The Tusings of

Branch Mountain

By Gary Smucker

with thanks to the Moorefield Examiner

Ora and Lynn Tusing lived a quiet life on a farm at the top of Branch Mountain in Hardy County. Yet the memory of these two Mennonite women lives on in a number of ways that would probably surprise them if they were living today. Ora [Leora] Tusing was born in 1896 and lived for 78 years. Her sister, Lynn [Bertha Lynn] Tusing, was born in 1905 and lived for 95 years. They were born to William and Sarah [Funkhouser] Tusing and had seven brothers and sisters. Ora and Lynn Tusing lived an isolated life high on Branch Mountain, but the world beat a path to their door.

Photo courtesy of Lost River Educational Foundation.

Visitors. The reason people came to visit was special skills they had. They spun wool on a spinning wheel to make yarn and wove the wool and linen to make coverlets and blankets. People came to their home to learn about weaving and spinning. After a morning of hard work on the farm Lynn and Ora worked with looms and spinning wheels to make the coverlets and rugs that bought them fame. The wool came from the sheep on the farm.

They cleaned the wool, sometimes had it dyed, and then carefully carded it to smooth the fibers. They spun the wool into yarn on the spinning wheels. Finally, one of them sat down at the floor heddle loom to weave the yarn through the linen threads that were fitted on the loom. An embroidered cloth hung in front of the weaver to remind her how to make the pattern.

Weaving Pattern Chart

Photo by Gary Smucker

Authors also came to visit Ora and Lynn. In March of 1973 the Smithsonian Magazine published an article about the sisters’ life and work with spinning and weaving. Goldenseal, the West Virginia magazine of society in the state, published an interview with Lynn after Ora had passed. In 2003 a video called “The Texture of Life, The Tusing Sisters of Branch Mountain” was released by local filmmaker Ray Schmidt. The video lives on in YouTube format for anyone in the world to see.

Christian Faith. The Tusing family were known as strong Christians and faithful to the Mennonite Church. The sisters were missionaries from their home because they participated in the church by knitting bandages for the leper ministries of the Mennonite Church. They faithfully prayed for and corresponded with missionaries, and in their home after they were gone,a collection of correspondence and letters of thanks from missionaries was found.

Lynn working at the loom.

Photo courtesy of Lost River Educational Foundation

Farm Life. Ora and Lynn stayed on the farm most of the time because they didn’t have a car. They chopped wood, baked bread, churned butter, made soap, had a garden, and raised farm animals; and they did the other things necessary to survive on an isolated farm. The mailman took the cream to Harrisonburg to make butter. The telephone kept them in touch with family and friends.

Ora, the older sister, worked more in the home. She cooked and did the housework. She was a bit stricter than her sister and would not play card game, even Old Maids. She was known for quoting proverbs and mountain wisdom. Ora suffered from rheumatism, but she still managed to chop wood for the stove. When she was younger, Ora worked as a midwife in the Harrisonburg area. There are people in the area who can thank Ora, because she helped assist their entry into the world.

Lynn milked the three cows twice a day and did most of the farm work. When she climbed “up top” to the end of the field to bring in the cows, she could look west over the South Branch Valley into Moorefield. She was taller than her sister, and more likely to play cards with visitors. She spent her life on the farm. She also chopped wood and took care of the sheep, pigs, and chickens. Lynn taught herself to hunt and enjoyed supplying the home with game. Family lore said there was a hole in the screen of the upstairs bedroom where Lynn shot a bear through the open window.

Lynn chopping wood and the sisters spinning

Photos courtesy of Arnout Hyde, Jr. Estate

Last of Traditional Farm Life. The world beat a path to the Tusing sisters’ door because of their fame as spinners and weavers. But people also came because they were fascinating, enjoyable people who lived a way of life from a long-gone era. They were among the last people in Hardy County to live a traditional farm life. The Smithsonian author wrote, “From behind their glasses [Lynn’s specked from the morning milking in the barn] they present the amiable expressions of people who like their lot. The sisters are not easily vexed. They like the company they keep, the food they eat…. They like their craft.”

Spinning Wheel and Floor Heddle Weaving Loom

Photos by Gary Smucker

Heritage Saved. In the 1990s, the Lost River Educational Foundation acquired the Tusing sisters’ 100-plus year old floor heddle weaving loom as well as a number of spinning wheels and other artifacts from the Tusing farm. The Tusing Loom is the centerpiece of the LREF’s Museum of family farm life in the Lost River Valley. The LREF’s mission is to engage the community in the preservation and promotion of heritage arts and crafts. For the past several years, Hardy County resident Sissy Soltysiak has been weaving on the loom, exactly as the Tusing sisters did for so many years. Classes on weaving, as well as other heritage crafts were scheduled to be held this year. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, classes and other presentations have been suspended.

The LREF Museum and Artists Marketplace are open Saturdays from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. where artifacts from several local family farms are on display as well as works of local artists and crafters. The Marketplace and Museum are located at 8739 SR 259, Lost City, WV. 304 897 7242

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