Tennessee Mountain Stories

Trading Knives

My knife collection - the top 2 belonged to my Grandfathers and the bottom 2 were my Great-Grandfathers’

My knife collection - the top 2 belonged to my Grandfathers and the bottom 2 were my Great-Grandfathers’

I got to thinking about pocket knives after talking with a cousin who remembered my Grandpa coming to her mother’s house and saying, “Alright boys, throw your knife up here and let’s see who’s got the best ‘un.”  They’d all pull out their pocket knives and have a big time comparing and trading.

While they’re forbidden in schools and airplanes and frowned upon in lots of other places, a knife has endless uses and can be downright indispensable in some situations. Whether it’s a Marine Corps issue K-Bar, Leatherman multi-tool or Case’s little single blade you can protect yourself, dress game or save your nails when opening mail.  From trimming strings on a shirt collar to opening a bag of horse feed if you’ve got one in your pocket you’ll be reaching for your knife as though it’s an extension of your person.


If you’ve ever gotten in the habit of carrying a knife then you feel naked without it.  In fact, I often ask my Daddy if he’s got a knife (because I need one and don’t have one in my own pocket!) and he responds, “Have I got my pants on?” He had a little hospital visit a couple of years ago and left the knife at home.  Even on the drive home he was looking for that knife.

Carrying a pocket knife used to be a rite of passage in a young man’s life – and a rite that passed pretty early.  Knives are easily lost and blades often chip so I don’t suppose many of those boys ended with their original knife.  But I have been lucky enough to get some old knives passed on to me.  I doubt they hold any real value but like so many of my treasures that I’ve shared with you, they are priceless to me.  I have the knife that my Grandpa Henry Livesay carried really all of his life that I remember, and the one he carried right up till he died and I have knives from 2 of my great-grandfathers.  These are some of my greatest treasures because I know the men carried this close to them every day.  They are well used and that makes them all the more treasured to me because they were tools for my ancestors, things they used in their daily lives.

I don’t think I fully understand the joy of trading knives – and I’m hoping some of you fine readers will comment below and truly enlighten me.  But I know it was a game to my Grandpa and his brothers, cousins and nephews.  When he called them to throw down he had no plan of boasting a fine piece of steel beyond their means, no desire to embarrass anyone and certainly no plan to cheat any of them out of a valued blade.  They were family having family fun – and I’m sure they would extend that fun well beyond their clan whenever the opportunity arose.

Changing Time

The time changed this past weekend and we are supposed to be enjoying an extra hour of sleep each night.  Instead, my body refuses to adjust and I’m just up early.  Every time the clocks have to change to accommodate Daylight Savings Time I have to adjust – well we all do, don’t we?

DST History.jpg

As I began to think of Daylight Savings Time from an historical perspective I did a little research and found that I really did not know the history at all.  “Fast Time” was implemented during World War I to save lighting fuels for the war effort.  I had thought the concept was much older and had been designed to support the Industrial Revolution.

I’m always fascinated when I see old factory buildings with their numerous tall windows that remind me they were built and used before the rows of fluorescent lighting we’re so accustomed to in commercial buildings now.  Its’ not hard to imagine the importance of sunshine during working hours in those buildings.  Often you see the big arched spaces have been filled-in either with plywood or brick as they are now more of a security concern than a necessity.

In the Tennessee mountains however factories were of little concern as the hours of sunshine shortened with the approach of winter.  The schedule on a farm is set by the sun and the weather instead of a clock.  My daddy always said a dairyman should start his milking about 4 a.m.  As I think about that rule I suspect the time was more because many modern farmers work a public job and have to finish their milking in time to get to work.  On an earlier farm with no electricity, why would you go to the barn before daylight?  Coal oil was a precious commodity that cost hard earned pennies, it would not be burned to light chores that could be just as easily accomplished in another hour. 

We always think of farm families going to bed with the chickens.  Certainly after a day of hard physical labor you’re ready for a good night’s sleep, but as I think about this lighting issue I’m betting that was a big factor too.

The Great Night Sky

Meteor Shower.jpg

It seems to me that we are increasingly an indoor society.  We drive inside our cars which we park in garages which we access with a remote.  We pick up our food at drive through windows, have goods delivered to our door – it makes me wonder how long could you really go without your foot actually touching earth.

