Jonesborough Storytellers

Storytellers come to Jonesborough, TN, every October for the International Storytelling Festival. This little town in northeast Tennessee has many claims to fame:  It’s the oldest continuously inhabited town west of the Allegheny Mountains, capital of the short-lived State of Franklin, and now (thanks to the festival promoters) the Storytelling Capital of the World.

42nd Annual Storytelling Festival
42nd Annual Storytelling Festival

Far be it from me to dispute that claim. My first job was as a cub reporter for the Jonesborough Herald & Tribune, and the town’s native story-tellers were some of my best sources. The city treasurer let me leaf through his book of ordinances to find outdated laws that were literally “still on the books.” At that time (the late 1960s) it was still illegal to drive a flock of geese down Main Street.

Paul Fink

Jonesborough’s chief storyteller was Paul M. Fink, the county historian, whose office was a cramped cellar room beneath the courthouse. Mr. Fink was my official source on more than one occasion, and he didn’t mind being named. He could embellish the facts as well as any other denizen of the courthouse, but he always took care to raise a finger, draw my eye to his, and intone that this part of his account was “off the record.” (I’ll never know how much of his “off the record” stories were factual and how much imaginary.)

Then there was Gerald A. Squibb, sometime columnist for the Herald & Tribune, a rural mail carrier and irascible political pundit. Gerald understood human foibles very well (having plenty of them himself) and his quirky sense of humor punctured many an inflated ego. I recently discovered that he self-published a book entitled A Day Late and a Dollar Short; sounds like it could have been his autobiography.

You won’t hear Paul or Gerald at this year’s Storytelling Festival; they both passed from the scene more than 30 years ago. But I’m glad to know their tradition lives on.

“The Only Way to Get to Boone”

ET&WNC Railroad at Appalachian State Teachers College
ET&WNC Railroad at Appalachian State Teachers College

The mayor of Boone, NC, was asked to make a speech when the East Tennessee & Westnern North Carolina Railroad reached his town in 1919. In the course of his declamation, he said, “I remember when the only way you could get to Boone was to be born in Boone!” That wasn’t much of an exaggeration, either. Primitive roads into the mountains of western North Carolina were so prone to rock slides and washouts that travelers usually preferred to ride on horseback. The narrow-gauge railroad became Boone’s vital lifeline to the outside world for the next twenty years.

The same was true of many mountain communities. If not for a logging road, a horse-drawn coach, or a narrow-gauge rail line, they were completely isolated. When a newcomer appeared, locals were less likely to ask, “Where you from?” than the squint-eyed query, “How’d you get here?”

Progress came slowly, but it did come. Logging and mining companies found it cheaper to haul cargo by truck than by train, so roads to Boone were widened and paved. When a hurricane dumped torrential rain on the town in August 1940, washing out its little railroad, the owners didn’t rebuild.

Boone, NC, is now a thriving community, easy to reach by car. You don’t have to be born there to see its gem shops, pottery kilns, and hand-operated looms. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt, though.

Come, Set a Spell

ImageThe porch has long been a vital gathering place for Southern folk. In the heat of the day, neighbors took refuge in the cool shade of someone’s porch to talk for hours at a time. The most hospitable greeting that a mountain homesteader could give to the passing stranger was, “Come, set a spell.” An invitation to the porch was like an invitation to the family table.

Even the most humble home had a porch of some kind–not just a stoop or an awning. One measure of its importance was the fact that most homes had porches long before they had indoor plumbing.

Any place of business that wanted to attract the public would extend a welcome with a spacious porch, so mercantiles and feed stores had them. Courthouses didn’t, of course, because magistrates wanted no one loitering there! Popular “tourist traps” of the South follow that tradition even today with wide, shady porches and several rocking chairs. (Ever been to an outlet of the “Cracker Barrel” chain?) The photo here is from the back porch of the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, NC, not quite as glitzy as other tourist destinations. And they’ve not forgotten the spirit of Southern hospitality!

Diseases They Faced

Less than a century ago, Americans faced diseases that crippled them or brought sudden death, especially in remote areas such as the Appalachians. Many of these ailments are unknown today, while others can now be treated with over-the-counter remedies. Here’s a summary of the first chapter of the Handbook of Medical Treatment, edited by John C. DeCosta (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis, 1920).

pages-from-handbook_of_medical_treatment1

Milk sickness? Polio? We seldom hear of them today, but they were serious threats back then. (This textbook was published just a year before Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio on a family outing in New England, leaving him dependent on crutches and metal leg braces for the rest of his life.)

How might the world be different if FDR hadn’t gotten polio in his 40s? Or if Rudolph Valentino hadn’t died in his prime of peritonitis?

Fatalists like to say that you’ll die when your time has come, but in the 1920s and 1930s your “time” might come suddenly and doctors could do little to help you. More so in the hill country, where doctors were hard to find and folk remedies might make your illness worse!