Saturday, April 28, 2012

Artifacts from Vardy, Hancock County,Tennessee

Digital Library of Applachia

Artifacts from Vardy, Hancock County,Tennessee

Katherine Vande Brake, Professor of English and Technical Communication
King College, Bristol, TN
The items from Vardy that E. W. King Library at King College contributes to the DLA collection restate the themes so clearly outlined in Michael Joslin's introductory essay to the digital library project--community, isolation, religion, literacy, and hard work. However, these photographs, records of the Vardy Presbyterian Church, and other documents also expand the collection in an important way. Many of the people who lived in the Vardy community were descendants of the Melungeons and can trace their family lines back to the first Melungeons in Tennessee--Vardiman Collins, Shepherd Gibson, and Irish Jim Mullins who came to take up land grants in what was then Hawkins County shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War. So the Vardy artifacts provide an opportunity to see and understand how a significant Appalachian minority group lived and worked in the first half of the twentieth century. They also show the effect of missionary work in the southern mountains
Vardy, named after early settler Vardiman Collins, is a narrow valley between Powell Mountain and Newman's Ridge just north of Sneedville, Tennessee, the county seat of Hancock County.
In the early twentieth century there were many families both farming in the valley and living on either Powell Mountain or Newman's Ridge. In many ways it was like other similar Applachian communities--isolated by geography but self-sufficient. People raised what they needed for food, bartered with their neighbors, built their homes from the lumber readily available on their land, worshiped in small churches they could walk to, worked together on house and barn raisings or homemade quilts, paid their taxes, and sent their young men off to war when the nation called for them. Selling timber, tobacco , and moonshine liquor were ways to raise cash. In fact one Melungeon woman, Mahala Collins Mullins, was famous for two things--the quality of her moonshine and her size.
There was some history of trouble at the courthouse in Sneedville when certain valley residents had gone to vote in the 1840s. They were told they couldn't vote--it was against the law for "free persons of color." Records show that fines were levied. Other records show that the proud Melungeons refused to attend a segregated Negro school, instead they built a "subscription" school in their valley and hired their own teacher.
In 1897, a man named Christopher Humble visited Vardy and set a process in motion that has had far-reaching effects. Humble was a "reconnaissance man" for the Presbyterian Church USA and was looking to begin a mission in the valley. He had heard of or met Batey Collins, whom he calls the "chief" of the Melungeons. Soon after Humble's visit missionary women arrived to hold Sunday schools and to visit the families of the valley. By 1899 a church was built and in 1902 there was a new school building.
A mission was not unusual; there were many denominational efforts throughout the southern mountains that started churches, did health work, and built schools. However this one was unusual in several ways:
  • two missionaries came early and stayed long, Mary Rankin (1910-1943) and Chester Leonard (1920-1952);
  • these two were highly skilled, compatible (not always the case), and visionary
  • the school they inspired community members to build was a model for both private and public education in the region for decades:
  • Rankin and Leonard were undaunted by the epithet Melungeon and thus ministered to this marginalized group;
  • their former pupils have formed The Vardy Community Historical Society that has made the church into an attractive and informative museum, moved and restored the Mahala Mullins cabin, and completed an impressive oral history project that culminated in a book.

Cont. here:

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wally Rankin said...

Miss Mary J. Rankin is my Great Great Aunt. I am trying to find more information about her time in Vardy. I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction or provide me some information.


Wallace Rankin

Anonymous said...

Hello Wallace,
I have been researching the life and work of your GG Aunt Mary Rankin, and would be interested in further communication with you to share information. Please e-mail me at: or

Sharon Loury