By Stephen D. Bowling
February 5, 1904 – Phoebe Banks died in 1904 at the home of her son, George Washington Banks on Frozen Creek at the reported age of 107. The death of “Old Aunt Phoebe” was mourned across the county, and her obituary appeared in several newspapers. She had gained the reputation of being the oldest living woman in the United States in the months before her death. The real question is: Was she?
According to some family records, Phoebe Jane Hollon was born in Kentucky on August 25, 1815. Research has not yet determined if she was the daughter of George and Elizabeth (Bryant) Hollon or John and Charity (Brewer) Hollon. She was born either on Miller’s Creek of Estill County or on Holly Creek of Morgan County (now Wolfe) County, Kentucky. Research is continuing to determine which birthplace and parents are correct.
She learned to weave and spin at an early age and showed total mastery of the art by the time she was in her early teens. She would rely on her skills for the rest of her life to help generate money to support her family.
Phoebe married William W. Banks (1813 – 1860-1880), the son of William Washington and Sarah (Wadkins) Banks, on February 19, 1833, in Morgan County, Kentucky. They built a home and lived in a section of Floyd County that became Breathitt County on April 1, 1839.
In 1840, William and Pheobe appeared on the Breathitt County Census. Phoebe was between 20 and 30 years of age, and the couple had four children: three girls and one son. Based on the 1840 Census, Phoebe was born between 1810-1820.
When Samuel Hargis, the census taker, visited the family in 1850, Pheobe gave her age as 30. William reported nine children, including Charles, Sally, Charlotte, Elizabeth, Daniel, William, Polly, James, and George. Based on the information she provided, 1820 is her approximate birth year.
In 1860, Phoebe was 45 years of age- making her born in 1815. The family, listed in District 1 in Breathitt County, still recorded 11 children, although several older children were married and out of the household. Pheobe’s birthplace was listed as Estill County.
William W. Banks died sometime between the 1860 and 1880 Census. He and Phoebe have not been located on the 1870 census, and the exact year of his death is unknown.
Phoebe Banks, a 70-year-old widow, was living with her son, James Banks, and his wife, Polly, in the Frozen Precinct of Breathitt County on June 5th, 1880. Based on the age given to census taker Edward Marcum, Phoebe was born about 1810 in Kentucky.
In 1900, the widow lived with her son, George W. Banks in Breathitt County on Frozen Creek. George told the census taker that her age was unknown.
In June 1903, a reporter from The Paducah Sun stopped by her home while in Breathitt County reporting on the J. B. Marcum assassination. He made the trip to Frozen to see the county’s oldest lady, and the article he wrote ran on June 6th. Interested people from across the state started to visit her, and her fame as the state’s oldest person grew.
Her health started to decline, and she stopped helping in the garden in 1901. Phoebe spent most of her days sitting in the sun on the porch. She agreed, in 1902, to pose for a photograph but insisted that her spinning wheels be in the picture.
Phoebe Jane (Hollon) Banks died on Thursday, January 28, 1904, at the home of her son, George Washington Banks. She was buried the next day in the Banks Cemetery on Frozen Creek. It is believed that her husband, William W. Banks, is also buried there.
Their graves are unmarked. Aunt Phoebe Banks’ long life and large family have been largely forgotten today, but in the early 20th century, she was a national curiosity. Hundreds of people stopped by her home to visit the “oldest lady in the world.”
The is only one problem with this story. Phoebe was not 107 years old when she died. She was 89. The birthdate recorded in the family records is correct.
Many times ages are exaggerated in an era without access to reliable records. Remember, Uncle John Shell of Leslie County reportedly lived to age 134 in 1922. Regardless of her age, when she died in 1904, Phoebe Banks and her 14 children impacted Breathitt County and especially the Frozen Creek community.
© 2022 by Stephen D. Bowling
My family was the Banks family. My grandfather was James M. Banks, and My grandmother was Sarah Bell Banks. My Grandfathers real last name was Gould, but he had been taken in and raised by the Banks family and kept that name. My grandmother was born a Banks. This did tend to make genealogy hard and very confusing. The had 11 children that lived into adulthood. My mother was the youngest and last surviving child. She passed on 11/28/2021. They were all born in Frozen. I have been to the cemetery there. My grandfather and other family are buried there. When the frozen flooded in 1939 my mother was 1 or 2 days old. The Jackson paper had an article about people coming to the Banks home for safety from the flood waters. I am still trying to get information and dates on my family genealogy and want to go back down to do more research.
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