Tennessee Mountain Stories

New Kin and Old Paths


I met a new family member recently… Dale Welch was telling me about his great-great Grandparents who lived in the Martha Washington community.  He mentioned the grandmother’s maiden name was Elmore and that got my questions started.  Turns out she was a sister to MY great-great-great Grandmother!  We parted with a ‘good-bye cuz’ and a promise to get together soon to share information.  (I have much to learn from Mr. Welch’s wealth of historical information!)

You know that as soon as I could get settled in front of my computer with a decent internet connection I was probing for information about this branch of the family.  Well I still have work to do on it, but it led me to a census record from 1880 where I found Margaret Elmore Wilson living with her husband Joe in the 4th Civil District of Fentress County, Tennessee. 

1880 Census Wilsons.jpg

One fascinating thing the Census Records show is who was living around your ancestors and I love looking through these records and seeing familiar family names as well as families I’ve never heard of before.  While Bagwell, Nation and Whitehead aren’t families that I grew up around, several family names are still well represented in the Martha Washington community:  Ashburn, Neely, Wilson, and Miller. 

For years I’ve been recording genealogy of not just my ancestors, but also of every family that touched my own family tree.  Now I find this a fascinating endeavor because I have cataloged most families in Martha Washington and Camp Ground, then as members of the families chose spouses from off the mountain, the tree extends even further.  (So much for the jokes people make that mountain family trees have no branches – I’ve got news for them, we’ve got roots they can’t even keep up with!)

Joseph and Margaret Elmore Wilson were the people I started looking for.  Right before them are Berry and Julia Wilson with two children still at home:  Artemia and Laura, and a boarder living with them named Davis Ashburn.

I found a Davis Ashburn in my database who was the son of Robert Wesley and Hettie Smith Ashburn.  His age matches up with this boarder, and his father is living in Cumberland County at that time with five children still at home. 

As you so often hear me mention, this research left me with more questions than I started out with.  Turning the page to entries the census-taker made on June 18, 1880 the Emily Norris family is listed with her 6 children.  She is my paternal grandfather’s great grandmother and their family home was always in Roslin – so seeing her with her children in Clarkrange presents a real mystery.

Even with the new and unanswered questions, this is a fascinating glimpse of the neighborhood nearly 140 years ago.

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!”

The Time Levi Lost His Bible

Here’s the thing I love about the mountain…if your family’s been around here for very long, their liable to pop up in anybody’s tale.  I never knew Callie Melton and don’t know that I’m aquainted with any of her family.  But the subject of her story which I’m featuring this week is in fact a relative of mine!  That made this one particularly interesting to me, and I hope you enjoy it as well.


Also, if you’ve read my first book, Replacing Ann, you may recognize some of the geography she talks about. The store in this story would have been the same one that Bill Lewis owned at one time.

Just about hog killing time one year during the Depression somebody broke in and robbed Benton Phillips’ store at Cliff Springs, up in the Ninth Civil District of Overton County.  So Benton hired Levi Testament to sleep in the store from then on.  Now, Levi was about middle-age, homeless and without any folks at all.  He was a good worker and as honest as the day is long, but he was as quare as they come.  And because he was so quare, he was the butt of much of the good-natured teasing that went on in the settlement.  Be it hot or cold, wet or dry, inside or out, Levi always wore his coat and hat.  And going to mill or going to meetin’, it made no difference, he always toted his Bible under his arm.

Levi had been living at Benton’s, so when the store got robbed Benton spoke to him about sleeping up there.  Levi thought about it for a day or two, then he told Benton that he would but that he did think it ought to be worth at least a nickel a night.  This sounded reasonable to Benton, so he give Levi a key to the store and fixed him up a pallet in back of the stove.

Now Cliff Springs wasn’t much more than a wide place in the road, but it did have a store, a Methodist Church and a Baptist Church, a schoolhouse, and a railroad over at Obey City.  But everybody went to bed with the chickens, so Benton always shut up the store in time to get home and help Levi do up the night-work before dark.

The store was about a mile across the holler form where Benton lived, so after Levi started sleeping over there he’d put his Bible under his arm, get his lantern and take off just as soon as Dollie Jain would get supper over with.

Things went along like this for quite a spell.  Then one night the cows had got out, so they had to be hunted before they could be milked.  This made everthing late, so it was way past Levi’s bedtime before he even got started to the store.

When he did get there and started to open the door, he thought he heard something or somebody moving around inside.  Since he was armed only with his Bible and a lantern, he put on a brave front and yelled, “Stand still, thar!  I’ve got ye kivered.”  The noise stopped, and Levi eased inside.  Holding his lantern high, he peered around in the flickering light.  He couldn’t see a thing, so muttering to hisself that it was most likely his imagination, he locked the door behind him and set his lantern on the counter.  He listened for several minutes, but heard nary a sound but the crickets around the stove and the wind in the trees outside.

Levi finally convinced hisself that he had just imagined things.  So he moved his lantern over by the stove, stirred up the coals and throwed in another chunk of wood.  Then as the wood caught and heat begin to spread out, he took off his coat and hat and put them on the counter by the lantern.  Then he fixed his pallet close to the stove, set down on a nail keg and pulled off his shoes and socks.  To warm his feet good, he put them up on the hearth of the stove.

