Miss Martha Malinda “Mattie” or “Cousin Mattie” Eaton was born on Saturday, September 4, 1852, in Mocksville. Davie County had only been formed for 16 years, and the Civil War was approaching in 9 years. She was the second child of Jacob and Mary Elizabeth Clement Eaton. Their home was south of Mocksville, in the Jerusalem township as listed in the 1860 United States Census. Besides her older sister, Sallie, there were later six more children in her family. Another source of information described the location of the home as being just north of current Davie County High School.
Her father, Jacob, sometimes called Jake, was a teacher at a school called Clay Hill Seminary. This was in a very small log cabin where he taught 50 students advanced subjects. Mattie had hopes of serving as a missionary, but when her father became very ill and died, she abandoned her plans and began teaching at the age of 17, in 1869. She and her older sister, Sallie, had served as assistants to him. She later moved the school to the Brick Academy in Mocksville. This was located near the old train depot. In time, her mother’s sister, Miss Laura Clement, came to be her assistant. Mattie’s sister, Grace, also taught with her.
Davie Times, 28 July 1881: “Miss Mattie Eaton will open her school at the female Academy, Monday, August 1st.”
Davie Times, 10 August 1888: “The Trustees of Mocksville Academy have secured the services of Miss Mattie Eaton as assistant principal for the ensuing year.”
In 1892, Mattie and Laura then started a school named Sunnyside Seminary which sat near the southeast intersection of highway 64 and 158. Mattie taught the older children and was the principal, and Laura taught the first four grades. It was a private school for girls, but poor girls were given scholarships, and there were also some boys who attended. There were two huge oak trees on opposite sides of the building and problem children sat under those big trees until they could conform or dwell in peace.
A former student described Miss Mattie this way: “She always wore a heavy black dress with fitted bodice and a train which was the style in those days. On the bottom edge of the skirt was a dust ruffle which kept the hem of the dress from dragging in the dust or mud. I never saw Cousin Mattie lift her skirt out of dust or mud but she swept along like a queen carrying her Roll Book and some other books. She was a very stern teacher but I think the best teacher I ever had. She was very religious and was as concerned about her pupils’ morals as their educations.”
Mary Heitman, past Davie historian, wrote these words: “Miss Mattie had the magic touch of making the characters of literature and history become real to her pupils, and she was equally well-versed in Latin and mathematics.” Other subjects were art, music, religion, and geography. Field trips helped the students’ experiences. They were also required to memorize Bible verses.
She acquired the nickname of “Cousin Mattie” due to others’ high regards of her.
Two photographs of Miss Mattie exist, one with another teacher and 43 students at Sunnyside (shown above). A portrait shows her as a pleasant but serious young woman with hair pulled back and curly bangs.
The following articles from local newspapers tell of her long battle with cancer.
Davie Record, 3 August 1905: “We are sorry to learn of the protracted illness of Miss Mattie Eaton.”
Davie Record, September 1905, “Miss Mattie Eaton has so far recovered from her late severe illness that she will open her school about October 1st.”
Davie Record, 27 Oct 1908, “On account of the illness of Miss Mattie Eaton, four grades of the graded school were closed last week.”
Davie Record, 13 July 1909. “Miss Mattie Eaton, who underwent an operation for cancer at the Salisbury hospital last week, is getting along as well as could be expected.”
She died four months later, on Sunday, the 14th of November in 1909 at age 57, having taught for 41 years. The obituary reads:
“On Sunday, Nov. 14th, the news of the death of Miss Mattie Eaton, which occurred at 4 o’clock, p.m., brought sadness to every home in Mocksville and throughout the whole county. No better woman has ever lived in Mocksville than Miss Eaton, and her friends were only limited by her acquaintances, for to know her was to love her. She had been suffering for many months with cancer, having underwent (sic) two operations recently, but to no avil (sic). In her death, this city and county loses one of their best women, one who will be missed as the years go by. The funeral and burial services took place Monday afternoon in the presence of a large concourse of sorrowing friends and relatives. The body was laid to rest in Clement Cemetery. Miss Eaton was a consistent member of the Methodist church. A good woman has indeed been called to her reward.”
Her tombstone is a very tall obelisk with her data on its foundation in the Eaton family cemetery with her parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
She lived long ago and wasn’t my teacher, or yours, but she had a great impact on Davie County as she established, directed, and taught in many different schools that helped our citizens learn and progress.