Mary Helen Cissell may very well know her neighbors better than anyone.
Day after day for “a good year” she visited the homes of people who remember raising families, picking cotton and buying mules in eastern Cherokee and western Forsyth counties.
“There were times when I actually got goose bumps and there were times when I actually just broke down and cried,” Cissell said in a recent telephone interview.
“I couldn’t believe the personal information they were sharing with me, that it came straight from the heart. It just got to me.”
Cissell, a retired Chestatee Elementary School teacher who lives near Ball Ground, collected their stories in “Living, Laughing, Loving in Old Lathemtown,” an oral history book produced by Orange United Methodist Church.
Lathemtown, known throughout the region for its mule trading barns in the first half of the 20th century, had long fascinated the curious Cissell since she moved to Cherokee County from LaGrange more than a decade ago.
She recalled that one morning, while sitting in church, she looked around at some of the older people in the pews and wondered what their stories were.
So began the project to record the recollections of more than 40 north Georgians who survived the Great Depression, World War II and the rapid suburbanization of their old crossroads communities.
Recorded family history is something Cissell, a native of the rural southern Illinois town of Sparta, wishes she had.
“I really have learned the value of collecting oral histories,” she said. “One thing I hope will come out of this book is that people will stop and think about the people in their own families and collect some of their own histories before people pass on.”
In visiting with her neighbors, she discovered that though many of them have families who now have their own families, older folks still long for company.
“They were just happy to have someone listen and be interested,” she said.
Among the personal histories Cissell counts herself lucky to have compiled are accounts by late cousins Charles and Jack White.
Charles White regaled Cissell with stories of cotton and mule barns, riding a goat to church and getting married at Pepperrell AFB in Newfoundland, Canada.
He died about two weeks after the book was published, though he did attend a reception in June the church held for the storytellers.
“It just kind of drove that point home,” Cissell said. “You really can’t wait. You really need to collect oral histories while people are living.”
Jack White died in 2001, but not before penning his own stories of eating wild berries and damming up creeks to make “wash holes.”
Cissell credits White’s daughter Jane Jarrett for preserving the old computer floppy disk her father used to save his stories.
“I feel like he was looking into the future while he was looking back,” Cissell writes in her introduction to White’s recollection.
The Lathemtown collection is Cissell’s first crack at writing for publication. The author said she’s been surprised and thrilled at how the book has been received and the number of copies sold—more than 600.
“Our church is really small. So this has been a huge project for our little church,” she said.
“Now I’ve got people coming up to me and calling me. They’ve got more stories to tell me.”