‘That Won’t Hold Shucks’

My seventh-grade teacher was nobody’s fool. Having grown up in the mountains of western North Carolina, Margaret Orren knew well the regional tendency to exaggerate. (She was a cousin of famed Appalachian storyteller Jesse Stuart.) Yet she was not about to be taken in by a student’s prevarications. If you began spinning a yarn about your truancy or your innocence in the latest schoolyard prank, she would fix her steely gray eyes on you and say, “That won’t hold shucks!”

The expression came from the Appalachian custom of stuffing a cloth tick full of corn shucks to serve as a mattress. After enough fitful nights, the tick would become so worn and torn that it could no longer hold corn shucks, though each one was about the size of a man’s hand. Then it was useless as a mattress. So when Mrs. Orren said a student’s statement wouldn’t “hold shucks,” she meant it was so obviously flawed that it wouldn’t convince anyone.

Southern folks sometimes say that deceiving someone with a lie is “shucking” them, which may have inspired the urban street-slang expression, “shucking and jiving.” I doubt that this phrase descended from the corn-shuck mattress idea.

The image of a worn-out, useless mattress seems the perfect analogy for an unconvincing, threadbare story, though. Perhaps we should start using it again in this era of blustering politicians and “fake news.”

Did I hear the allegation about Senator So-and-So? Yes, but it won’t hold shucks.



Entrepreneurs of Necessity

The Scots Irish of Appalachia are some of the world’s most resourceful entrepreneurs. They have to be. Seldom can anyone earn enough money from a hard-scrabble hillside farm to support a family. Besides, the memory of Ireland’s potato famine and America’s Great Depression are so deeply embedded in their collective unconscious that, even when times are good, they still see the specter of starvation.

Conductor Cy Crumley (left) hands the order for the last run of the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad to engineer Walter Allison on October 16, 1950.

My father’s Uncle Walter was such a man. An engineer on the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, Walter Allison earned a decent income. But he also ran a grist mill besides selling eggs from his urban hen house and tomatoes from his bountiful vegetable garden. When economic reverses forced the railroad to cease operations in 1950, Uncle Walter still had plenty of ways to earn a living.

His wife, Aunt Flo, once told my dad that “you could put an Allison on a slate rock and he’d still find a way to make money.” True enough–and not just of the Allisons.

Up from the Ashes

ct-sc-trav-0117-gatlinburg5-jpg-20170109Photo by Alan Solomon, Chicago Tribune

More than ten million people pass through the tourist town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, each year on their way to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So I was troubled to get an e-mail from a friend who visited Gatlinburg last July, reporting that daily temperatures over 100 degrees had dried the drought-stricken forests to tinder.

The third week of November, more than a dozen fires flared up around town. By the time the conflagration was over, hundreds of homes and businesses had been reduced to ashes, including the mayor’s home. Fourteen people died.

Gatlinburg is not only the gateway to the Southern mountains; for many Americans, it is the Southern mountains. (Locals would smile at that because the town’s glittering gift shops are a caricature of Southern culture.) Certainly, Gatlinburg maintains an important connection between the rest of our country and the mountains.

So I’m glad to say that Gatlinburg is coming back. Shop owners and innkeepers are working overtime to extend a warm Southern welcome when summer tourist season gets in full swing. Their determination expresses the true spirit of Southern mountain people, no matter what anyone says about the glitz of that town. God bless ’em.

Threshing Time

60046698 - an old threshing machine and truck are left in a grassy meadow.Driving through southern Indiana recently, I saw what appeared to be a twilight fog bank drifting over Indiana 67. However, the gray haze proved to be a cloud of dust from a combine harvesting soybeans, a cloud so thick that it obscured the machine’s shadowy hulk.

The scene reminded me of threshing wheat on our East Tennessee farm back in the 1950s. My father owned a threshing machine—a belt-driven dinosaur of galvanized sheet metal that chewed up bundles of wheat, extracted the grain, and blew straw out a chute on its backside. Few farmers in the area had such a contraption, so they came to our place and volunteered to help harvest our crop in return for use of the machine in the weeks that followed. So, June and July were a round-robin of threshing days as my father’s monstrous Allis-Chalmers tractor towed the machine from one barn to another.

The crew of a dozen or so volunteers needed lunch when we threshed our own crop, so Mother rose to the challenge. She seated those sunburnt men around our maple dining table to feast on fried chicken, gravy and dumplings, green beans and corn, cornbread and buttermilk. Laughter filled the farmhouse as they traded tales of harvests past. I believe the satisfied smile on Mother’s perspiring face was more radiant than any other, and my father was relieved to know they would  keep our wheat safe from autumn storms.

Not every harvest turned out that way, of course. Thunderstorms could bring gales of wind and torrents of rain that mashed our wheat to the ground, where the grain rotted. In such a year, we tried to offset the loss by selling straw to building contractors, who scattered it on lawns. That was a pitiful return on our investment, but we managed to get by.

Self-propelled combines took the place of threshing machines in the 1960s and 70s. They were faster, more efficient, and took less labor to operate, so Dad bought one and parked his threshing machine beneath the barn’s shed. There it was destroyed along with the tractor and baler when the barn caught fire some thirty years ago.

Call me sentimental, but I think we lost more than a metal dinosaur when that threshing machine melted into a pile of scrap. Like an Amish barn-raising, wheat threshing time was one of the few events that knit our community together.

Southern Fried Chicken Was Not Fast Food

48367806 - roast chicken legs and vegetables

Copyright: gbh007 / 123RF Stock Photo

Mama’s fried chicken came at a price. Although her recipe was simple, plenty of time and toil was invested before she heated the pan. Yet I would be the first to tell you that the succulent result was well worth it.

