Rachel Russell’s tale is one commonly heard in songs by Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, or the assumptions urban types tend to make when describing people of rural Tennessee. Rachel will even say so herself, in a self-assured manner, when talking about how she grew up. “People laugh, don’t matter to me, I laugh with them,” she says. She grew up in a log cabin in ‘the holler,’ which is really a beautiful valley surrounded by hillsides of pastures and woods and a gorgeous, winding creek home to rarely seen cranes and other wildlife. Mrs. Russell is a sweet lady with gray hair pulled to a bun and a lovely smile. She loves to laugh, and when we reciprocate, she laughs even more. It was 1931 when she was born inside the cabin; the doctor arrived by horse and buggy. “Whether he was licensed or not, I couldn’t tell you,” says Rachel. She spent most of her childhood in the rustic home with no electricity, no running water and no bathroom, not even an outhouse. She likes to joke, “Young people today wouldn’t know what to do or where to go first.” As a young girl growing up in Tennessee, life was about few luxuries. Their lives were sustained from living off the land. In larger towns, people were struggling through the Depression. Her family farmed for a living, as did most people in those days in the country. There were hogs and cows and chickens, and all the vegetables they needed to eat. The only groceries they needed from town were flour, sugar and coffee. Summertime was about swimming holes and running barefoot, making playhouses out of rocks and plates out of Mason jar lids. “We went to school barefoot in the summer, ‘course, we had shoes in the winter,” states Rachel. School was eight grades in a one room building.
The cabin was already considered old then, making it nearly 200 years old now claims her husband Carl. Mr. Russell is from the other side of the ‘holler’, just over the county line. A pleasant and slender man, he sits with his leg hanging over the chair, sharply dressed in his plaid shirt and John Deere hat, color coded right down to the stitching in his like-new overalls (I suppose he put the good overalls on for our visit?). When I ask what it was like for him growing up, he gives me the simple and witty answer of, “What she said.” They met at a church just around the bend, married in 1959 when she was 19 and he was 23.
We take a ride up to the old cabin, a couple of miles from where they live now, that still stands wary looking and surrounded by overgrown shrubs and weeds with a few peony flowers peeking out here and there. Visiting the place brings fond memories back to Rachel of living in the cabin with her parents and sister, like her mother wallpapering the walls with pages torn from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. They carried buckets of water from the spring, milked cows and took care of the crops. If someone were sick, Rachel explains, “We didn’t go to the doctor, the ladies had home remedies. Castor oil – that was our gettin’ well and we’re still here!”
Franklin D. Roosevelt had come into office initiating the WPA (Works Progress Administration) giving people jobs to build roads and outhouses. That finally brought an outhouse to the property and that same program provided food assistance to the public. However, Rachel is quick to utter, “We never got any of that free food. The town’s people were starving, but the country people weren’t affected by it so much, we grew our own food.”
Miss Rachel can remember one day playing outside and seeing workers from the railroad being transported by and hearing one say, “I bet those people don’t even know the war is over.” She laughs, “But, we did.”
When I ask how much her and Carl have travelled in their years they haven’t seen but a handful of states, mainly the southeast. And, Rachel will declare, “The best place I’d seen was home.”
The Russells live in a modest home comfortable enough with the necessities needed by today’s standards. Rachel talks of current affairs she’s read in the daily paper. Carl shows off his fine walking sticks he’s made out of wood pulled right from their property. He’s retired after 30 years with the county, that being their retirement source. They have a small garden and mounds of old photographs and newspaper clippings at arm’s reach to share with friends and family.
People like the Russells make me wonder what it is that makes their lives not only completely unpretentious, but they themselves so complacent. Mrs. Russell tells me happily, “That’s just the way it was, we didn’t know any better.” There’s something to be said for living simple and sustainable.
(Pictured: Carl and Rachel by the cabin’s front door)