Living history: Helen Parks and the many faces of Switzerland County

33

The past of Switzerland County is alive for Helen Parks. She knows its stories. Sometimes she wears its clothes, and sometimes she even turns into a few of its major figures. Retired after more than a third of a century of teaching in local schools, Mrs. Parks still weaves her magic with children and adults alike, both as a substitute teacher and a performer.

Born and raised on Indian Creek, Helen Parks can trace her Switzerland County roots back to before the Civil War, and members of her mother’s family were mentioned in the 1850 census. She grew up listening to stories about local history from her parents and grandparents. She loves that rich heritage, and she personifies it in the five women whose identity she easily assumes: Rachel Pickett, wife of early settler Heathcoat Pickett; Polly Protsman, wife of the Underground Railroad conductor William Protsman; an “Indian Lady” who tells Native American tales; Christina Froman Cotton, wife of early settler, William Cotton; and Mary Jane Craig Eggleston, the mother of Switzerland County author, Edward Eggleston.

For each of these people, Helen Parks has a costume and plenty of stories.

Polly Protsman is her most recent character. “Polly came along just this year,” Helen Parks says. “She’s new. She’s still in pieces. I’m trying to put her together.”

When Mrs. Parks becomes Polly Protsman, she wears a black dress made from an 1850s pattern – a dress with “lots of petticoats” and puffed sleeves.

Polly was the wife of William Protsman, an abolitionist Methodist minister and conductor of the Switzerland County section of the Underground Railroad who helped runaway slaves navigate their way north to freedom.

In the years prior to the Civil War, slaves often came across the Ohio River, taking advantage of sandbars and shallows near Lamb, Vevay Island, Patriot, and the mouth of Plum Creek.

“When the water was low or frozen,” Mrs. Parks says, “they would be able to cross.” Then they could make their way to William Protsman’s farm on the top of Vevay Hill. He would direct them up through Mt. Sterling to Bennington and then to Napoleon and points north.

As Polly Protsman, Helen Parks tells stories of slave owners stopping at Switzerland County homes to ask questions about escaped slaves. The Methodist minister once shocked his son by lying to the men who had asked if he had seen “a damned, yaller gal coming through here.” William Protsman later explained to his son that she was not “damned.”

Another story Helen Parks tells is about one of Protsman’s nieces from Warsaw, Kentucky, who decided to have some fun with her Uncle William. The young woman dressed in male clothing, blackened her face, and after dark she knocked on her uncle’s kitchen door. She told a pathetic story of suffering and ill treatment. But when William Protsman began to plan the escape route, the niece couldn’t help breaking out into laughter. Her uncle, however, “raged and ranted until she swore to keep the secret and all his family with her…. It was no joke because a person, if caught, would have to pay a three hundred dollar fine for each offense and serve a prison term.”

*

When Helen Parks becomes the “Indian Lady,” who sometimes calls herself Tecumseh’s sister, she wears a costume of suede-like fabric, trimmed with fringe and conchos (“those round silver things,” she explains). Her favorite Native American tales are mostly animal stories, she says, stories like why the bear has a short tail, or why the opossum’s tail is bare.

The character of Mary Jane Craig Eggleston, the mother of Switzerland County novelist, Edward Eggleston, requires a different costume.

“It’s like Polly’s dress,” Mrs. Parks says, “but it’s either pink or black.” She admits, however, that she does not make the outfits herself, and they do not have the great number of buttons so common a hundred years ago. “I cheated,” she confesses, “and had zippers put in them.”

As Edward Eggleston’s mother, Mrs. Parks tells the truth about her famous son. “He was a difficult child, don’t you know!” she says. “Often sick and unable to go to school, Edward would spend the time reading. Later in life, he became a circuit rider and preached against whisky,” she says. “And he wrote a novel without ever having read one!”

When she turns into Christina Froman Cotton, Mrs. Parks talks about her husband, William Cotton, who first came to Switzerland County in 1798 and lived for a time in a giant sycamore tree on Indian Creek. Mr. Cotton became the first justice of the peace in that region and was prominent in southern Indian politics for decades.

Christina Froman Cotton organized the first Baptist Church in the county, the Indian Creek Church, and worshipers held their first services in an old hollowed-out sycamore tree near the mouth of Pendleton Run. After Indians burned the first church building, the congregation moved to Mt. Sterling and, eventually, to Center Square.

Mrs. Parks says that she “asked people all over” about the exact location of the historical sycamore tree associated with the Cottons and that first Baptist church, but nobody seemed to know where the tree was. She finally found someone who directed her north of Cotton Cemetery along the creek, but the actual tree was no longer there.

All her characters have tales to tell, but the favorite of Helen Parks is Rachel Pickett.

Rachel’s costume consists of a chemise, a vest, a skirt with drawstrings, an apron, and a ‘”pocket” with string ties worn across the waist. “Rachel is the most fun to do,” says Mrs. Parks, “and she has the best stories!”

