Clementine: ‘The Queen of the Cumberlands

Published 10:54 pm Wednesday, May 2, 2018

In the days before cell phones, computerized cars or microwaves lived a group of women who ran when they heard a need, saddled a horse in the rain, and cooked stew in an iron pot over a fire to feed a family. They loved God and understood giving was more important than receiving.

Clemmie Copeland was born in 1882 in the Cumberland mountains of Tennessee. She grew up in a one-room cabin with two glass windows, one door, seven siblings and her parents. The heat provided during the winter came from the home’s small rock fireplace.

Clemmie’s mother was a striking, resolute woman respected and known throughout the Cumberlands as Aunt Hennie. Her other titles were “Herb Doctor” or “Granny Woman” because she reputed to have delivered 1500 babies, often riding through the rugged, forested terrain to reach those in need of her services.

When the evening shadows fell through the windows, the lanterns illuminated both Clemmie and her mother using tiny pieces of cloth, a needle and thread to create beauty from old pants, dresses,or rags. Hand stitched patchwork quilts were crafted to provide warmth for the family as well as gifts for others.

They spun cloth on spinning wheels or canned green beans on rainy days if they couldn’t work in the fields and gardens.  Their hands were never idle nor were their minds; thank goodness.   

Clemmie Copeland Pugh lived 103 years.  When she reached her 100th birthday, her hometown proclaimed Sept. 12 to be Clemmie Pugh Day.  Over 500 people gathered to celebrate this venerable woman who became known as the “Queen of the Cumberlands.” 

After Clemmie married William Pugh in 1900, she started producing more quilts. Each tiny stitch creating patterns sewn by her nimble fingers and envisioned in her inventive mind. Each became a work of treasured art.

When interviewed after her 100th birthday, a reporter asked Clemmie  f it was true she had made more than 400 quilts, and she replied, 

“Well, I’ve made ever’ bit of that many!” Laughing, she continued, “I always kept a quilt on hand, and then when I’d set myself down to rest, you know, I take my work up and work on the quilt.”   

“Did you ever sell any?” he asked.

“My son sold one, but I’d give ‘um all away. My husband said I gave a good living away too. But, I never lost anything by giving folks something.”

Clemmie’s quilts are stunning, but what rendered them a work of art was the work of her heart. She completed 11 more quilts after her 100th birthday all stitched by hand. Her family’s rich history, photographs and samples of her talent are displayed in the Appalachian Museum and in a book, which is still for sale throughout the country today.

My great-grandmother quilted with Clemmie at the church many an evening as a social gathering. Good friends, lots of laughter, and hard work united these women together not to waste idle time but to sew a stitch in time to be shared for the generations to follow. “They all took up their work after work was done.”

When I contemplate how we use our hands today compared to the creations by hands long ago, it stops me in my tracks. As my fingers glide over the keyboard to type these words, I am grateful for those who taught me, “Idle hands are useless.” 

Today we use our fingers to text, we use them for the remote, we twiddle our thumbs in boredom, we wring our hands in worry and we waste time. In the generations before us, no one had time to waste.  One rested while stitching or spinning, canning or cooking a pie for a sick neighbor. They gave their time freely and used their hands wisely.

Since the 1800s our lives are physically more comfortable, and women have more freedoms. Most of us live in more than a one-room home that houses ten people. We have hospitals we can rush to with obstetricians instead of Aunt Granny. We have a Target where we can buy a quilt to keep us warm and buy green beans in a can.  We park our cars on crowded, hot pavements instead of horses cooling in the shade.

However, are we happier? Could it be we are not using our idle minds and hands to create comfort or cheer for someone else? All of us, men and women, would leave our earth a better place by learning from those folks who knew with certainty, “we never lose anything by giving folks something.”

Staying busy producing joy for others fills our lives with happiness; period.

If we do use our idle hands for good, we might live to be 103 and celebrate with a smile on our face, just like my Aunt Clementine, “The Queen of the Cumberlands.”