As many older residents of this area know, Soddy-Daisy was incorporated out of two small towns north of Chattanooga. Academics recognize that communities often generate folklore as a means of constructing a shared past and identity, and Soddy (Daisy is left to another day) was no exception. As was much of East Tennessee, Soddy was transformed after the Civil War by the influx of outsiders who came to work on endeavors to develop the area's rich natural resources. In Soddy's case, the outsiders were largely Welsh immigrants and miners from Ducktown, Tenn., who came to work in coal mines opened after the war.
For many years, the primary repository of Soddy folklore was Miss Winnie Walker, a great-granddaughter of early settler and ardent Unionist Col. William Clift. Born in 1890, she began teaching at age 17, and at the time of her retirement in 1959, had been at the Soddy school for 65 years, either as a teacher or student.
Over the course of her career, she taught first grade, special education, Tennessee history and social science to middle school students, and even served as the school nurse. She was a teacher of the old school, who never got a degree but took hours of extension courses from several universities to "make me a better teacher." A believer in teaching the fundamentals, she was proud that a number of teachers at Soddy Elementary (and elsewhere in the county system) began as her students.
She was known and loved in Soddy as "Miss Winnie" and was dedicated to her family and community. She was proud of her descent from Col. Clift, and raised her sister's five children after the sister and her husband died within a period of 15 months, borrowing money to make sure they were educated.
She helped establish a county health department clinic in Soddy, and spent her summers walking through the community to make sure that students were registered for the coming school year. In her view, "a child is of more value than anything in the world."
Miss Winnie was a tiny woman with a high-pitched voice who, even after her formal retirement, worked as the school librarian and as a substitute teacher, and was for a number of years the Soddy correspondent of the Chattanooga News.
She was a cousin of famed southern newspaperman Ralph McGill, who wrote of his experiences visiting Soddy as a young boy, wondering if the red flares and gassy smells of the coke ovens were a glimpse of the hell of his Calvinistic upbringing.
The influx of outsiders and the hellish conditions of the coal mines were a likely source of the stories Miss Winnie told.
The most well-known is that of the Black Track Ghost. The "Black Track" is today's Durham Street. It got its sobriquet from the dust from coal transported down a track which ran down the street from the mines to a point on Big Soddy Creek where the coal could be loaded on steamboats. The coal company built a number of small houses along the "Black Track," and the story went that a young woman and a lover killed her husband in one of the houses and fled. Later, her body was found on the mountain above the town.
An apparition eventually appeared in the form of a ghostly woman who either wore gray or a thin white dress. The story told if she appeared to someone in the thin white dress, then there would be a death in that person's family within two weeks. The Black Track Ghost's last reported appearance was a few days before Christmas in 1927.
Some of Miss Winnie's other stories told of mysterious eyes, a ghost on Ducktown Street (named for those Ducktown coal miners), strange bright lights in the coal mines, and little girl who disappeared in one of the lime kilns.
In 1966, as part of a master's degree project, now retired teacher Bonnie Bryant, a student of Miss Winnie's whose mother taught with Miss Winnie at Soddy school, gathered the stories directly from Miss Winnie, and finally published them a few years ago with other Soddy folklore in a rich little volume. Miss Winnie died in August 1974, and is buried with her ancestor, Col. Clift, in the Soddy Presbyterian Cemetery.
Local attorney and historian Sam D. Elliott knew Miss Winnie Walker as a young boy. He is a former president of the Tennessee and Chattanooga Bar Associations. For more information, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.