September 2010

This past January, I wrote about White Rock Summit, the tallest peak on Buffalo Mountain that collapsed in 1882, as reported by several newspapers around the country. The massive rockslide was precipitated by two weeksof steady rain that flooded a sizable portion of East Tennessee that extended west to Knoxville. Damage was widespread.

Two people immediately corroborated the event. Dr. Ted Thomas of Milligan College sent me a student’s comments from a June 1884 group outing to the rock. In part, it said, “We started homeward, coming down the track of ruin caused by the fall of the great White Rock.” Mrs. Carsie Lodter, whose late husband once taught at Milligan, recalled conversations with her grandfather who heard the rumble from his nearby Oak Grove residence in Carter County.

Recently while perusing Thomas William Humes’ book, The Loyal Mountaineers of Tennessee (1888), I spotted another mention of the original rock as part of a depiction of the Watauga landscape in 1863, 19 years before the collapse: “In the southwest is the bold and craggy front of the Buffalo Mountain that may easily be fancied to resemble an ancient castle of massive strength and standing in solitude, its brow uplifted into the skies, impresses the mind of the spectator with a feeling of awe for its grandeur and majesty.” The author’s comment fits the older undisturbed rock, not the existing fractioned one.

In that year, the Civil War was raging. East Tennessee faced a dangerous scarcity of food because more than 30,000 of its able-bodied men had migrated north to serve in the Federal army, while others had been captured and forced into Southern prisons. Healthy, vigorous males were essentially unavailable to till the soil and engage in other hard labor. Those suffering the heaviness from extreme destitution the greatest were women, children, the elderly and invalids. As autumn marched toward winter, the outlook became more ominous and distressing for the populace.  

Confederate soldiers were quartered in all directions throughout East Tennessee, actively crossing Union-held land from one location to another. Their presence caused friction between people with divided allegiance (brother against brother) to the war. Soldiers on both sides competed for the same diminutive food supply. To add to the problem, provisions seized by one group were totally consumed, carried away, or destroyed to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.

East Tennesseans had seen conflict from a previous war. In 1780, the “Back-water men,” as Colonel Patrick Ferguson of the British Army called them, bravely gathered under John Sevier, Isaac Shelby and William Campbell for a secretive and successful military expedition to King's Mountain, South Carolina, bringing about an eventual end to the country’s fight for independence.

Even during trying times of two internal wars, the one bright spot in people’s lives was the natural beauty of their beautiful rugged surroundings. Across numerous mountains were pleasant valleys, through which flowed the Doe River, Buffalo Creek, Watauga River, Indian Creek and nearby Nolichucky River.

In addition to the comment concerning Buffalo Mountain’s rocky face, other places mentioned were the blue front of Holston Mountain, seven or eight miles away; Lynn Mountain, three miles east; and the blue outline of the Unaka and Roan mountains to the south.

These mental and physical areas of refuge offered temporary solace from the ravages of gruesome wars. The diverse features of the landscape combined to form awe-inspiring and beautiful landscapes for an ailing people. 

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Over the years, countless old-time Appalachian music lovers have pleasant memories of attending the Carter Family Fold in Maces Springs, VA on Saturday nights. Located in Poor Valley just outside Hiltons in the beautiful Clinch Mountains of Southwest Virginia, the quaint atmosphere of the rustic Fold is a favorite setting for those who love the musical genre once popularized by The Carter  Family.

Sara, A.P. and Maybelle recorded between 1927 and 1956, making their first records at Victor’s Bristol Sessions. Their offering was a mixture of ballads, traditional tunes, country songs and Gospel. Scores of books have been written about the “First Family of Country Music,” but one publication stands tall among the rest. It is from the daughter of A.P. and Sara – Living With Memories by Janette Carter (Carter Family Memorial Music Center, 1983). The 84-page softbound book features a glimpse into the heart of a hard-working, God-fearing lady who was born, lived and died in her beloved Clinch Mountains. The work focuses mainly on family values rather than musical prowess and makes clear her adoration for her ancestors.


Poor Valley lies between Clinch Mountain and a large hill called the “Nob.” People living there were often perceived as being poor, but, according to Janette, “they were rich in their love of nature and God’s creation.” Some of her most cherished memories were at her home, her grandparent’s place; the Carter Store; Maces Springs School, Mount Vernon Church, the hills, meadows, valleys, mountains and Old Clinch.

