ALICE COBB – Excerpts from Old Letters 1927

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 09: Biography – Staff/Personnel

ALICE COBB – Excerpts from Old Letters 1927

ALICE COBB – Excerpts from Old Letters 1927: Secretary; Publicity 1932-1937; Teacher 1942-1952; Member, Board of Trustees 1983-?; Fundraiser, Visitor, Consultant 1952-1995

TAGS: Alice Cobb – Excerpts from Old Letters 1927; Alice Cobb; students; mental tests; teachers; housekeeping; home school; superstitions; manners; Pine Mountain training; bobbed hair; Uncle Fiddler John Lewis; 

18 Friends & Neighbors : “Fiddler John”? and family members. Boy to the far left holds a banjo. Vl_34_1097_mod.jpg


Many of the brief stories in this selection were also gathered by Katherin Pettit and are replicated in her Notebooks. All the stories have an ear for the language of the community and for the many tales that made the rounds of community gatherings and that were favorites of many staff who came to work at the School.

Many of the following excerpts are from old Pine Mountain letters that were found among the files of Alice Cobb. Most of the material, which is brief and selective, is not attributed. A note with the excerpts reads: “In the process of reorganizing our files we have read with so much enjoyment the letters of 20 years ago that we pass along to you stories which we found in them.”

Twenty Years Ago at Pine Mountain


This is the time of year when we take account of stock among the children and you would be interested, as we, in the gain some of them have made. One big, red-headed fellow who was unspeakably shy the first of the year has just unburdened himself to his housemother.  “You know I was so homesick when I came that I used to stiffen myself in bed to keep from getting up and putting my clothes on and slipping off home.” He is so glad he fought it out now for he is doing splendid work in school instead of growing up on his home creek “like Bill so-and-so who doesn’t know anything.”


Slipper-spoon & Pen-stalk

One little girl from a remote creek makes her housemother think twice before she knows what Myrtle means when she asks her for a ‘slipper-spoon’ or a ‘pen-stalk’, meaning a shoe-horn or pen-holder!


Shavings & Fire Hazards

We were quite amused today over one of the big boys who brought a razor to his housemother and asked her what he could do with it. She alluded to the receptacle for tin cans and he very much puzzled, took her to the Fire Precautions and said, “But it says you can’t put shavings in the cellar.”


Mental Tests

The children have had their first experience this week in mental tests. Having gone through a succession of clinics — mental, eye, and general examinations — they were appalled when they heard that their brains were the next thing to be tested. Great was the relief when they found that it didn’t mean actual removal of the brain from the head for examination.


Home School

We are thinking with interest these first cold days of one of our boys who is teachng his home school in the poorest county in Kentucky. His building is equipped with a perfectly useless stove and the other day he rode twenty miles to the county seat to labor with the superintendent for a new one. All the satisfaction he got was, “Well, I’ll do the best I can.” He says, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to have a stove and I’m not going to close down school for the lack of one.” Even Mark Hopkins on the end of his log couldn’t have gotten anybody very far in cold weather!

(Note: This boy is now a successful doctor in a mountain area where the medical facilities are very few.)



Thanksgiving morning one of our big boys asked if he could go home for the day. “You know I like to be with my folks,” he said, adding a second later, “but I like to be here too. I’d rather be here than at home.” Then, anxiously, so as not to have his meaning mistaken, “You know, of course, I like to see my folks, but you see my mother keeps house country-wise, and I like keeping house city-wise.” It was the only way he lad could think of to express his new views of order and cleanliness required since school began this fall!


Thinking Ahead

The longer we work in the mountains the more impressed we are with the lack of stable background of our children. They have all the delightful characteristics if an individualistic society, but do not pull together to get ahead and whenever a young fellow in the school sees that he can choose his way of life instead of accepting it like his father, we rejoice. One of our boys has just said, “I’ve been a-studyin’ a lot on what am I going to do with myself,” and he is probably the first of his family for generations that has thought that far ahead.



