Mahala Mullins died in a bed similar to this one. The real one was boarded up and turned into her coffin.
Mahala Mullins died in a bed similar to this one. The real one was boarded up and turned into her coffin.

Cabin of Moonshiner (Too Large To Leave Her Bed)

Field review by the editors.

Vardy, Tennessee

"Up yonder is where it come from," said Avery Newbury of the Vardy Historical Society, talking about the Mahala Mullins Cabin, which now stands next to Black Water Road. Jack Mullins, who traces his Mullins ancestry back a dozen generations, pointed across Vardy Valley to a distant spot atop Newman's Ridge. "I always wondered how they got it up there," said Jack of the cabin, built around 1855 and occupied for a hundred years by members of the Mullins family. "It had got in real bad shape. We hauled it here piece by piece on a big ten-wheeler."

Cabin of Moonshiner.
Jack Mullins points to the cabin's former spot on Newman's Ridge.

The Historical Society took possession of the log cabin in 2000, restored it, and moved it into Vardy Valley where it could be visited by the public. "Where it was located, it was never gonna work out," said Jack. "Unless you could walk a long way and get up that ridge."

Newspapers said she was
Newspapers said she was "the largest woman in Tennessee."

The cabin's remoteness was not unusual for Appalachia, but its owner was. Mahala Mullins was perhaps the best-known woman in Tennessee in the late 1800s (Her husband was also a local celebrity, having been struck by lightning and survived). Mahala was a Melungeon, descended from a mysterious group who were said to have come from Europe centuries before Columbus. Sometime after giving birth to her 19th child, she was infected with elephantiasis, which permanently enlarged her. Eventually Mahala grew so big that she couldn't get through the door of her cabin, and rarely left her bed.

But "Big Haley," as she was known, wasn't isolated by her disability. Her home became famous as a kind of supermarket for top quality Appalachian moonshine, with Mahala acting as purchasing agent and distributor. "They'd sell it by the gallons to her," said Jack of Manala's moonshine suppliers. "A lot of people would come to church in this valley, then they'd go up the ridge, pick up a pint."

Law enforcement was aware of Big Haley's business, but powerless to stop it. As one frustrated sheriff said, she was "catchable but not fetchable." It was impossible to get her through the log cabin door, and even if it was, there was no way to move her down the treacherous ridge to the nearest road, which was three miles away. Mahala was reportedly as disappointed as the lawmen, saying that she would have liked to have seen something of the outside world.

Mahala's body was dragged out through a hole now occupied by a chimney.
Mahala's body was dragged out through a hole now occupied by a chimney.

Big Haley died in 1898, her weight variously reported from 400 to 700 pounds, "the largest woman in Tennessee" according to the newspapers. She went to her grave in her four-poster bed, which was boarded up into a coffin, then somehow dragged out of the cabin through an opening in the wall that had been cut for a chimney. Mahala was buried in her back yard. Her tombstone has vanished, but Jack said that the Historical Society has a good idea who has it, and hopes to retrieve the stone and put it on display.

Own a piece of wooden history.
Own a piece of wooden history.

The Mahala Mullins Cabin itself is dark, brown, and sparsely furnished, although by 19th century Newman's Ridge standards it was a comfortable home. Time and repairs have erased any telltale sag in the floor or whiff of white lightning. Much more information about Big Haley is available across the street, in the old Vardy Presbyterian Church, which the Historical Society has turned into the community museum. Souvenirs for sale include chunks of Mahala's log cabin and some of the building's rusty nails, whose value would probably amaze the old bootlegger.

Jar o' nails in the Vardy Historical Museum.
Jar o' nails in the Vardy Historical Museum.

In October the Vardy community holds an annual reunion, and Jack said that the last one attracted well over a hundred of Big Haley's descendants. The menu included soup beans and corn bread, but no moonshine.

Cabin of Moonshiner (Too Large To Leave Her Bed)

Address:
Blackwater Rd, Vardy, TN
Directions:
From Sneedvile drive north, across the ridge, on switchback TN-63 for 3.5 miles. Turn right onto Black Water Rd. Drive 3.5 miles. You'll see the white church/museum on the left, and the brown cabin across the road on the right.
Hours:
March-Oct. Sa 10-3, or by appt. (Call to verify)
Phone:
423-733-4901
Admission:
Donations appreciated.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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May 26, 2019

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