Tennessee Mountain Stories

Zenith Coal Mining Community


Janice Matthews Smith discusses in her book, Looking Back, the mining operation and surrounding community of Zenith, Tennessee.  Zenith today is a forest, high bluff, a few homes and no sign whatsoever of industry.  However, in 1913 the O&W Railroad arrived at Zenith and as always happened where the train stopped, a community grew.

This community, as with so many early 1900’s communities in Appalachia, grew around coal mines.  The first mines that were opened weren’t very profitable.  However, other areas proved worthy of the investment and the mining operation continued in Zenith for thirty years.

Across the Eastern United States organizing and strife surrounding unions in coal mines has become legendary.  Fentress and Scott counties can claim their own share of that drama and the violence in Zenith actually broke the community and ultimately ended the mining operation.  Mrs. Smith records no less than 4 shootings at the mines.

The first victim she lists is an unnamed man shot in then neck in a home, although she doesn’t say if it was his own home.  “Union men hid behind the bluffs and surrounded Zenith” at that time.

Zenith Mines.jpg

The second shooting involved Sheriff Wolford Smith.  He was shot from the bluffs hitting him in the leg when he stepped out of the company store.

The next law enforcement officer involved in a Zenith shooting was Sheriff Taylor who responded to a call that Bud Markel was at the company store with a .38 special.  Bud Markel was not a local man but had come to work in the mines.  He befriended Ed Slaven and stayed in the Slaven home.  However, he drank and he was a mean and destructive drunk.  Mr. Slaven told Bud he’d have to change his ways or find somewhere else to stay.  He got drunk again and went into the company store with the weapon and that’s when Sheriff Taylor was called in.  Markel offered to surrender, allowing the sheriff to move in close to him and then he shot him in the chest.  His friend grabbed the sheriff’s gun and shot Markel.  Both men died from their wounds.

At least one more shooting is remembered when someone shot into the store at Mt. Helen.  No one was reported injured at that time.

The final shooting victim Mrs. Matthews details was Cap Woods.  He was tasked with driving the payroll from Union Bank in Jamestown to Zenith; concerned by all the violence in the area he swapped trucks with a foreman from the mines, although the foreman drove Mr. Woods’ truck along behind him.  As the pair reached “Noah Buck” hill, shots were fired from both sides.  Ten men were arrested and fearing a lynching, they were held in Nashville until the trial when all were cleared.

The Zenith mines closed around 1941 leaving many men unemployed.  Some went to work in the Wilder coal mines while others found mining positions in Kentucky and Virginia.  Still others went to the logging woods which continue to employee folks on the mountain today.

The railroad tracks were taken up from Zenith in 1955.

Logging and Timber

Giant Log.jpg

Two weeks ago when I introduced “Looking Back” here I said, “Tenessee’s Cumberland plateau has been rich in natural resources, chiefly coal.”  While it’s true that the plateau supplied a lot of coal to America’s industrial machine, I want to amend that statement – coal is not chief among our natural resources.  Logging has been an important industry on our mountain really for a century and a half.  Timber is still an important resource for us.

Lumber from the Big Woods.jpg

Last week’s article about East Jamestown’s Incline Railway certainly introduced the importance of this resource.  While we may think of the railroads coming to the mountain just for the coal industry, the O&W which served Jamestown and Oneida was largely associated with the Tennessee Stave and Lumber mills.  I might call the Stearns Coal and Lumber company their chief competitor as the two had legal battles for who would be able to build the railway.  Note that the Kentucky company also included lumber in their company name.  It seems that everyone recognized the importance of both natural resources.  In fact, Jason Duke looked at coal, railroads and lumber all together in his book Tennessee Coal Mining, Railroading & Logging… (Turner Publishing, 2003).

TImber Crew.jpg

I got to thinking about logging on the mountain, and looking through some other books I have so I thought I’d share a few early pictures, especially from Fentress County, Tennessee Pictorial History Volume 1…the First One-Hundred Years (Fentress Courier, 1998).  These show work-hardened me moving enormous logs with horse power.  One picture I wish I’d found for last week’s incline article actually shows a crude incline skidder. 

Cedar Rafts.jpg

I’ve always heard legends of floating logs to market and have asked a million questions about it with few answers.  I guess I can imagine floating logs on the Tennessee River or the Cumberland River, but we’re not a river-land, at least not the way Chattanooga, Knoxville or Nashville were in their early days.  I understand that the Baldwin Gulf was a whole community established around logging and they floated the logs down the East Fork of the Obey River.