I must pass on to you a bit from a composition written recently by one of our high school boys on old mountain superstitions. Part of it sounds like old Salem days, particularly the tale of his great-grandmother who used to be changed into a horse and ridden by a witch! The next day they would find her, scratched and exhausted from her mad career, with the bridle thrown into the loft. He ends by saying, “Our grandfathers believed these things, our fathers don’t know what to think, and we are the first to say they aren’t so.”



It is a little more common to have youngsters come in equipped with nightgowns than it used to be, but few are the scholars who have a comb or a toothbrush on their arrival. Not so very long ago two brothers came who said proudly, “We got a nightgown with us. We borryed it of a girl who used to be in school here and told us we would have to have one.” Their pleasure in fulfilling our technical requirements was so great we didn’t mind the difficulty of trying to find another pajama suit when the time came.


Chickens and Roostes

One little boy when he was asked the other day what his job was, said, “oh, I wait on the chickens.” What dignity this phrase confers on the small servitor as he carries the chickens scratch feed and water and cleans up the “roostes”.



We still gasp over a recent experience of our doctor who was called to assist at the birth of twins the other night and had to do all of her work by the aid of her own flash-light. The one chimney-less, smoky coal oil lamp had to be used in the kitchen, so that the person who assisted her could heat the water and help her with other supplies.



The brother of the hero told us this story of pioneer times as we walked through the mountains with him the other day. “Yes, I’ve knowed people to be bit by pizen snakes. My brother Sol’s been bit three times, twice by a copperhead and once by a rattler. One time he was a-goin’ through the mountains to hunt up some cattle of his and salt them, wearing a pair of old shoes with two toes naked right out of them, when a copperhead come along and bit his next to big toe, and he couldn’t shake hit loose; so he held out his foot, and pinted his gun down at him and shot off that snake’s head!”



You should know Claude, a new boy from a nearby mining town. He sits at the table with his elbows planted in a manly fashion, and the use of the knife is utterly unfamiliar too, but he said the first day, “This is a pretty place; you don’t see no tin cans a-layin’ round. My pap said to me as we come in yesterday, ‘Son, pick up that tin can’, just to joke me, and that was the fust I’d noticed there warn’t none.”


Weddings and Tooth-brushing

You would have been interested in the dramatic episode that occurred here Sunday. Through the grounds came galloping two horses, on the first one, two men riding double, and on the second, a girl wearing riding breeches and bright purple silk stockings. It was a bridal party riding from the wedding on Line Fork to the “Infare” or wedding feast at the new home on Abner’s Branch fifteen miles away. At the dinner table the boys and girls were full of talk about it, and some of them branched into a discussion of marriage in general. “Well,” said Kirby, “Every-who I aim to marry has to brush her teeth every day.” “Why?” said his housemother. Whereupon another boy spoke up. “Why, don’t you know that a fellow that don’t brush his teeth every day don’t do a lot of other things he ought to be a-doing?” Bits of philosophy like this make us feel that Pine Mountain training is of avail in unexpected ways.



Here is a tale we have been laughing over. A certain Mr. Saylor, aged about a hundred, who lived on the headwaters of the Kentucky River, had a visit from his son aged seventy-eight. The two went out to the barn to feed the cattle, and the son started up the ladder to throw down the fodder. His tottering steps were restrained by his anxious father, who said, “Now don’t you go up there. Let me go. You might fall.”


Food vs Learning

Becky has had a hard time all year trying to like our food which is very different from beans and pork and cornbread. When she went home for a weekend recently they said to her, “Well, Becky, are ye likin’ the food any better over there at the school?”

“No, but I made up my mind I’d rather have larnin’ than eatin’!”  Her round pink cheeks belie the fact that this small scholar is an ascetic, however.


Bobbed Hair
Miss Pettit to Mrs. Thompson

March 5, 1927

Just now the matter of bobbed hair is troubling the country side. Not long ago a man came in from several miles away to see if it was agin’ the law. He wanted to trip up his little gal but the men he was a-workin with told him it was agin’ the law. And last week word was brought of the statement of a young doctor who says he himself dressed a new-born baby with a moon on its back, a star on its shoulder, and the words “All bobbed-haired women shall die in seven years.” He is said to have made the statement in the presence of some fifty people, the implication being that it is true.

