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SKS Publishing Company
Etta ¿Granny¿ Nichols: Last of the Old-Timey Midwives

Etta ¿Granny¿ Nichols: Last of the Old-Timey Midwives


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Etta ¿Granny¿ Nichols: Last of the Old-Timey Midwives

Etta "Granny" Nichols was born May 19, 1897. She was raised in the Appalachian Mountains, where she endured the hardships of growing up without modern day conveniences. She learned about medicine by going on house calls with her father, John Lewis Grigsby, who was the only country doctor the mountain people had without traveling 20 miles to Newport, the nearest town. Etta began helping her father deliver babies at the age of 13, and began her midwife career on her own at the age of 33.

The book contains historical information about Cocke County, TN, and tells about the endless challenges the mountain people faced every day in order to survive. There are funny stories and sad stories.

Etta Nichols delivered over 2,000 babies during her 59 years of being a midwife, and never charged more than $15.00 per delivery. She delivered her last baby one week prior to her 92nd birthday.

Etta began receiving recognition from the Press in the early 1970's. She was interviewed by many surrounding county newspapers many times, and appeared on the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw on October 11, 1985. Etta tells her story in People Magazine in the April, 1986 issue, and appeared in the National Geographic, Vol. 169, No 5 in May, 1986. In October, 1986, Gov. Lamar Alexander honored Etta by giving her a Tennessee Homecoming certificate signed by him, and a state flag that had flown in Nashville. She was the Humanitarian award winner chosen from six different counties in 1987. She is also mentioned in several books.

This book will inspire, sadden, amuse, and intensify the emotions of the reader. It is definitely a "must read" for any one to add to their library.

About the Author:

Born in 1957, Sharon Kay Smith-Ledford is the fourth child of Mr. and Mrs. Floyd J. Smith. She was raised about a mile away from her grandmother, Etta Nichols. She attended Del Rio Elementary School, and Cocke County High School. After graduating in 1974, Sharon attended Morristown Voc/Tech where she studied Office Occupations. From there she went on to Walter's State Community College. Sharon now resides in Morristown, Tennessee.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781570873638
Publisher: SKS Publishing Company
Publication date: 04/01/1998
Pages: 259

Read an Excerpt


Harrison Nichols was the first born son of Millard Nichlos and Martha Cordelia Clements Nichols. He was born October 14, 1896. He had one younger full brother, Claude Nichols. Harrison's father died from "the fever" when Harrison was just a young boy. His mother, Martha, remarried after several years and gave birth to twin boys, Clayton and Clyde Crowder. Martha had a twin, too, named Mary. After the birth of the twin boys came Thora, Lula, Roy, and Pearl Crowder. The children grew up on a small farm in Del Rio in an area known as Bear Branch.

After they were first married, Harrison and Etta lived with John Lewis and Novie. Etta became pregnant soon after. Novie discovered she, too, was pregnant a few weeks after Etta made her announcement.

Harrison helped in the fields and the sawmill while Etta continued her household chores. John Lewis added more rooms to their small house after acquiring the sawmill. It was now spacious enough for all the family to live comfortably. The downstairs contained a large kitchen, and a front room had two beds, several straight-back chairs, and a fireplace. There were two bedrooms downstairs, while the upstairs contained several more straw-tick mattresses where the boys slept. There were no walls; it was just one large open space upstairs. The floors were made from yellow poplar which were scrubbed clean with Red Devil lye soap.

The time came to send for a midwife for Etta. Mary Bible Smith had delivered numerous babies. Harrison journeyed on horseback to retrieve her from her home across from Walnut Holler, up the road several miles from Midway.

It had been two days since Mary arrived to help deliver Etta's baby; it still had not come. "The first child always takes it's time. Ain't no need to try an' rush it. It'll git here when it's good n' ready," John Lewis told Etta.

Novie was not too far from being ready to have her baby, and with Etta in the bed, no one was cooking. Mary was getting hungrier by the minute. Novie's brother, Tom Turner, and his wife lived up the road from John Lewis and Novie. Mrs. Turner came to visit on Mary's second day there. She could tell Mary was hungry. She returned on the third day with a big plate of greens she picked from the woods, new potatoes, cornbread, and a big glass of buttermilk. Mary ate as if she were about to starve to death. Mary's voice was filled with gratitude as she told Mrs. Turner, "That's the best dinner I've eat in all my life!"

