Historical Society of Southwest Virginia


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By Bonnie Ball

Helen Henderson

The southwestern part of Buchanan County lies in the Sandy Basin, its waters emptying into the Big Sandy River of Kentucky.

Although nearly all citizens owned land, including coal and timber, in the early years around the turn of the century, they were often poor, and lacked the conveniences and opportunities of modern life. Unaware of the potential value of their mineral and timber rights, they frequently sold them for a pittance. The fine virgin forests were almost intact. Some small sawmills had ripped a few thousand feet of lumber from the great forest. The millions of tons of coal that had underlain the hills for ages had been untouched. Not a foot of railroad penetrated the county, nor was there a single mile of improved public road.

The one factor responsible for the tardy development in the county was the great lack of educational facilities. The raw material was there and the great progress made in education during the last half century is ample proof that this material was rich and ripe for harvest. A few schools in dilapidated vacant houses, or rude schoolhouses, were taught for about five months of each year by poorly paid teachers.

On the headwaters of Russell Fork of the Sandy River is a community known as Council. It lies at the base of Big "A" Mountain. Here have lived for many years a people of pioneer stock and high native intelligence, who had no roads, no schools, and little contact with the outside world. Most of these people held firmly to the old ideas of honesty, sobriety, and neighborliness. The invigorating and thrill-satisfying activities of hunting were gone, with nothing to take their place.

Some thought that the supreme need of these marooned people was their special brand of religion, and there began a scramble between different denominations to be the first in the field.

Some time prior to 1900 a Missionary Baptist Church was organized near Council, at Hale's Schoolhouse.

In May, 1906 the Baptist State Mission Board of Virginia sent the Rev. Walter A. Hash, of Grayson County, Virginia, into the community, but the work did not prosper. Rev. Hash was convinced that the solution lay in schools and education. The Virginia Women's Union gave the initial sum of $2000 to begin the erection of the first building.
According to the manuscript of Mrs. Grace Mays Hale, Reverend Hash, Mr. J. M. McFarland, and Lazarus Hale were the first to break ground and start the building of the Buchanan Mission School at Council.
The school opened on January 16, 1911, with two teachers: Mrs. J. W. Reams, and a Miss Yates. The first session had an enrollment of 72 day students. No dormitories had yet been built. (Mrs. Reams was Martha Ford Reams, the wife of a Baptist minister of Southhampton County, Virginia).

The mission board began seeking for a qualified person to assume charge of the new school. They heard of Professor Henderson's fine work at Franklin, Virginia, and his wife's ability and interest in mission work. So they offered the job to the Hendersons.
Helen Timmons Henderson was born May 21, 1877, in Cass County, Missouri, a daughter of George S. Timmons and Martha Welby Rhoten, who were temporarily living in Missouri, but who returned soon afterward to their home in Jefferson County, Tennessee.

Martha Welby Rhoten (Timmons) was a daughter of Dr. John F. Rhoten, who left Scott County, Virginia, in young manhood, married Juliet Peck, and lived at Dandridge, on the French Board River in Tennessee, during 1834.

Among the valleys of the French Board and Holston rivers, Helen Timmons grew up. She attended Carson Newman College, where one of the professors was Robert Anderson Henderson, who later became her husband.

At the time of her marriage Helen Timmons was a Methodist, as had been her ancestors. Her husband was a Baptist. Without discussing the matter with him, she quietly changed her membership to the Baptist Church, to which she adhered loyally for the rest of her life.

In 1903 Professor Henderson became dean of Carson Newman College. As wife of the dean, and sister-in- law of the president, Dr. John Thompson Henderson, she had unusual opportunities to display her abilities as a leader of social activities.
In 1907 Professor Henderson was offered the presidency of Franklin Female Seminary in Southhampton County, Virginia. They had two children - a son, Robert Ashby Henderson, and a daughter, Helen Ruth Henderson.
The change from the quiet halls of the Franklin Seminary and its cultural environs, to the remote pioneer surroundings was a sudden wrench to the life of the Hendersons. They were advised against bringing their children to the mountains to rear, but here was the first decision they made that showed their mettle, and paved the way into the hearts of their new neighbors.

In August, 1911 the whole family journeyed by train to St. Paul, Virginia, where they spent the night at the Blue Sulphur Hotel. The next morning they continued to Honaker, the nearest station to Council. They found a man who agreed to take them across Big "A" Mountain in a wagon for six dollars. For the first five miles they passed hills and blue grass farms, and began to disbelieve the tales of hardship and road punishment they had heard on all sides. Yet they saw a mountain ahead of them that grew larger and more forbidding as they neared its base.

Suddenly the bluegrass ended, and the road reared menacingly in front of them, flanked by immense boulders and precipices, above and below. The pace was slower and slower. The hot sun climbed higher and higher. Team driver and passengers felt the dual effect of the scorching sun and the mountain climbing.

The Hendersons soon became hungry. A tree of red apples by the roadside tempted them, and they stopped. They had purchased some home made cheese and crackers in Honaker. Finding this insufficient, they stopped at a little roadside store for more, but failed to find any. They were told at the store that the Rev. Hash was preparing to leave Council on their arrival.

