Although I sometimes wish that the maps of my Jackson County had a more beguiling shape — perhaps a bear or a quarter moon — its outline is pretty prosaic (it seems to resemble a pork chop). But marvelous events (mythical and real), notable lives and tragic encounters have occurred within these boundaries. Let’s begin with the fantastic.
According to the Cherokees, the witch Spearfinger once lived on Whiteside Mountain, where she often stood at night on the high cliffs during raging thunderstorms, brandishing her deadly digit and laughing. The great serpent Uktena once swam in the Tuckasegee (the marks of his scales are still etched in the river’s rocks). The giant, Judaculla, the “Slant-eyed One,” now sleeps in the Balsams, his flinty, upturned features visible at Pinnacle Rock. A hundred coves and creeks whisper of vanquished water spirits, nunnehi, “little people,” raven-mockers and giant eagles.
Then, there are the “maybe, maybe nots” — Jackson County tales of people, creatures, events and places that live in the twilight realm between reality and myth: the ghostly baying of Boney (sometimes called Bonas), the legendary hunting dog that leaped to his death from a cliff near Cashiers; the Tuckasegee “Smoke-hole” that was rumored to have great curative powers — now vanished; the chilling scream of “painters” in Little Canada (they were drawn to houses with new-born babies and lactating mothers.)
Many famous and infamous folks have lived here briefly and then traveled on to other destinies. William Bartram, whom the Cherokees called “flower plucker,” picked strawberries here; the outlaw, Major Lewis Redmond lived for several years at the King Place above Fisher Creek; Will Holland Thomas built a home near Whittier and, according to oral tradition, buried gold in his pasture; Dr. John R. Brinkley, the “goat-gland-man,” who sold patent medicine on XERA and ran for governor of Kansas, built a summer home above Cullowhee (his name is still inscribed in the rock walls near the road); Charlie Wright, the man who rescued Gus Baty (who fell/jumped) off Whiteside (a feat that earned Charlie a Carnegie medal) was equally famous as the man who courted Kidder Cole, the most beautiful woman in Cashiers Valley — which brings us to Judge Felix Alley, another Jackson County native who not only wrote Random Thoughts of a Mountaineer but also courted Kidder. When Wright “beat his time,” he wrote a famous square dance piece, “The Ballad of Kidder Cole.” (The lyrics include the line, “Charlie Wright, dang your soul/You done stole my Kidder Cole.”) Kidder later married “Little Doc” Nickols in Sylva.)
Any county history that is not seasoned with a bit of local bloodshed and courtroom drama is likely to be a bland chronicle. My county has a generous helping. In my childhood, I often saw the infamous Nance Dude trudging the roads near Wilmot with bundles of split kindling on her back; Bayless Henderson, the luckless killer of Nimrod Jarrett was hanged in Webster (2,000 witnesses, four preachers and picnic baskets.)
There were mysteries, too. What happed to Frank Allison, the deputy sheriff who joined a foxhunt into the Balsams and never came home. There was also a minister in Glenville who went out one evening to call his cow home — his remains found over 40 years later and his identity verified by his gold watch.
Now, comes a few of our notable people and places. Gertrude Dills McKee, the first female senator for the state of North Carolina, read poetry by candlelight at the Jarrett House when she was a child and grew up to pass legislation that revolutionized education in this state. Robert Lee Madison, who grew up in the home of Robert E. Lee (and once told my fifth-grade class about attending Traveler’s midnight funeral); attended (and described) the hanging of Jack Lambert (who was innocent), and founded a little college in Cullowhee that became Western Carolina University. The writer, John Parris, who launched a career when he interviewed a snake-bitten preacher named Albert Teaster and went on to write a series of books about the history and folklore of this region.
Is that all? In actual fact, these people, places and events are but the thin outer shell of my county. Beneath that resides my personal memories and dreams fostered by the Ritz Theater on Saturday; the courtroom of the Jackson County Courthouse where I sat in the balcony with my classmates and watched murder trials as gripping as anything that I witnessed at the Ritz; the music of Harry Cagle and Aunt Samantha Bumgarner; a little lady named Sadie Luck, Sylva’s first librarian who used to say, when I entered, “Gary, I’ve been saving a book for you;” and, finally, the faint echoes of a tannery whistle and (faintly) a song my father played long ago in the Rhodes Cove twilight, “The Raindrop Waltz.”
I think, perhaps, that the story of my county is just beginning. This is but a small, modest swatch in the gigantic tapestry — or perhaps a few bars of a symphonic musical score that is still being woven/written by countless fingers and voices. Can you hear it? I hear it best at night when I take out my cochlear implant and listen to the rich, dark silence and the unheard sounds around me.
(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller. His recent writings can be found at his blog, http://hollernotes.blogspot.com/)