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I won’t take a picture unless the moon is right, to say nothing of the sunlight and shadow

Posted by | January 13, 2017

Born on January 15, 1864 in Grafton, WV, Frances Benjamin Johnston transcended both regional and national notions about women’s place in the 19th century to become a pioneer in American photography and photojournalism, and a crusader with her camera for the historic preservation of the Old South. Through her active encouragement of women who wished to enter her chosen profession, she helped to transform women’s sphere. The photographic record she compiled in over than fifty years as a working photographer continues to serve as a guide to the American past and to document her wide-ranging interest and achievements.

In 1927, 37 years after her first published photo appeared in “Demorest’s Family Magazine,” Johnston received the commission which led to her extensive survey of the architecture of the South, when Mrs. Daniel Devore asked her to photograph everything of interest in Fredericksburg, VA. The 200 photographs Johnston took as a result of this commission became the nucleus of the pictorial archives of Early American architecture at the Library of Congress.

Queen Anne County, Maryland, circa 1936. “Walnut Grove. Dorsey Wright house. Has fine brick ends laid in Flemish bond. Built 1683 by Solomon Wright.”

A series of Carnegie Foundation Grants to fund Johnston’s work followed from 1933 to 1940. During this final phase of her career, Johnston logged more than 150,000 miles in her chaffeur-driven, 1930 Buick and took more than 10,000 photographs that have served as invaluable guides to the historic restoration of Southern colonial architecture. Johnston believed (and with some justice) that this contribution to American history held greater significance for future generations of Americans than all her previous photographic work.

In an interview with Maud O’Bryan Ronstrom from the New Orleans ‘Times-Picayune’ in 1947, Johnston, then 83 years old, talked about her achievements. Typically, she looked ahead to her completion of works in progress (such as the restoration of her house on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and a book on ‘The Early Architecture of the Lower Mississippi Valley’) rather than to her retirement. Johnston’s sense of humor emerges in this interview in her description of the lengths to which she sometimes had gone to capture a photograph.

“I won’t take a picture unless the moon is right, to say nothing of the sunlight and shadow! Most of the time I have to be excruciatingly patient waiting for the light to get precisely right. Sometimes I have a tree cut down, have a stump removed, or a platform erected to get the proper perspective. I have shot pictures from on top of boxcars and loaded trucks. If I’m in a city street, I often call the police to hold up or detour traffic while I photograph a place.

“When I photograph an interior,” she grinned, “I usually ship the family out, lock the door and buckle down to business. One hostess caught me red-handed, moving out her furniture and removing dear Uncle Harry’s monstrosity of a portrait from over a mantelpiece. She ordered me out of her house, saying under no conditions could I use my camera there. That was the only picture I ever burglarized. I took it while she wasn’t looking.”

Johnston may have affronted wealthy women occasionally with her insistence on taking the photograph she wanted to take, but her relationships with other women photographers were manifestly cordial. From about 1925 on, Johnston kept carbon copies of her letters, and while her intense interest in photography fills most of her letters, they enhance immeasurably our understanding of the strong-spirited woman who always took time to remember friends’ and relatives’ birthdays and to give love and support to other women in her profession.

Frances Benjamin Johnston

Self-portrait as a Bohemian woman.

Frances Benjamin Johnston

Self-portrait as a proper Victorian lady.

While the Johnston of the 1940s emerges much more clearly from study of her work and correspondence than the Johnston of the 1890s, the fair-haired, plucky slip of a girl who challenged conventional notions about ‘true womanhood’ at the turn of the century remains. At 83, Johnston was comfortable wearing old tennis shoes and joking with younger people, like Maud Ronstrom, about the significance of the four roses on her (Johnston’s) floppy hat.

The two antithetical poses in which she photographed herself at the age of thirty-two suggest that she may not always have been so comfortable with herself; the photography of Johnston as a proper Victorian in furs, plumed hat, and gloves probably yields no more of the real Frances Johnston than the photograph of her as a Bohemian artist with beer stein, cigarette, exposed legs, and gallery of male conquests on the mantel above. To a degree, perhaps to a large degree, Johnston’s discomfort with self-revelation may have been the result of the limited roles for women which this choice of pose suggests.

Although the woman behind Johnston’s camera eludes full understanding, Johnston enhanced the possibilities for women in her field, and contributed to our visual understanding of American history. At her death she left thousands of unforgettable photographs. In her more than fifty years as a photographer, Johnston took her camera where few women were permitted to go and made photographs which speak for themselves concerning the range of her vision and achievements.

‘Frances Benjamin Johnston,’ by Anna Shannon in “Missing Chapters: West Virginia Women in History,” West Virginia Women’s Commission, 1983


The hound that made the Plott name a legend

Posted by | January 12, 2017

Plott Coon Hounds are the only breed of the original six breeds of coon hounds without British influence in their ancestry. The other five breeds can trace their ancestry back to the fox hound, but the Plott Hound is the exception. And of only four dogs known to be of American origin, it’s also the only known breed to have been developed in North Carolina, where it is currently the state dog.

