The [North Carolina Forest Service] offered me a job then, late that summer or early that fall. I went to work, I had a fancy title: in charge of visual education. They had a three-quarter ton International truck. They had a generator bolted down inside this panel truck. I had a movie projector and a trunk about that high, and old silent movies and a screen and film and mending kit, and all that sort of thing, and I went around and showed motion pictures, fire prevention movies, and also game protection pictures; wild life protection.
These mountain people had burned the forest religiously, for years. They had no game laws. Well, they had game laws, but they never respected them. Even to this day, many of them don’t respect our game laws. So I went from one county to the other showing these movies. I went back as far as you could get. I had cable, I think, about fifteen hundred feet of cable. If I could get within fifteen hundred feet of one these rural backwoods schoolhouses I could show movies.
I’d have to give them about a twenty-minute spiel before I could show the movies, because if you showed the movies first and then talked, you didn’t have an audience.
I showed movies to people fifty years old who’d seen. . . that was the first movie they’d ever seen. I got back into the Smokies as far back as people lived; as far back as you could get; all over Western North Carolina, and go from one county to another.
Later, then in the Fair season I traveled the County Fair circuit and I put up exhibits at the County Fairs. I had exhibits, and I’d stand at those exhibits and talk and try to stop forest fires. I was a preacher, I tell you. So I made the Fair Circuit; go from one County Fair to another; put up these exhibits. I did that from August until, I guess, the latter part of September, or early October, when the County Fairs started in Eastern Carolina. That was in twenty-eight. Nineteen-twenty-eight.
Photo taken December 1, 1940 for U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station Photograph Collection. Caption reads: Most distant peaks are in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, about 70 miles away. Center of picture slightly south of west, from Mt. Mitchell, Black Mountain, N.C.
I would concentrate pretty much in the back woods where the forest fires originate; where the game law violations were concentrated. I’ve lived with mountain people most of my life. They’re better [than other people]; they’re more trustworthy. They’re more dependable; more reliable. They’ve got more character. They are different. I’d trust a mountain man before I would a city man any day. And I’ve. . .well, there’s one or two places I even had my own place at the table.
I’d go in some places. . . and when I was showing these movies, I’d eat my evening meal at the house nearest the school house. . . cornbread and milk, sometimes, and fatback, fried potatoes, onions, leatherbritches beans. It varied considerably, and then sometimes fresh pork, if they’d killed a hog somewhere. But I did stop at one place, and an elderly widow lived alone, I stopped there for my evening meal. Of course, there wasn’t a speck of paint inside or outside the house, but the floor was clean. No carpets, but if I’d dropped a piece of cornbread on the floor I wouldn’t have hesitated to pick it up and eat it; it looked specklessly clean.
After we’d finished, and . . .I’d offer to pay. You insulted people if you offered to pay for your meal. Yes; you insulted them.
Usually the County Warden was with me. They had a County Fire Warden, and he knew his way around, and usually he went along. So he ran interference for me. He arranged. . . he knew where the school-houses were, and one thing and another. At one place, this elderly widow, after we’d eaten, said: “I have a suit of clothes here I made for my husband. He never wore it. I raised the sheep; I sheared the wool. I carded the wool and I spun the yarn; I dyed the yarn and I wove the cloth and I made the suit.” She said, “I’ll let you have it for ten dollars.”
Well, like a fool, I said, “Well, if it’ll fit me.” I tried it on and it didn’t quite fit. But that would be a collector’s item today, and I could have afforded the ten dollars, but I figured, “Those things are everywhere, you know.” I didn’t have sense enough to recognize what I saw.
Interviewed by Dr. Lewis Silveri, Southern Highlands Research Center [now in D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections], University of North Carolina at Asheville
July 1, 1976