Back When Having a Baby Cost Six Bucks… The 10,000-Mile Bike Trek

Mary Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

Mabry Mill is one of the most photographed sites on the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

I continued my roller coaster ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway as I crossed into Virginia. The highlands weren’t as high but the lowlands were lower so my overall impression of the Parkway didn’t change. I was growing more used to the ups and downs, however. I won’t say I didn’t notice them— the 6000-foot elevation change involved in dropping into and climbing out of the James River guaranteed that, but the beauty of the ride, combined with the interesting history, was enough to divert my mind away from the work my legs, lungs and heart were doing.

View of Blue Ridge Mountains and meadow along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

The beauty of the Parkway helped me forget I spent much of my time bicycling up mountains.

Dramatic clouds along the Parkway added to the scenery.

Dramatic clouds along the Parkway added to the scenery.

Tree silhouette backed up by clouds on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

This tree silhouette also caught my attention.

Bridge on the the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

Man made structures such as this double arched bridge also add to the beauty.

Besides, the only person that I had to complain to about the difficulty of the climbs was myself, and he’s a stickler for pointing out that I am responsible for 99.9% of the difficulties I get into. You would think he would be more sympathetic, maybe even lie a little. But noooo, he has to be disturbingly honest.

Plus, there was Orlena Puckett. She put things into perspective. There is a sign next to her sister’s cabin on the Parkway. Orlena was born in 1837 and spent the first 50 years of her life trying to have children. She actually had 24, but they all died, most in stillbirth. Given everything I’ve ever heard about the pain involved in having a baby, I would have sworn off sex after the first three.

The Plackets cabin on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

The Puckett’s cabin.

Orlena spent the second 50 years of her life as a midwife, helping other women have children. She is said to have delivered some 1,000, the last when she was 102. The tools of her trade were soap, water, and a nip of whiskey. When times were good, she charged six dollars; when they were bad, one— or a few chickens. Legend has it she would drive nails through her shoes in winter so she could travel over icy trails to help women who needed her services. Imagine that with today’s medical care system, even a nip of whiskey would cost $100!

This photo of Orlena, looking 102 and holding the last child she helped be born, is next to her sister's cabin.

This photo of Orlena, looking 102 and holding the last child she helped deliver, is on display next to her sister’s cabin.

Groundhog Hill is located a couple of miles away from the cabin. I am assuming there were a lot of them there. They were also called whistle pigs, which I get. I’ve often encountered their marmot cousins in western mountain meadows. These large, fat squirrels whistle at you in irritation when you disturb their afternoon naps in late August. They’ve chowed down all summer so they can sleep all winter. Folklore tells us that groundhogs appear on February 2 to predict how long winter will last. (This custom originated with European badgers, who, as far as I know, would consider it great luck to find a tasty groundhog out and about on February 2, regardless of whether you could see its shadow or not.)

Today, Groundhog Hill is topped off by a fort-like looking structure that the forest service once used for spotting fires. The area also features the various types of chestnut split-rail fences the pioneers used to keep their cattle from wandering off and being eaten by bears.

The Groundhog Mountain fire lookout tower on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

The Groundhog Mountain fire lookout tower with a dramatic display of clouds.

Groundhog Mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

Peggy caught this photo with clouds, a dogwood tree, and two of the fence types. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Pioneer fence on display at Groundhog Mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

We saw this type of fence on the Natchez Trace as well. Easily constructed, it requires no fence posts.

Fence at Groundhog Mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

The fourth type of pioneer fence on display at Groundhog Mountain.

Further along, I came to Mabry Mill (featured at the top of the post), said to be the most photographed site on the Parkway. It is quite striking in its pond setting. The water wheel driven mill was built by Ed Mabry in the early 1900s and served as both a gristmill and a sawmill. During the summer months now, park volunteers offer demonstrations on a number of pioneer crafts practiced in the area. It’s a busy place. Several hundred thousand people stop by to visit each year.

The 13 mile ride downhill to the James River was quite a thrill; I practiced not using my brakes. When I passed an auto, I decided it was time to slow down. At the bottom, I stopped to admire the river. At 649 feet, it is the lowest spot on the Parkway. Further east, Virginia slaves once toiled on farms along the river producing what was considered some of the finest tobacco of the time. I first heard about it when I was backpacking in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and had stopped at a Fur Rendezvous site where early traders bought beaver pelts from mountain men.

The James River tobacco had been an important trade item. The mountain men smoked it on lonely winter nights when they were back in their trapping cabins. Lower quality tobaccos were mixed with whiskey in cooking kettles and consumed on the spot, out of the kettles. Drunken debauchery is a fairly good description of the results. Early journals described a rabid wolf wandering through camp and biting people at will. Another image that stuck in my mind was a group of men using a dead man as a poker table. Now it will probably be stuck in your mind as well. (Grin)

Reflection shot of the James River as see from the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge.

