Tennessee tales


As told by Nancy Graves Mebane Donoho (1869-1954), who was a granddaughter of John Howe Mebane and daughter of William Graves Mebane.




Charlene Mebane, Mary Mebane Donoho*, and Joe McCraw

Summer 1983


*Mary Donoho was born 05 June 1909 in Caswell County, NC. She died in Asheville, NC, on 18 March 2002. She was the only child of Tabb and Nancy Donoho, never married, and had no children.


"Nannie G. Mebane was born in Fayette County, TN at her grandfather's home in 1869 and lived in Fayette County until the return to North Carolina after her father's death in 1882. Her father told of the family's move from eastern NC to TN.

Her grandfather pulled up stakes in NC and moved his family, all his goods and chattel to Fayette County. The Federal Census of 1850 shows him living in Perquimmans County NC. The court records of Caswell County NC April 1853 show that Ann B. Yancey SR was ordered to turn over to John Howe Mebane of Fayette County TN property she held for Ann E. Yancey.

The move must have been something like the wanderings of the children of Israel. John Howe and his two young sons William Graves and John Wood rode horseback. His wife, stepdaughter, and 2 daughters rode in the carriage, which was undoubtedly a rough and rocky ride. The household goods were loaded in covered wagons driven by slaves. The very old and very young darkies rode on top of the loads. The others walked. It took six weeks to make the trip. Grandfather said they tried to get to an inn or a house so the stepmother and sisters could sleep inside. The others slept under and in the wagons and did their cooking in campfires. The distance from Perquimmans County NC on the Albemarle Sound to west TN must have been at least 1000 miles as the crow flies and undoubtedly longer by roads which were as crooked as a dog's hind leg.

There was a house on the land he had bought so they moved into that. As soon as he got his affairs organized, he proceeded to have a brick house built that escaped the ravages of the Civil War and is still standing. The bricks were made on the place. Since it was long before the days of electric fans and air conditioning, thick brick walls, high ceilings, and cross ventilation were the methods used to keep a house cool during the hot summer months. John Howe Mebane employed all of them. The windowsills were wide enough for the little sisters Nannie and May to use for dollhouses for their paper dolls.

After the house was built, its owner wanted an elegant bedroom set. Nothing in Memphis suited his taste, to he sent to Cincinnati OH and bought a set of mahogany bedroom furniture which was sent by flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to Memphis and then by wagon to his home. The bed had a high headboard with a carved woman's head on it. The Mebane children had a negro nurse, Aunt Maria. The children though the figurehead looked like her so they called the bed "Aunt Maria." Aunt Maria and the other pieces in the set made the long trip back to NC when the TN place passed out of the Mebane family. When there was a storm and the thunder was rolling, Aunt Maria told the children Mrs. God was moving furniture in heaven.

The Civil War came and West Tennessee saw its share of trouble. The two Mebane sons went to war. John Wood Mebane was killed in 1864 and his brother was taken prisoner by the Yankees and sent as a prisoner to Johnson's Island.

The Yankee soldiers and bushwhackers made raids on the house and stole and pillaged and committed acts of vandalism. On one of their forays they went from attic to cellar. In the attic they found bags of goose feathers that Granny Henny was saving to make pillows and feather beds. In the cellar there were several barrels of New Orleans molasses for the colored people's rations. They saw what damage they could do so they gleefully brought down the feathers to the cellar, opened the bung holes on the molasses barrels and let run on the floor, emptied the feathers in the molasses and then walked in the mess and then tramped on the carpets with the molasses and feathers on their boots.

Another time a group came and in going over the house, they spied a small trunk under Granny Henny's bed. It was dragged out and they demanded the key. The trunk was unlocked and its contents looked over. Among the contents were curls of hair of Nannie Mebane who had died about the beginning of the war. One of the men took his saber and reached under one of the curls, lifted and said with a sneer, "So the old girl wears curls!"

The neighbors tried to warn each other when a raiding party was on the prowl so the livestock and valuables could be hidden, but this time the alarm got there too late for the carriage to be driven to safety. The darkie who drove the carriage was very proud of his equipage and his status as its driver. He went to the carriage house without saying anything to anybody and unscrewed the bolts and nuts that attached the wheels to the body. He put the bolts and nuts in his pocket and vanished into thin air. By the time the raiders got to the carriage house he had long since disappeared. When they opened the carriage house doors and saw this elegant closed carriage, they thought they had struck it rich and they were going to hitch two of their riding horses to the carriage and go back to camp in fine style. Several of the men rushed in to pull it out so they could hitch up. They had it about half way out when the wheels came off and down it went. There was nothing available to be used to keep the wheels on. They were so mad they took their knives and swords and slashed the gray silk brocade upholstery.

