All posts by Joe Allison

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. 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.



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.