We've weathered storms before...

Plains markers, such as this, mark the graves of many Cocke Countians, some of whom died during epidemics, such as that of smallpox in 1884.

Last night’s national news (our family loves Lester Holt) was devoted strictly to reports concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

As you may have noticed, Cocke County, as isolated as we are from much of the world, has not been unaffected by this scary sickness. With schools, sports events, and even church services (in some cases) suspended, our world has changed dramatically.

In the midst of all the panic, I find myself thankful to two local television personalities.

First, I’m grateful to Dr. Bob Overholt, whose message last Sunday morning was to be practical, respect the virus, be sensible in our actions, and educate ourselves. Thank you, Dr. Overholt, for putting your message, as always, into words we non-medical people can understand.

Second, thank you Bill Williams, longtime television anchor. Now 86 years old, he comforted us listeners this week with a commentary like no other. His message was also simple: we’ve weathered storms before and we’ll survive this one. Williams enumerated several other occurrences, beginning with World War II, all of which have passed into history. And our world passed through them and here we are today.

Williams’ comments got me to thinking: all of the storms he referenced affected us in our beloved Cocke County. And there have been plenty others.

Thankfully we have no personal memories of the grim days of the Civil War, but boy, were we affected. No major battles were fought here, but there were indeed some skirmishes, signs of which continue to be found by those with metal detectors.

And it wasn’t only the soldiers, fighting and dying on faraway battlefields, who felt the impact of war. The old folks, women, and children here at home suffered daily from problems ranging from starvation, disease, and raids. Somehow, the majority of our citizens made it through those dark days, to rise again and move forward.

Various other epidemics and pandemics have come and gone. We still have a very few citizens who survived the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919.

Others remember the days of tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, and polio.

My grandfather Sisk died of typhoid in 1944. By then it was almost unheard of, and our family never knew where he contracted it.

But wherever he contracted it, our family got through it.

In the 1950s, I remember seeing a large sign in front of a house on Magnolia Avenue in Knoxville proclaiming “Polio! Quarantine!” I also remember lining up on Sunday afternoon at Newport Grammar School to receive my sugar cube with the drop of polio vaccine dripped on it.

Many families dealt with the ravages of polio, but somehow they got through it.

Such diseases as smallpox have also visited our community.

In their book Spring/Winter, Delmer Baxter and Beth Freeman recorded the story of James Yarberry and his family who died in a smallpox epidemic in 1884.

Mrs. Yarberry was the former Margaret Valentine, a sister of Robert “Dr. Bob” Valentine and his wife, the former Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Baxter. They were children of James Valentine. The tragic story of the Yarberry family was told by Carr Valentine to Delmar Baxter in 1981, as follows:

Margaret lived with her family of three or four children on what is now my brother Alvin’s farm down Indian Camp Creek. It’s the lower part of what was Dr. Bob’s farm. In 1884, a terrible smallpox epidemic hit the country. Dr. Bob couldn’t keep up with it. When he got around to Margaret’s, she and her husband and all the kids were dead, some beginning to decay. I’ve seen their graveyard down there, lots of times. Everyone’s got a rock for a headstone, all the rocks unmarked.

Carr Valentine would have been a nephew of Margaret (Valentine) Yarberry and no doubt heard the story many times. However, a bit of research on the internet by Cocke County Historian E.R. Walker III answered some questions about the James and Margaret Yarberry family and raised others.

In 1880, James and Margaret are listed with their five children: William, 23; Greenville (probably Greenberry) Robert, 17; Mary C., 15; James, 13; and Isaac, 11. Another son, Jacob L. (1859-1922), had married his first wife, Mary Eliza Flynn, in 1878.

Jacob became a doctor, as did his son, Dr. Otha Howard Yarberry, whose clinic in Sevierville was near the intersection of highways between Sevierville and Pigeon Forge.

The internet does record James Yarberry as having died in 1884. He was born ca. 1817 in Burke County, NC, but according to the internet, actually died in the Allensville community of Sevier County, which is where the family was recorded by the census taker in 1880.

Another question arises, concerning the death of Margaret (Valentine) Yarberry, who did NOT die in 1884. Instead, she moved to Missouri where she is recorded as dying in Polk County in 1903. In the 1900 census, she is listed in Cass County, Missouri, with two of her sons.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the Yarberry family, like many, did indeed suffer during the smallpox epidemic.

And the survivors moved forward to more days of adventure, laughter, love, and tears.

Stories like this abound, as do stories of hope, love, and charity. This week I have been tremendously impressed and proud of our local educational leaders who quickly and almost miraculously put together work packets and developed a plan to feed our children while schools are closed. To me, that’s Cocke County’s goodness at its best.

In the coming days, let us continue to work together, do the right thing, refuse to get caught up in the frenzy of panic, hold on to our faith, don’t buy all the toilet paper, and remember: this, too, shall pass.

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