Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 09: Biography – Community Residents
Series 19: Students
May Ritchie Student


PMSS Student, 1921 – 1924
Wife of Leon Deschamps (PMSS Worker 1916 – c. 1927)

TAGS: May Ritchie, PMSS students, Singing Family of the Cumberlands, Cecil Sharp, Ritchie family, Leon Deschamps, Appalachian folk songs, cornhusk dolls, John C. Campbell Folk School, Marguerite Butler, foodways, Alice Cobb

May Ritchie Deschamps and her son, Alfred Deschamps. X_099_workers_2501b_mod.jpg

May Ritchie Deschamps and her son, Alfred Deschamps. X_099_workers_2501b_mod.jpg

May Belle Ritchie was the oldest of fourteen children in a family that became celebrated as one of the two “great ballad-singing families” of Kentucky among folk song scholars. (The other family was the Combs family from Knott County, whose repertoire was documented by Hindman Settlement School‘s first graduate, Dr. Josiah Combs.

The skills of the “Singing Family of the Cumberlands” were so admired that in 1917, Cecil Sharp, the well-known ballad and folksong collector came from Great Britain and documented songs performed by May and her sister Una Ritchie for his collection. Two of these songs are held in the Cecil Sharp Collection in England, but copies were given to the Ritchie family and may be seen in the copy supplied by Suzanne Salvo, grand-daughter of May Ritchie. The two songs, “Tack Went a-Sailing” (3945) and “The Rambler” (3946), were collected on August 30, 1917 at Pine Mountain.

Two songs collected in 1917 by Cecil Sharp at Pine Mountain from May Ritchie. Copies of originals annotated by Sharp are held by Suzanne Salvo, granddaughter of May Ritchie. Originals in the collections of Cecil Sharp House, London.

Seven of the fourteen Ritchie children attended Pine Mountain School throughout the late teens and early 1920s, including May Ritchie. Also attending were Kitty, Una (attended Wellsley), Patty, Jewel, Raymond, and Truman. The others, Ollie, Mallie, Edna, Pauline, Opal, and Balis Wilmer Jr., attended nearby Hindman Settlement School, while Jean attended public school and later the University of Kentucky.

May was evidently acquainted with several of the workers at Pine Mountain before she became a student at the School, likely because three of her siblings began attending as early as 1917. This may explain how she encountered Cecil Sharp at Pine Mountain and sang for him.

May shared stories of her early days at Pine Mountain with her youngest sister Jean Ritchie when Jean was preparing her family story in Singing Family of the Cumberlands, published in 1955. She says of those early days:

“I went off to the Settlement School at Pine Mountain finished up school and worked there awhile. Seems like I was always running away from some boy or other, would always tell Mom and Dad I was not interested in any man, nor getting married. Then word went around the school that a young man from Belgium across the waters was coming to stay and work at the school. He had a funny name, Leon Deschamps. The day he came I had to get his room ready, then when he got there I showed him to the room and said as few words as I could to him, I was so bashful. He began right away to pay attention to me, and I just could not stand him. But he wouldn’t give up so easy. He even came home to see me one summer when I was home for a vacation.”

She then goes on to describe her father’s antipathy toward any marriage to a “foreigner,” saying that

“… when Leon came to our house, the family couldn’t think of a thing but him being a foreigner, and they acted uneasy. But I’d laugh around and tell them all he didn’t mean a thing to me that I didn’t invite him to come to see me. After he was gone, one evening Dad walked into the kitchen, threw his load of wood in the box, blew his nose, and said, ‘I’d as lief see one of my young uns dead as married to a furriner.’ “Who’s marrying one? I snapped out at him.”

When May finally made up her mind to marry Leon she said she worried about her Dad, but she wrote to her Mom,

“My mind is made up; I aim to marry this man. He is a good man and there is no one can change me about him.”

Her mother replied,

“If you love him, marry him. If you think it would be a pleasure to wash his dirty socks then you love him.”

