Category Archives: Southern Customs

August Fog = 1′ Snowfall

Mountain people have developed a rich lore of winter weather prognostication. They compare the black and brown bands on woolly worms, which are supposed to portend the length and severity of winter. They observe how plentiful the summer’s yield of pine cones, how shaggy their horses’ winter coats, and how much foliage tops their root crops such as sweet potatoes. In each case, mountaineers take their cue from how generously Nature prepares for the winter ahead. If a cold, snowy winter appears to be coming, they can more vegetables for the pantry and split more wood for the hearth.

My dad used to keep count of the number of foggy mornings in the month of August, because “the old people” had told him each fog predicted a snowfall of a foot or more in the following winter. I don’t know whether that pattern was supposed to hold true in other parts of the country or only in Appalachia, but Indiana had a lot of foggy mornings this year. (Perhaps I’d better stock our pantry a bit more generously!)

Contrary to popular belief, the Old Farmer’s Almanac does not use nature signs on earth to predict the coming seasons, but rather a “secret formula” devised by their publisher in 1792, based on the sunspot cycle. Mountain folk have kept an eye on the Almanac for more than two hundred years, but they lay more store (literally) by what they observe in the world around them.

 

“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!