Tennessee Mountain Stories

Cumberland: What’s in a Name?

From Harry Lane’s Tennessee Memories

Prince William, Duke of Cumberland

Prince William, Duke of Cumberland

Today’s excerpt from Mr. Lane’s writings is short but he touches on a term we routinely use, calling our plateau home “the mountain”, so I wanted to be sure to include it.  I’d love to hear your comments below.

The origin of this name lies in England; the name was first applied in Tennessee when a section of what is now the Cumberland Plateau was name the Cumberland Mountains in honor of the Duke of Cumberland.

Ambiguity has arisen across the years and has continued in the application of the name.  The name Cumberland Plateau is applied to the southern section of the Appalachian Plateaus, from Kentucky through Tennessee and into northern Alabama.  The section of the Appalachian Plateaus in West Virginia, eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania, and southern New York is called the Allegheny Plateau.

On the other hand, there is a very rough, irregular, high section of the Cumberland Plateau – the original part of which the name was first applied – that is still known as the Cumberland Mountain.  Making things a big more confusing is the fact that many Highland Rim citizens refer to any part of the plateau as “the mountain.”  “Up on the mountain” is a commonplace expression on the Rim.

The Cumberland River flows across the Plateau in Kentucky and Tennessee leaving the plateau to cross the Highland Rim and the Central (Nashville) Basin, finally flowing back across Kentucky and entering the Ohio River not far from the mouth of the Tennessee River.  The river mouth is distant from the territory originally called Cumberland.

Margaret’s Faith - what's it all about?

Last week I officially introduced Margaret’s Faith to you.  Today I thought I’d share some of the story with you…


Margaret Book Cover ART.jpeg

Margaret Elmore reads every printed word she can find.  She longs to see the glamorous and adventure-filled world that she’s read about.  But in 1863, her father is trying to keep his family out of the way of two warring armies.  That means staying close to home on their farm on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. 

Then one October morning Union soldier Philip Berai wanders onto the farm.  Lawrence Elmore’s first thought is to protect the family and home from a possible raiding party.  But this lone soldier turns out to be a danger to only one member of the family, Margaret.  He weaves a story of emigrating from Italy with a dream of building a great fortune.  Eighteen year old Margaret is mesmerized and when Philip leaves a few days later, she runs after him.

Margaret turns a blind eye to the differences in this man’s values and her family’s.  She ignores God’s gentle prodding.

They marry and travel together to Chicago where Philip was living with his brother before the war.  When they arrive, Margaret quickly realizes there is little glamour in this city life.  But she has been raised to hard work and devotion to family.  Without question, she begins to make a home for her new husband. 

I hope you will enjoy walking with Margaret from northern Cumberland County, Tennessee to Chicago, Illinois. You will taste the life on a borderland farm – caught between two warring armies as the people of the Plateau were during The Civil War.   You may even feel the internal battle Margaret wages when her eyes are finally opened to her situation.  Can you identify with her struggle to find joy in the things the world considers desirable? Maybe there’s been a time when you’ve had to face The Lord and admit you rebelled against His will for your life.

You will see a young woman among evil surroundings trying to live a godly life.  And you will see her begin to bloom where she is planted.


Found: A New Cemetery

Highland Cemetery in Dry Hollow, Tennessee.  Can you see the steeple of the little church peeking up beyond the hill?  

Highland Cemetery in Dry Hollow, Tennessee.  Can you see the steeple of the little church peeking up beyond the hill?

Lorene and Loretta.jpg

Well I had a grand time on Decoration Day last Sunday and I sure hope you can all report the same.  I’m sorry I didn’t get to visit with many of you.  When I arrived at Campground with rain threatening, there were only a handful of people.  I did get to see one neighbor, Lorene, who isn’t able to get out much these days due to an ailing husband, several Atkinson and Miller cousins and a couple of Stepps.

My Uncle Leon made a passing statement about locating some ancestral graves and mentioned a cemetery that I had visited once many years ago.  You know it doesn’t take much to send me on an adventure and he did it!  So, after the traditional visit to The Whittaker Cemetery (and no ice cream this time, I’m afraid), we headed North East off the mountain toward Livingston.

Highland Freewill Baptist Church

Highland Freewill Baptist Church

In 1928, my Great-great Granmdother, Sarah Jane Langford Stepp was staying with her son Wilburn on the mountain bench below Monterey in a community called Dry Hollow.  At seventy-nine years of age, she passed away in her son’s home.  Even on today’s roads and in cars that run the fifty-five mile per hour speed limit, that’s an hour’s drive from the Burrville community where she raised her family.  I can’t quite imagine what it would have been in that day.  We don’t actually know where her husband had been buried thirty-seven years earlier but we believe it to be near Jamestown, which would have been forty-five minutes in another direction – again that’s driving on modern roads – but all of the family had left that area anyway.  So, they did the only thing they could do and buried her in Highland Cemetery.

