The Wigington Family
|Front row (l-r): Stuart Wigington and his wife Susie (holding baby), Emmett Wigington, Rowe Wigington (in chair -- note crippled legs) and twins Elmer and Elbert. Standing in rear are Mindy and Charlie Wigington.|
By Charlene Terrell
Stuart Wigington, son of Ancel Roe Wigington and Rachel Russell Wigington, married Susie Wofford. They had twelve children and Rowe, one of their sons, was stricken with polio at an early age. Roy, another son, was born deaf and mute. Several of the dozen children died in childhood.
Over the years, the Stuart Wigington family rented houses here and there on Wolfscratch land, including the McElroy House, the Pete Weaver house and the Disharoon cabin.
According to the late Floyd Wigington, one of Stuart and Susie Wigington sons, “Daddy liked to move around a lot. I remember when he up and decided to load our things on the wagon one morning. We lived near Sharptop Mountain at the time and after the covered wagon was packed, he drove way over toward Fairmount to a house he heard was available. I don’t think he’d ever seen the house before. We moved so many times while I was growing up ‘til I’ve lost count.”
Rowe Wigington: A remarkable child
|Wolfscratch (Tate Mountain) School -- Circa 1920. Rowe Wigington is istting on the ground, holding one of the blocks he used for "walking." The other block is hsown on the ground in the lower right corner of the photo.|
The Wigingtons were like most of their neighbors: poor, but hardworking, churchgoing people. When Rowe Wigington, Stuart and Susie’s third child, was crippled with polio, the family coped in a remarkable manner. Rowe himself proved to be no less remarkable.
Rowe was a bright, determined boy who needed to regain independence, although his legs were severely drawn and atrophied to the point of uselessness. After he almost died from complications of polio, his parents’ first thoughts focused on acquiring what they called a “rolling chair” for their son.
Somehow, the Wigingtons finally obtained a wheelchair for Rowe. It was a large contraption – heavy and cumbersome – and totally unsuitable for use in tiny cabins with sloping, sagging puncheon floors.
Rowe hated the “iron chair” on sight and his parents soon wished they had never purchased the thing. It took precious space in their crowded living quarters and family members were constantly barking their shins or stubbing their toes on it. Rowe wouldn’t stay in the clunky chair for long, preferring to drag himself along the floor using his hands, a crab-like feat which frayed his clothes and imbedded painful splinters in his hands.
About this time, Sam Tate, President of Georgia Marble and founder of the mountain school, came to call on Stuart and Susie Wigington. He offered to arrange for their sons Roy and Rowe to be placed in a home for handicapped children. Rowe’s parents didn’t bother to take time to consider the offer – they rejected it on the spot. They told Mr. Tate they were obliged to him but they would rather take care of their children themselves.
A father’s love inspires a new way for Rowe to walk
One evening Stuart Wigington squinted by the light of a kerosene lamp and the fireplace, picking splinters out of Rowe’s festered hands with a needle. When the tedious operation was over, the father sat and stared at the fire for a while. He was deep in thought, trying to develop a glimmer of an idea for a simple invention that might somehow help Rowe to walk. Before the last ember had died, Stuart Wigington had the invention all worked out in his head.
The next morning he went straight to the woodpile and picked through the stack until he found what he was looking for. He measured, chopped and whittled until he had blocked out two pieces of wood about the same size. He planed the bottoms of the blocks until they were flat. At the top of each block he then notched each side to form grooves to accommodate a thumb-hold on one side and grasping fingers on the other. Stuart Wigington reasoned that by notching the blocks, Rowe could grasp one in each hand and “walk” on the blocks, using his hands, arms and upper body to compensate for his wasted and withered legs, now drawn up under his torso. Rowe’s father believed the blocks would work like stilts – only very close to the ground and with Rowe using hands instead of feet.
According to a family member, “When Rowe saw the new blocks and heard his daddy explain how they would work, he grinned from ear to ear and wanted to try them immediately. To Stuart Wigington’s delight, by the end of the first day Rowe could walk a few yards on his new blocks. The father watched with pride and admiration mingled with heartache while the boy struggled mightily to master the new walking technique.
Several adjustments and improvements were soon made to the blocks, including the attachment of pieces of old rubber tires to the bottoms. These soles or treads made walking over rough terrain much easier and provided some cushioning as well. Soon young Rowe was zipping along the ground, paying little attention to the useless legs he was obliged to drag along. Rowe learned the new technique so well until he could keep up with his brothers and sisters as they walked normally on two good legs.
As Rowe grew older, he developed powerful muscles in his arms and upper body and few tasks stymied him. Years after his death, Rowe’s brother Floyd said, “I’ve been out many a night possum’ huntin’ with Rowe and he moved about just fine a-huntin’ all over these mountains on them blocks.”
Rowe’s Wolfscratch teacher remembers her favorite pupil
Many years later this writer was researching material for the book Wolfscratch Wilderness and learned that one of the teachers at the Tate Mountain (Wolfscratch) School was alive and living in a nursing home in Canton. I immediately drove there to interview Mrs. Ruby Burt Fossett. She remembered her teaching days when she boarded with Scott and Luna Byess at Wolfscratch.
Former pupils that I had already interviewed had given information about Miss Burt, as she was known then. They described her as an attractive, enthusiastic young woman who loved music. When she discovered that few of the children had ever seen a piano or received any music appreciation training, she asked Sam Tate, her employer, if he might provide a piano for the school. He agreed and when the piano was delivered, music classes were added.
When I interviewed Miss Burt, now Mrs. Fossett, she was elderly and greatly handicapped due to a stroke. She remembered few of the children of those long-ago school days, but one student in particular touched her heart and that was the badly-crippled Rowe Wigington whom she called “Rowie.” The plucky boy so impressed this teacher that sixty-five years later as she lay bedridden and partially paralyzed, she remembered him vividly, though other memories had grown dim.
“Each mornin’ I rang the bell signaling classes to begin,” she recalled in 1985, shortly before her death. “The children walked to school and Rowie was no exception. From his home near Corinth Church, he walked across Low Gap on homemade blocks, dragging his withered stumpy legs along the ground. Rowie was always a cheerful boy and never complained about his handicap. Most times he didn’t even seem to notice his legs at all. I tell you, it was a sight to see him scooting along the ground using his hands and arms to move those blocks along. He could keep up with the other kids, too.
“I would always let Rowie leave class a little early since he had to walk so far. His little brother Floyd would cry if I didn’t let him go with Rowie. Floyd loved Rowie and wanted to go everywhere he went. I usually agreed to anything Rowie wanted because my heart went out to him. He didn’t want any pity though.”
A soft glow came to Mrs. Fossett’s dim eyes and she smiled faintly, remembering her favorite pupil of bygone days. “Rowie would’ve been as mad as a hornet if he thought I gave him special favors out of pity,” she added.
Others remember Rowe Wigington
Rowe’s sister-in-law, the late Bell Wigington, said, “Before I married Floyd, Rowe was driving a car by using contraptions he’d rigged up to press the gas, brake and clutch pedals. I thought to myself that I would never dare to ride in a car he was driving like that. I was wrong, though. Rowe proved to be a good driver and I rode with him many a mile after I married Floyd.”
Another neighbor remembered that Rowe became a self-taught barber and that he owned and operated a grist mill. Puzzled, I asked the former neighbor how Rowe could possibly cut hair. He smiled and said, “Well, we’d go to his house and he’d have a chair placed in the yard at the edge of the porch and customers would sit in the chair and Rowe would sit on the porch floor above them and give haircuts. He was a good barber, too.”
(Note: Rowe Wigington died November 1, 1959. He was 57.)