Millie Saunders and Estalena Graybeal

"Our Good Man," a.k.a. "Cabbage Head," performed by Millie Saunders

"Lover's Last Farewell," performed by Millie Saunders

"Farmer Gray," performed by Millie Saunders

"There Will Be No Sad Parting," performed by Millie Saunders and Estalena Graybeal

"The Orphans," performed by Estalena Graybeal

Millie Saunders and Estalena Graybeal are two sisters who recorded five songs with Frank Clyde Brown in Jonas Ridge, NC on June 30, 1940. Estalena was born on January 8, 1909 in Mortimer, NC to Eliza Hughes Graybeal and Quince Graybeal. In 1910, the one-year-old Estalena lived with her 18-year-old mother Eliza, her uncle Joseph, and her grandparents Millie and William Hughes in nearby Roaring Creek, NC. Estalena’s father Quince likely lived apart from his wife in Carter, TN directly across the state border.

By 1920, Eliza Hughes had moved to Jonas Ridge, NC and remarried to a man named Marshall Saunders. Marshall and Eliza lived with their two-year-old son Thomas. What became of Quince Graybeal and where Estalena was living in 1920 remain unclear. By 1930, however, Estalena reappears in census records in a Jonas Ridge household with her grandmother Millie Hughes. Apparently living a separate Jonas Ridge household were Eliza Hughes Saunders, her son Thomas, and two new daughters: Louise and Millie Saunders. Millie was born in Jonas Ridge in 1920; Eliza was likely pregnant with Millie when census records were taken. Millie Hughes is listed as a farmer in 1930, and while Millie and Estalena are not given occupations in the census, it is likely that they helped their grandmother on her farm in addition to the responsibilities they had in the household.

In 1940, the Jonas Ridge household was smaller than before. Joseph Hughes was living with his family again, now working as a laborer with the Works Progress Administration. As industrialization took hold in the south and corporations seized family land, countless men like Joeseph were pushed into the labor force. The 72-year-old Millie Hughes was no longer working; whether her farm was seized or she simply grew too old is unclear. Estalena was pushed into the labor force as well, working for a salary as a cook, while Millie worked within the household as an unpaid family worker. Millie’s two-year-old son Billie Joe also lived with them; he is mentioned in Frank Brown’s field notes as well as in the census.

Estalena Graybeal Barrier died at age 92 in Carson City, Nevada, leaving behind two children and at least three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Millie A. Sanders Garrison died on September 9, 1973 in Jonas Ridge; it is not expressly clear what became of her son Billie Joe or if she ever had other children.

For more information on women and their role in the south, click here.


By Peter Ciporin

Millie Saunders and Estalena Graybeal