Her father, she reported, was probably in shock as he didn’t speak a word after reading her letter and kept his silence for a day and a night, according to May. But, her friends and staff from Pine Mountain were delighted and came to the wedding — as did her father. Riding over the mountains from Pine Mountain on the wedding day, Ethel de Long Zande was thrown from her horse and broke her ankle. The wedding party patched her up and she re-mounted her nag and rode on to Viper on the North Fork of the Kentucky for the wedding. May and Leon’s friends at the School had also shown their delight in the marriage by getting together the wedding clothes — “sewed every stitch of them by hand,” related May [Marguerite Butler notes in a later letter that May did much of the sewing]. May describes her trousseau:

“My dress was white, made in tiers down to my ankles, and they made the prettiest little veil ‘for your pretty hair’ as they said. A traveling dress they made, and such beautiful underclothes! I have never before nor since owned such pretty things. Embroidered and tucked and trimmed with dainty handmade lace.”

May had planned to have the infamous Uncle Ira Combs of Viper preach the wedding, as he had married May’s parents, but the wedding party waited and the preacher did not come. Finally, a party was sent out to look for him and found that he had been called to the bedside of a man who was dying and could not preach the wedding. Hastily another preacher, Alonzo Fields, was found grubbing in his field and he was snatched up, dirt and all, and taken to do the official ceremony, “...sweaty and dirty in the middle of all the fine dresses  …” he married the two. And then the singing began starting with There Was and Old Woman and She Had a Little Pig, — an odd choice but one that delighted all present. When Ethel de Long Zande suggested they sing the love ballad John Riley , she knew it was May’s favorite ballad for her own special “John Riley.”

Later in her life, as May related this story of her marriage to her youngest sister, Jean, she mused about her father’s rant about foreigners and looked back at her other siblings’ marriages:

“There’s Unie married to Tom, from India, and Pauline to Paul, born in Czechoslovakia. And he thinks a lot of his furrin sons-in-law now, don’t he? I guess it was a good thing I made a start for the others!”

Quotes are from Jean Ritchie. Singing Family of the Cumberlands, New York: Oxford University Press,1955.

May, strong-willed, smart, beautiful and talented did make a start for others, including her own childern. Her daughter Clotilde (a Belgian name), married Julio Guissasola a Cuban exile and the couple continued to live and work at Warren Wilson where May’s parents ended the cycle of their life.

Deschamps wedding at Viper, Kentucky

Wedding of Leon Deschamps and May Ritchie at Viper, Kentucky. deschamps_wedding.jpg

It was in 1919 that May met and married Leon Deschamps. Their wedding and a supper party attended by several PMSS workers is also described in Marguerite Butler‘s June 1919 letter to her mother:

May was married [to Leon Deschamps] at her house in Viper on the North Fork. Last Thursday night she had a lovely supper party — Miss Melville, Miss Robbins & [Miss] Parkinson, R.B.G. [Ruth B. Gaines], Willie, and I. Everything went off beautifully and the table looked so pretty. She has lovely dishes – and such good food — roast chicken, dressing, sweet potatoes, macaroni, olives, radishes, raisin bread, fruit salad, coffee, cakes and pears.

Miss Butler’s letters home as well as other workers’ correspondence, often describe the social gatherings among the workers and many included May and Leon. Marguerite Butler writes again to her mother in 1920:

[W]e were having a very grand tea for May and Mr. Deschamps. It was up on Pole House hill, a lovely spot and Mrs. Zande had her best china and silver. Big wicker chairs, stools, lovely baskets of flowers were around. May wore her wedding dress and did look so lovely in it – a simple white organdy, so becoming. She made it herself. Everyone wore their best. Some of the older girls were invited, twenty-nine were there in all, and unlike stylish teas we all sat around and talked until supper bell. Mary Rockwell, her sister from Italy and friend from N.Y. did all the decorating and serving. We had tea, coffee, three kinds of sandwiches and several kinds of cookies — brownies. We had a nice time.

May and Leon had three children: Alfred J. Deschamps (1923-2004), Carol Deschamps (Shupe) and Clotilde Deschamps (Guisasola). Carol, who eventually graduated from Berea Academy, is mentioned in Marguerite Butler’s letter of September 11, 1921:

Then we stopped at May’s — she, Mr. Deschamps, her sister Kitty and the baby were up on a big rock having supper. It was lovely up there — a view way down the valley. Carol is a dear baby and so good — Mr. Deschamps and I planned some things for the fair — girl and boy scouts.

