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.

Tennessee Folklore in Weather Prediction

From Harry Lane’s Tennessee Memories

Among the interesting humor stories associated with weather in this area is the folklore of weather prediction.  There seem to be uncommonly many weather prognosticators in the Cumberland Plateau area, of whom the best known may be Mrs. Hellen Lane of Crab Orchard.  Many observers might readily ascribe this lore to ignorance and superstition, but there is little doubt that some folk wisom is derived from keen observation of nature.  Perhaps the long-range prognostication is not god, but it has been shown that close study of nature can often produce short-term weather forecasts with reasonable accuracy.  For example, there is an old belief that when Lookout Mountain (a continuation of Walden Ridge, part of the Cumberland Plateau) “has its’ cap on,” it will rain in about six hours.  Experience has shown that when the sky “lowers,” that is, when the cloud ceiling decreases, rain commonly follows in a short time; so this piece of folk wisdom is a reasonable prediction.

Another example of weather-forecast wisdom sometimes set forth by Tennessee prognosticators is that swallows and bats will fly closer to the ground before a rain.  This seems to be true, since these birds (and mammals, as bats are!) have sensitive inner-ear mechanisms, and a sudden drop in air pressure preceding a rain may cause them to seek the somewhat higher pressure that is found near ground level.

Still another piece of weather lore that has validity is the saying that when katydids say “Kate,” they announce the nearness of frost.  It has been demonstrated that the katydid call slackens from “Kate-ee-did-n’t” at 87° F to “Kate” at 58°F, to muteness at 55°F or below.  It follows that the gradual cooling of air in autumn will eventually silence these insects as frost approaches.  The same thing is true of the chirps of crickets.

As for the presumed associations between other natural phenomena and weather events, the writer can claim no proofs for the accuracy of studies involving wooly worms, spider webs, the number of fogs in August, and many other such “keys!” Society would be poorer, however, without such colorful weather folklore.

The History behind Margaret’s Faith

Philip Perie.jpg

Last week I told you a little about the story in Margaret’s Faith and I have been hearing great things from you readers – I want to thank each one of you who have read the book and said such kind things.  And, as always, I want to urge you to leave your thoughts in a review at Amazon.com – or any other book review site you choose.  That is really the best way we can get the word out that this book is worth your time to read.

I’ve told you here before that my books are inspired by my people.  The mountain people are notorious storytellers.  It’s a culture that I relish and I’m always trying to get folks to tell me their very own stories.  Well most families have stories that they’ve passed down through the years.  They are stories that grow with the retelling until they become legends.  And that’s what my family did with the life of our most recent immigrant.  He was my Great-Great-Great Grandfather and he and his brother came from Italy just before The Civil War. 

We’ve kept alive the story that his mother wanted her boys safe from the troubles in 19th century Italy and in the great land of opportunity that America promised to be.  She worked at any job she could get to save their fare.  Then she sent them off across the sea – and that’s the end of what we remember about that precious woman! 

The boys came to America and settled in Chicago, IL just in time to be drawn into their new nation’s great civil war.  Grandpa Philip Perie was patriotic until his dying day, often posing in an Uncle-Sam-type suit before an American flag.  We tell of his service to the Union Army as though he were a great war hero. 

He was raised in the Catholic faith, though we have neither evidence nor stories that he was devout.  His Italian-Catholic values differed from those of our Appalachian-Scots-Irish ancestors and those difference are often emphasized in the legend.

He married a young girl from what is now North Cumberland County, Tennessee and took her back with him to the big city.  It’s not hard to imagine the shadow that beginning would lend to any story from the mountain. 

So these are the characters that I began with when I started writing Margaret’s Faith – that combined with the story my family has been telling for better than 150 years  I always want to stress that the novels are fiction (as the very definition of “novel” demands) and the stories behind them are only inspiration.  There is never enough information from these stories to create an historical treatise so I’ve opted to use the heart of the story and create the rest based on lots of research and long knowledge of the people of the mountain. 


