Tennessee Mountain Stories

Summer’s Heat


We’re still a ways from the “Dog Days” of summer but it really seems to have heated up.  I think summer’s heat hurts me worse the more time I spend in the air-conditioned house; well that’s just logical I suppose since your body gets a little shock every time you suddenly go from the 70-something house to the 90-something outdoors.  And every passing year (and pound) increases the summer’s impact.

Still I can’t help but remember the days that I spent in fields picking beans or even helping with haying.  Even if I was just driving the truck while it was stacked high with square-baled hay, it was hot – that was almost worse because you couldn’t get much air and I remember the vent in the truck would throw so much dirt in my face that I almost preferred to have it off and catch whatever breeze would come through the truck’s rolled-down windows.

Now this is not an essay on global warming and without jumping into those theories I want to tell you it really was hot when I was a kid on the mountain.  Of course we didn’t have central air and I remember candles melting from the ambient heat in the house, squeaky screen doors open day and night and the relative cool to be found in the barns with their big stock doors and concrete or dirt floors.  Of course the barns only seemed cool until you had to start loading hay or chasing a cow.  And of course every evening everyone would go out on the porch after the afternoon sun had heated the house and the stove didn’t help any when supper was cooked.  I always thought it would be wonderful to have a television on the porch because there would be shows I was wanting to watch but it was so much more pleasant on the porch – what a dilemma.

And I had it easy.  Never did I spend a full day chopping corn.  Certainly I never worked a shift in the coal mine and then walked home.  These are the memories of a child who had the leisure to splash in every creek or mudhole that invited me, or to find a piece of shade and read for an hour.  The burdens are certainly heavier on adults with worries about how the dry weather would stunt the crops, whether we’d raise enough food for survive the winter or even the heat’s effect on fattening cattle were foreign to me.

Life has certainly changed on the mountain; I think the changes have softened us, made us to spend more time complaining about life’s little inconveniences and less time rejoicing in our blessings.  God has given us heat for sure, but there’s also lush green grass and trees, baby animals in spring and summer and fresh vegetables out of the garden.  So when we’re complaining about the heat lets remember how good we’ve got it!

I hope you’ll share your memories from hot summers past.

Now I have to get a glass of iced tea.

Greenwood Biscuits

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Biscuits are a scrumptious southern delicacy.  The ability to create them golden brown, light and fluffy is a mark of great culinary success.  Like all bread-y recipes, biscuits are impacted by a lot of factors from barometric pressure to freshness of leaven, and certainly the nuances of the oven.

Lots of folks on the mountain well remember their grandmothers and even their mothers cooking on a wood stove.  Well baking on a wood stove is nothing short of an art form!  And I guess a wood stove can produce some of the tastiest biscuits you’ve ever bitten into but the kind of wood that’s burning is going to greatly affect the taste of your bread.

Anytime we get biscuits that are something less than golden brown my Daddy always makes a face and says “greenwood biscuits”.  This is because the wood stove wants good dry hardwood.  If you try to cook over the soft woods, their fast burn will do the same thing to your food – burn it.  If the wood is wet or green then the heat is lower and insufficient to brown biscuits. 

Of course the bread is still perfectly edible – and who would turn away a biscuit just for the color?  Once you get it bathed with honey, molasses or apple butter would you even think about the color?  Still, there’s a pride in the heart of a southern woman and I guess pale biscuits are just a little embarrassing.

Maybe it’s an inside family joke, or maybe folks across the Plateau can appreciate the “greenwood” label.  The picture on today’s blog is from a restaurant where I recently ate with my Daddy.  I looked at him and said just one word, “greenwood” and he knew immediately my subject was biscuits.

By the way, it was about a year ago that I wrote about campfire cooking.  The biscuits I can produce there are affected by even more factors but even with a good fire from hardwood I usually end up with light spots and maybe even some burned bread.  That’s just my little confession – I’m not here to criticize anyone that’s ambitious enough to bake biscuits!

Have you ever eaten biscuits cooked on a wood stove?

