Ethel Stewart Crager
By: Louie Mark Stewart
You all know Ethel Crager or you wouldn't be here today. Some know her as mom, others as granny, grandma, but I know her as auntie and surrogate mother. I wanted to share with you some of her history about her remarkable life and contributions.
Mary Ethel Crager was born on March 11, 1911, at her parents' home on McBrayer (then called Bronston) Road just west of the Stewart Cemetery along the Triplett Creek. Her parents, Morgan Thomas Stewart and Mary Jane McClurg, had been married on December 15, 1895. Morgan's parents were Alexander and Martha Stewart. Mary Jane was born on November 11, 1880, and was the daughter of Marion and Josephine Markwell McClurg of Bluestone, Kentucky.
Ethel on right with friend ready for a night on the town in the roaring twenties.
The Stewarts lived on a small farm located on McBrayer Road adjoining Triplett Creek outside the village of Clearfield. Morgan inherited his land from his father which had been part of his father's larger farm. In the early part of the Civil War, Morgan's father, Alexander Stewart, had settled in the area with his father and mother, William Charlie and Mary Polly Stewart. The Stewarts were Lincoln Republicans and moved here from Knott County to escape the growing conflict that was reducing mountain areas to open lawlessness. The son of a Revolutionary War soldier and entrepreneur, William Charlie was elected a Judge of Rowan County and was known as Squire Stewart. His wife, Mary Polly, was a cousin of Zachary Taylor, a former president. His son, the Rev. James, and grandson James E. were also elected county judges. James E. died in office as a State senator.
My aunt has many fond memories of growing up. Although life was hard during this time, as a little girl, she helped her mother with the household chores, enjoyed picking wild berries around the farm for jams and jellies, took cool summer swims in Triplett Creek, attended school, and went to church (the Primitive Baptist Church) with her mother which was located next to the Caudill Cemetery in Morehead. On Saturday nights, she would often go to a neighbor's home where the living room would be cleared of furniture. She and her friends would dance as someone played the fiddle and another called the dance steps. Ethel developed a personality of perseverance, compassion and a positive outlook of life that was nurtured by her mother and her older sister Stella who was fourteen when Ethel was born. She also learned the skills of independence and self-reliance from her mother. These skills have served her well during the challenges she has encountered. To know my aunt is to know her mother (whom I never met) and her sister Stella (whom I had the great privilege of knowing).
Ethel's mother, Mary Jane, gave birth to eleven children. One died at birth. The others survived. Mary Jane had her first child, Stella, at the age of sixteen and her last, Arthur, at the age of forty-two. Ethel was their seventh child and their last daughter. The parents had the following other children who lived beyond infancy:
■ Stella Ann Stewart Martt (March 8, 1897 to June 23, 1974)
■ Lottie Jane Stewart May (August 7, 1899 to June 20, 1951)
■ Morgan Thomas Stewart (May 28, 1901 to November 1989)
■ Rosie May Stewart (January 13, 1904 to April 24, 1915)
■ Martha Ellen Stewart (July 1, 1906 to June 21, 1981)
■ William Clarence Stewart (June 24, 1909)
■ James Milford Mark Stewart (June 27, 1916)
■ Edward Frederick Stewart (February 17, 1919 to December 13, 1969)
■ Arthur Richard Stewart (August 6, 1922 to February 23, 1968)
Mary Jane was already raising three children by the age of twenty. She was a good mother who worked hard raising crops and her garden which provided the food for her family. The role of women in the mountains was a hard one. She was responsible for raising the garden, canning food for the winter, cooking, making clothes for the little ones and ensuring that they had the skills needed for surviving. These were huge responsibilities.
Morgan, a member of a prominent and active political and religious family in Rowan County, worked as a stone cutter in Bluestone and helped construct several buildings in Morehead. His stone was used in the "Cozy" building at the corner of College and Main Streets occupied by the Battson Drug Store. He also taught in the moonlight schools and was elected to the Rowan County School Board.
When my aunt arrived in 1911, she shared a four-room house with her parents and six older siblings. In 1914, her sister Rosie died at the age of eleven and her oldest sister, Stella married. Stella and Lottie had been attending the Morehead Normal School but evidently Stella determined to give up her education for the man she loved. My Aunt continued to see Stella frequently and Ethel learned many of her canning and cooking skills from her. Their relationship developed into a lifelong and close bond between sisters.
Life was both simpler and more complicated. For example, although only a couple of miles away, getting to Morehead was not an easy task as the roads were little more than dirt paths and full of ruts and mud during rainy weather. My Aunt recalls that she and the family preferred to cross Triplett Creek by a swinging bridge and walk to town on the old C&O train tracks - a cleaner and more direct route.
