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Photograph With An Amazing Story

Percilla Sue Counts
Percilla Sue Counts

The photograph above was taken by Percilla Sue Counts of Boone, N.C., formerly of the SandLick community in Dickenson County, VA. It was one of 46 images selected for the 10th annual Appalachian Mountain Photography Competition Exhibition.

The final 46 photographs were selected from more than 1,000 submissions. The exhibition will be on display at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts at Appalachian State University, 423 W. King St., Boone, N.C., through mid-August.

Sue shares this amazing story behind her photograph. The photograph is titled: ” ‘Aunt’ Orelena’s Story,” the photograph was taken on Sept. 16, 2012 at Milepost 189.9 at the Puckett Cabin at Milepost 189.9 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

‘Aunt’ Orelena’s Story (Sue Counts)
‘Aunt’ Orelena’s Story (Sue Counts)

Shown in the photo is actor/playwright Phyllis Stump of Lexington, N.C., who walked up the path to the outdoor setting where she would perform her one-woman, one-act play titled, “They Call Me Aunt Orlene (spelling of her name varies depending on the historical source).”

I had heard about the play from my Aunt Frenchie, who had read about it in Blue Ridge Country Magazine. Aunt Frenchie and I had visited the Puckett Cabin in the fall of 2011 during our trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and she knew of my interest in this woman.

It was a very cloudy morning in Boone, and the clouds thickened and fog gathered as I drove to Milepost 189.9 with my picnic, camera and lawn chair. When I arrived at Puckett Cabin, it was so foggy that I really felt the play would be cancelled. The Blue Ridge Park Ranger, however, assured me that it was going on as scheduled.

I enjoyed my picnic in my car. Afterward, I got out with my lawn chair, camera and hooded raincoat and found a front row seat. A few other people (maybe 30) had gathered with their chairs, and we waited for Phyllis Stump to appear.

I started snapping a few pictures as the fog created a mysterious look and feeling to the surroundings. Then I saw Ms. Stump walking up the path to the area where she would share the amazing story of Aunt Orlene. I continued to take pictures until she reached the rocking chair.

The photographs were wonderful and the performance magnificent!

According to Phyllis Stump’s play, “They Call Me Aunt Orlene” and Karen Cecil Smith’s book, “Orlean Puckett … The Life of a Mountain Midwife,” Aunt Orlean Hawks Puckett lived from 1844 until 1939 in the area of Carroll and Patrick counties, Va., along what is now Milepost 189.9 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

She got married at age 16 and had 24 children. Her first child, Julia Ann, was born in 1862 and lived only a few months. It is believed that she died of diphtheria.

Aunt Orlean had 23 other pregnancies, but none of the children survived more than a few days, possibly as a result of Rh hemolytic disease. Aunt Orlean’s last child was born in October 1881 when she was around 37 years old.

In 1889, when Aunt Orlean was 45 years of age, she was asked to assist in the home birth of Kinney Bowman. Aunt Orlean had finally found her mission in life – being a “granny woman” to assist in bringing healthy babies into the world. Aunt Orlean delivered around 1,000 babies – the last one, Maxwell Hawks – on Aug. 30, 1938, a year before she died at age 95. Her mission in life had been fulfilled!

Years after her death, Aunt Orlean continues to be recognized and honored for her valuable work. The Orelena Hawks Puckett Institute) in Asheville, N.C., is a nonprofit engaging in activities that enhance and promote healthy child, parent and family functioning.

In 2012, Aunt Orleana Hawks Puckett was honored with the “Virginia Women in History” recognition after being nominated by Larnette Snow, librarian with the Blue Ridge and Meadow of Dan Elementary Schools.

I’ve always been fascinated by the miracle of birth. When I was 16, I was allowed to be present at the “home delivery” of my niece, Ramona Jean Branham. My sister, her husband and their 1-1/2-year-old daughter, Deborah Sue, lived up the road from us. They did not have a lot of household money, and it had been arranged for Dr. Tivis Colley “T.C.” Sutherland to come to their home to deliver the new baby. On Sept. 12, 1959, my sister let us know that the time for the birth had come.

I accompanied my grandmother, Carrie Arrington Edwards, mother Allene Edwards Counts Sykes, great aunt Myrtle Arrington Edwards and neighbor May Edwards Colley to my sister’s home to wait with her for the miracle of birth. Mother had promised Dr. “Tiv” that she would not call on him until the time was upon us. So we women waited, told stories of other births, caught up on the neighborhood gossip, cooked a pot of soup beans and made cornbread to have ready for Dr. Tiv after he delivered the baby … and boiled water.

Dr. Tiv got there at the very end, and I was by my sister’s side when Mona presented herself to the world – a healthy 9 lb. 4 oz. baby girl.

Mona was among the last babies that the old mountain doctor delivered in the rural area of SandLick in Dickenson County, Va. in the Appalachian Mountains. He died a year later on Oct. 21, 1960 at age 80.

It wasn’t until the fall of 1962 that I finally visited the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. Oh, I had heard many stories because my father, Ray Clinton Counts, had been a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that helped to build it.

My college roommate in Hillcrest Hall on the Virginia Tech campus was from Floyd County, and she invited me to go home with her that fall. Her parents, the Harmons, were some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. They took me up on the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the sights and to visit Mabry Mill and Milepost 189.9. Needless to say, the beauty of the fall foliage was breathtaking along this magnificent wonder.

They were making apple butter at Mabry Mill, and there were other “mountain” demonstrations. I really enjoyed all of that, but what really got my attention was the story about Aunt Orlean Puckett at Milepost 189.9. I recall Mrs. Harmon sharing the story about Aunt Orlean, a midwife who gave birth to 24 of her own children – none of whom survived – but who went on to help birth 1,000 healthy babies in these mountains where there were no doctors or other midwives.

According to the Virginia Women in History website: “Women have played an integral part in Virginia from its beginnings, yet their contributions have often been overlooked in the history books. Until well into the 20th Century, written histories tended to focus on the historically male-dominated fields of government and politics, the military and large-scale landholding to the virtual exclusion of all other venues of leadership or achievement. They ignored women’s critical roles as wives, mothers, educators, nurses, lay leaders, farmers, artists, writers, reformers, pioneers, business leaders, laborers and community builders. But this National Women’s History Month, join us in celebrating these Women in History Honorees.” Visit the Virginia Women in History website for more information.

A footnote: The spelling of Orelena varies depending on the source, and appears in the following variations: Orlene, Orlean, Orleana, Orelena, or as some of the Census takers recorded, Olinah, Pauline, Aulina, Orlena, Aulina, Orlenna Orlean, Orlene. The Virginia Women in History chose Orleana Hawks Puckett. Take your pick.