And she loves to tell those stories. “Its fun watching the faces of the kids — and adults too! They fall for it. They really get hooked.”

As Rachel Pickett, Helen Parks tells about her son, Heathcoat II, who knew and hunted with Daniel Boone. “They even carved their initials on the North side of a large tree on Plum Creek.”

Bears were plentiful at that time in Switzerland County (the early 1800s) and Rachel Pickett likes to tell how Heathcoat II once shot six bears without changing his position at the bear wallow just east of Jacksonville. On one occasion, “he failed to stop a particularly ferocious bear with the first shot, and when it charged, he ran loading his gun as he ran. In his hurry he did not load his gun properly and again he wounded the bear.

“When it charged the second time, he used his hunting knife to kill the bear. Before he was able to kill it, the bear tore almost all his clothes off.

“Everybody likes that part,” adds Mrs. Parks.

James Pickett III, the grandson of Rachel Pickett, is the subject of some of the most popular stories.

“One of the greatest problems of this county,” she tells her audience, “was the movement of squirrels from Kentucky in the years of 1820 to 1840. James said that he had seen logs and tops of trees floating down the river literally covered with squirrels. Families had to stand watch with dogs day and night to save their gardens and corn.”

During the famous Switzerland County squirrel hunts in March of 1824, thousands of the animals were killed. Contributing to the hunt, James Pickett III killed 48 on March 6th and 85 on March 27th.

“James III said that he would not kill a squirrel unless he could shoot out its eye,” Mrs. Parks notes.

Also popular with audiences is the story about the time Rachel Pickett’s husband went out hunting and left her and the children alone in their cabin.

“Some men tried to break into the cabin. They knew we ran flatboats and might have money in the cabin.”

“I shouted through the door that I had a gun. The children and I sat on the bed and I pointed the gun at the door and told them I would shoot the first one to break down the door. Finally, after several tries to break down the door, they left.

“So as you can see,” she adds, “pioneer life was not easy.”

*

Although Helen Parks likes to dress up and tell stories, it is clear that what she likes equally as much is to teach and work with children. Just as the inspiration for her performances came from Switzerland County characters, the inspiration for her lifelong career in education came from her experiences in the Switzerland County schools:

“I went to school at Mt. Sterling,” she says, and she tells how the building had only two rooms: grades one through four in one room and grades five through seven in another. She remembers the hand-pumped water, the outhouses over the hill, the huge pot-bellied stoves “taller than I was” in each of the schoolrooms, and hot soup simmering over the fire on cold winter mornings. “We had major fun there!” Mrs. Parks recalls.

Learning was part of the fun. When the older students were “doing history,” Mrs. Parks says, ” I would listen in.” She enjoyed the stories and loved her teachers, especially Martha Cole and Lillian Bosaw. Because of those role models, “I knew when I was seven,” she says, “that I wanted to be a teacher.”

Having enjoyed her own education, Helen Parks wanted to make learning enjoyable for others, and she feels some of the most successful and rewarding events of her career were the local history projects conducted by her students.

She often encouraged elementary and middle school students to interview family members and neighbors. For the “Always a River” project in the summer of 1991, her students created an oral history of the community, conducting library research, making numerous field trips, taping interviews and then transcribing the contents of the tapes. Students also made drawings, which depicted events in their history.

The result of that project was the 153-page book, “Up the River and Back”, and the authors were all sixth graders at the time: Hannah Allhands, Alicia Brogan, Clarissa Chapman, Suzi Kinman, Dax Penick. The book was illustrated by Joey Gosciniak, Dusty Hunt, Matt Libby, and Brian Works.

Mrs. Parks also encouraged her students to create a nine-patch river quilt for “Always a River,” with hand-painted sketches of log cabins, steamboats and flatboats. “Everybody got involved,” she said.

Many of her other classes created quilts. When children make a quilt, she says, they “learn that history is ordinary people with life experiences to share.” Different projects such as history days and the celebration of certain events also brought the past alive.

When her students commemorated the 50th anniversary of World War II, they did research papers, and one boy found out that his grandfather had been a soldier in the conflict. That motivated him to find out more, and she recalls him coming up to her with some facts he had learned and asking, “Mrs. Parks, did you know….?”

Story telling, of course, was and continues to be a way of getting students interested in the past.

“Story telling helps to get them doing creative things,” says Mrs. Parks, and when she teaches creative writing, she likes to “spend a lot of time talking before we do writing. Story telling is part of writing. It gets the juices flowing. You can get kids interested if you tell a good story.”

There is a purpose deeper than simply entertainment, Helen Parks believes, to research and writing and the retelling of the past. All of this is not a matter of “dusty scholarship,” she says, but rather of giving life to children’s identity.

“History gives them roots,” she says. “If you understand your past, you can understand yourself and the community better.”