Meet Orlean Puckett: Family of mountain midwife preserves her legacy

Published: Mar. 1, 2023 at 6:15 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - This March, WDBJ7 is celebrating Women’s History Month by examining the lives of women who have left their marks on southwest Virginia.

We start with a step back in time to the late 19th century, when an ordinary mountain woman left behind an extraordinary legacy.

What can we learn from a little log cabin standing the test of time? Or perhaps a few log cabins time has yet to reclaim?

“The more you learn, the more you want to find out,” said Raleigh Puckett from his property in Ararat on a chilly, overcast day.

For Raleigh and his wife Shelby Puckett, there is much to learn about life, resilience and family mysteries.

“We have had more fun doing this and meeting people and finding out these little tidbits,” said Shelby Puckett. “And it’s just been a fun experience. We’ve had a great life.”

Tidbits of family history are dotted throughout these woods at the base of Groundhog Mountain in Patrick County; their families have been born generation after generation. Many of them were delivered into this world by the hands of a woman they call Aunt Orlean Puckett.

“And she was just a tough woman, mountain woman that could survive anything, you know?” said Raleigh. “She’s just a pretty remarkable woman, I think.”

Orlean Puckett was born Orlean Hawks in Lambsburg, Virginia. As the story goes, the Pucketts say, her family Bible burned, so she never knew what year she was born or how to spell her name. Much of what they say they know about her is passed down in family stories and interviews conducted by the National Park Service during the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Around age 16, she married John Puckett and moved with him to the base of Groundhog Mountain. Raleigh’s family salvaged the tiny cabin in which she is said to have spent those early years of marriage before John was called away to war.

“But this is her Sunday bonnet,” said Shelby pointing to the heap of black fabric in a glass case. “This is the bonnet that she wore and this was given to us by the Puckett family.”

Raleigh and Shelby moved the cabin down the road to their property in Ararat, where it sits alongside another salvaged cabin built by his great great grandfather. The cabins are on display for the public, including schoolchildren, to learn about life in rural mountain communities.

“I’ve been out here and stayed all night and slept in the bed there, had a fire going,” said Raleigh, “and just imagined what their life was like and what hardships they went through to raise children.”

Hardships were plentiful for Orlean and John in this rugged mountain life.

“The first child is buried in this corner here,” said Shelby, leading the small family cemetery. At the back is a small headstone for Julia Anne, the first daughter Orlean buried sometime between seven months and two years after her birth.

Over the course of Orlean’s life, Julia Anne’s headstone would be joined by 19 others. Orlean is said to have had between 20 and 24 pregnancies.

Not a single child survived.

“And to me, it’s just more tangible evidence of what she went through,” said Shelby. “...You walk here and look and here are 20 babies that a woman has lost, a man has lost.”

Today, the family believes Orlean has a blood protein incompatibility (the Rh blood factor) which caused the miscarriage or death of her babies. But it didn’t damper her love for the people and the children around her.

“Some of the stories that were told about her, was she was a very kind generous woman, people that would pass her by, she just about forced them to eat with her,” said Raleigh. “And whatever foods she had she wanted to share with them. And she was just a real people person from what I can gather from it.”

At some point in her life, Orlean took up the job of local midwife, sometimes traveling for miles and weeks at a time to bring life into the world.

“That, to me is the story about her, is that spirit that she had, that resilience that you could lose that many children, and again, have no earthly idea why this is happening,” said Shelby. “And yet, go back. And then it is said she delivered 1000s of babies in this area, and never, never lost the baby. None of them ever died.”

Two of those babies happened to be Raleigh Puckett’s own parents.

Today, a lone cabin sits next to the Blue Ridge Parkway to honor her legacy. While the Pucketts say her real home was torn down to make way for the parkway, it was in this cabin just off the road, among family, she was to live her last years and deliver her last babies.

“Alright, here’s John and here’s Orlean,” said Shelby, pointing to another headstone in a cemetery across the road from the cabin.

Here John and Orlean were laid to rest.

“‘Tho lost to sight, to memory dear,’” said Shelby, reading Orlean’s headstone, which also proclaims her death at 100 years old.

Today these little log cabins and these family mysteries are held together by a desire to keep time at bay, and a promise to honor the legacy of a proud, strong, mountain woman.

“Somewhere along the way there’s a saying or something as long as one person remembers you, you’re not gone,” said Shelby. “You know, you are still alive as long as one person can remember you. So we’re hoping we’ve got enough stuff here that people will be remembering these Pucketts for a long, long time!”

In 2012, Puckett was recognized as a Changemaker by the Virginia Foundation for Women.