I don’t know if she saw the end coming and was able to have any input on her final resting place, but I cannot imagine a more beautiful spot to leave your mother.  The cemetery sits atop a low rise amid towering mountains on all sides.  At the foot of the hill is an absolutely picturesque little church, Highland Freewill Baptist Church.  Pastor Derek Parsons was good enough to supply a brief sketch of the church’s history.  While that adorable building only dates to the 1970’s, the congregation was established about 1907.  When their churchouse burned they continued meeting in homes or yards until a new building could be erected using volunteer labor and lumber harvested from the neighboring hillside.  The floor joists were hand hewn. 


The cemetery is even older, with at least two civil war veterans buried there.  The oldest grave I found was 1873, unfortunately the name was unreadable, however someone clearly knows its occupant for that was one of the graves adorned with a brand new Confederate flag.  The community has continued to utilize the land and new graves with modern granite stones share the space with the very old, covered graves.  A new section seems to have opened with two graves sitting on the opposite side of the driveway.

Not knowing this part of the country very well (if you’re reading this and can enlighten me, by all means please do so in the comments below), I can’t help but wonder where the large slabs of quarried stone came from.  There are several graves completely covered with them, and some are huge.  I couldn’t imagine the effort required to haul those stones to the top of that mountain.  Although it’s not too hard to believe loved ones were more than willing to put that effort into preparing and preserving their family plots. 

As I looked around this quiet little community, my creative brain began to spin with questions.  That same creativity will write the stories if it can’t find any facts – this valley will certainly appear in an upcoming book.

Rock Wall on Bear Hollow Road.  The original Highland Freewill Baptist Church building stood on Bear Hollow Road; it burned in the 1970's.

Rock Wall on Bear Hollow Road.  The original Highland Freewill Baptist Church building stood on Bear Hollow Road; it burned in the 1970's.

Apple Stack Cake

After sharing the story of my delicious failure at boiled icing, one of you treasured readers mentioned Apple Stack Cake and I thought I needed to make one soon.  Now, this rich cake needs people to eat it, so I had to wait for an event and the church homecoming seemed like an ideal time. (We need to talk about homecomings sometime, don’t we?)

Just between you and me, I’m not a big fan of potlucks and I’ll tell you why.  I cook old fashioned.  Learned from my grannies, loved their cooking and I find again and again I go back to their recipes and their methods.  That’s just fine and my table is often filled, however, my rather homely dishes can’t often compete with brightly colored jello, Cool Whip and canned cake icings.  As a result, I tend to bring a lot of my food back home after a potluck and it’s just a little depressing.  But just for you I made the stack cake and proudly put it on the table amid all those beautiful sweets.

I polled the folks in my little country church and several knew about stack cake and had very fond memories of eating it.  A whole lot of others were brand new to this Appalachian delicacy.  One friend who hales from Texas did not know about it but quickly became a fan.  Another from Michigan had neither eaten nor heard of it but loved it.  She was so surprised that it wasn’t dry.

I took the opportunity to chat with some folks who remembered their mother’s apple stack cake and they universally told me it was a special treat reserved for holidays.  We often think of this as a Christmas cake and I’d assumed that was because it actually takes a good bit of time and work to create it.   One precious daughter had tried her hand at making the cake when her father craved it and learned firsthand the many steps required.  But these folks told me that their families simply could not afford to eat cake throughout the year – it was a special treat for a special time. 

I did a little research and found one of my favorite bloggers writing as a guest at therevivalist.com about the history of apple stack cake. Dave Tabler notes in this article that some historians claim the stack cake came to Kentucky with James Harrod in 1774; however, flour wasn’t readily available for another 100 years. I always imagined the sugar in the cake and in the apple filling was the most valuable ingredient.  However, on the Cumberland Plateau, flour was still pretty precious well into the twentieth century and cornbread was the staple on most tables.  That makes me look again at the ingredient list. 

The layers of the cake are essentially molasses cookies.  The recipe I have adds some sugar but the traditional sweetener is certainly the readily available sorghum molasses which were created in every community from the sorghum plant that grew well in mountain soil.  I’ve mentioned molasses-making in previous posts, but there’s a lot to be written about that subject. 

Mr. Tabler notes that variations of the stack cake exist throughout Appalachia.  It’s curious that my Texan-friend had not experienced it and I wonder if the difference goes right back to available resources.  Today, Texas is growing a lot of wheat so I imagine the pioneers had better access to flour in that area from the beginning.

My recipe card for Apple Stack Cake.  I copied it from Grandma's as a young teenager.  you can see that it's had a lot of use from the stains on the paper!

My recipe card for Apple Stack Cake.  I copied it from Grandma's as a young teenager.  you can see that it's had a lot of use from the stains on the paper!