Harrison was out in the field working when Mary sent Alvertie out to fetch him. The time had come. John Lewis was gone; he would miss the opportunity of delivering his first grandchild. Harrison came running to the house when Alvertie told him the time had come. He pulled up a chair on the front porch and sat down. He leaned the back of the chair against the wall as he waited anxiously for his firstborn to arrive. Mary and Novie tried several times to get Harrison to come inside and help since John was not there. They wanted Harrison to stand over Etta and let her pull on his arm when she had a bearing-down pain; it would help her to be able to push harder. Novie could not help Etta since she was ready to deliver soon herself. On their last attempt to get Harrison to help he just looked down at his feet, shook his head, and replied, "No taters! No taters!" He was not about to enter a room where a woman was giving birth. Novie got so angry with Harrison she raked him over the coals for not being willing to help his wife. Etta gave one strong push and a red, wrinkled little baby girl entered the world. Mary tied the umbilical cord, then cut it. She held the baby upside down by her feet and smacked her little bottom. Hearing a loud cry, Harrison realized he was now a father. Mary cleaned the baby up and put her in a soft baby gown and blanket. She placed her in Etta's arms then went outside to tell Harrison he had a daughter. It was July 30, 1917, when Harrison and Etta became the proud parents of Emily Laura Nichols.

Three weeks after Etta gave birth to her first child Novie gave birth to another son on August 17, 1917. He was named after his father, except his middle name was spelled differently. John Louis Grigsby became the newest member of the Grigsby family. To avoid confusion, they would call him J.L.

John Lewis had not been as successful in the lumber business as he had hoped. As a matter of fact, it looked as if he was going to lose his land to George Runnion. John Lewis could not let that happen. He went to the courthouse in Newport; there he put all his land in Waitsel's name. Somehow John Lewis knew he would find a way to pay Mr. Runnion the money he had borrowed from him.

Novie often sat on the front porch talking to female visitors, leaving Alvertie in charge of watching Creed, who was six years old now. On this particular day, Novie had been outside for hours. Alvertie was growing tired from having to keep a constant eye on her little brother. They were in the front room of the house There was a straightback chair in front of the fireplace with the back turned towards the fire. A garment was draped over the back of the chair to dry.

Alvertie was on the other side of the room from the fireplace. Creed made a run for the chair and climbed up on it. Before Alvertie could get to him, Creed started climbing up the back of the chair. It toppled over, throwing Creed into the fireplace. Alvertie screamed for her mother as she tried to drag Creed from the burning embers. Novie rushed inside to see what had happened. In a panic Novie yelled for John Lewis who was working down at the sawrnill. John Lewis came running up to the house when he heard the terror in Novie's cries. Creed had been severely burned over most of his upper body. John Lewis sent for his father, J.B. While awaiting his father's arrival John Lewis peeled the scorched clothing from his son's burnt body as he lay on the bed in torturous pain. J.B. came quickly to aid his grandson. He first cleaned the burnt areas, then he rubbed the burns with a special healing salve before wrapping clean, white clothes loosely around the burned areas of Creed's body. J.B. gave his grandson what he could for the pain, but he was not very hopeful that Creed would make it, although he did not tell John Lewis or Novie of his doubts. A couple of days passed. Pneumonia set in on little Creed's lungs, caused from the burns to his chest. He died at the age of six. He was buried in the family cemetery beside his two older brothers, Lewis and Paul.

Several months later Harrison and Etta decided to move to Virginia. Harrison knew he could make more money working in the coal mines than he could as a farmer. They made the arrangements for their move, packed up what little they owned, and boarded the train in Del Rio to begin their journey to Tom Creek, Virginia. Upon their arrival Harrison and Etta found a small house close to town where most of the other mining families lived. They settled into their house and began their new life together with the same hopes and dreams all young married couples have to provide a good home for their children with plenty of food to eat and the love of God in their heart.

Harrison and Etta lived in Virginia for over a year. Mining was very hard, backbreaking work and very dangerous. Etta feared the news would come each day that Harrison had been trapped in a cave-in at the mines. She was also homesick for her family in Del Rio because she was now pregnant with her second child and needed her mother's help with Emily on days she was too sick to tend to her properly. Harrison knew they would have to leave before Etta became any "bigger with child", or she would not be able to make the journey. Harrison collected his wages at the end of the week and informed his boss he would not be back; he was moving his family back to Tennessee. When Harrison arrived home Etta had their belongings packed. The journey home began.

In Del Rio, Harrison took Etta and Emily to Novie's where they were greeted with loving affection from all the family members. Etta was so happy to be back home! She had always had a close bond with her family, and she had missed them terribly during her stay in Virginia. A few days later Harrison learned of a farmhouse for rent on the Nathan Huff Estate in the area known as The Fifteenth. Harrison and Etta moved into the house and Harrison became a sharecropper while Etta tended to Emily and the household chores.