Leon Deschamps was well-respected at the School for his forestry projects and his Boy Scout leadership. May also had skills of her own to offer. Due to her family’s keen interest in music-making, May was well-versed in traditional Appalachian folk songs. The PMSS publication Notes mentions, as late as 1935, her singing of the hymn “The Little Family” during a campus gathering. She also was skilled in craft making, as evidenced by her cornhusk doll collection at the Mountain Heritage Center, Western Carolina University, and in the homes of many relatives and friends.

Ritchie cornshuck doll. Probably the work of Kitty Ritchie, c. 1970’s. A red-haired Ritchie. (private collection)

After over a decade at Pine Mountain Settlement School, Leon moved his family to Brasstown, NC, where he worked at the John C. Campbell Folk School, farming, building fieldstone studios and homes, and working with the local forest. An article in Dancing in the Cabbage Patch “Foodways,” a blog by Helen Hayes Wykle (May’s second cousin) describes skills that May and Leon Deschamps brought from Pine Mountain Settlement School to the John C. Campbell Folk School:

At the Brasstown location, there was a direct transfer of foodways and food service training through the influence of important staff who left Pine Mountain and took up jobs and residence at the Brasstown, NC, folk-school. The most important staff who moved to John C. Campbell Folk School were those central to Pine Mountain’s kitchen, and farm and forest. Marguerite Butler had supervised the kitchen at Pine Mountain and she brought many of those managerial skills to North Carolina. Another key member of the Pine Mountain staff, Leon Deschamps, had married into the well-known mountain family of the Ritchies and May Ritchie and Leon Deschamps brought her Kentucky foodways heritage and his Belgian food sensibilities along to the folk school. Many of the lessons learned at Pine Mountain were adapted to the folk school at Brasstown.

As of 1944, the Deschamps family was living in Swannanoa, NC, where Leon found a position at Warren Wilson College. The college was on a list of several mountain institutions that Alice Cobb visited in order to report her impressions to the PMSS board through correspondence with Trustee Dorothy Elsmith. While there, Miss Cobb called on the Deschamps, and reported the following: “I went with Mrs. D. and her daughter Carol, a Berea graduate, to an outdoor concert at Dorland Bell Hall, a girls dormitory, a very beautiful little stone building….”

In “Remembering Jean Ritchie”, on the John C. Campbell Folk School Blog, David Brose commemorated the 2015 death of May’s famous younger sister, Jean Ritchie, with these words:

May lived at the Folk School with her husband, and Jean would come and spend summers here prior to Jean’s marriage to George Pickow….Because of their singing, concerts, and presence in Brasstown, Jean and her sister, May Deschamps, will long be remembered here at the Folk School.

May Belle Ritchie Deschamps was born on June 19, 1896, in Viper, Kentucky. She died at age 86 on October 11, 1982, in Buncombe County, North Carolina, where she and Leon lived in their last years. She is buried in the Warren Wilson College Cemetery in Swannanoa with her husband Leon, the “John Riley” of her life.

The fourteen children of Abigail (née Hall) Ritchie and Balis W. Ritchie are listed below along with their birth dates (and deceased dates if known). Those who attended Pine Mountain Settlement School are marked by an asterisk.

*May Belle Ritchie (Deschamps)   June 29, 1896 (d. 1982)
Ollie M. Ritchie                                   August 30, 1897
Mallie Ritchie (Hall)                           February 6, 1899 (d. 1992)
*Una Ritchie (Yahkub)                    March 22, 1900 (d. 1989)
*Raymond Ritchie                          March 22, 1902
*Kitty Ritchie (Singleton)               March 2, 1904
*Truman Ritchie                             July 28, 1906
*Patty Ritchie (Reynolds)                  May 27, 1908 (d. 1944)
Edna Ritchie (Baker)                        December 28, 1910 (d. 1997)
*Jewel Ritchie (Robinson)             September 28, 1914 (d. 1955)
Opal Ritchie                                      September 28, 1914 (d. 1914)
Pauline Ritchie (Kermiet)                March 13, 1916 (d. 1980)
Balis W. Ritchie                                 April 9, 1919 (d. 2019)
Jean R. Ritchie (Pickow)                   December 8, 1922 (d. 2015)

GALLERY: May Ritchie Deschamps

See Also:



KITTY RITCHIE Student – Biography


LEON DESCHAMPS Correspondence


UNA RITCHIE – Biography


May Ritchie

Alt. Title

May Belle Ritchie ; May Ritchie Deschamps ;




