Appalachia Christmas

Christmas Circuit

Today’s guest post was written by Ed Ammons.


I found this on It was written by Carl W. Greene Jr. and published in the Charlotte Observer on 10 Dec 1950. The images might be difficult to read so I transcribed them. I tried to spell and punctuate as it appeared to me. Auto-correct fought me but hopefully I won.

ASHEVILLE – Along with the surge of memories that float ghostlike through our thinking around Christmas time, there is one memory that is still in the hearts of a few, and that is perhaps fainting poetic reminiscence in the minds of others.

The days of the saddle-worn circuit rider are over, his passing was with the era of the Pony Express riders and covered wagons pushing westward. Years ago in the remote mountain regions of Western North Carolina Christmas was much the brighter for the eventful visit of the Circuit riding pastor. With him came happy stories of the birth of Christ; the real genuine fullness of Christmas celebrating in a Christian fashion was his to behold. Many of the mountaineers that he called on were ignorant of the garish Christmastime celebrating found in other sections of the country. Their celebrating was done to the strong winded lyrics of carols, taught by the circuit riding preacher. A brief story of the birth of Christ and off to the next mountain farm away went the circuit rider. All were joyous in this unique Christian fellowship and each family in turn did what it could do to make things comfortable for the preacher. They were, for the most part, poor mountain people, but they gave a bounty of their goods to the pastor, who, more often than not, turned the goods over to some more needy family farther along his circuit.

* * *

Some of the great families whose names still live in religious circles today, are the descendants of circuit riders of yesterday. Among those holding services in home in Western North Carolina last century was Allen Ammons who was born in Buncombe County in 1819. The son of Ephraim and Nancy Ammons. Here was a man that lived in Macon County for a while and did not have the advantage of attending school. The great Posey baptized him of the age of seventeen, and on June 3, 1848, Allen was ordained by the Valley River Church and preached his first sermon at the home of Bennett Crisp. Ammons was a missionary and minister for thirty two years and baptized one thousand persons. He married Cynthia Ross, daughter of Manuel and Margaret Ross, and this good and kindly woman who worked with him until his death in 1880. He left a deep impress in the heart of the mountain people he served. One may still find his kinspeople living in Macon and Swain counties.

*   *   *

From Swain county came another of the great mountain circuit riders, faithful in his task of missionary work until he was seventy years old. Jesse Madison Smiley, son of Jesse and Elizabeth Harrison Smiley of Virginia, was born in Rutherford county in 1820. His parents came to Swain county before the young chap was four years old and there they were identified with the Cold Spring church, organized in 1851. At the age of twenty two, Jesse married Annie Brendle on December 3, 1842, at the time when she was just fifteen. Annie Brendle was the daughter of John D and Lottie Brendle. Jesse, seeing the tremendous amount of work to be done among the mountain people, began his missionary work at the age of forty six and from that time on refused any remuneration for his service. His health was excellent, and he maintained a full farm until he died in 1891, having ridden the circuit until he was past seventy years old. His son, John Zadoc Smiley, was well known in the pulpits of churches in the Tennessee River association, and also held the position of first superintendent of Swain county schools.

*   *   *

These were just two of the men who were not only epitomists of all that was fine, and carried on in a good work, but rather devotees, whose only ambition was to bring to the people in the remote western Carolina mountains the story of the Lord. They brought that story and more, they brought a form of self-sacrificing honesty in hard labor that is difficult to parallel today. Their rigors of strong physical discipline were tremendous , and when the cold of winter had frozen the smoke motionless over the valley cabins and mountain huts, the frosted breath of their horses, snorting in the crisp mountain air, riding above their bag of goodies and necessities must have looked better than Santa Claus and all the reindeer to the appreciative mountaineers. This was one of the most sincere forms of carrying the fullness and goodness of the Christmas story to the people who wanted to know more of the tale. The Christmas Circuit and the hard riding preachers are a part of our heritage now, and only their names stand as monuments to great lives, richly lived, in a most unselfish fashion. 