The James River looking calm on a cloudy day.

Otter Lake on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

Pretty little Otter Lake is just a couple of miles beyond the James River going north on the Parkway.

Spillway to Otter Lake along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

The spillway for Otter Lake is also quite picturesque.

Otter lake spillway along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

Another perspective of the spillway.

Otter Creek along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

Otter Creek below the spillway.

Further up the Parkway, the historic remnants of the Irish Creek narrow gauge railway caught my interest. Logging had once been the dominant industry of the region until most of the virgin forests had been cut down. Over 100-million board feet of lumber had passed over the Irish Creek line alone. My dad had worked as the electrician for a lumber company that had a narrow gauge railroad when I was a child. I remember watching the long trains of logs come rolling into town. I’d stand by the tracks with my friends and wave at the engineers. On a good day, they would throw candy out the window to us.

Railroad bridge for the Irish Creek railroad found along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

Bridge on the Irish Creek narrow gauge railroad. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Irish Creek Railroad next to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

The Irish Creek Railroad.

Small creek along the Irish Creek Railroad next the the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

A final view of the small creek.

Next Blog: We’ll say goodbye to the Blue Ridge Parkway and head into Shenandoah National Park on the Skyline Drive.

35 comments on “Back When Having a Baby Cost Six Bucks… The 10,000-Mile Bike Trek

    • I’ve liked history as far back as I can remember, Brigette. I always have at least one history book I am working through. There were lots of opportunities for ‘pretty pictures’ on the Parkway! The challenge was choosing which ones to use. 🙂 –Curt

  1. Curt, a wonderful post with a mixture of personal nostalgia, fascinating history of Orlena (what a remarkable lady!) and then the alternative poker table! Yep, I can’t get the image out of my head! Such beautiful landscape, lush and green. I love the different fences – some look quite dangerous. In Sweden they have various ways of stacking hay and I ended up taking lots of photographs of these. Finally I had to laugh at your comment on only having yourself to complain and moan about the those hills! You’d think you’d be more sympathetic to yourself 😀😀 Happy travels.

    • Thanks, Annika. I had fun writing the blog. I knew the table would be sticking around for a while. As for Orlena, I held her in awe. How could I not?
      You wouldn’t believe how many photos of those fences I have. They were used extensively on both the Natchez and Blue Ridge Parkways, and every time I saw one I had to take its photo!
      As for my inner conversations, they can go on and on sometimes. LOL. –Curt

  2. Holy bejesus Curt you passed a car going down hill! Are you nuts! That must have been some ride. Beautiful country, but it sure sounds like some wild times back in the day, and that Orlena! What a woman!
    Alison

    • You find some pretty nervous drivers when you get flatlanders on mountain roads, Alison. They can be really slow. 🙂
      Everything I’ve read about the Rendezvous get-togethers suggest they were just about as wild as imaginable. A group of rough men who have been isolated for months suddenly have a lot of money and a lot of booze…
      As for Orlena, she’s a woman I would have loved to have met. I suspect that you and your camera would have had a great time as well! –Curt

  3. Well, at least they didn’t use the dead guy as a fire poker, once rigor mortis had set in. 🙂

    The fences are fascinating. In these days of manufactured fencing, we’ve lost the sense of how fences reflect their environment: people using the materials at hand. The stone fences of Kansas, cedar in Texas, split rails in Kentucky — it’s all so interesting.

    My favorite photo is Peggy’s of the clouds, the dogwood, and the fences. It’s just lovely — as is the Parkway.

    • I suspect the value of the ‘poker table’ deteriorated over time, Linda, but one has to assume that the early stages of rigor mortis would have been valuable to the game. 🙂
      We have a wood fence made of small pines up in our back yard. It’s quite beautiful but age is taking a toll.
      I’ll pass your compliment on to Peggy. –Curt

  4. Curt – your stories put many images in your readers’ minds. I’ll skip the one that haunted you, thank you. Add your photos to the great stories that you tell and we have just one terrific blog.

    These old symmetrical fences have always impressed me. Work of artists who simply wanted to keep their cattle alive one more day. I suspect it was easy to keep your camera pointed their direction.

    • My camera doesn’t know how to stay away from those fences, Bruce. (laughing) And thank you. I am having a lot of fun reliving the bike trek. It took a while to get around to redriving the route. But I am ever so glad we did. –Curt

  5. I find Orlena’s story terribly, terribly sad. I’m glad she found some solace in helping others, but I still wonder how anyone could shake off that many lost babies. 😦 Luckily, you cheered me back up with those luscious clouds, trees, streams, and fences!

  6. Beautiful photos of a beautiful parkway. We love cabins, split-rail fences, and woods along highways. But the story of the midwife wearing nails in her shoes to get to the delivery-ready women will stick with me quite a while. OUCH!!!

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