Tennessee Mountain Stories

Taking a Little Break

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As the summer winds down and school is about to ramp up I have to confess I’m finding myself just a little tad overwhelmed!

So The Stories will take a short break this week and be back with a bang next Friday (hmmm, is there a story in guns, cannons or other noisemakers!?!)

If you aren’t receiving Tennessee Mountain Stories in your inbox each Friday morning, this might be a great time to subscribe! Just click in the box on the right hand of the screen and leave me your email address.

We’re Porch People

Well a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the dog days of summer coming early and now it’s turned off cooler than we usually expect in late July.  And it’s perfect porch weather!  You may recall from an earlier post that I’m a big fan of the Cumberland Homestead and since they’ve kindly stocked my books in their Homestead Tower Museum, I’ve been spending more time in that community of late.  The museum’s curator and I were just discussing that the houses were clearly not designed by a local person because not a one of them has a decent porch – and we are porch people.

We visit on the porch, work on the porch, rock babies, pet the dog, churn butter – most anything that needs doin’ on a hot summer day can be attended to on the porch.  And while you’re there you can watch the world go by and enjoy the lush green beauty of the mountain. Porches are therapeutic.  You can look out on the work you’ve accomplished as you see rolls of hay ready for the winter or rows of beans and corn waiting to grace the supper table.  It’s a great place to share your troubles with a friend or find God’s answers to your troubles in His word.  The porch is a cool refuge from the hot sun or a dry spot in a rain shower. 

I want to pass along two great little stories people have shared with me about porches.

Along about 1940 my great uncle Edsil Stepp was visiting his oldest sister who’d married and moved to Muddy Pond.  Aunt Wealthy wasn’t one to let much grass grow under her to so I’d imagine she had him busy and he escaped in the early evening to rest a moment on the front porch.  He heard before he could see a group of girls walking along the dirt road and when they came into view he hollered a greeting.  “Where ya’ goin’?” was a natural question for him and they told him they were on their way to church.  I’m not sure whether Roasalee Sisco was concerned for his immortal soul or  if she just thought him handsome but she spoke up and said, “You ought’a come with us.”  As any young man in his right mind would do, he hopped off that porch and went on to church with them.  They were married in the winter, and remained so for the next 63 years.

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Alvin C. York is a renowned World War I hero who hailed from the northern end of Fentress County in Pall Mall.  After Seargant York returned from the war the Nashville Rotary Club raised the money to buy him and his new bride, Miss Gracie, a home.  They build a Colonial Revival home on the 400 acre farm.  I toured the home with one of their sons who served as the park ranger there for many years.  He said her first reaction to seeing her beautiful new home, ‘we’ve got to have a porch.’  And she did – they immediately had a large front porch built.

I don’t know about you but these days I find myself running from one project to the next event or appointment.  Find some time today to sit on the porch – you’ll be glad you did.

Reunions Then and Now

This weekend I will gather with a group of extended family – relatives of my paternal great grandmother.  We’ve talked here before about how I enjoy the family reunions and looking forward to this visit I’ve been thinking just how blessed I am to know so many of my distant relatives.  One my cousins shared these pictures with me a couple of years ago and when I came across them again recently I knew I wanted to pass them along to you. 

This is the Norris family, gathered nearly 75 years ago.  Tom Norris was my great-great-grandfather and some of his siblings moved all the way off the mountain to Sparta, TN.  Now what is today a 45 minute drive must have been a whole other world in that mule-drive era because these relatives came to visit but rarely.  The day commemorated in these photos drew all of the plateau-family together for a full day of fellowship.  I don’t know that the two siblings that joined these people ever saw each other again after this day, at least not this side of heaven. 


How I wish I could sit right in the middle of that bunch today.  Can you imagine the stories?  What history they could teach us.  What characters they’d known and oh the memories they must have shared.  Tom was born in 1857 and seems to have lived his whole life on the Cumberland Plateau.  Nicey was born about 1865 their father had come from North Carolina along with his parents and at least one brother. Do you suppose that Tom and Nicey had heard the stories of that move across the Smoky Mountains to the western frontier of Tennessee? I wonder how they ever even found our plateau and why they chose to settle here?