Good News, Old News

Here’s an excerpt from the book I’m working on now…

As Katherine Ingle busied herself boiling coffee and cutting big slices of last night’s cake, Gracie pulled a tattered newspaper to her.  News was often hard to come by on the mountain and papers were read and shared until the print was practically worn from the pages.  Once illegible, the paper found additional uses around the farm.  The date on this paper was nearly a month ago… 

Photo courtesy of www.

Photo courtesy of www.

I wrote about the newspaper in that story because I needed to convey how news was disseminated way back in Gracie’s day.  Some people say newspapers are dead in this digital world.  I don’t know about that, but I know for sure that historically they were indispensable. 

Gracie’s ‘day’ was when news could not be pulled up online at a moment’s notice and no TV anchorman would read stories at 6:00 every evening.  In that day, the nickel price of a paper was a great deal of money and once spent should be shared as many times as possible.   Even when many of your neighbors weren’t able to read, the owner of a newspaper could still share the stories he’d read and therefore spread news.

This idea of recycling is very en-vogue these days and I’ve mentioned here before that it’s nothing new to the Cumberland Plateau where we’ve been reusing and repurposing from the very beginning.  The thing is that folks what don’t have a whole lot to do with will make do with whatever they’ve got!  And newspapers were something that came around every once in awhile and just like my characters in the book they were read and re-read.  Then they were very often used as insulation – I’ve heard more than one person tell about “reading the walls”.

Now my little boy has just got ahold of the idea that reading is a good thing and he’s reading everything from the cereal box to the road signs.  If we had print on the walls he’d be staring at it everyday.  Did I share back in the Clyde Whittaker series how he was fascinated by his Grandma Key’s house because she had newspapers on the wall and he would read them every time he went there – of course they didn’t change; those same pages would’ve hung there until air creeping through the cracks completely blew threw them.  Ken Taylor had mentioned the same thing about his house – I think there was a room that had been added on and rough-sawn boards were covered with newsprint in lieu of plaster or wallboard.  And what a fascinating cover they would make.

The paper was used elsewhere as well, and you can still find old papers occasionally stuffed into shoes or a purse to keep the wrinkles out – I bought an antique purse a few years ago and was amazed to find papers from a distant city, telling me a little of the journey that purse had made over the fifty-plus years since anyone had really used it.

Of course all kinds of things were wrapped in newspaper – isn’t that the classic fish container?   There weren’t any fish markets on the mountain - since everyone just went to the pond to collect their own fresh fish.

And newspapers make great patterns – dresses and quilt tops were always cut from the large sheets.  They were thin enough to pin through to attach the fabric, flexible for folding up unfinished work and most important of all that kind of paper was available.  String quilts could be sewn right onto the shaped pieces then easily peeled off leaving only the properly sized quilt block.

As I thought about the vanishing newspaper, I tried an internet search for all of its uses. I got fire starter and window washer, garden mulch (which was a new one for me but I’m going to try it!) and moving supplies.  Wonder why nobody on the internet is insulating with the newspaper?


The Natchez Trace

This will be our final installment from Harry Lane’s Tennessee Memories. I sure hope you’ve enjoyed it as I have certainly loved sharing it with you.

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One of the most famous highways in U.S. history is the Natchez Trace, that extended from Nashville, Tennessee across the western part of the state, thence across the northwestern tip of Alabama and across the heart of Mississippi to a terminus at Natchez, on the Mississippi River.  The Natchez Trace was the oldest land route of significance in the Trans-Appalachian South.  Between 1785 and 1825, it was also the most heavily traveled road in the part of the South that lay west of the Appalachians.  Several other names were applied to the Trace at various times:  Government Road, Robinson Road, Nashville – Natchez Road.

