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.
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.