On the farm, all of our food was grown or caught, so the preparation of Sunday’s chicken dinner began when my brother and I stole into the hen house to snatch our entrée from its roost. Chickens fell asleep on their preferred poles soon after sundown, so we didn’t have long to wait. My brother carried a flashlight but used it sparingly. The chickens were so drowsy we could walk right under them without being detected. But when a startled hen raised an alarm, the game was up. This meant our first choice had to be a good one and the capture successful, or we would have to wait till the flock settled down again.

You might think a chesty rooster would be our first choice, but not necessarily. Rooster meat tended to be tough and sinewy, and a mature cock had sharp horny spurs on the back of its feet to defend itself. So a chicken catcher like myself risked being slashed by a rooster’s stilettoes. Even if I managed to grab him without major injury, the old boy would put up a more energetic fight than any of the hens in his harem.

Better to choose a plump hen that had passed her prime laying years. Mama had shown me how to determine this. She held the bird upside-down with one hand and felt its pelvic bones with the other. A wide aperture in the pelvis meant the chicken was still laying eggs, while a narrow gap meant she wasn’t. Mama wanted me to spare all egg-laying hens, but the rest were fair game.

After my brother and I made our triumphal return from the hen house (and Mama had made it clear that we could not return empty-handed), the task of killing and dressing our dinner began. That fell to Mama herself. I will spare you the gory details, except to note that the most time-consuming part was plucking the chicken’s feathers. After plunging the bird’s lifeless body in a pail of scalding hot water, Mama would begin snatching its feathers from the carcass. She finished the job by lighting a twisted newspaper and using this makeshift torch to singe the chicken’s nascent feathers (pin feathers) from its body.

She did all of this before washing and gutting the chicken, dredging its fat-yellow pieces in flour, and putting it in the roasting pan. No wonder preparations began the night before our meal. You just couldn’t hurry Southern fried chicken.

Jonesborough beyond the Festival

Jonesborough, Tennessee

It’s time to get tickets for the International Storytelling Festival, which will be held in Jonesborough, Tennessee, on October 7-9. This annual event attracts storytellers from around the world, so you’ll hear a wide variety of cultures and story genres represented, not only Southern mountain lore. The three-day event is entertaining and uplifting, well worth the trip in itself. However, more than two centuries of history are wrapped up in the little town of Jonesborough, so it deserves a visit any time of year.

Bronze plaques tell you this is the oldest town in Tennessee and capital of the lost State of Franklin, which failed to be admitted to the Union in 1788. You’ll find exhibits of artifacts from the Federal and Civil War periods of American history and you can tour buildings such as these:

  • Sisters’ Row, a row house built in the 1820s by prominent Jonesborugh businessman Samuel Jackson for his three daughters. (Locals still call it “The Three Sisters.”)
  • Chester Inn, an important lodging on the old stage road from Nashville to Washington, D.C. (Andrew Jackson stayed here on the way to his inauguration.)
  • First Christian Church, originally built in 1870 and now the home to The Parson’s Table restaurant.

Small wonder that the National Trust for Historic Preservation chose Jonesborough as one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations.”When you combine the spectacular natural beauty of the region with Jonesborough’s architectural and cultural heritage, it’s easy to see why this is such an ideal destination,” says the Trust’s president, Richard Moe.



Walking Home from School

Children the world over walk home from school. Even with today’s heightened concerns about child abduction, drug trafficking, and street violence, one can see children sauntering home after a day in the classroom in virtually any country and any type of community. That self-guided field trip is often the most instructive part of the day. It certainly was true in Appalachia during the 1950s when I went to elementary school.

Our family farm was about a mile from Barnes Elementary School, so we always rode the morning school bus to be sure we didn’t miss the start of class. Return trips were another matter. Our school was last on the bus driver’s route for the day, so he didn’t pick us up until an hour or so after the 3 o’clock dismissal bell. Bus passengers had to sit on gym risers under the watchful eye of a tired, short-tempered teacher during that time. Our other option was to strike out for home on foot. Unless the weather was rainy or cold, my brother and I always chose to walk home.

Of course, there was more than one way to get there.

We could walk along Star Mill Road, which took us by its namesake (an abandoned flour mill once owned by our grandfather), a trailer park where one of our classmates had a hen house for his small brood of egg-layers, a log cabin where a club-footed old man lived alone (we took refuge there once during an electrical storm), and the pasture where our family’s Herefords grazed. As you can imagine, this route afforded plenty of diversions. Road kill changed weekly and we found fascinating litter from city dwellers along the way. Spring filled the ditches with tadpoles. Autumn scattered a profuse variety of colored leaves on the railroad embankment. Hard to conceive of a boy getting bored by such things.

But we did, so we tried any number of shortcuts. We could leave the road to walk behind an old furniture warehouse and through a storm culvert beneath the railroad to rejoin the road on the other side. This cut several minutes off the half-hour trek, which could be used to scavenge other relics along the way. We could walk the railroad itself, balancing on the polished steel rails or hopping from one creosote cross-tie to another. Train passengers occasionally discarded some attractive items. (My brother and I once found dozens of retail cards of costume jewelry strewn there. When we took samples to our mother, she called the sheriff. A penny-ante shoplifter had filched them from the local Woolworth’s and tossed them from the train when a conductor got suspicious.)

Another shortcut was to climb through the barbed-wire fence at the back of the school grounds, transit a field where a rather threatening bull waited for us, then through a couple of other fences past an old clapboard farmhouse and apple orchard to rejoin the road. Not many souvenirs on that route, though, certainly not enough to risk the bull.

Mama would scold us for arriving home with muddy shoes, but not for walking. She seemed to understand this was essential to a child’s education.