They ate the cheese and crackers under an oak tree and drank cold water from a spring nearby. After lunch they approached a steep place over which the team could not pull the wagon. The driver borrowed a team of mules to help get the load to the top. Often the passengers got out and walked to lighten the load.

On top at last! To the left the mountainside sloped steeping upward to the summit another eleven hundred feet. To the right in front, it dropped downward into the valleys nine hundred feet below. If possible the decent was more dangerous than the ascent.
Late in the day they reached the foot of the slope, one mile from Council. It had taken them ten hours to travel the eleven miles from Honaker. They found Mr. Hash packing to leave. The Council store furnished them groceries for a hasty meal, in dishes lent by Mr. Hash. Professor Henderson was the principal of the school, assuming charge of teaching, financial affairs and discipline. Mrs. Henderson was assistant principal. Her duties included: Care of the health and welfare of students, supervision of dormitories, religious and social life of the school, and serving as speaker in public meetings.
They studied the people quietly and sympathetically. They did not put on "airs", or criticize anyone's religion - or lack of it. A friendly interest in the joys and sorrows of each family opened all doors, and smiles of welcome and co-operation greeted their approach.

Doctors could be obtained only from distant towns, and at a cost that was prohibitive for the average person, who called one only in the most severe illnesses. Mrs. Henderson had learned much about nursing and the use of medicines from her grandfather, Dr. John F. Rhoten, and was regarded as a person endowed with superior ability to ease the pain and restore people to health.

But bringing the opportunity for education to those thirsty for learning was the crowning effort in the life work of the Hendersons. The Buchanan Mission began its first session under the guidance of the Hendersons in August, 1911, with an enrollment of 105 pupils. At that time the plant consisted of a two-story school house, and a three-story dormitory. Since that time there has been erected from native sandstone, a schoolhouse and dormitory. Practically every cent of the many thousands cost came from people far away from Council.

Some students boarded at the school dormitory; some stayed with relatives living in the area; others rode horseback, or walked many miles over rough trails, and through deep mud. They needed no compulsory school laws, but came with a determined purpose to learn. Buchanan Mission School turned out into the busy world scores of students equipped to lead useful lives, and to help their neighbors.

Helen Henderson was a fighter. She liked to strike out new paths - to see behind the sun. To this woman who gloried in pioneering, came a new challenge in 1923, only three years after women had been given the right to vote and hold offices. Even though woman suffrage was not popular with the hill people, some far-sighted men saw in Mrs. Henderson a God-send to their desire to have their party capture the seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1923 the Democratic Party offered her the nomination for this office. She was so busy with school work that she refused, but the committee persisted, assuring her that she could win, and could help them in Richmond. Her fighting blood was touched.

She threw her heart into the campaign. To her daughter, Ruth, she left her school work. In a Ford roadster she flamed through the district day by day, often speaking twice daily at points far apart. The hills were witnessing "something under the sun."
It took two days after the election for the final news to trickle into Council. Mrs. Henderson was the first woman ever to be nominated for a seat in the Legislature of conservative Virginia. (The following fall Norfolk City, not to be outdone by the chivalry of the hills, sent Mrs. Sarah Lee Fain to the General Assembly.)
Not long after the session opened Mrs. Henderson was called to the chair, and became the first woman ever to preside over the law-making body. She told the House more about Buchanan and Tazewell counties than they had ever heard before. She gave a picture of the roads over which the judge lost twenty-four hours in reaching court; of a people who need guidance of law and the example of quick justice.

But politics was strong. The Senate killed her bill to create an additional circuit court in Southwest Virginia, which had shown a strange tardiness in building roads for its people. Localities had no money; and the State had no money for the purpose.

Mrs. Henderson, in her twelve years of experience, had learned that, next to adequate educational facilities, Buchanan County had a great need of roads. She sought out road authorities. They smiled and promised to investigate - then forgot. She agitated the question everywhere she went.

They saw she was in earnest and finally granted her a hearing. They could not refuse her outright. So they agreed to giver her 6.2 miles of improved road from Fuller's Store in Russell County, across Big "A" Mountain, to Council, in Buchanan County. She felt that this was not enough, but had to be content with half a loaf. Six months later the people of Council held a meeting at the school gate, where the state road ended, to express their gratitude.

She fully realized that this was the beginning of a new epoch in the life of the school and community. The road was still crooked, and often steep, but it was also a blessing.
Helen Henderson had many plans to bring better conditions to the people of her area, and they trusted her. She was unanimously renominated for another term, but did not live to see another election day. During the spring of 1925 her health began to decline. She returned to the home of her parents at Jefferson City, Tennessee, where she died on July 12, 1925.

The old Council School has lost most of its youth and attraction, but it stands as a monument to this great Christian pioneer.

And today, as you travel along Route 80, and read on a road sign "Helen Henderson Highway", pause and whisper a prayer of gratitude for a life that meant much to the past, present, and future of a Buchanan County community.
Pages 38 to 41




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