A Potent Taste of Spring

Many mountain communities greet the coming of spring with a ramp festival. Waynesville, NC, has been hosting such a fete for nearly ninety years, but you’ll find other ramp celebrations in Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia from mid-April till early May. Revelers mark the occasion with folk music, beauty pageants, and cooking contests.


The ramp is a wild mountain leek whose pungent root has an especially strong odor. Warning: The smell lingers long on the breath of anyone who eats it. But if you really savor mountain cooking, you feel its eye-opening flavor is worth social cost! Plenty of recipes are available on the Internet. If you’d like a basic lesson in how to cook the delicacy, try this Cooking Video. Perhaps you’d like to try your hand at creating a ramp dish of your own. Soups, salads, and a variety of other entrees gain a never-to-be-forgotten boost from this woodland vegetable.

I’m writing this in mid-January as a blizzard sweeps across the Midwest. What better time to anticipate the first breath of spring? If you’re from the Appalachian Mountains, you know that breath will smell of ramps!





The Tale of Two Cities

CD Warner3Charles Dudley Warner was a celebrated essayist when he made a foray into the Blue Ridge Mountains on horseback in 1888. Beginning in the genteel village of Abingdon, Virginia, Warner wended his way south to Asheville, North Carolina, then back to the rail depot of Bristol, Tennessee. He found no favorable comparison between these towns and the premier commercial center of Hartford, Connecticut, where he lived. So he filled his journal with Yankee disdain in the sarcastic style of his Hartford neighbor Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain).

I recently visited the area with Warner’s book in hand. His preoccupation with the crude manners of mountain folk blinded him to the charms of the region and distorted his forecast of what the future held. No where is this more obvious than in his comments on the towns of Cranberry and Boone, North Carolina.

Cranberry Forge was a boom town by virtue of its lucrative iron mines, which had been vital to munition factories of the Confederacy. By the time Warner arrived, Andrew Carnegie had taken over the iron operations and brought many of the refinements of Philadelphia society to its employees. Warner stayed at a company-owned hotel, whose “good taste, comfort, and quiet elegance are not appreciated after all. There is this to be said about Philadelphia,” he wrote, “wherever its influence extends there will be found comfortable lodgings and an undeniably exquisite cuisine” (Warner, On Horseback, 43).

On the strength of his pleasant hotel stay, Warner praised Cranberry Forge as “the first wedge of civilization fairly driven into the northwest mountains of North Carolina” (On Horseback, 42).

Contrast this to his comments on the town of Boone, which Warner estimated to have about 250 residents. The county seat, Boone had a tumble-down courthouse and a couple of taverns, which served primarily to lodge attorneys and jurors who attended court sessions. Warner complained that the tavern where he stayed was infested with flies and offered no drink stronger than buttermilk. “There is nothing special to be said about Boone,” he wrote. “We were anxious to reach it; we were glad to leave it” (On Horseback, 38).

So how have these two towns fared? The iron mines of Cranberry played out and the forge closed in 1930. Without employment, people moved away and the post office closed. Ruins of that world-class hotel were swallowed up by kudzu long ago. Cranberry now consists of a couple dozen houses along a two-lane mountain road. When we visited, we couldn’t even find a city limit sign.

On the other hand, Boone now has a population of nearly twenty thousand people and is the home of Appalachian State University, with an enrollment that essentially doubles the town’s population. A bustling center of tourism and trade, Boone is a vigorous urban center of the Blue Ridge.

What a difference 130 years can make!

Hubris is never so deceptive as when someone ventures to foretell the future. Absent any evidence to the contrary, a prognosticator can seize upon a casual observation to speak with great confidence about things to come. Witness Charles Dudley Warner. On the basis of two nights’ stay at local inns, he boldly predicted the fortunes of the mountain hamlets where they were located. One can’t help but wonder if he would’ve had a much different outlook if he had been served a moldy biscuit at Cranberry or a fine wine at Boone. One can only guess.

The General Store


The Mast General Store at Valle Crucis, North Carolina, captures a golden moment in time when Blue Ridge people got most of their merchandise from a local store. An incredible variety of goods (shoes, work clothes, iron cookware, sewing notions, etc.) could be found between the four walls of the general store or mercantile. It was too costly (if not impossible) to travel to a city were one could shop in a department store, so these small enterprises took the opposite tack:  Instead of specialized departments, they offered a conglomeration of all the basic things a family might need for their subsistence, but were unable to make for themselves.

