Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Nell and Alice

Before she left this life my maternal grandma, Bernice Lee Hipps Ward, part-Cherokee and listed as #99 on the 1925 Baker Roll of the Eastern Band, allowed me to rifle through boxes of old photographs she had accumulated. I did not steal many of them. The one above, taken in the late ‘40s, was an instant keepsake.

On the left is Grandma’s sister, Nellie Sue Hipps, whom we knew simply as “Aunt Nell.” On the right is Nell’s cousin, Alice Lambert.

This was not just a pretty pose shot. These gals were real musicians, performing in a string band that included Nell’s and Grandma’s brother, Floyd. The group played at dances and social gatherings at Whittier, Cherokee and other communities around the Smoky Mountains of Swain and Jackson Counties, NC.

I love this old picture of sunburned smiles and tender surety. Music runs through this side of my family as smoothly as the Tuckasegee River flows past Whittier. I took up the banjo before ever realizing that Nell had played it. She could also pick a guitar. They were an artsy family: Grandma painted mountain scenes with gristmills; Nell wrote songs, poetry, and stories. She was proud to be part-Cherokee and “part-Dutch,” as she called it. There’s a little more to that story.

In 1766 a second-generation German settler named Stephen Hipp (Hepp), whose father had come over from Rheinland-Pfalz, acquired 250 rolling, wooded acres near the confluence of Gar Creek and the Catawba River – what is now Mountain Island Lake – in northwest Mecklenburg County, NC, about 185 miles east of Cherokee. Ironically, some 230 years later I would appraise a subdivision of “McMansions” on that very site, completely unaware that my great ancestor had owned it before the American Revolution.

There’s another twist: around the same time Stephen Hipp acquired his land, Richard Lambert, one of four brothers from Yorkshire, England, also settled in Mecklenburg County not more than 15 miles from Hipp. Who would have guessed that it would take 150 years and parallel migrations to the Smoky Mountains for these two families to merge?

Stephen Hipp’s great-grandson Nathan Robert Hipps settled in Buncombe County (near Asheville) in the mid-19th century. Four of his sons served in the “Confederate war,” as the old-timers in the mountains called it. Nathan’s great-grandson, my great-grandfather, Joseph Leonidas Hipps, moved to Swain County near the Whittier community sometime in the early 1900’s. There, he met and married Verda Lambert, daughter of Samuel Carson Lambert, son of Richard Lambert’s great-grandson Hugh and wife Nancy Raper, a half-Cherokee who descended from Old Hop, headman of Chota.

Unlike her brothers, Verda had traces of the high cheekbones and black hair in her Cherokee ancestry – characteristics passed on variously to Bernice, Floyd and Nell. Alice Lambert, who also descended from Sam’s line, retained more European features.

I never got to know Alice who, last I heard, was residing somewhere in or around Brevard, NC. Nell, who passed from this life several years ago, I knew very well. We visited with her family regularly when I was a youth. I stayed with her the night my parents took her daughter into Asheville to see the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde – the film that made Earl Scruggs’ banjo-picking famous. She sat me on her lap and told me stories that I don’t remember. She also baked the best bread I’ve ever eaten in my life – made from indefinitely shaped clumps of dough, gigantic versions of what Grandpa Ward (Bernice’s husband) called “catheads,” tossed haphazardly onto a greased pan.

What I would give to eat another piece of that bread…and to hear Nell and Alice jam.

1 comment:

The Underground Pewster said...

Great picture, too bad we don't have a recording, but just imagining the sound is lots of fun too.