Etta became acquainted with Flora Corn and her daughter, Opal, who lived up The Fifteenth road close to the mission school in Morgan's Gap after she and Harrison moved to the Huff farm. Flora and Opal were visiting Etta one day when Opal started telling Etta about a young woman named Leonora Whitaker who had come to the Mission in 1912 at the age of nineteen to help teach the mountain children in school.

"She come all the way from Asheville, North Carolina, just a girl herself, to these untamed mountains to help us!" Opal exclaimed in her girlish excitement. "I want to be a teacher, too. Hearing my mother tell me all the things Leonora did to teach the children, and all she accomplished with the people here has inspired me," Opal continued, her face gleaming with enthusiasm.

"She's only been gone from the mission for about two years now," Flora added. "She became a wonderful friend to me during her time here. I sure do miss her."

Etta listened quietly as Flora told her about Leonora's adventures at the mission school. Little did they realize that a best-selling book would be written about this fascinating young woman, called Christy, nor did they have any way of knowing that some day television would be invented and Christy would become a popular T.V. series about Leonora's life in these mountains. To them Leonora was just someone who had reached out to help, just as a lot of other mountain people did when they were needed by their mountain neighbors.

Aunt Margaret Haney (everyone called her Aunt) was called to be the midwife for the delivery of Etta's second baby. Aunt Margaret was "blind as a bat". She had to have someone lead her around or she bumped into things, but she was still known to be one of the best midwives in the county. On November 29, 1919, Etta went into labor. Aunt Margaret used her hands to feel the baby's head and to tell how far along Etta was into labor. When the baby came Aunt Margaret caught it, turned it up by it's heels, and with a smack to it's bottom, the baby began to cry. She laid the baby on the bed between Etta's legs while she took up the cord. Pushing the blood from the cord up toward the baby, she felt about how far to tie the cord, then she cut it. She then felt for the afterbirth, which was later taken up in the woods and buried. After cleaning the baby up, Aunt Margaret put the new addition to the Nichols family in Etta's arms. Harrison and Etta named their little bundle of joy Bessie June Nichols.


The long harsh winter of 1929 was over. Etta celebrated her 33rd birthday on May 19th. She had four children to raise and a loving husband who worked hard to provide for his family Emily would turn 13 in July; June would be 11 in November; Jack turned 7 in April, and Belle turned 1 in May.

One afternoon as Etta was walking home from her mother's, her children in a half-run trying to keep up with her, she met Edatha Morrow's brother hurrying to her father's house to get him to come and deliver his sister's baby. "He ain't home right now," Etta told the man.

"Will you go up there?" the man asked in a panic.

Etta had experience in delivering babies from going out with her father on "baby cases." She had never delivered a baby by herself, but she was not afraid. She agreed to go help Edatha who lived up the road from her house in Norwood Town. She quickly sent the children to the field to get Harrison to come stay with them as they ap-proached their house. When Harrison came she took off up the road going as fast as her legs would carry her. When she arrived, Edatha was lying in bed. Etta washed her hands in the hottest water she could stand. She then told Edatha she needed to check her to see how far in labor she was. Etta felt the baby's head. She told Edatha, "I can feel its head. Stand up a little bit and see if your water will break." Edatha did as Etta requested. It was not long until her water broke. She laid back down on the bed and held Etta's hands as she stared bearing down with the pains. "Here it comes!" Etta said excitedly. She got hold of the baby's shoulders and helped pull it out. "It's a boy!" Etta told the proud new mother. She cut the cord and cleaned the baby up. She put a white cloth diaper on him then wrapped him in a soft cotton blanket before putting him in his mother's arms. Edatha named her little newcomer Bud. Etta then helped Edatha get cleaned up. Edatha's mother and Etta took the afterbirth up the road and buried it. With mother and baby doing fine, Etta collected a $2 fee for her services then headed back home. She was exhilarated with what she had just experienced. Her first delivery was a success. Little did she realize that there would be over 2,000 more deliveries for her to attend to in the future.

It did not take long for the word to spread about the new midwife in the mountains. Etta was "goin' first one place and then another" delivering babies throughout the mountains. People came after Etta sometimes when the pain was not really severe, and she would stay two or three days until the real labor started. She left her children in Harrison's care. He was home every day anyway, being a farmer. Belle stood on the front porch and cried for her mother when she stayed gone for long periods of time. Emily and June were responsible for the household chores which their mother usually took care of, along with their regular chores, until Etta returned home. Jack helped his father in the garden, cornfield, and tobacco patch.

