Big gatherings, and the group pictures, are for the most part missing from 2020. Someday our grandchildren may appreciate the loss, the gap in our thread of history.

Perhaps even greater losses, however, are those group pictures from years past, the ones where faces, names and stories have been forgotten.

It grieves me to see old photographs, unidentified, sold in antique stores as decorations. It’s like using great sheet music for wallpaper — a little decorative, but so far from its purpose.

So today’s history story is a tribute to those group photographs we have all endured as the price for a great covered-dish dinner at church or family reunions.

Some are photographs whose stories have not been forgotten — and some only hint at remarkable lives behind those images of grandparents, children and descendants gathered in front of old porches or schoolhouses. The pictures may be fun to look at, but the names and the stories — that’s what makes those people real.

A bank president and a 100-year-old volunteer

I’m breaking about every rule of newspaper reporting here, from writing in first person to indulging in a personal favorite to lead into this story.

Take a look at the photo of the Beech Grove Schoolhouse, Cataloochee, taken about 1908. Look at the third row, count over nine from the left. That is Jonathan Woody, son of “Uncle Steve” Woody, whose home still stands in Cataloochee.

Jonathan would become president of the First National Bank of Waynesville and would promote the progress of Haywood County farmers in unusual ways — such as bringing prize winning bulls and steers into the bank lobby on Saturdays, the day farmers usually came to town, so they could see the potential for better breeding in their livestock.

Jonathan was also an early promoter of the Cataloochee Reunion, which continues to this day. Looking closely, I think I see a little of his children, Laura Woody Solstis, and reunion president Steve Woody, in the features of that boy.

The fifth young lady from the left on the back row is Ethel Palmer, who married Claymer McCracken and worked as a nurse. She lived to be 104 and was known, at the age of 100, to be cheerfully pushing patients around in their wheelchairs at her nursing home.

Third from the right on the back row stands Lillie Ferguson, teacher at Beech Grove and obviously not a whole lot older than her biggest students.

She was a native of Upper Crabtree who taught in Cataloochee. Now look at the front row, count nine over from the left. That barefoot boy with his britches rolled up over his knees (like many of his classmates) is Chauncey Palmer.

Could Chauncey have imagined that eventually his daughter would marry that teacher’s son? Chauncy and Lillie would have two grandsons in common – one of them is my husband.

Notice that this young woman was teaching 44 students, ranging in age from 6 to 17.

That was not an exceptional number for one teacher in those days. A photograph of teacher Fannie Francis at Ratcliff Cove School shows her with 60 students.

It is an exquisitely clear picture, almost every one of those 50 young faces in perfect detail. Unfortunately, the students are not identified in the photograph contained in the Haywood County Historical Society’s digital collection, making this picture another trove of stories to be unearthed.

Labor of love for persons unknown

Across the county, but not so far in time, another photograph of a family reunion was taken at the Jim Reno house on Beaverdam, taken about September of 1915. That young boy sitting third from left on the front row is G.P. Reno, about age 11. Two years later, when he was 13, the young man was killed by lightning, along with his dog, while taking shelter under a tree in a thunderstorm.

This photo tells a grand story of a woman not shown in the image. When the picture was discovered with no identification, Beaverdam resident Aileen Francis Rice went to work, interviewing at least seven people, possibly more, researching family Bibles, birth, death and marriage certificates, census records and cemetery markers.

Aileen Rice, whose husband, Jack, was a county commissioner, was clearly committed to putting the stories, the reality, back with a family photograph of her husband’s kinfolk (a number of Rices are included in the picture). She died in 2018 just shy of her 90th birthday.

His hand went to the grave before him

Another excellent local historian, Clarine Best, has researched multitudes of old photographs, including one of my all-time favorites, the Rock Springs Baptist Church Old Folks’ Day gathering of 1903.

She can tell the story of Benedict, “Dicky Best,” the bearded man in front of the middle window. His first wife, a deaf mute, walked all the way from Alabama to Upper Crabtree in the 1840s with a child in her arms, following her husband who had gone on before.

The third man from the right on the first row – that’s Joe McCracken, whose left hand was removed by his son, Dr. McAfee McCracken.

Joe had seriously injured the hand while splitting shingles for Antioch Baptist Church. His son traveled from Fairview to assist in removing the hand, which was buried at Antioch, awaiting the rest of him.

And there is Frank Davis, third from the left on the second row, who went home from this gathering and died that night, apparently of food poisoning.

J.T. Kirkpatrick, first man in the first row, was the father of 12 children, and became the forefather of the Kirkpatricks, Pattons and Terrells in the county, among others.

Another photograph reflecting a passionate dedication to history past and present is one titled “Reunion at the home of Varnell Smathers.”

The location of the home is easily recognizable as Buzzard Roost, east of Canton, for the high railroad trestle seen behind the farmhouse.

It is a testament to the power of family gatherings, though the specific occasion is unknown. There’s a row of covered tables some 20 feet long laden with food, the young children dressed in their Sunday best before it, the adults behind.

One of the older women in the picture, likely the one seated at the right end of the table, is Joyce Holland, whose husband died of a bullet wound during the Civil War and who had her own adventures with Union forces stealing her horse.

That’s the thing about group photographs. They can lead you down so many paths to so many stories — but only if the photographs, and the names of those therein, are remembered and recorded.

So here is a special thank you to women and men who, like Aileen Francis and Clarine Best, commit themselves to putting names to those long-lost faces, to help us remember who and where we came from — and the challenges, changes, heartaches and adventures along the way.

If you have group photographs with interesting stories behind them and would like to share them for a future follow-up on this story, please contact Kathy Ross at kathymnross@gmail.com.

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