Last of the Ozark Granny Women


Barefoot Nancy Jane
Following in Her Ma's Footsteps
Has Been Midwife in Hill Country for Many Years
Has Helped at More Bornin's Than She Can Remember.

 

EMINENCE , MISSOURI . MAY 24


Barefoot Nancy Jane had been choppin' weeds in the garden but a squall of rain had come up, driving her inside. She was tidying up the house, which is something that a woman can do on a rainy day. Her three big sons sat on the porch and watched the rivulets form, for that is something that men can do on a rainy day. They perked up when the car stopped at the gate and took languid interest in the dash of the stranger to the shelter of the porch. Yes, this was where Nancy Jane Miller lived.

Nancy Jane Miller in person presently appeared, framed by the doorway, and appraised the visitor, speculating whether it was business that brought him to her door on a rainy day.

 

For Nancy Jane is the last of the granny women in the Shannon county hills. She is not as busy as she used to be, but it had always meant when a man had come running to her door, that some woman's time had come and help was needed at least until the doctor could arrive from town. If that was what was wanted she would be ready in a minute, for nobody could say that she had ever refused to go when she was called, That was what she said when she learned that the visit was not of that nature. She was rather glad that it wasn't for she is not as spry as she used to be.

 

'Git you a cheer thar' said Mrs. Miller expressing the ultimate in Ozark hill hospitality, seating herself on the bed. How long has she been a midwife in these parts? That would take some figuring . Old people couldn't remember without something to go back to.

'Ephraim,' she called to one of her sons, 'bring me that little red book out of the trunk. We might as well git it correct.'

 

From the trunk Ephraim brought the little red book.

'You'll find it all wrote there' she said, ' the year and the day when all my people was born and if they 're dead, when they died. My husband, John Ephraim Miller, wrote it all down out of my mothers Bible so that I could have a family record of my own. You will find it put down in there when I was born'.

 

Sure enough in the little red book it was set down that on July 15, 1879, Nancy Jane Nichols was born. How old did that make her now? That would make her 67. Well, then, that was what she was 67 goin on 68. You could depend on that. The little red book wasn't exactly a Bible record, but it was a religious book, as you could see by looking at it . That was true. It's title was 'Light' and it showed forth in physical facts the fulfillment of Revelation, with comments by J. F. Rutherford, apostle of the 'Second Coming.'

Well, now, said Mrs. Miller , she went to ketchin' babies when she was 26 and you could figure out how long she had been at it. Whatever it figured out , that was how long she had been taking care of women in the hills when their time come.

 

Her mother before her was a midwife, and that was how she got started at it. Everybody called her mother 'Aunt Jane.' The lived right down here in Buckeye Deestrict. How long was her mother a midwife? Ah, lo, she couldn't tell you that. Maybe 40 year. She couldn't remember the time when there wasn't men folks comin' in the middle of the night and callin' Ma to come quick as she could. It seemed like Ma was always gettin' up in the middle of the night and goin' to take care of some woman whose time had come. Some of the babies she brought are still livin', drawin old age pensions.

 

Sometimes Ma had to take long and rough trips. More'n once she had swum her horse acrost Current river when there was a tide. She never stood back when she was needed. Ma was that kinda woman.

 

Now Nancy (illegible). The longest one she could remember was maybe 10 years ago it was one of the roughest she ever took. One of the Simpson boys come in a pickup truck to fetch her when Arnold's woman was took down. It was an awful night rainin', snowin', sleetin' and everything else. You'd call that rough, wouldn't you.'

 

The truck slid every which way and she never did know how they got through without goin' in a gully. It must have been because Arnold's wife needed her so bad. She stayed all night and next morning Charley brought her home. One thing, though, that Ma did she never had to do. She never had to swim her horse acrost the river.

 

Her mother wasn't what you would call an educated woman, but she could read and write. What she knew about bringin' babies she got from a doctor book. What Nancy Jane knew she had got second hand from her Ma. When her Ma was gettin' old, Nancy Jane went along sometimes and helped with the bornin' and that way she learned a good deal, Then when her mother died she took up the work the best she knew how.

 

It wasn't that she wanted to, but when there was no doctor she went and done her best. She had done pretty good. If she did say it herself, as maybe she shouldn't ought. In all the time that she had been takin' care of bornin's she had never lost but two babies, and one of them was dead when it come into the world. Some of them of course, died when they was little but that wasn't her fault. She didn't set herself up as a doctorin' woman and she couldn't help it if one of them took sick and died after she had brought it . And in all her life no woman that she took care of died.

