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

The Humble Squash

There are foods we eat on the mountain that would seem strange to some outsiders.  I’d imagine most urban-dwellers have never heard of dry-land fish and if they saw the funny little mushrooms they’d turn their heads.  And of course we use pretty much every part of a hog, including the whole head.  But in the summertime the abundance of fresh garden vegetables can transform the mountain table into a vegetarian delight.  One of my favorite summer foods is yellow squash.

It’s got to be the easiest thing to grow in the garden and a few plants will feed a big family for weeks.  It can be replanted and enjoyed right up till the frost kills out your plants.  In fact, there are often so many squash coming out of the garden that you try to think creatively how to use them.

Fried – that’s the best way.  Of course frying works well for so many foods.  Rolled in cornmeal and fried crisp, yellow squash are just about the tastiest vegetable we grow. 

Okay, have I established that I really like this food? 

Well I don’t need to tell you that squash have been around a really long time.  Wikipedia tells me that squash are native to North America, likely starting out in southern Mexico.  However, the gourd is part of this family of plants and we know that in the Bible, Jonah sat under a gourd plant around 767 B.C. Perhaps gourds were cultivated in the Middle East but not summer squash.  Jonah was in rather a bad mood under that gourd plant, can you imagine how mad he’d have been if he knew what he was missing in yellow squash?

We know that the Cherokee cultivated squash extensively, along with beans and corn.  While those native people chose to do their farming on fertile, lowland soil isn’t it remarkable how similar their vegetable choices were to those of our own ancestors?

Of course all the early people enjoyed varieties of winter squash that would keep in a root cellar for months and provide a family both additional flavors as well as much needed nourishment after the growing season ended.  In reading a little about this whole family of foods, I was thrilled to learn that most any of the dark-orange colored varieties of winter squash can be substituted for each other.  That could certainly put a new spin on pumpkin pie.  I’ve added winter squash to my garden list for next year; maybe I can expand my own appreciation for squash while sharing more about winter squash with you.

My family always says that we can survive the winter if the potato crop is good.  I suppose squash never kept anyone from starvation but if you’ve ever wintered on rough-grub of salted pork, potatoes and cornbread then you sure would welcome those little yellow summertime blessings.

Yellow Squash rolled in Home-Ground Cornmeal

Yellow Squash rolled in Home-Ground Cornmeal

The Country Store

I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before that when I was growing up my Daddy and Grandpa were in a big way of bean farming.  Not owning a great deal of acreage themselves, they rented fields all over the mountaintop and under the mountain as well.  I have so many memories - both fond and a little scary, - of mountain roads rutted deeper than the truck’s wheel wells, trees reaching into the path so far you drove on faith that there was indeed a roadway and little fields cleared for a pair of mules and now accommodating modern diesel equipment.  Among those memories are innumerable little country stores. 

Today, most of those stores are closed and falling down.  As the department of transportation prepares to improve highway 127 through Fentress and Cumberland Counties even the paths that were dotted by this neighborhood mainstay will be obliterated. Ah, but that’s our purpose on this blog - to record and celebrate those memories – isn’t it?  So here goes…

First a memory.

I doubt that we stopped in the little country stores everyday that we worked in the bean field because we were pretty poor and while those places weren’t out to get rich, I’m sure brown-bagging is always cheaper.  Plus, we were in such out-of-the-way places that it just wasn’t practical to pull out at mid-day and go hunt a sandwich.  I guess the times we stopped at the little stores stand out in my memory because they were pretty special.  They sold most anything you’d need around the house, especially basic foodstuffs and you could always ask the clerk to make you a bologna (that’s baloney on the mountain by the way) sandwich.  Thick slices of meat on soft white bread with real American cheese and a slab of tomato and lettuce – maybe it doesn’t sound like much now.  Maybe it was just the atmosphere or maybe a day that started before dawn and spent beneath the hot sun of an open field really whets your appetite.  Maybe it was just a treat from Grandpa.  But it was a really good sandwich.  Then we washed it down with a cold Pepsi Cola from a tall glass bottle you pulled out of a beat up cooler and popped the lid on the side – I remember not being strong enough or coordinated enough to get the lid off myself.  And the clerk, who usually was also the owner, would sit down in a straight back chair and chat for a few minutes for there were always a few chairs and empty crates sitting around for the loafers.  No one had air conditioning but after hours of beating sun, the cold concrete some of the stores used for flooring seemed a cool paradise. 

These are not the kind of memories a 7-11 can offer and Exxon isn’t even interested in that kind of atmosphere.  The clerks hired by the big chains don’t have the same interest in their clientele and we’re all eating pre-packaged stuff that just does not compare to the old sandwiches.

Now my childhood memories don’t include barrels of pickles or crackers and I never carried eggs to the store to trade for groceries.  However, those same country stores – or ones exactly like them – welcomed a generation or two before me who would remember those things.  I’m including a picture of Peter’s Store in Clarkrange from the early 1900’s.  There’s still a store at that location – has been my whole life although the owners and the buildings have changed several times.  But Peter’s is a legend in itself!  They weren’t unique in the least for there were similar general stores across the country. 

The name of this store is unknown but it's laid out much like our local country stores.

The name of this store is unknown but it's laid out much like our local country stores.

Here you could bring in the eggs and butter your little farm produced and exchange them for things you could not grow like sewing thread and coffee.  You could get shoes there when the children’s handed down footwear could simply not be repaired again.  They had fabric – and they had feed, fertilize and bulk foods packaged in colorful cotton bags.  And if you recently made a windfall, there were candies and colorful glassware, a few ready-made clothes and books.

