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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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The old dug road in Cataloochee April 10, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, history, Smoky Mountains.
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We arrived at the dug road after a slight misstep at the start

This outing was organized by Mike Knies as part of his ambitious, far-reaching program for hiking with friends this spring. Do I really mean both ambitious and far-reaching? Isn’t that redundant—in fact, isn’t that an example of just plain lazy writing? But I guess I do mean both of them. Mike’s program is ambitious in the sense that it includes a lot of unmaintained trails and it is far-reaching in the sense that its geographic scope goes from Elkmont to Greenbrier to Cataloochee to the Hyatt Ridge area. Just to put the icing on the cake, he then does a writeup on each hike that nearly always includes a witty title, and more often than not, he throws in some sort of obscure literary parody as a bonus.

In the face of this overwhelming mastery of planning, hiking, and literary sport, I think I am going to avoid reinventing the wheel on this one and refer you to his writeup on the GoSmokies forum. You will find a detailed account of the outing and an excellent map. What I offer here is mainly photos.

The old dug road connects Big Cataloochee with Little Cataloochee by way of Bald Gap (between Bald Top and Noland Mountain). You find its start at a turnoff next to Palmer Cemetery and its end at the apple house across from the Cook Cabin on what is now the Little Cataloochee trail. It was dug out below the grade so that a draft animal could pull goods on a sled along it.

Hattie Caldwell Davis, in her book Reflections on Cataloochee Valley, has a nice photo of a horse pulling a sled (see p. 48). She wrote, “Wagons were common, but sleds were more common. They were easy to build with two bent sourwood runners. There seemed to be one for every purpose: tobacco, hay, logging, and general hauling. Sleds were cheap and went where wagons couldn’t go.”* The road was dug 48” wide in 1854 by the first two couples to live on the “back side” of Noland Mountain, doing the hard work with mattocks, pick, and shovel.

Our group consisted of Mike, myself, Barbara Morgan, and Cindy McJunkin. Mike and Barbara had followed the dug road before, but it had been a long time, and it turned out we made a mistake at the very beginning and found ourselves on the west side of Jesse Ridge instead of the east. Around the time we realized we were on the wrong track, we spotted some elk in the woods.

Not a prizewinning wildlife photo, but look closely and you will see elk

We bushwhacked east over the top of the ridge and eventually reached the dug road. It was easy and pleasant to follow.

Barbara strolls along dug road

At 3500′ we started running into remains of old homesites and continued to find old walls, foundations, and various relics nearly up to the gap.

Old wall

Yellow violets spangled the ground.

Yellow violets

We rambled upward to a very nice foundation.

Mike explores the foundation

We found an old metal container.

I don't know what this would have been used for. Tell me if you know.

And a large ceramic jug.

Jug, simple and beautiful in design

There was a lovely chimney in good condition.

Double chimney

And part of a stove.

Stove part, complete with flourishes of ornament

From the gap, the plan was to bushwhack over to hit a contour northwest of Noland Gap, intersecting the road further along instead of following it down immediately from the gap. The reason was that Barbara had tried unsuccessfully twice before to stay on the road and we felt we’d have a better chance of hitting it closer to its end. We did some steep sidehilling and arrived near Noland Gap. I would have just bushwhacked down to the Little C trail, but Mike hunted around and found the road.

A bit shaded over with laurel, but not hard to follow

We came out right opposite the Cook cabin and sat on the porch for lunch.

Cook cabin

On the return, it was not hard to follow the road past where we’d hit it, up over Noland Gap, and down the other side. Our goal was to use the old path along the branch east of the gap and eventually arrive at the Cataloochee group camp, where we had a shuttled car waiting.

Mike near Noland Gap

We did come to a “Zone of Uncertainty” where the path runs very close to Hall Branch (formerly Nelson Branch). But eventually, by continuing downward and aiming toward flat areas likely to have old pathways, we picked up the track again. We found more homesites at around 3000′, with lots of old walls and piles of stones.

A mossy heap of stones

We stopped for a rest break at a pretty place on the stream, not quite realizing yet that we were actually only five minutes away from our destination.

The moss here seemed especially lush

Just above the campground, we passed a spring house made of cobblestones.

Spring house

We spied an owl in a tree near Cataloochee Creek as we drove back to our starting point, but my camera didn’t do justice to the subject, so I will not include the photos here. Apparently this is good owl territory, as several people have mentioned seeing owls haunting this section of the creek.

Mike provided us with a sampling of cold sodas when we got back to his van. He has been trying to convert me to a beverage I hadn’t even heard of before I moved to Asheville, Sun Drop and Diet Sun Drop. As it turned out, he had another chance to win me over. I absentmindedly left my boots in his van, and when he returned them to me a few days later, I found that he had tucked a Sun Drop into the left boot and a Diet Sun Drop into the right. You know, Mike, you’re right—it is a superior beverage to Mountain Dew or other caffeinated lemon-lime flavored sodas.

* Hattie Caldwell Davis, Reflections of Cataloochee Valley and its Vanished People in the Great Smoky Mountains. 1999. Available from Ms. Davis at P.O. Box 274, Maggie Valley NC 28751.