It was January 1 3, 1 932, when Ance Lunsford knocked on Etta's door.

"Mrs. Nichols, could you come to my house? My wife is 'bout to have the baby," Ance asked nervously.

"I sure can. Just let me get my things," Etta answered. "Emily, you watch Belle 'till get back." Etta put on her long wool coat and wrapped a thick cotton scarf over her head before she and Ance started walking up the road. Ance and his wife, Ethel Carlisle Lunsford, lived about 3/4 of a mile up the dirt road from Harrison and Etta. The air was cold and crisp, as it blew gently through the barren trees. The fast pace at which Etta and Ance walked helped to keep them warm. Upon Etta's arrival at the Lunsford home, she quickly washed her hands in hot water, then she checked Ethel.

"Well, it looks like I got here just in time," Etta told Ethel. "This baby is ready to see the world," Etta giggled. "The next time you get a strong 'misery' I want you to push with all your strength." Ethel let out a scream as the baby's head started coming through. "One more time, Ethel! It's here just give one more good push."

Ance heard the baby let out its first cry as he waited anxiously in the front room. He immediately went to the bedroom to check on his wife and meet his new baby.

"It's a girl," Etta told Ance as he entered the bed-room.

"Isn't she beautiful," Ethel said looking up at her proud husband. Ance nodded his head in agreement.

"What'er you gonna name 'er?" Etta asked.

"Audrey...Audrey Lunsford," replied Ethel.

"Well, you be sure to tell Audrey that she's the first baby girl that I ever helped deliver when she grows up, okay?"

"Is that a fact?!" replied Ance. "Yeah, we'll be sure to tell 'er all 'bout you - how you helped us fer nothin', and what a fine lady you are.

"Well, I'd better head back home now. If you need me fer anything, just holler," Etta said as she put on her coat and head scarf. Etta knew how poor this couple was, so she never asked for any kind of payment. She felt a stronger, different kind of payment inside her heart. The feeling she received every time she helped bring a new life into the world was payment enough for her.

After going on several more baby cases, Etta decided she needed a little black medical bag like her dad used. She kept clean white rags, nitrate drops to put in the newborn's eyes, and some ergot to help with contractions during labor. She also used quinine to help reduce fever when necessary. Castor oil was administered only if the patient was ready to go into labor, otherwise it would not work on starting the labor pains. Etta never used any kind of painkillers; she believed a woman should be alert and not drugged during childbirth. Also, in her little black bag she kept the birth certificates which were filled out on each baby after its birth. Tim Monroe, the mail carrier, picked up the certificates in Etta's mailbox and delivered them to the U.S. Post Office along the railroad tracks just before coming to the French Broad River in Del Rio. From there the documents were sent to the Health Department in Newport, and from there they were sent to Nashville to be filed.

Emily, June, and Jack did what they could to help earn money. They spent countless evenings picking up walnuts to sell. They had to crack them and have them free of any hull before sending them to the marketplace.

June helped the neighbors hoe corn. She helped Mrs. Stinson hoe corn all day long and was paid 50 cents for her labor. She spent her money purchasing material from the Sears and Roebuck catalog to sew herself a new dress, or to buy a new pair of shoes. Sometimes the shoes she ordered would be too small, but she kept them anyway because she needed them so badly. She developed ter-rible corns on her toes because her shoes were too small, but all the children considered a new pair of shoes a bless-ing whether they fit properly or not.


In March of 1978 Etta received a book in the mail entitled Redneck Mothers, Good Ol' Girls and Other Southern Belles. written by Sharon McKern. Mrs. McKern had interviewed Etta sometime earlier to include Etta's story in her book. Etta's story of how she became a mid-wife appeared on pages 195-200 in the book.

Etta's children and grandchildren were thrilled with all the recognition she was receiving about her life's work, but Etta paid no attention to her growing popularity. She just considered herself to be a down-to-earth country woman who did all she could to help others.

On May 1, 1979, Donald jenkins drove his wife, Pauline, from White Pine, Tennessee, to Etta's to give birth. "We heard about you through a friend of ours, Ann Rhines," Donald told Etta. "She said you are real good at delivering babies."

"Well, I do all the good Lord will let me do. I try to do a good job," Etta answered.

Etta led Pauline to the birthing room while Donald waited anxiously in the living room with Harrison. Thirty minutes later, around 7 P.M. the sound of a baby's cry filled the air. Pauline gave birth to a 7-pound baby boy. They named him Christopher Michael.

