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Family, Banner Elk Community Celebrate the Long, Happy Life of Mary Guignard Elder

By Jessica Isaacs | jessica@highcountrypress.com

The community of Banner Elk and all who knew her now bid farewell to respected local citizen Mary Elder, who lived to be 105 years old. She passed away peacefully at home last week, and her family and friends are now memorializing her life, her love and her history.

Mary Elder

As a descendant of the VonCanon family and the Banner brothers, who helped settle the Banner Elk community, Mary Guignard Elder and her family boast a long, rich history in the area.

Mary Elder during her time at Lees-McRae. Photo provided by the Elder family.
Mary Elder during her time at Lees-McRae. Photo provided by the Elder family.

She was born in October of 1910 to parents James Sanders and Anna VonCanon Guignard and was raised on the family farm in Banner Elk, although they did travel for some time during her childhood and lived out-of-state on a few occasions.

A young Mary Guignard started school at the Lees-McRae Institute, and was in attendance the first year it was renamed Lees-McRae College.

Upon graduation, she moved to Burlington, North Carolina, where she met and later married William T. Elder in 1934. The couple moved to Florida for several years, where William worked as a commercial farmer.

In the early 1950s, Mary and William relocated to her beloved mountains, where she was happy to continue her role as a quintessential homemaker and he started a new venture as an apple grower.

“He shared her love of the mountains and the area,” said Mary Frances Frisbie, the couple’s daughter.

At home in the High Country, Mary and William raised their family of four children in the pre-civil war house that was built by her great grandfather and completed by her grandfather.

“She appreciated her family history and loved to share it,” said Frisbie. “She loved to share the history of Banner Elk.”


Making a Home

Mary’s children say she was a strong, caring family leader with a lot of love to give, and her home was the center of it all.

“I think she was a wonderful, supportive mother. She always put her children first,” Frisbie said. “Actually, she always put everybody else first.

Mary and William Elder dancing at their 45th anniversary. Photo provided by the Elder family.
Mary and William Elder dancing at their 45th anniversary. Photo provided by the Elder family.

“She made all of my clothes when I was growing up and used designer patterns. She was very talented and she didn’t sew for other people, but she sewed for her children. She was a true homemaker and she always welcomed company.”

Mary and William’s son, Cliff, said their home was a place of peace and comfort for the family, but also for the countless visitors who walked through the front door over the years.

“She really enjoyed company,” Cliff said. “If you’d have visited her, it would have been hard for you to leave because she’d say ‘sit back down and let’s talk about this.’”

Her children — Mary Frances, Cliff, Bill and John — agreed that she was right at home in the kitchen, and that serving up a wholesome meal was one of the many ways she expressed her love and kindness.

“She was a great cook. When you came to see her, you had to have a piece of cake or something like that,” said their son, Bill Elder. “She’d get in the kitchen and pull off a good meal in a hurry.”

Frisbie recalls the kitchen table serving as the center of the home and the time spent together as a family.

“She enjoyed cooking and sharing meals. We always ate at the table together,” said Frisbie. “My father would often bring people home midday to eat and anytime a relative came from Burlington or Charlotte or wherever, she always prepared a meal.

“She would have two or three pressure cookers and they would all be jiggling on the stove at one time she was cooking. She could always whip up a meal. Sometimes, she would get up in the morning before we got up and bake a cake. Everything was from scratch, by the way. Nothing was a mix.”


“It Was Her Kindness”

In her 105 years of life, Mary G. Elder crossed paths with many people. Her family says that most of those folks instantly became friends, and that every person who met her was inspired in one way or another by her gracious heart.

“I’d say it was her kindness. Strangers would come into the house and immediately she would be offering them to sit down and talk,” Cliff said. “She would find out all about them and she would remember it. She would always offer them coffee and cake.”

There were few things she enjoyed more than opening her home to friends new and old.

“She enjoyed company,” Frisbie said. “In her later years, her hearing and her eyesight were failing, but company was always her joy.”

Although she met many people in her lifetime, each one played a special role in her heart.

“She was well over 100-some years old, so you meet a lot of people,” said Cliff. “She was always very gracious and remembered a lot about them.”

