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Seventeen washtubs November 14, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, history, Smoky Mountains.
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Composition with washtub and stove part

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.

John Hannah cabin

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.

Mike holds his water-resistant pages

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.

Little Cat Creek emerges from under the bridge. A beautiful stone wall adjoins it.

I liked the mini-gardens that grew atop the boulders.

Mossy mini-garden

We found traces of a large mill—pieces of scrap metal, a large wooden pier.

Mill debris

Looking up the creek past the site of the mill

I was impressed by a gnarly old grape vine growing nearby.

Monstrous grape vine

We found the intact sole of a shoe—a poignant sight. The heel had grown a little crown of moss.

Sole of a shoe---a strangely affecting sight

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.

Haunted 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.

People regularly pay their respects to Civil War veterans

This headstone had a beautiful little lamb sitting on it.

Peaceful lamb

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.

It rivalled the Great Wall of China, fully six feet wide in most parts

We turned around to walk back. Everywhere, we felt the presence of ghosts.

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Comments»

1. Thomas Stazyk - November 14, 2011

Looks like a fascinating place–glad to see you’re out and about.

Jenny - November 15, 2011

It is indeed fascinating, a wonderful combination of human history and points of natural beauty.

2. brian - November 14, 2011

I need to spend more time hiking with people like Mr. Knies. Bet I’d walk through there and miss most of that stuff. I like his “what is it?” entries on the News Sentinel site.

Somebody said the first items stone age people wanted when they encountered modern goods was a machete and a bucket. Kind of funny to think of the old timers carving a life out of the wilderness with nothing but an axe and a washtub (or barrel hoops?), but maybe I’m just thinking like a man.

3. Jenny - November 15, 2011

Well, you have something that slices and something that contains. What more could you possibly want?! (Compare the living requirements of 21st century Americans.)

4. Ron - November 15, 2011

Those wash tubs also served as “bath tubs.” Growing up in rural Ohio in the 50’s, mom would bring the tub in from outside, fill it with warm water heated on the wood stove in the kitchen. My little sister would get to bath first, then me, then my older brother (glad I wasn’t the oldest!).
Then the tub was dragged to the front door and tipped enough to pour some dirty water out until it light enough to drag down the steps and emptied.

Jenny - November 15, 2011

That’s a wonderful memory! Yes, I can see the disadvantage of being the oldest—I guess it would go youngest girl to oldest girl, then the same for boys, or would it just be in order of age regardless of boy or girl? Thanks for sharing. I understand the tubs were also used for canning and other food-related activities!

5. kaslkaos - November 15, 2011

The mystery of the wash tubs solved! I have one in my garden that I dragged (they are heavy) home from the woods, but mine is riddled with bullet holes….
And thanking Ron for sharing personal wash-tub memories.

6. Gary - November 16, 2011

We used similar tubs for water for the “livestock” (a horse and
a goose in my case). In the winter, the problem was making
sure there was liquid water as opposed to ice. On cold Kansas
mornings the ice could be solid. Fortunately, there was hot
water in the house .. I suspect hot water would have been more
labor intensive in this community.


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