When he had got all fixed, he reached for his Bible…and his Bible wasn’t there!  For a minute he didn’t know what to think for he always put it right there by the lantern where he could lay his hands on it.  Then he recollected!  HE bet he’d dropped it just outside the door when he thought he’d heard something inside.  So up he got and went to padding barefooted to the door to see.  He opened the door and stepped out.  It was as dark outside as a stack of black cats.  He couldn’t see a thing, so he leaned down to feel around the doorstep.  Just about that time the door swung to behind him, and the latch clicked shut.  And there he was, standing outside in the cold, without his coat and hat and barefooted besides.

There wasn’t a thing he could do but to go get Benton.  Now it was so cold that the branch had froze over, and it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand before your face, but poor old Levi headed across the holler.  He couldn’t see, so he’d get off the path and run into trees.  He’d try to run but he couldn’t, and he’d fall down might night ever other step he took.  Then he’d give out and have to stop and rest to get his wind back.

But finally he made it to the house.  He opened the door and just fell inside.  Now when Benton and Dollie Jain saw what a shape he was in they knowed for sure that the store had been robbed again.  Poor old Levi was bareheaded and barefooted, and without both his coat and his Bible.  His hands and face was scratched and bleeding, his shirt was purt nigh tore off, and he was as blue as a fishhook from the cold.

His teeth was chattering so he could hardly talk, but after a spell he managed to make Benton understand that he’d just locked hisself  out and he needed another key to get back in.   Dollie Jain had to go hunt him up a pair of Benton’s shoes and a coat and hat before Benton could take him back.

It was all so funny that Benton had to tell it at the store the next day, and before night everbody in Cliff Springs was laughing about Levi losing his Bible.  And everbody joshed him about waiting till the first freeze to start going barefooted.

But it was Uncle Mel Phillips that capped the stack one day when real solemn-like he asked Benton right before Levi.  “Well, Benton, how in the world did you ever know that hit was Levi without his coat and hat?”

Cord and the Mutton

Following is another of Callie Melton’s stories from her book ‘Pon my Honor

As usual, this is presented just as she published it.


Grandpa purely loved to tell about the jokes he’d played on people.  He was as full of fun as a dog is of fleas, and he was always ready for a prank of some kind or another.  His pranks were always good natured, but also always good for a laugh.  The tale us young’un liked the best was the one about the time he got Cord Hull to eat the mutton.

When Grandpa and Grandma were first married, they lived for awhile on Uncle Will Hull’s place.  Now he really wasn’t Uncle Will, but Cousin Will, but, being a lot older than Grandpa and Grandma, they just called him Uncle.

Uncle Will had five boys.  The middle one was Cord, and he was the one who was always sent out to work with Grandpa.  They two older boys, Ress and Nade, logged with Uncle Will, and they two younger ones, Wyoming and Roy, were kept at home to help their ma around the house.

Mutton 3.jpg

One time Grandpa and Cord got the job of farming that year, so Uncle Will and the two other boys could go on with their logging and rafting.  Cord was just about half-grown, but he was a good worker, so the two set about putting in the crops.

On the days that they worked the fields nighest Uncle Will’s house, Miz. Hull would get dinner for them.  And on the days that they worked near Grandpa’s house, Grandma cooked for them.  Grandma was a good cook, and Cord like to eat at Grandpa’s.  He’d say that Lar could cook the best sallet and hoecake that he ever put in his mouth.

Now, at this particular time Grandpa had just killed a sheep.  Grandpa rally knew how to butcher a sheep, so his mutton was always good.  Grandpa also knew, as did everbody else, that mutton was the one thing that Cord Hull would not eat.  But, being Grandpa, he laid plans to feed Cord some of that mutton!

One morning at breakfast Grandpa told Grandma that him and Cord would be eating with her that day, and to be sure and cook plenty of mutton.  “Cord purely hates the stuff,” he told her, “but don’t you say a word about mutton at dinner.  I’m going to make him eat some of it and like it.”

Grandma was scandalized, but what could she do with Grandpa!  So she just tried to outdo herself on her meal that day, and when Cord and Grandpa came in at dinner time she had the vittles on the table waiting for them.

While she poured the sassafras tea, Grandpa and Cord sat down at the table and started eating.  The first thing Grandpa did was to pick up the big platter of mutton, pass it to Cord and say, “Cord, I’ve just killed a calf… have some.”

Cord forked him a nice big piece of mutton and started in on it.  Before he had hardly swallowed the last bite of that piece, Grandpa was passing the platter and urging him to have some more.  “Make out your dinner, boy,” he said, “for we’ve got some mighty hard work ahead of us this evening.”

“Alex, this is the best beef I ever tasted,” Cord said, and forked him another big piece of mutton.

Grandma was so taken back that she was afraid to open her mouth for fear she’d say the wrong thing.  But not Grandpa!  He eat, and talked, and passed Cord the beef.  And Cord eat like there wasn’t going to never be another meal.  But, finally they finished eating, pushed back their chairs, and got ready to go back to the field.

