We’ve received several requests over the past few months to feature midwives and granny women. In honor of women’s history month, we are featuring stories from women interviewed in the 1970s all the way up until 2018 on midwives in Southern Appalachia. Read more about midwives and granny women of the past in Foxfire 2!
The original Rabun County Maternity Home.
Learn more about regional training facilities for midwives in Appalachia:
CS: You know, I was a licensed midwife.
FF: Tell us about that.
CS: Oh yes, I went to the class regularly every spring. Had to have my outfit fixed, you know. I have my bag now. We had to have a bag, round—with a round bottom. Pockets all on the sides. And we had to have our different utensils in that bag. Had to have scissors, fingernail brush, and towels, and a mask to go over your face—oh, we had to have all that. And I’ve went all times of night. Yeah, mhm. Yeah, I followed midwife a long time—until my husband died; I quit.
FF: When did you start?
FF: How old were you?
CS: I don’t remember how old I was.
FF: Were your children grown?
CS: No they weren’t. They were almost—they were almost grown. And I had to go to the class every spring there and take instructions and all like that. And when we started, there was—let’s see, there was Mrs. Martin, Mrs. Brooks, and I think there was four colored. And all along, they all dropped out but me. I just stayed right in there. I wanted, see you got three permits. And when you got an A permit, you got the biggest one. And I was determined to get my A permit. I stayed right in there until I got my A permit. Then, I could go anywhere I wanted to. So i went, let’s see, there’s two or three white boys around here i went and took care of them at their birth.
FF: You did deliver some white children?
CS: Yeah, I had—I think there’s two or three white boys. I forgot their names now, ‘round here, I took care of them.
FF: And then black friends?
CS: Indeed, yeah, a lot of them. ‘Cause you see, there wasn’t many doctors then. There were several white midwives, and three colored. And we had–they got so far along, you had to go to the doctor and be examined, you know, and get a—I forget what it was, but anyhow—permit to show that you was alright. And so, I would go get my permit and when they called me I was always ready to go. I just wanted to keep up, and I did too.
FF: Did a midwife deliver your children for you?
CS: No, yeah, my grandmother delivered my children. She was a midwife.
FF: She was a midwife? And she delivered all of your children?
CS: Yeah, she delivered my children. Well, after she died, there was another old lady that delivered my last—or my next-to-the-last. My last baby the doctor delivered him. Dr. Harry Jones. White doctor. Dr. Harry Jones.
FF: Before, when we were getting ready to leave, you said your grandmother used to be a midwife?
FF: Do you remember much about it?
AT: No, only she served the white and the black, as well, and she was highly thought of among the white, I’ll have to say, and the blacks too. She went to places where no blacks lived, and they would come and get her and treat her nice. She stayed in the homes, and they respected her and they paid her well. And some of the children she delivered, I wouldn’t know them now, I’m quite sure, but Demorest and Ballwin and places like that.
FF: Did she say anything about it? Like why or what she did?
AT: No, she just enjoyed it. She loved helping people.
FF: Was she licensed?
AT: Yes, yes. Ms.—uh, I can’t think of the lady’s name now, she used to be at the health department up here at Crossville. And I think she’s married now. Ms. Bloggs. I don’t, I forgot her first name. Ms. Bloggs. Now she, they had a meeting, and they had to go to this meetin’ and get a briefin’, you know. What to do and what not to do and so forth, like that. And what to have in the little satchels and things like that. My grandmother always those–I said hospital gowns. We called ‘em aprons, but they tied in the back. Pretty white gowns with the long sleeves. White cap and she had a little satchel that she kept towels and Lysol and scissors and cotton balls and Vaseline and different stuff like that, in her little satchel. And nobody bothered that satchel.
FF: Well how long did these midw—how long did they stay when they came to the house?
MC: Well they stayed ‘til everything was alright. Leave and go on home.
FF: What would they charge?
MC: I don’t know—not much, or nothin’.
FF: These women, they did this just because they wanted to?
MC: Mhm. Hardly make any price, you only pay ‘em a little somethin’ for the trouble. If they didn’t, why it was alright.
FF: I bet some of them ran into some really bad weather getting places too. I guess when you were young, they would’ve been goin’ on horseback or wagons, things like that?
