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Before the Howdy

Finding Minnie Pearl

Issue 121, Summer 2023

Minnie Pearl © Everett Collection

Mattie Burden must’ve startled at the pounding on the back door. Who could possibly be out in this blizzard? And after dark, no less. Was it one of her adult children, come home to her with yet another crisis? Or perhaps some expectant mother she was slated to midwife? Opening the door only added to the riddle: There stood the local principal, and behind him, a tall, angular young woman. The principal said her name was Sarah Ophelia Colley, but most called her Ophelia.

Ophelia’s day had been a trial. She’d started in La Crosse, Virginia, where she’d wrapped production on The Flapper Grandmother, a musical comedy staged by a team of one hundred local amateurs. After packing up the company’s costumes in a trunk so massive she needed to find someone to schlep it, she’d headed to the nearest train depot. Time for another town, another show.

Ophelia was used to the road. Within a decade, she would become one of the most famous stage actresses of her generation, thrilling the Grand Ole Opry’s audiences with her down-home stories. But in January 1936, she was still one of the Wayne P. Sewell Production Company’s nameless “winsome” directors. Wayne Sewell was a prominent theater producer from Atlanta who had married Hetty Jane Dunaway, a renowned vaudeville actress. When it came time for Hetty Jane to retire, the couple had teamed up on this new venture. She wrote ten musical comedies (each featuring the blackface popular with rural audiences), and then Wayne hired a team of some 150 talented single women to direct and produce them. Ophelia and the other directors traveled the South. They had ten days in each location to cast and perform the show. Proceeds from the events were split between the Sewell Company and some worthy local cause: a school, a women’s club, a civic organization, a new park. As soon as the curtains fell, the directors headed off to their next location.

This journey, however, had been harrowing. After a week of unseasonable warmth, winter came crushing back. First were the winds; cyclones had killed somewhere around twenty-five people across Alabama. Then the temperatures fell. By the time Ophelia descended onto the station platform in Cullman, Alabama, at three o’clock that afternoon, the swirling, frozen precipitation made it feel like dusk. Worse yet, the school principal who was supposed to arrange her transportation for the final fifteen miles to Baileyton was nowhere to be seen. Neither had the stationmaster noticed anyone looking for an arriving passenger, not with this storm.

After securing her trunk, Ophelia tried to wrangle her own way up to Baileyton. With only seven dollars to her name, she didn’t have much incentive to offer the only driver in town foolish enough to try the mountainous path in his jalopy. Eventually, she talked him down to five dollars for the trip. That was half what she should’ve paid, but what was a girl to do? Leaving her trunk behind for the night, they set off. As he navigated the twisting, icy mountain road, he told her about the many wrecks he’d seen along their route. He dropped her at the Baileyton School.

“With the weather like this, I didn’t think you’d come,” the principal told her.

The principal had not only refused to pick her up at the station but had also forgotten to set up her housing. He had no room in his home, and the teacherage (housing for single educators) had no vacancies. Then someone, mostly likely one of the teachers, mentioned Jim and Mattie Burden.

Ophelia couldn’t see it yet, but this chance housing arrangement with the maternal woman standing on the other side of the cabin door would reshape her own life and make country music history. This would be the birth of Minnie Pearl.

Ophelia must’ve made a pitiful sight: homeless and weather-beaten at the Burdens’ back door. Mattie agreed to move her son Kyle, the one everyone called Brother, out to the kitchen lean-to. Ophelia could take his bed. The principal then offered the family a little money for their troubles—probably a dollar a day, or so Ophelia guessed. That sure helped sweeten the deal.

“Those fine mountain folks knew what it was to help a stranger in distress, but that’s not the same thing as letting someone come live in your home,” Ophelia would write in Minnie Pearl: An Autobiography. “She must have thought the principal was out of his mind.”

Perhaps Ophelia, who was two years younger than Brother, reminded Mattie of her own children. Or maybe her grandkids. With half a century dividing them, neither woman would’ve realized how much Ophelia would grow to resemble Mattie herself in her later years: mouse-brown hair, small eyes closely set, thin lips, and a once-sharp jawline now softened by age, both built tall and spare. But their greatest resemblance would be their cheeks, cut by creases worn deep after decades of laughter.

Whatever her reasoning for accepting Ophelia, Mattie set about making the younger woman comfortable. After showing her the now-open bedroom, Mattie and Ophelia sat down with Jim and Brother for supper, gorging on cornbread and fatback and vegetables Mattie had put up in the fall.

