FURNISHING STUDY, PARTS C AND D WALKER SISTERS' HOME AND COMPLEX
C. ANALYSIS OF HISTORIC OCCUPANCY:
During the period 1890-1920, the following family members were the primary residents of the Walker house: John N. Walker (father), Margaret Jane Walker (mother), Margaret Jane Walker (daughter), Mary Elizabeth "Polly" Walker (daughter), Martha Ann Walker (daughter), and Hettie Rebecca Walker (daughter). Other family members and unrelated individuals lived or boarded in the house for portions of the period, but they are not to be considered primary residents in the story of the Walker house. Birth and death dates for the primary residents are:
All the primary residents were mountain people. They lived a type of life that elsewhere had passed into history decades earlier. Their's was a pioneer's existence; a constant struggle to cope with a partially self-imposed "make do or do without" environment. Electricity, indoor water, most labor-saving devices, even toilet facilities of any type, were never used at the Walker house. Like the "Old Time Religion" of the gospel hymn their way of life was "good for their father, and was good enough for them."
John N. Walker, the father of the Walker sisters, was a multi-talented man. He was an average farmer, an excellent woodworker, a miller, mason, herder, blacksmith, in short, a jack of all trades. He had to be, for professional craftsmen were rarities in these mountains. His son, Dan, said he could make anything from wood, leather, or metal. He constructed many of the buildings on his land; made most of the furniture for his house; built and used a blacksmith shop, grist mill with a water-powered turning lathe, tar kiln, and charcoal-making pit. His talents ranged from making a spinning wheel and loom to devising a suitcase carrier from supple hickory for his son-in-law. Even in old age when he could no longer do heavy work he whittled intricate walking sticks for sale to visitors.
John N. Walker was a strong-willed man. He had little formal education, but knew the land and used it to his advantage. He instilled a strong fear of God in his children, and regularly attended the Little Greenbrier Primitive Baptist Church. Family tradition says he had no time for strong drink, and once drove one of his sons from home upon discovering him drunk.
John N. Walker was a Unionist and a Lincoln Republican. Above all else, though, he was a mountain man. His character, desires, likes, dislikes, in fact, his entire life was shaped and affected by the mountains and the hardships they placed on those who chose to live there. By mountain standards Walker was neither poor nor wealthy. It is doubtful that his family ever went hungry, but his only reliable income apparently was a small pension he received for his Civil War service. Money was a luxury. His farm products met most of the family needs, either directly or as barter goods.
Based on what little we know of John Walker, it must be assumed that he was not an unusual man for his time and place. He does not fit the popular and often erroneous mold of the mountain man who stalked the woods with a jug over his shoulder, feuding and shooting revenue agents. Existing photographs of John Walker show him in the company of the persons and worldly things he probably loved best--his children and grandchildren and the fruits of his labors on the land.
John N. Walker's wife, Margaret Jane King, was apparently well suited for the life of a mountain wife. She came from a mountain wife. She came from a mountain home, and probably characterized the mountain woman as much as her husband mirrored the men. She bore John Walker eleven children in a twenty-four year period. Surprisingly, all of them reached maturity.
The center of her domain was the house, garden, and children. The labors of a normal day in her life could involve anything from weaving linsey-woolsey to protecting her chickens from predators or "doctoring" her family's hurts or illnesses. Like her husband, she was trained to "make do or do without," and she made sure this knowledge was passed on to her children. Her garden was both supermarket and pharmacy, for vegetables and herbs were equally important. She was apparently very fond of flowers, and spent long hours planting and caring for extensive flower beds around the house area. One wonders if perhaps she realized how stark her environment was and used the flowers to soften and color this starkness.
Her way of life changed little from birth to death. She always used a battling board and scrub board to wash clothes. Any kind of soap except homemade lye soap was a luxury. Cooking was done over an open fireplace except, perhaps, for the last few years of her life when a wood stove was acquired. Clothing was all handmade, although the cloth for summer garments was normally factory made. Winter clothing was produced entirely by hand, beginning with the wool on the sheep and the cotton and flax from the field and ending with the finished garment. Her primary tools for housecleaning were homemade brooms, shuck mops, scalding water, lye, and lye soap. Also, the essential feather duster was always present.
Church and church-related activities provided the only major escape for Margaret Jane. She embraced her religion with a fervor that matched her husband's, and emplanted strong religious beliefs in her children. She was a Methodist before marriage, but accepted her husband's Primitive Baptist faith.
The six daughters of John and Margaret Jane Walker became celebrities for refusing to adopt the ways of the modern world. They learned their childhood lessons well, and saw no reason later for abandoning the tried and true life. Their cherished mountain home was a "living museum," and they themselves were "oddities in their homespun dresses and large sun bonnets." Equally odd is the fact that none of these daughters married. This is not a common occurrence among mountain women.
To the casual observer, these women must have appeared as alike "as peas in a pod." On closer inspection some individual characteristics appear. Margaret Jane was the leader, the head of the family after the parents' death. Her influence was greater than any of the other sisters. She was, in part, responsible for the spinsterhed of the sisters. Nancy was the physical weakling. She suffered from asthma and was the first of the six to die. Louisa wrote poetry in a primitive and often plaintive fashion. Nancy was a "needlepoint woman" and an excellent seamstress, while Margaret Jane and Martha were supposedly the best cooks. Polly, due to illness, was mentally disturbed, but was a productive worker. Hettie was the only one of the six who spent any great time away from home. She worked in a Knoxville hosiery mill for a "year or two."
It is difficult, however, to accept the Walker sisters on an individual basis, for their image as a family group is dominant. They worked in the fields together, planted and cultivated their vegetable and flower gardens together, ate together in the same room, slept in the same room, tended one another during illnesses and hurts--in fact, all things were done for the common good. They devoutly supported the same church, where they all sang soprano at the Sacred Harp Singings.
Apparently there was little difference in their habits, tastes, interests, and activities, other than those mentioned. Going one step further, there was little difference between the sisters and their parents. The old ways were carried forward. The sisters lived in basically the same fashion as had their parents.
After the death of the last Walker sister, the Great Smoky Mountain Natural History Association acquired one hundred and fifty-one objects and groups of objects from the Walker estate. All these objects are intimately associated with the Walkers, and are in storage awaiting display. An object inventory is attached as Appendix A.
Although most, if not all, of these objects were in use as late as the 1950s, there should be no conflict in displaying them during the period of interpretive interest. Practically all of them were made or acquired by the Walkers before this period of interpretive interest. Most of the home manufactured items were made by John N. Walker, while the origins of the "store bought" objects are not presently known. It must be assumed, however, that they were acquired locally.
The items included in the inventory are by no means all of the Walkers' possessions, but they do constitute an excellent cross section. Fortunately, most of the major furnishings are included in the park collection, and the minor items needed to complete the furnishing scheme can be easily purchased or made. This can be done without great loss to the historical integrity of the site.
List of Pioneer Culture Items acquired from heirs of the Walker Sisters October 13, 1964
Purchased by Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association
Floor Plan Walker Sisters Home
The location of the various pieces of furniture shown on the floor plan was supplied by Mr. Jim Sheldon, brother-in-law to the Walker Sisters.
Last Updated: 30-Sep-2009