We’ve been here almost 50 years, and with a population of fewer than 800 at the time we came, it was inevitable that we would become acquainted with Woodstock’s citizens soon.
The joke at the Baptist church was that when a family moved to Woodstock, Mary Howell camped on their doorstep to be sure they could find the church on the next Sunday. She would promise to save them a seat.
I don’t remember that she was waiting for us the day we arrived. More likely, it was Bertha Barnes who greeted us first, the best neighbor anybody could ever want.
But we soon came to know Mrs. Howell. One common mark against the two of us is that we were not born here. When you think about women in Woodstock’s history, you want to assume that those women were natives. I imagine Mrs. Howell felt about that much like I do – I wasn’t born here, either, but got here as quickly as I could.
Mary Smith Howell was born Jan. 30, 1900, in Union County in the north Georgia mountains. She was the fourth of 12 children born to James Martin and Theodoria Victoria Dills Smith.
There were also two children from Mr. Smith’s first marriage. The farming family lived in a log house which, through the years, had been built onto on all sides as the family grew.
Mrs. Howell, in her memoir titled “Greener Grows Mary,” tells about her life in the mountains. They lived about half a mile from the “meeting house,” Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, which was also used for the schoolhouse.
She admits to being careless in penmanship, with a left-handed script that left much to be desired. She attributes this to the fact that she would not try to write with her right hand since she sucked her right thumb way too long, and couldn’t give that up to use it for writing.
There was no cotton farming in those mountain counties, but Mrs. Howell tells how their life changed because of that.
“We were settled and happy in the mountains but some of our friends had moved to the cotton country and when they would come back to visit they would talk to Papa … and others to persuade them to come on down.”
And so it was that on Nov. 11, 1911, four families in 11 covered wagons made their way down to Jackson County near Athens.
It was during that trip that little Mary Smith saw her first person of color, first train and first automobile close up. Although the move to Jackson County turned out not to be permanent, it was there, in July 1912, that the 12th baby was born.
The baby died a week later, and the mother died in October. A later move found them in Cherokee County, and this time they rode a real train, instead of a wagon train, to TooNigh.
Mary taught school in TooNigh for one term, then enrolled at Mary P. Willingham at Blue Ridge to continue her own education. But that was not to be because she was needed at home.
On Jan. 18, 1920, Mary married Luther Howell, who lived in the Mill Creek community. In 1935, she, Luther and their daughters, Sara and Marie, moved to Woodstock.
Mr. Howell worked for the J. H. Johnston Co., and later opened a grocery store. The family lived in the lovely Victorian home occupied today by Beverly’s Day Spa.
But all of this is history before my time.
I can only attest to the Mary Howell that I remember. Her life was one of devotion and laughter, of commitment and fellowship, of love and sharing.
In the introduction to her memoirs, her friend Martha Dorsey had this to say: “I was drawn to this exuberant personality who experienced living with such vibrancy and excitement. When I spent time with her, I knew I would have fun, and the atmosphere would be charged with warmth and good feelings.”
She was my Sunday School teacher, but she taught me much more than those lessons.
She died on Sept. 1, 1991, leaving friends and family blessed by having known her. Today is her birthday, a time to remember and be thankful for the many ways she touched our lives.
Juanita Hughes is Woodstock’s official historian and former director of the Woodstock Public Library.