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Appalachian Women: Tough and God Fearing

August 15, 2012

For those of us with Appalachian roots, we have strong women in our ancestry. When I read this article from the Bristol Herald Courier about Martha Mitchell, I thought about my mom and her sister, Rosie.  They grew up poor, but survived and thrived because of their toughness and their faith.

Martha W. Mitchell, 81, of Abingdon in Washington County, VA was trapped under overturned lawn mower for five hours before she freed herself by digging out. She broke her pelvis and two places, and her ankle was crushed, but didn’t go the hospital for 2 days after she freed herself.

So here’s to all the strong women of Appalachia.

In case that link expires from the Associated Press, here is her story. It deserved to be preserved as a tribute to all our grannies, sisters, mothers, aunts, and others who show the grittiness that is a part of our heritage.

By Allie Robinson | Bristol Herald Courier

For Martha W. Mitchell, mowing the lawn on a Saturday afternoon was nothing out of the ordinary. It’s rained so much in the past few weeks, she said, it has been a fairly regular chore.

Mitchell, 81, would steer her red lawn mower around and around her yard, and then drive up a small slope by a building at the edge of the lawn.

It was there, on July 28, that the trouble started.

Mitchell, who lives alone on her family’s homestead about a half-mile off North Fork River Road and several hundred yards from the closest neighbor, was pinned under her lawnmower for about five hours. She dug herself out with a tool made from an old bucket handle, and dragged herself to the house, where she stayed for two days before calling an ambulance service to come get her and take her to the hospital.

Today, after a week spent at home, Mitchell thanks God for bringing her through her brush with death.

On this particularly Saturday, however, Mitchell was just about to quit mowing when she decided to address a little patch of grass by that building, which is slightly up a slope from the rest of the yard. It was about 12:30 p.m., she said.

“I went up through there and then the motor started racing,” she said. “I cut the switch off and it still wouldn’t stop, even after I cut the switch off.”

Not yet panicking, Mitchell put the mower in reverse and started to back away from the slope, but the brakes had quit, she said.

The large, red riding lawnmower wobbled unsteadily then tipped over, toppling the octogenarian and pinning her underneath it. Mitchell estimates the machine weighs several hundred pounds.

Her left foot and leg were caught beneath the heavy mower, and Mitchell was unable to lift the machine. Her head was stuck lying near some debris, and she was on her side, unable to gain enough leverage to wriggle out.

“I thought I was totally trapped,” she said. “I have (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and I couldn’t holler and I started to pray. I said, ‘Lord, give me a strong voice to holler for the neighbors,’ and I did holler. But after about an hour, a voice spoke to me and said, ‘Nobody’s gonna come, Martha.'”

She was afraid she’d die there, with no one to hear her cries for help, burnt to a crisp after the lawnmower exploded. She thought she heard gasoline dripping from the tank, which she had recently filled, and could smell smoke.

“I said, well, it’s an awful long way for the Lord to come down and help me,” Mitchell said. “If I’ve ever prayed, I prayed then.”

Her face was in the sun, she said, and, fearing she’d get sunburned, she prayed for a cloud. One appeared almost instantly, she said.

“Well, boy, I got encouraged,” she said.

She asked God for some rain, as her mouth was parched from yelling for so long.

“It started to pour rain, and that’s the God’s truth,” she said.

She fashioned a saucer out of an old jug and was able to collect rainwater in it, Mitchell said.

She started to cast about for a way to free herself, having decided that no one was going to come to her aid.

“There was a 5-gallon bucket by my head. I started to try to tear it up, and saw the handle was metal,” Mitchell said. “It’s got an end like a claw. I got it out and bent it in half.”

And she started digging.

“I started digging and digging a trench like a gully by my leg,” she said. “I kept digging. I was there five hours.”

She finally got the trench deep enough to push her pinned leg into it and wrest it out from under the mower.

“I don’t know where I got the strength,” she said. “When I got out, I crawled and dragged myself (to the house, about 20 yards away). My clothes were wringing wet.”

Mitchell took a bath, dragged herself to bed, collapsed on it, and passed out. She stayed there for two days before the pain – turns out she broke two places in her hip on either side of her artificial hip, broke her pelvis and crushed her ankle – became too much to bear.

“It was two days of suffering, untold suffering,” she said. “I was even about to drive myself. But finally . I called an ambulance.”

The Valley Rescue Squad in Saltville, VA., picked her up Monday, July 30. A paramedic there confirmed the squad had transported Mitchell to the hospital, but couldn’t talk about Mitchell’s specific injuries.

“(The doctor) said all my innards were very badly bruised,” Mitchell said. “And I broke my pelvis very badly. I never knew it was so painful.”

Mitchell returned home a week later, and is on the slow but painful mend.

One of 15 children, she grew up on the land where she now lives, and said her two living brothers, in Abingdon, have been concerned about her. She hasn’t yet told her daughter, five grandchildren or great-grandchildren, as she expects to heal soon on her own, and then will be more receptive to visitors.

She’s an independent woman, Mitchell said.

An independent woman, who is now a firm believer in God and miracles, although she’s gone to church all her life.

“If I had any doubts, I’ve got none now,” she said. “There ain’t no doubt about it, I’d have died there. Many a time I’ve come close to death but never was I so sure that I had death right in my face.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Deborah Jarrett permalink
    February 22, 2013 12:28 am

    Hello, I am a Mitchell and very proud to be one. My maternal great-grandfather was Lum (Columbus) Mitchell from the mountains of North Carolina. I’m sure that my grandmother, Lelia Mary Mitchell Ball was fromt the same stock as Martha, they sound so much alike. I’d love to find these distant relatives but can find no listings for Grandma – did find the name (Columbus) but knew him as Lum. Grandma had an older sister named Pearl, a younger one named Naomi, and others.Please respond if you have any helpful information. I live in NC and would to visit her land if possible.

    • June 3, 2013 5:07 am

      Unfortunately I don’t have any leads on your family. Wish I could be of more help.

      • Deborah Jarrett permalink
        June 3, 2013 1:53 pm

        Thanks for replying. I always thought the Mitchell/Renegar connection would be easy to trace, will have to revise my research tactics.

        Kind regards,
        Deborah Jarrett

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