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Kentucky by Heart: Alice Hegan Rice’s classic ‘Mrs. Wiggs’ offers many lessons for today’s trying times

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

Last week, I pulled a book out of my collection of old Kentucky books that I had put off reading until I had more time. Well, in this coronavirus-stay-home-period, “more time” presented itself and I devoured the 138-page book in a few sittings.

It’s a classic piece of Kentucky literature, published in 1901, called Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, and is written by Shelbyville-born Alice Hegan Rice, who wrote the book after moving to Louisville. The story was set in an extremely impoverished area of Louisville (based on a real place) where a family endured daily challenges to their survival yet found ways to engage successfully with their immediate and outside community. Rice presented a picture of both hardship and hope, and even found the space for a certain amount of levity.

The book strikes me as having some pertinent life lessons that can benefit us in our challenging period today, though I doubt if the author figured her words would carry such profound weight over a century later.

First, the lead character, Mrs. Wiggs, remained optimistic even in under very difficult circumstances. After her husband “traveled to eternity by the alcohol route” and later when the family left their fire-destroyed country home to live at one of the ramshackle cottages in Cabbage Patch, she remained upbeat and with a “can do” attitude. That despite more travail as her family of five children eked out a poor existence, making do with the little they had. Sadly, her two boys died; even that didn’t destroy her spirit.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Mrs. Wiggs demonstrated amazing patience as she sought to do good. She organized a Sunday school class held in her kitchen for children in the neighborhood. Many of them were rowdy and undisciplined, yet she kept her wits about her in the chaos. Her actions throughout the story, in nearly all circumstances, were near saintly. Always hopeful, she willingly waited for positive results.

The book portrayed acts of helping the most vulnerable. Son Billy came to Mrs. Wiggs and frantically presented his case to save a horse in the community that was having “a fit… (and) ’most gone” and about to be shot by its owner. The two gave the sad horse medicine and built a fire for warmth. The creature, named “Cuba,” recovered and even became a useful part of the Wiggs family, pulling a cart loaded with kindling to sell for extra income.

And how much did Mrs. Wiggs care in order to take care of her family? In a somewhat humorous incident, she broached the idea to a doctor that her body be left to science to earn funds to take care of her children after she passed.

Another remarkable element of the story accentuated the importance of the “haves” helping the “have nots.” A rich young woman, “Miss Lucy,” reached out to the Wiggs family, showing attention to their needs with gifts and acceptance. A man, “Mr. Bob,” involved with the high-culture Opera House, saw to it that the family received tickets to an event. Incidentally, the two restored their broken relationship at the end of the book—to the delight of Mrs. Wiggs—and decided to get married. It provoked this cheerful (and typical) response from the cheery Mrs. Wiggs: “Looks like ever’thin’ in the world comes right, if we jes’ wait long enough!”

Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch has sold at least over 650,000 copies through many printings, according to Wikipedia. It premiered as a Broadway play in 1904, appeared as a movie several times, and even was adapted as a radio series. Mrs. Rice was the wife of Cale Young Rice, also a well-known writer. He committed suicide about a year after his wife’s death, reportedly because of his grief.

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