This is certainly a subject we will re-visit.  And I’m hoping to explore the East Fork of the Obey River so I’ll share that with you.  I hope I’ve never made out like I was an expert on history in our area and I tell you what reading some of these books and especially old tales like A.R. Hogue’s book from 1916 reminds me how little I know!  But it sure is exciting learning, isn’t it?  I’d love to hear your stories about logging, just click COMMENTS below.



The Enduring Music of the Mountains

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to join my friends and neighbors at the 1st Annual Bluegrass Saturday Night On the Road in Jamestown, Tennessee.  Now, we’ve talked here before about the timeless music that we now call Bluegrass.  It came with our ancestors from Ireland and Scotland, and we still enjoy it today.  Well the gathering Saturday night certainly reminds me that this musical tradition lives on.

Jamestown’s country music radio station, WDEB, airs a weekly show of bluegrass music known as Bluegrass Saturday Night and hosted by “Country John B.” Mullinix.  This week they did a live, remote show at the American Legion building inviting several bands to play and all the community to come out and enjoy good music, grilled burgers and hotdogs and great fellowship.

WWII Vets at Bluegrass Saturday Night.jpg

They honored all of the veterans in attendance, especially those who fought in World War II.  They played the national anthem and everyone stood with hat in hand.  We prayed.  Then we clapped and tapped our toes, laughed, chatted and maybe even sang along a little bit.

Cody Hull Band at Bluegrass Saturday Night.jpg

How exciting it is to get up a show like this and have almost all the talent be local.  And young – several of the groups had 20-somethings playing with them and I didn’t see anyone needing a cane to get up on stage.  Surely this is a sign that our music is not just surviving but thriving in our hectic twenty-first century.  There’s no question that one of the keys to the preservation of music that originated in the old country was the remoteness of our mountain home for a couple of centuries.  But today the world is at our doorstep with planes, interstate highways and the world wide web.  Still, we are drawn to these old sounds, many of the songs are familiar and the strains of the modern bluegrass songs are often as comfortable as the traditional ones.

It’s always fun to get out and see neighbors you don’t often get to talk to.  And this past Saturday evening was a pleasant time on the mountain with the rain clearing out in plenty of time for parking and setting up – probably in answer to Mr. Mullinix’ prayers.  Add in the talented picking and familiar tunes and you’ve got the best kind of Saturday night.

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.


Mystery Picture

poss stacie.jpg

I have this picture of a lovely lady with her two children.  Based on her clothing I’m guessing she’s in her early twenties and the picture was probably made during the 1920’s.  Therefore she was born right around the turn of the 20th century.  I’m just sure that she’s some of my family because she looks an awful lot like one of Daddy’s first cousins.

I do not know her name.  No one seems to know her name.  I’ve asked the oldest members of my family.  I’ve asked those in the family who are most interested in genealogy.  I’ve asked pretty much anyone that would listen to my question.

She is a mystery.  And mysteries kind of drive me crazy.

Well this mystery is miniscule compared to other mysterious images for there are some that people have spent lifetimes studying.  Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the most famous works of art in the world and no one knows her real name.  Did da Vinci refuse to divulge her name?  Did no one bother to ask him who it was?  Or is it possible that everyone that knew the artist knew exactly who that lady was and no one ever bothered to jot it down on the back?  Okay, maybe some of those questions seem a little absurd yet countless historians have spent untold hours researching and arguing and documenting who it could be.  Still she is a mystery.

Am I trying to inspire you to go right quick and label all of your pictures?  Sure, I’m always eager to inspire my readers.  I’m also simply inspired by some of these old pictures. 

Tobitha Ingle Todd.jpg

When I’m writing, I frequently look at pictures of an individual who has inspired a character. I ask myself what I can learn about the person – what does this picture add to the stories I’ve heard and the legend that survives them? Historically pictures were valuable possessions and therefore weren’t taken lightly.   Therefore, the book you chose to hold in a picture must mean something, the people you were with and the place you visited must all be relevant to your life.  I have a picture of my Great-great-great Grandmother who passed away in 1931; she’s holding a large book.  Since these were Christian people I assume it’s a Bible – where is that Bible now?  I’d love to see it.  I imagine if I used this character in a story I could easily incorporate her recording family information in that Bible and that she’d sit at the kitchen table with it open before her.

Do you think this mysterious young mother has a story to tell us?  Would you like to see her character in a future book?