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Wednesday, 09 April 2014 14:47

Regional historians and ‘piglets from heaven’

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“Eagles, as they still do, lived on the creek. One day in the 1890s, an eagle dropped a piglet into the yard of Orville Welch, who was living on Ecoah Branch on Eagle Creek. He kept this strange gift from the heavens, not knowing  where the eagle had gotten it, and it grew into a fine hog.”

— Duane Oliver, Hazel Creek from Then Till Now

 

Regional history necessarily accommodates events of consequence (wars, elections, heroes and heroines, et al.) but, at its best, it also finds room to record less heralded events such as the day a piglet landed in Orville Welch’s yard.

My two favorite regional historians in this regard are John Preston Arthur and Duane Oliver. I like what they say and how they say it. They can be read for both pleasure and instruction.

Arthur’s 659-page tome entitled Western North Carolina: A History (From 1730 to 1913) appeared in 1914. Originally published by The Edward Buncombe Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution of Asheville, North Carolina, the volume was reissued in 1996 by The Overmountain Press and is online.

Arthur was born in 1851 in Columbia, S.C., and died in Boone in 1916. He received a law degree from the University of South Carolina and practiced in Asheville before moving to Boone, where he lived in the Blair Hotel.

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 and was reduced to working for 50 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 heart-broken.

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 delight in the everyday events and aspects of mountain life.

“But it was the women who were the true heroines … 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.’”

Duane Oliver grew up on Hazel Creek, the largest watershed on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. A graduate of Western Carolina University, he did graduate work at UNC-CH and conducted research in Greece, Italy, Austria, Germany and at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, before serving as a professor of art history at WCU for 30 years. One of his former students (who had taken his art history survey many years ago) recently told me that “Duane Oliver was a wonderful teacher.”

Duane told me some years ago that after retiring he was getting on his mother’s nerves being around the house all of the time, so she suggested he find something to do. When he said he didn’t have anything to do, she said, “Well, write about our family.” Several books resulted. 

His magnum opus Hazel Creek From Then Till Now (1989) is always cited as a source for other regional studies. Therein, he covers every aspect of domestic life from building a cabin to springhouses, corn cribs, barns, fences, spinning wheels, cupboards and so on.

Duane wrote a wonderful memoir about country stores for the spring 1996 issue of the “Fontana North Shore Historical Association Bulletin,” wherein he captures (Proust-like) the essence of those things that trigger our memories of days gone by:

“My childhood memory of stores at Judson, Fontana and Proctor is that they were good places to buy a ‘dope’ … usually an icy cold Orange Crush … Those old general stores had a certain distinct smell, not the antiseptic, air-conditioned smell of today’s stores. Your nostrils were assailed with the pungent smell of onions, the dusty smell of potatoes that still had a little dirt clinging to them, the cool, spicy smell of apples from far-off places packed in bushel baskets with narrow strips of blue tissue paper, the acrid smell of kegs of nails, the sharp smell of unwrapped bars of soap guaranteed to produce the whitest sheets ever hung on a clothes line, the warm summery smell of towsacks full of cottonseed hulls, and best of all to a child the sweet smell around the drink box where emptied bottles stood in cases waiting for the Nehi truck from Bryson City to take them away and chase off the hungry yellow jackets that always buzzed around the bottles ....

“In the middle of the floor was a big pot-bellied stove with a long stovepipe going up into the darkness through the roof … On cold days the stove roared contentedly as it was fed coal or wood, and ‘tramped snow’ with a funny chuffing sound when a snowstorm was coming. It was especially comforting to scrooch up to the stove and warm frozen backsides or put your shoes against it until you smelled rubber starting to melt the rubber ...

“Candy, a child’s delight, could be bought in bars for a nickel … horehound drops, orange wax candy glistening with sugar, peanut-shaped mallows, gumdrops, and long black licorice sticks whose taste was exotic and not especially good, but a stick lasted for a long time for it didn’t melt in your mouth … candy cigarettes whose ends were red and we held them nonchalantly as if they were real until they melted and we ate them.

“These stores not only sold dopes, candy, cloth, thread, needles, shoes, overalls, work shirts, shotgun shells, soap, farm supplies, soda crackers, matches, kerosene (coal oil), pencils, ink (when did you lat see a bottle of it?), dishes, canned goods, and lard, but flour in cotton sacks that when they were washed could be made into all sorts of things … dresses (if you could get two with the same flour pattern), blouses, shirts, bloomers, as well as aprons and curtains …

“Out front was usually a gas pump from which gas had to be pumped by hand, and whose top was round and made of white glass which always made me think of a vanilla ice cream cone, a treat we had only on our trips to Bryson City and made a visit to Bennett’s Drug Store at the end of the bridge.

“Some stores also housed the local post office, so that a trip to call for mail or buy a three-cent stamp could be combined with buying a few things like a plug of tobacco or a box of Bruton snuff, and then stop to pass the time of day with whoever might be there.”

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. 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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