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.
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 US Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, described 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.
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 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. 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. Families moved, and those that stayed were not allowed to cut timber for firewood or building. In addition, the government forbid them to hunt, or to raise 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
From Kirkus Review
A historical novel, set largely in upstate New York’s Adirondack Park, about the troubled lives of real-life real estate investor William West Durant and his embittered sister, Ella.
Myers (Castles in the Air, 2016, etc.) continues the story of the Durants in this third book in her Durant Family Saga trilogy. Thomas C. Durant was a railroad magnate who lost a fortune and died under a cloud—and intestate—in 1885. His son, William, assumed control of the family’s remaining assets and began new real estate and construction ventures in the Adirondacks. His sibling, Ella, who was somewhat of a bohemian, always felt financially shortchanged and ill-treated by her older brother—which caused litigation between the two. In the novel, told in the form of reminiscences of various characters, readers follow the arc of William’s career from his early days as a high roller (starting in 1892) to his impoverished life as an old man (circa 1931). In the end, not only has William lost all of his own wealth, but also money and land that Ella won in her final lawsuit—so they both end up losing. However, as William wrote to a friend in 1932, “I am poor, but I am happy, what more can most of us expect?” Myers writes with skill and has chosen well in deeply researching the Durant saga, which remarkably parallels Greek tragedy. It’s a truly engrossing story, and Myers does it justice. William is effectively portrayed as being more clueless than anything else, as he honestly doesn’t understand that he is treating his sister—and his wife, for that matter—very badly. He’s also obsessed with his camps in the Adirondacks, giving readers the impression that he sees the whole park as his personal fiefdom. That’s likely the reason why Myers uses the very clever gambit of telling the story from the perspective of William in his old age, when he’s “calm of mind, all passion spent,” and being interviewed by wealthy Harold Hochschild, who now owns William’s old camp, Eagle’s Nest. To compare William to the aged Oedipus is not so great a stretch.
A well-wrought, classically inspired riches-to-rags tale.
Often, when I'm giving a talk about my novels I'm asked, where did you come up with the idea to write the story? I get my inspiration from past. I started to research the Durant family saga - after staying in a cabin hidden in the wilderness that was supposedly built by William West Durant for trysts with his mistress. What I thought would be a one book love story/romance, turned into a four year research journey. This folklore about William and his mistress started me down a path of clues that shed light on the lives of the Durant family and had me visiting the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, Winterthur Museum, the Adirondack Museum, and England. My one book idea turned into a trilogy.
Soon after I was finished with my draft of novel three in the trilogy, I was visiting my family in South Carolina and ended up hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, one the US most popular National Park. I was intrigued with the history of the people who once lived in the park and were eventually forced out--like the residents of Cades Cove--now a Cultural Heritage site in the park. And then there is the story of the Walker Sisters, who, due to their age, were allowed to stay in their cabins until they died. I found fascinating oral histories about the former residents in the bookstore of the Smoky Mountains Cultural Heritage Museum in Townsend, TN.
While the research is a slow and steady task, never really ending, a lot of it can be done via use of digital archival material. However, the writing takes dedication. I'm lucky enough to be in an academic profession that allows me chunks of time to write. In the summer months I spend the mornings in a library or coffee house writing until I reach 3k words (usually about two-three hours). I do this until I have a rough draft of a novel - about 80k words. Editing takes another year if not more. Indeed, I am still editing the novel I wrote set in the Great Smoky Mountains, The Truth of Who You Are, as it is now out on submission with publishers.
Once in a while I panic, thinking, will I ever run out of ideas on what to write about? What if this novel is my last? Can I keep up with the research and the creative process involved in putting out a novel set in the past about real people and events?
Recently, while walking in the famous Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, NY where Harriet Tubman, and William Seward are buried, I thought about how many stories there are to tell and thought, "I'll ever run out of material."
My current novel in progress has a section set during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. This epic military campaign began in the foreboding Ardennes Forest December 16, 1944 and was not concluded until January 1945. The Germans had amassed a large army hidden in the forests along the ridges and deep ravines of the Ardennes mountains of eastern Belgium and France. The Germans' objective was to take the city of Bastogne and the port of Antwerp. Unsuspecting American soldiers from the 110th Infantry were recuperating from the brutal battle in the Hürtgen Forest in the town of Clervaux. And when the Germans began their offensive, the Army was taken by surprise. Although the Germans would eventually be defeated, it was an epic battle. Infantrymen recount the eerie presence of German soldiers camouflaged in white outer-coats to match the snow, moving like wraiths in and out of the cover of fir trees on the battlefield. By the time it was over, 75,000 American and 80,000 German soldiers perished in the Ardennes.