Far right: Martha Matilda (“Mattie”) Butler Burden and her husband Jim, circa 1901. Photo courtesy Shirley Burden.

Before Ophelia’s unexpected arrival, the Burdens’ three-room log cabin must’ve felt empty on that dark January night, what with only three of the family still living in the home that used to house a dozen or more at once. Most days, the terrain around Baileyton wasn’t as opposing as it became a scant eighty miles over, up near the Tennessee border. There, the Appalachians shove upward into their familiar weathered peaks and water-carved hollers, but in Cullman County, the mountains shrink down to a series of snaking sandy ridges, a set of plateaus often dismissed as mere hills. When the Burdens sited their home, they chose to perch it on one of these rises, just a short wagon ride away from downtown Baileyton. But that night, the weather outside would’ve deepened their isolation, the snowstorm blocking the weak light of the waning crescent moon.

Still, Mattie Burden must’ve felt proud as she looked around her home’s cozy kitchen. She and Jim had done alright for themselves, and they’d done even better by their children. Back in 1882 when sixteen-year-old Martha Matilda Butler had married twenty-one-year-old James Monroe Burden, they’d had nothing. When Mattie gave birth to their first child, a son, in December of that same year, the young couple struck out on their own. They’d claimed a 160-acre homestead just east of the crossroads that would become Baileyton. After clearing a corner of their land, they grew cotton for sale and other crops for eating (and perhaps a little tobacco for smoking). They were surrounded by other white families just like them, farmers intent on escaping the sharecropping system that had entrapped thousands of Alabamians, both Black and white. They could prove up on the foothills because the rolling landscape would never support large-scale plantation agriculture, the rich man’s game that had been so good to the monied class running things down in the Black Belt but so bad for everyone else.

Once Cullman County gained its charter, the people cultivating it began to limit its possibility. This opportunity would not be open to all. Baileyton became a sundown town in a sundown county, a place where the Burdens’ whiteness was their deposit on the American dream.

After a decade, the Burdens had saved up enough to buy land closer to downtown Baileyton. The community was no metropolis, but it had enough for the Burdens to feel comfortable: three cotton gins, a few grist mills, a saw mill, a couple shingle mills, a doctor, a consolidated school that went all the way to the ninth grade, a handful of churches, a post office, and several general stores. By the time of the move, the family was at a half dozen children or perhaps a few more. They’d built their log cabin and cleared out new fields. They clad the logs in clapboard and added a stick-built front porch with benches where they could sit in the mountain air and installed eight-pane glass windows along the front wall to let in the light and enclosed the dog trot that divided the rooms—large bedroom on one side, kitchen and smaller bedroom on the other. They’d raised their sixteen children here, but by this night in 1936, they were all grown and out of the house, all except Lester Kyle, the youngest.

What must Mattie have thought of this independent, educated New Woman who was skipping all the usual steps of a woman’s life—marriage, children, homemaking—to teach the mountaineers how to put on a play? Mattie had chosen a more expected life, dedicating her years to keeping those she loved housed and fed. The cost to her had been great. She’d given birth to sixteen children, but only nine were still living.

Some scholars have argued that previous generations didn’t feel children’s deaths the same way we do today, that somehow parents refused to connect with their offspring until the babies reached a “safe” age, one past the dangers of infancy. That was why in some Christian traditions families waited to christen their children, or so the logic goes. If the infants didn’t have names, if they hadn’t been fully ensouled, the parents could sidestep their grief. Perhaps these academics couldn’t imagine how families survived if they felt as we modern folks do about our descendants.

But the Burdens appear to have mourned their lost children. Soon—not so long after that cold winter night when Ophelia appeared at their cabin door—Mattie and Jim would lay guard over the infants in the cemetery behind Corinth East Baptist Church, the parents’ graves at one end of the row with their buried babies lined up alongside. The Burdens marked each tiny entombment with a simple white granite headstone. On each is inscribed the child’s name, the dates of their life, and the initials of their parents along with a phrase. Some of the stones have sunk too far to be read, but a few remain clear. GOD SENT HIS ANGEL FOR HIM, the parents wrote of Luther. OUR LOVED ONE, they inscribed on Rosetta’s. ONLY SLEEPING, they said of Esther.

Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon performs as her character Minnie Pearl. Photo courtesy the Dave Sichak Collection, Music and Popular Culture Collection, Special Collections and Archives. Georgia State University, Atlanta

Over the decades, Mattie adapted the wisdom and experience she’d gained birthing and parenting and mourning, using it to nurture others. She was a midwife, which let her assist in the delivery of many of her grandbabies. She also provided other nursing as needed. Folks tell of how she helped save many during the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918, going from door to door with supplies and food and treatments. She even figured out a successful birth control method half a century before the invention of the pill. She’d timed her babies so she never delivered when she was most needed to help in the fields. “Never failed to make a crop,” she bragged to Ophelia.

Ophelia listened, unaware at the time that this woman’s character and cadence of voice, her charmingly old-fashioned ways, would come to shape her own.

The next morning, Ophelia found that Mattie had slipped into mothering mode, packing the younger woman’s lunch pail with biscuits and pork, a fried egg, and fried peach pies, each wrapped in newspaper. But a few hours later when Ophelia opened the pail and unwrapped the meal, the food looked off. Black printer’s ink stained the greasy handpies and fried egg.

Though Ophelia came from Centerville, another tiny town just the other side of the Tennessee line, she descended from a different South, a more refined South. As the spoiled youngest daughter of a prosperous lumbermill owner, she had been encouraged by her parents to pursue her interests, although they fretted over her failure to conform. Her five older sisters innately understood how to combine their wit and smarts with the demure demeanor befitting a middle-class Southern lady. Ophelia preferred to stand out. “Momma used to tell me to behave,” Ophelia said years later. “Momma used to tell me to hush. Momma used to tell me to…be a lady. Daddy said I talked too loud and walked too heavy and laughed too much.”

After her high school graduation, Ophelia’s parents shipped her off to Nashville’s Ward-Belmont College, a two-year women’s finishing school. They were to “perfect our table manners, perfect our drawing room manners and perfect our wardrobe. Perfect, particularly, our speaking voices,” Ophelia explained. And she’d tried. Afterward, she’d come home again and taught elocution classes to local children. What other option was open for a single white woman during the Great Depression? As soon as she turned twenty-one, Ophelia leapt at the chance to join the Sewell Production Company.

This gig producing plays was just a temporary measure—Ophelia was sure of it. Since the first time she’d stood up on her home’s window seat to entertain her older sisters and their friends, Ophelia had known her future. She’d become the next Katharine Hepburn or Lynn Fontanne, inspiring playwrights to adapt famous novels for her to perform and seducing her leading men with her smolder. In her more honest moments, however, she worried she might not have that mythical je ne sais quoi that transformed wannabes into ingenues. She’d analyzed herself carefully over the years, hoping to find some secret beauty. Now, individually, her features were regular and symmetrical enough. Put together, though? Each one seemed a little off. Still and all, Ophelia continued to believe. Sometime soon—certainly before she was thirty—she’d see her name lit up on a marquee. Meantime, she was plugging away, trusting that hard work and a hefty dose of talent would make up for her other shortcomings.

Now she was in Baileyton, with a hearty country lunch prepared by caring hands. Square meals were hard to come by during the Depression, and the food Ophelia ate on the tour circuit wasn’t always appetizing. Even so, she couldn’t stomach ink-splotched fare. She walked over to the general store and bought cheese and crackers with her last two dollars.

Did someone report back to Mattie? Might be. Baileyton was a quintessential small town. “Lord have mercy, I’ve worried about you all day,” Mattie said when Ophelia came home that night. “You ain’t used to them kind of vittles.” She had sent Brother to the store for bread and peanut butter. “Tomorrow, I’ll fix you a store-boughten sandwich,” she promised.

Some of Ophelia’s habits intrigued—or appalled—the Burdens. Mattie worried when the younger woman asked to have hot water for both morning and evening ablutions. “You ain’t gonna wash and go out in that cold air?” Mattie asked, aghast. “Why, you’ll catch your death!”

Mattie wasn’t the only Burden baffled by Ophelia’s ways. One morning, Ophelia ran to warm herself by the fire, wrapped in her bathrobe with her long red hair loosed from its usual braid. Brother was there. He was aghast to see her in such dishabille. “He had the look of a cornered animal,” Ophelia remembered. She decided to needle him.

“You know there’s an old saying that if a man sees a woman with her hair down, he can ask her to marry him,” she said.

