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Wednesday, 20 January 2010 16:12

A look at John Preston Arthur

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One of my favorite accounts of this region’s varied history is provided by John Preston Arthur, who published his 659-page volume titled Western North Carolina: A History (From 1730 to 1913) in 1914.

Originally published by The Edward Buncombe Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution of Asheville, the volume was reissued in 1996 by The Overmountain Press, by Kessinger Publishing (quick print), and by The University of Michigan Library (quick print) in 2009. (Note that “quick print” editions are generally inferior in regard to print quality and binding but are, perhaps, better than nothing.) And the text is also available online via any search engine.

I like Arthur’s book because it is generally accurate and is written with a distinctive personal style; furthermore, it not only covers the big picture (Cherokee history and culture, early white settlers, timbering, railroads, mining, etc.) but gives equal attention to important matters like “Manners and Customs,” “Humorous and Romantic” incidents, and “Physical Pecularities.”

The dust-wrapper for The Overmountain Press reissue provides information regarding Arthur’s life culled from a “biography” by O. Lester Brown published in the Watauga Democrat (Boone, North Carolina) in March 1976. Arthur was born in 1851 in Columbia, South Carolina, and died in Boone in 1916. He received a law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1872 and practiced in that state and New York City until 1887, when he moved to Asheville, where he also practiced law in addition to serving as manager and superintendent of the Street Railway Company. About 1912 Arthur moved to Boone, where he lived in the Blair Hotel for the rest of his life. He wrote a history of Watauga County then published his history of WNC shortly before his death.

According to the dust-wrapper account, Arthur’s last years were not all that sunny. He earned little from his historical writings, which probably wasn’t a surprise. But he also had few legal cases come his way, so that “his financial condition was acute.” He was reduced to working “for fifty cents a day, digging potatoes and gathering apples, and even applied for a job as a helper at a livery stable. Broken-spirited, he soon took to his bed and died ‘homeless, penniless and heartbroken.’”

Local and regional historians don’t generally live high on the hog, but Arthur’s last years were especially grim. Nevertheless, his work displays an interior outlook that belies the apparent bleakness of his everyday life. “Western North Carolina” is chock full of humor and delight in the everyday events and episodes of mountain life. It’s my hope that O. Lester Brown misread his subject somewhat, not fully realizing that old JPA was having a grand time while scribbling away in his hotel room. By way of support for that position, here are some mostly random excerpts:

JPA on mountain women: “But it was the women who were the true heroines of this section. The hardships and constant toil to which they were generally subjected were blighting and exacting in the extreme. If their lord and master could find time to hunt and fish, go to the Big Musters, spend Saturdays loafing or drinking in the settlement — or about the country ‘stores,’ as the shops were and still are called, their wives could scarcely, if ever, find a moment they could call their own. Long before the ‘palid dawn’ came sifting in through chink and window they were up and about. As there were no matches in those days, the housewife ‘unkivered’ — the coals which had been smothered in ashes the night before to be kept ‘alive’ till morning, and with ‘kindling’ in one hand and a live coal held on the tines of a steel fork or between iron tongs in the other, she blew and blew and blew till the splinters caught fire. Then the fire was started and the water brought from the spring, poured into the ‘kittle,’ and while it was heating the chickens were fed, the cows milked, the children dressed, the bread made, the bacon fried and then coffee was made and breakfast was ready. That over and the dishes washed and put away, the spinning wheel, the loom or the reel were the next to have attention, meanwhile keeping a sharp look out for the children, hawks, keeping the chickens out of the garden, sweeping the floor, making the beds, churning, sewing, darning, washing, ironing, taking up the ashes, and making lye, watching for the bees to swarm, keeping the cat out of the milk pans, dosing the sick children, tying up the hurt fingers and toes, kissing the sore places well again, making soap, robbing the bee hives, stringing beans, for winter use, working the garden, planting and tending a few hardy flowers in the front yard, such as princess feather, pansies, sweet-Williams, dahlias, morning glories; getting dinner, darning patching, mending, milking again, reading the Bible, prayers, and so on from morning till night, and then all over again the next day. It could never have been said of them that they had ‘but fed on roses and lain in the lilies of life.’”

JPA on mountain dialect and language: “Writers who think they know, have said that our people have been sequestered in these mountains so long that they speak the language of Shakespeare and of Chaucer. It is certain that we sometimes say ‘hit’ for it and ‘taken’ for took; that we also say ‘plague’ for tease, and when we are willing, we say we are ‘consentable’ .... We also say ‘haint’ for ‘am not,’ ‘are not,’ and ‘have not,’ and we invite you to ‘light’ if you are riding or driving. We ‘pack’ our loads in ‘pokes,’ and ‘reckon we can’t’ if invited ‘to go a piece’ with a passerby, when both he and we know perfectly well that we can if we will. Chaucer and Shakespeare may have used these expressions we do not know .... We may “mend,” not improve; and who shall say that our “mend” is not a simpler, sweeter and more significant word than “improve”? But we do mispronounce many words, among which is ‘gardeen’ for guardian, ‘colume’ for column, and ‘pint’ for point. The late Sam Lovin of Graham was told that it was improper to say Rocky ‘Pint,’ as its true name is ‘Point.’ When next he went to Asheville he asked for a ‘point’ of whiskey ... ‘mashed, mummicked and hawged up,’ means worlds to most of us. Finally, most of us are of the opinion of the late Andrew Jackson who thought that one who could spell a word in only way was a ‘mighty po’ excuse for a full grown man.’”

Locate a copy of Arthur’s history of WNC and see for yourself. You’ll perhaps sense, as do I, that JPA’s last years probably weren’t irremediably wretched. After all, anyone who maintains a passionate interest in the history, lore, and humor of his or her chosen region won’t ever be totally impoverished.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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