Tennessee Mountain Stories

Too Much To Swaller

From 'Pon my Honor by Callie Myers Melton

One time there was this here preacher holding a meetin’ down in the Modock Bottom.  He was sure some preacher, and everbody from far and near was going to hear him preach.

Shoutin Preacher 1.jpg

Back in them days the men and women never set together at meetin’.  The men would always set on the left side facing the preacher, and the women would set on the right.  Up in the corner on the men’s side was called tha A-Men Corner.  This was where the old men and the leading lights in the church would always set, then when the preacher would say something that they agreedwith him on, they’d say “A-MEN!” real loud.  The more they believed, the louder would be the A-men.

This time the meetin’ house was full, and the A-men Corner as well.  And Uncle Bill Sidwell, who was might nigh deaf, was setting on the very front seat.  He was plumb feeble now, and had to walk with two walking sticks.  But he was a mighty religious old man, and as crippled up as he was, he come to meetin’ ever time.

Now this time the preacher really got wound up, and he done some old timey preaching.  Being a Hard-Shelled Baptist, he hollered and he yelled, and he pounded the pulpit and he stomped his feet to drive home his points.  But this was just the kind of preaching the folks was hungering and thirsting to hear, for it was the kind of preaching they had been brung up on.  They were plumb enjoying it, for the more noise he made the better they liked it.

Now Uncle Bill set there on the front seat with both eyes on ever move the preacher made, and his hand cupped up behind his ear so as not to miss a single word.

“Brothers and Sister, ah!” the preacher thundered, “I’m a-preachin’ the pure gospel to you’ens, ah! And iffen I throw out anything, ah! That you’ens, ah! Can’t swaller, ah! Jest hand it back to me, ah!”

“A-MEN! A-MEN!” Uncle Bill said.


Now the preacher was plumb bad to chew tobacco, and he’d clean forgot and got up to preach with a big cud of it in his mouth.  Then when he got in such a big way preaching, that wad of tobacco got in his way, so he just up and spit it out.  It landed in front of the pulpit and rolled right down to Uncle Bill’s feet, and there it layed.  Uncle Bill never could abide the weed in any form, so he set there a minute and looked at it.  Then he got up and took his walking stick and rolled that cud of tobacco right up to the edge of the pulpit.

“Here, Preacher,” he said waving his stick in front of the preacher to get his attention.  “Here’s one thing that you throwed out that I shore can’t swaller!”

Christmas Fruit Bag

Christmas Goody Bag.jpg

One of my Christmas memories is the goody bag the church always gave out after their Christmas program.  Handed to each guest, it was an unexpected and exciting little brown paper bag.  We’ve stopped handing these out at my church and while fruit is readily available to me and I eat way too much candy, I found that I missed the little bag this Sunday.  And it got me to thinking about where that tradition may have originated.

Fruit at Christmas time is a deep tradition for our family, and I think for most folks on the mountain.  My Grandpa, who had little input to the regular grocery shopping, would always make a point as the holiday season approached to go buy a big box of apples and another of oranges.  There would be peppermint candy and chocolate drops in the house at this time as well.  Now, it’s not hard to theorize that this man, whose childhood held few treats and for whom poverty had been a constant companion, reveled in the relative wealth of having a whole box of fruit both to enjoy and to share. 

I imagine the church’s bags had very similar origins.  Since our picturesque mountain home won’t grow anything citrus and even apples have to be harvested and safely stored pretty early in the fall, fruit at Christmastime has to come from far away and would be rather a luxury in horse-drawn days.

Transportation has changed so much in the past seventy-five years, and now trucks arrive at grocery stores all over the country filled with fresh fruits and vegetables from all over the world.  We can have anything from bananas or mangos to strawberries and apples anytime we want.  And we know that transportation greatly affects the cost of everything.  So imagine how valuable an exotic fruit like pineapple would have been a few years ago.

Of course the church’s goody bag was generally filled with good ole American goodies but even that wouldn’t be easy to come by in the remote mountain communities.  How hard is it to get a load of oranges to a store that is served only by mule team?  How often would poor children in those areas see foods that were harvested hundreds of miles away when they might live their whole lives and never travel more than fifty miles from home?