Life was arduous. Daily chores included feeding chickens, hogs and cows; drawing water from the well; and building fires in the cook stove and fireplace. Winters required a hefty supply of firewood from Clinch Mountain that was produced using an old crosscut saw. During harvest time, neighbors helped work the big thrashing machine. Afterward, Mom and her children emptied ticks (bed mattresses) and filled them with fresh straw from the fields. After that, they plucked geese and ducks to replenish feather pillows. The family hoed corn, cut or pulled weeds, planted seeds and tended to tobacco. They subsisted on what they raised on their fertile country land.

Janette fondly recalled her mother’s ham meat, tomato gravy and blackberry pie. On Sundays, there was often the added luxury of chicken and dumplings. Mama Carter was an immaculate housekeeper; her bedding was as white as winter’s fresh snow that blanketed the countryside.

A.P. often related the story of how he and Sara met. He was selling fruit trees and stopped by a farm in Midway, Virginia. He heard a beautiful voice in the distance singing “Engine 143.” Her vocal refrain and Autoharp strumming enchanted him. When he approached her, he depicted her as the most beautiful girl he ever saw, having eyes that shown like diamonds. The two eventually married. Her family deemed her plaintive songs more beneficial during illnesses than any store-bought medicine.

A.P., whose singing voice ranged from high to low, could find scales and chords with ease. Once, while his mother was carrying him in her womb, lightening struck a tree where she was picking apples, spreading fire around her. The incident is blamed for her son’s hands trembling for the duration of his life.

In the spring, Janette loved to walk among the elder bushes, gather clusters of blackberries, sit by cool mountain streams, listen to the water rush over rocks, observe minnows swimming about and touch the damp, green moss on the rocks.   

The train passed the Carter home twice each day. Janette routinely waved at the engineer from her front porch as the big steam locomotive chugged along, bellowing coal smoke from its stack and emitting a mournful sound from its steam whistle. Afterwards, the prudent daughter walked along the track with a bucket, collecting small lumps of coal that had fallen from the train. Coal produced a hot fire and saved firewood.

Grandma Carter canned big jars of kraut, pickled beans, shuck beans, apples and apple butter. She cooked a blackberry jam consisting of part berries and part apples, stirred it all day and put it in big crocks. She also fried streaked meat in a large fish fry iron pan, crumbled the meat and grease into her bread and baked it in the old wood stove. A big smear of butter on it made it a delight. 

Mount Vernon Church, built by people in the valley, was located just down the road from the Carter home. Every Sunday morning, people walked there from all across the valley. The service consisted of singing, preaching, praying and shouting. The preacher always ate lunch at one of his member’s homes. Janette related a life-changing experience for her when A.P. took her to a revival meeting. There she found Jesus, joined the church and got baptized in the river. 

In 1938, the family moved from Poor Valley to Del Rio, Texas where they joined Maybelle, Helen, June and Anita for a stint on XERA, a large radio station in Villa Acuna, Mexico. The station produced transcriptions that were distributed to radio stations. A year later, A.P. and Sara divorced, but continued performing until their retirement in 1943. By then, Janette had become an accomplished musician in the Carter tradition.

Janette made a promise to her aging father that she would carry on the family’s musical heritage after his passing; she was true to her word. The dream first took root when she turned the rural Carter Store into a Saturday night old-time music gathering. Over time, there was a need for a larger facility. With help from her equally musically talented brother, Joe, the performance was moved next door to a spacious 842-seat wooden facility known as the Carter Family Fold. Notably displayed on the stage wall were photographs of The Carter Family, serving as an constant reminder of the family’s heritage and Janette’s pledge to her father. 

Janette spoke highly of her family: “They were proud; they worked hard; they shared their food, their love and their lives. … I don’t guess any child has loved their parents more than I did. Their fame never entered my mind. I loved them because they were my own mother and daddy.”

Janette loved the beautiful sight of wind as it majestically created waves across a sea of wheat. “(My parents) sowed the wheat,” she said. “I’m reaping the harvest.” The talented lady passed from this earth on January 22, 2006. The torch was promptly passed to Rita Forrester, Janette’s daughter, to carry on the family tradition. May the circle be unbroken. 

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Brush Creek is a stream of water that is very familiar to Johnson Citians, largely because of its long history of flooding. The name is reported to have originated with Abraham Jobe who owned land along the creek in what became the business section of the town. He once related that a heavy mass of red brush grew along the creek and obstructed the view except for those riding on horseback. Apparently, the name stuck.

