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.
Given 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.
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.