Now I’m a farm girl and somehow that means I gotta touch grass occasionally.  When I was in college – my first experience in the big city and surrounded by asphalt – I would get homesick for grass, I would crave the sun and wind on my face.  That’s never really left me yet I find myself getting caught up in running the house and running errands and my time walking in the woods or sitting in green pastures is frittered away.

Last week I did find the opportunity to sit out under the great night sky and watch the Orionid Meteor Shower and it renewed my need for open skies and fresh air.  I was out there at 5 a.m. and it was pretty chilly but it was wonderful.  My children were a little slower to join me but when they finally got out there they too could see the wonder of God’s work in the heavens and the cold faded into the background. 

I look at the vast expanse of space and see simple things (bright lights, twinkly stars, beauty).  But my husband was explaining how to navigate by the stars and teaching the children that men have been doing that for centuries, in fact they set out in tiny wooden ships across unknown waters guided only by those stars.  I’m way more comfortable marking my way by the rising of the sun against a mountain, unique trees or rock formations and other landmarks.  But never have I faced West and just started walking with no hope of a road sign or GPS signal. 

Those generations that went before were so brave.  Sure some immigrants were practically chased from their homes and they may not have been any more fearless than I when they climbed into the hold of a ship and drifted out to sea.  And the westward migration was driven by a quest for fortune, for a better life.   Still there were women who left everything they knew with no hope of ever seeing it again.  They left parents, siblings and friends.  They lived in a day when letters were their only hope of communication and regular mail deliveries were still a century away.  Yet that same bright sky I sat under just last week blanketed those adventurers so long ago; the same stars twinkled at them.  

I’ve been mourning the losses of several elderly relatives lately as I feel like so much history dies with them.  There are so many stories I haven’t heard and documented.  There are so many people I will never know from their memories.  Realizing the constancy of things like the night sky is somehow a comfort, isn’t it?

Remembering the Beginning

Are you ever amazed at how much time has passed since you saw someone or since some momentous occasion?  If you have children I’m betting you frequently look at them and think, “Where have the years gone?”

Well it’s been 5 years since I started Tennessee Mountain Stories and I can scarcely believe it.  Like so many things on the one hand it seems like only yesterday and on the other it seems that I’ve always shared these stories with you. 

The site actually launched on September 28, 2013 – but that was just introductory remarks.  Five years ago this week on October 12th was the first real story – and it’s still my very best one I think. So I wanted to share it with you here again.


1940’s era Station Wagon

1940’s era Station Wagon

Lacking good work opportunities on the Plateau, many families headed to the blue collar jobs in Ohio and Indiana.  When Uncle Tom decided he must move north, he loaded up his whole family - wife, six kids and his father-in-law, Bob.  Such belongings as would be needed for the journey and the stay up north were crammed-in wherever they would fit.  In fact, it seemed so many belongings had been packed that the kids were about to pop out of the car.  There was a head hanging out of every window.

Oh, and mountain folk are rarely guilty of letting a good hog-killing day pass… so you guessed it, Tom had butchered a hog before setting out.  There was no time for slicing, salting or smoking the pork, so the whole hog (minus the innards) was tied on top of the station wagon.

This is the picture that greeted his youngest sister when they stopped by her house.  Aunt Cecil stepped out on the front porch to speak to the family and see them off.  Grandpa lived with Aunt Cecil at the time, his wife having passed-on some years before. 

Grandpa was leaning against the house in a split-bottom chair and he scarcely stirred as his son and grandchildren pulled in.  He was unmoved by the hog resting atop the wagon. 

After a few words and well-wishes, but before the final round of good-byes, Bob managed to get his head out a window and called to Grandpa, “Dan’l (which is how you say Daniel in Appalachian) why don’t you come with us?”

With the invitation, Grandpa dropped the front legs of his chair to the porch, surveyed the situation and declared, “Ya know, I b’lieve I will.”

Aunt Cecil could hardly believe her ears.  She looked at her father.  She looked at her brother.  She looked at the station wagon.  She looked at the poor dead pig.  “Where are you going to put him?” she wondered.  But she said nothing.