A 1959 TVA publication concerning floods on Brush Creek in the vicinity of Johnson City stated that in 1908 there were 29 road and 14 railroad bridges that crossed the winding creek within an 8.75-mile span. The resulting 43 overpasses and nearby buildings with columns became hindrances to adequate water drainage from the area.

The 44-page report further noted that the greatest flood recorded since 1868 occurred on May 29, 1908. The second highest one happened on August 9, 1938. One million square feet of land in the downtown section was adversely affected by 3,300 feet of creek.  Although there were no definite records of floods on Brush Creek prior to 1901, it is known that several major floods occurred in the business district. One of the best sources of knowledge on this subject comes from a diary kept by a local resident, Robert P. Fickle. His notes, while unofficial, shed added light on the city’s flood problems of yesteryear.

Mr. Fickle referred to “a great tide sometime in 1790.” He also mentioned 1817, 1835, 1847, 1848 and 1851 as years in which significant deluges occurred on streams in the upper East Tennessee region. On Sept. 15, 1861, he wrote, “A tide was made by a hard rain, which continued for four or five days with intermissions of 6, 12 and 24 hours. This tide was somewhat higher than the one seen in 1817.”

On Feb. 21, 1862, he noted, “It commenced raining steadily and rained without any intermission on the 21stand on during the night following until daylight on the 22nd.  This tide was about two feet higher than the tide of 1861. This was a general tide (that extended) throughout the Southern Confederacy. Rain was general throughout the southern states.”

In March 1867, Mr. Fickle recorded that “The greatest tide yet in Holston River history was caused by the most unprecedented raining season known only to the oldest people. This was the great storm that caused flooding all over the eastern part of the Tennessee Valley and resulted in the highest floods ever known at Knoxville and Chattanooga. Great damage was done on the rivers and creeks. Bottoms on the river were damaged either by being washed into holes and gutters or covered by sand. Many mills were carried off, also houses, barns and stables thought to be out of reach of high water.”

In February 1875, the Fickle diary pointed out heavy rains that fell for several days that resulted in “raising the branches more than at any time since the great tide in 1867. Great damage was done to property along the water courses and a vast number of rails were carried off.”

While none of the flood comments specifically mentioned Brush Creek, there is no doubt that on most of these occasions rainfall over the Brush Creek watershed would have been sufficient to produce large floods along the creek. It is quite possible that the great storm of 1867 produced a flood in Brush Creek of greater volume and height than any that have occurred since.

Thanks to Mr. Fickle, we garner additional facts about the troublesome little creek that still occasionally wakes up from its restless slumber and climbs precariously out of its turbulent bed to the chagrin of nearby property owners. 

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The East Tennessee and Western North Carolina’s (ET&WNC) narrow gauge railroad, affectionately known as Tweetsie, can be traced to 1881 when it began trekking between Johnson City and Hampton and a year later to Boone.

The roughly 54-mile journey required four hours under ideal circumstances to negotiate the harsh prodigious grades and winding curves. Tweetsie was not your typical train. Its sweet and mellow steam whistle served more as a greeting than a warning. The one exception was when it became necessary to frighten away an animal that unwisely ambled onto the track, posing danger to passengers and critter.

In addition to normal rail service, the amenities provided by the train were endless. Tweetsie soon became known as the “Railway with a Heart.” Cy Crumley, the train’s well-known conductor since 1906, frequently leaned out the window to grab a handful of mail to take to its destination or relay a verbal message to someone along the line. The train might stop in front of a farmhouse to deliver a spool of thread or a length of wire.

Special interest groups, such as a camera club, regularly chartered the railroad for a photographic outing along the stunning mountainous country over which the little train traversed. Crumley altered his characteristic call, “All aboard” to something with a more subdued personal tone – “Well folks, I reckon we might as well mosey along.” S.F. Pippin, engineer since 1903, followed suit by uttering to the passengers, “If you see something pretty while we are rolling along, just holler and I'll stop the train.” 

