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.
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.
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.
Daniel Ellis (1827-1908) made his home in the East Tennessee town of Elizabethton, which has a long history of insurgency. (Here a group of colonists had defied a 1770 treaty between England and the Cherokee, which called for them to abandon their homesteads; instead the settlers leased this land from the Cherokee so they could stay. A decade later, “Overmountain Men” rallied here and marched across the Appalachians to the Battle of King’s Mountain.)
In this spirit, Ellis smuggled about four thousand men out of this region to join Federal forces during the Civil War. On return trips, he carried letters from the Union soldiers to their families back in East Tennessee. All the while, he passed information to Union officers about Confederate troop movements around his hometown.
The Confederacy placed a price on his head, burned his home, and intimidated his family, yet Ellis eluded capture to continue his smuggling and spying operation for nearly four years. Confederates called him “The Red Fox.” Eventually, the Union Army commissioned him a captain in the 13th Tennessee Cavalry.
Two years after the war’s end, Harper published his memoirs as a book entitled, The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis. (Overmountain Press reprinted this book in 1989.) Though he may have embellished some of its accounts, there’s no doubt Captain Ellis defied death to slip across the battle front between Knoxville and Johnson’s Station (now Johnson City) again and again.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
Reading bouquet cards beside my mother’s casket, I was reminded again of how resourceful she had been. One basket of flowers from The Posy Shop honored “Our Former Employee’; so did one from a retirement center. After my parents divorced more than forty years ago, Mom worked a variety of part-time jobs to support herself and my two sisters who were still at home. She was a maid at the local Holiday Inn; she cleaned passenger cabins of planes at the airport; she loaded thread on looms at a textile mill. She did whatever she could in order to survive.
Eventually, Mom remarried and became “just” a homemaker again, but that fierce determination would reemerge whenever she felt threatened.
It’s a familiar trait of mountain people, especially women, who are portrayed in Southern literature. A recent example is Jennifer Niven’s heroine, Velva Jean. Without family, without home, and without prospects for marriage, feisty Velva Jean makes a life for herself in the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. Her indomitable faith is rooted in the Appalachian folk religion of tent revival meetings with evangelists “on the take.” Often naive but always resilient, Velva Jean learns to drive her own life, as well as sporty cars and supercharged pick-up trucks.
Mom was just as tenacious and confident of her ability to learn whatever she needed to bounce back when life threw her down. She cracked jokes even when she was crying, an art that all four of us children have learned. Alzheimer’s disease finally took control of her body, but not her spirit.
Yes, Mom was resourceful. Mountain women usually are.