Pauline was having trouble getting the afterbirth out, and after examining her, Etta thought it best to take Pauline to the hospital, in case surgery was necessary. Pauline left her new born son with Etta while she was in the hospital. One and a half days later Donald and Pauline returned for their son. Etta would not accept more than $10 for payment. She told them she only did half the job and would not feel good charging them the entire $15. Donald paid Etta then took his family home.

Father's Day, June 1 7, 1 979, Debbie Owens Stokley started having labor pains with her second child early Sunday morning. She went into the bedroom to tell her husband, Tony, to get up and get ready to take her to the hospital. Tony thought he had plenty of time, since the birth of their first child, Brandy, took so long. He got out of bed and. went to the bathroom to shave. Meanwhile, Debbie's pains were getting closer and harder. Debbie kept calling to her husband to hurry up. Finally, Tony was ready. Tony and Debbie were going to leave Brandy with Tony's mother, Polly Shelton, who lived on Blue Mill Road, on their way to the hospital. When they arrived at Polly's house they all went inside. Suddenly, without warning, Debbie's water broke. Debbie started to panic. Polly told her to go in the bedroom and lie down so she could check her. Debbie did as Polly asked. Polly went out into the hallway after checking Debbie and yelled to her daughter, Sherry, to bring some plastic and blankets...the baby was coming now.

"What am I going to do?!" Tony asked frantically.

"Go get Mrs. Nichols!" Polly screamed.

Tony ran hysterically outside and jumped in the car. The tires screeched loudly as Tony took off up the road. In Tony's frantic state of mind, he did not realize until he was halfway to Etta's that the car he jumped in was not his. It belonged to a friend of Polly's who was there visiting. Tony continued up the dirt road leading to Etta's house. Normally, Etta would have been gone to church with Harrison at this time, but it turned out Etta was home waiting on a patient who had come to her from Dandridge to give birth. Tony's car went sideways as he entered Etta's driveway. Once stopped, Tony jumped from the car and ran up the front steps.

"Mrs. Nichols, you've got to come with me. My wife is giving birth right now! We need your help!"

Etta grabbed her medical bag and hurried to the car with Tony. Tony's driving was somewhat reckless as he maneuvered the car around the curves. Fresh gravel had just been poured on the road a few days earlier, making the handling of the car even more difficult. Tony was taking the curves sideways as he rushed to get Etta to his wife in time. He looked over at Etta and asked, "Am I scaring you?"

"Keep it between the ditches, and lay it to it!" Etta answered.

Upon arriving at Polly's, Etta went to the bedroom where Debbie was. Debbie was in a full panic flow, knowing she was going to go through natural childbirth. Etta knew she had to get Debbie's emotions under control before she could help her. Etta spoke in a stern voice to Debbie, "Turn around in this bed, and act like you're going to have a baby!"

Debbie did as Etta ordered her to do. Polly had called the Rescue Squad from Newport to come up, in case Tony did not find Etta at home. They arrived 15 minutes or so after Etta got there. The members of the Rescue Squad just stood back in the corner of the bedroom and watched as Etta worked with Debbie.

Debbie had been pushing for close to an hour now. Polly stood by Debbie holding her hand and kissing her forehead. Tony had drunk 26 cups of coffee during the hour, between the times he was not putting cold cloths on Debbie's head, or putting chapstick on her lips.

Tony's pacing back and forth through the hallway apparently started to get on Etta's nerves. She looked up at Tony and said in a firm voice, "If you want to help her, then get up on this bed and let her pull to you when she has a pain."

Tony did as Etta instructed.

"Come on, Deb! You can do it! If you can live with Tony, you can do anything!" Polly said. Polly suggested using the rescuer's backboard to put under Debbie to help support her better during her contractions. Etta agreed that would help. Once Debbie had the backboard in place, she gave a good strong push, and at 11:25 A.M. the baby was born. Silence fell over the room as they noticed the baby had the umbilical cord around its neck and was turning blue. Etta hurried to remove the cord as family members stood around her holding their breath. Etta removed the cord successfully and the baby started crying.

Tony leaned over to take a look at his newborn son. "I want you to look at the manhood on that boy!" Tony said proudly.

Etta burst into laughter over Tony's straightforward statement, and soon laughter filled the room as everyone let out a sigh of relief. Debbie had given birth to an 8-pound baby boy. She and Tony named their son Trinity Royal Stokley. Tony paid Etta her regular fee of $15, then drove Etta home.

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