While looking for primary sources I landed on a book titled: I'll Be Home for Christmas. It's a compilation of soldiers' letters and essays from the U.S. Library of Congress focused on the period of time soldiers' memories of home were most precious. The chapters include passages where they describe the movement of the infantry through the dark fir forests of the Ardennes, trudging through snow up to their thighs, hiding in fox holes, reminiscing about the holiday. More than once, the gravity of the moment was interspersed with small wonders and gestures of humanity. As one of the survivors, who was holed up in a cellar on Christmas Eve recalled: "At the stroke of midnight, without an order or request, dark figured emerged from the cellars. In the frosty gloom voices were raised in the old familiar Christmas carols. The infantry....could hear voices two hundred yards away in the dark, in German,...singing Silent Night."
They decorated random trees with tin ration cans. They made the best of a situation while pining to be home. Some of the men who were separated from their units ended up in cabins of the locals who gave them refuge and food on Christmas Eve. A medic was given a wooden carving from a piece of packing crate with the word Weihnachten 1944 (Christmas in German) from one of the German prisoners of war he treated.
A Belgium schoolteacher, returning to his classroom after the battle found this written on the blackboard by a German officer:
May the world never live through such a Christmas night. Nothing is more horrible than meetings one's fate, far from mother, wife, and children..... Life was bequeathed us in order that we might love and be considerate to one another. From the ruins, out of blood and death shall come forth a brotherly world.
One of the more poignant stories comes from bomber pilot Philip Ardery who knew all too well that fate might never give him another Christmas. He was reminded of this everyday while flying over Europe during the month of December of 1943. Growing up, he never opened any presents before Christmas Day. By late November family members of the pilots were sending packages to the headquarters where he was stationed. Many sat unopened, a 'Return to Sender' stamped on them when a soldier failed to return from a flight. Yet when Ardery was sent out on a mission in the inky dark of a bracing cold dawn, he had to decide: should I open one of my gifts just in case I don't make it back?
His family and friends made sure he had plenty to open. Each night he considered them from the perch of his bunk; the packages, sitting there waiting for him to rip open and discover what was inside.
Making it even more difficult was the fact that the weather was horrendous. Heavy fog and cold, damp air was hindering the pilots' efforts. Because they had not received their pathfinder equipment on time, they were flying without the instruments needed to guide the bombing. As a result, there were many mid-air collisions. In addition, lack of adequate gear meant men returned from their mission with frostbitten hands and many had to be hospitalized.
As the casualties mounted, each day, Ardery asked himself: should I open my presents just in case I don't make it back alive? Indecision plagued him through the month of December.
He didn't. He said the gifts were magical because of who sent them, those he held dearest. Maybe it was the taboo of opening anything before Christmas. Maybe it was hope. Hope that he would make it through his mission to eventually return home to those people he held dear. Hope may have been the greatest gift he received that year, that along with his life. He eventually opened his gifts on Christmas Day. One of the lucky ones to return home to family.
About five years ago I was on a trip in the Orcas Islands when I learned about the men in the Civilian Conservation Corps who worked for a measly $5.00/week during the Great Depression, building infrastructure and planting over 1 billion trees in our nation's parks. Of course I'd heard of these men but never knew much about their work or their history. But after reading about the Corps, the multitude of men who hearkened from diverse geographic backgrounds, many of them first and second generation immigrants, I felt compelled to tell their story.
I hadn't realized it at the time, but this book project titled The Truth of Who You Are, would become an emotional journey for me that had me doubting myself time and time again. Was it worth it? I kept asking. Let me list the tribulations to see this novel through to a publishing deal.
1) Research - since the novel is historical, I had to do research, which meant traveling to some of the sites where these men worked. Being self-funded, I launched an online crowdfunding campaign. I made a video, which took hours, and I almost made my goals. But the campaign failed and I wrote about it here. So I scaled back my travel plans to something doable - research in the Smoky Mountains, near where my parents lived in South Carolina. There was a lot of history to work with and hey, it's a tax write off, right?
