Elsie’s Story – Hidden Stories in Oral Histories

Working in local history archives at UNCA Ramsey Library and at Pack Library’s North Carolina Room, I thought often about the many fascinating stories that remain hidden in the oral histories of both collections. Until the interview is transcribed, the story remains untold. Few people will have the time or the patience to listen to the recording. In retirement, I’ve resolved to transcribe some of the interviews in the collections of UNCA and Pack Libraries. Through the NC Room blog “HeardTell,” I’ll share “stories” drawn from these interviews. Gene Hyde of Ramsey Library and Katherine Cutshall of Pack Library are both enthusiastic about my project and glad to share information from their collections in this way. 

Harriet Smith at the Folk Art Center and Saro Lynch-Thompson at the Swannanoa Valley Museum in Swannanoa searched their collections for photographs for this story. It is exciting that all of these collections are happy to share resources. I hope that Elsie Martin’s story will be the first of many.

– Betsy Murray 

REMEMBERING ELSIE MARLOWE MARTIN 

This bunch of flowers has brightened the Pack Library NC Room for many years, but few people know the name of the woman who made them. I bought Elsie Martin’s flowers in 2001, when I interviewed her for UNCA Ramsey Library’s Oral History Collection. I came to talk with Mrs. Martin primarily because she had been the wife of Wayne Martin, a craftsman known for carved wooden figures depicting the day to day activities of rural Appalachian mountain men and women. UNCA owns around one hundred of these figures. They were donated in 1977 by collector Annette Duchein, who attributed the figures to Wayne Martin and his brother Wade. Since only a few of the carvings are signed, UNCA’s Special Collections sought Mrs. Martin’s confirmation that her husband Wayne carved the majority of the figures. 

Elsie Martin was in her late seventies when I interviewed her, a wiry little woman kept strong by an active life that had included a lot of hard physical labor. She was beginning to feel her age, and as she said in the interview, “I can’t remember like I ought to.” She wasn’t able to verify which of UNCA’s carvings were made by her husband, but she proved to be extremely interesting in her own right. Her life covered a time of huge transition in the lives of the men and women of rural Appalachia. Her mother could have been one of the characters depicted in her husband’s carvings. Elsie and her many siblings (she said “around eight or nine”) lived as children on their grandfather’s large farm in Fairview, NC. The family home, built by their father, was without electricity or indoor plumbing. 

UNC Asheville Special Collections

Wayne Martin’s playful, affectionate carvings depict women and men he knew in childhood. From the collection of UNCA Ramsey Library. 

After high school Elsie hoped to attend Berea College, but her mother became ill, and Elsie stayed home to take care of her. World War II opened up a new world of experiences and opportunities. Mrs. Martin was proud that she traveled alone to New York to visit her husband Wayne before he was shipped out to war. Wounded in battle, Wayne came home unable to do the backbreaking physical labor his father had done. But Interest in Appalachian crafts was growing, and Wayne found that he could earn a living carving figurines and musical instruments. He and his brother Wade both sold figurines at the Appalachian Craft Shop on Wall Street. 

Elsie Martin was proud to say, “I worked all my life doing SOMEthing.” As children, she and her siblings picked berries to sell before going to school. After marriage she did factory work for many years, but continued to tend a huge garden. One year she harvested and processed around 700 cans of produce! Seeing that people were eager to buy her husband’s carvings, she decided to try her hand at whittling. She taught herself to carve flowers after buying one from someone selling them on the Parkway. Soon she was selling the flowers she carved, as well as Christmas trees and cocky little roosters in singles and pairs. 

She obtained the wood for her carvings by combing the nearby mountainsides for the perfect twigs: maple for the flowers, poplar for the trees. At the time we talked, she was thinking about retirement. She said, “Well, I don’t mind DOING it, but when you have to climb up a mountain or down a mountain, and you’re 77 years old, you don’t get up and down so good.” 

In many ways life gradually became easier for Elsie than it had been for her mother. After two home births assisted by a midwife, Elsie gave birth to her youngest daughter in a hospital. However Elsie confided that she preferred the home births. 

High school sweethearts Elsie Marlowe and Wayne Martin grew up in the same community, and Elsie always felt close to Wayne’s whole family. After Wayne’s death, Elsie married his younger brother Edsel. They worked together well, marketing their crafts and demonstrating their work through the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild and other outlets. Since Elsie was afraid of the bandsaw, Edsel made the cuts between the legs of her roosters. Since Edsel prided himself on being “the laziest man in Old Fort”, Elsie’s considerable energy was important to their partnership. Elsie said that Edsel could “make two or three birds in a day if he wanted to. Of course he didn’t always WANT to.” 

Talking about her life with Edsel, Elsie shared that they sometimes enjoyed eating breakfast in a restaurant. Elsie had come a long way from the life of the woman in Edsel’s carving, stoically building a coffin for her dead child. 

Southern Highlands Craft Guild

Elsie Martin’s second husband Edsel Martin was known primarily for his bird carvings, but like his brothers he also carved figurines and musical instruments. His carving of a woman building a child’s coffin is in the permanent collection of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.  

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