Carolyn L. Higgins — Contributing Writer

Heritage is the living part of us.  More than just reading or learning, it is a part of who we are.”  – Shirley Ridge, Macon County Resident

Women’s History Month has received notable recognition since it was designated as such by the President, Senate and House of Representatives in 1987. This March, The Women’s History Trail (WHT), a project of the Folk Heritage Association of Macon County, sponsored a proclamation and presented it to Mayor Bob Scott and the Town Council.

“We wanted to join the nation in honoring women by declaring March as Women’s History Month and by emphasizing this great Women’s History Trail initiative,” said WHT leadership member, Theresa Ramsey.

The essence of the proclamation is summed up, in its last paragraph: Whereas the Women’s History Trail project strives to celebrate the lives of Macon County women and honor their accomplishments, while creating a path to let residents and visitors “walk in her steps” to experience history in a deeper and more personal way and weave together the disparate elements of our history; Native American, White, Black; those of all levels of society; those native to this area, those of pioneer stock and those more recently arrived . . .

The proclamation was approved by the mayor and the town council on March 5, 2018, designating March as “Women’s History Month” and calling upon Franklin residents to observe with “appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.”

Displays with books, artifacts, historically correct period costumes and more are exhibited at Macon County Library, Books Unlimited and the Macon County Historical Museum.

The Catalyst for WHT

This exciting milestone culminated two years’ of passion and persistence borne from Barbara McRae’s desire along with her enlistment of community to have a Women’s History Trail of Macon County.

“It all began with a gift from a friend in 2016,” said McRae, chair of WHT and Macon County historian.  “My friend found this book at a flea market, ‘The Past Around Us’ by Polly Wells Kaufman, and insisted I read it.  Little did I know it held a chapter that would change my life.” It so moved McRae that she became restless and “began to percolate on it.”

That jewel of a chapter depicted women’s trails throughout various regions in the U.S.  “As far as we can determine, there is not a women’s trail in North Carolina,” said WHT co-chair, Mary Polanski. Polanski also noted that trails have been organized in many states with the largest concentration in the northeast.  The closest trail to North Carolina is in Florida.

Goals of the Women’s History Trail Project

  • Celebrate the lives of Macon County women.
  • Honor women’s contributions to our community.
  • Retell and portray women’s individual stories.
  • Provide a path for residents and visitors to “walk in her steps” to experience Macon County history in a deeper, more personal way.
  • Educate students about what life was like in the early days of Macon County and the important roles that women played.

The support of FHAMC

When McRae presented her concept of WHT to FHAMC’s board, they were very excited about honoring women of Macon County’s past who had been forerunners in the area.   She had already garnered the support of board member Anne Hyder during a brainstorming session.  Hyder thought it was a natural fit under FHAMC’s nonprofit 501(c)3 umbrella and their mission “to provide living history experiences and to preserve the folk heritage of Macon County for generations to come.”  The board members agreed with a resounding “yes” and were also generous with money and resources to help McRae start WHT.  Several members, including Hyder, became the founding WHT leadership team.  Eventually others joined because of their heritage or deep convictions.

Members of the FHAMC also felt a strong connection because of their involvement in the Cowee School and the Annual Folk Heritage Festival.

“We are still open to receiving partners,” said McRae.  “Although it is not feasible for  everyone to be directly involved in working with the entire project, there are fluid committees where people can come and go after working on a specific area within their passion,” said Polanski.

One of the most exciting initiatives is under way with Emmy award-winning Cashiers sculptor, Wesley Wofford.  “Wofford, who is associated with the Bascom museum, was introduced to me by a friend,” said McRae.  She has found Wesley and his wife to be so congenial and deeply invested.  “He is very enthusiastic about this concept so much so that he is inspiring me and he’s always asking questions and reading books to get the details right.  We appreciate his commitment and the time he has spent, touring the site and meeting with some Cherokee women to get not only the features correct – but also the symbols.”  WHT will feature a bronze grouping of three sculptures: a Cherokee woman, a white woman and a black woman.

So far, $10,000 has been commissioned towards the sculptures, and McRae anticipates this leg of the project may cost more than $100,000.

The project catapults 

In addition to McRae, Polanski, Hyder and Ramsey, the other WHT leadership team members are:  Susan Ervin, Marty Greeble, and Claire Suminski.  Each of these dynamic women contributes a needed skill set with some overlap in the arts, finance, health, historical expertise, organization, marketing, promoting and fundraising. The diverse talents converge in their recognition of the creativity, entrepreneurship, and resilience of their ancestors.

The Women’s History Trail quietly launched initiatives, including McRae’s writing monologues for portrayers. Another crucial element was historical accuracy that was supported by corroboration from The First Methodist Church Cemetery in Franklin.  The cemetery is the site of the graves of several women depicted by the portrayers.   Sally, a former slave would have been buried among the unmarked graves in that part of the cemetery.  “To treat this issue more sensitively, a portrayer tells her story from the undertaker’s viewpoint,” said McRae.

Support is growing as the plans are taking shape and becoming more tangible.  The next phase will be providing plaques at designated places along the trail.

More men are getting involved, including two town council members.  Each recognizes the contributions made by someone’s mother, sister, daughter or neighbor.  They were all raised by mothers and grandmothers.  “Another guy said he hopes we will have a statue of a granny woman, ‘the healer.’  That is passionate for him because of that memory he has a child,” said McRae.  These folk women were critical to the old communities because of their expertise in medicine.

