Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Mother’s Apron Strings

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by Phil James

Lillie Batten Coleman cared for scores of foster children in the area once known as Battonsburg in the Brown’s Cove section of western Albemarle. Her work apron surely daubed many a child’s tears and lifted countless pans and pot handles from the cook stove. (Photo courtesy of Eldon and Mary Morris)
Lillie Batten Coleman cared for scores of foster children in the area once known as Battonsburg in the Brown’s Cove section of western Albemarle. Her work apron surely daubed many a child’s tears and lifted countless pans and pot handles from the cook stove. (Photo courtesy of Eldon and Mary Morris)

“Who wears the apron around your house?” was, once upon a time, a teasing question asked of newlyweds. Though the husband’s profession might have required him to wear a protective apron while on the job, it was once customarily understood that the wife was the apron-wearer at home.

Through the ages, aprons have been a practical overgarment usually worn by those who worked in service to others. Storekeepers, bakers, blacksmiths, maids, waiters and waitresses were only a few of the many professionals whose apron not only afforded protection to their personal clothing, but also signified their line of employment.

The sentimental image of a mother-figure wearing a simple apron, though, is often conjured from memory when we think on the aprons of bygone days.

The Miller School of Albemarle opened in 1878, but it was not until 1884 that girls were admitted. Even the youngest among them were taught to sew. Through their years in the school’s Department of Sewing, they progressed from simple basics to the drafting of patterns and to the eventual making of all their own garments. The essential work apron was produced early in the students’ learning.

Maria Hurt taught Home Economics classes for decades at both Crozet and Albemarle High Schools. “One of the first things I taught the sixth graders,” she recalled recently, “was how to make an apron.”

Looking through family photo albums of only a generation ago reveals images of our mothers, grandmothers and beyond performing tasks in their everyday aprons. Both daily responsibilities and seasonal occupations called for protection from the soiling and fuss involved in the duties of nurturing a family.

Anna Rogers stands with apron donned beside the flower-lined spring near her Jarmans Gap home. She was a thorough homemaker, both inside and outside, and a gracious hostess to all who visited her mountain home. (Photo courtesy of Purcell & Dorothy Mowry Daughtry)
Anna Rogers stands with apron donned beside the flower-lined spring near her Jarmans Gap home. She was a thorough homemaker, both inside and outside, and a gracious hostess to all who visited her mountain home. (Photo courtesy of Purcell & Dorothy Mowry Daughtry)

Imagine, in one photo, a young mother smiling sweetly for the camera, her gowned infant peering up at her face, her ruffled pinafore appearing spotless and pressed. No doubt within a very short while the bibbed apron would again show evidences of the rigors of motherhood.

Another youngster leans closely against his mother’s side, clinging to her apron and staring cautiously at the traveling photographer who happened by their house in hopes of scoring a photographic sale from the rural family.

In another picture, “Aunt Etta” is noted at the bottom of a photo of a lady of color standing outdoors in a yard near Doylesville. Her long apron had probably dried dishes and dusted furniture when a more appropriate towel was not readily at hand.

And another: at a stave mill on the eastern slope of Pasture Fence Mountain, a crew of whiskered fellows gather closely in a group before starting work and stare steely-eyed into the camera lens. A few who arrived at the last minute still hold onto the metal pails containing their midday meal. To the side of this group of men, three ladies rest against log billets destined for the shapers in the mill. All are in sharp focus except for a blurred fidgeting child held on the apron-covered lap of one of the ladies who came to be photographed with her husband.

The task of grading and packing fall apples required a neighborhood of helpers in the 1930s. The community surrounding Walnut Level Farm, today Innisfree Village, turned out—young and old, male and female—to process the orchard’s bounty. In one special image, it is plain to see that the ladies, especially, had prepared for the photo event. All were very neatly dressed, strands of beads adorned a few, and some even sported short heels and fancy hats. Grading work had begun before the photographer arrived that day, evidenced by the full-length aprons and work gloves still worn by some when they stepped to the front of the shed for the group’s portrait.

Mollie Via McAllister is seen feeding the chickens at her Sugar Hollow home. Her printed apron might have been used for gathering fresh eggs or for transporting a bothersome rooster to the chopping block en route to a stew. (Photo courtesy of the McAllister family collection)
Mollie Via McAllister is seen feeding the chickens at her Sugar Hollow home. Her printed apron might have been used for gathering fresh eggs or for transporting a bothersome rooster to the chopping block en route to a stew. (Photo courtesy of the McAllister family collection)

Nora McClure Rea, widowed mother of eight and a direct descendant of John Michie (patriarch of the colonial-era Michie Tavern family) was photographed bent into the work of hoeing her Victory Garden during the challenging days of World War II. Her apron was used to carry the tidy garden’s harvest into the kitchen for processing prior to cooking and canning. The vegetable hulls, husks and trimmings would be carried back to the compost pile so that nothing would be lost as waste.

John Hogarth Lozier (1830–1907) was a chaplain in the Union Army from 1861 to 1864, and then a minister in the Methodist Episcopal church for 25 years. He wrote a poem titled Your Mother’s Apron Strings, and for ten years “delivered it from platform and pulpit in nearly every State in the Union, and in Canada.” His Prologue began thusly:

What shall this frost-crowned veteran say,
Standing in Life’s calm twilight gray,
Whose lengthening shadows stretch away
Over the dreamy past?
The veteran comes, young friend, and sings
About your Mother’s Apron Strings…

In 1898, he published his well-received poem in book form, espousing to an even-wider audience the great value of mothers and motherhood, and the detriments societies and individuals suffer when such principles are neglected.

And thus, till to his heavenly fold
Our wayward feet he brings,
God help us all to keep our hold
On Mother’s Apron Strings.

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Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2011 Phil James