Mountain Family

Family is a precious thing.  I’ll tell you right up front here that I’ve got tears in my eyes as I try to share these thoughts with you.  Some of my friends have been giving me a pretty hard time lately about all of the family reunions I’ve been to this summer.  I wouldn’t give up a single one of them!

Last Saturday the Key cousins got together as they’ve been doing every September for nearly thirty years.  The faces change some from year to year either because life just gets in the way or sickness or the passing of a generation.  But every face in the group is precious – they are family and to mountain-folk, family is pretty much second only to salvation in importance. 

Melissa Copeland.jpg

This week we had a 92 year old cousin (she’s seated in the very center of the group picture).  While Velma has suffered from a stroke in the past few years, she still walked in on her own and beamed at every one of us.  And I got to visit my best friend from elementary school.   Melissa and I were in school from kindergarten through twelfth grade and I promised I wouldn’t tell how many years ago that was.

John Wesley Key and Sarah Anne Key

John Wesley Key and Sarah Anne Key

John Wesley Key and Sarah Anne Key birthed nine children from about 1883 till 1900.  Of course none of their children were with us, but three of their grandchildren were there.  Velma, who I’ve already mentioned, as well as Betty and Freda were there.  Eight great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren as well as four folks that were wise enough to marry into this great family.  When you see extended family like this, it makes me think of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 22:17, “….I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore…” I’m sure John and Sarah never dreamed they’d still be remembered and celebrated nearly 100 years after their passing or that they would be represented by so many descendants.

I’ve said this before and if you stick around the blog, you’re gonna’ hear me say it again.  Go to your family reunions, don’t lose touch with your cousins.  Family is an incredible blessing – even if you can’t identify with everyone of them.  Even if some of your family doesn’t quite do things the way you want, they are still family.  And you will never influence those you never know.


Snuff Glasses – and other useful Re-Useables

There’s a popular movement in our world today to “reduce your carbon footprint” and “recycle today for a better tomorrow.”  Well let me tell you, on the mountain we are recycling experts and have been for generations.

I recently saw a picture that included a snuff glass – or at least it looked just like some of the snuff glasses I have in my cabinet and it got me to thinking about how disposable our world today really is.  

Dipping snuff is a pretty disgusting habit in my estimation but two generations ago many folks, even women, partook of it.  Snuff was packaged both in tins and in glass jars.  The jars were perfectly sized for drinking glasses when they were empty and every household kept, washed and reused them.  Even I grew up drinking out of snuff glasses – they were just a normal part of the kitchen.

We’ve talked here before about cotton feed-sacks and the many uses they have – volumes could be written about feed sacks.  But now I’m wondering if there have been other packaging that were readily reused. 

Of course heavy brown paper was used to wrap many packages and tied with course string both of which would be smoothed out or wound up and saved.  If you ever carried your groceries home in a poke you wouldn’t dare throw it out and a wooden crate intended for apples or oranges had a thousand uses. 

We never throw anything out because as soon as you trash it, you’re sure to need it.  The idea of ‘use it up, wear it out, make do or do without’ may not have originated on the Cumberland Plateau but we have certainly embraced the concept. 


Canning jars are almost like gold to families that garden and preserve.  So mayonnaise and syrup jars were carefully saved.  Even today if I have a chance to buy food in a reusable jar I can’t help but buy that brand.  Bob White syrup is the brand that lasted into my lifetime in canning jars.  It came in a jar that held three pints – so we always call those “syrup jars” and when reporting how many beans you managed to can you have to count pints, quarts and syrup jars.

Peanut Butter jars - the Jumbo jar is clear but I filled it with flour so you could see the logo.

Peanut Butter jars - the Jumbo jar is clear but I filled it with flour so you could see the logo.

Many historic companies understood our penchant for getting a little extra for your money.  The feedsacks that started out as plain fabric were dyed in pretty patterns when companies realized the fabric was being recycled as curtains or dresses.  It was a simply a marketing tactic.  Well other companies packaged in the box other premiums. 

For many, many years, oatmeal included a piece of cut glassware.  My grandmother had all kinds of these glasses which were unfortunately lost in a fire.  When I see those glasses on antique store shelves I wonder how valuable her collection might have been.  Dove washing powder had glasses – bigger boxes had stemware, medium sized had tumbler and the small boxes had juice glasses.

Grocery store owners were also paying attention and offered S&H Green Stamps, or their own private coupons, to redeem for dishes.  I wonder how many families grew up eating on grocery-store tableware?  JFG and Arbuckle coffee encouraged drinking their brand with similar coupons that you could exchange for all kinds of merchandise.

It’s really funny to me that we live in this disposable world now – where it’s often cheaper to buy a new computer printer than to replace the ink.  Where replacing the battery on a household tool can be so difficult that you just throw it out despite the years of use it might still have.  Yet, we have these groups always talking about saving our resources.  Maybe we need to invite those groups up to the mountain to see how we’ve been living all along!

I’d love to hear from you folks about what items you may still be using that were originally meant for packaging or maybe were found in boxes of some other product?