The local post office was housed at Peters so a trip into the store was necessary from time to time.  Yet my grandfather asserted that in bad weather it was harder for his parents to get to Peter’s than it would be for us to drive to Nashville today. 

At Uncle Lester Key’s store in Martha Washington, a kid could walk through carrying a single egg and exchange it for a sucker.  I wonder how many disappointed children didn’t quite make it with an un-cracked egg?  Peter’s sold suckers for a penny so it was pretty accommodating of the Keys to make this exchange for their youngest customers.

Even after cars became more widely available following the second world war, the neighborhood store remained an essential part of the community for decades.  They knew the people and would run a tab for you so the kids could walk to the store for a bag of sugar or other necessity.  They were a meeting place and a trip to the store was a social event where you were certain to see folks you knew and learn some piece of news.  Anyone returning from the store was asked, “Who’d you see?” and the report was as much anticipated as the goodies in the brown paper bag.


Appalachian Tea Cakes

Tea Cakes

Today I wanted to share a story from another blog that really struck a chord with me.  We’ve talked here before about Apple Stack Cake and the strong tradition that dessert has throughout the Appalachian Mountains.  So when I saw writing about “Old Timey Appalachian Tea Cakes & Mini Kentucky Apple Stack Cakes”, you know I was gonna follow that link.  Well, she taught me so much more!

I remember my Grandma Stepp making Tea Cakes – it wasn’t a regular treat she gave us, in fact I guess I only remember a handful of times that she made them.  But they were so good and I’ve looked for a similar recipe since but remembered so little about them that I could never find one that seemed right.

Well, Lorene writes that her Mamaw used to make tea cakes from the same batter as Apple Stack Cake.  That made me wonder if my own Grandma was doing the same thing.  (Oh how I wish I could pop in her kitchen and just ask – I can’t tell you how often I wish I could ask one of my grandparents for clarification on something I learned from them!  Alas, we can only learn from each other now.)  And that’s why I was so thrilled to read about this little Kentucky Mamaw treating her family in Ohio to tea cakes.

I thought that Grandma had found a recipe – either in a newspaper or old cookbook – and just thought she’d try it.  But now I wonder if she was prompted to try it because she remembered tea cakes from her own mother or grandmother.  Maybe that’s the question I need to pose to you readers with roots on the Cumberland Plateau:  Do you remember old folks on the mountain making little cookie-like cakes that they called Tea Cakes?  Or do you remember cookies made from the dough of the Apple Stack Cake?

Please leave me a comment if you can further educate me.  And you can click on any of the underlined blue words in this article to follow the link to the original AppalrootFarm story.

Tea Cakes:  Going Fast

Tea Cakes:  Going Fast

Old Home Place

Deep roots are a familiar theme both in my writing and among our Appalachian people.  Whatever it was that brought a particular family to the mountains, some remnant of them always seemed to stay here.  Last weekend I had an opportunity to visit the home site of what must have been one of my first relatives to move to the plateau.  It’s an honor to still be able to find such a place and standing among scattered foundation stones I’m flooded with both sentiment and questions.

Stephen Key was born in 1825 and according to the census records, he moved from Overton County, Tennessee to Fentress County between 1850 and 1860.  Down near the great Hurricane Creek, there’s a branch whose name I suppose is lost to history but seems to have a steady flow of water and therefore would make a good home place.  Today it’s a hard one and a quarter mile walk down, down, down from civilization.  You see, in the one hundred fifty years since Stephen built his home we’ve all moved up, and our roads now dictate that this home site is terribly remote.

That remoteness made me ask, in some ignorance, “Whatever possessed them to locate here?”  Surrounded by dense forest, I couldn’t even see the big creek.  Now, I think of Hurricane as being a significant creek, and it can sure roar after a good spring rain.  And we know that waterways change over the years as bigger rivers are dammed and swampland drained.  However, I doubt Hurricane was ever navigable for any kind of commerce.  But it’s not too far as the crow flies down to the Baldwin Gulf which is the site of one of our many ghost towns.  There a prosperous village developed around a logging operation which floated logs down the East Fork of the Obey River. 

Maybe I’m off base making any comparison in today’s woods, but if you’ve ever hiked any of our plateau backcountry – and I don’t mean the well-marked and cleared trails of some of our beautiful parks – then you may be able to imagine the difficulty of this terrain.  Underbrush hinders not only movement but orientation, nearly blocking the sun in many places.  Tall hardwood trees intermingle with massive evergreens as you descend toward the river. 

While we pondered the remoteness of this farmstead, Daddy told us about another relative who found a good spring on a promising piece of land and built a cabin.  Then he walked a day and a half and spent the night on a high ridge.  At daylight he listened for a rooster to crow and was able to locate his nearest neighbor by the sound.

Freda Key Thompson (Great Granddaughter of Stephen Key), Logan Shaver, Darrell Stepp and Harlon Thompson stand in the clearing that remains where the house once stood.

Freda Key Thompson (Great Granddaughter of Stephen Key), Logan Shaver, Darrell Stepp and Harlon Thompson stand in the clearing that remains where the house once stood.

There is a sense of independence in a place like this.  Free of the modern tethers of power lines and highways, these settlers located their homes among abundant resources and relied on their own skills and family to build a home there.  Even on a hot July day, the temperature was tolerable by the side of that little branch and no mechanical sounds interrupted the calm of the hillside.  While a part of me asked why they would ever build there, another part knew immediately.

Me, Cana Geer, Daddy and Harlon Thompson back up in civilization.

Me, Cana Geer, Daddy and Harlon Thompson back up in civilization.