Jonesborough beyond the Festival

Jonesborough
Jonesborough, Tennessee

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.

 

 

Walking Home from School

Children the world over walk home from school. Even with today’s heightened concerns about child abduction, drug trafficking, and street violence, one can see children sauntering home after a day in the classroom in virtually any country and any type of community. That self-guided field trip is often the most instructive part of the day. It certainly was true in Appalachia during the 1950s when I went to elementary school.

Our family farm was about a mile from Barnes Elementary School, so we always rode the morning school bus to be sure we didn’t miss the start of class. Return trips were another matter. Our school was last on the bus driver’s route for the day, so he didn’t pick us up until an hour or so after the 3 o’clock dismissal bell. Bus passengers had to sit on gym risers under the watchful eye of a tired, short-tempered teacher during that time. Our other option was to strike out for home on foot. Unless the weather was rainy or cold, my brother and I always chose to walk home.

Of course, there was more than one way to get there.

We could walk along Star Mill Road, which took us by its namesake (an abandoned flour mill once owned by our grandfather), a trailer park where one of our classmates had a hen house for his small brood of egg-layers, a log cabin where a club-footed old man lived alone (we took refuge there once during an electrical storm), and the pasture where our family’s Herefords grazed. As you can imagine, this route afforded plenty of diversions. Road kill changed weekly and we found fascinating litter from city dwellers along the way. Spring filled the ditches with tadpoles. Autumn scattered a profuse variety of colored leaves on the railroad embankment. Hard to conceive of a boy getting bored by such things.

But we did, so we tried any number of shortcuts. We could leave the road to walk behind an old furniture warehouse and through a storm culvert beneath the railroad to rejoin the road on the other side. This cut several minutes off the half-hour trek, which could be used to scavenge other relics along the way. We could walk the railroad itself, balancing on the polished steel rails or hopping from one creosote cross-tie to another. Train passengers occasionally discarded some attractive items. (My brother and I once found dozens of retail cards of costume jewelry strewn there. When we took samples to our mother, she called the sheriff. A penny-ante shoplifter had filched them from the local Woolworth’s and tossed them from the train when a conductor got suspicious.)

Another shortcut was to climb through the barbed-wire fence at the back of the school grounds, transit a field where a rather threatening bull waited for us, then through a couple of other fences past an old clapboard farmhouse and apple orchard to rejoin the road. Not many souvenirs on that route, though, certainly not enough to risk the bull.

Mama would scold us for arriving home with muddy shoes, but not for walking. She seemed to understand this was essential to a child’s education.

Mountain Cemetery Customs

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.

Civil War Smuggler

Daniel EllisDaniel 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.

The Wealthy Tourist

Wanamaker
John Wanamaker (1838-1922)

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.

Lost Mountain Towns

Abandoned home in Elkmont, TN.
Abandoned home in Elkmont, TN.
Wonderland Hotel
Wonderland Hotel

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.

Old Butler, TN
Old Butler, TN

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.

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.