We often hear reference to “women’s work” which can have various meanings.  his little summary focuses on acknowledging the tireless efforts and enthusiasm of Banner Elk’s womenfolk influencing and accomplishing significant development of this community’s early beginnings.   ~~Claire Fortune

Our church histories acknowledge the tireless leadership of both Rev. Edgar Tufts and Dr. W.C. (Will) Tate in establishing our church and other local institutions. And we read that very soon after each of these men arrived to begin work, they brought their young wives to serve with them in their mountain mission. Mrs. Bessie Tufts arrived in 1897 and Mrs. Maude Tate in 1910. Neither of these women had grown up in the mountains, and neither could have imagined what their lives would be like as they joined their husbands in lifetimes of service. But as most of us have witnessed over the years, when there’s a job to be done, women step forward with resolve (and often with sleeves rolled up and aprons on!). Miss Bessie and Miss Maude are glowing examples of meeting whatever needs they encountered.  Both of these women typify a quotation from a noted woman of their era, Amelia Earhart: “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”  That’s what Mrs. Tufts and Mrs. Tate did.

Mrs. Tufts had her piano sent to her new mountain home, the first piano in Banner Elk. She played and taught piano and the love of singing to groups who met in church and in their home, bringing happiness and comfort to many. She introduced joyful Christmas celebration with homemade decorations and festive food, hosting events that were enjoyed and long-remembered by members of their far-reaching community. She supported her husband’s ministry by accompanying him on many of his preaching missions, often teaching classes for women and children of all ages. She and her husband invited young people to join them in reading around the fireside on winter evenings, thus introducing a love of reading which developed into yearnings for wider knowledge— later becoming the nucleus of a school.

Edgar and Bessie had seen that a mountain woman lived a life of hard times almost barren of pleasures. She would begin her life of endless drudgery as soon as she was old enough to hold a baby. From morning ‘till night she toiled at housekeeping, mothering large numbers of children, cooking, doing laundry, milking cows, hoeing corn, cutting fire wood, carrying water long distances to maintain the family. Rev.Tufts found the mountain girls to be healthy, strong and bright, and he was determined to give these isolated young people the same opportunities that girls had in other places.  So, it is not surprising that the first school was established for girls. In 1900, when The Elizabeth McRae Institute opened, Rev. Tufts chose to name the school for a woman—a Christian educator who was dedicated to promoting a woman’s place in church and community service.

Before Will Tate brought his city-born wife to our mountains, he’d done his best to prepare her for what lay ahead, explaining the lack of comforts she was accustomed to, the harsh winters and rustic accommodations. Undaunted and filled with her love for Will, with an adventuresome spirit Maude packed up wedding gifts and things she anticipated needing, hugged her relatives good-bye, and set off toward a life she could not have imagined. When they arrived in Elk Park on Tweetsie train, Edgar Tufts met them in his surrey to convey them to their new home in Banner Elk.

As she’d been told, their home consisted of a living area in the small newly built “dispensary” (the first community hospital) which housed an office for Dr.Tate, a laboratory, an operating room and two rooms where patients would be attended. Her duties would include helping care for patients, keeping surgical instruments sterilized and in readiness, cooking and serving meals for the patients (and often for their families who accompanied them), as well as supporting her physician husband in any ways needed. Sometimes she was pressed into service she felt she was not prepared for, such as helping with surgical procedures and caring for very sick and dying people. However, her buoyant spirit helped her maintain good cheer and tolerate the hardships of everyday life.

She was especially drawn to the needs of the mountain children who had very little of the opportunities she had enjoyed, and as she assisted her husband in their medical care, she often wished for them to have a better life which would include education and carefree.  Bessie Tufts who was a few years older and had lived in Banner Elk thirteen years longer than Maude, became a mentor for Mrs. Tate as they shared experiences and dreams, not only for their growing families but for the children of the mountains.

Fulfilling one of his dreams, Rev. Tufts eventually was able to lead in building a substantial stone church to help meet spiritual needs of his flock in Banner Elk.  Between the years of 1912 and 1915, the church building was constructed.

According to available church histories, “everyone” in the Banner Elk community was extremely excited over the upcoming building of a new stone church. We can only imagine the conversations around supper tables and ladies’ sewing circles as plans were made as to how each detail would be carried out and how every person could help share in the preparations and building to take place.

Stories have been well-documented as to how men and older boys throughout the area came together on Saturdays, each contributing their time, labor and available materials toward achieving this monumental task.  Their efforts are still admired and appreciated.

However, we want to specifically acknowledge Banner Elk’s womenfolk who did a lion’s share in helping accomplish such an undertaking at a time when people’s lives were already heavy with work responsibilities and there seemed to be little monetary resources available for most of those involved in this building project.  But did these things hinder the “church women” from pitching in to do their part?  Of course not.

When their men left home every Saturday to work on constructing the church, women added extra home and farm chores to their already full daily workload. They had carefully planned their meals for the week to save plenty of food to have available on Saturday for the over-flowing lunch baskets they prepared for workers at the building site. After delivering the much-anticipated mid-day meal, women and children joined the community men for a friendly “feasting break” as they rested a bit while evaluating and discussing the day’s work plans and accomplishments. Women enthusiastically cheered the builders, inspiring them to “get on back to work.

