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Mary Jane Kemp Claunch

Polly Claunch: A Woman of Courage
By Nola Hardin Anderson---Editor's note: Nola Anderson is a retired elementary school teacher who was born in Conway and is the author of a history of Lakeside United Methodist Church, Pine Bluff, published in 1986. She and her husband, Gib, live in Pine Bluff and are the parents of three sons.

The article printed below was written for inclusion in The Raney Story. a family history compiled by members of "The Raney Clan" and printed in a hardbound edition in 1991. It is the story of the trials and tribulations of a Faulkner County woman in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a tribute to her courage.

Nola Anderson is a great-granddaughter of Polly Kemp Claunch. She began her story with the admonition that if one is ever tempted to return to "the good old days," one should first research into his or her own family history .Her account has been edited slightly for re-printing in this issue of Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings.

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 built.

Mary Jane “Polly” Claunch (1842-1925)

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 straight away!