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Alma Katherine Hagan was born February 24, 1925 near Strode, Kentucky, the daughter of Erie and Nora Page Hagan. Along with her parents, brothers, sisters and Grandpa Brock Page, the rickety little house a short distance from old Rockbridge School swelled with life on the brink of the Great Depression. They worked hard raising gardens and a family on a tobacco income, moving several times before making a home on the George Carter farm in the curve on highway 1049. Grandma was the seventh of ten children—Neva, Clifton, Glaydell, Odell, Dale, Ruby, Katherine, Sarah, Chloe Eagle and James Wendall—with several not living until adulthood. With the exception of Chloe Eagle, Katherine survived them all. One of her earliest memories was hearing James Wendall crying. He did not live more than a few months.
Rockbridge School taught her well in her primary grades. She was an honor roll student there but later attended Old Mt. Herman School beside Old Monroe Church where her teacher was the much beloved Miss Vada Tooley. Sometime before 1937, they moved into a little house located just before you get to Old Monroe Church, right across the road from her grandparents, Marion and Louella Geralds Hagan. She graduated 8th Grade from Old Mt. Herman School, Class of 1940, and found employment in the town of Tompkinsville.
At the early age of 15, Katherine become employed as a nanny to the Newport family of Tompkinsville. She boarded part time in town caring for the Newport children and traveled home on the weekends. She has told many times that Mr. Oval Froedge picked her up in town on Fridays and drove her home. On Mondays, her father drove her back to the Newports and she stayed in town until Friday again. For a time, she also lived with the Minnie Rich family and cared for Mrs. Rich who was sick. She later became employed at Napier and White’s Dry Cleaners and she kept that job for four years, including most of the early war years of the 1940s.
Katherine was not ALWAYS a grandma. When not attending to the duties of her job, she had a circle of friends that congregated around town. One of her prized possessions was her camera. From her photographs we recognize Minnie Rich, Doris Hagan, George and Dillard Hagan, Martha Young, Lorine Proffitt and others. Katherine took an unheard of trip to the Smoky Mountains in the late 1940s, well before it was a common vacation trip to make. It was several days to get there and several days to drive back. It was also during this time, during the film’s original showing, that she saw Gone With the Wind on the big screen. (I have always wished she had kept her ticket stub!)
On Sundays, Katherine attended services at Old Monroe Church, often called Old Mt. Herman, and in 1940, she got saved. It was this experience that sustained her for the duration of her life. Her faith became the cornerstone of her home, the teachings she brought to her children and the example she set as a respected and beloved person over a broad region of Kentucky.
In her testimony, she declared that during revival meeting at Monroe Church, she got in trouble about her soul’s condition. She was reproved of her sins and separated from God and she sought the Lord on her bed but did not get saved. One morning about 4am on the floor beside her bed, her burden was lifted and the Lord saved her soul. She joined Old Monroe Church in September 1940 and Elder J.T. “Tom Clem” Clemmons baptized her along with Fred Biggers and others—a total of eleven. She would remain a faithful Baptist for more than seventy years.
Ellsworth Strode later joked and said he knew he would marry Katherine Hagan since the 4th grade. After serving his country in World War II, he got Katherine Hagan on his mind and looked her up. They began a courtship that, too, lasted a lifetime, ending more than fifty years later. Katherine was 25; Ellsworth was 30. He told her go to Wendall Froedge’s jewelry store and pick out an engagement ring. She asked him if he had looked and he told her no. She said when he went and looked, she would. When asking Erie Hagan for her hand, Ellsworth was told, “the devil owes me a debt and he’s paying me back in sons-in-laws.”
On June 7, 1951, they married. Elder C. E. Carter performed the service at the home of Wendall and Lorine Froedge. According to the Tompkinsville News, Papa wore his uniform and Grandma wore a navy blue dress with white accessories. The newlyweds took a wedding trip to Eastern Kentucky, spending their wedding night in Cave City, Kentucky. On their return, they made a home at the Joe Miller homeplace with Ellsworth’s mother on what is now Poland road on Rural Route #3. Ellsworth worked at Hagan and Stone; Katherine made a home. They became parents right away with R. V.’s birth in April 1952, ten months to the day of their wedding. Dianne followed in May 1953 and a busy and prosperous era ushered in.
Ellsworth bought a half-share of the Southern States Cooperative from Fred Scott in 1953. They moved to the house on Magnolia next to the store and lived there until 1960. In that period of time, Wendall Froedge bought Fred Scott’s part and these two operated the store, preached together in revivals, traveled to Chicago, Indianapolis, and other locales for products to buy for Southern States, as well as for revival meetings, including one memorable tent meeting with Elder Morris Billingsley in Mt. Auburn, Illinois.
Ellsworth announced his 1948 calling into the gospel ministry in 1953 and preached his first sermon at the Mud Lick School house where Elder Rex Hunt and Elder Morris Billingsley were holding services. Ellsworth told Katherine he had been called before they married but had not announced it publicly. She entered the marriage aware and made the very best of her choices and circumstances.
Sometime in the mid 1950s, Katherine and Ellsworth moved their membership to Old Temple Hill Baptist Church and in 1956 that church ordained Ellsworth to the ministry. He went to pastor Marrowbone and Rocky Hill immediately. He would be in the pulpit pastoring and holding revivals for many decades. His clothes would be ready, food on the table, and he could trust that things at home were in order with Katherine at his side. He held as many as nine revivals back to back through most of the 1960s.
