Chapter OneYancey County
There are a few old men and women living in the Valley who remember the days before the war. Aunt Polly Boone, who says she is Daniel Boone's great-granddaughter, is so old she has lost count. She sits staring, sightless eyes whose big black pupils appear to see as she restlessly holds a scrap of cloth on her knee, or plays with an acorn that flashes back and forth between her hands like a shuttle. Aunt Polly can see the old times if not the new. Going barefoot to the log churchhouse, with rags wrapped around her legs for warmth; "snakin' the beds" before she would dare crawl in between the covers; living in a new cabin in a wild country where one set up housekeeping with an axe, a gun, a kettle, and a pile of straw in the corner. The "painters" cried outside her cabin at night, and once she saw a bear carry off in his arms the sow they had been fattening for company.
She will tell you about the family who built a log cabin on a rock with a hole in it. It looked like a good place, because the floor was already made and the convenient hole was just the place to dump ashes without toting them out of doors. It was cold weather and the hole had received plenty of scoopfuls one night before the man and his wife went to bed. Later the woman awoke to feel something curling over the covers. Frightened, she roused her husband, and half-believing she dreamed it, begged him to make a light. As he stepped on the floor, something bit him before he could get to the hearth. The bed and floor were swarming with rattlesnakes. The cabin had been built over a snake den, and the snakes had been aroused by the warm ashes poured down the hole. The man died on the floor, the woman unable to leave the bed to help him. Keeping the snakes off herself with the quilts, she screamed until at last help came, and she was lifted from the room through a hole cut in the roof.
Uncle Zack McHone, a son of Kim McHone, from whom Spruce Pine took its early name "The Kim Thickets," is ninety years old, confined to a bed with a broken hip that refuses to mend. He lives in a weathered cabin on Chalk Mountain above Spruce Pine, with a wide view of the Blue Ridge to the South and the Roan and Yellow Mountains spread out to the north.
"Look what Zack done!" he says, pulling himself up on his pillows to point at the fields beyond the open door. "I got good land and I got minerals. Spar and fluorspar, too. When I come hit was all woods. You kaint seem to make the young 'uns see the old times. There's folks all over everywhere now till you're like to tromp on 'em, and they all got it easy.
"You kaint know how simple we done in those days. Pickin' out of the cook pot and no plates and nothin' but wooden bowls. Spoons, we had, and a few things made out of pewter. Most of the time we lived on corn bread, milk, butter, and meat. When we wanted pork, we shot a wild pig. The same with beef. Nobody penned up their animals. They turned 'em loose and when they needed meat they hunted 'em down. Men wore caps of rawhide. Pa tuck his and beat a man's face all to pieces once when they had a fight. Some folks had fur caps or 'most anything to cover their heads with. We wore flax and tow clothes mostly.
"My folks lived to start with over near Phil Tolley's on the Burnsville road in a place I could show you if I could just get up and walk. When we lived over there our house wa'nt finished for a long time. My daddy was an awful man to drink by spells and I know once when the chimney hadn't got no further than your shoulder and no floor laid but enough for the bed to stand on, he went off and didn't come back when night come. There was just two little girls then, the least one a baby, and the rest of us not born yet. Ma was scared because the wolves was gathering close and howling in the bushes, edging up as hit fell night. She kept running out in the clearin' for a rail and then another and back like the whole pack was after her, and she piled 'em around the bed where the young uns was, and she piled 'em in front of the door that wouldn't shut. Pappy didn't come and in the night the wolves fit and growled by the house, wantin' to come in, and Mammy seen their eyes shine in the fire light where they'd slunk under the floor that wa'nt half finished. And she'd have at 'em with a stick blazin' out of the fire (they don't dast go near fire) and then mornin' come and their scolding and yowling got farther and farther off.
"All the next day Pappy didn't come neither and hit started gettin' night and the wolves was gatherin'. Mammy couldn't stand no more. She was plum drug out. She just took the baby and set her straddle of her neck and crossed her legs under her chin and tied 'em tight and she grabbed my sister's hand and run for the Hoppas cabin that stood clean over the mountain in what's the Jase Burleson orchard now. She tuck the old Cane River Indian trail and run with the baby flapping on her back and when she come on the ridge she fell down and thought the varmints would git her. But they didn't and she got up and run on to Hoppas's."
