Project Canterbury

William West Skiles

A Sketch of Missionary Life at Valle Crucis in Western North Carolina 1842-1862

Edited by Susan Fenimore Cooper

New York: James Pott & Co., 1890.

Chapter II.

At this period an experienced farmer, to take charge of the agricultural department, was required. To fill this position, a middle-aged man came to Valle Crucis from the low country of North Carolina.

William West Skiles was born October 12, 1807, at Hertford, Perquimons County, N. C. He attended as a child the common school of that neighbourhood, and it is said that his boyhood was highly honourable, earning at that early day an excellent reputation for honesty, industry, and a strong sense of duty. As a young man he was much esteemed'and liked for kindly and attractive qualities. He looked forward to work as a mechanic, and for some years filled most worthily the position of overseer of extensive lumber-mills near Plymouth. Thence, in 1844, at tne age of thirty-seven, he came to Valle Crucis, where his personal character soon made a strong impression on [21/22] all who knew him. Simple, earnest, and peculiarly kindly in countenance and manner, there was something winning about him which attracted a warm regard from his companions, while his uprightness, sound practical judgment, his skill and experience, soon placed him at the head of the working department. Gradually, as his efficiency and fidelity became more and more apparent, one duty after another was allotted to him, until the labours of head farmer, store-keeper, postmaster, treasurer, and general superintendent devolved upon him. The religious tone of the institution, devout and earnest, produced a deep impression on this practical business man. He had been in the family but a short time when he expressed to the clergyman in charge his desire to serve his Lord and Master more fully than he had yet done, by devoting his life to the sacred ministry. There was no difficulty in procuring the necessary testimonials in behalf of a man of his most worthy moral character, and he began almost immediately the necessary studies. The name of William W. Skiles appears as a Candidate for Deacon's [23/23] Orders in the Report of the Standing Committee of the Diocese for 1845. He was at that time about thirty-eight years old, according to a record found in an old book. He was thus one of the first to profit by the Canon of the General Convention, allowing the admission of Deacons without classical education. A plain English education was all he had received, and he made no attempt to acquire the ancient languages.

During the first two years of his life at Valle Crucis the time of William Skiles was divided between the daily work connected with his position as General Superintendent and his preparation for the sacred ministry. With teaching and Mission work he had, during those years, nothing to do. But every other department of the work at Valle Crucis was more or less closely under his supervision. Remarkable for discretion, practical, patient, and methodical, he would seem to have found time to attend to many varied duties at the right moment and in the right way. His personal character inspired entire confidence in his fidelity and uprightness, while the genial [23/24] kindliness of his nature soon added affectionate regard to the respect with which all looked up to him. By many years older than the young men connected with the Mission, he was constantly consulted by them on practical points, and his advice never failed to have great weight with his young associates. "We considered him as our Nestor," says one, now a prominent clergyman of the Church. His slightly stooping figure and partially bald head gave him the appearance of greater age than he could actually claim. He was generally believed to be nearly fifty when he came to Valle Crucis, but the date of his birth has been recently found in an old memorandum book, by Mr. George Evans, and that date is October 12, 1807.

He lived at that time in the upper room of the office, or library. In the long summer mornings, after his own private devotions, he was often afield before the sun rose, attending to some especial duty. Perchance he gave an eye to the hayfield or the crops, or he looked after the lumber at the saw-mill, or after the cattle, in which he felt an especial [24/25] interest. Bishop Ives had purchased in Pennsylvania valuable stock, which he sent to Valle Crucis at a great expense. This was, of course, under the care of Mr. Skiles. That portion of the valley selected for the Mission farm was level and easily cultivated, although the soil was not rich. The crops were wheat, and all the smaller grains, including buckwheat, with clover and grasses. Maize was an uncertain crop, although the small rare-ripe kind was usually planted. It was a very fine grazing country, and the herds of the Mission family fared well, not only in the meadows of the valley, but also in the natural pastures to be found in many places on the mountains, even to their very summits. None but hardy vegetables were cultivated in the gardens, as the summers were too short for the more tender kinds. But the hardy sorts were of remarkably good quality; the cabbages were very fine, so large and sound, and so choice in flavour; in fact, they were quite remarkable, and the Mission family would seem to have indulged in a certain pride in those magnificent vegetables, which might have sat for their portraits to [25/26] some Dutch artist. Peaches were raised in the valley, and the common cherry was abundant in the neighbourhood. The apples were remarkably fine, as they are said to be in all that mountain region. It was with something more than the feeling of a common farmer that William Skiles walked about the fields entrusted to his care; not only was he naturally desirous that the harvest of grain, fruit, and vegetables^ should turn out well, but the actual well-being of the Mission family, their daily bread, in fact, depended very much upon the yield of the farm.

As the sun appeared above the eastern hills a bugle was heard calling the family to early prayers. All turned their steps towards the brick basement Chapel, plain and unadorned, where the services were devoutly performed. It was usually, at that date, one of the Divinity students who officiated in the Chapel. Since the death of the Rev. Mr. Thurston there had been no rector at Valle Crucis. And there, among others, was William Skiles, sure to be in his place, on his knees, in the House of Prayer, whatever may have been the urgent [26/27] work on the farm. Among many youthful heads, more attractive, perchance, in form and feature, the half-bald head and plain face of the middle-aged yeoman commanded respect and sympathy from their expression of sim pie, earnest devotion and natural goodness, it we may use the words. In his countenance there was always the strength of good sense, blended with a glow of kindly feeling. The service over, prayer and praise devoutly offered, the family band of worshippers went down the slope of the hill to the long shed room in the rear of the log house, called the Bishop's House, where they breakfasted. The meals were always simple, chiefly from the produce of the farm, excepting when trout and venison were brought in.

