Steven Cox began to appreciate the value of the journals of Emma Bell Miles shortly after he joined the UTC Library in 2001. One year before, the work of this “gifted writer, poet, naturalist, and artist with a keen perspective on Appalachian life and culture” had been donated to UTC, and researchers began to ask if they could have a look.
To prevent too many hands from touching the fragile documents, Cox, Team Lead of Special Collections and University Archives, began the process of preserving Miles’ story, written in the early 1900s. It took him a year to scan the journals. Next he was able to transcribe her work, thanks to Miles’ clear handwriting.
“A couple of years later I was done and had a manuscript of 240,000 words,” Cox explained. “After interest was expressed of publishing the journals by the Ohio University Press, I edited the manuscript down to a manageable size and submitted it. The Ohio University Press published the manuscript in March of 2014 as Once I Too Had Wings: The Journals of Emma Bell Miles, 1908-1918.”
As Miles and her husband Frank struggled to raise their family on Walden’s Ridge, she kept journals of their life. With financial problems mounting, Miles began to sell her paintings and short stories, which appeared in Harper’s Monthly and Lippincott’s. She wrote Spirit of the Mountains, a nonfiction book about southern Appalachia, which was published in 1905.
“Miles was very descriptive of rural mountain life of this region in her journals, and did not shy away, nor sugarcoat, the harsh realities of that life, and that of women of the region in the period right before women won the right to vote. Her writing is hauntingly beautiful but contains some shocking and tragic facts,” Cox said.
In Miles’ journals, there are “both poignant and incisive accounts of nature and a woman’s perspective on love and marriage, death customs, child raising, medical care, and subsistence on the land in southern Appalachia in the early twentieth century.”