 

Hit's been a long time that she has been takin' care of the women here in the hills. How many? She has no idea . Two hundred? More'n that. Much more'n that. She never kept no records and a body kain't remember. Now she is 67 if it's set down that way in the book and, as the feller says, she will soon have another birthday and she'll be a little bit older.

 

That's the way it goes. She has lived her life right here in the hills and she wouldn't want to have lived anywhere else. She has moved out for a little while a time or two, but she didn't like it in the level land and she always came back. Mostly she has lived right around here, first in Buckeye Deestrict and for the last 11 years or so here on the ridge in Prairie Holler Deestrict. For 27 years she lived a mile below here on Indian Creek.

 

Mostly her trade has been in what she calls the neighborhood, along Current and Jack's Fork and Indian Creek and over the hill sometimes as far as Powder Mill Ferry at Owl's Bend. From where you settin' its about seven miles over to Current around by the road but maybe five as the bird flies, which mostly he does when he's headin' for water.

 

Sometimes when it wasn't too far she walked to where she was needed, but most generally she went on horse back or mule back that was if they hadn't sent a truck or car for her.

 

It is no secret that Nancy Jane practiced without a license. In the early days nobody thought anything about such a thing as a license. Horseback doctors were few and far between and maybe you could get one when you needed him and maybe not. So the hill women had to depend on the granny when the time came. In later years there has been a law, but Nancy Jane doesn't know what's in it and has never bothered about it. All that she knows is that she has to make a report at the county seat whenever there a bornin'. There's a paper that has to be sent in. She can't make it out, so she takes it along and leaves it with the folks and tells them to fill it and send it in. She reckons they generally do. If they don't it isn't her fault.

 

The county seat doctors say 'yes, it is against the law for the grannies to bring the babies but the law isn't enforced.' Truth to tell they have never minded having a little help from the grannies out in the hills, for it seems like women always wait until night to have their babies and maybe the rivers and creeks are up and the fee is highly uncertain unless the doctor is willing to take it out in trade, something like a sack of taters or a goat.

 

Nancy Jane knows she can't make a charge. She has always told the man of the house after bringin' a baby that she can't charge anything, but if he wants to make her a free gift it will be all right. Generally always they paid her something. Through the years the free gift has been about $3. She doesn't say so but it is likely that long ago the word was passed around that $3 was a fair price for a birthin' and the fee came to be standardized at that figure.

 

Here of late, though, Nancy Jane has fallen upon more prosperous times. With money more plentiful, she has three different times been given $10. The last time was when she cared for Dewey's woman on Big Shawnee.

 

Dewey knew his protocol. When the baby had been brought he said: 'I ain't goin to ask you what you charge, I'm just goin' to give you a $10 bill.' With the air of a man of the world he handed it over and Nancy Jane took it without battin' an eye... as if it was quite the usual thing, which indeed it was getting to be.

 

With the pay comin' good like that Nancy Jane is kinda sorry that she is getting old and can't go as good as she used to. She ain't went now in quite a smart while. Fact is she hasn't been called anywhere since she went to Dewey's.

 

Doctors are more plentiful now and the roads are better and they can come quick in their cars when they're called. Here of late she only went when the doctor couldn't come right away taking care of the woman till he came. Once or twice she has suspected that they didn't try very hard to get a doctor, Maybe because most doctors charge $25 for bringin' a baby. One time she went and waited and waited for the doctor to come and he didn't come and she found out that he hadn't been called.

 

Barefoot Nancy Jane knows she has come to the end of an era and has no complaint to make. She is the last of the hill grannies, or at least she is the last one she knows of. Aunt Harriet Randolph used to go on Blair's creek and Shawnee, but now she is old and aillin' and can't go anymore.

 

The old Seth Thomas clock on its shelf clicks away the moments and, mellow-toned, strikes the hour. The time that was passing. It is of the 'time that was' that Nancy Jane is thinking. The chime of the hour brings memories.

 

'That was Ma's clock' she said. Hit's nobody knows how old. Ma traded for it the musket that Pa carried in the Civil War and I was the baby of the family so Ma said it should be mine when she was through with it. It's set there on the shelf ever since Ma died.'

After the shower, Nancy Jane went back to the garden and the three big sons sat on the porch pondering the way of the weather which makes it fittin' for work-weary men to set on the porch and ponder.....


 

 

BACK TO INDEX

 

       

 

 

© 2003 - 2017 by Shannon County Coordinators or individual contributors as shown. No portion of this site is to be considered public domain and is not to be reproduced for any purpose without express written consent of the owner of the material.