2) Contests - I am a sucker for them. After winning one literary contest in 2017 for my novel The Night is Done, I figured I might be in a roll, so why not enter my work in progress to some contests , see how it goes? I entered The Truth of Who You Are in five writing contests. It gained semi-finalist status in one, and lost in two others. One is still pending. But the most heartbreaking loss was a national, prestigious contest that required I not pitch the book to anyone, no agents or publishers, until they told me it was out of the running. Five months later and two weeks before they were going to announce the winner, I still hadn't heard anything. My novel was still in the running. I couldn't believe it. The prize was $25,000 and a publishing contract. Could it be that The Truth of Who You Are had won? Everyday that I opened my email and there was no rejection I got my hopes up. My anxiety level was through the roof. I told only a few select friends and family about my anticipation. And then....rejection.
3) Publishers and Agents- I've attended numerous conferences over the past few years, pitching this novel to agents and editors at publishing houses. One editor wrote back to me with constructive feedback as well as encouraging words. "The Conservation Corps sections are terrific, I think. They really conjure time and place and show the impact of the programs on the people who participated in them and on the communities they served. And the burgeoning romance is nicely done as well." Yay! I revised and resubmitted. It was rejected. That was one of many to come from other agents and publishers, after they requested to read the whole manuscript.
4) Revise, revise, revise - the next step in the process is always to self-reflect, reexamine the manuscript and revise. At some point though one has to decide. What is the issue here? Is this novel not marketable? What do people want? Many revisions later, I adjusted the concept, and started all over again with the pitching.
5) Publishing Contract - I sent the novel to a small publisher who offed me a contract. Yay! Then I read the contract. That and a few other things led me to believe I'd be no better off than if I published it myself, so I declined. I can't even begin to tell you what a gut wrenching decision that was.
6) Giving up - I firmly believe in this novel. I know what it feels like to not believe something is worth pursuing. I have a novel I wrote about smuggling along the US/Canadian border sitting on my laptop which will never see print. But this novel, The Truth of Who You Are, is different. I've had positive feedback from several readers, people who I've only met in online writing circles. And my critique partner, who is brutally honest, told me it is my best writing so far.
Recently a publisher asked me for the full manuscript and I’m waiting for their response. Their contract is posted on their website and seems more favorable. So we'll see. Like I said, this book won't quit.
But I imagine, neither did these guys from the Conservation Corps.
Myers (Imaginary Brightness) satisfyingly concludes her historical trilogy set in the Gilded Age by presenting the detailed downfall of ruthless real estate mogul William West Durant; his exasperated wife, Janet; and his estranged sister, Ella. In 1931, the penniless Durant recounts his tragic life. After inheriting his father’s vast wealth and interest in the Adirondack Railroad, William immediately begins to make bad investments. He squanders money on yachts, panders to princes, and builds mansions he can’t afford to run, all while hiding assets from Ella. She sues him for her rightful inheritance and tries to overcome discrimination to become a novelist. Meanwhile, Janet, verbally abused and infantilized by William, begins an affair with her doctor. After getting proof of William’s own infidelities with an actress, Janet sues for divorce.....Myers expertly depicts a precarious era soaked in vicious gossip, stained reputations, and ostentatiousness. Readers will enjoy the historical details that bring this Gilded Age soap opera to life. (BookLife)
One of the pleasures of being an author is meeting with people at unique places to talk about books. This summer I met with teachers who were participating in the State University of New York Cortland Forever Wild in the Adirondacks. Teachers from various disciplines came from all over the country to stay in and learn about the Adirondack Great Camps built during the Gilded Age. History Professors Randi Storch and Kevin Sheets organized the event with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The week's itinerary included lectures on the history of land use in the region, and how it impacted the people who lived there. There were discussions on urbanization and industrialization, the respite wilderness offered for those living and working in the cities, and the romantic view people had about 'roughing it'. I spoke about the Durant family, who once owned over 1/5 million acres of land in the Adirondack Wilderness, and their plans to exploit it by developing a transportation system into the interior.
The teachers stayed at a Great Camp built by William West Durant and now owned by SUNY Cortland. Camp Huntinginton. They were even treated to an aerial view of the property with sea plane rides.
Activities included visits to other Great Camps built by Durant, (pictured below are the teachers from week 2 in front of Great Camp Sagamore), camp fire discussions about the readings, kayaking and paddle boarding on Raquette Lake. I was able to participate for one of the days and enjoyed a glorious sunset at the end. I was so grateful to be a part of the program and to meet so many dedicated teachers.