In fact, her children say that Mary Elder was usually in good spirits and only had positive things to say about the people around her.

“She was a very caring person. Honest to goodness, I have never heard her say anything about anybody that was derogatory, and that’s no joke,” said her son, Bill. “Anytime you came to see her, she was gracious.”


Smart as a Whip

Always sweet and precious, Mary was also smart as a whip, sharp as a tack and up-to-date on what was going on in the world around her.

“There was a quiet calm about her, but she could remember everything. She really could talk about anything you wanted to talk about,” Cliff said. “Believe me, she was smarter than I am. She could talk about current events, old events. It would blow your mind away what she knew.”

Well-read, educated and well versed in local happenings, the quick-witted Mary was always up for an intelligent conversation.

“She read all of the time. She stayed up on current affairs and she knew a lot of the history from way back. Her mind was just sharper than anything,” Bill said. “There was a lot of knowledge there, let me just put it like that.”

Cliff said she had a great sense of humor, and his siblings were inclined to agree.

“She had a good wit about her, too, and she was really fun to be around. I remember, one time, there was an article written about her 104th birthday,” he said with a laugh. “Somebody went and read it to her and she said, ‘It’s a shame you have to live to be this old to be famous.’”

Her sharp mind coupled with her passion for the community of Banner Elk made Mary Elder a well-known resource on local history.

“She liked to read and she would read about certain things that interested her. She enjoyed local history,” Frisbie said. “She had a good mind and people enjoyed hearing about local history from her. She was quite the historian.”


Celebrating Her Life

Mary Guignard Elder. Photo provided by the Elder family.
Mary Guignard Elder. Photo provided by the Elder family.

Mary Elder was also a longtime member of the Banner Elk Presbyterian Church and active in the Banner Elk Women’s Club, the Greater Banner Elk Heritage Society, the Banner Elk Garden Club and the Banner Elk Historical Society.

At the age of 105, she passed away peacefully on Jan. 19 in her beloved home place — the center of her world and the heart of her life.

Her husband, William, and her brothers, James, William, John, Lewis and Charles Guignard, preceded her in death. She is survived by all four of her children, nine grandchildren, six great grandchildren and several cherished nieces and nephews.

A funeral service was held for her at Banner Elk Presbyterian and she was buried at the nearby Banner Elk Cemetery. Her family received friends the day before at their home place.

The Elder family expressed gratitude for the independent in-home caregivers and the folks at Medi Home Hospice in Newland, who helped the matriarch fulfill her wish to live her last days at home.

Today, her love for family and her hometown of Banner Elk live on in the lives she has touched over the last century.

“She was a very deserving person,” said Bill. “She just looked for the good things in life, you know, and never tried to down people or talk about them. That’s the honest truth.”

A devoted wife, a loving mother, a great mind and a beautiful soul, Mary Elder will forever be remembered as a cherished family leader and a respected, upstanding citizen of Banner Elk.




Did you know and love Mary Elder? In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorials be made to Banner Elk Presbyterian, P.O. Box 158 in Banner Elk, or Lees-McRae College, P.O. Box 128 in Banner Elk.

To share a personal message of hope and prayer with the family, visit the Reins-Sturdivant Funeral Home’s online tribute page for Mary Elder.

Recent comments include:

  • “Cousin Mary was always a lady in every sense of the word. She loved her family, her life and her home. She will be greatly missed by everyone who knew her. My love and prayers are with the family — Mary Frances, Bill, Cliff and Johnny. They are an awesome family.” – Helen Henson
  • “Mary, May God bless you and the family. What a great memory to have your mother with you for all those years. God truly blessed her with a long life. What a wonderful thing to think of all the things she saw in her lifetime, from horse and buggy to rocket ships to the moon.” – Dewey Brett
  • “I had the great privilege of knowing and providing care for Mrs. Elder. She was a joy to be around and had so much knowledge. She will be truly missed. My thoughts and prayers go out to her family. God bless you all during this time.” – Heather Hughes Gwyn
  • “In memory of one of my favorite people EVER, Mrs. Elder. A wonderful, inspirational and exceptional woman, family member and friend. The mold was truly broken with her creation. I am fortunate to have known her.” – Judy Clark