Well despite all my questions, there’s no going back in time however I can certainly spend some time with the remaining Norris relatives.  Some of the stories from that long-ago reunion will be shared again this weekend – after all, we remember the stories only because we keep telling them.  Many of the people in these pictures will be remembered when we’re together and even though most of the people at that long ago reunion died before I ever knew them, their character lives on because we pass the memories along.


The Census Question

The media is abuzz with the 2020 census question, “Are you a US citizen?”  Now this is not a political blog and I’m not here to weigh in with my opinions.  However, as a (very) amateur genealogist I can’t help but think about the historical data we have in the census records.

Census-taking is an age-old practice.  Way back in King David’s time, he took a census of the people of Israel and got in a lot of trouble with the Lord for doing it.  God had been trying for ages to get His chosen people to trust Him, not the size of their army or depth of their coffers, yet King David was counting how many soldiers he could raise.  However, it wasn’t the act of counting the people that angered the Lord and in fact God had commanded Moses to count the people back in the book of Numbers (4:48).  Later Solomon would conduct a census specifically counting foreigners in the land and making representatives of that group to do their part in building the temple.

Of course the United States has been counting some of the people for centuries – it’s even commanded in the constitution.  In fact the first census was conducted just 2 years after the constitution was ratified.  Of course the colonials had already been numbered while they were still under British sovereignty.  Since then every 10 years America counts its people and asks all kinds of different questions.  That information has been saved (except a few records lost in fires such as nearly the entire 1890 census) and now we can look back at them and learn about our ancestors, our nation and our history. 

I’m willing to admit to you what a number-nerd I am when I tell you that I just love the census records.  I’ve shared with you no less than 10 times in Tennessee Mountain Stories things I’ve learned from studying census records.  From patterns in families and homes to mysterious, missing family members or long-forgotten neighbors, these door-to-door snapshots preserve an awful lot.

Of course the question at hand right now is not whether to count but the specific questions to ask.  Over the years the questions have changed and I really wish I knew the reasons for the specific questions, although it’s not too difficult to imagine some of them.

The 1840 census listed only heads of household by name, ‘number of free white persons’, and then ‘total all persons free-white, free-colored, [and] slaves’.     Contrast that to the 1810 census that asked only for ‘free white persons’ broken down in age groups then a single ‘number of household members’ total.  Because we are truly a nation of immigrants, until 1890 the Federal government seemed to only differentiate between free or enslaved people of color and everyone else was just “white”.

In 1890 we start getting a lot more detail, and frankly that’s when the records get more exciting for me.  Each individual began to be listed with birthplace questions as well as employment and education.  There is actually a question, “Is this person naturalized?” and “Has this person taken naturalization papers out?”  These questions certainly recognize the vast number of immigrants and seek to measure the progress toward citizenship. 

I find the questions about place of birth particularly fascinating because you can see the migration of family.  Maybe one parent was born abroad while another was born in the northern states.  Then 10 years later you see them married and maybe they’ve moved farther south.  Sometimes you can see deep roots as a family stays in one area decade after decade. 

I think I’ve mentioned before that one branch of my family moved to the Cumberland Plateau from Virginia with a few years’ layover in Anderson County, Tennessee.  When I look at the census records there are several different family names that made a similar trek and I wonder whether they were friends from back in Virginia.  Did they leave Virginia for the same reasons?  Were they travelling together and purposely settled in close proximity on the mountain?  I say it again and again, but I’m often left with more questions than answers – which just drives me to keep researching.

I don’t know what questions will finally be answered in 2020 and I can’t really imagine my descendants will be looking for if they pull those records in 50 years or more.  I’m just glad to know the data will be collected and I hope they have as much fun with it as I’ve had with the records from 1890 forward.

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.