After breakfast the time of the Steward was again given to the varied details of his business. Perchance a rustic customer appeared at the little store "to trade." Or a load of goods, brought with great toil over the mountain roads from Morganton or Lenoir, must needs be looked over. These goods, brought from the east side of the Blue Ridge, appeared [27/28] but seldom, however, and the amount was small; tea, coffee, sugar, mustard, pepper, salt, farm tools, nails, screws, etc.; a few packages of the more common medicines for the dispensary, boots and shoes, school-books, paper, pens, ink, with a very modest supply of general stationery; needles, pins, thread, tape, buttons, with perchance a few pieces of calico, flannels, and shirting, such were the usual contents of the invoice directed to William Skiles. Every primitive country "store" contains an odd medley, but the shelves at Valle Crucis, with their post-office pigeon-holes, their medical and literary corners, could show even a wider range than usual. But limited indeed was the space allotted to each department; the entire building was a mere box.

Occasionally there were sales of cattle or sheep to be made, or it might be produce or lumber. Here again was work for the steward. The perfect honesty, the open uprightness of his dealings with the country people on these occasions was frequently remarked, and soon obtained for him their unqualified confidence, their sincere respect.

[29] All the funds of the institution passed through his trustworthy hands, as he was the General Treasurer also. Of course, close attention to the accounts occupied a portion of his time. But this duty was usually attended to in the afternoon or evening. Dinner took place at noon. In the afternoon, at five, there were evening prayers, from which the good yeoman student was never absent, unless from necessity.

In spite of his numerous secular occupations, the most important part of his duties, the preparation for the sacred ministry, was never neglected. It was in the library, or office, where he slept, that his studies were chiefly carried on during the evening hours, blended, we may be sure, with much earnest prayer. There was a regular course of lectures, also, for the divinity students, which he attended faithfully. He was appointed a warden of the parish of the Church of the Holy Cross soon after Mr. Thurston's death. The Report for 1846 was prepared by him:

"Communicants ten, four having been added during the year, while five have removed. Daily Morning Prayer has [29/30] been read in the Chapel, and constant instruction in the Bible and Catechism given to the youth connected with the establishment. The sudden death of the rector of the parish, the Rev. Mr. Thurston, whose place has not been supplied, has proved a drawback to its prosperity. We need a minister who can devote his whole time to our spiritual needs."

But although there was no regular rector, the religious services were carried on with fidelity. There was a short Chapel service at sunrise, another at noon, and also the regular Morning and Evening Prayers daily. These services were well attended. The Chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Prout, officiated three Sundays in the month in the basement Chapel. He also administered the Holy Communion every month. The services at all the Church Festivals and Fasts were also performed by Mr. Prout. His Mission work beyond Valle Crucis was at the same time carried on with encouraging results. There were many prejudices to overcome, and, as usual, in some instances those prejudices were intensely bitter. The opposition to primitive Church government, with its ancient orders of the Ministry, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, was found to [30/31] be very strong. And, as usual at that day, the use of a Liturgy was considered by many as entirely inconsistent with sincere devotion. Ignorance was, of course, the foundation of those prejudices. In fact, it may be said that all religious prejudice, with its legion of evil consequences, can be traced to a combination of individual pride and ignorance. Pride fosters the ignorance. It is quite remarkable what a change has come over the Christian community in America as regards many of the peculiar practices of our Church during the last half-century; much is borrowed to-day from the same Liturgy which very worthy people of the past generation considered merely an utterly lifeless form. And the ministers of different religious societies at the present hour are claiming the title of Bishop, which their fathers considered a most arrogant usurpation.

"May all who profess and call themselves Christians be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life!"

The backwoodsmen on the Watauga were not, however, too stubborn to be won by the [31/32] kindly Christian charity which marked the course of the Missionary. Little by little, many were softened. Many who could not read listened Sunday after Sunday to the two great lessons from the Holy Scriptures connected with the course of the Christian year, and gradually learned the happiness of celebrating in regular succession the great events of the life of our Holy and Blessed Lord. They learned to keep Christmas and Easter with joyful hearts. They learned to utter devoutly the responses of the Litany, and those after the Commandments. Gradually, by the blessing of God, a very devout spirit began to prevail among this simple people. It was at this period that a Baptism of a young man, one of the students, by immersion, took place at Valle Crucis, the point chosen for administering the sacrament being the junction of the three streams forming the cross.

The three principal missionary stations, beyond Valle Crucis, were at that time Upper Watauga, Lower Watauga, and New River. A day-school blending religious and common instruction was kept by one of the candidates for [32/33] the ministry, at Lower Watauga. Religious services were also held regularly in another school-house above Valle Crucis, where a divinity student taught a Sunday-school. There were several of these small outlying stations and day-schools. There were at this time eight students of Divinity at the Valley, all giving more or less attention to some form of Mission work. Among these Candidates for the Ministry was Mr. William R. Gries, from Pennsylvania; he had been a medical student, and his services in visiting the sick and prescribing for patients of different kinds were in constant demand, and his assistance to the suffering was very happy in its effects, by softening the prejudices of the ignorant mountaineers.

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