Allie left and Molly right with a guest who came through Nashville in October 1921. Brown County Historical Society archives
Sunlight and Shadow
by Julie Pearson
When the photo journalist Frank Hohenberger began to record life of the native folks of Brown County, he was particularly taken with two sisters known for their razor-sharp wit and pungent opinions of everyone and everything. They were Allie Ferguson and Mollie Lucas and are known in popular lore of the county even today. Their parentage was researched by the President of the Brown County Genealogical Society, Rhonda Dunn, and appeared in their 2012 Winter Newsletter. It reported that Harrison Lucas, their father, was born March 13, 1809 in Virginia. He and his wife, Barbara Whetzel Lucas, came from Belmont County, Ohio in 1856 and settled on Jackson Branch, northwest of Nashville in a log cabin. They had 11 children: Henry, Elizabeth Jane, Margaret E., Albert, John W., Melissa, Luther Harrison, Mary L. ‘Mollie’, Anna M., Priscilla Alice ‘Allie’, and Etta May. Marriage took the girls from the farm and moved them to town.
Allie was married to William (Bill) L. Ferguson on May 2, 1876. The couple first ran a boarding establishment in the old Minor House on Van Buren Street where the Brown County Art Guild is located today. They then bought and ran the Ferguson House Inn on Franklin Street in Nashville in the early 1900s. Bill was active in local politics, and for a time held the difficult but prestigious position of tax collector.
Mollie ran her own Inn for a while and then helped Allie. Allie catered to juries, election committees, and traveling salesmen who provided most of the business in the late 19th century. Mollie never married.
When Hohenberger came on the scene Allie was a cantankerous widow and proprietor of a small boarding house. Hohenberger was impressed by her defiance of social pretention and political idealism, though she was loyal to the minority Republican party. She took exception to the emotional services of the rural church, but also frowned on the rote ritual of the in-town houses of worship. She openly opposed changing fashions in dress, music, and behavior—especially of young women.
Hohenberger set up lodging as a single man in Nashville during the summer of 1917 and was noted for being a tidy housekeeper by all the women of the community. He cooked and cleaned for himself but eventually hired Molly Lucas, an “expert washwoman,” to do his mending and laundry. Within a few years, Hohenberger starting taking most of his meals at the boarding house run by Allie Ferguson.
Allie liked Hohenberger and welcomed him in her own kitchen throughout the 1920s—a privilege only shared by Molly Lucas. He was granted the affection of a son, and the resultant treatment reflected their mutual compatibility. Allie had two sons that were estranged, and she was accepted as a disagreeable personality not to be tangled with.
In this very personal space at her kitchen table Hohenberger noted the interesting tidbits of their conversations: the day’s gossip, oral history, local legends, folklore of weather signs, home remedies, colloquial figures of speech, and accepted wisdom of the rural people.
Hohenberger wrote in a character sketch of Allie on May 11, 1924, “She makes the two trips down the milky way each day in the year, looks after a good-sized garden spot, curbs the old hog’s rooting, keeps posted on all the village gossip, attends church services, never misses a funeral, and gives you no complaint about your meals and lodging.” The Ferguson barn—the “milk way”—was a mile west of town on the Helmsburg Road.
Molly Lucas’s life was similar to Allie’s. Both grew up on a farm and moved to town. Allie was a cook and landlady; Molly was a washwoman. They both were called upon to help with births, illnesses, and deaths. They enjoyed the simple pleasures of reading novels and corresponding with their woman kinfolks. And though both were vocal with their opinions, their personalities were opposite. Hohenberger called them Sunlight and Shadow. Mollie was the sunlight and the dark shadow was Allie.
But there was a depth to the trust between Allie and Hohenberger. She had a sorrow at her core that he seemed to understand. The entry of Allie’s death in Hohenberger’s notebook was brief, formal, and factual. It was October 14, 1931 in the evening. It coincided with the end of the cultural documentation phase of his work in Brown County and the publication of his newspaper column was suspended.
In the Southview Cemetery, or Oak Hill as it is also known, on the ridge above Jackson Branch, both sisters are buried in eternal peace in the Lucas family plot. Mollie died on April 10, 1932. Allie is buried next to Bill Ferguson . And next to her stone is a marker reading these three names and dates: MAUDE FERGUSON 1882; DAMON FERGUSON 1896; PYTHIAS FERGUSON 1896. It appears that at age 26, Allie lost a baby daughter, and twin boys at the age of 40. These losses no doubt were part of the shadow of her later years.