Pine Mountain Settlement School, Pine Mountain, KY

Alt. Creator

Ann Angel Eberhardt ; Helen Hayes Wykle ;

Subject Keyword

May Ritchie ; May Belle Ritchie ; May Ritchie Deschamps ; Pine Mountain Settlement School ; ballad-singing ; folk songs ; Combs Family ; Ritchie Family ; Cecil Sharp ; collector ; Una Ritchie ; Hindman Settlement School ; Leon Frantz Deschamps ; foresters ; Marguerite Butler ; correspondence ; supper parties ; Miss Melville ; Miss Bobbins ; Miss Parkinson ; Ruth B. Gaines ; meals ; social gatherings ; Pole House ; Mrs. Zande ; Mary Rockwell ; Alfred J. Deschamps ; Carol Deschamps (Shupe) ; Clotilde Deschamps (Guisasola) ; Berea College ; Boy Scouts ; crafts ; cornhusk dolls ; Mountain Heritage Center ; Western Carolina University ; John C. Campbell Folk School ; foodways ; Helen Hayes Wykle ; food service ; folk schools ; Belgian food ; Warren Wilson College ; Alice Cobb ; Dorland Bell Hall ; Jean Ritchie ; David Brose ; George Pickow ; Abigail (née Hall) ; Balis W. Ritchie ; Pine Mountain, KY ; Harlan County, KY ; Knott Co., KY ; Great Britain ; Viper, KY ; Berea, KY ; Brasstown, NC ; Swannanoa, NC ;

Subject LCSH

Ritchie Deschamps, May Belle, — 1896 – 1982.
Folk singers — Appalachian Region — Biography.
Ritchie family.
Pine Mountain Settlement School (Pine Mountain, Ky.) — History.
Harlan County (Ky.) — History.
Education — Kentucky — Harlan County.
Rural schools — Kentucky — History.
Ballads, English — Kentucky.
Folk songs, English — Kentucky.
Schools — Appalachian Region, Southern.




Pine Mountain Settlement School, Pine Mountain, KY




Collections ; text ; image ;


Original and copies of documents and correspondence in file folders in filing cabinet


Series 19: Students




Is related to: Pine Mountain Settlement School Collections, Series 19: Students

Coverage Temporal


Coverage Spatial

Pine Mountain, KY ; Harlan County, KY ; Knott Co., KY ; Great Britain ; Viper, KY ; Berea, KY ; Brasstown, NC ; Swannanoa, NC ;


Any display, publication, or public use must credit the Pine Mountain Settlement School. Copyright retained by the creators of certain items in the collection, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.




Core documents, correspondence, writings, and administrative papers of May Ritchie Deschamps ; clippings, photographs, books by or about May Ritchie Deschamps ;




“[Identification of Item],” [Collection Name] [Series Number, if applicable]. Pine Mountain Settlement School Institutional Papers. Pine Mountain Settlement School, Pine Mountain, KY.

Processed By

Helen Hayes Wykle ; Ann Angel Eberhardt ;

Last Updated

2014-09-24 hhw ; 2015-028 aae ;  2015-10-07 hhw ; 2018 -09-14 aae ; 2020-11-30 hhw;


Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed 14 September 2018), memorial page for May Belle Ritchie Deschamps (19 Jun 1896–11 Oct 1982), Find A Grave Memorial no. 171689291, citing Warren Wilson College Cemetery, Swannanoa, Buncombe County, North Carolina, USA ; Maintained by Tony Hargrove. Internet resource.

“May Ritchie.” Series 09; Biography and Series 19: Students. Pine Mountain Settlement School Institutional Papers. Pine Mountain Settlement School, Pine Mountain, KY. Internet resource.

Selected Bibliography

“The Dolls of May Ritchie Deschamps,” [unpublished document] 1981, in the collection of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. Archival material.

Ritchie, Jean. The Ritchie Family of Kentucky. S.l.: Folkways Recordings, 1958. Internet resource.

Ritchie, Jean, and Maurice Sendak. Singing Family of the Cumberlands. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955. Print.

Ritchie, Jean, Melinda Zacuto, Jerry Silverman, and Ethel Raim. Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians As Sung by Jean Ritchie: 77 Traditional Songs, Tunes, and Ballads from the Singing of Jean Ritchie and the Ritchie Family, with Guitar Chords and Notes on the Songs. New York, N.Y: Oak Publications, 1965. Musical score.

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