Beech Mountain Dulcimers Millard and Smith Oliver?
What do we know about Millard Oliver and his brother, Smith Oliver?
In their research, both Ralph Lee Smith and Lucy Long address the mystery of who brought the mountain dulcimer to Beech Mountain in Watauga County, North Carolina. Both authors cite oral sources that claim a man named “Oliver” or more specifically “Millard Oliver” passed through the area in the 1890’s with a mountain dulcimer and allowed one of the local residents, Eli Taylor Presnell or James Brownlow Hicks, to trace a pattern from his instrument. Their patterns were shared with other family members and a tradition was born.
This leaves us with several questions. Who was Millard Oliver? Where did he live? What was his connection to Eli Taylor Presnell and James Brownlow Hicks? Were other members of the Oliver family involved with the mountain dulcimer’s dissemination on Beech Mountain?
In an effort to get answers to these questions and others, I have been searching through census records, marriage records, and other documents to learn a little more about Millard Oliver and his family. Here is what I have found to date.
Millard’s full name is “Millard Colfax Oliver”. He first appears in government records in the 1880 Ashe County, North Carolina Federal Census, where he is listed as M.C. Oliver, the 7-year old son of W.M. (William) Oliver and N.M. (Nancy Matilda) Oliver. Millard’s siblings are listed as C.I. (Cora Isabella) Oliver – 11 years old, U.S. (Ulysses Grant) Oliver – 9 years old, S.T. (Smith Talbert) Oliver – 6 years old, and N.M. (Nancy Magdelena) Oliver – 2 years old. Betsy Church – 32 years old, Nancy Matilda Oliver’s sister, was also living with the family.
Nancy Matilda Oliver was born Nancy Matilda Church. Her marriage to William Oliver was the second for both, as Nancy’s first husband, Richard C. McGuire, had died on December 7, 1867. Millard also had a step-brother, Silas Jackson McGuire, from his mother’s first marriage. Silas had married Lydia Elmira Matilda Thomas on March 18, 1879 and was no longer living with his mother and step-father.
The three members of the Oliver family of interest to mountain dulcimer historians are Millard Colfax Oliver; his brother, Smith Talbert Oliver; and Millard’s niece, Della Fair Hicks.
Millard Colfax Oliver
Millard Colfax Oliver was married twice. He married his first wife, Margaret Sheets, on May 7, 1893 in Watauga County, North Carolina. They had divorced by the end of the century. He married his second wife, Emma Josephine Yates, on September 25, 1900 in Watauga County, North Carolina. Millard, Emma, and their family are listed in the 1910, 1920, and 1930 Watauga County, North Carolina Federal Censuses. Neither Millard nor Emma would live to be recorded in the 1940 Federal Census. Emma passed away in 1934, and Millard died shortly thereafter in 1935. Millard is the only member of the Oliver family specifically mentioned by the informants of Ralph Lee Smith and Lucy Long. According to census records, it appears that Millard was a lifelong resident of Ashe and Watauga Counties. He also has a direct family connection to both Eli Taylor Presnell and James Brownlow Hicks.
Smith Talbert Oliver
Smith Talbert Oliver, the third son of William Oliver and Nancy Matilda Church and the younger brother of Millard Oliver, was born in 1874. He married Elizabeth “Bettie” Presnell, the daughter of Eli Taylor Presnell and America Banner, on January 22, 1893 in Watauga County, North Carolina. According to oral tradition, one of the Olivers introduced the mountain dulcimer to Beech Mountain in the early 1890’s. As Bettie Oliver’s husband, Smith Oliver would have been in an ideal position to introduce the instrument to his father-in-law, Eli Taylor Presnell. He may have used the instrument to court Bettie Oliver.
Smith Oliver was known as a rough, often violent, man. According to Terry Lynn Harmon in his history of the Yates family, Smith Oliver was shot and killed in Tennessee prior to the turn of the century. His early death may be the reason none of the informants mentioned his name when discussing the introduction of the mountain dulcimer to the Beech mountain area. Following the death of her first husband, Bettie Presnell married Daniel Valentine Yates, the brother-in-law of Millard Oliver. Dan Yates was a violent man. He shot and killed Silas Jackson McGuire, the step-brother of Millard Oliver, in a land dispute. In a fight with Millard Oliver, he pulled out a knife and stabbed Millard several times nearly killing him. His violent streak landed him in prison on multiple occasions. Fortunately, Millard survived the attack and raised a large family with his wife, Emma.
Della Fair Hicks
The family connection between the Oliver family and the family of James Brownlow Hicks is provided by Della Fair Hicks. Della was the daughter of Henry Hedge Hicks and Nancy Magdelena Oliver, the sister of both Millard Oliver and Smith Oliver. Della Fair Hicks, Millard Oliver’s niece, married Barney Hicks, the son of James Brownlow Hicks, on April 17, 1921 in Watauga County, North Carolina. Considering that this marriage took effect almost 30 years after the introduction of the mountain dulcimer to the area, it is unlikely the marriage played a significant role in the mountain dulcimer tradition. However, it does prove that the Olivers had an established relationship with the Hicks family.
Although we cannot definitively state that Millard Oliver deserves credit for introducing the mountain dulcimer to the Beech Mountain area of Watauga County, North Carolina, we can conclude the following:
1. Millard Oliver was a lifelong resident of the area, not a “Stranger from the West”.
2. Millard Oliver had a direct family connection to both Eli Taylor Presnell and James Brownlow Hicks.
3. Both Millard Oliver and Smith Oliver would have been young men in their early twenties or late teens at the time the mountain dulcimer made its appearance on Beech Mountain in the early 1890’s.
4. Smith Oliver may have played a significant role in bringing the dulcimer to the attention of Eli Taylor Presnell.
5. The known facts support the possibility that one or both of the Oliver brothers may have introduced the mountain dulcimer to Beech Mountain.