Historical society offers Appalachian natural wisdom to seventh graders through portrayal of local figure

Staff Writer John Coffelt  The Coffee County Historical Society recently visited Coffee County Middle School to involve students in the history of the county with a portrayal of a local historical personality. “We want to teach them about genealogy, folklore, the history of Coffee County and archeology to preserve the history of the county,” said Bonnie Parsley, director of the CCHS. To a generation who spent their youth in the hills near Normandy Reservoir in the 70s and 80s, the name Kitty Cathey became one of mystery and wild speculation, and of allegations of witchery. To those that knew her, however, like CCHS director Polly Minyard who portrayed “Miss Kitty” for the seventh graders at CCMS, the late Cathey was an eccentric but warm person and a naturalist who had a better working knowledge of the county’s ecology than anyone. Cathey, formerly of Cathey Ridge Rd., became the subject of urban legions late in her life and bore the cruel abuse of that notoriety. But earlier in her life, she was a schoolteacher at the 16th Model School. Cathey was born in November of 1897 and lived much of her life alone until her death in 1988, “She was definitely a lonely person,” said Minyard. Minyard grew up near Cathey. Their friendship would last until Cathey’s death in the late 80s. “[Cathey] told a fib to her father and said that she wanted to be a teacher so that he would pay for her to go to school and get a certificate as a teacher. “What she really wanted was to be a naturalist, study the natural sciences.” Minyard said that Cathey took pity on her for being “a stupid city child” and taught her much about nature and Appalachian lore. It was that love of nature that Minyard showed the seventh graders. “My hope is that these children will realize what wealth of culture we have in this part of Tennessee. We are rich in history and folklore. Tennessee’s history is full of characters from Davy Crockett on. I would like people to realize just how rich this area is in folklore.” Cathey believed in the balance of nature. Good plants live near evil plants. Evil plants, like poison ivy, are countered by neighboring good plants, like jewelweed, a folk remedy for skin irritation. “Miss Kitty was very adroit with the Appalachian ways. She knew the flora and fauna of Coffee County as well as anyone else ever could.” Minyard remained close to Cathey as a youth until the older woman’s death. “[Cathey], in her later years, was aggravated and tormented by the local teenagers who really believed she was a witch,” Minyard lamented. Minyard recalls when youth would drive by the Cathey place to throw rocks at the elderly woman’s house. Cathey would eventually have to board up the windows of the house. “They would generally aggravate the fire out of her. My daddy tried several times to get her to report this to the sheriff [at the time], but she just would not do it.” Minyard said that teens, presumably on a dare, would sometimes work up the nerve to knock on Cathey’s door. Cathey would be “as nice as could be to those who were nice. “They found out that she wasn’t a witch after all … just a sweet little old lady.” Some would even come by and visit with the elderly woman. After Cathey’s death, Aug. 25, 1988, her house mysteriously burned. No one was ever charged with arson. The visit to CCMS was part of a proposal directed to area schools that aims to involve students as members of the society. Parsley explained to the students the mission of the historical society and the new student membership. A student membership includes two editions of the Coffee Chronicle, the society’s bi-monthly newsletter, and opportunities to participate with projects like Old Timers Day sales, tours and fieldtrips to historical sites as well as possible mock trial at the old courthouse, genealogical projects and discussions about the historical preservation efforts in Coffee County. The proposal to area schools coincides with the beginning of the courthouse restoration fund. “We are in the process of collecting funds to restore the courthouse,” Minyard said. “It’s one of the few 19th century courthouses left in Tennessee and … one of the prettiest ones.” She warns, “If we don’t preserve it, the courthouse, like our folklore, won’t be around for future generations.”