Tennessee Mountain Stories

The Preacher and the Old Woman that was a-livin’ in the Dark

Callie Melton includes in “Pon My Honor” a section she calls ‘One for the Road’ and this story falls into that section.

Up here there’s always a whole passel of jokes and tales going around about preachers.  But they are always good-natured jokes and tales, for we are very careful to tell them on our own denomination.  This is done for two mighty good reasons.  First, we just don’t joke with anybody or about anything that we don’t think a right smart of.  Then, too, we all hold mighty strong with what we was brought up with.  Why, it’s just like family.  You can say anything you want to about your own blood and kin, but you just d-double dare anybody else to open his mouth about anybody that’s a-kin to you, no matter how far off it may be.

So, since I was once a member of that church, and still have mighty strong leanings in that direction, I’ll tell this one on the Campbellites.

Picture courtesy of Jane Ashburn

Picture courtesy of Jane Ashburn

One time there was this here Campbellite preacher who went away back up in the mountain to Walker Holler.  Now don’t ask me where Walker Holler was, for if I told you, you still wouldn’t know… so let me get on with my story.  He was wanting to hold a protracted meetin’ up there if he could find enough people and a good place.  From what he’d heard about Walker Holler, them poor people didn’t get much gospel up there.

So, one day he’d just put his Bible and his song book in his saddlebags and had started out.  He rode, and he rode, and he rode till finally he’d gone about as far as he could go when he come to this house.

He hollered the house, and this old woman come to the door.  He told the old woman that he was a stranger in them parts, and he asked her for a drink of water.  She told him to get down and come in.  So he got down, hitched up his mule and went in to get his drink and to visit awhile.

Him and the old woman talked about the weather and the crops, and then the Preacher told her that he was trying to find out if there was any Campbellite in them parts.

“Why, I don’t know,” she told him.  “My old man hunts a powerful lot, so you kin go out to the smokehouse and look amongst his hides.  You jest might find one o’ them varmints.”

The Preacher just set there and looked at her for a minute with his mouth open.  He was might nigh dumbfounded at what she’d said.
Then he asked her, “My good woman, don’t you know that you are  a-living in the dark?”

Picture courtesy of Jane Ashburn

Picture courtesy of Jane Ashburn

“Oh! I shore do,” she said, “and I’ve been a-tryin’ fer quite a spell to git the ol’ man to cut us out a winder.  But you know he holds that it’s bad luck to cut out an openin’ atter the house is done built.”

The Preacher was plumb flabbergasted at this, so he just said, “But don’t you know that there’s a Judgement Day a-comin’?  Don’t you want to go?”

The old woman fingered her apron for a minute, then she said, “I hadn’t heerd about hit, but I wouldn’t git to go anyhow.  Hit’ud be too fur to walk.  And you know we don’t have but one ol’ mule and the ol’ man alllers has to ride him.”

Now the old woman just about had the Preacher up a gum stump for something else to say.  Finally he asked her, “But don’t you know that Jesus died fer you?”

“Oh! Mercy no!” she said.  “Why, I didn’t even know that the pore feller was ailin’.”

At this the Preacher just got up and went out and got on his mule and took off home.  When somebody asked him later how he made out up in Walker Holler, he shook his head and went on mumbling to himself, “I wouldn’t a-believed hit iffen I hadn’t a-heard hit with my own years.”

The Gully-Washer and Dam-Buster

Excerpt from Callie Melton’s ‘Pon My Honor

Youg’uns may learn a lot more things at school now than they used to, but I’ll guarantee they don’ have half as much fun.  Why, we all laugh fit to kill ever time we think about one day when we played meetin’ at Windle.

Now the Methodists always held their protracted meetin’ at Shiloh just about the time that school started at Windle, so we’d always play meetin’ ever recess time all fall.  There’d always be somebody good at preaching, another at leading the singing, and somebody else’d do the praying.

Miss Minerva was teaching there the year that just about ended our meetin’s.  It was one day at dinner recess, when we’d all grabbed a piece of cold bread and meat in one hand and a baked sweet  tater in the othern, and took off across the big gully to the patch of woods where we played.  There was a big flat stump on the hillside that the preacher stood on, while the rest of us’d set on the ground in front of him.  We’d been to Shiloh that morning to preaching, so everbody was all tuned up for a good’un.

Earl was doing the preaching that day, and his text was on whatever it was that he’d heard that morning.  He preached real good, and if you hadn’t known that it was just a bunch of young’uns playing, you’d have swore that it was a meetin’ going on over there in the woods.

The good old stirring hymns like OLD TIME RELIGION, FATHER’S GOT A HOME and ON JORDAN’S STORMY BANKS were sung with feeling, and when the altar call was made the Mourner’s Bench was full.  A good old sister or two would give a shout now and then, and the “A-men’s” were heard on ever side.  Then Earl called on O.B. to pray.  Now O.B. really threw himself into it.  Long and loud he prayed, and over and over he begged, “Lord, send us a gully-washer and a dam-buster.”

No telling how long all this would have gone on, but the bell for books broke it up and everbody took off for the schoolhouse.

