This article was written in July 2002 for the Renaissance, a supplement to the Hendersonville Times-News. Hazel Whittington died in 2003.
By Jennie Jones Giles
Proud, strong-willed and independent, she embodies the spirit of the Appalachian woman. Hazel Whittington sat on her front porch in a Depression-era rocker made from laurel root.
“Listen to that redbird a hollerin’. It’s gonna rain,” she said. “There goes my thrush. That thrush’s got a nest right across the road over there.”
As she talked about her life on the 100-year-old Kimzey home place in Mills River, people driving by her home would wave.
A logging truck passed.
“They’re cutting poplar trees somewhere,” she said.
The driver of a Mills River Fire Department truck blew the horn as he passed.
“That’s my honey,” she said. “I’ve got a nice mailman, too. He puts the mail right there on the (front-porch) post for me.”
Whittington has recently added another accomplishment to a long list of achievements and awards. The Henderson County Cooperative Extension Service recently recognized her for more than 60 years of service with Extension Homemaker clubs.
She received a lifetime achievement award and was made a lifetime member of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild on April 30 at the Folk Arts Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Several years ago she was a special guest at the 50th anniversary of the Parkway and five years later was invited to attend the dedication of the Linn Cove Viaduct.
In 1995, she was named an outstanding woman in her community by the Henderson County Council of Women.
She was an Appalachian Mountain crafts demonstrator at the World’s Fair in 1982 at Knoxville, Tenn.
In 1993, she was one of 60 people chosen to make an ornament for the White House Christmas tree. Her split-oak basket filled with pine cones and tied with a yellow cord is now housed with the private White House collection at the Smithsonian Institution.
She served on the board of the Henderson County Curb Market for more than 20 years and has been a member since the early 1960s.
She was a staff member of the National Wildlife Federation for more than 15 years, teaching handicraft classes. Whittington quit teaching when they began holding the workshops “too far out West. But I’d love to stick my feet in the Pacific Ocean,” she said.
Whittington has demonstrated her crafts at the Biltmore House and Gardens and the Grove Park Inn.
“That guild organization sent me demonstrating here, there and everywhere,” she said.
She is a member of the National Woodcarvers Association and taught woodcarving classes at Opportunity House. She was a 4-H leader for 16 years and taught Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Bible school.
For 16 years she was an artist-in-residence one week a year at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga. In mid-December she would demonstrate and teach wreath-making and working with greenery.
“The highlight of my life was attending a New Year’s Eve party at the gardens,” she said. “I’ve traveled and met famous people and I lecture on my mountain heritage.”
Whittington, who refuses to give her age or birth date (“you can’t trick me, honey”), said her greatest achievement is teaching others.
“I work with natural, native stuff,” she said. “I grow my own or gather it. I believe in making things you can use. I grew up in the ’30s, you made your own or did without.”
Bittersweet, peppergrass, honeysuckle, grape vines, kudzu, hickory, oak, walnut, laurel, pussy willow, pine cones, dried flowers and grasses, broom and colored corn are all used in her handicrafts.
Wreaths are made from native materials of every variety, including hydrangea and grape vines.
“I grow my own Christmas trees and grow my own greenery,” she said. “I gather cones to make wreaths.
“That tree is loaded with walnuts. I use black walnuts in my wreaths and stuff. I’ve got white walnuts, too. I used to work on my wreaths in the barn loft.”
There are baskets made of honeysuckle and birch bark. When she taught basket making, students weren’t allowed to buy materials in a store.
“I took those women out to gather honeysuckle,” she said. “No store-bought stuff for us. We gather what we’re gonna use.
“I learned by doing,” she said. “When I was 10 my Grandpa taught me how to make a broom. I got broom corn out there in the garage.”
One of her brooms won a prize at the World’s Fair in Knoxville.
“This handle was a special thing,” she said. “It came from right here. I cut it behind the spring. It was a dogwood. A honeysuckle vine grew around it.”
