Tennessee Mountain Stories

‘Pon My Honor

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Back in July last year I shared here a couple of newspaper article written by Mrs. Callie Melton.  Mrs. Melton had the same passion for preserving our history and culture that drives me back to this keyboard week after week.  She had the foresight to record some of the tales she’d always known and publish them back in 1979.  This self-published book is no longer available so I want to share some of it with you over the next few weeks.  Today we’ll start with the preface of the book in which she shares her love of the heritage and reasons for writing.


‘PON MY HONOR is a book of folk tales collected in and around Overton County, Tennessee.  Since I am a Tennessee Hillbilly born and bred, I have been familiar with these stories since the moment when I first saw the light of day.  But, unfortunately, it was not until 1933 that I started writing them down.

This book was undertaken for the sole purpose of preserving for our children and our children’s children a small part of this wonderful heritage that is theirs, for nowhere else in the world is there a richer vein of stories or better story tellers than right here in the mountains of Tennessee.  It’s always been that way, for whenever or wherever at least two people get together, there’s sure to be a tale of some kind told.  The first of the Long Hunters who came into this area regaled each other with just such tales as these around their campfire after a long day of hunting.  Today the Atomic scientists at Oak Ridge always tell each new-comer the stories of old John Hendrix, the Prophet of Anderson County.

The stories I have included in this collection will fall roughly into four types.

The stories that are based on actual facts and have a definite time and place are in the chapter HIT HAPPENED HEREABOUTS.  Here I have sometimes, and sometimes not, changed only the names of some of the people involved, relating the main facts just as they actually happened.  Of course these stories have naturally picked up a little color here and there.  But doesn’t’ a good cook always add a dash of spices and herbs to perk up stew?

Haint tales and the ones with a hint of the supernatural are covered in the chapter I WOULDN’T A-BELIEVED HIT IF I HADN’T SEEN HIT MYSELF.  This is a favorite kind of story around here, and rare it is to find a family that doesn’t have its very own haint tale to add to those of their neighbors and friends.

The CHILMEY CORNER TALES are the old, old stories that must have come to us from far away and long ago.  Research has shown me no stories like them.  But they are stories that I grew up with, and I always told them to my school children wherever I taught.  And the high school students loved them just as much as the little ones.

In the chapter ONE FER THE ROAD, you will find “jest tales”.  These are the old ones that nearly everybody has heard in one way or another, for they had been handed down and passed around for generations before they ever reached me.  And I just up and put them down on paper the way I had always heard them.  There’s no moral, not much point, but they are always good for a laugh when a real story teller gets hold of them.

In all of these stories I have tried to tell them word for word just the way I have always heard them.  It hasn’t been easy, this task I set for myself.  The folk speech has been most difficult…it has been hard to write, and I found that it was harder for the present generation to read.  So, sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn’t!  But I got in enough to give the true flavor.  Before and up to World War II, we through this area spoke almost pure Elizabethan English… words, terms, expressions and what have you.  But the English teachers in our schools, bless their dear hearts, have just about rooted it all out!  And it is our loss.

So, if I have succeeded in any small measure in this task I set for myself, I must give the credit to the greatest story teller of them all, my Grandpa Smith.  Whenever possible, I have given the source of each story in the story itself.  That’s always the custom around here… when you tell a tale, you start off by telling who it was that told it to you.  That’s the way Grandpa did, and he ought to have known for he told his tales not only to us young’uns but to anybody who would come in and set a spell.

Tupelo Homestead


A couple of years ago I wrote here about a treasured landmark on the Plateau, the Cumberland Homesteads.  After a little research for that article, I knew that the New Deal plan that created our homesteads was repeated in dozens of other locations around the country.  The homes south of Crossville, Tennessee were built of indigenous material that give them a unique look among the eleven floor plans all covered with our Crab Orchard stone and paneled with knotty pine.  Somehow it’s hard to imagine homestead homes that don’t look like that. 


Well a reader in Tupelo, Mississippi lives in an original homestead home that looks very different than ours.  She’s shared pictures of her lovely renovated house as well as an identical home that has not been restored and I just had to share them with all of you.