Not long after dinner a quick cloud come up, the wind begin to [b]low, and great deep peals of thunder shook the house.  The young’uns all got scared, and some of the littlest’uns begin to cry.  Just as the downpour of rain come, Miss Minerva started the whole passel of us across the footlog to the nearest neighbor’s house.

It looked like the sky had just opened up and was letting it all come down at once, but Miss Minerva stood there at the footlog and watched all the young’uns safely across.  Then, as she started over she remembered her Divine Book that was so precious to her, so back to the schoolhouse she run to get it.  When she finally got back to the footlog, the water was rolling down the gully like a tide, and it had just about covered the log.  But she dashed out on it anyway.  Then about middle-ways across she lost her footing and fell in.  Some of the big boys were watching and saw her, so they run out and managed to catch her down-stream and pull her out.  But her Divine Book was washed away, and she was might night drownded.

Now O.B. and Earl were half-grown before they quit crawling under the bed ever time it thundered.  And never again would they play meetin’.  They thought for sure that the Good Lord had answered O.B.’s prayers for a “gully-washer and a dam-buster.”

Grandpa Smith – Part 2 from Callie Melton’s ‘Pon My Honor

Following is an excerpt from ‘Pon my Honor by Callie Melton:



Since I’m dedicating this book to Grandpa Smith, I think I should tell you a little more about him other than his name and dates… names and dates don’t tell much about a person really, but they are important just the same.  Grandpa was known far and wide as Uncle Alex… and I don’t guess he ever saw a stranger in his whole life… he probably met a lot of people that he’d never seen before, but to him they were simply friends he’s just met.

Grandpa was a typical Tennessee Mountaineer… kind, gently, easy-going, free-hearted, not too work brickle, and with a marvelous sense of humor.  No matter what the situation, he could find something funning in it… like the story he’d tell of the old woman whose husband was being buried that day.  Everything was ready to go from the house to the graveyard for the funeral, but the neighbor man who was going to haul the old man to the graveyard was late getting there.  Since idleness was a cardinal sin in the pioneer existence, the old woman set for a few minutes after she’d put on her bonnet.  Then she got up and got her work, turned to the rest of the women and said, “They’s no use to waste time.  We kin jest knit while we air a-waitin’ fer the wagin.”

Grandpa couldn’t read or write, but that didn’t mean he was ignorant.  He knew more about the things around him than anyone I have ever known.  The weeds, the herbs, the trees, the birds… you just name it and Grandpa could tell you something interesting about it.  We had few books when we were growing up, so if we wanted to know about something we had to ask Grandpa.  He would tell us about the weather… the dominecker clouds, the mare’s tail clouds, the sunsets, the sunrises, the cricket’s chirrup, the train at Algood climbing the Brotherton Mountain… and what each thing told him about what kind of weather was in store for us.

He was a born fisherman, and when he’d take us fishing he’d always tell us the do’s and don’ts to obvserve if we wanted to catch any fish.  He’d tell us of the big mud turkles [sic] that lurked in the dep pools, and how they’d hang on till it thundered if they got their teeth in one of our toes.  He’d tell us about the seven different kinds of meat in a turkle’s body, and how good turkle meat was if you cooked it right.

He’d tell us about the time of the Big Snow and Freeze that had happened long before any of us young’uns were born, and how it got so cold that the chickens froze to death and fell off the roost… and down on Martin’s Creek even some people froze to death, too.  Then there’b be the story of the time of the total eclipse of the sun, when it got so dark at mid-day that the cows come up to the gap to be milked and the chickens flew up to roost, and how many people thought it was the end of Time and were just about scared to death…things like that were going to happen for there was nothing, not even an almanac, in the way of weather forecasting.

We would be afraid to go to sleep after he’d told us about Big and Little Harp, and the awful things they’d done… slitting babies’ throats and knocking little boys’ brains out, as well as killing about any grown person they run into.  He’d tell us about Tinker Dave Beaty, the notorious Yankee bushwhacker, and the people he’d killed and the man things he’d done… and how he was even meaner than the Harps for he’d had a good raising and maybe they hadn’t.

Grandpas’ speech was as full of tang and color as the leaves on Clark Mountain in the fall, or a glass of hard cider fresh from the springhouse.  He never lacked for a word or an expression to give us his exact meaning… but he talked just like everybody else did who lived in his time and place.  He never cared for material things… just enough food to keep him from being hungry, enough clothing to keep him warm in cold weather, and a place to shelter him from the elements.  He wasn’t a leading light in the Church, but I never heard him swear or use a dirty word in my life… nor did I ever know him to do a mean or under-handed thing… I don’t believe he had a mean bone in his whole body.

Grandpa lived a long and a full life… from pioneer days through the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, and into the horrors of World War II.  He loved everything and everybody… but he loved us young’uns better than anything else.  He died praying to live only until his grandsons got home from Across the Waters so he could see them once more.

Grandpa enriched our lives greatly.  He was the hub around which our world turned while we were growing up.  He did not leave us anything in a material way, but he left us something infinitely more valuable than gold or silver.  We miss him still, but we do not think of him with sorrow.  And that is the way he would have it be… that we remember with joy the days he lived among us.  He would have us be the kind of young’uns that would do him proud… good, kind, generous, and above all, full of the joy of living no matter what our lot.