Allen Ammons was my 2nd great-grandfather and Jesse Madison Smiley was my 3rd great-grandfather. As exemplary as were the lives of these men it seems I would have, early on, known this story and more, but unfortunately that was not the case. I only learned of them when I decided to research my family tree. With the help of my cousin and friend Bill Burnett, I discovered this and much more about my pioneer ancestors. My contemporaries, family and friends, seem to be uninterested in learning how they came to be. They seem more interested in what they can accomplish on their own, unwilling to build on such a rich past. Unwilling to build on the accomplishments of their forefathers. Can they rise to the level of these to Godly men on their own? Sadly, I think not!  

Edwin Ammons

I hope you enjoyed Ed’s post as much as I did!


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  • Reply
    Hank Skewis
    December 17, 2020 at 3:46 pm

    Thank you for the neat post Tipper. There is some evidence that one of my ancestors in West Virginia was a circuit riding preacher in the 1800’s. Reading the post made me want to look further into that bit of family history.

    Merry Christmas and all blessings for the New Year! Hank Skewis

  • Reply
    December 17, 2020 at 9:44 am

    I missed this from getting busy, but wanted to add a thank you for such a great post. What a blessing these circuit riders were, and I so enjoyed reading Ed’s post on this. I love history, especially such personal history from descendants. Thank you Ed Ammons!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    December 16, 2020 at 10:20 pm

    Thanks for publishing this for me Tipper. Not a lot of people have commented yet but those who did seem to have an understanding of how knowing more about those who got us here enrichens our lives. Those who just don’t care, which I find is most people, don’t know what they are missing. When people ask me why I am so passionate about geneology I tell them that when I get to heaven I don’t want to meet a stranger.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    December 16, 2020 at 8:20 pm

    Randy, I don’t live in Pickens, SC. I only know you from what you have written here on the Blind Pig. I was born and raised in Swain County, NC but have lived in Burke County, NC for 45 years. The Breedlove side of my family came from Pickens County though. I think, I’m not sure, that they were at one time in an area claimed at various times by SC, NC and GA. If you look up Walton War it will pinpoint the area I am talking about.
    My Ammons side came from South Carolina too but they lived it the Marlboro District which I believe was down near the coast. In the very early 1800’s they moved to Buncombe ( now Madison County, NC) and then spread into other areas of Western North Carolina, East Tennessee and Northeast Georgia. Most of this movement, I believe, was because or in anticipation of the Indian removal of 1830 when numerous farms and many acres of river bottom land became available for almost nothing.
    If you are looking for help in finding out more about your family tree, I have a knack for such things and would be glad to help you for free. In fact your comment prompted me to look into your ancestry a bit. I have started a family tree using Ancestory. com and have learned quite a bit already. Write me at [email protected] if you want to pursue it further.

  • Reply
    Betty Hopkins
    December 16, 2020 at 2:23 pm

    I enjoyed this article by Ed Ammons so much. I am in the middle of researching the paternal side of my family … I call it my COVID Project … and have been amazed at what I have found. It seems like once you start, things show up you’d never dreamed of. I call them “God Winks.” I never knew my paternal side growing up because my father’s mother and father died when he was ten, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother, a beloved midwife in the North Georgia mountains. I found out that my great grandfather, Theodore (Faydore) Saxon, was a hard working, well respected, deeply Christian man and was regarded as a prominent man in the area. Armed with only a fourth grade education, hard work, and a strong faith and determination, he dedicated his life to helping others achieve their dream of going to college and provided the financing for the education of many children to Mercer University, among those C. R. (Ros) Collins of Blairsville, a well known and beloved educator in the North Georgia area for many years. My deepest regret is never knowing him, but just learning about him makes me strive to be a better person.

