East Tennessee was considered the ‘pits’ of the mission

Posted by | November 6, 2015

“The Mormons in the hills of eastern Tennessee were often under attack by people from other churches. Near Bybee on November 6, 1934, I wrote, ‘Went around & visited about 4 families of Saints. At Luther Talley’s found a boy 21 yrs. old, just been married two days, reading & studying Book of Mormon. Found this to be case all over the community. The sectarian Ministers have been jumping on the children of the Saints. They have to study so as to defend Mormonism!’

“Everyone in the headquarters seemed to pity me for being sent to such a godforsaken place. My own feelings at the time were mingled apprehension and anticipation, because East Tennessee District was considered the ‘pits’ of the mission. However, I knew that Kirkham was not trying to ‘punish’ me and chose to regard it instead as a test of my mettle.

East Tennessee Mormon Missionaries, April 1943. Courtesy Bruce Crow/Amateur Mormon Historian blog.

East Tennessee Mormon Missionaries, April 1943. Courtesy Bruce Crow/Amateur Mormon Historian blog.


“In retrospect, I’m actively grateful for his decision. I not only survived but came to enjoy the mountaineer people and to appreciate their culture. My experience there with the Scotch-Irish stock of the Martins and the Coys and their fascinating traditions going unbroken back to the days when Daniel Boone pioneered the land on the other side of the Cumberland Gap strengthened my resolve to become a historian.

“The modern revolution introduced by the New Deal had not yet touched the coves and hollows of the thick forest. Some of them were still living like their nineteenth-century ancestors, in log cabins with dirt floors, cooking over fireplaces, sometimes lacking even outhouses. When Mother Nature called, a stranger might be invited to visit the nearby cornfield, although it could be embarrassing when the chickens would follow you into the patch.

“One night we stayed with a miller whose grist mill dated back to the 1840s. I was astonished one day to see a yoke of oxen hitched to a cart and listened with much interest to solemn warnings that sweet potatoes should be dug only in the dark of the moon, that pigs should be killed in the last of the full moon, and that a person would surely come down with the flu if he or she should put his or her hands in newfallen snow.

“Almost always the mountaineers were hospitable. If we came suddenly on a cabin in a clearing, we were invited to dine and spend the night. I learned to love persimmons, apples cooked in new molasses, and, of course, cornbread, and sweet potatoes. Within four months I had gained fifteen pounds, reaching my mature weight of two hundred pounds.

“We enjoyed the common salutation, ‘You’ns come over and see wee’ns,’ with its appropriate response, ‘Us’ns will.’ The dialects were straight out of Abraham Lincoln’s time with ‘heerd’ for ‘heard’ and ‘fit’ for ‘fought.’ The old saw that ‘I raised a sight, sold a heap, and have a right smart left’ would not have raised any eyebrows in Clay County.

“One of the principal reasons for missionary reluctance to serve in East Tennessee was the comparative scarcity of Mormons to whom a homesick or hungry missionary could turn for help and comfort. There were only two organized branches in the whole eastern half of the state. The Chattanooga Branch had no chapel. At Northcut’s Cove a small frame chapel was tucked in a fold of the forest.”

Against the Grain:
Memoirs of a Western Historian
, by B. Dwaine Madsen (1914-2010)
(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998)

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