Photo by Leiane Gibson
The Puckett cabin on Groundhog Mountain is easily viewed from the Parkway. It is a historic site that stands in tribute to the legendary midwife Orlean Hawks Puckett, who to many symbolizes the strength of the Appalachian woman. Orlean Hawks Puckett had little formal education and married at 16. In her own young adulthood, she gave birth to and lost twenty-four children. Many were stillborn, and the rest died in infancy. Several theories exist today about why Orlean’s body was unable to carry a pregnancy to term, but her losses are particularly striking when placed next to the 1,000-plus babies she successfully delivered as a midwife.
When Orlean was in her 50s, a neighbor went into labor and no doctor could be found. This began her career as a midwife, and for the next nearly fifty years, she traveled the Virginia countryside, never charging for her services, and becoming known for her compassion and skill. In more than 1,000 deliveries, she never lost a mother or a baby. Orlean delivered her last baby at age 94, and died in 1939. The cabin was her last home.
The story of Orlean Hawks Puckett has been dramatized in Phyllis Smith’s play “They Call Me Aunt Orlean,” which is performed at the cabin several times a year, and in Karen Cecil Smith’s book “Orlean Puckett: The Life of a Mountain Midwife.”