  • Reply
    December 16, 2020 at 12:51 pm

    In researching family ancestry and looking back at old pioneer land holdings, I heard of the Circuit Pastor Riders. We always visited one of our pioneer cemeteries in NE MS every year when I was growing up. The land for that cemetery was given by one of my ancestors who rode up on that little mountain and said that was where he wanted to be laid to rest. He and his family built a small chapel there. When I was grown, I asked my parents who was the pastor there and they said it was a Circuit Pastor. When I asked more questions, I was told he was not paid by those who attended as he farmed and made his living that way. Your article brought back memories and I thought again how special these men were. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    December 16, 2020 at 11:11 am

    That’s a great history to have. I’m so glad Ed discovered it and shared it with us.

  • Reply
    December 16, 2020 at 10:36 am

    I really enjoyed this piece. I like learning about my ancestors, and it’s amazing the things I have learned. It’s helped me understand who I am. Sadly, the circuit riders are a thing of the past.

  • Reply
    December 16, 2020 at 10:30 am

    Unlike Ed I don’t have a story to tell like he does about his ancestors. I have mention my Grandaddy Kirby before and what he meant to me. To me he was a saint. Many people have told me stories of how he would go around in a horse and buggy or wagon and take people to church in the early 1900’s or of him walking about three miles to build a fire in the church stove before Sunday morning service and of how he was responsible for helping keep the church together during the depression. At one time during times of sickness or other problems people would want a preacher to come and pray with them or for their loved one. I have been told that a lot of families would ask him to come and be with them if the preacher was not available. His father died one month after he was born and his mother died when he was 3 years old. He was raised by a family in the community. No he was not a wealthy person, he raised a family of seven by farming 40 acres of land with a couple of mules. Conrad Alexander Kirby 1888-1971.

    • Reply
      Ed Ammons
      December 16, 2020 at 3:12 pm

      But you do have a story! What your ancestor Conrad Alexander Kirby endured and how he served his church and his community is as much an inspiration as any of mine. Are you Jimmy Randall “Randy” Pruitt?

      • Reply
        December 16, 2020 at 5:40 pm

        Yes, Ed that is my name and I worked at the Michelin Tire plant (US1) for 38 years. This planted is in Greenville country, SC at Moonville, SC. Even though I live in Greenville county, I have a Honea Path (Anderson county) address. I live near a little spot in the road called Princeton. You wouldn’t happen to live in the Pickens area of SC would you?
        I didn’t think to include this in my earlier post, but most of everyone that knew Granddaddy called him Uncle Con.

  • Reply
    December 16, 2020 at 10:27 am

    Mr Ammon has a lot to be proud of. Searching ones ancestry is no easy task and to find such treasures can only make him very proud of his family’s history. I fear such men of dedication are no more in this day and time.

  • Reply
    Gene Smith
    December 16, 2020 at 9:51 am

    Tipper, today’s post and replies are absolutely fascinating. And to Don Casada I would say that he has lots of company if he includes himself in the come-up-wanting department, which reminded me of the one about the man in line behind Mother Therese at the Pearly Gates and overhearing St. Peter say, “I’m sorry, Mother; if you done only a little bit more with your life.”

  • Reply
    Catherine Spence
    December 16, 2020 at 9:49 am

    When I was a teenager, our church began celebrating an old-fashioned Sunday every fall. My father dressed as a circuit rider and rode one of our horses to church to illustrate to the kids what circuit riders were.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    December 16, 2020 at 9:05 am

    I think it was probably always been the way that few, perhaps very few, family members care to look back at their family history. Others can’t see value in it, don’t have time or actually think it is too self-serving because they see it as a hunt to bask in the reflected glory of some historic figure who was a relative. For those who care to dig into their genealogy, they just have to ‘get over’ that dis-interest by others and forge ahead.

    One of the lessons of family history is that “ordinary” people do extra-ordinary things. (And thereby are not ordinary at all.) Mr. Ammon’s circuit riding ancestors lived extra-ordinary devotion for which they still deserve honor. (And I daresay they would have quickly said their acts were not extraordinary at all – thus proving they were!) They were instrumental in the transformation of thousands of lives in their own time and that transformation has continued in its effects until now. And their example lets us see that there is hope for each of us to be extra-ordinary in some way. As the saying is, “God don’t make no junk!” How could he when we are in his image?

