The hat with the big red roses

Published 7:06 pm Friday, December 29, 2023

By Jadon Gibson, Contributing Columnist

Birth of a Nation, the famous silent movie released in February 1915 by native Kentuckian D.W. Griffith was a huge commercial success. It drew large crowds in rural and urban areas alike. The movie dramatized the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. It was presented in two parts separated by an intermission.

It was scheduled for a showing in Middlesboro early in the 1900s. John Estep, a resident of Cumberland Gap about three miles away in Tennessee, hired a two-horse surrey to take his family across Cumberland Mountain to see the movie. Country roads were quite bad in that era and the one across Cumberland Gap was barely passable. Automobiles were rarities at the time and horse-drawn vehicles were much more common.

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It was a festive affair for the Estep family and young Nola Estep wore her hat with the big red roses. Nola said this was one of her two favorite days of her childhood, the other being when her dad rented a similar surrey and took the family across Cumberland Gap to see a circus in Middlesboro.

“Cumberland Gap had a millinery shop then and we went there and picked out our hats,” she wrote later. “They were trimmed to suit our tastes and the lady at the store made my hat with big red roses. That summer I had an exciting time in that hat.”

The Esteps moved from Hancock County, a trip of 18-20 miles, where John maintained a farm for several years. He peddled his farm produce to the housewives of Cumberland Gap before the family moved there. His work week when peddling included a day of traveling to the town, a second day of selling and the third day returning home. He kept his horses at the livery stable and slept in the wagon at night. Minerva packed enough food to last him the three days.

John Estep decided the bustling town of Cumberland Gap offered many opportunities for his family and in March of 1906 he and wife Minerva packed two wagons and set out with family and belongings for their new location. They sat on the seat in front with the three children and a black dog squeezed in behind amongst their household goods. Other family belongings filled the second adjoining wagon and their cow walked along behind, tethered to the wagon by a rope.

The town was humming with activity yet several folks took time to glance at the arrival of the new family. They couldn’t have imagined what a positive impact these new folks would have on the city and county in the years ahead.

“Never had a city looked as big to me as Cumberland Gap did on that day when I saw it for the first time,” Nola wrote. “There was no cover on the wagon so Carl, James Dallard and I could view all the wonderful sights as we slowly moved along on the all-day journey. Carl tells me he got out of the wagon at times to lead the cow. Our dog would walk along making it a threesome.

“I was only six years old and had never been anywhere except Sunday School and church in the little country church at the top of the long hill from our house. It was different on those trips to church. Mother rode sidesaddle and I rode behind her on the horse, putting my arms around her waist and holding on for dear life.”

The summer after the Esteps moved to Cumberland Gap one of Nola’s uncles came to town in a wagon laden with produce. He had decided to take up his father’s former peddling business and he arrived every week of the selling season. It provided an excellent opportunity for Nola to go back and visit aunts, uncles and cousins in Hancock County.

“On one of those trips when we were about half-way to my uncle’s home, after having a lunch of brown sugar and crackers, we got caught in a very bad storm,” she recalled. “My uncle put me in the back and covered me with some old blankets and quilts. I was wearing my hat with the big red roses. I took it off and put it under all the cover. I ended up being drenched to the skin but my hat stayed dry and as pretty as ever. I got to wear it for all my aunts, uncles and cousins in Hancock County to see.”

Many years later Nola was going through some old penny post-card albums with her two children. Her mother had saved them through the years. On one postcard she told her mother all about the big storm and getting wet to the bone, adding “but my hat with big red roses didn’t get a bit wet.”

“My children thought it was very funny when I told them about my hat with the red roses.This memory struck a nostalgic note with me and I couldn’t stop the tears from coming to my eyes. My Children were just bewildered though. They laughed about it and couldn’t understand why I was crying so.”

Amazingly Nola lived to age 101, Carl to 98 and James Dallard Estep to 97. John Estep, their father, lived to be 100 and his wife Minerva died of cancer at age 80. James Dallard Estep served as mayor of the historic city of Cumberland Gap for 18 years. Eventually he was acclaimed as the oldest mayor in Tennessee. Many of the offspring of the Estep family have made meaningful contributions to the area and are continuing to do so today.

Jadon Gibson is a featured Appalachian writer residing in Harrogate, Tennessee. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.