Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Michael Ann Williams, Ph.D., has been teaching folk lore for more than 30 years. Much of what she gleaned about vernacular architecture in the Appalachian Mountains came from oral history accounts. Since the 1980s, she has trudged through wilderness, approached strangers, sat on their porches or by their woodstoves, and listened to the memories of hearth and home. From those experiences, she published not only her doctorate dissertation, but a book called “Homeplace: Social Use and Meaning of the Folk Dwelling in Southwestern North Carolina.”
Williams’ Jan. 30th day-long, interactive presentation at Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center, was based on “Homeplace,” and included readings, a slide presentation, and visits to various historic dwellings throughout Macon County.
Attending the presentation was Williams’ husband, David Carpenter, who grew up in the Iotla area. He pointed out that his grandfather, Edgar Carpenter, was an early principal at Cowee School and his father, Ed Carpenter, was a teacher at Cowee School.
“I’m not a native of Western North Carolina,” explained Williams. “I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, but I got my undergraduate degree in anthropology at Franklin & Marshal College in Pennsylvania.”
Thus began her journey regarding all things historical. Williams worked at a farm museum and became so interested in folk lore and architecture that she eventually obtained her doctorate on the subject, becoming an expert in a field that boasts few experts – especially in the Western North Carolina region, where she gravitated to work and study.
“I quickly discovered the benefits of oral history,” she said. “I began to interview people in the 1980s, and that was a time when one could still touch on that turn-of-the [20th] century knowledge,” said Williams. Many people living in log and wood-frame homes could still remember a time without modern conveniences.
Williams shared that the kitchen as a separate room or building often did not occur for mountain families until they purchased a cook stove. The kitchen was either in the main room of the house or a separate building or attached room without a door leading through the main house. If separate, locals referred to the house with living room and bedroom(s) as “big house.”
“People told me so much about the way they lived, about snow coming through the chinking between the logs, of never turning away strangers who wandered across their land, of socializing on porches and greeting neighbors who happened to be on their way to or from town,” said Williams.
Generally, the single pen log house design, which was the most common in Appalachia, had a loft. “It was unusual for a log home to have a full two stories,” said Williams. Visiting strangers who needed a night’s stay and a meal before continuing on their way were housed there; or, young people “courting” with someone several miles away were “put up” for a night in this space.
“We wouldn’t think of opening our homes up to strangers,” said Williams, “or of all sleeping together in the same room, which was also commonplace. But we can’t apply 21st century notions to the past. The culture was different and that was familiar and comfortable at the time.”
Other distinct aspects of mountain folk dwellings include few, or no windows – as “windows weaken a structure;” shutter doors instead of glass for windows since glass was an extra expense; and metal roofs to replace cedar shingle or wood board roofs in the earliest part of the 20th century.
“There was usually a combination of practical and cultural reasons for why and how people lived in their homes,” she said.
Williams has found that one of the most endearing aspects of accumulating oral history about historic folk dwellings is that “People talk about their homeplace with great emotion … some would cry.”
Many of the homes Williams studied have fallen into disrepair, and many more continue to be abandoned and neglected. She said a main reason is inheritance conflict. When an inhabitant or owner of a folk dwelling dies, family members often cannot agree on what should happen to the home and/or cannot afford to restore and maintain it.
At least a dozen attendees to Williams’ presentation carpooled to several sites to view first-hand existing folk dwellings.
All of the sales of Williams’ book, “Homeplace: The Social Use and Meaning of the Folk Dwelling in Southwestern North Carolina” are donated to Mainspring Conservation Trust. Anyone interested in purchasing a book can inquire at Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center. And, individuals who missed Williams’ January presentation on “Homeplace” can check out Cowee School’s website to learn of her spring talk on the subject.