Past and Upcoming Events

To kick off Women’s History Month, FHAMC and WHT have coordinated several events, including two past radio interviews on Gordon Mercer’s show on NPR, “Citizens Making a Difference,” and participation in a Heritage Day for fourth graders at Cowee School.  The students were intrigued as they engaged in the performance of Linda Tyler’s portrayal of Margaret Olgivie and several pioneer women.  “Olgivie was a pioneer woman who owned property in her name, rescued her husband’s estate from ‘embarrassment’ and requested gentle treatment of her slaves preferring they not be made servants,” said Ramsey.

Another proclamation service is also planned with the county commissioners this week, getting another important endorsement of Women’s History Month and WHT.

On March 15, Polanski will present the Women’s History Trail project to the Forward Franklin audience and spotlight women who helped shape Macon County.  Portrayer Kathryn Sellers will depict Alice Siler Robinson and the Civil War era to the history class at Franklin High School on March 21.  Ramsey noted Siler was generous with flowers in her beautiful garden, and this forerunner known as “lady of the flowers” was married to former Lieutenant Governor and later Governor, James Robinson.

“Sellers is very knowledgeable about women’s dress and costume and all the little parts and how it changed over the years,” said Polanski.  “She loves the details and can depict them so artfully as she shares with her audiences.  Her aunt was involved in costuming for reenactments.”

March 27 will be an epic celebration as FHAMC Board members and the WHT visit Iotla farm with as  many people as possible to honor Margaret Ramsey, a Macon County trailblazer and their first recognized matriarch.  Among her notable accomplishments are:  founder and director of the FHAMC, Franklin Folk Festival, manager of Maco Crafts Co-op and organizer or integral participant in numerous events from Macon County Program for Progress to sporting events for kids, various fundraisers and health awareness. Not one to slow down, the daughter of Joseph Franklin Setser and Harriet Slagle Setser, is still passionate about social justice issues and supporting women and families, lifting her voice to champion a better life for all.

“We hope many come to let her know she is very significant in our hearts and that we remember her contributions,” said daughter-in-law Stephanie Ramsey.  Ramsey noted her mother-in-law was also big on outreach, taking women to places such as the Smithsonian Institute and being a role model to women by attending University of Georgia and later graduating from Western Carolina University.  “I want people to remember her influence as I do and that she was a force for the craft revival throughout Appalachia.”

Traveling the Trail

The first stop along the trail in the vicinity of The Nikwasi Mound and the Little Tennessee River Greenway, is just getting off the ground and was recently helped with a grant from the Jim McRae Endowment for the Visual Arts.  Showing McRae’s passion and investment in this important first stop along the trail, the gift from the component fund of the North Carolina Community Foundation set up in her late husband Jim McRae’s memory, “will make it possible to proceed with planning, branding and implementing the first stop,” said McRae.  This Main Street area is important due to its once vital commerce for both the early white settlers and the Cherokee.

As residents and visitors progress along the historic trail to “walk in her steps,” it is envisioned by FHAMC and WHT they will experience various art mediums, exhibits and markers that weave the disparate elements of Native American, White and Black, allowing a more personal way to identify with these women.

These groups of women were pivotal in Macon County’s history.  Native Cherokee women and white women share common threads in a matriarchal society.  The Cherokee women kept the home while their men were off hunting, while the pioneer women played dual roles as their men went to war from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to WWI and WWII.  “I can imagine these tough, resilient women in these dual roles as mothers and homemakers on the home front while keeping their communities going by working the farms and factories,” said McRae.

“My mother-in-law stepped in and ran a boarding house when her husband became ill.  This profession was available and respectable for other women who chose to do so.  Others may have started a little stand, or prepared food from home to carry to the jail for reimbursement.  Some had to be more creative, working from a corner in their husband’s or father’s store, selling, for example, hats, clothing or crafts.”  Many of these businesses were birthed on Main Street, an important commerce corridor during their era.

“By bringing to the front the early pioneer women, the black women and the Cherokee women that were living here, they all found their way to be able to help their community and that needs to be celebrated,” said Ramsey.  She emphasizes the trail as walking and living in their [her] shoes.

The WHT Leadership Committee is in unison regarding the steps along the trail as it continues to unfold, including the last step.  Ray’s Chapel, a pivotal black church built in 1949, is a fitting last stop along the trail for congregation and communication as McRae has presented a proposal to the Town Board to have the historic church restored for the community.

Dot Gibson, the last surviving trustee of the original church has been instrumental in helping realize this last step on the Trail.

“I want that church to represent the black women of the community – especially knowing that the church was so important to them,” said McRae.  “The culture in the A.M.E. Zion church at that time allowed black women to participate in ways white women did not at that time.  There was a black female trustee in 1916 and three of four black women ministers in the 1950s and 1960s.”

McRae shared that it is also a way to celebrate the slave women — anonymous, unsung, yet enduring and ultimately triumphant.

The common echo of all involved is the deep commitment to giving back to the community through this exchange “adding to the beauty and interest of the Town” and by connecting to existing trails and exhibits.

“This is for the long run and enhances public art in terms of what that means to the community,” said Polanski.  “It also stimulates people to learn more about the intricacies of the local scene and how it is so woven into the lives of women who walked before us. It will attract more tourism while giving families more pride,” said Ramsey.

The dedication, perseverance and contributions of women in North Carolina are being recognized all across the state during Women’s History Month, but thanks to a group of dedicated women and men in Macon County – FHAMC/WHT and the community – that history will be celebrated and visible all year through the Women’s History Trail of Macon County.