This is an ode to those public historians who went out of their way to write and publish local history that would otherwise have been forgotten. Whether it was about their own past experience, or the history of a place, these books are gems for those of us writing historical fiction. They are accounts of the ordinary people, ones who may not have been famous, but whose lives are the fabric of the past. I've found my share of these treasures while researching my novels.
In 1837 George B. Sudworth, submitted a paper to the American Forestry Association describing the forest of the Great Smoky Mountains: a primeval forest 'scarcely ever broken by the sound of a woodman's ax', a forest 'truly of virgin character.' Within 100 years the landscape would dramatically change. Men working in the Smoky Mountains as part of the newly created Conservation Corps in 1934, describe the forest as a wasteland, filled with slash left behind by lumber companies who cut what they could and abandoned the rest to the ravages of forest fires.
Indeed, in Elkmont, Tenesee, the Little River Lumber Company did just that. After decades of harvesting most of the virgin timber in the Little River watershed, they sold their land holdings to the federal government for the newly established National Park.
The Little River Lumber Co. is credited with engineering a railroad with technology that allowed harvest of timber at a scale never seen before in the region. In the early 20th century, the company bought up or leased land from homesteaders. And when ownership was dubious, they went to court to make a claim. As they did, the company moved operations into elevations up to 4,000 feet above sea level to access virgin stands of tulip polar, chestnut, and hemlock. The company had specialized steam-powered rail engines, called Shay engines. These engines were able to chug up the steep grades and handle the sharp curves. Lumber co. men threw buckets of sand on the tracks for traction.
And as the railroads inveigled their way into the forest depths, so did the the lumbermen and their families. They lived in shacks called set offs. The first ever mobile home, these 12x12 spaces were placed on flatbed railroad cars and trudged up the mountains. Two or three might be set next to each other to house families while the men worked for the company harvesting lumber. Communities sprouted up along with them, stores, blacksmiths, makeshift schools, and when operations were moved, so did the community.
It took a small army to cut and load the trees on the rail cars. Men used steam-powered 'skidders' wheels of long cable let out and dragged up sides of slopes to where the logs lay. The cable was wrapped around the trunks to pull them off the slopes. Afterwards, the men used a crane with a large tong attached to it which lifted the logs onto the flatbed. Once they stacked twelve or more logs, the train carried down them down the steep slopes to town.
Although chestnut trees were plentiful at the beginning of the 20th century, by 1925, a fungus blight was ravaging the forest. It was estimated that in some locations chestnut made up forty percent of the forest cover. Hence, they were an important tree for the ecology of the region. The nuts were foraged by turkey, domesticate hogs, cattle, and humans. The wood was rot resistant, lighter than oak, and used for a variety of utilitarian purposes throughout the U.S. It was a valuable commodity in the Smoky Mountains and the Little River Lumber Co. harvested most of it from the watershed before the blight spread. But once the blight spread, the fate of the chestnut was sealed. When the company came upon trees hollowed out from the blight they left it to rot.
By 1937, the Little River Lumber Co. had ceased operations in what was then the inaugural Smoky Mountains National Park. Families moved, those that stayed were not allowed to cut timber for firewood or building. In addition, the government forbid them to hunt, or to raising cattle and livestock to graze in the mountain pastures. People who could, moved out or were bought out by the government. The old chestnut trees were either dead or dying and although there are still a few places where one can visit old growth forests in the area, a majority of the Smoky Mountains is second or third generation forest. As for the chestnut; scientists are working on a remedy: a hybrid that may resist the fungus. There's hope then that maybe I'll get to see a mature chestnut tree within my lifetime.
Weals, Vic. 1993. Last Train to Elkmont. Olden Press.
Maher, Neil. 2007. Natures New Deal.Oxford University Press
The sound of a stream plunging over a precipice is one sign of spring and on my recent visit to the Smoky Mountains National Park there were plenty of gushing waterfalls; I hiked up to Spruce Flats to get this view.
I went to the Smoky Mountains National Park to conduct research for a novel and to write about place, exploring the mountains in spring. I was especially interested in the area around the Tremont Institute in the park. It was once a thriving lumber community and one of the more famous inhabitants was William Walker. He owned most of Walker Valley before the Smoky Mountains National Park was formed, and this is where my fictional family lives. What drew me to their story is the old growth, or what is left of it at the Tremont Institute in the park.
William Walker settled here in the 1850s and as lumber operations closed in on his valley, he tried to keep his old growth woods from the clutches of the Little River Lumber Company. William lived a colorful life. According to his descendants, he had three wives and some estimate he sired over 20 children. He hung on to his land until 1918, selling it off to the owner of the Little River Co. on his death bed with the understanding that the old trees would be spared. What he never knew was that eventually his trees were cut, post-mortem, by the company and that he was under paid for the land.
A few miles down the road from Tremont and Walker Valley is the only cultural heritage site in the park - Cades Cove. This eleven mile circuit holds what remains of an entire community that once lived there: homes, corn cribs, barns, smoke and spring houses. The people that lived in Cades Cove had full, industrious lives.
Their economy was based on a bartering system with the nearby cities and towns. And they had plenty to barter before the woods were ravaged by blight, forest fire, and habitat destruction. Ginseng, chestnuts, corn, and cattle were just some of the products the people of Cades Cove bartered and sold at markets in Maryville and Knoxville, TN. Luckily local residents (many descendants) from nearby Townsend, Tennessee advocated for preserving the architecture of Cades Cove. It is the only area in the park where you can find everything intact. Which was fortunate because when the government started acquiring land for the park in the mid-1920s they tore down or let buildings rot after their occupants moved out. Just like the natural areas in the park, Cades Cove is a great place to rocket the imagination.
I also found a plethora of reading material at the Smoky Mountains Heritage Museum in Townsend, first hand accounts from people who grew up in the region before their families were forced to move because of the National Park in the mid 1930s. These books are gold mines of information, tall tales, and stories about the families who lived there, their hardships, feuds, and industry. Before a fungus blighted the Chestnut trees, children would go deep into the woods to collect the nuts and sell them at the local stores. They had a miller who came in from the fields at the sound of a bell to mill corn for customers who stopped in with a sack of kernels. His was an important job as corn was a family staple and wheat was hard to grow so flour was usually shipped in and store bought.
The families raised pigs, notched their ears to identify them and let them roam the hills. At harvest time they were lured in with salt and nuts. The meat was kept in a smokehouse and slabs taken off throughout the winter. Game was scarce by the early 20th century due to over hunting. Hunters were lucky to get a 'Gobbler' roosting in a tree, or squirrel meat. I found no references for deer hunting but Elk now pasture in the coves and there are signs everywhere to be aware of them while driving. I've visited the park twice and have yet to see one. But I'll be back for the next season: summer and maybe I'll get lucky.
Connect here for my next post on the history of lumber industry in the Smoky Mountain region.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.