Mail Order

I’m a catalog shopper.  I often say that I lack the shopping gene.  I’d rather face a hard day of field work than a day at the mall.  I guess if I’m going to be crowded I’d rather it be trees that won’t push or shove or try to pick my pocket.  So I do my shopping via mail order, just like my grandmothers and great grandmothers for generations.

We’ve established here before that I’m pretty spoiled.  Even though I enjoy history and historical things; even though a part of me longs for the “olden days”, there’s another part of me that really enjoys some of our modern conveniences.  I am spoiled to being able to track my packages online and know where my order’s at and when it’s coming.  I’m spoiled to being able to look online and see all the choices that a company has and not just what they were able to print in the catalog that they sent me in the mail. I recently realized that I’m really spoiled to the speed of things we enjoy today.

I found a great buy on a brand name pair of shoes.  I ordered them and I’ve been waiting three weeks for them.  Now it’s not been very long ago that the standard shipping time for a catalog order was six to eight weeks.  Three long weeks I’ve been waiting; I still don’t have my shoes and I’m about to give up on them.  So I tracked them online; they came straight from China – I guess it really is a slow boat from China!

Sears Home number 52, Price $782 - $1995 From the Sears Archives

Sears Home number 52, Price $782 - $1995
From the Sears Archives

This experience got me to thinking about ordering so many things that your family needed from Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward and then waiting and waiting. You could buy huge things, a Ford car or even a prefabricated house.  Sears sold about 70,000 kit houses from 1908 until 1940.  I wonder what the shipping time was for a house?

There’s a story around home about Uncle George Hall (everybody called him Uncle George whether they were any kin or not) ordering a new car sometime in the late 1930’s.  It was delivered to Peter’s Store and word was sent to him by the next customer that headed toward Roslin.  Until he could make it to the store, the shiny new car sat in the “parking lot”.  It was the only car sitting there and got plenty of attention.

Some of the catalogs I particularly enjoy getting are the seed catalogs that start showing up late in the winter.  By that time I’m tired of being cold, tired of dreary overcast days and I’m looking forward to the first blooms peeking out of the leaves and getting out to plant the garden.  I’ve ordered seeds a number of times, although my garden planning is usually left till the last minute.  In fact, I’ve been known to be scrounging around trying to find tomato plants – why do those things sell out so quickly?  So if you have to make out your seed order, mail it in, wait for it to be received by the seed company, then they’ll package your seeds and send them to you.  You’d better be on top of things and get that order out good and early.  I guess in an agrarian home even though the winter can involve a lot of hard work, there is some free time you don’t have during the warmer months so there’s maybe more opportunity to get your seed order made out.

A Good Cup of Coffee

Today’s thoughts may seem a little silly – unless like me you catch up on your blogs first thing in the morning while enjoying a good cup of coffee.   I do like a steaming cup first thing in the morning whether it’s a fancy latte if I’m out somewhere that one can be had or from a pot boiled over a campfire. 

Historically, we think of tea as the beverage of our European ancestors.  But you’ll remember that little tea party held in Boston Harbor in 1773 that changed American tastes forever.  As a protest to paying British taxes without parliamentary representation, American’s began drinking coffee. 

My latest book, Plans for Emma is partly set around a logging camp in The Flat Woods which was a tract of timber in the Banner Roslin area nearly five thousand acres.  Today that tract would challenge loggers with heavy machinery simply for its size.  At the turn of the twentieth century, it would have been old growth timber of big hardwood trees.   Now, the plateau has a rich resource in timber and logging camps like the one my book’s character, Millard, works in provided a cash job for many young mountain men. I say a “cash job” as opposed to many local jobs that would pay in board on a farm or maybe a portion of a crop.  

It was hard work felling trees with a crosscut saw, skidding them with a mule and loading onto horse drawn wagons.  Millard’s operation is supplying railroad cross ties – another common product from our forests and something we really need to talk more about here.  Those ties had to be hewn from the big trunks with an axe and I can’t imagine creating a single square straight enough to hold a rail in place but they were paid a penny per tie and my Grandpa Stepp remembered he could make a dollar a day if he’d “reach and get it”.  That’s 100 ties! Okay, but I digress – I suppose we need to talk more about logging here too, don’t we?

Back to our cuppa’ Joe.  By the way, that term was coined in World War II and referred to the G.I. Joes who enjoyed their coffee be it from the mess hall or their rations.

Coffee is one thing the subsistence farmers of the Cumberland Plateau could not grow for themselves.  Enter the occasional need for a cash job, right?  Coffee trees require a moist, hot climate like Africa or South America.  I read an article in the Chattanooga Free Times just last week about a lady who worked in Hawaii during WWII and while folks around here were making do with rationed amounts of coffee and sugar, those on that tropical island had all they needed because Hawaii grew their own sugar cane and coffee trees.