Another article I read mentioned that cooks are insistent that the traditional recipe be closely followed, or it just isn’t stack cake.  That made me smile because I have to confess that I don’t personally enjoy dried apples.  I find their flavor to be very strong and frankly it’s just easier for me to can my apples.  Therefore, the cake I made this weekend was smothered in apple butter I cooked down from those canned apples.  One friend mentioned, “Well then it ain’t stack cake.”

I also noticed the pictures I see online have either apple butter or even apple slices topping the cake.  Now, I learned this recipe from my sweet little Grandma and the one thing she insisted upon was that there was nothing on the top layer – I’m not entirely sure why, but I do try to follow her rules.  After all, I doubt my cooking will ever hold hers a light.

The stack cake was well-received even among all the brightly colored competition.

The stack cake was well-received even among all the brightly colored competition.

A reader requested the recipe for Apple Stack Cake - here's mine:

1 cup Molasses (can use 2 c. sugar)
1 cup Butter
2 well beaten Eggs
6 cups Flour
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Vanilla
1/2 cup Buttermilk
Mix together and pat into 6 or 7 nine inch pans
Bake at 450 degrees until slightly brown

1 lb Dried Apples
1 tsp Cinnamon
1/2 tsp Cloves
1/2 tsp Allspice
1/2 cup White Sugar
1/2 cup Brown Sugar

Wash Apples, cover with water and cook until tender.
Mash thoroughly; add sugar and spices

Spread filling between layers.

Let stand 12 hours before serving.

Railroad Ghost Town

Campbell Junction Depot From Tennessee Coal Mining, Railroading, & Logging (Duke, Turner Publishing, Paducah, KY 2003)

Campbell Junction Depot
From Tennessee Coal Mining, Railroading, & Logging (Duke, Turner Publishing, Paducah, KY 2003)

A little over a year ago I wrote a guest blog for AppalachianHistory.net on ghost towns.  I got to thinking about this subject again this week; I’ll try not to repeat that previous post since you can click over and read it on that site.  However, I’m very fascinated by the changing communities and wanted to mention it here.

If you’ve spent much time tramping around our woods, you will have happened upon groups of foundation rocks that tell you there was once several homes in an area.  Or, maybe your family stories include tales from Key Town or Hood Town but Google Maps gives you no indication where they may be located.  These are the ghost towns I’m referring to.

We think of ghost towns out West where you can drive through and visit clusters of empty buildings abandoned when the gold or silver mine played out.  If you drive through our familiar mining town of Wilder you won’t see many old buildings.  I guess that’s thanks to our much more humid climate that quickly weakens abandoned buildings.  I understand that in the arid west you can leave houses or wooden wagons and such sitting outside for years without much noticeable deterioration.

I’ve mentioned that I’m preparing to speak to a fund raiser for the Monterey Depot Museum and it is that railroad research that brought Isoline to mind.  In reading a timeline of the Tennessee Central Railroad, I learned that in 1901 the TC purchased the Cumberland Plateau Railroad which ran from Campbell Junction to Isoline.  Now I knew that Isoline had been a busy spot in the early years of the twentieth century.  A big logging operation and a coal mine drew people to the area. 

There was a post office in Isoline from 1901 until 1935. Yet today, driving north out of Crossville on Highway 127, only the Isoline Baptist Church will tell you when you’ve entered the community.  As the state exercises its power of eminent domain and moves out houses in preparation for the widened highway, I wonder if even that little church will survive to remind us of this once thriving community.

An internet search for Isoline returns almost nothing.  There was one entry from roadsidethoughts.com that actually asked for input.  I sent them what I know which you can see is precious little.

If the TC bought the spur line in 1901, I wonder where that line was going prior to the the Monterey – Crossville – Emery Gap line that the TC built. 

Campbell Junction is a new community name for me, but I did find it on Google Maps in the Mayland area.  I know that whole area was big log country but I’m not sure what would join up just there to create the junction.  Yet this community still has had their own post office since 1858.

There are lots of factors that change where people live, work and do business.  Roads are a big factor as we’ve seen since the interstate highways were built almost sixty years ago.  It’s both charming and heartbreaking to drive down the state highways and see the old motels and stores which used to cater to travelers that are now routed far from the small towns.  Monterey is another great example; the railroad brought great industry to the town but without it, the commercial center of the county has shifted down the mountain to Cookeville.  I suppose there's a good possibility that both Isoline and Campbell Junction are similar victims.  When their logs and coal played out there was little to keep the population centered there.  We’ve certainly seen the same thing happen in the “rust belt” where population surged for automotive jobs and as those jobs moved overseas the people and their money also left.

There is certainly history in these two communities and I long to know it.  As so often seems to happen, I’m left with more questions than answers on this subject.  I love to write about these mysteries because I’m always hoping one of you readers will have information that you’re willing to share.  If you know more about Isoline, please be sure to click comments below and tell me what you know.