Seventeen washtubs November 14, 2011Posted by Jenny in hiking, history, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Cook cabin, Hannah cabin, Little Cataloochee, Little Cataloochee Baptist Church, Will Messer
I learned something about the art of observation on a hike to Little Cataloochee yesterday, when I rambled with seven people around the sparse remains of a once-thriving community whose life ended in the 1930s with the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The point I learned concerned washtubs. Someone once commented to me that whenever you explore an old homesite, you very often find an old rusty washtub. I started keeping my eyes open, and soon I spotted them everywhere. But I drew a false conclusion. I thought the people forced out of the park had left their washtubs behind when they moved. This puzzled me: didn’t they need to keep doing their wash?
Two things should have told me I was off-base: the oddness of leaving an important possession behind, and the fact that the bottoms of the tubs had rusted out, while the sides stayed largely intact, though crumpled. Reason: the settlers had discarded the tubs long before they left their homes, because the bottoms had given out from hard use. These faithful metal containers were pressed into service for many purposes. With water sitting in them much of the time, the bottoms were the first part to go. The community had no junkyard for disposal, so the old tubs were set aside near the homes.
And so I learned once again that when something doesn’t make sense, I need to look at it more closely. Good historians don’t jump to conclusions. In celebration of this thought, I started counting the number of washtubs we saw. Total: seventeen.
We visited the John Hannah cabin, a masterpiece of wide planks atop round foundation stones.
Mike Knies, the instigator of the outing, led us in search of a springhouse behind the house. He was armed with many pages of information in water-resistant sleeves. These included old photos, topographic map sections, and a batch of architectural drawings of the homesites showing many surrounding features: locations of apple trees, sheds, even shrubs. These are collected in a park document dated 1996.
We found the springhouse and wandered behind the house identifying plants introduced by the settlers: apple trees, forsythia, vinca. Many big piles of stones attested to the labor of pulling them out of the fields. Then we moved on down the old road to the settlement of Ola, named for Viola, the daughter of Will Messer. You might say Messer was the emperor of Little Cataloochee, the overlord of a large complex including general store, mills, barns, and blacksmith shop. He built the biggest house in the community, a large white frame structure not far from Little Cataloochee Creek. No trace of it remains.
I liked the mini-gardens that grew atop the boulders.
We found traces of a large mill—pieces of scrap metal, a large wooden pier.
I was impressed by a gnarly old grape vine growing nearby.
We found the intact sole of a shoe—a poignant sight. The heel had grown a little crown of moss.
We wandered around the area, hunting for pieces of metal, crockery, or hewn wood, or even the odd brick or concrete slab. One of our group said to me the experience reminded him of the freewheeling explorations of his boyhood.
We crossed to the south side of the road and continued our investigations. We discovered the foundation piers of the old schoolhouse, and beside it a haunted-looking tree.
Then, suddenly gripped with a sense of purpose, we strode rapidly up the road to the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church. It is wonderful the way the steeple suddenly pops up before you, pointing toward heaven, as you near the top of the hill. Taking shelter from chilly winds, we ate lunch inside the church. I checked the Bible on the pulpit for the odd notes that are sometimes inserted between its pages—I had seen these on previous visits. They usually speak of some sort of personal quest, and they amount to small prayers on paper—I found a few of them.
We explored the cemetery. A couple of graves had very fresh-looking Confederate flags planted before them. I think they might have been placed there on Veterans Day.
This headstone had a beautiful little lamb sitting on it.
We continued up the road, stopping at the Dan Cook cabin and exploring behind it. This area included the homesites of several Bennetts. I joked with my companions about paying respects to my ancestors, but in fact my Bennett ancestors came from upstate New York, not western North Carolina. Then we climbed part of the way toward Davidson Gap and visited the site of the Upper Will Messer farm. We found several stone walls that extended seemingly without end way up the hillside.
We turned around to walk back. Everywhere, we felt the presence of ghosts.
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