Tennessee Mountain Stories

Mountain Fun


Clyde Whittaker remembers some of the fun he had growing up in Monterey, Tennessee

In mid and late April when it got warm, my friend, James Way, and I started thinking of playing in a small creek about a mile away.  Every year James and I with sometime help from James’ brother Ray would move logs and rocks in place to make a crude dam.  It was not very good, but it raised the water in the hole several inches and made the hole wider.  When James and I were about 13 years old we learned to swim in that little hole.  The following year we started going to the Monterey Lake.  We usually walked almost three miles to the lake.  Soon both of us were good swimmers.  A fellow later told me that when they got to the lake if they saw two heads out in the middle of the lake they would say, “Well I see that James and Clyde are here.”

In winter James and I couldn’t afford store bought sleds.  We made our own.  The city dump was near our house about a half a mile.  We found short pieces of lumber and made a sled.  You couldn’t steer it but it would go fast downhill.

[One time} Ray Way and I were taking a long walk in the woods.  We went up a mountain and decided to go a different way back to town.  We didn’t usually use that trail.  We saw ahead of us an old man with a rifle in his arms blocking the trail.  His name was Ike Buckner, a distant cousin of mine.  He asked who I was and I said Frank Whittaker’s son.  Ike said he didn’t know Frank had a son as young as I was.  I realized he was thinking of my great uncle so I said I am Tommy Whitttaker’s grandson.  When I mentioned my grandpa a large grin came on his face and he said, “Do you want a drink?”  I was about 13 so I declined.  Ike and my great Uncle Frank made moonshine together.

There is a story about Uncle Frank Whittaker and Ike Buckner making whiskey together.  They had two barrels of mash ferment and it already had some alcohol.  Uncle Frank noticed Ike using a wheat straw taking a drop from the barrel.  He figured Ike would drink up their profit.  When they put the sprouted corn in the barrels some corn was left on the ground and rats were eating.  Frank used his pistol and shot one of the rats and put it in the barrel Ike was sipping.  Ike started sippin’ the one with the rat.  He moved to the other barrel and started sipping.  Then he went back to the barrel with the rat.  He looked at Uncle Frank and said, “Frank the one with the little rat in it is the best.”

Clyde's College Years

In 1943 Clyde Whittaker graduated from Monterey High school and was promptly drafted into the United States Navy.  Like so many Appalachian sons he served his nation honorably when she needed him most.  In 1946 he was discharged and returned home to Monterey.  In September of that year he entered Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Clyde writes:

Two or three days after the college term started a meeting of all freshmen in the gymnasium was called.  A fellow who I think was president of the sophomore class got up and started talking about the initiation freshmen had to go through.  When I saw where his talk was going I stood and told the sophomores that I was too old and too busy to put up with such foolishness.  I told them I was not participating in any of it.  He said if we didn’t participate we could not expect to impose an initiation next year.  I told him I didn’t want to.  Most of the freshmen that year were veterans some with many years of service.  After I made my statement the whole thing was dropped.

The second year in college I got to be a lab assistant.  Since I had been an electronic technician in the Navy I was ahead of most students in the electrical area.  The head of the Physics department liked me.  Near the end of the second year the president of the physics club told me I was going to be the president next year.  I told him I knew nothing about that. 

I finished [college] in three years with one summer school and credits I earned at the schools I attended in the Navy.  Ellen [Bilbrey] and I got married in June 1948 before my last year at Tech.  I was going to school on the G.I. Bill getting I believe $90 per month which went to $115 after marriage.  Looking back I realize now that I shouldn’t have married until I was in better financial condition.

We stayed with Ellen’s sisters and my Mom and Dad until just before the fall quarter started.  In Cookeville we rented a two-room apartment where two couples shared a bathroom.  I think we enjoyed life even though we worked hard and had little money.  For several months Ellen worked in a shirt factory.  That is a terrible way to make a dollar.  As a lab assistant I made about $39 PER MONTH.

When the fall quarter started we had the first physics club meeting of the year.  A fellow I barely knew nominated me.  The nominees left the room and when we returned I was the president.  I think the department head asked someone to nominate me.  When we left the room he suggested I would make a good president.

I was taking an optics course taught by the department head [and] I was helping him grade some test papers for another course.  He handed me an optic test I had taken the previous day.  I had a high grade maybe 98%.  I looked at the paper [and] saw that a wrong answer was marked correct.  I pointed it out to him.  I know you knew the answer he said.  I said, “I know the answer now but I didn’t when I took the test.”  He refused to change it.

The physics club won first prize for its float in the homecoming parade under my direction.

At the start of the second quarter one of the professors quit for a better job.  Even though I didn’t have a degree yet the head of the department asked me to teach a couple of courses.  The course listing gave the department head as the teacher but he never appeared in the class.  It was an electrical course and I was good at that.

After I graduated and had a degree I was hired as an instructor for the summer.

I applied to the graduate school in physics and was accepted at Florida State University.

