The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Friendly Persuasion Revised

By Jesse Walter Birdwell © 1996

Issue: Summer, 1996

Dedicated to my grandson, and the children of the Blue Ridge Mountains where I discovered my "roots."

My fondest childhood memories are those of days spent in Upper East Tennessee, in and around Johnson City. My parents were natives of that town and we visited my mother's side of the family throughout my early years. My earliest memory was a visit to my great-grandmother Armstrong's farm near Church Hill, outside Kingsport. My mother and grandmother took me out to her farm for a short visit one day. I was about four.

Mrs. Armstrong was a very thin old lady. I remember her sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of her frame house. Mother and Grandmother chatted awhile and I was allowed to explore out back. A haystack and a chicken coop were my first farm experiences. The smell of cut hay and the "clucking" of the chickens are forever mine. I felt like I was at the real 'Old MacDonald's Farm" I had been taught to sing about.

I peeked into the coop and saw chickens scurry out the back. New smells tickled my nose as I entered their private domain. I stood there alone and gazed at a beautiful white egg sitting right in the middle of a straw nest. O Boy! A real egg! Right from the chicken! Well, I reached out and gently picked it up. But there was something wrong with it. It was as heavy as a rock. I cautiously held it in my two hands and carried it back around to the front to show the women. "Look Mommy, a real egg!" I proclaimed. But as she lifted it out of my hands she began to chuckle and handed it on to great-grandmother Armstrong. They all smiled as Mrs. Armstrong explained that this was no ordinary egg. It was a very special egg that she had put there. I didn't understand. I had hoped it might be something like the "golden egg" that the goose had laid in the story. As it turned out, it was a "porcelain egg" that she put in the nest to make the hens lay their own. A memorable lesson I've remembered over 40 years.

Time passed. Each visit to the Tri-Cities area reinforced the feeling that my real home and family were there and that someday my tenure in Florida would end and I could come home. Childhood gave way to youth. Youth opened the door of my heart. I fell in love with a mountain girl named Melody Miller. A "Summer Love" who vanished into the mist of time. High school came and still found me living in Florida. Visits to Tennessee had slowed. I ended up trying college at East Tennessee State for a year, but I was so homesick for my girlfriend I couldn't stay. My parents were to move back to Johnson City soon thereafter. My Dad had lost his business and it was time for them to heal.

I went on to marry my "Junior High Sweetheart." Our daughters were born. Visits to East Tennessee where solely to expose my family to the Blue Ridge I loved. My mother's family was always very gracious to us as the girls grew up. They were fortunate to know their great-grandmother Bolton and her family. I am very proud to know that Bolton blood runs in my veins.

In 1956 my parents took me to see the movie, "The Friendly Persuasion," I was 11. I realized when I saw the movie that it was about "the Birdwell's" of the Civil War Era. Coincidentally, the main character played by Gary Cooper was "Jess Birdwell." My first name is Jesse, as was my father's and grandfather's. I remember them laughing about the possibility of the story being about my ancestors. I grew up hoping that it was because I knew very little about my dad's side of the family. I did know that my grandfather Birdwell had died a long time ago, long before I was born. And in fact had died when Daddy was just a little boy. Our family tradition had it that he had drowned trying to save two little girls from the same fate at a young age. It always seemed to be a painful subject to my dad and it was just something we didn't talk about over the years. I grew up an only child losing my one male Birdwell cousin to cancer. "Little John" went to count the stars as Daddy explained to me. Uncle John, Aunt Evelyn and cousin Barbara were never the same.

Daddy died in '74 after a long illness. Brother John soon thereafter. Aunt Evelyn Carter Birdwell to follow. Barbara never married and we drifted apart. As far as I knew, I was the only Birdwell on the planet. Or at least I thought so. Recollections of Birdwell names kept coming back to me. A Birdwell made swim shorts out in California. There was a Birdwell who played for the Houston "Oiler's" a long time ago. I saw a big rig one day with Birdwell splashed all over it. But I sure didn't know any of them.

My elder daughter married. My wife and I had a brief trip to see my mother. I coerced my wife to go over to Kingsport where my grandfather was reportedly from. I had reached an age that I had to know more about my "Birdwell" roots. So we drove over and I looked in the phone book to see if there were any Birdwell's left there. Well there were. I called a number and explained my situation. The elderly lady said I needed to call a lady who could help me. The next phone call opened a door in my life that I still have trouble understanding. I've discovered I have a wonderful Birdwell history dating back 5 generations from my Grandfather Birdwell right there in Sullivan County! The summer of '88 stands as a hallmark in my life. Here three years later I am still trying to absorb all the information that is being sent me.

What does a person do at age 43 when they discover their long lost heritage? I think you start writing things down and keeping a record. It's no time to ask, "Why?" I believe things come to us when we are ready. So I've started writing. It's even come to me I might be able to squeeze a book or two out of all I'm coming to learn. I would love to leave a written legacy for my grandson and his siblings to come. And I would like to leave a record of my family for the children of Sullivan County and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hopefully it will stand as a contribution that will enrich our culture and help preserve our Blue Ridge heritage.

A sample of the stories I hope to write about is one of my grandfather. Jesse Walter Birdwell was born in Sullivan County in March of 1878. He had 3 brothers and 5 sisters there. He would go on to marry Willie Olivia Cox of Johnson City. They would marry on February 24, 1910 at the Muncey Memorial Church in Johnson City. They would have two sons. While Mrs. Birdwell lived in Johnson City with the boys, America would declare war against Germany in 1917. Mr. Birdwell would find work away from home in Taylor Springs, Illinois in early 1918, He would settle into a job as a security guard at a local Zinc plant. Although not well known, he was reportedly respected and liked. June would find him making his rounds as usual. His duty was to secure the grounds and keep people off the property. A small lake on the grounds was known as a hang-out for the local kids and he would periodically shoo little groups away. June 17 would be a different day though. Attracted by the voices of children at play he started toward the lake. The laughter turned to screams of panic as 12 year old Zerene Tinnell and 15 year old Viola Skutnick slipped from the knee deep bank into eight foot water and began to drown.

Spontaneously, Jesse Birdwell age 38, chose to act. I would like to think that 138 years of Birdwell heritage and character of Sullivan County, Tennessee came into action. The action that makes men "heroes" rather than "cowards." The divinely directed quality that only some men posses. The altruistic impulse to act courageously and selflessly, to risk one's life to save another's.

My grandfather stood underwater as Zerene and Viola were held up on his shoulders and James Edward Gaffney age 14 swam to the girls and brought them to shore. Edward drug my grandfather's unconscious body to shore afterwards where he died. His body was returned to Kingsport for burial on June 21st, 1918.

He received the Andrew Carnegie 'Hero Award" posthumously, which has the Scriptural quote of John XV,13 - "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." I'm very proud of my grandfather, although I know the pain and hardship that my dad and his brother endured growing up from 7 and 5 fatherless.

Just this past month I received information from Mrs. Ruth Wexler in Kingsport that proves that my great-grandfather was also Jesse Walter Birdwell. He also lived in Sullivan County from 1830 through 1907. And since he is my namesake, I want to write a book to commemorate the lives and times of the "real" Jess Birdwell during and after the Civil War. It will end as I recount his son's heroic deed as he became the personification of the meaning of "Friendly Persuasion."