Grandpa returned with his brown-paper luggage in hand, waved to his daughter and somehow managed to squeeze into the station wagon.  Miraculously, no children popped out.

And the family was off to find fortune – or at least livelihood – in Ohio.

But Grandpa Daniel’s hasty decision was not well thought-out.  After just a few days he was homesick and Tom had to load him back in the station wagon and drive right back to Tennessee.  The hog stayed in Ohio.


The Country Store

Peter's Store was the primary Country Store in Clarkrange

Peter's Store was the primary Country Store in Clarkrange

It goes without saying that some subjects can be covered with a quick article while others require volumes.  The Country Store is certainly a voluminous topic. 

I ran upon an article in a 1980’s era copy of The Monterey Dispatch written by Mary Robbins that got me thinking I ought to spend some time – someday – detailing events at the area’s country stores.  I want to share parts of her article verbatim with a promise to further explore this topic at a later date.

At one time, every small community in the rural South had its own small grocery store.  The store was the center of community activity for six days of the week, relinquishing that honor to the church only on Sunday and during revival meeting time.

Although the store was usually very modest in appearance, it was the product, not the package, that mattered for folks who lived anywhere from five to twenty miles from the nearest town of any size. 

Most folks who bought gas, as well as groceries, had it put on their “ticket”.  Having money to spend during the week was a luxury belonging to those who were able to go into town, anyway.  Every small store, dependent upon its “ticket” customers for survival, kept a record of purchases made during the week and took payment on Saturday.  For those customers who received their wages only once a month, the tickets were usually carried till “the first”.

Since the owner of the store and the customer were almost always neighbors or friends, each realizing the extent to which one was dependent upon the other, the arrangement worked well.  Payment was made on time, with few exceptions.  If there was sickness, or accident, or a spell of bad weather when the customer couldn’t work, he was given extension of payment until things got better.  There were exceptions, of course, on both sides.  If a customer did run up a bill and, for no apparent reason, wouldn’t pay, his credit was “cut off” and he would stop going by the store.   This meant he would have to wait till Saturday or the first of the month to go into town for groceries.

In addition to providing an excellent public forum, the country store offered other enticements to grown ups and children alike.  One of these was the cold drink cooler.  Usually somewhat battered, its once white enamel yellowed with age and use, it occupied a place of prominence beside the counter.  Not only did it hold within its cool, dime depths those wonderfully icy, deliciously “stingy” Coca-Colas and Pepsis that were always referred to generically as “pop”, but ice cream, also… brown cows, popsicles in a rainbow array of colors and flavors… grape, orange, banana, lime.  After a hard day’s work in the field or the log woods, stopping by the country store for a pop or an ice cream (or both!) was a treat that few could decline.

The country store offered a variety of items other than food, however.  Along its walls were shelves (sometimes rough planks laid on concrete blocks) filled with the staples so necessary to rural families… Mason jars and lids, flashlights, batteries, turpentine, liniment, matches, shoe polish and occasionally, delightful surprises such as comic books (Red Ryder, The Lone Ranger, Bat Man), a picture puzzle, and near Christmas, perhaps even a toy or two.  At Christmas, too, the store would receive fresh fruit, such as oranges, tangerines, big red and yellow apples, bananas.  And the kind of candy that was a rarity during the rest of the year… chocolate covered cherries, pastel coconut bon-bons.  The smell of the place, always interesting, was made almost unbearably fascinating and tantalizing when the fragrances of the fruit and candy mingled with that of the weathered walls and the ever-present barrel of kerosene.

The country store is almost a thing of the past.  Replaced by giant supermarkets with gourmet food sections and computerized check-out counters, the small grocery down the road a ways is fast disappearing… along with the two-room school and Fifth Sunday singings. 

Just once, I would like to walk down that dusty country road again, to satisfy my thirst with a Coke from that old cooler and listen to the ebb and flow of conversation above my head...”If we don’t get some rain, soon, why the gardens are goin’ to all dry up.”  “Folks over at the county seat are sayin’ Jim don’t have a chance against that lawyer fella in the County Judge’s race…”  “Times sure ain’t what they used to be…”


I’d love to hear your memories of the country store!  Please click on comments below and share.