It's almost the fourth of July and the mayflies have hatched in the Finger Lakes region - always a good sign. Mayflies have adapted to every aquatic situation except foul water - that is according to Anne Haven Morgan - aka Mayfly Morgan, known for her study of aquatic life in the early 1900s. I have a first edition copy of her book, titled Field Book of Ponds and Streams, published by Putnam in 1930. It contains over 250 illustrations and plates done by Morgan who was a Professor of Zoology at Mount Holyoke College. So popular was her little field guide it was used by students of Biology at Cornell University back in the day (personal communication from John Weeks, a naturalist from the area who attended Cornell in the 1930s).
Mayflies hatch in the early summer after spending most of their life as nymphs under water, breathing through gills found on their abdomen. When they reach adulthood, they climb up a stem or reed and molt (depending on the species it could take hours or days). They have no mouth parts but they have wings for flight. They don't eat at this stage; their only job is to procreate. The fishermen call them duns or spinners because of their mating flight that begins at twilight.
They swing up and down in the air like the seeds of a cottonwood tree, flinging upwards of thirty feet. Hundreds of them will perform this dance over the water. Once done, the females dip their tails ever so delicately on the lake to lay their eggs. It looks like soft raindrops pattering on the surface. After the act is completed, the females die, forming mats on the surface, becoming food for ducks and fish. The males also have a short lifespan as adults. They mate and alight on the nearest tree where they spend for their final hours. Hence the Latin name given to the insects - Ephemeroptera - meaning ephemeral- short lived. Like our summers in the Finger Lakes.
According to Morgan's field guide, Dr. F.H. Krecker observed so many dead mayflies after a hatch on the shores of Cedar Point, Lake Erie, that there were piles of them, six-eight inches deep under the street lights. The local amusement park had to haul their lacey bodies in carts each morning. Those must have been the days before industrial pollution and harmful algae blooms started choking the waters of the lake.
You can see how delicate these creatures are in the plate illustration from Morgan's field guide. At the very bottom, on a log to the right, is the nymph looking like a skeleton. The larger insect to the left is a dragonfly nymph (yes dragonflies spend their nymph stage under water as well and breath through gills inside their abdomen).
I fell in love with mayflies when I first started studying aquatic science and collected them as part of stream studies. I even went so far as to include their life history in my novel set in the Finger Lakes after their Latin name - Ephemeral Summer.
Their short life span is beautifully tragic, yet purposeful. Which in the scheme of things could be said about most living creatures.
May 10th, 2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad lines in what was called the Transcontinental Railroad. This scene from the t.v. show Hell on Wheels recaps the end of the venture. Doc Durant delivers a compelling argument that the railroad could not have been built without the iron will and deceit of men like himself.
Are "truths delivered by lies no less true"? And are "dreams made reality by falsehoods no less real"? In this scene Doc Durant chastises the men in Congress who are now investigating him for his unsavory business tactics. He had a right to be indignant since the men investigating him were well aware he used bribery to get bills passed that favored and subsidized the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, lining the pockets of men like Durant and Collis P. Huntington of the Central Pacific Line.
I was writing the Durant Family Saga when someone told me about Hell on Wheels. Colm Meaney does a great job reanacting Doc's blustery personality (although he looks nothing like the real Doc Durant). My saga begins where Hell on Wheels ends. The Durant Family Saga is a reunion of Doc Durant's family in the United States, after he had sent them to live abroad while he built the transcontinental. During the 1860s Durant had acquired over 1/2 million acres of wilderness in the Adirondacks and expected his son, William West, to help him develop a new transportation line that would cut through the forests and reach Canada. Along the way Doc expected he would make another fortune selling off and developing land for vacation homes and resorts.
What Doc hadn't planned on was the financial panic of 1873 or the public, his business partners and stock owners turning against him. By the time his family appears on the scene in 1874, leaving behind their friends and family in England, Doc is financially bankrupt and his reputation in tatters. He had to contend with numerous lawsuits against him, a family that was not used to taking orders, and a son who had spent most of his life spending money rather than investing it.
Beyond the business dealings, the Durant family life offered enough drama for me to write a trilogy. But the legacy of the Transcontinental never ends. Congress instructed special committees to investigate the business dealings of the two railroad empires and Durant and Huntington were hounded by the press. Durant died in 1885, never having to own up to his wrong-doings. Huntington's company however was fined by the government and he spent his last years constantly defending his reputation.
He got his revenge though. Because soon after Doc Durant dies, Huntington takes Durant's son, William under his wing. This relationship proves unfortunate for the Durant family fortune. Huntington calculated revenge against his old rival and William was too naive to see this. William's hope to fulfill his father's ambition to develop the wilderness was financed with money borrowed from Huntington. In the end, Doc Durant was right, his dreams, made reality, were based on falsehoods.
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.