Maud Carter Clement: Pittsylvania Historian

By Henry H. Mitchell and Patricia B. Mitchell

Maud Carter Clement in 1960

The Pittsylvania Historical Society's reprint of a large collection of local historian Maud Carter Clement's writings [Writings of Maud Carter Clement, 1982, out of print as of 2001] has stirred interest in the late author herself. However, information about Mrs. Clement is not widely available.

She died in 1969, and few area residents of today knew her well. Among those few who were intimately acquainted with her are two of her grandchildren, Mary Rutledge Ward of Chatham, and Whittington W. “Whitt” Clement of Danville, who provided most of the information for this article.

Little grandchildren often can recall the personality and outstanding traits of a deceased grandparent with amazing clarity. They remember the important words and actions, their minds acting as sieves, catching the substance and discarding the unnecessary.

In the case of Mrs. Clement and interactions with her grandchildren, life included a number of significant rituals, which now serve to magnify and clarify their memories of her.

Maud Clement and her dog Joe

Maud Carter Clement with her dog “Joe” in the violet bed of her garden, 1960.

One Cookie at a Time

Sunday afternoon tea with eight cousins in Mrs. Clement's parlor on Main Street in Chatham was chief among the memorable rituals. The ground rules were that voice must not be too loud and that only one cookie was to be taken at a time. If a child could not behave, he or she was banished to the outdoors, away from the games and toys.

Mrs. Clement was an admirer of the British, serving English tea daily at a small, red, Chinese table before the fireplace. She burned a fire year-round, except in July and August, remembers Mary Rutledge Ward — “I think she enjoyed its company.”

Writing First, Then Gardening

Every morning Mrs. Clement wrote at a card table in her back downstairs bedroom, and each afternoon, weather permitting, she worked in her garden. The garden was patterned after the English garden of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham.

Mrs. Clement's bulbs and plantings were chosen to have special meaning, many First Edition bulbs having been ordered through the Garden Club of Virginia. She also grew plants mentioned in the Bible, and native Virginia wildflowers which she remembered from her childhood.

Maud Clement and Lida Fox

Maud Clement (right) and her friend Lida Fox of Pennsylvania walk along the newly planted long boxwood walk of her garden, 1930. The garden was patterned after that of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham.

Grief Led to New Efforts

Mrs. Clement became both a more avid gardener and a more prolific writer after the sudden death of her college-age daughter, Elizabeth Lanier Clement, on Christmas Eve in 1927. To try to overcome her grief, she threw herself into her hobbies, recalls Whitt Clement.

Another motivation for writing was the fact that as a young girl, Maud Clement had talked with many of the veterans of the War Between the States. (“She insisted that we use the term ‘The War Between the States,’ rather than ‘The Civil War,’” Whitt says.)

Mrs. Clement was further inspired as a historian by her discovery of important early papers of the county in the Pittsylvania Courthouse basement. These documents bore the signatures of Thomas Jefferson, Lord Botetourt, and Patrick Henry.

Mary Rutledge Ward reminisces, “The thing I remember most about Maud (she wouldn't let me call her grandmother) is her writing…She never wasted any paper. If she got a business letter or something of that type, she'd turn it over and write on it. And she always liked good quality paper, like circulars from Chatham Hall…She was a hard worker. She would get ideas and put them into action and she didn't necessarily depend on others to help her.”

Maud Clement and Martin Jones

Maud Clement and friend Martin Jones of New Orleans, 1960. In this photograph Mrs. Clement is standing about twenty feet in front of her position in the above Lida Fox photograph of 1930.

England Visit Eluded Her

Mrs. Clement dearly loved the state of Virginia and did not care to see anyone abbreviate the word “Virginia.” She did travel in the United States and Mexico, but never to England to see firsthand the culture which influenced her so much.

At one point in her later years, she was planning a trip to the British Isles, but a siege with stomach cancer prevented her going.

As part of her emulation of the British, Mrs. Clement ate English-style cuisine — boiled foods and lots of rice pudding. She served dinner in the dining room, and children were not permitted to say “I'm full,” but rather must remark something like “I've had a gracious abundance.”

“She liked euphemisms,” Mary Rutledge Ward recalls, “and she spoke with a broad ‘a.’ She had a presence about her.”

“She had a sense of civility,” states Whitt Clement.

She was not intimidated by anybody, and she admired the dignity of the Britishers. “She liked for people to develop the best in themselves,” remembers Mary Rutledge Ward.

She was very aware of “family” and she did not like the idea of individuals moving far away from their birthplace, because she believed that such mobility was causing “the breakdown of traditions.”

Grandchildren Encouraged

Maud Clement wrote all of her grandchildren frequently and maintained a scrapbook for each child called a Book of Days. She was concerned with each child's development.

Mary Rutledge Ward remembers, “We always had to listen to one article from the Saturday Review every week. One summer we all had to read Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking out loud, sitting around the table.”

“She believed that children should be seen and not heard, and that children should listen. She valued serenity,” declares Whitt. “She always knew where we were in school and what interested us, and she always remembered our birthdays.”

Maud Clement and Gov. Mills Godwin

Virginia's Governor Mills Godwin greets Maud Carter Clement at a 1967 celebration honoring the bicentennial of the establishment of Pittsylvania County.

Today's Experts, Yesterday's Books

In the research for her books, Mrs. Clement was thorough, always seeking primary sources. Mary Rutledge Ward recalls, “One person that she knew was Dr. Earl Swem at William and Mary. He was the head of the library down there — in charge of all the historical and rare documents. I know she had done a lot of work with him. Dr. Meade, at Randolph-Macon (who was from Danville) told me that her History of Pittsylvania County was ‘the best-researched county history’ he had seen.”

Maud Clement possessed an excellent reference library of her own, some of the volumes having been printed as far back as the eighteenth century. “She loved books,” remembers Whitt, “and she was knowledgeable about many subjects: current affairs, horticulture — flora and fauna. She was a great student of the Bible.”

“She loved the Book of Common Prayer. She told us once that the origin of the ‘General Thanksgiving’ is unknown. At the time of the death of Queen Elizabeth I, a prayer was found in her chamber, authorship unknown, but it became the ‘General Thanksgiving’ — Maud knew those kinds of things.”

She was intrigued by the Peytonsburg area, Belle Grove, and the Revolutionary War hospital at Berry Hill.

She was enthralled with any family's genealogy; and she enjoyed writing about Rachel Donelson, the Pittsylvania girl who married Andrew Jackson. She was interested in Indians.

The Colonial period of history was a favorite topic, but memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction were so vivid that Whitt recalls her having been deeply hurt by the tragedy and disruption of that era. “She was a fact-finder, though, so all of history fascinated her.”

Both grandchildren agreee that Maud Clement seemed to have been born with a remarkable aptitude for history, an ability to relate past events and lifestyles to current experiences, and the determination to get the facts down on paper.

“I believe that she wanted our history to be preserved as a record of the past to help shape the future,” Whitt Clement concludes.


This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.