The Natchez Trace began as an Indian trail (as did spo many American roads) of the Chickasaws and Choctaws.  White traders began to use the trail as they entered the area, and as boat traffic developed in the Cumberland – Ohio – Mississippi system, boatmen began to use the Trace for their return journey overland to Nashville, having gone downriver to New Orleans or Natchez.  Many of these travelers returned on foot, for horses were expensive:  one could cost a month’s pay for a river man.  In 1801, the federal government opened a mail route between Nashville and Natchez; a treaty was effected with the Chickasaws to keep them from molesting travelers on the Trace, and to provide ferries at river crossings.  Various improvements and protective arrangements sprang from these beginnings, and the Natchez Trace soon became the main overland thoroughfare between the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee Valleys on the north, and Natchez and New Orleans in the south.

Despite the importance of the Natchez Trace in the commerce of frontier Tennessee and nearby states, the route was not easy and it remained dangerous in places through its history.  Robbers were so troublesome on the Trace that at times, federal troops were dispatched there for the protection of travelers.

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, river-boating increased, as for a while, so did Natchez Trace traffic; but the advent of the steamboat on the Mississippi River about 1820, with its capability of upstream navigation, reduced the use of the Trace, and it ceased to exist within a few years.  IN 1937, a federal parkway was begun along the route of the Old Natchez Trace, and part of this historic road has been open to automobile traffic for most of the subsequent years.

One of the interesting but sad stories of the heyday of the Natchez Trace involves the famed American explorer, Merriweather Lewis.  This famous man gained lasting renown as one of the leaders of the Lewis-Clark Expedition to the Northwest, following the Louisiana Purchase.  A U.S. Army captain who was once President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary, Lewis was killed on the Trace in Tennessee, near present-day Hohenwald.  The county in which he was killed now bears his name.

The Trail of Tears and Nancy Ward

Text and Artwork from Harry Lane’s Tennessee Memories

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One of the most unhappy stories in Tennessee history involves the removal of Cherokees from East Tennessee by the U.S. Army in 1838, to areas west of the Mississippi River – Oklahoma in particular.  The questionable Treaty of New Echota of 1835 was the legal basis for white claims to Cherokee land, and for the eventual removals of the Indians three years later.

Despite spirited legal opposition by Chief John Ross, other Cherokees, and by some white sympathizers, most Cherokees who remained in Tennessee at that time were uprooted and required to leave under military escort.  [It is an interesting sidelight in the state’s history that only one Tennessee Congressman voted against a bill passed by the U.S. Congress for removal of the Cherokees.  That man was the famous hero of the Alamo, Davy Crockett, who was promptly defeated in the next election.]  John Ross was among those who took the sad route westward, which came to be known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Some Indian were able to escape the dislocation suffered by the others, by hiding in remote places in the Great Smoky Mountains.  These remaining ones were later aided by a white North Carolinian, one Will Thomas, in obtaining an Indian reservation – the Qualla Reservation – at Cherokee, North Carolina.  Many Cherokees still live there today. 

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Nancy Ward:  Tennessee’s Pocahontas

Nancy Ward is one of the most intriguing women in Tennessee and United States history.  Born about 1740 at Chota (also spelled Chote), the Cherokee capital on the Little Tennessee River, Nancy became the principal female of the Cherokee nation, and an important figure in the story of the Volunteer State.

Nancy was the sister of a Cherokee chief and cousin of Dragging Canoe, a fierce and dangerous war chief.  First married to an Indian, Nancy fought as a warrior in a battle against Creek Indians in northern Georgia, after her husband was slain.  She was given the title of “Beloved Woman” in appreciation of her exploits following the battle.  This title made her the most powerful woman of the Cherokees, with a voice in the nation’s councils, and the ability to pardon prisoners of war.  She was given a swan’s wing as her badge of authority.

In a remarkable incident that is reminiscent of Pocahontas’ rescue of John Smith, Nancy saved Brian Ward, and English trader, from death at the hands of the Cherokees about the time of the fall of Fort Loudoun (1760).  She was friendly to white settlers and saved many through intercession when they were captured.  Those she saved included Lydia Bean, wife of the first permanent white settler at Watauga.  Desiring peace, Nancy did all she could to avoid bloody conflicts between the Indians and whites.  Her late years were spent operating an inn on the Ocoee River near Benton, Tennessee, where the Federal Road crossed the stream.  She died there in 1822.  Her grave is nearby.