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Tribute to Bonnie Sage Ball

By Gladys Julian Stallard

As Transcribed from The Applachian Quarterly

December 1996 edition , pages 69-70

Bonnie Sage Ball was not a member of the Wise County Historical Society because she was having very severe health problems by the time the Society was organized, August 13, 1992, but she can be counted as an honorary Member. We carry her books for sale, and many of her records are in our archives, with more to be added later. She was a Charter member of the Historical Society of Southwest Virginia. I have in my possession, her letter describing the first meeting of that organization, in which she served in many offices, contributing articles, doing research on families and historical events. She devoted a great deal of time to the continual success of the Society.

Bonnie was also a homemaker, mother of four. She was a retired schoolteacher, author, poet, a talented person who wore many hats!

My first contact with this delightful lady was around 1969 when I saw an item in a newspaper about the publishing of her book, "The Melungeons, Their Origin and Kin." Needless to say, I at once sent in an order.

Later, after she and her husband, Palmer R. Ball moved from Haysi to Big Stone Gap, we became personally acquainted. She was a fount of information. I recall several trips with her. After a Historical Society meeting at Duffield, Nancy Clark Brown and I took off with Bonnie to Stickleyville, where we visited with Bonnie’s brother for a short time. We looked across to Wallen’s Ridge, on top of which Bonnie was born.

From Wallen’s Creek, she pointed out the area where the Indians had massacred the Scott family. She knew where all the old settlers had lived. Some of the homes were still standing.

On another jaunt, the same three of us went to Seminary, in Lee County, VA. Here, the young son of the caretaker took us through the historic old Methodist Church in that community. Pictures of well-known local citizens hang on its walls. A hiding place for runaway slaves or Civil War soldiers could be accessed under the pulpit. I am thankful that I photographed the old Slemp home which was nearby. It has since been destroyed.

Every day that I go through my living room, my eye is caught by a colorful afghan that Bonnie knitted and gave to me. Every Christmas, Bonnie sent to friends her own created collage of pictures, along with a calendar for the coming year. I am keeping the last one she sent.

Early in our acquaintance, we were relating to each other something of our backgrounds. I mentioned that I was born in Hawkins Co., TN and had begun my education in a little two-room school at Pleasant Hill, in the White Horn community, near Bulls Gap. Bonnie looked startled and said, "My sister, Virgie Sage Robinette, used to teach at Pleasant Hill, and often mentioned a Julian family!" I remembered Mrs. Robinette very well indeed. My sister, Helen and I were her pupils. Mrs. Robinette rode her horse sidesaddle to school from her home on Robinson’s Creek. On one visit to our home, she brought her little daughter, Eleanor Lucille, who was then two or three years old.

Let me describe the Sage family in somewhat of a chronological order. The first Sage settler in Lee County was Sampson Sage, along with his wife, Lydia Fletcher. Sampson’s father, James Sage was born about 1749 near London, England. In an old notebook, James wrote: "James Sage, baker for His Majesty, King George III." Also, another notation: "James Sage, baker, from London, 23 July 1773." He landed on the eastern coast of Maryland. Evidently, he was in sympathy with the rebel colonists, because he served against England in the Revolutionary War. It was under his name that Bonnie became a member of the Lovelady Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Lee County, VA and an Associate-Member of Boone Trail Chapter.

James Sage married Lovis Ott in Montgomery Co., 25 December 1780, and lived in that area which later became Wythe Co., later moving to Elk Creek in present-day Grayson Co. It was here that Caty, the five-year old daughter of James and Lovis was abducted by a thief, a white man who sold Caty to the Indians. Bonnie told her story in her book, "Red Trails and White", in 1955. Bonnie’s great-great-grandfather, Sampson was a brother to Caty. Family tales and Bonnie’s book inspired a cousin, Bill Bland, to delve more deeply into the mystery of Caty’s history. His book, Yourowquains, A Wyandot Indian Queen, the story of Caty Sage", was printed in 1992. (Historical Publications, P.O. Box 1792, Elk Creek, VA 24326; $22.85, including shipping and handling.) Bonnie’s Melungeon book was also a help to Brent Kennedy when he researched his own ancestry, and unraveled some of the mysterious background of the Melungeons. His book has had several printings.

Bonnie’s lineage was George Vastine "Vas" Sage, father, William Henry Harrison Sage, William Winfield Sage, Sampson Sage, and finally, her third-great grandfather, James.

Bonnie May Sage was born December 17, 1901, on Wallen’s Ridge in Lee Co. She was the fourth of thirteen children of Vas Sage and his wife, Mary (Mollie) E. Duncan. She was brought into this world by Dr. Bradley T. Young during a blinding snowstorm. She lived on top of the ridge until she was six years old, when her father bought another farm down in the valley near a school for the children. After high school at Stickleyville, Bonnie went to the Radford Normal School for Women. She would teach school during the winter, then go to summer school. In 1926, she went to St. Charles to teach. The first night she was there, She met Palmer Ray Ball. On November 12, they were married. In 1927, the couple came to Virginia City in Wise County, where he was managing a store for Virginia Iron Coal and Coke Company. They next lived at Inman, then Tom’s Creek. In Clinchco, he worked in the Clinchfield Coal Company office. Later, they moved to Haysi. At that period of time, no married women were allowed to hold teaching positions. Eventually, a shortage of teachers enabled Bonnie to resume teaching. After a total of 33 years at this vocation, she retired, and persuaded her husband to move to Big Stone Gap. They bought a house from a Mr. Holbrook, a block away from the June Toliver House and the site of the drama, " The Trail of the Lonesome Pine."

However, Bonnie Ball did not retire to idleness and a rocking chair. She had always stayed busy. During the 1930s and the two following decades, she served as a news correspondent and columnist for the Bristol Herald Courier, the Roanoke Times, the Cumberland Times, the Coalfield Progress, and the Dickensonian. By 1979, she was bringing out her tenth book, "Listen to the Mountains." She had compiled three reference books, two genealogies, a bicentennial history of her home community, "Stickleyville-Its Schools, History, and People", a small book of poems, titled "Bonnie’s Rythmic Verse." She worked on a history of the Methodist churches in the Big Stone Gap District.

She has recorded cemeteries, haunted courthouses, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with people all over the United States. She claimed that she inherited the interest in writing from her father and from many of her ancestors.

In her final years, Bonnie Ball suffered several health problems, and lived for some time in Heritage Hall at Big Stone Gap. Her mind stayed alert and she welcomed visitors. She died Saturday, May 11, 1996, age 95 in Lonesome Pine Hospital in her hometown. She was preceded in death by an infant son, her husband, and a daughter, Dorothy Booten. She was survived by a son, George, of California, a daughter, Nancy of Big Stone Gap, a sister and three brothers. Funeral services were held in Holding Funeral Home Chapel, at 8 p.m., Monday, May 13, with graveside services, 11:00 a.m., Tuesday, in the Cecil-Frye Cemetery at Pennington Gap, in Lee Co., VA.

Bonnie Sage Ball will be sorely missed, but her accomplishments will live on for generations.