by his wife, Barb.

We treasure our memories of playing with Dana on the shore of Geneva Lake in Southern Minnesota, and it’s difficult to accept that we won’t have another opportunity to share that experience. In addition to his musical talents, Dana was a truly eccentric character, a generous friend and neighbor, and an important member of his community. Our thoughts are with his family. He will be missed.

Henry Russell’s Last Words

Federal No. 3 Mine

Federal No. 3 Mine

If you’ve attended one of our live shows, you are probably aware that band member Stephen Lee Canner writes nearly all our material. We do often add a “cover” or two to our set list—songs written by other songwriters we admire, and that for one reason or another we like to share with our audiences.

Among our favorites is the heartbreakingly beautiful song, “Henry Russell’s Last Words,” written by Diana Jones. Inspired by an historical event, the song documents the final moments of a West Virginia coal miner trapped underground following a mine disaster.

In The Victor Mourning’s version of the song, guitjo player Lynne Adele contributes lead vocals, Stephen Canner takes a rare break from singing duties to focus on delicately textured guitar accompaniment, and Stefan Keydel lends soaring fiddle solos that build dramatically to the song’s tragic climax. We hope to record the song for our next album.

Henry Russell was born in 1885 in Hamilton, a town near Glasgow in the west central lowlands of Scotland. He worked as a miner in Scotland before emigrating to the U.S. with his pregnant wife, Mary, and their two young children. They moved to Monongalia County, West Virginia, where Henry found work at the Federal No. 3 coalmine in Everettville.

Henry Russell

Henry Russell

The day of April 30, 1927 probably began like just any other workday for the miners of the Federal No. 3. But the day came to a sudden end for 111 of the miners when a massive explosion ripped through the mine, killing most of them instantly. Only nine miners working that day survived. Several men survived the initial blast, trapped hundreds of feet underground for several hours before succumbing to gas fumes. Among them was Henry Russell.

Russell gathered pieces of coal and scraps of paper torn from cement sacks, and began to write notes to his wife. The notes, which he placed carefully in his lunch box, were found along with the bodies of Henry and his coworkers and passed along to Russell’s widow, Mary. Their daughter, Marguerite, was just six years old when her father died. Now in her 90s, she still has her father’s handwritten notes.

The note

One of Henry Russell's handwritten notes

In 2006, songwriter Diana Jones accepted the challenge to write a song to help raise awareness for a memorial to the miners of the Federal No. 3 mine. Inspired by Henry Russell’s notes, she set them to music and created the intensely moving song “Henry Russell’s Last Words.”

On April 30, 2011, 84 years to the day after the disaster, the memorial was dedicated in the town of Everettville in memory of 149 coal miners who lost their lives in accidents there during the years the mine operated, 1918 to 1951. The memorial, which stands on a hillside overlooking the former Federal No. 3 Mine, is a 7.5-ton stone inscribed with the names of the miners, many of whom lie buried in unmarked paupers’ graves. 

—Lynne Adele

For more information, visit the Everettville Historical Association website:

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