Orleana Hawks Puckett

 

In the Doe Run section of The Hollow in the years after the War Between the States lived the most famous woman to come from the southwestern part of Patrick County or at least along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Seldom does one person have two sites commemorating their life. This is not the case for Orleana Hawks Puckett. The National Park Service of the United States Department of Interior denotes the life of the famous midwife at milepost 189.9 along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Several miles away at the foot of Groundhog Mountain, a cemetery with over twenty fieldstones marks the tragedy of her life. Raleigh and Shelby Inscore Puckett and other members of their family took up the task in preserving the family cemetery relating to their famous relative in 2003.

Orleana Puckett: The Life of Mountain Midwife tells the story of a woman who brought over a thousand babies into the world as a midwife while suffering the tragedy of losing 24 of her own children. The author believes one parent was Rh-negative and the other Rh-positive, which resulted in serious medical problems for their children. The book not only tells of John and Orleana Puckett, but also of living in rural Patrick County dealing with the practice of midwifery and day-to-day life.

Orleana, the blonde, blue-eyed daughter of Hardin and Matilda Puckett Hawks, married John Puckett, the son of Jacob and Sarah Marshall Puckett in 1860. They moved to the foot of the mountain in The Hollow, present day Ararat. The next year Civil War erupted with John and many of his kinsmen and neighbors joining Jefferson T. Lawson’s Company K, 50th Virginia Infantry. This unit saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war from Fort Donelson in Tennessee, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg until most of those left were captured at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, on May 12, 1864, the day J. E. B. Stuart died in Richmond.

During the war the first child born to Orleana and John Puckett, Julia, died of diphtheria, part of an apparent epidemic in Patrick County during 1862 per the death register in the courthouse. While living at the foot of the mountain, Orleana had another eighteen pregnancies, but none of the children survived. Each child lies today in a small cemetery less than a mile south of their cabin at the foot of the mountain.

            John and Orleana moved to the top of the mountain in 1875. It was a time of traditions and self-sufficiency when chestnut trees supplied food and beautiful wood before the blight took them. Girls slept under a new quilt hoping to dream of their future husband. Midwives delivered babies following traditions such as placing an axe under the bed to cut the pain or a pan of water under the bed to ease fever. Orleana delivered her first baby, McKinley Bowman in 1889. She would continue the practice until just before her death. Among those she delivered was the future Reverend Bob Childress “The Man Who Moved a Mountain.” Sadly, she lost five more children of her own bringing the total to 24.

John Puckett died on March 30, 1912, after 52 years of marriage. Orleana persevered delivering babies and making the most of her life on Groundhog Mountain. As part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935, the Blue Ridge Parkway began at the North Carolina/Virginia line. The next year work began on the 26 miles stretch in Carroll County. In 1939, as the Blue Ridge Parkway approached her front door, Orleana Puckett was given thirty days notice to vacate her cabin. At first, the National Park Service did not want her home and the family began moving the structure. When removing the siding revealed chestnut logs underneath officials reconsidered, but the family remembering how Aunt Orleana was treated, refused. Orleana Hawks Puckett died three weeks later on October 21, 1939, of what many believed to be a broken heart.

Shelby Inscore Puckett summed it best in Smith’s book writing, “a row of twenty unmarked field stones in an abandoned family cemetery stands as a reminder of the heartache suffered by this woman. But the Puckett Cabin stands as a very public monument to ‘Aunt’ Orleana Hawks Puckett’s strength and determination as she overcame her own adversity and devoted her life to helping other women achieve what she could not.”

            In early 2003, Raleigh Puckett, Roger Puckett and Cordell Bowman cleaned the cemetery located just off Doe Run Road about two miles from Ararat. Raleigh split over 100 rails and placed them around the fieldstones marking the graves of Orleana and John Puckett’s children. This effort in preserving a small part of the rich history of Patrick County gives all of us an example on respect for our ancestors and that preservation of family history begins at home. Most people consider history that deals with just dates and facts as boring, but history is seldom boring when it deals with people especially when they are part of our own family. Preserving history is a task we should all embark on sometime in our lives especially when it is our own family history.

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