The temptation here is to deliver this story in the vein of social columns of days gone by.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Blythewood Historical Society recently hosted a lovely midday luncheon at the Langford-Nord House for the equally lovely young sisters Alexia Lucas and Portia Brown and their mother, Johanna Abernathy. Together, they had journeyed across the country to see the town where their great-grandmother and grandmother, Dr. Portia Lubchenco, lived and served as its doctor in the early 1900s.
The threesome was delighted by the hospitality of the historical society, which was equally delighted by the opportunity to be hospitable.
The noon luncheon was prepared by Mary Ellen Tobias, who served an array of Southern favorites, including sweet iced tea and dainty cucumber sandwiches, prepared on small circles of soft white bread.
Abernathy, an obstetrician and gynecologist who makes her home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, noted that the journey to Blythewood had been a “complete surprise” to her.
“I had no idea that Portia and Alexia were interested in exploring their roots … They apparently had been planning and researching (this trip) for a number of months and arranged with my husband to get me out of work and on the plane to meet them …We have always known about Blythewood but I had never really thought of going there.”
Abernathy and her two daughters arrived in Blythewood – known to some as The Progressive Community – on a lovely Sunday. The sun was shining; the sky was blue. Lantana was still very much in bloom, and adding to the comfort of the guests was a pleasant breeze.
The luncheon included introductions all around and a lively conversation about whether the buggy driven by Dr. Lubchenco, known to her adoring patients as “Dr. Portia,” was pulled by a mule or a horse.
It was later determined by way of a black and white photograph that the equine in question was indeed a horse named Maude.
Historical society member Bob Wood, who practices law in Columbia and who is also writing a history of Blythewood, graciously provided a thumbnail sketch of Dr. Portia’s life which was, indeed, an accomplished one.
“This is probably the most interesting story I have come across while trying to write the history of Blythewood,” Wood noted.
“Portia McKnight was the daughter of Peter McKnight, the owner of a Paxville, South Carolina cotton plantation. Her mother’s father (a Cuttino) was the Huguenot owner of a Lowcountry cotton plantation. Peter and Lula McKnight and their family moved to Smallville, South Carolina (near U.S. 21 and the Ridgeway, South Carolina gold mine) apparently while Portia was a teenager. While home for a few weeks after graduating from a private girls’ school in 1907, Portia by chance met an agronomist (Alexis Lubchenco) who had traveled across the world to study cotton in Winnsboro, South Carolina for Russian Czar Nicholas II. But Alexis disembarked the train two stops short (in Ridgeway) and met the McKnight family. Portia and Alexis apparently fell in love and stayed in touch even after she left town to teach high school in Sumter, South Carolina and after he left America to return to Russia that fall.”
Wood noted that Portia decided to become a doctor.
“(She) was denied admission to the Medical College of South Carolina (because, alas, she was a woman) but she got herself accepted to the Medical College of North Carolina in Charlotte, North Carolina, after a colorful interview with the dean. She became its first female graduate in 1912.
“(Lubchenco) wanted to attend her graduation, so he booked a ticket from Russia on the Titanic. He missed a connection in Germany and had to find an alternate way over. But he made it in time to see the medical college dean single her out by name, offering her a job as his personal assistant as he handed her a diploma.”
Wood noted that Portia and Lubchenco got married and moved to Russia. They had children and she treated Muslim peasants in southeastern Russia. When the Bolshevik Revolution broke out, they returned to Blythewood where, in 1920, they built a small brick home and where Portia treated patients during the Spanish flu outbreak. Dr. Portia also delivered hundreds of babies and took care of those who suffered accidents while timbering, sawmilling and otherwise working the land.
But when the boll weevil struck cotton crops, tearing asunder the local economy, Wood noted, sadly, that it “wasn’t long before Dr. Portia’s patients could not afford to pay her and her brother beckoned her to join him in Colorado.”
Which, in fact, she and her husband did. Dr. Portia continued practicing medicine until 1972. Three of her five children followed in her footsteps and became doctors and, in 1954, Dr. Portia was named Colorado’s Woman of the Year.
At this juncture, however, let’s return the narrative to Blythewood, where, on the recent Sunday afternoon, the honored guests and members of the historical society took a tour of Blythewood after the luncheon. Among other places, the group visited the small brick home on Portia Road – indeed, the road was named after Dr. Portia – where the physician and her husband lived for a time.
“It was wonderful to have an opportunity to literally walk the same floors as our great-grandparents, and not only walk them, but know they actually put them in and built the home by hand,” said great-granddaughter Alexia, who manages a boating enterprise in the British Virgin Islands.
“The women in our family have always been larger than life, and we knew they could do anything they set their minds to, but actually traveling the roads Dr. Portia would have covered alone with her horse and buggy to seeing the house she built by hand just cemented the phrase often used in our family, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’
“We would just like to extend a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone in Blythewood,” Alexis added, “and especially the historical society. This trip would never have been possible without them.”
Thus, this story of three far flung guests, exploring their roots by making their way on a recent Sunday afternoon to the small town of Blythewood, comes to an end.
It should be noted that each of the guests said they hoped to return to The Progressive City someday.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer. If you have a story idea you would like to share with her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.