The carriage was still in use when my mother lived there as a child. It was used to take the family to church on Sunday. It made my mother sick to ride in the closed carriage so her great aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Green Jordan came by on Sundays and she rode with them in their open carriage. Mrs. Jordan was born Ann Eliza Mebane and was John Howe Mebane's sister.


Eliza A. Mebane Jordan, her husband Green Jordan, and her grave in our back yard


"She must have been quite a redoubtable lady. All their horses had been stolen except her riding horse. Word came to them that soldiers were nearly there. There wasn't time to hide the horse so she grasped the nettle and told the negro man to put a bridle and her side saddle on the horse and bring her up to the mounting block at the house. While that was being done she donned her riding skirt. The horse was brought up and she mounted. The soldiers appeared and there mounted on the horse was this very erect lady. She was probably in her late fifties or early sixties. She was ordered down. She didn't budge. Again she was ordered to dismount and told they were taking the horse for the Union Army. She stayed put. The third time she told the men, "If you get this horse, you are going to have to kill me first and drag me off." The party roamed over the place and came back and the same scene was repeated. They went off again and again she looked them down. None of them had the nerve to reach up and drag her off the horse. Finally, the men went off to hunt for easier prey.

My mother remembered her aunt. The children called her "Auntie Jordan." Mama said when Auntie sat in a chair or on a sofa her back never touched the back of the chair.

Grandpa Howe had a friend who lived in Memphis and when General Grant's headquarters were in Memphis, he commandeered the house for his headquarters. Mrs. Grant came to be with the general and they lived in the house. The owner had a fine library. When the Grants left along with their personal possessions, the books in the library were packed and the very handsome draperies in the house went as the spoils of war. To give Grant his dues you couldn't plow or make a crop with the books or draperies and he did give the Confederates at Appomattox, those who had one, their horse or mule.

By the end of the war, the slaves were freed and many had drifted off. John Wood Mebane was dead; William Graves Mebane came home wrecked in health. He went back to NC to marry his sweetheart Emma Caroline Mebane, his cousin. They were married in December 1865 and he took his bride to TN to live. With no slaves to work the fields and do the necessary work, Grandpa Howe either saw an advertisement or heard what he thought might be an answer to his problems-import TN mountaineers. So he made arrangements to have a train carload of them come to his place. They would do the work of the slaves, one or two of the women would work in the house as the cook and housemaid. According to my grandmother his idea was a total disaster. They didn't know how to work and they didn't want to learn. They mostly drifted away in a short time. My mother remembered one family with a girl named Tenney.

Some of the former slaves returned to their old house. Grandpa Howe and his son tried to keep things running. Granny Henny in her last years became a very stout old lady and she didn't leave home often. When she did venture forth, she elected to go in a unique style. Instead of going in the carriage, a one horse wagon was driven up to the back porch which was just about level with the bed of the wagon and a low straight split bottom chair was placed in the wagon bed. She stepped from the porch to the wagon, was seated in her chair and away she and the driver went. The old lady was partial to fresh cucumbers in the summer and Mama said the cause of her death was an attack of acute indigestion from indulging in a soup plate of fresh cucumbers with ice. (Ed. Note from Dr. Yancey Mebane: acute myocardial infarction)

After Granny Henny's death, my grandfather and grandmother with their three children came back to live in the brick house with Grandpa Howe. My grandmother ran the house. Grandpa Howe must have been quite particular as to how he wanted things done. One of mother’s memories is of his pie box. During the summer the neighbors would have picnics and barbecues down on Wolf River. Each family would try to outdo the others in bringing good things to eat. Pies of various kinds were a favorite dessert, but they had a way of having the crust broken or worse still, the filling was squashed. Grandpa wanted his slice of pie to be unbroken and unsquashed so he conceived the idea of having the carpenter make a wooden box with 4 shelves, each shelf just big enough to hold one pie pan, and with a door. The Mebane pies arrived undamaged and he carefully saw to it that he got a slice of his own pie. He liked to drink ale and he got it in Memphis from a dealer who imported from England. The ale was in earthenware bottles and mama said some of the flowerbeds were edged with the bottles. Another of his favorites was pear syrup to eat on waffles. When grandmother made pear preserves she always made extra syrup for him.

One summer grandmother decided to make the trip home to North Carolina to see her parents and other relatives. Mama remembered the tan linen dusters, long loose coats, to wear over your regular clothes to keep the smoke, soot, and dirt off your clothes. Grandmother made a duster for each of the three children and herself, packed a trunk and several valises. They boarded the train first stop to be Charlotte to visit cousins. At that time the railroad had not been built from Old Fort NC to Asheville and Knoxville TN. They had to travel by Atlanta.