In 1903, the year the book opens, coffee cost twenty-two cents per pound, according to the “Wages and Prices of Commodities” booklet printed by the Government Printing Office in 1911.  But twenty-two cents was pretty hard to come by when there were only a few “cash jobs” around and if you were working the farm you’re time was pretty well taken up with it.  The idea of both holding down a full time job and also doing a little farming on the side was pretty foreign in those days.  And then there’s the question of availability of coffee.  When you didn’t run by a store every day or two, you might easily run out of those precious coffee beans.  It was one of the first things southerners missed when the union blockaded provisions entering the Confederate States of America.

On the mountain we’re accustomed to making do or doing without.  Most of us would rather make do with some kind of coffee substitute and chicory has been the first choice since settlers first came to America.  One type of this plant is native to Europe, although it has long been naturalized in America and grows wild now decorating our roadsides.  There is a closely related plant that was native to America and is probably the Chicory that Native Americans were using medicinally.  The root of Chicory can be roasted, ground, and brewed into a strong hot drink.  It’s caffeine free so folks usually prefer to mix it with real coffee allowing you to stretch that pound of coffee out a long way.  If you’ve ever harvested chicory yourself, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. 

What prompted this rambling article was a simple display at a Cracker Barrell store I recently visited.  A  collection of huge coffeepots got me to thinking about feeding large groups of people in days before microwave ovens, automatic drip coffeemakers and so many other fancy conveniences we take for granted today.   It’s not hard for me to imagine a few dozen lumberjacks filing into a dining hall each morning expecting a hot cup of coffee.  It’s a little harder to think of actually brewing the pot while also preparing enough biscuits, eggs and bacon to fill those stomachs until I tried to do it again a noon. 

Mysteries on the Mountain

We know and love our history on the mountain and I find great comfort in that.  It’s a wonderful feeling to drive around the area and remember someone from or something about nearly every hill and hollow.  I get a lot of teasing that maybe my family tree doesn’t have enough branches if I start talking about all of my cousins.  Yet people are amazed that I know my great-grandparents’ names without looking them up – all of them.  Still, there are mysteries buried on our plateau and that’s pretty fascinating too.

Last week Scott Phillips with Backwoods Adventures posted a photo on Facebook and prompted a healthy debate about its origin and history.  Ultimately it remains a mystery and like so many unanswered questions I can’t see how we could uncover its origin.  But it got me to thinking about how very much we don’t know about our own history.

Many years ago an East Tennessee friend told me about a legend in the Smokies that a lost, or hidden, people still lived in seclusion among the mountains.  That’s the only time I’ve heard such a story and a quick internet search yielded no additional information.  Somehow it isn’t too much of a stretch for me to believe it possible for a small band to hide in the vastness of the Smoky Mountains and the mystery of the tale is beguiling.  Our little plateau home doesn’t seem as untamed as those big eastern mountains but maybe that’s because I’m so familiar with them.  I’ve roamed our woods and know so many stories about home-places and communities that are now consumed by trees and brush that it seems like I can walk among them and almost feel my ancestors there.  Sure, I know there are stories I haven’t heard – and I’m always working to learn more of them.  And I know there are questions from those stories that I may never get answered. 

But a real mystery on our mountain, is that too much to hope for?  Not if you take a look at and do a bit of research on the sign that Mr. Phillips graciously shared.  This appears to be an ancient Greek symbol called Chi Rho.  It is a combination of the first two Greek letters in Kristos which is the translation for Christ.  While the symbol seems to pre-date Christianity, it was adopted by the early church.  Just as a fascinating aside, explains the Chi Rho is behind the practice of abbreviating Christmas as “Xmas”(and we all thought that was an attempt to remove Christ from Christmas).

So what’s an ancient Greek symbol doing on a rock in the backcountry of the Cumberland Plateau?  Well that’s a very good question for we don’t see a lot of Greek influence in our historic culture owing to strong Scots-Irish ancestry, lack of classical education, and an aversion to all things “furrin”. 

Well a couple of Greek letters carved into a rock-face is about the most foreign thing I can imagine finding in our woods. Yet there it is, well formed and quite aged.  I’m no archeologist but it just doesn’t look like common graffiti to me with the straight lines and clear angles.  Someone suggested it may have been the cornerstone of an old church but the location is wrong as it is in a solid rock overlook. 

We are well accustomed to the traces of the Native Americans who first claimed the plateau for hunting grounds.  But the pictures they left are very different than this carving.  In fact, with only a few exceptions, their artistic remnants are usually paintings, baskets or pottery.  Moreover, they would surely have only been exposed to this symbol by European missionaries and I’ve never known of those evangelists utilizing such ancient markings.

Another suggestion was that Colonel John Wilder was in the habit of marking areas he believed to have coal seams while he was still in the Army and may have left this sort of symbol.  While Colonel Wilder clearly had his eyes on Tennessee’s undiscovered wealth during the war years, I’ve never known of any other such signs and you would think they would be found in the Wilder-Davidson areas where he eventually opened coal mines.  Moreover, he doesn’t use Greek symbols in his other enterprises.

So today I’ve once again presented you with more questions than answers.  I like to finish a story by wrapping up all the open plot-lines but sometimes history just doesn’t do that for us.  And for me, the questions just draw me in deeper and keep me coming back for more.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area