David Messer, resting from tilling field, 2003. Indian Grave Gap, Madison County, N.C.
Tim Barnwell interviewed has interviewed those living in the western North Carolina mountains for more than a quarter of a century. His collection of oral histories and photography, “On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs,” is being released in April 2007 by W.W. Norton & Company. Here are some of the voices from his book – all are from Madison County, N.C.
I can remember when there wasn’t much around here but Model T Fords and the like. I can remember when there wasn’t even that. My grandmother on my mother’s side used to live up here near Horseshoe, towards Tennessee. There weren’t many roads then, and they were only good for horses or teams of mules and wagons. Even once these roads were built in here, which was in the late 1920s I believe, it would only take a hard freeze and thaw and they were ruined. You’d see trails up through the woods around where the roads were, where people had to walk around the washouts, and cars were useless in that mess. I remember when it took a days ride to Greeneville, Tennessee, and a days ride back by wagon. Today it’s less than a half hour by car.
I remember a fellow that worked for my father some. He lived over in Greeneville, and had a big family. He would bring a team and wagon across the mountain, and work for a week or ten days or so, and then and go back home. He’d stay there a few days then come back across again. If it rained hard, you wouldn’t see him for a while, because the road would be too muddy and rutted for him to pass.
My dad would take us across once in a while, and we’d stay a day or two. We’d get a wagonload of supplies and come home. I didn’t mind the ride even though it was in a hard, flatbed wagon. Especially if he let me drive the team part of the way! Of course I was only a little toe-headed boy then. I wouldn’t want to do it today. That’s a rough way to ride.
About ninety percent of the men, say from 1900 up to 1960 or something, fox hunted up in these mountains. It was a way of getting’ away from the house, learnin’ the news, tellin’ jokes and such, and takin’ a sip of liquor without their wives scoldin’ ‘em. It was a form of entertainment-no cars or anything way back. Fifty years ago that was part of life. You’d go to see people, and most had two or three fox dogs tied up in their yards a barkin’.
From Friday to Sunday, from Big Knob back at Rocky Ridge, you couldn’t sleep because they’d be twenty dogs a runnin’. The hunters would have a skillet with ’em and some fatback meat to fry, a couple of quilts, and their lanterns – they didn’t have any flashlights or batteries. Half of ’em would go ahead and sleep out the rest of the night, and the other half would go back home.
The farmer, he’d go to sleep and would be ten or eleven o’clock gettin’ back to the mountain top on Sunday mornin’. He’d blow his fox horn; you could hear it about three or four miles, and the dog’d know where to go back to him then. The dogs would be sleepin’somewhere-they’d been runnin’till three o’clock in the mornin’, or daylight, and that’d get their attention, prick his ear up. The old dogs go back to where you turn ’em loose, but the pups, they just go off in the valleys, be lost, and just lay there. They’d be a couple of ’em come to my house, when I was a boy. Their owners would give you fifty cents or something for keeping ’em, if they were generous enough.
To call the dogs, you’d toot your horn seven blast then you’d call four yodels. My Daddy, he had growed up with ’em, he knowed the sound of each one’s horn. He could tell their horns apart and tell their voices apart, too, he heard them call their dogs so much. He’d sit and listen and say, “That’s Roy Keith, or that’s Nealy Rice, callin’ his dogs’.”
Up until the 1930’s or so, when radio came into bein’, and schools came into the mountains, most of the people believed in witchcraft and haints and such. They wouldn’t get out of the house after dark, thought it was bad luck to pass a cemetery, and all such as that. My great grandfather was Joshua Phillips. His wife died in 1924, and was buried at the Meadows Gap. About the fall of the year, he’d go up there about two nights a week and set till midnight. The road was about twenty foot or so away from the cemetery, and there would be four or five bunches of fox hunters pass there each night with their dogs. He’d know who they was by their voice and he’d speak to them, you know, call out their name. He said he finally just had to sit quiet, because when he’d call their name out from the cemetery in the dark, he’d scare ’em and they’d run off and leave their dogs.