Her father, Morgan, died at the young age of fifty on March 24, 1928 from "consumption" (T.B. was a common problem) when she only seventeen. During the last couple of years of his life, she and her mother cared for him. After his death, Mary Jane, alone and without money, was faced with the task of caring for three boys under the age of twelve. Due to her father's failing health, Ethel, had gone to work at the Model Laundry, located in Morehead, on Main Street, to help her mother raise her small sons. She was a quick study and was assigned the duty of receiving laundry from the customers. It was hard work and she was paid five dollars a week. She kept 50 cents and gave the rest to her mother to help with expenses. Although perhaps not very noticeable to her family, a year after Morgan’s death the Great Depression began.
During Ethel's mid-teens when she wasn't working or helping around the house, she began to pay closer attention to a handsome fellow who lived down the road a piece - his name was Louie Guster Crager. They had known each other since childhood as the Cragers and the Stewarts had lived nearby each other for decades along the hollows surrounding Triplett Creek. The son of early Rowan County pioneers, Louie's parents were William (1874-1924) and Delilah Crager (1875-1961). He was born on July 18, 1908. Louie was a hard worker and eventually became a truck driver for the Lee Clay Pipe Company in Clearfield.
Their courtship developed into true love and they were married on June 8, 1929. She was eighteen and he was twenty-one. During the next ten years, they had five children. My aunt had difficult deliveries and health care was almost nonexistent. They provided well for their growing tribe. During a major strike at Lee Clay, Louie and Ethel were forced to move north to Shelby, Ohio, in search of work. After the strike, they promptly returned to Clearfield. They saved their money and purchased their first home at 100 High Street in Clearfield. Later they moved to their present home on Parton Street where my aunt has lived these past sixty years.
In 1950, after my parents separated, I went to live with my Aunt Ethel and my namesake, Uncle Louie. At the time, I moved in with my Aunt, her four children were living at home. They were Georgia, age seventeen, Jane, age fourteen, Sonny, age eleven, and Fred, age nine. In addition, various other children from family members and friends lived with us at my new home at various times. Naturally, there was a crowd. There was also a great sense of loving and warmth. My aunt and uncle never turned away a child in need. I can recall at least ten other persons who lived there and no distinction was made between them and their own children when it came to providing love and support.
Uncle Louie nicknamed me Shorty and I soon became his favorite. Louie and Ethel promptly did all they could to spoil and pamper me and I can say that they were quite successful. In the early 1950's, Uncle Louie and I devised a scheme to save for a television set. All half dollars went into a glass jar. It was not long until we purchased a television. We were the first family on Clearfield Hill to have a television and it was quite the attraction to the children in the neighborhood. On Saturday evenings, we would all crowd into the “sitting room” as opposed to the “living room” and watch the small black and white television. The girls would make popcorn and we would eat that with koolaide drinks on ice. It was great fun. The Phil Silvers Show and Sid Cesar Show were beamed into that rural neighborhood in Kentucky and soon we were learning all about New York City and the world beyond.
My uncle drove a truck for the Lee Clay Pipe Company that was in Clearfield. I recall my aunt getting up many evenings to prepare him a breakfast before he left for an overnight trip. Many of these trips would only take a couple of hours now but then the roads were narrow and crooked and driving times were much longer. I still recall with fascination his story that one road in a particular mountainous area required him to drive by the same house four times due to the U-shaped road. My aunt always cooked a large breakfast, a trait learned during her youth when the young ones had to go to the fields and work hard to raise the garden and other crops.
In the 1950's and 1960's, Louie and Ethel became business owners operating gasoline stations (a Shell and then a Texaco) on west Main Street in Morehead. During high school, I worked there pumping gas for spending money. Sonny, who had returned from the Air Force, became chief mechanic, a skill he had greatly refined as a jet mechanic in the Air Force.
A lifelong passion of my aunt has been her care of the Stewart Family Cemetery on McBrayer Road. Through her hard work and determination, it is a lovely park and resting place for the members of the Martt, Crager, Barndollar and Stewart families who have gone before us. Although she serves as President of the Cemetery Association, until recently she was more comfortable with her role as chief weed puller and mower, tasks which her granddaughter, Tammy, has assumed with equal vigor. The cemetery is literally a history of our family for the last 150 years. A walk through it shaded grounds is a history lesson for those who want to know more about their roots. We are so lucky to have this family jewel to share with each other and the generations who will come after us.
In the early 1980's my uncle developed cancer. He put up a valiant struggle and with the aid, support and love his family, he survived until early 1984 when he passed to the next life. He was a gentle and loving man and is missed by all.
My Aunt Ethel has shown the determination of true grit after her husband’s death. Although she obviously misses him, she moved on with her life and now in 2001 at the age of ninety is still a vibrant and active member of her family, community and church. Known as granny to most folks, she is a superior cook and produces a flower garden each year that is a show place and a minor tourists draw on Clearfield Hill.
Photos of Ethel Stewart Crager's family
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