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Zetta Mae Pierce dies; taxidermist, BBQ chef, Rep. Bobby Rush’s mother-in-law

Zetta Mae Washington Pierce at a celebration of her 90th birthday. | Provided photo

Zetta Mae Pierce grew up in Surry County, Virginia, known for “pork, peanuts and pine.”

In 1957, she and her husband Charlie opened Mae’s Bar-B-Q near Hopewell, Virginia. Mrs. Pierce’s kids worked there, and they’d rattle off the only five choices on the menu for patrons: “fish-chicken-hamburger-barbecue-or-french fries.”

She made a mouthwatering barbecue sauce that drew hungry truck drivers who crisscrossed the region to deliver Virginia’s famed Smithfield hams. And she served fresh fish that often she’d scaled herself.

Mae’s grew into a popular spot where locals gathered to pick up a loaf of bread, shoot a little pool, enjoy a cold Coca-Cola and listen to a jukebox filled with R&B and Motown greats like Clyde McPhatter, B.B. King, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Temptations and Stevie Wonder.

“It was the center of action for our little rural area,” said her daughter Paulette Holloway Rush, wife of U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois. “People stood in line to get those ribs.”

An expert seamstress, Zetta Mae Pierce often made her own hats and clothing. | Provided photo
An expert seamstress, Zetta Mae Pierce often made her own hats and clothing. | Provided photo

Mrs. Pierce, 91, died Feb. 20 at the Rush home near 35th and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

In addition to being a good cook, she was a trained taxidermist. “That was unheard of for a woman and a black woman in rural Virginia,” said her daughter.

Working with a collection of glass eyeballs and wooden molds that fit the size of the animals, “She was famous throughout the area” for her lifelike subjects — the many deer that populated Surry County and the odd fox or two, according to her daughter. One time, she even mounted a bald eagle with outstretched wings.

“There are deer heads hanging in people’s homes right now,” her daughter said, “and they still look as if she just made it.”

One of nine children of Sarah and Lanch Washington, young Zetta Mae graduated from the local “black” high school, Surry County Training School, in 1946 and later worked as a substitute teacher.

Zetta Mae Washington Pierce in the 1950s. | Provided photo
Zetta Mae Washington Pierce in the 1950s. | Provided photo

For a time, she worked as a domestic servant for a well-to-do family in Philadelphia, where she learned Main Line etiquette.

“She taught me how to eat without your lipstick coming off,” her daughter said. “There is a certain way to pull the fork out of your mouth.”

Mrs. Pierce taught her daughters and granddaughters how to smooth their skirts so they didn’t wrinkle when they sat.

She wasn’t afraid to weigh in on other peoples’ sartorial style. If a woman came to church without her preferred foundations, she might say, “Where’s her girdle?”

An expert seamstress, she made wedding dresses and men’s suits and coats.

“We were the best-dressed kids in the entire county,” her daughter said. “She would make us hats out of the same fabric as our outfits. She would buy white gloves and boxes of Rit dye and dye the gloves to match the hats.’’

Often, she incorporated African motifs in her headwear, dresses, ties and cummerbunds.

Mrs. Pierce taught 4-H crafts to many kids in Surry County.

“She probably was one of the most talented people I ever met,” said Clifton Slade, a retired agricultural extension agent there. “Any activity that would build character in a child, she was all for it.”

Slade’s daughter LaSonya White credited Mrs. Pierce with inspiring her 4-H career. Because of her, “I wanted to go to college and work as a 4-H extension agent,” White said.

She also was skilled at furniture upholstery. “My mother would go the landfill and find a discarded piece of furniture, bring it home and totally restore it,” her daughter said.

Mrs. Pierce turned a Singer sewing machine into an end table and crafted another table out of horse harnesses and a wagon wheel.

She liked Avon’s Topaze perfume, and “she owned a gun and could shoot it,” her daughter said.

Zetta Mae Washington Pierce made the African-inspired headdress and accessories she’s seen wearing here. | Provided photo
Zetta Mae Washington Pierce made the African-inspired headdress and accessories she’s seen wearing here. | Provided photo

The Pierces took their family to the New York World’s Fair of 1964. “They exposed us to a lot of things,” said her daughter, adding that her children and grandchildren have earned multiple degrees.

She is also survived by her daughters Patricia Ramsey and Pamela Pierce, son John Pierce, sisters Marie Pierce and Maxine Williams, 14 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and six great-great grandchildren.

Mrs. Pierce loved the gold hoop earrings given to her by her husband, who died in 1995. She wore them for 40 years. She’ll be wearing them for her viewing, too. “I want to be buried in them,” she said. “Those are Charlie’s earrings.”

A viewing is being held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Leak and Sons Funeral Home. Additional viewings are planned from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and from 11 a.m. Saturday at Jerusalem Baptist Church in Waverly, Virginia, followed by a service there. She is to be buried in the family cemetery in Virginia.

Zetta Mae Pierce surrounded by her relatives. Her children and grandchildren have multiple college degrees. | Provided photo
Zetta Mae Pierce surrounded by her relatives. Her children and grandchildren have multiple college degrees. | Provided photo