Cord thanked Grandma for the good meal, and started out the door.  Grandpa stopped him and said, “Cord, didn’t you tell me that you couldn’t eat mutton?”

“Alex,” he said, “I just can’t swallow that stuff.  It tastes just like wool to me, and the longer I chew a bite the bigger it gets.”

“Well, you sure eat a dog’s bait today,” Grandpa told him.

Cord couldn’t believe it!  HE couldn’t believe that he had eat mutton until Grandma assured him that he had.  Grandpa said that all the rest of that day Cord kept shaking his head and saying that he couldn’t believe that he’d really eat that mutton.

Of course Grandpa had to tell what he’d done all over the settlement.  And poor old Cord!  He had to take an awful lot of joshing about Alex’s poor little young’uns having to go hungry because he had eat up all of the mutton!

Grandpa Smith – Part 2 from Callie Melton’s ‘Pon My Honor

Following is an excerpt from ‘Pon my Honor by Callie Melton:



Since I’m dedicating this book to Grandpa Smith, I think I should tell you a little more about him other than his name and dates… names and dates don’t tell much about a person really, but they are important just the same.  Grandpa was known far and wide as Uncle Alex… and I don’t guess he ever saw a stranger in his whole life… he probably met a lot of people that he’d never seen before, but to him they were simply friends he’s just met.

Grandpa was a typical Tennessee Mountaineer… kind, gently, easy-going, free-hearted, not too work brickle, and with a marvelous sense of humor.  No matter what the situation, he could find something funning in it… like the story he’d tell of the old woman whose husband was being buried that day.  Everything was ready to go from the house to the graveyard for the funeral, but the neighbor man who was going to haul the old man to the graveyard was late getting there.  Since idleness was a cardinal sin in the pioneer existence, the old woman set for a few minutes after she’d put on her bonnet.  Then she got up and got her work, turned to the rest of the women and said, “They’s no use to waste time.  We kin jest knit while we air a-waitin’ fer the wagin.”

Grandpa couldn’t read or write, but that didn’t mean he was ignorant.  He knew more about the things around him than anyone I have ever known.  The weeds, the herbs, the trees, the birds… you just name it and Grandpa could tell you something interesting about it.  We had few books when we were growing up, so if we wanted to know about something we had to ask Grandpa.  He would tell us about the weather… the dominecker clouds, the mare’s tail clouds, the sunsets, the sunrises, the cricket’s chirrup, the train at Algood climbing the Brotherton Mountain… and what each thing told him about what kind of weather was in store for us.

He was a born fisherman, and when he’d take us fishing he’d always tell us the do’s and don’ts to obvserve if we wanted to catch any fish.  He’d tell us of the big mud turkles [sic] that lurked in the dep pools, and how they’d hang on till it thundered if they got their teeth in one of our toes.  He’d tell us about the seven different kinds of meat in a turkle’s body, and how good turkle meat was if you cooked it right.

He’d tell us about the time of the Big Snow and Freeze that had happened long before any of us young’uns were born, and how it got so cold that the chickens froze to death and fell off the roost… and down on Martin’s Creek even some people froze to death, too.  Then there’b be the story of the time of the total eclipse of the sun, when it got so dark at mid-day that the cows come up to the gap to be milked and the chickens flew up to roost, and how many people thought it was the end of Time and were just about scared to death…things like that were going to happen for there was nothing, not even an almanac, in the way of weather forecasting.

We would be afraid to go to sleep after he’d told us about Big and Little Harp, and the awful things they’d done… slitting babies’ throats and knocking little boys’ brains out, as well as killing about any grown person they run into.  He’d tell us about Tinker Dave Beaty, the notorious Yankee bushwhacker, and the people he’d killed and the man things he’d done… and how he was even meaner than the Harps for he’d had a good raising and maybe they hadn’t.

Grandpas’ speech was as full of tang and color as the leaves on Clark Mountain in the fall, or a glass of hard cider fresh from the springhouse.  He never lacked for a word or an expression to give us his exact meaning… but he talked just like everybody else did who lived in his time and place.  He never cared for material things… just enough food to keep him from being hungry, enough clothing to keep him warm in cold weather, and a place to shelter him from the elements.  He wasn’t a leading light in the Church, but I never heard him swear or use a dirty word in my life… nor did I ever know him to do a mean or under-handed thing… I don’t believe he had a mean bone in his whole body.

Grandpa lived a long and a full life… from pioneer days through the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, and into the horrors of World War II.  He loved everything and everybody… but he loved us young’uns better than anything else.  He died praying to live only until his grandsons got home from Across the Waters so he could see them once more.

Grandpa enriched our lives greatly.  He was the hub around which our world turned while we were growing up.  He did not leave us anything in a material way, but he left us something infinitely more valuable than gold or silver.  We miss him still, but we do not think of him with sorrow.  And that is the way he would have it be… that we remember with joy the days he lived among us.  He would have us be the kind of young’uns that would do him proud… good, kind, generous, and above all, full of the joy of living no matter what our lot.