Using indigenous materials was ingenious for several reasons.  Certainly it was a cost effective decision especially when freighting materials across the country was more difficult in the 1930’s and probably much more expensive.  But it was also a secondary boost to the local economy as even more people were employed to harvest the materials.  So in Mississippi they have timber and plenty of it.  The first homes there are covered in wood siding – various types of spruce and pine are widely available in the state.  While the local stone continued inside the Tennessee homes, those in Mississippi incorporated brick.  In fact, the last ten homes built had a brick exterior. 

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I grew up among homes paneled with knotty pine and I love the look.   That’s what the Tennessee houses used throughout the interior.  With a plentiful supply of lumber in Mississippi I’m a little surprised to see a wall board in every interior picture of those homes. 


While some of the houses in Mississippi have been moved (as my reader’s home was) and renovated for modern homes, they are largely owned by the National Park Service and were used for park personnel.  Sadly they now stand empty and decaying.  The Cumberland Homesteads Tower Association must be applauded for refusing that fate for our homestead!


The project in Tennessee was much larger, with 250 homes built here compared to their 35.  Sheer percentages allow more of them to remain standing and thankfully most are still housing families just as they did eighty years ago.  And that’s the story of the renovated Tupelo home I’m showing you today.  The love that’s been poured into this home is obvious as you virtually walk its halls.  An original claw-footed tub sits in the small bathroom beckoning you to a long soak.  The screened porch was opened to a dining area with lots of light pouring in door and windows.  The new owner recovered every brick possible, cleaned them and re-built the fireplace.  Bordered by flowering plants and ferns the front porch screams Mississippi to me and I can practically feel the longed-for breeze on a hot Mississippi evening and taste sweet tea!


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Civet Cats

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Sometimes we use words on the mountain that seem so common we just assume everyone everywhere would know them; other sayin's we know for sure aren’t used anywhere else.  Well as a child I heard of Civvy Cats and having never heard that on TV or read it in a book I guess that was one of those things that I assumed was uniquely ours.  So you can imagine my surprise when I saw a whole article about them in the Tennessee Wildlife Magazine.

Okay, the authors didn’t actually call the critters Civvy Cats but I deciphered what they were talking about well enough that I can share it with you here.

First of all, what is definitely uniquely ours is pronunciation.  This species of skunk is spelled Civet.  But given that we add the long “e” sound to the end of lots of words (namely any name ending in “a” as in Gold-y or Marth-y) then it didn’t seem like much of a stretch that this French word would get the “e” in our vernacular. 

Next, what is the thing?  Well according to Brian E. Flock and Roger D. Applegate writing for the magazine of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, there are two species of skunks that call Tennessee home.  The striped skunk that we are all so familiar with and a spotted variety as well.  That spotted skunk is also known as a Civet.  And since skunks do resemble kitty cats we just call them Civvy Cats – I guess.  You know I’m always trying to figure the origins of these words.

So my mountain education told me that the particularly strong and annoying skunks were maybe Civvy Cats (as oppossed to the Pole Cat variety that was plenty stinky enough).  And according to Mr. Flock and Mr. Applegate, these Civets are very reclusive and even rare.  They prefer woodlands to fields and stay away from buildings.  In fact, I didn’t hear Civvy Cats mentioned very often.  Turns out Mr. Applegate is looking for the little spotted Civvy Cats – if you have pictures of them or know where some are holed up, please email him at: Roger.Applegate@tn.gov.

Isn’t it validating to see some of our language in for-real print?


A Jot and a Tittle

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A reader’s comment from last week’s article got me to thinking about a term I find myself using an awful lot – and remembering that my mother also says this and it used to really irk the young Beth who thought she knew so much more than her parents.  (Aren’t you glad you never suffered from that delusion?)

Mama was always saying, “Let me jot that down.” And I told her a million times, “you’re writing it down.”  After all, Tennessee’s public education system had told me that the proper verb was surely to write.  Well now I find myself jotting down all kinds of notes and lists and I can’t wait to explain to my children that the vernacular of the mountains is absolutely as acceptable as the Queen’s English they’ll find in their textbooks!

