Mary Jane ("Polly") Kemp was
born in McNairy County, Tennessee in 1842. Twenty years later she
married a neighbor, William (Billy) Claunch, who was a farmer, shoemaker
and a singing teacher. The War Between the States was underway when
Polly and Billy married. Both of them were from families of divided
loyalties. Each had brothers on both sides of the conflict. Billy had no
desire to fight against either brother, so he elected to remain at home.
This was not an easy choice, and you can be sure that he received much
criticism from all sides.
To Polly and Billy were born
six daughters and three sons. The first eight children were born in
Tennessee, and the last - a son named Tom - was born in Faulkner County,
Arkansas in 1883.
The Claunch family left
Tennessee because of some trouble between their teenage son, Jim, and a
"gang from the mountains." The other children knew only that after Jim
came out of church and found his saddle slashed to bits the parents
decided to leave the country. They chose Arkansas because they had heard
that it was possible to homestead good, fertile land in this state.
One of the Claunch children,
Mary Josephine "Josie" [later Mrs. Frank Raney], was eight when the
family moved to Arkansas [in 1880/l881]. Years later she recalled that
she never saw her beloved grandparents and other near kin again - nor
would she ever taste mutton, which she remembered as a delicacy. Others
things she recalled were being seasick on the ferry ride across the
Mississippi River and the thrill of riding a train to Argenta (now North
Little Rock). Billy and Polly were indeed able to homestead in Faulkner
County. They built a house, bought furniture, purchased a wagon and a
team of mares, made two crops, became the parents of a third son - and
then disaster struck.
Billy Claunch died in 1883 of
malarial fever a month before his forty-second birth- day and two months
after their son Tom was born. Three years were required to finalize the
title to homesteaded land. The Claunches had been on their land only two
years! Also, government requirements were that a homesteading household
be headed by a MAN ! Polly lost the land and the house she and Billy had
Mary Jane “Polly” Claunch
Soon after that one of the
mares died. Polly mortgaged the remaining mare to buy a replacement, but
a bad crop caused her to lose both animals. Her older son, Jim, married
and moved to Searcy where his bride's parents lived. Polly and the
children moved there too, at Jim's insistence, but after the
strawberries were picked there was no work for them. She decided to move
back to Salem in Faulkner County where she had friends.
One such friend, a Mrs.
Bradshaw, let the family settle on her farm. This lady had known trouble
of her own. Her husband had "walked off' leaving his wife to rear a
family by herself. Perhaps she could appreciate Polly's plight. Another
friend, a Mr. Goodman, agreed to plow Polly's crop if she and the girls
would chop cotton for him.
Even with help from these good
friends, Polly's struggle for survival was unreal. There was no public
assistance for widows and orphans in those days. Her family, and
Billy's, lived far away in Tennessee. Besides that, they had
responsibilities of their own.
Making and Selling Quilts
One of Polly’s granddaughters,
Omie Raney Smith, said of this time in Polly's life: "Ma did any work
she could find to do. One thing she did was to make quilts which she
sold to other people. I can see her now walking down Washington Street
in Conway with her basket on her arm. You see, people gave her scraps of
material left from their own sewing. She would turn these Scraps into
beautiful quilts. She worked fast. I think her daughters helped with the
quilting. I have often said, 'Ma Claunch covered Conway!"'
One by one the six daughters
married. Most married young. Finally number two son, Ken, married also.
This left Polly and youngest son Tom alone. The final blow was Tom's
death at age seventeen [ca. 1900]. Some said that Polly never got over
Tom 's death, even though she lived another quarter of a century . She
died in December, 1925 at age 83.
I am painfully aware that I
have done Polly an injustice to have written as I have, only of the
hardships in her life. She was so much more than the sum of adversities
allotted to her! She was strong, witty, honest, and intelligent, and she
instilled in her children character traits that will be felt for
generations to come. Our heritage from her is indeed rich and rare. We
can do no less than put forth our best efforts during our time here.
Years after Polly died, two of
her Raney grandsons chanced to be bird hunting near the small churchyard
where she, Billy and Tom are buried [Pleasant Valley Cemetery, two miles
south of Wooster on Arkansas 25]. To their shock they found markers for
Billy and Tom but none for Polly!
Sadly they realized that she
herself had bought those two markers from her own meager earnings
-perhaps from "covering Conway ." The grandsons remedied that situation