Callie Melton’s “Spring in Appalachia”


A cousin recently shared some old newspapers another cousin had been saving for a few decades and I will be sharing some excerpts from them over the next few weeks, very much like the Soap Makin’ article last week.

This week’s article comes from The Standing Stone Dispatch.  There’s no date on the paper but based on some of the advertisements I deduce it was printed in the early 1980’s.  In “Spring in Appalachia” Callie Melton mirrors many of my own thoughts so I’ll share some excerpts from this article verbatim.


Ever since we were discovered, we of the Appalachian Area have been probed, prodded, surveyed, measured, evaluated, talked about, and written about… and most of the people doing this have had no earthly idea of what they were seeing or hearing.  They were… and are… people who have come in, stayed for a year or two at most then become instant authorities on the whole subject.

Almost to a person we have resented this.  We are what we are, and we are proud of it, for our heritage is second to none.  There are a few natives who have written about us honestly and truthfully… but it’s like trying to describe a taste or an aroma… this describing us and our ways.  You have to live a mighty long time among us to understand our talk and fathom our ways.

…Most of us were cut off from the outside world for more than 300 years.  No roads, no waterways…only the Buffalo Trails and Indian Traces leading in, and once in nobody wanted to leave.  What we had came in with us over-moutain on pack horses from North Carolina and Virginia… and what we brought consisted of wife and youg’uns, a few iron cooking pots, a few iron tool heads, a few precious seeds wrapped in deerskin and carried in the cooking pot for safety during the traveling.

We settled on the rivers and up on the steep hillsides, and always by a big sweet-flowing spring.  Trees were cleared, a cabin built and chinked, a few out-buildings thrown u, with room for truck patches nearby.  Wild game furnished the meat, and the skins were tanned to furnish the leather.  Eating utensils were carved from the soft buckeye wood, while the harder woods furnished the tubs, barrels and piggins, and the ax, maul and the hammer handles.  And thus we made our first homes in the new area in a corner of what is now called Appalachia.

But what makes us of this area so unique is that along with ourselves, our seeds and our cooking pots, we brought along our beliefs, our habits, our customs and our superstitions.  And down through the years through thick and thin, we have hung onto them… we have always fought change like we fight sin and the devil… for what was good enough for Pap and Grandpa was, and still is, good enough for us.  Mostly we were English, German and Scotch-Irish… and we came to this new country for two main reasons… homes and religious freedom.  We had known hard times, fear and deprivation in the lands from whence we came… so even though the wilderness and the Red Man held terrors for us, we faced them willingly just ot be able to have our own bit of soil and to worship our God in our own way. 

…We were not so bad off… danger and hard work abounded, but so did food and shelter, and the other necessities of life could be obtained here the same way we got them before we came to this area.  So, we dug in for a long hard struggle… and in this struggle we developed a way of life and a character that you will not find the likes of elsewhere in the world.

Soap Makin’ per Callie Melton

The following is from an article written by Callie Melton for the Standing Stone Dispatch in the early 1980’s.  I present it verbatim.

Soap making was a full day’s work and it just didn’t start on any day you up and thought about making it.  You had to look ahead and figure out the next time the moon would full… then you set the day, for if you made the soap on the waning of the moon it would all dry up to nothing.  All winter the meat scraps had been carefully saved in a big oak box in the smokehouse.  It is true that we used all of the pig but the squeal… soap making proved that. 

The night before you were going to make soap, bucket after bucket of water had to be carried from the rain barrel and poured in the ash hopper to leach out the lye.  Then, the next morning right after breakfast, the big was kettle was set up and filled with water also from the rain barrel… you had to have soft water to make good soap and leech out lye.

A fire was put under the kettle, and while the water was getting hot, the women were busy getting the meat scraps ready.  When the water was boiling, the lye was put in.  You kept adding the lye until you could swish a feather from a chicken’s wing through the water two or three times, and then when you pulled it through your fingers it would slip… slipping meant that all the feather part would slip off from the shaft.  Now that the lye water was strong enough, you began putting the meat scraps in.

You put in a handful at a time, stirring all the time with the soap stick…the soap stick was a stout stick made from a limb of a sassafras bush.  The sap from the Sassafras made your soap smell good.   When you stirred, you always stirred clock-wise, for if you didn’t stir your soap right it wouldn’t set… and a woman was judged not only by the way her young’uns acted, but also by the kind of soap she made.  You added the meat scraps a handful at a time until the lye would not eat up anymore.  Then you stirred your soap carefully and cooked it slowly until it began to get thick.  Now the fire had to be raked out from under the kettle, and the soap let cool.  When the soap was cod, you covered the kettle with wide boards to keep out the dew or rain until morning.  The next morning you cut the soap out in blocks, and put it on wide planks in the smokehouse to cure.  Good soap was hard and creamy smooth when it was cured, with not bits or pieces of uneaten meat, and it lathered up good when you washed with it… Soap you took a bath with was made from butter or lard and was whiter and finer and you always stirred it with a fresh sassafras stick.