Top off those juicy fruits with a few pieces of peppermint and maybe even a bit of chocolate and you’ve got a treat that makes a lasting memory.  I don’t know who made the decision not to hand out goody bags at church anymore, and maybe they won’t be missed by many – but I may have to make one for myself, or better yet revive the tradition by handing out my own bags next year.

Don’t Fence Me In

Lots of us love old things and we often try to re-create them.  Split rail fences seem to be one of the most popular of these things but so many of us are just bad at building them.  I see them with fence posts holding them up, I see them in nearly a straight line.  Then, I saw this lovely split rail fence at Bledsoe Creek State Park in Gallatin, Tennessee and was thrilled to see one built halfway correctly so it got me to thinking about fences in general.

Fully fenced farmstead

Fully fenced farmstead

So just how was I to go about researching fences on the plateau?  Sure, I can ask questions but if everyone remembered how to build the things we wouldn’t see so many bad examples.  And, we’ve well established that photography was a luxury item not widely enjoyed by our ancestors on the Plateau so no one was wasting film on their fences.  Yet most of the old pictures I have were snapped out of doors so guess what’s in the background?  I found this pretty exciting to pour over my collection looking behind the main subject.  And I learned so much about the different fences of yesteryear.

This picture is labelled 1907.  The horizontal fence may be boards but very likely palings which could be produced on the farm without a sawmill.

This picture is labelled 1907.  The horizontal fence may be boards but very likely palings which could be produced on the farm without a sawmill.

Fences on both sides of the dirt road.

Fences on both sides of the dirt road.

First of all let’s establish that these days we fence animals IN.  In fact, if your stock is roaming and does damage (like wandering into the path of a moving vehicle) you are liable for that damage.  And that was true in the earliest days of the United States.  However, between the years of 1858 and 1947 the law required crops to be fenced in and allowed the animals access to ‘open range’.  That just sounds like something from a Western movie where cowboys rode out to round up the cattle and brand them so they could be differentiated from the neighbors’ herds.  But this is Tennessee Code. 

So if all the animals are gonna’ be roaming, anything you don’t want eaten or trampled had better be surrounded by a fence.  Are you going to go buy a few rolls of barbed wire?  Well it was available, having been patented as early as 1867 and with 150 companies producing it in the last quarter of the 19th century.  And there was some barbed wire in use on the mountain.  But we’ve established here many times that cash flow was always at a minimum in Appalachia and therefore our farmers used whatever materials they had in abundance. 

Paling Fence

Paling Fence

Trees.  That’s what the mountain had to offer in abundance for many, many years.  Hence the famous split rail fence.  But the more industrious land owner could split out flat palings to make something more like a board fence, or a picket fence. 

Rail fence built with Saplings

Rail fence built with Saplings

Every young boy knew how to split rails.  My grandpa told me at one point he could sell them for a penny apiece.  If you really put your head down you could make a dollar in a day – big money!  But notice the group picture here – that zig-zagging fence is made of saplings.  Do you get the idea that they were clearing out some land that had lain fallow for a few years and was taken by saplings so they just used what they were cutting?  I tell you what, the resourcefulness of these folks awes me.

So once you’ve got the barrier between you and the wild hoards, you’re going to need a gate.  Gates are expensive.  It’s not too hard to build a gate but a gate made out of palings would get heavy pretty quickly.  So the common gate was the draw bar.  Simply put four posts in the ground and lay more posts horizontally between them.  It might take a minute or two to get it open but it will certainly serve the purpose. 

Photo courtesy of Farm Hand's Companion

Photo courtesy of Farm Hand's Companion

Again the more industrious fencer could build wooden gates then find a way to hang them.  Any ironware meant money so they made wooden hinges with three boards mounted two on one side and the third on the other side and joined by a dowel in the center.  Pa Mac from Farm Hand's Companion shared with me some examples of these hinges he photographed in the Smokies and I'm pretty amazed by them.  He also reports he's saving special wood to try his hand at making them so we'll have to be watching his blog for a report on that.

Horizontal posts are a Draw Bar Gate

Horizontal posts are a Draw Bar Gate

I'd love to hear if any of you have seen these hinges in use on the Plateau, or if you've experienced opening a draw bar gate!

I hope you’ve enjoyed the backgrounds of these family pictures.  Maybe this little exercise will lead us to see more detail in all of our old pictures.