During the summer I had a man who had a small garage weld a frame and tongue on an axel and wheels.  I built a bed on the trailer frame.  I had just sold a beat up ’36 Chevrolet and bought a ’39 Studebaker Champion.  It was small and weak but we put our worldly possessions on the trailer and started to Florida.  The car had trouble pulling the loaded trailer.  So if I saw a stop ahead on even a mild grade I geared down and tried to keep moving because it was difficult to get moving if I stopped.

When we got to Tallahassee we found that the apartment we had reserved was on West Campus which had been an Army Air Base.  Barracks had been divided into crude apartments.  The partitions were framing with wall board on one side.  The 2x4’s were exposed on one side.  I think our building had seven two room apartments.  There was a ladies and men’s bathroom for the whole building.  WE got to be very fond of one couple and all the residents were friendly.  Our friends Bob and Ellen Cook didn’t have a car so we took them with us on our weekly trip to A&P.  Even though we had nice neighbors Ellen was disappointed that we ended up in such crude living conditions. 

I graduated without a job offer.  I thought I wanted to be a college teacher.  At the time there wrern’t many physicists available with advance degrees.  The first offer I got after looking for two months was with the Navy Mine Defense Laboratory in Panama City, Florida.

A week or so after I started working with the Navy Lab I got an offer form Virginia Tech as an assistant professor.  At the time I would have liked to get the job but the Navy people had gone to some trouble to hire me so I couldn’t quit after such a short time.  A couple of weeks after that I got the same offer from Louisiana Tech.  Then after two years I got a call from the ex-prinicpal of my high school who had become some sort of manager at the Tennessee Tech University.  He offered me an assistant professor job at Tennessee Tech.

I worked ten and a half years at the Navy Lab.

From Dirt Roads to Space

The mountain has so many traditions, cultural nuances and memories to research and record that I rarely focus on a single individual.  However, there are a few that cross my mental pathways that beg to be shared.  Today I want to introduce you to Clyde Whittaker.

Now Clyde is my first cousin once removed on my father’s side.  He is the oldest grandson of Billie and Ida Key; my father is more like grandchild number ten of thirty-three.   The beauty of a close-knit extended family is that you know a whole lot of uncles and aunts and cousins.  The sadness of knowing all that family is the difficulty of keeping up with all of them.  But Clyde has done me the very great honor of not only telling me some of his stories but actually writing them down and permitting me to share his life with you through these stories.

Clyde will turn 93 this month - this may take more than one article. Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of Clyde’s stories in his own words.  Today I’ll give you a bit of a summary of his life.

Clyde was born in 1924 in Monterey, Tennessee.  There he would grow up while his father worked for the Tennessee Central Railroad and his mother raised five children.  They had very little, they were not alone in their poverty in that day but neither did they wallow in it.  They worked.  The whole family worked.  And as I share with you some of Clyde’s achievements the resounding theme is work.  It’s what I hear when I talk to him, “Well I worked hard.”  He never asserts he was the smartest guy around, although he surely is very intelligent.  And no one would claim he had more advantages than others – if you think that please fast forward to the story about him sharing textbooks because his family could not afford them. 

I asked Clyde if his parents – who never enjoyed advanced education – pushed their children in school.  He simply answered that he was expected to finish.  Not finish in first place but just to finish.

And he did finish.  At a time when most young men would do well to finish 8 years of school, Clyde graduated from Monterey High School.  After serving in the Navy during World War II he put the GI bill to good use and completed a Bachelor’s degree in Physics at Tennessee Polytechnical University – that’s what they called Tennessee Tech in the 1940’s. 

Clyde and Ellen Whittaker.jpg

He married a local girl, Ellen Bilbrey, and together they went to Florida where he would get his Master’s Degree in Physics.

Keeping his eye on a bigger goal, Clyde turned down a job that would have paid him more that the Dean of the Physics department earned.  The family continued in Florida where Clyde worked in research.  In 1956 he was named in the “Who’s Who in Scientists in America”.  That’s already a leap from humble Monterey beginnings but he didn’t stop there.

In 1962 he moved his family to Houston, Texas to the Center for Manned Space Flight.  I haven’t asked Clyde how many people were there when he arrived but the announcement that the center would be in Houston had only been made a few months earlier in September 1961.  

Clyde worked with the men who would walk on the moon.  He met with German scientists recruited to America following the fall of Nazi Germany.  He was among those pioneers that opened the space frontier.  Yet his roots run right back to Monterey, Tennessee.


Monterey Train Depot Museum

The gift shop at the Monterey Depot Museum has graciously agreed to stock Replacing Ann and I want to thank Julie Bohannon for that.  When I visited the museum recently to deliver the books I took the opportunity to snap some pictures and make some notes to share with you.

When the Tennessee Central Railroad finally topped the plateau in 1890, they quickly realized that the climb up the mountain would tax their steam engines and by 1905 a maintenance facility was built in Monterey and the station there became the headquarters for the Eastern Branch of the Tennessee Central. 

This was a real boon in the local economy.  Of course the railroad brought in jobs but it also opened up markets for coal, lumber and agricultural produce that previously could not reach markets. 