The reader’s comment last week mentioned that jot and tittle actually come from The Bible (Matthew 5:18) and that she was fascinated by the number of words we use that come straight out of God’s Word.  A few months ago I actually wrote on that subject here .  And just like that reader, I’m still just as fascinated by the occurrence of these words in our everyday English.   And it’s a very good exercise when a word we’re always saying drives us into The Bible to see where it came from – and if we’re using it the same way.

In the King James Version of The Bible, Matthew 5:18 says, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”  The English Standard Version translates jot and tittle as, “an iota…a dot” and the New American Standard Bible says “the smallest letter or stroke”. 

We are certainly still using the same general meaning but we’ve changed it from a noun to a verb.  And the phrase only appears in that one place in the King James translation with jot never appearing alone or as a verb.  Of course, Jesus Christ never actually wrote any of His sermons or commandments – except in the dirt – and the Apostle Paul’s epistles were too long to just jot down, you have to write a long letter. 




Upper Cumberland “Jargon”


In last week’s story I mentioned a local author, Carl R. Cooper, and his book Upper Cumberland “Jargon”.  Some discussion made me think that I should share more about this book .

I guess to begin at the beginning…

According to the book’s forward by former Fentress County Mayor John B. Mullinix, the author is the 8th generation of his family living in the Upper Cumberland – that’s a lot of generations for a region that was the Wild West during the formative years of our country (I can personally only count 7 generations, and I can’t wait to hear from you readers how many you can count).  Mr. Cooper’s early career was in broadcasting which one would fear would try to work-out the local vernacular.  However, during his mother’s waning years he found himself along with his siblings staying with her and listening a little more closely to the things she had to say.  He realized her command of Upper Cumberland English was something worthy of documentation.

Upper Cumberland “Jargon” lists “900 old words, sayings, phrases, and idioms that the people of the Upper Cumberlands use on a daily basis.”  His self-avowed purpose is to preserve a language that with wider communication and exposure is blending into the larger American language. 

Now you know that I’m really fascinated by regional dialects anyway.  And like Mr. Cooper I long to preserve every aspect of our Plateau heritage.  As I bump into terminology that people off the mountain cannot recognize, I will continue to share them among the stories.  And as you’ve heard me say before, I often have trouble differentiating our dialect from the rest of the world – I guess it’s just so much a part of me that I assume everybody talks this a’way!  

Here’s a sampling from Upper Cumberland ”Jargon”:

Court (To date)

Every jot and tittle (Every small detail)

Fair to middlin (fairly good / average)

Hind Catcher (Baseball catcher)

               Is that not a regulation title?  Who knew!

Libel (a good chance)

Lick and a promise (a hasty job)

Lights (Lungs)

               This was a new one to me.

Light Bread (Loaf bread)

               I think this one must have come about when commercial loaf bread became available.  Before that, homemade bread would have almost always have been whole wheat because you couldn’t create bleached white flour at home.

Old as Methusalah (very old)

On the mend (Feeling better)

Pine Blank (Exactly)

Plunder (Odds and Ends)

Pone (A lump)

Rared up (rose up)

Racket (noise)

Smidgen (Small amount)

Start in on me (To fuss or confront)

Tick (A homemade mattress)

Time about (Take turns)

Under the mountain (And area of Fentress County that is not on the Cumberland Plateau, notably the northern and especially the western valleys of Fentress County)

Yourn (Yours)


My copy of the book had a quiz inserted with a grading scale.  If you missed 6 you were “Country but you spent your summers in Muncie picking maters.”  If you missed 12 you “courted someone from the ‘Country’”.  Miss 14 and you “spent your vacation in this part of the country”.  If you missed 18 “you know someone from the ‘Country’”.

Please leave a comment below and tell me how many of these words you knew – and be sure to say where you’re from!


UPDATE: If you're interested in getting a copy of Upper Cumberland "Jargon", it is available at Country Bargains located on the square in Jamestown, TN.  Or, you can order a copy by emailing:  ccooper@twlakes.net.  The books are priced at $15 + $3 shipping.