A new home for the cabin of Mark Twain’s parents

Posted by | October 23, 2014

“I had heard that Mark Twain’s father and mother, John Clemens and his wife, had lived near the internationally famous Sgt. Alvin C. York, in the Pall Mall community of the Tennessee mountain county of Fentress,” says John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia.

“It is a matter of factual history that John Clemens owned much land in that county, and that he was an official in Jamestown, the county seat. He was the postmaster there, and then he moved to Pall Mall on the Wolfe River, and he also opened the post office there.

The John Clemens cabin on its new site at the Museum of Appalachia.

The John Clemens cabin on its new site at the Museum of Appalachia.

“Once while visiting Sgt. York’s son Andrew, I asked about the old log cabin which I’d heard was once occupied by the Clemens family. Andrew was very familiar with it, he said, and he volunteered to take me to it.

“Just two miles north of the old York home, we came upon a tiny one-room log cabin, sitting in an open field, but near a wooded area. This was about 1990, and the structure was quite sound. It was located on property belonging to Ernest Buck, who was not home at the time; but Andrew and I walked over to the forlorn little house, and I took several pictures.

“Some two or three years later, I was speaking to a civic group in Maryville, and I was talking about so much of the largely unknown history of the region, and I mentioned this historic little cabin. After the program, a man named David Buck introduced himself to me. He stated that the cabin to which I alluded was on his father’s property and that it did indeed once serve as the home of John Clemens. He agreed to go with me to talk with his father, Ernest Buck, along with Dean Stone, editor of the Maryville Times. Dean had invited me to speak to the group.

Interior of the John Clemens cabin showing dining area and hearth.

Interior of the John Clemens cabin showing dining area and hearth.

“It took us nearly a year to find a time when the three of us could make the trip—in August, 1995. We found the elder Buck (Ernest) to be a most friendly and knowledgeable person, and one who was keenly interested in all aspects of local history. He had traced the Buck family back six generations to the 1750s.

“Ernest was a graduate of Lincoln Memorial University, and had lived in D.A.R. Hall, the same place, the same floor, and maybe event the same room, as where I roomed several years later. He’s a great farmer, gardener, and along with his wife Grace, a pillar of the community—and most respected, I’m informed.

“According to Ernest, the foremost local historians agree that Mark Twain’s father and mother once lived there, and he produced local history books to verify this. He also told me of the local tradition to that effect.

“’My daddy died when I was very young, and I went to live with my daddy’s sister, Minnie Buck Greer and her husband, Marion Greer. That was about 1921, and they lived near here. I was walking along with my uncle one day, and we walked past that old house, and Uncle Marion pointed to it and said the house was over 100 years old and that a famous family had once lived there—and I think he told me the name of the family, but I was just a child and didn’t learn until years later that it was the Mark Twain family. The original cabin had a stick and mud chimney, but in 1905 a man named R.G. Crouch built the rock chimney that’s there now.

“’I moved there in 1931 to live with my mother (Dollie Sharp Buck) who had recently moved there. She lived there from ’31 until `948, and a Betram Reynolds moved in and lived there from ’48 until 1951.’

“The following comments from Ernest regarding the Clemens family and the log cabin are based, I believe, on both oral and written history—from the people of that region.

“’John Clemens came from Celina (the home of Cordell Hull) in 1826 or 1827. He stayed there for four years, and then he came down here. They called this Possum Trot in 1832. He had a wife and four children at the time, but they said she wouldn’t come with him. She didn’t want to come out here in the wilderness, and she’s supposed to have said that she was tired of having a child every year.

“’They also said that John Clemens was working on a perpetual motion machine, and that he wanted to be in a place where he could concentrate. He founded the Pall Mall Post Office and served as the first postmaster there.

“’His wife and children joined him here at Possum Trot and moved into the little log house with him. Three of his children went to school here—at a school called Mt. Vernon.

“’John Clemens sold out to the Berry Gatewood family and went to Missouri. Some say that Mark Twain was born here and was taken to Missouri as a child, but most people say he was born a few months after his parents moved there.

“’Some people thought the cabin had been moved a little ways from its first location, but that’s not right. I’m sure that it was never moved ‘til you [John Rice Irwin] moved it.’

“The cabin had become severely damaged in the last four or five years. The cabin leaned to such an extent as to allow all the water draining from the northeast side of the roof to fall directly onto the logs on that side. Hence many logs were totally rotted. It would soon have fallen and been impossible to restore. I think that is why Ernest and Grace agreed to let me have the cabin. Also, they had recently visited the Museum of Appalachia (unbeknownst to me) and were much impressed, they said.

“I took my crew of workers, two trucks, and a trailer to take down the cabin on a very hot day—August 29, 1995. They went back a couple of days later and got the chimney.”

One Response

  • Ernest Buck is my uncle (now dead), my mother, Bessie is one of three sister. I well remember visiting there on holidays including families of the six children. David, Ernest’s oldest boy was just a little older than me, now living in Knoxville. I visited the cabin in the 70’s and took many pictures of, two are hanging in my house today. I remember meeting Srg.York as a child, but of course, had no idea who he was. I always thought it was cool to say my mother grew up in a log cabin, but it was years later that I really appreciated just how special the place really was. Thank you

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