Written by Miss Heins, Secretary.


Miss [Evelyn K.] Wells re Uncle William’s Drinking

In his last illness, Miss Walker, the nurse, urged him to take a little something to comfort him, but he refused, saying he was afraid he’d get the habit. But Sal, she had her daily nip and I know where she kept the bottle behind the clock!


Alice Cobb Stories about Uncle Fiddler John from Mrs. Bartlett and Mrs. Holton

Uncle Fiddler John [Lewis] was one of our neighbors who passed on a few years ago but who is still remembered for his charm and kindliness and native ‘mother wit’ as well as his playing for the running set [Kentucky Running Set] dances in the country. Sometimes he played for groups of workers and students who gathered in the little cabin on the hill above the old post office, and his favorite “piece of music” was one he called “Napoleon Crossing the Rockies”. On one such occasion Miss de Long (?)  suggested, “But Uncle John, Napoleon didn’t cross the Rockies. He was far away across the ocean and his mountains were the Alps.” Uncle John didn’t reply at that moment, but accepted the correction in courteous and dignified silence. The next time a group gathered round to hear the music he began by announcing firmly, “Ladies, I’m aimin’ to play you a piece of music that I calls “Napoleon Crossin’ the Rockies”. Now some folks says that Napoleon never crossed the Rockies … that hit were the Alps mountains he crossed, historians differs on that point.”

Uncle John’s third wife was Aunt Louize. Although Aunt Lou doubtless had a heart of gold, no one however prejudiced he might feel in her favor, could find in her face anything but ‘ugly as sin’ without any of the marks of having been at one time in her early youth anything other than homely. But Uncle John thought she was very nice. He used to enjoy telling about his wives.

“The first one,” he said, “She was a likely young gal, with har o’ gold, but she tuck the gallopin’ consumption [tuberculosis], her lungs caved in like a rock in a shed roof, and I had to lay her on yonder hillside in the ‘rise of her bloom.’ The second was a good enough lookin’ woman, but she took after the devil and worldly ways, and I had to put her aside according’ to God’s holy word. The third one … she was the fairest o’ the flock and we been livin’ together night onto forty years now and never a cross word between us, hain’t we, Loueyes?”

I can remember when he married her, so it’s not 40 years, though he doubtless said so! The great thing was to ask after her health. Sometimes she was “hearty, but weakly (admiringly) a stout, well-built chunk of a heavy woman”, sometimes “Gaily as a buck!” (cf line in old carol, “As merry as bucks in pole.”)

Off the record: the wedding was greatly enjoyed by the neighbors. Aunt Sal said she arrived to give ol’ Aunt Louize a stachel [sic] for a wedding present (to carry the baby’s didies in). The bride was 75+.  (Evelyn K. Wells)

Uncle William [Creech] to Miss [Katherine] Pettit when she had “the bad-cold” in January:  “Katherine, I allus told ye hit wer dangerous to wash your neck after Thanksgiving Day.”  (Evelyn K. Wells)



Dear Miss Motter

I don’t like school.  But I liked what it makes me.  I don’t feel that their is anything so emportain for anyone life as schooling. I have been borned and raised in the mountains of Kentucky, I haven’t been in but three states, and still I have a mind to want to see the World. Four year ago one evening after supper, I met Miss Pettit, up at my uncle house where I was working in the loging woods, and she said Suny why dont you go to school, I said that I coudnt get in.. Mis petit said come and take sumer school so that you can.  I taken the fourth Grade, and now I am stell in school. Inchergement is a great thing for young Boys.

Sincerly yours,

[Brit Wilder as a very young boy. Brit ended up staying at Pine Mountain for all his life and was a much treasured staff worker for the School and an exemplary farmer. Margaret Motter was a favorite English teacher and housemother for many students.]