Irene Fleenor didn’t make a lot of noise in life, but she was both tough and kind

Published 12:47 pm Tuesday, September 13, 2022

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Irene Mittie Carden Fleenor was almost 96 years old when she died Sept. 22. She had lived almost a century. Think of all the things she had seen and witnessed in her lifetime — television, the telephone, computers, electricity, running water, and even the automobile.
Irene was one of nine children of Kinch L. Carden and Juanita Collins Carden and was the last of her siblings to pass. Irene grew up in the Horseshoe community above the Wilbur Dam and made it home for much of her life. She grew up before there was a Watauga Dam and attended the old one-room Horseshoe School and the Horseshoe Church.
Her son, Gene, said his mother often shared stories of when they walked to school in two feet of snow, and had to cross the old swinging bridge over the Watauga River. (There was no remote learning then.) “She was tough, but she was a very kind, caring, meek, and mild-mannered person,” said Gene.
Her daughter, Linda Gresham, said her mother worked at sewing jobs most of her life. She retired from East Tennessee Undergarment plant, but had worked at other sewing plants. “When she was young, she worked at an alteration shop in Johnson City, making $5 a day. She made most of my clothes — from dresses to skirts and blouses, prom dresses, jeans, and bathing suits, etc. She could sew beautifully,” shared Linda.
“She grew up in an era when they didn’t need a lot of things, and as a result she never wanted a lot of things. She was satisfied with what she had,” said Linda.
Gene added, “She loved her family, especially her children and grandchildren, and she loved her church at Keenburg Free Will Baptist (where Gene pastors.) When she came into church she greeted everyone with either a handshake or a hug, and always with a smile. And, when she left, it was the same thing — a handshake, a hug, and a smile. Until she got to where she couldn’t see, she read her Bible every day.”
“Mama was a very giving person, and she enjoyed giving little things to her grandchildren such as small stuffed animals, a little car or doll,” said Linda.
Gene shared that his mother and daddy enjoyed going to Gatlinburg and often when he was off three or four days together he or his brother, Robert, who is now deceased, would take them to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Their favorite places to visit were the arcades. They would play the games and win bunches of stuffed toys, which they would give to the grandkids. After she died and we were cleaning out her house, we must have found 300 stuffed animals,” he said with a smile.
Linda said her mother never complained, even though when they were growing up, she washed on an old wringer washing machine, hung the clothes outside on a clothesline to dry, and on top of that, carried the water from a well or spring. She never had a lot of modern conveniences until she and daddy moved to town after we were all grown,” said Linda.
She shared that her mother was a good cook. “Chocolate pie was her speciality,” Linda said. “And, she always cooked a big Sunday dinner.”
However, when the family did get together, their mother rarely sat down to eat. “She was a grazer. She was always serving others, and eating a bite here and there,” said Gene.
Linda said her mother always took them to Sunday School. “We knew that she loved us and wanted the best for us. She and daddy were never able to give us a lot of material things, but they gave us what was important — their love and guidance. They taught us what was right and wrong,” she shared.
Outside of sewing, Irene never had a lot of interests. She watched some of the old shows on TV and did word searches. But, sewing was her thing.
“Mama grew up in a different era. Her life was simple. She worked hard. However, she was a very caring person. Mom didn’t need or want a lot of things, like we do today. She was also very independent…and stubborn at times,” Gene added with a laugh.
In addition to Gene and Linda, Irene also has a son, Jerry, who lives in Kingsport. Another son, Robert, is deceased. She was married 69 years to Hershel Fleenor, who died in 2015.
Irene’s family roots went deep in the Horseshoe. The Cardens were some of the community’s oldest residents. So, it’s no secret she knew almost everyone who lived there. Most of the family is now gone, except for some third and fourth generation family members, but, their roots are elsewhere.
The coming of the Watauga Dam changed the community some. A new road was built…the swinging bridge is now gone as is the school. Only the church and cemetery remain. And, most of the older residents who remember it like it once was are now gone, too.
We all could learn a lesson from Irene Carden: Life is tough, but it’s much easier if you don’t think you have to have every new gimmick. Just love God and people and be simple and kind.

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