During the great migration of German, Scotch-Irish, Moravians, and other Europeans to America in the eighteenth century, Johannes George Plott, a sixteen year old boy, and an older brother (unnamed in family records) left Heidelberg, Germany to board the ship ‘Priscilla’ from Rotterdam, Holland, for Philadelphia. There were 209 German immigrants on board.

Von Plott (left), a descendent of the original developers of the Plott hound breed in Haywood County, NC, with a group of hounds at Lake Waccamaw, NC; man on right is probably Von’s brother John Plott. Circa early 1950s.

They were accompanied by five Hanoverian hounds—three striped and two yellowish. The brother died during the voyage and was buried at sea, but Johannes arrived in Philadelphia on September 12, 1750, where he anglicized his name. Jonathon traveled to New Bern, North Carolina and then inland to Cabarrus County. He married Margaret Littleton, bought a farm, and they began raising five sons and four daughters—and hunting dogs. Plott supposedly kept his strain entirely pure, making no out-crosses. In 1780, the Plott pack passed into the hands of Henry Plott.

At the age of 30, Henry, along with wife Lydia and brother-in-law Jonathan Osborne, left home to settle in Haywood County, or what was then Buncombe County, on Pigeon River near where Canton is now situated. There Osborne and Plott seem to have bought a farm in partnership, made one crop, and dissolved the company, or partnership. Osborne went back to Cabarrus, but came again later, and Plott with Lydia went farther west, took up a state grant on the waters of Richland and Dick’s Creek, the latter afterwards known as Plott’s Creek, and settled down as a permanent home. The exact spot of his location is now the home place of John A. Plott, a great grandson. Henry and his pack of Plotts were often called in to help his neighbors rid their farms of wildlife that was attacking their livestock.

Henry Plott and Lydia Osborne Plott reared a family of eight sons and three daughters. Henry died in 1839. It is for this famous hunter and his descendants that the U. S. Park Service named three peaks in the Balsam Mountain range and erected an interpretive sign at mile marker 457.9 along the Blue Ridge Parkway (the Plott Balsam Overlook) honoring Henry and his descendents. It reads

“Before you lies the massive Plott Balsam Range. On one of its eastern slopes Henry Plott, a German immigrant’s son, made his home in the early 1800’s. In this game-filled frontier, hunting dogs were a prized possesion. Here Henry Plott and his descendants developed the famous Plott Bear Hounds carefully selecting for the qualities of stamina, courage, and alertness the breed possesses today.”

For the next 200 years the dogs were bred by generations of Plott family members and were referred to as the Plott’s hounds. The dogs worked at hunting bear and raccoon in the Appalachian, Blue Ridge, and Great Smoky Mountains of the Eastern United States. The Plott family rarely put the dogs on the market so they remained rare outside the southern United States. The dogs were recognized for the first time in 1946 by the United Kennel Club.

These hounds come in many different colors. There are buckskins, blacks, brindles, browns, reds, and/or a combination of any of these colors. Plotts are hardy and have superior hunting instincts. They are very effective in the search for coyotes, wolves, and wildcats. The breed was carefully developed to be strong, courageous and persistent. They were able to make good family companions but were seldom kept as one, as most owners acquired the dogs for the hunt. It was initially used as a wild boar hound, but has also been used for big game hunting. Plotts are known for being very gritty and this is why they are used on big game such as bear so often rather than for raccoon.

Old Jonathan Plott would probably be surprised to find a valley and a mountain and a range of mountains, as well as a creek, bearing the family name. He probably would be even more surprised and amazed to find that it has been the dogs he brought from Germany that have made the name Plott a legend. The Plott Hound was officially adopted as North Carolina’s State Dog on August 12, 1989.

The Annals of Haywood County, North Carolina, by W. C. Allen, 1935.


Home Guards lead to post Civil War feuds in Fentress County, TN

Posted by | January 11, 2017

“No section of the great Civil War suffered so enduringly as that which was the boundary line between the sections, and no part of the boundary suffered more from devastations of war in the passing to and fro of armed forces and from the raids of marauding bands, than did Fentress County, TN.

“Before the war the county had been sharply divided politically, and with few exceptions that alignment held. Those who were Union sympathizers went north into Kentucky and joined the Federal forces, and those on the side of the South went for enlistment in the armies of the Confederacy. The men who remained at home were compelled by public sentiment to take sides, and the bitterest of feeling was engendered.

“The raids of passing soldiers was the excuse for the organization, by both sides, of bands who claimed they were “Home Guards”—the Federals under Tinker Beaty, and the Confederates under Champ Ferguson. These bands, each striving for mastery, developed into guerrillas of the worst type the war produced, and anarchy prevailed.

Champ Ferguson

Champ Ferguson

“Like so much of the state, the Tennessee area known as Valley of the Three Forks o’ the Wolf paid its tribute of blood and money. At the outbreak of the war, local son Uriah York went north into Kentucky and joined the Federal forces. Taken ill, he had returned to the home of his wife’s father at Jamestown, TN, and while in bed learned of the approach of a band of Confederates. He arose and fled for safety to a refuge shack his father-in-law had built in the forest of Rock Castle. His flight was made in a storm that was half rain and half sleet, and from the exposure he died in the lonely hut three days afterward.