MC: Or walkin’—it was the only way they had to go.
FF: Do you remember one that was around here? Is there one that you remember well?
MC: Ms. Mathis. I don’t know what her first name was, but she was a Mathis. She lived down on Coweeta. It wasn’t up around this settlement, it was down in Coweeta, at that settlement.
MC: Ms. Mathis.
FF: What did people think of her? Did they like her? How did they feel about her?
MC: They liked her fine. Mighty nice woman.
FF: They were probably quite grateful for the fact that she could help.
MC: Yeah, lots of times she could be on hand when we couldn’t get a doctor, you know.
Margaret and Richard Norton
FF: How about granny women, do you know anything about granny women? Do you remember any?
MN: Yes, I remember everything. We had granny women here on Betty’s Creek. Lot of times, you didn’t have no doctor, you just had granny women. But finally when the doctors come in, that ended that–they ruled that out.
FF: But before, the doctors came, what would the granny women do? Did they just take care of delivering babies or did they help sick people?
MN: No, they just took care of delivering babies.
FF: And did they ever have anything special to wear, like, or did they just look like regular people.
MN: Just looked like regular people, unless sometimes they topped their head, you know, put something on their head or somethin’ round, partly round their face, or somethin’ like that. They didn’t have no special costume that they wore. Just a clean apron—white apron.
FF: Did they charge for it?
MN: No, no, there wasn’t no charge.
RR: I owe everything in this world I am to that woman. She raised me since the day I was born, And she didn’t know how to do nothin’ else except for t’piddle around with roots and weeds. She was a midwife around our community. They call it Pine Mountain now but back then it was still considered th’ Warwoman community. I won’t never forget the first time I ever seen a baby born. Lord help have mercy, I swore right then an’ there I won’t never gonna have any kids.
FF: How old were you?
RR: Thirteen. My aunt Pearl was off galavantin’ somewhere, her and Rose, they were identical twins, and they were born in 1900, and they feelin, apparently they discovered the 60s and never left it. Um, but they, they was off galavantin’ somewhere, and she drug me, and she says well come on! We gotta go! So I’m like well where we goin’! Doesn’t matter! Come on! Paw paw be here in a minute and he’s gonna, we gotta, gotta go. Showed up and she says well go in there and get the bag! She had a little ol’, like a wicker crochet basket she toted everywhere. She said well go get my bag, so I went and got her bag and she says well get some of them flour sack rags, so I got some of them flour sack rags and I stuffed ‘em down in and we went. We got up halfway up the hill and I could hear screamin’ then and I’m like “Oh what in the holy Sam Hill is goin’ on?” So, we got up there. She didn’t look no older than I was.
RR: I mean she was, obviously. You know, she had a husband, she had a couple younguns, but she just, she just a lil’ ol’ bitty thing. She didn’t look like her hips were wide enough to get a human off, more or less have 2 of her own already. So we got up there, and all I could do was stand there and (everyone laughs) my mouth hangin’ open like a fish outta water. She says, she told me, “Bell, get your tail end up here and quit gawking!” So here we go. So I went up in there and she says go in that kitchen an’ I wan’ you to put some water on. An’ I’m sittin’ there thinkin’ well ain’t this a cliche cause you know I always thought that was just somethin’ in the movies about the boilin’ water stuff. I thought that was just to get somebody out from under foot.
RR: I didn’t realize it was actually to sterilize towels and rags and (laughs). Definitely, this was a part of my education I knew nothin’ about. So I went in there and got some water started and walked back in there and said okay, well I got the water started. She says, ‘“Well, get them rags out when that water goes to boilin’ you take that spoon and stobb them down in there an’ put them rags in there.” I was like okay… I said what she think she gonna do, burn it? So I went in there and I waited for the water to boil and I come in. She says well get over here and she picked up, she had this big ole wood long handled spoon my uncle Thomas had made her and it had a handle on it about that long and she reached that thing down in there and picked them rags up and let em, you know, drain off an’ she took, she took and got the end of that thing and took that spoon and wrung it around like that and wrung that thing out. I was saying how in the world did it not burn her fingers off.
FF: How long? The spoon was about
RR: That thang had a handle on it like, I bet you it was a good yard long.
