It’s time to get tickets for the International Storytelling Festival, which will be held in Jonesborough, Tennessee, on October 7-9. This annual event attracts storytellers from around the world, so you’ll hear a wide variety of cultures and story genres represented, not only Southern mountain lore. The three-day event is entertaining and uplifting, well worth the trip in itself. However, more than two centuries of history are wrapped up in the little town of Jonesborough, so it deserves a visit any time of year.
Bronze plaques tell you this is the oldest town in Tennessee and capital of the lost State of Franklin, which failed to be admitted to the Union in 1788. You’ll find exhibits of artifacts from the Federal and Civil War periods of American history and you can tour buildings such as these:
Sisters’ Row, a row house built in the 1820s by prominent Jonesborugh businessman Samuel Jackson for his three daughters. (Locals still call it “The Three Sisters.”)
Chester Inn, an important lodging on the old stage road from Nashville to Washington, D.C. (Andrew Jackson stayed here on the way to his inauguration.)
First Christian Church, originally built in 1870 and now the home to The Parson’s Table restaurant.
Small wonder that the National Trust for Historic Preservation chose Jonesborough as one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations.”When you combine the spectacular natural beauty of the region with Jonesborough’s architectural and cultural heritage, it’s easy to see why this is such an ideal destination,” says the Trust’s president, Richard Moe.
Both of my parents died within the past 18 months, which prompted a couple of trips back to East Tennessee for their funeral services. There I began to reflect on differences between mountain cemetery customs and those in the rest of the country. Here are a few:
Cremation. Limited land availability and rising burial costs have made cremation a common practice in much of America, but not in the South. You will rarely see a mortuary offering cremation services here, and if you put the question to locals, you will see them shift uncomfortably in their seats. There seems to be an unspoken taboo about it. Fundamentalist Christian faith and mountain cultural traditions are tightly entwined, so the fact that one’s God-fearing parents and grandparents weren’t cremated makes this practice seem well-nigh heretical.
Family Plots. Extended family members are buried side-by-side in most Southern mountain cemeteries. While American society has become highly mobile, Southern mountain folk expect to be reunited with their families in death. It’s common to see many generations of the same family grouped in the cemetery of a little country church, even though most of them lived in other states and were never members of that congregation. In a certain church graveyard a large section is devoted to my Allison forebears, including one who served in the Revolutionary War. (Although he and his immediate descendants spelled the name with one “L,” we are blood relations.)
Easter Sunrise Services. When I was a boy, my parents took us to a cemetery in the predawn hour of Easter morning. Hundreds of cars were parked there, as people gathered on a knoll to hear a local preacher read the Gospels’ Resurrection accounts, and we sang traditional Easter hymns as sunrise broke over the mountains. I still see Easter sunrise services advertised at many cemeteries in the mountains. Southern folks feel it altogether fitting to greet Easter morning among the tombs of their ancestors, renewing their hope of being raised to meet Christ together when he returns.
In the nineteenth century, the beauty of North Carolina’s Highlands attracted tourists from throughout the nation, and not a few of them decided to buy a piece of it. Such an investor was John Wanamaker, founder of Philadelphia’s first department store and Postmaster General under the administration of President Benjamin Harrison.
Wanamaker, mining magnate Hugh McRae, and a handful of other businessmen from the Eastern Seaboard formed The Linville Company in 1885 to buy more than 15,000 acres of craggy mountains and rolling meadows along the Linville River in western North Carolina. They bought Grandfather Mountain, Grandmother Mountain, and the sites of several future resort towns such as Linville and Lenoir.
Some of the investors built splendid homes for themselves on the Linville tract. It seems Wanamaker already had so many homes that he didn’t feel this necessity. Besides, he could vacation at any of the resorts that sprang upon on the Linville land, such as the Eseeola Lodge, which Harvard Professor William James called “one of the most poetic places I have ever been in.”
Throughout the Gilded Age, Wanamaker and other millionaires such as George Vanderbilt found solace in the spectacular Carolina mountains. The Highlands’ thriving tourist industry today owes much to the love of these first wealthy tourists.
A hiker in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was surprised to find a ghost town in the Tennessee wilderness named Elkmont, including a small hotel called the Wonderland.
When vast tracts of land were incorporated into the park decades years ago, several towns went with them. Park developers seldom had the time or money to tear them down, so these lost mountain towns remained standing to be overgrown by the forest. They serve as gaunt reminders of days gone by.
Other towns were covered by the impoundment waters of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s hydroelectric reservoirs. Perhaps the largest of these was the town of Butler, Tennessee (pop. 430), covered by Watauga Lake in 1948. Residents moved to higher ground and built the present-day town of Butler, but their descendants still gather on the second Sunday of August to celebrate Old Butler Days and reminisce about life in the submerged town.
In 1983, TVA authorities drained the lake to make repairs on the dam and the abandoned town became visible again. Many of the old structures were still standing, though the streets were deep with mud. This prompted one tourist periodical to dub Old Butler “The Town That Wouldn’t Drown.”
Abandoned mountain towns are much like their former residents in that respect: Time and natural elements may alter their visage, but their spirit lives on.
Dad celebrated his 90th birthday at the beginning of June, so family gathered at our hometown in East Tennessee to mark the occasion. Imagine my surprise when my sister Debbie drove us to a neat little ranch-style house in town and announced that Dad had purchased it just a few days earlier. For years, we’ve been trying to convince him to move out of “the homeplace,” a drafty two-story farm house where he lived most of his life, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Dad’s arthritis made his nightly ascent to the second-floor bedroom an ordeal. Conceding the decision had been difficult, he said his new house was “better than a nursing home,” but he still spends his days at “the homeplace.”
The homestead of Earl Hamner, Jr. (whose stories inspired the TV series, “The Waltons”) reminds me a lot of Dad’s house. These plain white clapboard houses popped up on Appalachian hills in the 1910s and 1920s as plentiful as mushrooms after an April rain. Most of them are still standing, and many of them still inhabited–a tribute to the close bond between mountain people and their homes, no matter the state of repair.
I suppose we natives of Appalachia will carry the image of our “homeplaces” in memory as long as we live. Places of comfort, security, and love, they remind us of a way of life we will always cherish.