Once, she and her grandson were “walking through the broom-sage field when we walked down to see the river.”
He wanted to cut a dogwood for a broom handle.
“Don’t cut that dogwood,” she said. “Cut the one behind it. That one’s got room to grow.”
Whittington has taught chair-caning. Sitting in the front room is a cane-bottom stool made from corn shucks. On a shelf are wooden animals she has carved.
Home and family
Whittington and her late husband of 57 years, Clyde, moved to Henderson County from Yancey County in the early 1940s. After several years they bought the Kimzey home place.
“All the lumber that made this house was cut right here on this property,” she said. “We hunted together, fished together and traveled together. Every year for 16 years I took Clyde with me to Callaway Gardens.”
The collection of feathers in the front room are for “Grandma’s Special” trout fly.
“I can tie a trout fly guaranteed to catch a fish,” she said.
In 1939, after high school, Whittington went to work for the Extension Service office in Burnsville.
“I’m still an Extension Homemaker,” she said.
Once she went to “state college” (N.C. State University) to a homemakers meeting.
“I saw my first electric fence down at state college,” she said. After that trip, “I wanted to be a part of it (Extension Homemakers). I’ve been a part of it ever since.”
She cultivated home gardens, “fooled with calves and cows,” “grew” hogs (“Clyde, he ‘grew’ beagle pups”), raised her daughter, Barbara, and a younger sister.
She enters canned goods at the N.C. Mountain State Fair – jellies, jams, and preserves, pickles of all types, juices, fruits and vegetables.
“This is the first time in over 50 years I’ve not had a garden,” she said. “I’ve got my own pear tree right here in this yard.
“When I was growing up we had rabbits, squirrels, hogs,” she said. “We cured our own pork. I punched cows here for 46 years.
“I can’t get over there to my raspberries. They’re on ditch banks. They’re (family members) afraid I’ll fall down and get hurt. I watch for snakes. I’m not afraid of ’em, I can use a gun.”
Not only can she use a gun, she drives trucks wherever she goes.
“I got two trucks here,” she said.
“I’d always cook a big Sunday dinner,” she said.
After dinner she and Clyde would drive to the Asheville Regional Airport to watch the planes land and take off.
“I like planes,” she said. “I could get in one and never get off. I bet now they wouldn’t let me come in and watch, what with all the security and all.”
Whittington remembers when there were 22 Extension Homemaker clubs in the county. Now there are only five, she said. She belongs to the Happy Valley Club. The group holds picnics and suppers for the Mills River Fire Department and Lions Club.
“Every month we donate cakes to the fire department,” she said. “Nobody knows how much the fire department contributes to a community.”
The Extension Service used to have canneries at various locations in the county.
“We’d take bushels of corn, beans, peaches to can in those big pressure cookers,” she said. “After we’d can so many quarts of peaches, we’d take what’s left, mash it up good and make peach butter.
“I’ve got a whole field planted in sweet corn,” she said.
She’s also got some “old-time field corn. I brought that seed corn with me from Yancey County. I’ve had that seed corn 50 years.”
The Extension Service also used to “round up sewing machines and people would learn to sew. Three generations below me don’t know how to sew a stitch. We’d learn to crochet, tat, weave.”
Somehow, she also found time to quilt and do needlework.
“It’s time management, honey,” she said. “You have to manage your time.”
Some of Whittington’s recipes (mistletoe salad, wild game marinade, venison roast, cracklin’ cornbread, pickle beans) can be found in a recipe book published by the Henderson County Curb Market, along with some of her “home remedies and sassafras, spice and birch teas.”
Whittington said her doctor “grounded” her a few months ago because of health reasons.
“It seems odd setting here and not doin’,” she said.
But she still plans to teach a grandson and nephew how to make a broom.
“Back when I gave education programs in the schools, once over 700 children passed by me that day and only one boy knew what beeswax was,” she said.
“I’m gonna teach my family everything I know,” she said. “I want to spend a little more time living than making a living. And I’m gonna spend it with my family.”