Grandmother's parents were living on a big tobacco farm in Caswell County NC. Uncle Giles was fascinated with the rocks on the farm. He was about six or seven and when he found a rock that he thought was particularly intriguing he put it in his pocket and took it to the house and stashed it away in the family trunk to take home to TN. When his mother opened the trunk to pack, the trunk was full of an assortment of rocks.

The three children had an assortment of pets. Aunt May had a pet possum which was allowed in the house until one afternoon when her mother made an unexpected and silent entrance to the dining room to find the pet seated on the dining table happily sticking its paws in the sugar bowl, licking the sugar off and going back for more sugar. The possum was no longer a houseguest. The had a white dog named Fritz and on moonlight nights Fritz was given to going out in the yard, sitting down, throwing his head back and baying at the moon for long periods of time. Mamma was given a lamb, which was raised on a bottle. She named the lamb "Nim" and it followed her around like a little puppy. Eventually Nim grew into a sheep. When shearing time came, Nim's turn came up. Mama was a little girl but she went to the shearing and stamping her foot she told the man, "If you cut him, I'll kill you." Nim grew up to be a rather spoiled and bad-tempered sheep, and she would butt the other children or anybody else that Mama told her to.

There were a couple of ponds on the place in TN and in the winter ice was cut from them and stored in the ice house for use in the summer. One winter it did not get cold enough for the water to freeze so the ice could be cut and stored. Finally in late February or March there came a deep snow and her father got out the negroes and had them roll big snowballs in the fields. They loaded them on wagons and put them in the icehouse, packed them down with straw and beat them with mauls. After the cold work was over he gave all the men a good drink. So much for refrigeration.

Nannie was the only Mebane child who was taken to Memphis. She always said they lived twenty-nine miles from Memphis. Her parents took her there when she was perhaps 8 or 9 years old. They spent the night at the Peabody Hotel. There must have been a big mirror at the end of the dining room opposite the entrance. Nannie had on a new dress her mother had made for her. As they came into the dining room she tugged at her mother's skirt and said, "There's a little girl that has on a dress just like mine." She was taken to see the Mississippi River. She remembered it was in flood stage and she could not see land on the other side.

The term "bed and breakfast" had not been introduced in the 1870's. One day grandmother heard quite a commotion down at the front gate and she went to the front door to see what was going on. Just as she got to the door she saw a trunk thrown off a wagon and the driver whipped up his team and drove off. Coming up the walk were three fashionably clad ladies and a pug dog. The elder lady advanced to the bottom of the steps and wringing her hands said, "We are refugees from Memphis and the yellow fever. Please take us in. We have nowhere to stay." After a good deal of conversation, grandmother agreed to let them stay. Their trunks and valises were put in the upstairs guestroom. The lady was the widow of a former Memphis postmaster and before that had been attached to the American Embassy in Paris. The lady had conceived a great admiration for the Empress Eugenia and had named one of her daughters Eugenia in memory of the Empress. The only two names of the family that Mama remembered were Eugenia and Bussey, the pug dog. After the noon meal, the mother retired to the guestroom for a nap. About four o'clock she came down dressed in her walking costume, gloves, hat, parasol with lace ruffles, just as though she were going for a walk in a Paris park and accompanied by Bussey she took a stroll in the grove. The two daughters were young ladies. Soon word spread of the two young ladies at the Mebanes' and the young gentlemen in the neighborhood began to call. One of the girls played the piano and they danced and sang and had a gay time for the rest of the summer. They went back to Memphis when the yellow fever died down in the fall.

The children were taught by a series of governesses. The school was a small one room building in the yard. Two neighboring boys came each day to school, John Will and Donoho Grandberry. They had little recess in the morning. The Grandberry boys brought something to eat at little recess and when they had something extra good Mrs. Grandberry would send always a treat for Giles. It was strictly a man's world.

Grandpa Howe was guardian for three Mebane girls after the deaths of their parents. They were sent to school as boarding students to a convent in Memphis. They mostly lived at his house until their marriages. The nuns were certainly past masters in the art of teaching needlework. The girls considered Nannie a living doll. Cousin Kinna made her a baby dress that is literally stiff with embroidery. It is over a hundred years old and there isn't a broken thread in it. Mother told of a time when she was about four, the girls were there and they took her up to their rooms and curled her hair, put eye shadow, lip salves, and roughed her cheeks, dressed her in her best bib and tucker. She strutted down the steps and into her mother's room as proud as a peacock. Her mother was not pleased. She mad her take off her finery and wash her face.

The Tennessee era came to a sad end with the death of William Graves Mebane in 1882. The place was sold. His widow with the three children came back to live in North Carolina. The three Mebane children born in Tennessee are all dead now. There are a few articles that were brought back from the Tennessee house, a few pieces of furniture, some silver, and a few ornaments from the parlor."


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