Meet the Macon Matriarch
The Women’s History Trail (WHT), a project of the Folk Heritage Association of Macon County (FHAMC), adopted an activity in 2018 that continues each March as a part of Women’s History Month.
This annual event recognizes a special “WHT Macon Matriarch” and her role as trailblazer to help shape a better future for Macon County. Since its creation, four deserving women have been honored as WHT Macon Matriarchs: Margaret Ramsey (2018), Sally Kesler (2019), Dorothy Crawford (2020) and Roberta Swank (2021).
“This year’s recipient, Jessie Downs Cabe, joins this legacy of women, esteemed treasures of our community, who have been recognized for their many years of dedication and service to others,” said Anne Hyder, chairperson of the Folk Heritage Association of Macon County. “The Folk Heritage Association and Women’s History Trail strives to keep our area’s heritage alive, and the Macon Matriarch is a perfect way to bring history to life as we celebrate the lives of Macon County women and honor their accomplishments.”
Jessie Downs Cabe
Jessie Downs was born in 1927 and raised on Hall Farm Road in the Rose Creek Community. As a little girl, she walked across the mountain to Iotla School. She graduated from Franklin High School in 1945 and attended Berea College from 1945-1949, majoring in home economics and minoring in religion. In 1950, she married Leon Cabe, who had been her neighbor when they were growing up. They couple moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Leon worked in the automotive industry, but they longed to return home to Macon County.
After moving back home, Cabe began her career as a schoolteacher, teaching home economics at Hayesville High School for two years and then at Franklin High School. In 1953, she was recruited to work with the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service (now called N.C. Cooperative Extension) through North Carolina State University. She began as an assistant for the 4-H clubs, but it was her time spent with homemakers for which she is most remembered. For more than 30 years, Cabe’s expertise in housing and house furnishings, human development, as well as all areas of family and consumer education, and volunteer recruitment and utilization, made her an invaluable resource for Maconians.
Cabe’s ability to work with all ages and socio-economic groups allowed her to share research-based information that could improve the lives of individuals and families. She visited homes, providing assistance in developing house plans and making homes more convenient and livable. She conducted or coordinated workshops that taught hundreds of people marketable craft skills that helped add income for their families. Cabe provided educational opportunities for parents to be better equipped for their responsibilities, and her work with the aging population was groundbreaking in the county.
Cabe mobilized a cadre of volunteers, women and men, through Extension Homemakers Clubs – providing training to help them use their knowledge and skills to help others. Through activities like the Green Garden Program, the N.C. Highway Safety Car Seat Program and Lap Readers, these volunteers gave countless hours to the citizens of Macon County. At one time more than 500 people were involved and there were more than 20 Extension Homemaker groups in the county. Under Cabe’s leadership, the Macon County Extension Homemakers were recognized as one of the largest and strongest volunteer organizations in the state.
Ever eager to provide new opportunities for Macon County, Cabe’s influence was far-reaching. Along with her Extension co-worker Florence Sherrill, she wrote federal grants for community action that would become Macon County Program for Progress. She was instrumental in helping form Macon County Arts Council, Macon County Senior Citizens Program and Macon Crafts, as well as serving on boards for many other organizations.
The Macon County Fair benefitted from Cabe’s leadership as she helped establish the Home Furnishings division of the fair; at one time, there were more than 800 entries in the Family Life area.
Cabe inspired other young Extension agents to be influential in their counties, mentoring at least 15 during her career. A consummate professional, Cabe was organized in all areas of her life. Marilyn Cole, a former co-worker, said she had never seen anyone as organized as Jessie.
“She always had plenty of time for her work, her family, and her church,” Cole said.
The Cabes raised three daughters, Peggy, Susan and Jan. She has six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Cabe was active in the Snow Hill United Methodist Church, serving as a Sunday School teacher, Bible study leader, and UMW leader, and participated in many church conferences at Lake Junaluska.
“Macon County benefitted from Jessie Cabe’s love for families and her desire to help them live good, productive lives. She is truly a Macon Matriarch,” said Mary Polanski from the FHAMC/WHT.
Women’s History Trail projects
The Women’s History Trail “Walking in Her Steps” project is a designated walking path in downtown Franklin identified by bronze plaques that share stories and pay tribute to the many women who helped shape Macon County’s history.
The WHT sculpture, a stop on the trail, will feature a special bronze art sculpture to be placed in downtown Franklin. Titled “Sowing the Seeds of the Future,” the sculpture depicts three local historical women (a white woman, an African American woman and a Cherokee woman) whose lives and cultures intersected in the early days of Macon County.