Brother just stared at her.

“And I certainly shouldn’t let you see me without makeup,” she continued.

He glanced away, down to the floor. “I think you look better without it,” he said. “I never did care for all that red’nin’.”

Brother had been content to remain at home, caring for his aging parents and tending to the homeplace. He never raised a fuss about living in the unheated shed (not that Ophelia ever heard, anyway). Some people would say he was, to borrow an Appalachian phrase, a bit touched. Others would say he was just a gentle man, one who preferred quiet and caring, that he simply took after Mattie.

Ophelia’s time with the Burdens was limited. She was there to help the town put on a show. The day after she arrived, her massive trunk of costumes was delivered. It was time to get down to the business of producing and directing The Flapper Grandmother. Baileyton’s opening was only a week and a half away, on January 29, with a second performance the following evening, and it would happen whether Ophelia’s troupe was rehearsed enough or not. She couldn’t violate Wayne Sewell’s deadlines.

When the curtain fell on Baileyton’s version of The Flapper Grandmother for a final time, the villagers who had participated in the production dragged Ophelia out on the stage for a bow. Then they presented her with a bouquet of red roses. She burst into tears. “Imagine the trouble, and expense, they had to go to in order to get a dozen red roses up on that mountain in the dead of winter!” she wrote in her 1980 autobiography.

Her parting from Mattie Burden was similarly poignant. “Lord a’mercy, child, I hate to see you go,” Mattie told Ophelia. “You’re just like one of us.”

When Ophelia’s ride pulled away from the Burdens’ cabin, the two women would never see each other again. Martha Matilda Burden passed away in 1939 and was buried underneath a white stone on which her children would inscribe, GONE HOME TO BE WITH JESUS. But Ophelia couldn’t forget her. She found herself imitating Mattie or telling some of her wisdom stories. She’d get up in front of a group and say, “I was up in northern Alabama, putting on a play, and I met this old woman, and she said—” And Ophelia’s audiences loved it.

Soon, Ophelia had dropped the introduction, just sliding into the character of Mattie. She’d come out, dignified and quiet and demure, and say, “Howdy,” to the folks. Then she’d tell people how proud she was to be there before launching into stories about life back in her invented hometown.

“It was a lot easier than standing up there as Ophelia Colley,” she remembered, “and the people really seemed to enjoy her. She was warm and she genuinely loved them.”

“You’ll make a fortune off that someday, Phel [pronounced ‘feel’], if you keep it kind,” Ophelia’s father told her.

And as Ophelia traveled the South, her Mattie imitation continued to develop. In 1939, a socialite in Aiken, South Carolina, invited her to come to town solely to perform her comedic schtick. The woman even planned to pay Ophelia twenty-five dollars, which was more than Ophelia earned in two weeks of work for the Sewell Production Company. For that amount of money, Ophelia decided it was time to buy her character a costume. She picked up an organdy dress, some white cotton stockings, and a flat-brimmed straw hat. She added a clutch of fake flowers to the brim, famously forgetting to remove the $1.98 price tag.

Now her Mattie persona deserved a name. That part was easy. Ophelia would call her by two country names she’d heard in communities around the South: Minnie Pearl.

Though her stay with Mattie was only for a few days, Ophelia discovered that Mattie’s influence was everlasting. Audiences liked hearing her speak, liked listening to her stories, liked laughing at her country wit and nodding along with her ribbing of modern life. It was Mattie, disguised as Minnie, that people came to see, not Ophelia Colley. “I didn’t appreciate Minnie,” she wrote in her autobiography. “She was just a stopgap…, something I would settle for until my real destiny came to pass.”

Fifty-one years on the Grand Ole Opry stage, twenty years on TV’s Hee Haw, and an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame changed her perspective. Ophelia owed a debt to Baileyton and the tall, lifeworn woman who sheltered her with grace in a humble log cabin up on a hill. “I was always Minnie Pearl, a plain, country girl comic poking fun at herself and sharing it with others,” she realized. “When I learned to accept that role, the one God had given me, He turned my failure into success.”

Rachel Louise Martin

Rachel Louise Martin, PhD, is a historian and writer whose work has appeared in outlets like the Atlantic and the Oxford American. The author of Hot, Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story and A Most Tolerant Little Town, she writes about the politics of memory and the power of stories to illuminate why injustice persists in America today. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.