General John T. Wilder was instrumental in getting the railroad up the mountain because of the coal operation he planned in Wilder and Davidson.  He is often mentioned in the museum and in fact, there is a large plaque outside with good information about him.  One of the two houses he built in Monterey still stands watch over the depot and the Imperial Hotel which he built to serve railroad employees and passengers is still next door.

Most of the original buildings are gone, as are so many landmarks of Monterey’s heyday.  There were two operating passenger depots in town - the original depot from the early 1900’s burned as did so many wood-framed historic buildings in Monterey. The rebuilt depot stood long after the close of operations and was eventually dismantled.  The roundhouse burned in 1949 and was never rebuilt.  However, the old coal chute can still be seen adjacent to the remaining tracks.  Some tools from the shop were recovered and they are now displayed in the museum.

There were numerous tracks in place when the railroad was moving passengers as well as freight across the Cumberland Plateau as well as maintaining engines in Monterey.  The museum boasts a beautiful diorama of the town and the orientation of the tracks to the depot can be seen clearly on it.

I particularly enjoyed the beautiful display of a stationmaster’s desk, complete with telegraph.  There are a number of maps and graphs that anyone interested in railroad or Plateau history would enjoy. This one in particular is a whole history lesson in itself with information on the mining companies that operated, where stores, schools and post offices were located and even who owned some of the farms and homes in the area.  Manual Powell, a Wilder miner, created this map.


The scope of the Monterey Depot Museum encompasses the whole community, not just railroading.   The Monterey Hospital is represented as well as a wonderful tribute to the city’s contribution to our military.  Community exhibits are routinely featured.  When I visited, Confederate History Month was beginning and volunteer Linda Whittaker was assembling an exhibit in that honor.

Admission to the museum is free and it is open Monday through Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  If you’ve visited before, please leave a comment below and tell me about your experience there.

The Imperial Hotel

Today’s historic house is a public house so it’s a little different than the others we’ve explored in this series.  The Imperial Hotel was built by General John T. Wilder in Monterey in 1909.

During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Monterey, Tennessee enjoyed a thriving resort business.  After the railroad came through town in 1890, people began to ride the rails to this mountain top town where they enjoyed mineral spring waters, world-class dining and beautiful gardens manicured just for the tourists.  I would be very interested to learn what originally prompted these tourists but it’s not hard to imagine the rustic beauty of the mountain as well as the cooler temperatures those dwelling in the valley towns would have enjoyed. 

In those days, it wasn’t easy to get to Monterey, especially from the East.  There was no direct East-to-West train service.  Before The Civil War, the trip from Knoxville to Nashville went via Chattanooga.  Then, during the late 1800’s the Tennessee Central Railroad aspired to connect the two major Tennessee cities directly.  Unfortunately, myriad problems conspired to prevent the direct connection.  So, East Tennesseans desiring to relax in Monterey’s luxurious accommodations would have to ride to Harriman and change trains for the final leg to Monterey.  Interestingly, even people headed on to Nashville or other points west would have to make the same connection. 

The transportation difficulties seem to have had little effect on the tourists who came to Monterey in sufficient numbers to support four hotels in addition to The Imperial.  I say “in addition” because The Imperial never intended to compete with the other hotels in their resort business.  This beautiful brick hotel was strictly a railroad hotel.  She was intended to accommodate the train passenger staying over in Monterey, or the business man coming to town on the train.     

The Imperial had thirty rooms in three floors; there was running water and indoor plumbing which were nearly unknown among the mountain people living around Monterey in that day.  There was a dining room that was well-known for the food served.  According to this blog article by W. Calvin Dickinson & Charlene McClain , “One newspaper editor lauded it as o­ne of the best hotels between Nashville and Knoxville.” 

This was a heyday for the little town self-styled, “where hilltops kiss the sky”.  As automobiles became the more prevalent mode of transportation, tourists had many more choices where to spend their leisure days.  Monterey’s resort community began to decline.  Then in 1958 passenger train service was discontinued to the town.  Many of the resort hotels had already closed or converted to other uses for their rooms.  The Imperial closed shortly after the passenger service ended.

A chapter closed for The Imperial, but thankfully, the building still stands.  Left vacant for many years, it seems nearly miraculous that she is still there since all of those resort hotels have succumbed to the ravages of time or the spirit of progress.  Then, in 1997 a gentleman bought The Imperial with a vision to renovate and restore it and use it as a bed and breakfast as well as an event venue.  A whopping $700,000 was invested in the renovation.  Unfortunately, the building is again empty due to a difference in priorities of the city planners.  A metal-clad museum was constructed next door and the rear exit stairs of the hotel were removed.  That simple change threw the building out of fire code compliance and prevents its use by the public.      There is a  website here where you can register to show your support of the hotel if you would like to.  I have tried to reach the current owner in hopes of sharing some pictures of the renovation but have been unsuccessful.  If I am able to reach him, I will certainly post an update.

I am thrilled that at the very least this historic building has been preserved and may again be open for the public to enjoy.