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    December 16, 2020 at 8:41 am

    When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the Circuit Riders. We had learned about them in Sunday school and the concept of a metaphysical cowboy really got my imagination going.

    Years and years later, the college where I was teaching had a museum exhibition about religion and early church culture in Lorain County Ohio. One of the pieces was a Circuit Rider’s Bible with a bullet lodged in it. I’ll tell you what, I was 10 years old all over again.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    December 16, 2020 at 8:34 am

    Thanks to Ed for the work in transcribing and sharing the article. Ed doesn’t mention it, but he has invested a tremendous amount of work in studying not only his direct ancestors but many of the families of western NC. I hope that he will one day find a way to share the fruits of those labors. They have been helpful to me personally in identifying relations in my own studies. It is not unusual to run across a “tip” on which points toward some work Ed has done.

    It seems likely that the author of this Charlotte Observer column, Carl Greene, took much of what he had to say from the work of John Sadoc Smiley in his work “History – Tennessee River Baptist Association” which included a wonderful collection of annual meetings and general doings of churches affiliated with the Association as well as biographical sketches of twenty four of the Association leaders, including Allen Ammons and Jesse Madison Smiley. It also includes information about the founding of early area churches, one of which was the earliest surviving church in what is now Swain County (then Macon County), Brush Creek Baptist, organized in 1832. One of the founders of that church was another of Ed’s ancestors, Nathan DeHart.

    Another was a church that Tipper has written about, Lufty Baptist, was organized at the other end of Swain County (then Haywood) in 1836; that was also recorded in the work of John S. Smiley. He also profiled a man who Tipper wrote about on January 17, 2013, William Henry Conner, who was baptized into the Lufty Baptist Church by Jacob Mingus in June 1847. In that piece, she mentioned that I’d thought it interesting that he died from an accident when his wagon turned over while fording Deep Creek.

    At that time, I’d not read Smiley’s account, which provides additional background and goes to the heart of what Ed has shared here. Here are the words of John Sadoc Smiley regarding Conner’s final years and the accident:

    “His latter years from about 1865 to 1866, were spent on the Robert Collins farm on the head of Lufty river, where he had become possessed of abot 1,200 acres of land, and which was his home until death. Here about July 1885, he, Jacob like, had to part with his beloved Rachel, who was so faithful and kind and good. From his Lufty home, Elder Conner repeatedly, for different terms, served Cowee church as pastor. Here his faithful services as pastor, closed in March, 1887. On his return from a trip to Cowee about the first of March 1887, he was stricken with paralysis in the ford Deep Creek, near Bryson City, from which he died March 14th, 1887, thus ending a life of thirty years in the ministry.”

    Clearly, WH Conner was, like Ed’s ancestors Allen Ammons and Jesse M. Smiley, a circuit rider, driven by a need to share the gospel. Unless one is familiar with the area, it wouldn’t be apparent, but a ride by wagon from Cowee to Oconaluftee was not an easy Sunday afternoon jaunt. It would’ve been a multiple day ride by wagon.

    I’m afraid that when I examine my own life in the light of the lives of such men, I come up wanting.

  • Reply
    Margie Goldstein
    December 16, 2020 at 8:09 am

    There’s a movie on LFTV out of ABINGDON, VA that had a circuit rider movie. It was one of the most moving pictures I ever watched and it was EXCELLENT. He headed to WV where a woman was beat severely every time her husband got drunk and she had written Brother Smiley about it. They waited on the drunk to come in and pass out. Brother Smiley and his wife stripped the old drunk down, put him in a wheel barrow and set him in the midst of a huge circle of burning brush. When he awoke, he thought he was in hell. Lol. No more drinking for that old boy don’t you know. It was a fine thing for the times in my opinion. And now how about the GRAND REVIVAL that’s going to sweep like wildfire over this nation and around the world that believers have been praying for and I believe will come and are coming now! God bless you all!

  • Reply
    Colleen Holmes
    December 16, 2020 at 8:05 am

    What a lovely truth. We owe a lot to those Godly men and women. Thanks for sharing.

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