Margaret Tufts Neal, in her book, To Set Aglow a Sacred Flame, details how women often set aside part of their hard-earned egg money or designated a portion of their meager household budget to contribute to the building project. Sacrifice and generosity were ever-present in their efforts of support.

A record book recently discovered in our Session Room details numbers of Women’s Missionary Society meetings which took place early on as BEPC was established.  Local women had had little opportunity to study “the world” and the needs of those who live in distant lands. These missionary meetings, often led by Mrs. Tate and Mrs. Tufts, studied both the Presbyterian Church’s foreign and home mission fields and were moved to do their part in supporting this vital work.  At each meeting an offering was taken for both foreign and home missions and always a percentage designated for nearby Grandfather Orphan’s Home.  The total offering of the 12 to 15 women present usually amounted to between $1.35 to $5.00, allowing these local women to share their blessings with those less fortunate.

Highlighting Just One Example:
We could profile dozens, maybe hundreds of women, who have stepped up to meet challenges throughout the 130-year history of our church and the greater community. To represent these women’s contributions, we have chosen just one, Mary Chappell, to exemplify a small part of contributions by women.

Some of our current members remember Mary. She was quiet, unassuming and forthright. She lived about a mile from the red-light, across from Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, in a modest home that is still in use.  Mary’s story inspires us still. The following paragraphs are taken from an interview with her in 1983.

“The salary won’t be great, but the work will be.”  Those were the words with which Dr. W.C. Tate convinced a 25-year-old nursing school graduate in Shelby to come and work in Grace Hospital (Banner Elk’s second hospital built in 1922). The year was 1925.  “He wanted me to pack up and go with him that very day, but I told him I’d be there in two weeks.  I got on the train in Shelby at 8 A.M. and rode to Spruce Pine where I changed trains.  Then I went to Johnson City where I spent the night.  Early the next morning I boarded Tweetsie and set out for Elk Park where a mail carrier picked me up and brought me to Banner Elk. I finally got here after two days of travel

“Dr. Tate was out when I got to the hospital, but he’d left me a note that we would operate that night. I had come to be the anesthesist and supervisor of the operating room. The hospital’s two doctors, Tate and Harden, alternated duties.  One would stay at the hospital each day while the other went out on house calls, delivering babies (which were almost never born in the hospital) and tending the sick. Then, at night, when both doctors were back in the hospital, they would operate.

“Before an operation, I’d light the kerosene heaters to warm up the room, but we’d have to turn them off during surgery because of danger of igniting the anesthetic. Many times,” Mary remembers, “we’d still be operating at 2:00 A.M. The electric lights were generated from the Elk River, and they went out at 9:00 every night.  Then a helper called ‘Granny Bradley,’ would stand on a stool at the foot of the operating table and shine a flashlight on the patient so the doctors could finish operating.

“A Mrs. Bumgarner did the hospital laundry outside every day, no matter what weather.  In bad days the sheets were hung inside by the laundry stove, but in good weather, they were hung on the garden fence.  I often helped her. I’ve hung the hospital laundry on the garden fence all the way to the river.”

Mary married a local farmer, Paul Chappell. They built their home in 1960 a few years before he died.  She moved to Florida briefly for her health, but, she says, “Dr. Tate called me and said he was desperate, so I came back to be Director of Nursing. When we moved to Cannon Hospital, I was in charge of central supply until I retired after 49 years in 1974.”

At a time when many folks would be ready to sit and rock, not so, Mary.  For ten years she prepared our church’s Communion elements.  “It was quite a job,” she declares. “I had to get it all fixed up, then clean up afterwards and pack everything away.  When the preacher asked me if I’d take on this job, I said I’d do it if he’d let me do it my way.  He said, ‘Suit yourself.’ So I did.”  She was honored to be elected one of the first female Deacons of our church and was appointed “official greeter.” For many years Mary’s bright red hat and smiling face were the first thing people saw as they entered the church.  She later took on the responsibility of remaining after worship every Sunday to remove bulletins left in pews and straighten up hymnals and Bibles in readiness for the next service.

Eighty-three-years-old at the time of this interview, Mary still completely maintains her own home and yard, shoveling snow to clear her path when needed. She spends her spare time crocheting gorgeous afghans to donate to rescue squad and fire department fund-raisers. She proudly noted that a recent sale of tickets for a raffle on one of her creations brought $260 for the fire station. (Aside: A church member remembers Mary gifting her with a lovely bright afghan at a weeding shower.  “Now don’t let me catch you saving this or just using it for company,” the plain-spoken Mary admonished.  “I made this for you to USE, and I want it to keep you warm. So use it!”)

(Another aside not known to many people: In Mary’s latter years, she was very concerned to learn that our church had not met its budget by the end of the year. This frugal lady who lived a very simple life astounded our minister one morning by quietly presenting him with a very generous check to make up the church’s shortfall. Just Mary Chappell doing her thing.)

 And as we feature the dedication of this lady representing the work of many women, we especially honor all the “Mrs. Bumgarners” and “Granny Bradleys”—the unsung and un-named heroines who have “held the flashlights” and “done the washing” -–the vital “women’s work” in our community. Their service and ministry are still recognized, appreciated and carried forward as we move onward.