Tweetsie stopped at small log cabin villages to deliver or pick up mail and medicine, let a doctor on or off on the way to deliver a baby, or allow a patient to return home after being discharged from a hospital. An enterprising post office employee once determined that it would be cheaper for trucks to haul mail. Tweetsie’s friends, fearing the worst, came to the defense of their little narrow gauge guest with a battle cry, “Abandon Tweetsie? You might as well dig up Grandfather Mountain.” The creative postal clerk’s voice of reasoning soon evaporated.

In August 1941, the now financially struggling railroad experienced a dilemma that almost prompted it to suspend operations. A storm produced floodwaters that caused an estimated $50,000 damage to portions of the track. Officials were left scratching their heads about what action to take. Finally, management made the painful decision to notify the Interstate Commerce Commission and request authorization to abandon the line. Tweetsie’s future looked grim.

However, four months later the circumstances would change significantly. Just when it appeared that the much-beloved little railroad would depart the business world, the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the country into the conflict and issued new marching orders for the adored Tweetsie. A war that seemed to be 3,000 miles away suddenly came knocking on America’s door that fateful Sunday morning.

The government’s need for raw materials became a critical issue, thrusting the little train back into the global spotlight. Tweetsie’s floundering role was saved almost overnight as new life was breathed into the entire railroad industry. Once again, tourists were able to hear Engineer Pippin's farewell words that he uttered after each trip: “You all come back and ride with us again.”  Indeed they did, at least for nine more years, until October 16, 1950 when Tweetsie made its last official roundtrip run.  

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During 1952-53, I was in Mrs. Fannie Taylor’s fourth grade class at Henry Johnson School opposite Kiwanis Park. She was the wife of Alf Taylor, whose father, Alf, was a former Tennessee Governor. Subjects included reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, English, geography, health, music and library. 

Mrs. Taylor had a unique talent for reading books to her students and incorporating a heavy dose of realism into each one. There were no idle minds or flickering eyelids anywhere in the class during her well-received recitations. Instead, we were kept spellbound on the edge of our seats.

One of the books she read was “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The plot involves Mary, a sickly and spoiled little girl and Colin, a pitifully lonely young invalid as the main characters. The story centered on a flower garden surrounded in mystery by a high wall containing a door that was locked and the key discarded.

Perhaps the most memorable books Mrs. Taylor read us were from the “Uncle Wiggily” series, a collection of short stories authored by Howard Garis, a prolific writer whose books became a daily favorite of youngsters because of his witty and unique writing style.

Uncle Wiggily Longears was an elderly rabbit with rheumatism. He always dressed immaculately when he went out, wearing a sports coat, trousers and a silk top hat. He wore spectacles and carried a red, white and blue walking crutch. The extraordinary animal had the ability to carry on a two-way conversation with all the forest critters. He could also understand people, but they were not able to communicate with him.

Most stories began with the aged animal leaving the comfort of his hollow stump bungalow each morning in search of an adventure. He shared his natural abode with his private nurse and housekeeper, Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy, a muskrat. He usually departed each morning under Nurse Jane's stern admonition to “be careful”; “Keep your eyes open for the Woozie Wolf or the Fuzzy Fox”; and “You aren’t thinking of going out in this storm are you?” A usual daily escapade for Uncle Wiggily was encountering some person or animal that needed help and then figuring out a way to assist them in a non-threatening manner. Violence was completely unacceptable.

Some of the principal characters were (no snickering) Curly & Floppy Twisttail (pigs), Jacko & Jumpo Kinkytail (monkeys), Johnnie & Billie Bushytail (squirrels), Charlie & Arabella Chick (chickens) and Jackie & Peetie Bow Wow (dogs).

Each story ended with Garis’s unique “and if” promotion for the next exciting exploit, an example being “and if the sunflower doesn't shine so brightly in the eyes of the potato that it can't see to get out of the oven, I'll tell you next about Uncle Wiggily and (the next adventure).

The company issued several soft back books containing ten Uncle Wiggily adventures: “Uncle Wiggily Starts Off,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Paper Boat,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Troublesome Boys,” “Uncle Wiggily and Granddaddy Longlegs,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Black Cricket,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Milkman,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Cowbird,” “Uncle Wiggily and the Starfish” and “Uncle Wiggily and the Red Monkey.”

Mrs. Taylor was one of the most memorable teachers I had during my formative school years. Let me conclude with a Garis-like ending: “And if the two salty over-light eggs can keep from overcooking on the plate from hot runny buttered grits and sizzling smoked bacon strips,” next week I will tell you about a Tweetsie Railroad happening in 1941. 

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