Uncle Rube Mosely of Rock Creek remembers that "the varmints was getting clared out pretty well when I was a boy. Hit was a wild country for my pappy though. He was born back in 1822 and he was one of them that holp move the Indians from Crusaw Jack's Race Paths on Unicoi to the Hiwasee Purchase. Nathan was his name and there was thirteen of us children, six boys and seven girls. I was the fifth son. We'd make a house full if we'd all been home to one time, but of course some of the big ones had gone off by themselves and settled when there was still little ones comin'.
"We got along plain. The fireplace was six foot and took a big back-log that would burn two days in medium weather. Pap would haul it to the door and it would take four of us to get it to the fire. We'd lay down rollers of course. Then we'd light up a good blaze and roll up in sheepskins on the floor to sleep of a night."
W.W. Bailey recalled hearing his father, James Bailey, tell of the building of the Deer Park homestead after the death of his grandfather, John Bailey, the bashful hunter who married Ruthia Ellis. When James came home to Deer Park from his apprenticeship to a mechanic in Morganton, the family was living in a little log cabin in the sheep meadow. John Bailey was sick and had not been able to put out a crop. The son and daughter who stayed at home while James went to the low-country had married and gone for themselves. John and Ruthia had almost stripped the house to help them get started; there was not even an axe. Three weeks later John Bailey died, and James started out late with the planting.
When he had managed by hard work to make enough to live on, he commenced to plan for a house of his own. First, he had to make a cart with which to haul logs, something light because there was only a young colt to pull it. He cut the ends from a big log, bored and joined a straight tongue, and contrived a hook to fasten on the under side of the tongue, near the end so that it would not drop down and dig into the ground. That was his wagon. The white oak must be cut at a certain time of the year or the worms would eat the fibre. He felled the logs in season, put one end on the little wheel carriage, and dragged them one by one to the present site of the house. The building was finished sometime in 1840. Then James Bailey paid court to Polly Cox, a neighbor's daughter, and married her.
The names of most of the outstanding mountains of the Toe River Valley date from the earliest settlers, but Mount Mitchell, which rears up on the sky line loftiest of all, waited until 1857 for the name it bears today. The series of events that determined the name of Mitchell's Peak has linked with the Toe River country the lives of three people, the mention of one of whom promptly suggests the other two: General Clingman, Professor Elisha Mitchell of the University of North Carolina, and Big Tom Wilson the bear hunter, a bluff mountain man from Caney River.
After Andre Michaux's scientific journey to the Valley in 1794, there was no other scholarly expedition of note until Thomas Clingman and Professor Mitchell appeared in 1844 to engage a series of observations in the Balsams, the Smokies, and the Black Mountains. The Clingman-Mitchell dispute over the comparative height of two peaks in the Black Range arose out of their visit. Professor Mitchell maintained that the balsam-topped giant, locally called the Black Dome, was the highest mountain in the east, although its flattened ridge line was far less imposing than the angles of the twin-humped mountain next door, which Clingman believed to be the highest. Each man had measurements to prove his point.
The controversy dragged on until 1857, when Professor Mitchell determined to establish his claim and end the argument by re-measurement. In June he started running a series of levels from Morganton. Working alone, he plunged into the wilderness on Saturday, June 27th, expecting to meet his son at an appointed place in the Black Mountains the following Monday. When he failed to appear, the boy waited until Friday before he gave the alarm. There was a hue and cry all up and down Yancey County, until Big Tom Wilson found Mitchell's body sitting upright in a chilly grave at the bottom of a pool on a fork of Sugar Camp Creek. The scientist had evidently lost his bearings in the fog, slipped, and hurtled down the cataract. After ten days in the icy water the body was perfectly preserved.
By measurements taken before the accident Mitchell had established his point that the Black Dome was indeed the highest point east of the Mississippi. In the excitement over his tragic death the name was changed to Mount Mitchell. If Clingman came off second best, at least the peak next door was named for him, and in the next year, 1858, he carved out fame for himself in the Smokies with the exploration of the mountain that came to be Clingman's Dome.