Also, in his stead, she took care of her ailing mother-in-law. Enna Strode Biggers lived with them for the first nineteen years of their married life, joining them in town when they lived to the house on Magnolia, and again when they built and moved to the home place in 1960. Katherine attended services with him when able, prayed for him regardless. She listened as he shared his burdens and she supported him throughout it all.
With Grandma Biggers living with them, it became the home place. Relatives from Indiana, Illinois, and other places made their annual visits and Katherine shouldered the task of feeding them, boarding them and making them feel welcome, many for extended periods of time. She kept the home fires burning while he preached Sunday after Sunday, revival after revival, often bringing home church people to dinner unexpected. There was always food on the table and willing hands ready to serve it. She kept food prepared, pantries stocked with home canned vegetables, jams, jellies, and meats—canned, smoked, frozen and cured—an impeccable house, a well groomed yard, cows milked, chickens fed, gardens attended and raised her own children, seeing them off and back home from school, attended to their lessons, taught them, disciplined and made them mind.
Grandma Nora Hagan taught Katherine the blessings of being a good neighbor at a young age. At age 15, Katherine accompanied her mother to a neighbor’s where they washed and “laid out” someone that had passed away. Throughout her life, she continued being a good neighbor: sitting up and caring for the sick, cooking, cleaning and sharing her gardens. It seemed there was always a need and she was always willing to do what she could.
She cared for the Brays, a church family that adopted them and moved next door to them. For many years, Katherine saw after Mammy Bray and soon after that, Ellsworth’s brother and his wife called on them. Throughout the years, Ellsworth and Katherine found themselves called up to care for neighbors, family and friends that needed them. From his nephew’s near fatal and life altering car accident to her nephew’s trips back and forth to the doctor, they were ready to go when called.
Nineteen sixty presented another milestone year. The year kicked off with the birth of an additional and final child, Kathy, and was occupied with the building of a new house on Poland road (Rural Route #3) on land purchased from the Miller heirs of Ellsworth’s grandpa. It was this house that became her empire for raising children, food, and showing hospitality to neighbors and family. Only in recent years have the rich and vivid stories of her generosity and hospitality been brought to light. The stories of how she and Papa supported young couples getting married (once with a loan of $5), young preachers getting started (washing and ironing clothes), and countless others tales are recalled and set before us an example of true faith and service to others.
All this she did with a smile, a joy, and with a heart designed to serve others. She raised her children in the old time way, telling them that when they were lost they had to seek the Lord to be saved and seeing they were in the Lord’s house every time the doors were opened. She saw to it that her children were with their father bouncing all the old country roads going to Sunday services and revival meetings even when she could not be with them. She taught them the ways of truth and set a biblical example of a godly wife and mother.
She rarely, if ever, had a crossways word with her husband, and never, not once, stated an opinion in public that varied with his. She obeyed him, trusted him knowing that his heart safely trusted in hers as well. The years passed too quickly. Their children grew up and grandchildren came along. Most of the grandchildren lived within the same county as Papa and Grandma but for my sisters and I to visit, it was an event.
We could easily recite Grandma’s favorite foods. No one ever enjoyed a garden cucumber or a pone of thin cornbread as much as she did. Offer her turnip greens and white half runner beans, she would happily call it a meal. Gardening is work but for Grandma, it was a pleasure. She shared her tips and I will treasure them as I raise gardens throughout my lifetime.
She had little time for hobbies but found time for quilting. She quilted a flower garden the winter between RV and Dianne’s birth. She made baby quilts for several of her great-grand children. She loved cutting quilt pieces and making tops. She shared her love of quilts with her daughter, Dianne, and they worked on several quilts together. One of Mom’s favorite things is a baby doll quilt Grandma made her.
We learned to look forward to a visit to Grandma’s house. There was the promise of good food, authentic smiles, jokes from Papa and a sense of peace and security that we all miss today. Nobody will love us, teach us, brag on us, criticize us, smile or frown at us like our grandmas. No one will better explain our parents to us, why they are the people they are, or will cook better, tell better stories or always be as glad to see us as our grandmas. No one will replace them, fade our memory of them or make us forget what they meant to us.
For me, it was the stories of her childhood playing with the neighbor children, daring one another to visit cemeteries at night and overindulging in fresh honey, that forged my relationship with her. Then it services at Old Monroe Church or things that happened in the family or the community that she wanted to share with me. As my interested developed, it was a love of gardening that connected me with her. I found her lifetime experience and her willingness to teach a compelling reason to visit her, talk to her and share with her.
Grandma made holidays special. It wasn’t the gift giving or the meal fixing that did it, it was her smile and the way she let everyone know she was glad you were there and she loved you. If our relationship had depended on Papa and Grandma buying us things or giving us things or doing things for us, we would have lacked but our relationship depended on how they made us feel. We were loved and that was enough. She made popcorn balls, played Santa Claus handing out gifts, and cooked meals for kings for most of the years we were together.
Most of all it is her abiding unconditional love and prayers that I will miss most. It is her ability to speak truth, even critically, with love that causes you to appreciate her views and respect the fact that she loves you enough to tell you the truth. When you’re right and when you’re wrong.
I consider sometimes that other than a couple of other octogenarians, my mother and an adopted aunt, Grandma will be the last lady I will know in my life—one of modesty, quiet strength, honor, and obedient wives and biblical mothers. To know one is to recognize the need for them and to value them so much more both when they’re here and after they’re gone.