Happy Birthday, Sarah Catherine Wood Marshall! by Marilyn Mitchem

In March 1912, citing Mrs. Wood’s health as the reason, John and Leonora Wood left Ebenezer Mission so that John could accept a call to Meadow Creek Presbyterian Church south of Greeneville, Tennessee.

The summer and autumn of 1914 would prove a time of transition for John, Leonora, and their extended family.

Desiring better educational opportunities for their three youngest sons and infant daughter, in August 1914 Leonora’s parents, George and Catherine Whitaker, sold their farm near Dillingham and moved to Montreat. They bought a home exactly one mile between the train station and Montreat’s entrance gate, where they operated a boarding house during the summer for Montreat visitors. George also was hired as Montreat’s night watchman.

John served Meadow Creek until September 1, 1914, when he resigned to accept another pastorate. Their first baby was due later that month so they moved in with John’s parents, Robert and Sarah, to await the birth.

Named for both her grandmothers, Sarah Catherine Wood was born at her grandparents’ home in Johnson City, Tennessee, on September 27, 1914.

Proud papa John wrote to a friend, “Just wanted to let you know that we have a baby girl, who made her appearance on Saturday night at 12:20 a.m. She weighs 9½ pounds and mother and child are doing nicely.”


During their time at Meadow Creek, John and Leonora had kept in contact with their beloved mentor, Dr. Edward Guerrant.

Plagued with rheumatism and other ailments, Dr. Guerrant had for years wintered in Umatilla, Florida, where he owned a cottage and citrus grove.

Leonora said, “Dr. Guerrant kept on writing, saying, ‘Come on to Florida! Florida is a young man’s country. And you come on to Florida now!'”

John agreed, and accepted a call from the Umatilla Presbyterian Church. What an exotic location, so different from Appalachia! Citrus trees bearing fruit year-round, semi-tropical plants blooming on every street corner.

The Woods moved to a small rented house there six weeks after Sarah Catherine’s birth. They learned Dr. Guerrant was right. Florida was as ripe with possibilities as the sacks of grapefruit and oranges he enjoyed delivering to baby Sarah Catherine.


You may wonder, as did I, when Catherine Marshall dropped her first name, Sarah.

Research reveals that the 1936 Agnes Scott college yearbook lists senior graduate Sarah Catherine Wood from Keyser, West Virginia. The newspaper article about her November 1936 wedding to Peter Marshall uses Sarah Catherine. She’s enumerated as Sarah C. Marshall in the 1940 census. Therefore, some time later Catherine decided to omit her first name and use just her maternal grandmother’s first name. Why?

Even though she was born in her Grandmother Wood’s home and given her grandmother’s name, Sarah Catherine couldn’t abide one of her grandmother’s personality traits.

Catherine explained her aversion to the name Sarah in her book, Light in My Darkest Night:

“Sarah was a name I’d disliked and seldom used.

“My Grandmother had been so afraid of the night air that she wouldn’t raise her bedroom window, winter or summer. In hot weather my grandfather would come out of their room in the morning white-faced and dripping with perspiration.

“Grandmother Wood was so afraid of thunderstorms that at the first peal she would plunge beneath the covers. And so it went. A fear-dominated woman.”

Catherine likely considered her grandmother’s fears unscientific and superstitious, and more importantly, incompatible with God’s many Biblical commands to “Fear not.”

However, when Grandmother Wood was a child during the 1850s in east Tennessee, people thought the night air was dangerous. Deadly “vapors” rose from rotting vegetation in wetlands and swamps, polluted the soil, and spread diseases. The elderly and infirm were advised to avoid breathing night air. It was best to stay inside. Keep windows and doors shut.

No matter Catherine’s reasons, Grandmother Wood, a strict woman who “smelled of salt rising bread,” never knew about her granddaughter’s decision.

Grandmother Wood died in Johnson City on January 3, 1935, during Catherine’s junior year at Agnes Scott College. Listing the cause of death as “a brief illness of pneumonia,” her obituary stated, “Mrs. Wood since childhood, has been an active member of the Presbyterian church and at the time of her death was one of the oldest members of her church.”

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