Learnin' Music

Ruthie with Fiddle.jpg

Music is a huge part of our mountain history.  It came with us from the old country and the sounds of Ireland and Scotland can still be heard in it.  It’s a subject I’ve visited here before (more than once actually) and no doubt I’ll light on it again somewhere down the road.  I’m not particularly musical although I’ve always longed to be able to make music as my ancestors did.  Childhood piano lessons have served a few congregations who were hard-up for a piano-player and my squeaky fiddle is a joy to me if no one else.  Still I am determined.  So I’m going to teach my children – or rather have them taught.

Ruthie kept asking to play my fiddle so a tiny instrument was under the Christmas tree this year.  Caleb got his guitar last Christmas and we’ve been making a little progress on it. 

Caleb Guitar Lesson.jpg

T.E. Hixson was my Great-Great-Grandfather and he made instruments and taught and played with his children and grandchildren.  In fact, my grandmother remembers having child-sized instruments and hearing that with each birth he would declare what instrument the child would play and immediately begin making it for him or her.  These precious toys were so commonplace in their home and family that when they moved out of the house they left them behind. 

Grandpa Hixson Instruments 1.jpg

Grandpa Hixson’s children all played – in fact none of us knew my Great Grandmother (and his eldest child) could play until she was an old woman and I pulled out one of his fiddles.  She took it in her hands and said, “I don’t know if I can even pick out a tune anymore.”

As we embark on this journey of teaching and learning, practicing and improving I’m thrilled every time I hear them pick up their instruments and make their own little music.  And I can’t help but wonder what the Hixson home sounded like all those years ago.  As the day’s work wrapped up and a calm moment could be found, did different ones go back to their guitar, mandolin and fiddle?  Did one hear a few notes picked out and immediately want to join in?  Can’t you see the living room with one young son on his guitar and a sister comes trotting in, fiddle in hand?

Yet I know that they were not immediately proficient at the art.  There would have been years and years of missed notes, squeaky licks and slow improvement.  Were Grandma and Grandpa excited to hear their little musicians trying and trying?  Or did they grow tired of the noise and long to listen just to the birds or the crickets?   I imagine it was a little of both.  And how many times did Grandpa join in with the children?  Was he more often the instigator of their family-jam-sessions?

Of course their day without televisions and tablets, phones ringing or texts dinging surely made it easier to appreciate the efforts their children were putting into music.  It’s harder these days with so many things vying for our attention – not just the children’s attention but mine as well.  And it’s harder still because we have to find a teacher and get to him at the appointed hour.  How beautiful it is to imagine a father just slowly and quietly teaching his children, and teaching by example as he played each instrument.

I already know we’ll soon revisit the music of the mountains for I have a friend who has fiddles her grandfather handmade.  I’m really looking forward to getting that great story and sharing it with you!

Changing Time

The time changed this past weekend and we are supposed to be enjoying an extra hour of sleep each night.  Instead, my body refuses to adjust and I’m just up early.  Every time the clocks have to change to accommodate Daylight Savings Time I have to adjust – well we all do, don’t we?

DST History.jpg

As I began to think of Daylight Savings Time from an historical perspective I did a little research and found that I really did not know the history at all.  “Fast Time” was implemented during World War I to save lighting fuels for the war effort.  I had thought the concept was much older and had been designed to support the Industrial Revolution.

I’m always fascinated when I see old factory buildings with their numerous tall windows that remind me they were built and used before the rows of fluorescent lighting we’re so accustomed to in commercial buildings now.  Its’ not hard to imagine the importance of sunshine during working hours in those buildings.  Often you see the big arched spaces have been filled-in either with plywood or brick as they are now more of a security concern than a necessity.

In the Tennessee mountains however factories were of little concern as the hours of sunshine shortened with the approach of winter.  The schedule on a farm is set by the sun and the weather instead of a clock.  My daddy always said a dairyman should start his milking about 4 a.m.  As I think about that rule I suspect the time was more because many modern farmers work a public job and have to finish their milking in time to get to work.  On an earlier farm with no electricity, why would you go to the barn before daylight?  Coal oil was a precious commodity that cost hard earned pennies, it would not be burned to light chores that could be just as easily accomplished in another hour. 

We always think of farm families going to bed with the chickens.  Certainly after a day of hard physical labor you’re ready for a good night’s sleep, but as I think about this lighting issue I’m betting that was a big factor too.