There wasn’t any cash money after the Civil War. When the war was over all the Confederate currency was killed, so even if you had ten thousand dollars of it, it wasn’t worth anythin’. Money had to filter from the north to the south. People would just make their land transactions by trade-two cows and a mule, or a hog rifle, somethin’ of value. A lot of soldiers would come back from the Civil War, bring their rifle home with them, maybe swap it for a thousand acres of land. A rifle was a valuable thing back then. That’s the way Raymond Ramsey’s grand paw got his land; he had a hog rifle when he came back from the war, and he bought the head of East Fork with that rifle.
Surveyin’ wasn’t any problem; you could get either a land grant, or a watershed. A watershed was an easy way of surveyin’. If you bought the head of a holler, your land would run to the top of the ridge around it, and when the rain fell, if the water ran down into your holler that was all your land. If it went down the other side of the mountain, it was the next man’s land.
A lot of the old deeds was like that. That’s the way Nate Shelton bought Long Branch-it was a watershed deed. That was probably 1870 or so, after the Civil War. He was what they called a carpetbagger from out of the north; they brought their clothes with them and homesteaded down here.
The Civil War disrupted everythin’, it scattered everybody, scattered the names worse than anythin’. Back before that, whoever settled a valley first, all the names would be that one name-say Wilson. Within a twenty-mile section then, they’d all be Wilsons. Across the mountain twenty more miles would be Chandlers, the next twenty miles would be Sheltons. From about 1770 to about 1860, about a hundred years there, ninety percent of the people were named Shelton that lived in Shelton Laurel-settled by David Shelton, the first one to move in there. But after the Civil War, everyone went in there, bringin’ a lot of new names.
My grand maw said there wasn’t any cash money back here in these mountains till after the First World War. Before that people just swapped chickens, potatoes, corn and such with each other back and forth-no money changed hands. She said people had some coins but she didn’t see any paper money till the 1920’s, after the war. She said Marty Buckner’s daddy, John Buckner, had half a bushel of coins and everybody talked about how wealthy he was.
When I was a boy and would go down to Marshall, I remember the old men chewin’ tobacco and spittin’ both ways and talkin’ about a horse trade. They’d hold each other by the arm so the other couldn’t leave. They’d talk half a day about a horse trade; talk it up and ask questions. It’d take a week or two to trade, you know. There was a couple of old fellows from over on Foster Creek, one named Fender and the other a Roberts, that went around tradin’ horses all the time. They had a boy that walked with them and led the horses. They’d have him carry a bucket with a chain in it, for “boot.” It was when chains first come into being, and it was unusual for anyone to have a chain to log with. They were scarce, valuable, so people would be more willing to trade with them if they got that chain for boot.
People have gotten used to real warm houses and now they can’t stand the cold. I’ve seen houses when I was a boy, and they would be built up off the ground three or four feet. They’d have cracks in their floors as big as your finger; they could feed their chickens through them. Folks kept their logs out on the porch and would put a big “back stick” of hickory, as big as a man could carry, into the back of the fireplace. The fire would burn in front of it. It would last two or three days. They would cover the coals with ashes at night and stir them up the next morning-put some new logs on and have a fire made.
People used to have big corn shuckings where folks would come and help out. They’d take supper and a little corn in trade for their work. I remember one year we had close to eleven hundred bushels of good white corn. My father went asking hands through the neighborhood, and the next day close to forty showed up, and we shucked all the corn in one day. It made things a lot easier.
I had three brothers and one sister. My mother died when I was ten, so I don’t remember much about her. My father raised us. He was a farmer all his life. There was no cash money – you had to raise all you ate except for coffee and sugar. Everybody that could afford it had a hog or two come fall for killing so they’d have meat for the winter. If a fellow farms hard enough to make something out of it, it’s got to be the hardest work a man’s ever done. I worked many a day, ten hours at a time, for ten cents an hour cleaning out ditches, making roads, clearing land, or cradling wheat. I think growing and tending wheat was one of the hardest jobs there is.
But, you know, there's other people, have a way about 'em. They don’t seem to do much at all, make it on other folks work, and they end up with all the world’s goods. I haven't figured that out.