Managers of the Mast Store have assembled many of the brands that were popular during the Great Depression–Moon Pie, Nehi, Carhartt, etc.–which makes a visit all the more authentic. Tourists like to sit on the store’s back porch (shown here), sipping a cold soft drink like those their grandparents drank.

Here you’ll find hand-carved wooden toys, flannel underwear, lye soap, jars of pickled okra, and much more. I’m always astonished to find that such things are still made in the USA, much less sold here, but this renews my confidence that we might be able to survive the next Great Depression after all.

Appropriately, the local post office is located here. You surely remember what a post office is. Before the Internet and its e-mail, before the Smartphone and its text messages, people communicated with one another in writing with letters and postcards. They still do in Valle Crucis. You can rent a mailbox here, buy some stamps, or weigh a parcel to ship back home. Another reassuring fact if you’re worried about an electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear Armageddon.

I highly recommend a visit to the Mast General Store when you’re in the area. It’s good for your blood pressure, not to mention your pocketbook.


The Old Home Place


Throughout the Appalachians, you will find old clapboard farmhouses like the one where I grew up. Each house bears witness to the ingenuity of mountain people.

Our home was built in two stages. A small original house stood beside the B&O rail line that ran from Richmond to Chattanooga, which was a strategic prize during the Civil War. (A quarter mile east of the home place stands a two-story brick house that served as a Union field hospital for much of the war.) Just before World War I, my grandparents doubled the size of the house to accommodate a large farming family they hoped to have.

The house had no central heat. A fireplace in the original structure was supplemented by a wood stove in the living room and a wood-fired cook stove in the kitchen. (The cook stove also heated a galvanized water tank, which raised the temperature of our bath water to tepidly tolerable.) A cistern under the new addition stored rainwater from the home’s galvanized tin roof. The house’s wiring was rudimentary; when I was a boy, it consisted of a bare bulb that dangled from a braided wire in the center of each room.

If the power went out (a common occurrence in the 1950s), Mama would light some kerosene lamps and continue her chores as usual. Our telephone was on a party line, so we knew in “real time” whether our neighbors’ lights had come back on.

Our old home place is still standing. (My sister Debbie commissioned this watercolor of it a couple of years ago.)  Though many of its features seem antiquated now, they spelled survival in Appalachia during the twentieth century. The place is uninhabited, except perhaps for the ghosts of winters past and memories of family life in a much simpler time.


A Ball in the Wall

Southern mountain people think for themselves, so when Tennessee voted to secede from the Union in 1861, the mountain folk of East Tennessee were “agin’ it.” They had little to gain from secession and much to lose, since this border region was likely to become a battleground between North and South.

So a group of dissenters met at the Greene County Court House and petitioned the legislature to let them become a separate state, which would remain with the Union. Their request was denied, and additional rebel troops were billeted in the region to keep an eye on them.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/brent_nashville/8099502758But that did not silence them. Greeneville’s Andrew Johnson was the only Senator from a Confederate state who continued to serve in the U.S. Congress. (President Lincoln rewarded his loyalty by making Johnson the military governor of Tennessee when it fell to Union forces in 1862. He then chose Johnson as his vice-presidential running mate in 1864.)

Military skirmishes continued in Tennessee throughout the war. During a clash on September 4, 1864, a cannonball lodged in the front wall of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, corner of Main and Church Streets in Greeneville. There it remains, just as East Tennesseans remained a chink in the wall of the Confederacy.




Little Switzerland

Sierra Exif JPEGGiven the predominantly Scots Irish ethnicity of the Southern Highlands, a resort town named Little Switzerland may seem out of place. But there’s more to this hamlet than meets the eye. Built on the line between McDowell and Mitchell Counties in 1909, Little Switzerland was supposed to be a tranquil mountain retreat for the city slickers from nearby Asheville, North Carolina. Its population has always been small (currently about two hundred) and seasonal.

However, its name has nothing to do with the people who live here. Developers dubbed it Little Switzerland because the spectacular view from this little gap reminded them of the Swiss Alps. And there any pretense of quaint tranquility ends.

With flint-like resolve, locals resist any effort to steam-roll them into compliance with the modern world. LBJ’s Interior Secretary Stewart Udall tried to cut a wide swath through the village for the Blue Ridge Parkway, but city fathers stood firm. Little Switzerland is now a pinch-point on the Parkway, with gift shops and hotels right along its meandering asphalt.

This diminutive David does not always prevail when an blustering Goliath tries to impose its will, but the citizens of Little Switzerland have managed to survive. That alone proves they deserves a place among the people of Appalachia.



‘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.