R: Uh, but anyhow, she’d take, she’d hold it on one end, she put the end of that rag on one end and she’d twirl that spoon ‘round on the other’un. That girl come up off that thing and when she did she pushed for all she was worth and that baby’s head come right on out.
RR: I joke you not. And she said what it is because how hot it was and it makes that part of your body just instantly relax real fast an’ it helps the baby’s head come out without tearin’ nothing’ down there. I’d never seen anything like that in my life. I’d never seen an umbilical cord or anything that came out afterwards or nuthin’ like that, so needless to say, I was shell shocked and traumatized (everybody laughs) by the end of that day. But you know, the more we done it, the easier it got.
FF: So how many births did you help with?
RR: Um, from the time I was 13 to the time I was 17, probably about 40.
FF: (whispers) Oh my God.
RR: Oh yeah. I bet you half the kids my age and older was brought into this world by my granny around this community.
AL: Midwife means “with woman,” so that probably encompasses everything. Because what I do is, I’m a nurse first. I became a nurse, got a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and then decided I wanted to do a little bit more than that, so I went on and got my master’s. And just the compassion you have as a nurse kind of leads you in whatever direction you want to go in. I was a labor and delivery nurse and I loved it and just wanted to do more. So I was like okay, I want to be a midwife. And being “with woman”—I don’t know why it says with woman instead of with women, I don’t like it, but I didn’t make up the definition or the meaning of the word. But basically, you are a caregiver and a provider that is with women. I mean, you’re there, you’re there for them in various stages. It’s a whole lot more than just deliverin’ babies. There are formally trained midwives like myself that went to nursing school, and we are licensed in whatever state we’re in and we do work alongside an obstetrician—that’s kind of our back up. So that if there’s anything medical, anything complicated, anything that’s outside of our scope of practice, then we’ve got them as back up. Anyway, we manage different types of patients. Anything that’s high-risk, usually the doctor’s going to take care of. You know, we’re kind of goin’ to put them off, if anyone’s got major medical complications or something like that, then that’s something the doctor needs to take care of. But midwifery is more taking care of normal things, ‘cause havin’ babies is normal, it’s not a medical problem.
Two things you need to do as a midwife. To be a good midwife. And that’s take care of your mommies and don’t drop the baby. If you take care of your mommies, that means get an education, stay up to date, pay attention to their signs and symptoms. I mean “take care of your mommies” encompasses everything—everything. You got to make sure you go to school. You got to make sure you stay up to date. You got to make sure that you practice safely, you got to make sure that you recognizes problems and report it to the doctor when you need. You got to make sure you intervene when you need to intervene. Take care of your mommies—that is what that means. So if you take care of your mommies, and then don’t drop the baby. I know that sounds silly, but that means get this baby here safely. So if you take those two statements—take care of your mommies and don’t drop the baby—just kind of wraps it up.
From one end of the spectrum to another, as far as education goes and socio-economic status and all of that, you just—and demographics. You know, I take care of all races and everybody, and you just, you just love ‘em. Like if you don’t love them, you don’t need to be there. Like if I didn’t love all these patients and didn’t want to take care of them, then I don’t need to be there.
Usually I’m the first thing that that baby sees. I’m the first human touch that that baby has, ‘cause this baby comes into this big ol’ bad world into my hands. And you’ve got to think about it—I had a midwife, an older midwife, tell me one time that we’re the gatekeepers into the world. I thought that was kind of cool—midwives are gatekeepers, and we open up the gate and we let ‘em in. And help the mommas bring ‘em in. And I always, when the babies get here, I always talk to them. Like I tell them welcome to the world or happy birthday or, you know, if it’s been a rough ride, sometimes I’ll say, “You made it! That was tough, wasn’t it?” You know, it’s just—I think that kind of personalizes it. And I tell people, that moment when that baby first comes out, that is the one time in that—’cause that’s a person, that’s not just a little toy, I mean it’s an actual human being. We were all babies at one time. But when that baby first comes into the world—and if I cry a little bit I’m sorry—but when that baby first comes into the world, that moment, that baby is perfection. It is the closest that I will ever, ever feel to God, because that baby is perfect.