“Meanwhile, back in Three Forks, Elijah Pile’s four sons were divided in their allegiance—two upon each side. Two of them paid the supreme price, murdered by opposing Home Guard bands as they rode along public highways.

“Conrod Pile, like his elderly father Elijah, was a non-combatant, but sympathized with the North. In the autumn of 1863, for some cause unknown to his relatives, he was taken prisoner by Confederate troops, members of Champ Ferguson’s band. As they rode along the road with him, some shots were fired. They left him there.

“In June of the following year, Jeff Pile, a brother of Conrod, was riding along the road beyond the mill that creaks in the waters of Wolf River. He had taken no active part in the war, but was a Southern sympathizer. Some of Tinker Beaty’s men galloped into sight, fired, and galloped on.

Elijah Pile's father built the family cabin in Fentress County beside a spring, now called York Spring.

Elijah Pile’s father built the family cabin in Fentress County beside a spring, now called York Spring.

The murder of Jeff Pile threw a red shadow across the years that were to come after the war was ended.

“One of Tinker Beaty’s men was Pres Huff, who lived in the Valley of the Three Forks o’ the Wolf. It was generally believed that he was the leader of the band who had ridden out of the woods and killed Jeff Pile, as he traveled unarmed along the Byrdstown Road.

“Huff’s father had been shot. The deed was done by a band of Confederates who had taken the elder Huff prisoner, and neither Jeff Pile nor his brothers were connected with it, except in the quickly prejudiced mind of the victim’s son.

“When General Burnside was moving his Federal forces southward there came to the town of Pall Mall, TN, a young man by the name of William Brooks. He had joined the Union Army at his home in Michigan. He was a daring horseman, handsome, fair and his hair was red – a rich copperesque red.

“The army moved on, but young Brooks remained in the valley. He claimed that as a private soldier he had done more than his share in the conquest of the South—and that the conquest that should ever go to his credit was the conquest of one Nancy Pile.

“When they were married, his father-in-law, Elijah Pile, gave him a farm, and he tilled it, and he smiled his way into the favor of the community.

“He lived in the valley about two years, and a baby had been born to them. The feeling between the children of Elijah Pile and Pres Huff was silent but tense; over it there fell constantly the shadow of the murder of Jeff Pile.

“Meeting down at the old mill one day, Pres Huff and Willie Brooks engaged in an excited argument. Between the dark-browed, sullen mountaineer and the slender, gay young man a contest seemed uneven, and was prevented. Huff told Brooks that the next time they met he would kill him.

“They met next day, on the mountainside, on the road that leads by the Brooks home, on across the spring branch, up beside the York home and then up the mountain. Huff’s riderless horse galloped on and stopped in front of a mountain cabin; his body lay dead in the road.

“There was a hurried consultation at the home of Elijah Pile. Huff’s friends, it was realized, would not be long in coming. Young Brooks went out of the house, down by the spring, and up the mountain back of it. He was never seen in the valley again.

“Huff’s friends waited.

“Weeks afterward, Nancy Brooks, carrying her baby, went to visit a friend. She evaded the watchfulness of her husband’s enemies, succeeded in crossing the Kentucky line and disappeared in the mountains to the north of it.

“The friends of Pres Huff knew she would write home. Months elapsed, but finally a letter came, and was intercepted. She and her husband were at a logging camp in the northern woods of Michigan.

“Secretly, extradition papers for Brooks were secured, and Huff’s former partner in a mercantile business, fully equipped with warrant, appeared with a sheriff before the door of the cabin in the Michigan woods. Brooks was brought back to Jamestown, and put into the log-ribbed jail that John M. Clemens, Mark Twain’s father, had built.

“But there was no trial by law. The next night, through the moonlight and the pines, a little body of men rode. Up the valley, across the plateau, they went, and Jamestown was sleeping.

Grave of William Brooks, Wolf River Cemetery, Pall Mall, TN

Grave of William Brooks, Wolf River Cemetery, Pall Mall, TN

“Taking Brooks from the jail, they carried him three miles down the road toward Pall Mall. Here they bound a rope around his feet, unbridled a horse and tied the other end of the rope to the horse’s tail. They taunted Brooks. But they could not make him break his silence, until he asked to be allowed to see his wife and baby. Rough men laughed, and there was the report of a gun. The horse, frightened, galloped down the road, and bullets were fired into the squirming body as it was dragged over the rocks.

“The war had steeled men for the coming of death and crime, but at the manner of the death of Willie Brooks a shudder passed over the mountainsides. To Nancy Brooks was born a son a short time afterward, and he was named after his father.

“A silent, broken-hearted woman, Nancy Brooks took up again her life at her father’s home. To the little girl she had carried on her flight to Michigan, and to the boy whose hair had the copper-red of the father, she devoted herself.

“The girl had been named Mary, and she inherited the piquancy and wit that had made her mother the belle of the valley, and as she grew to womanhood the mountaineers saw again the Nancy Brooks they had loved before war had come with its cold blighting fingers of death.

Alvin C. York's mother and father, William and Mary York.

Alvin C. York’s mother and father, William and Mary York.


“At the age of fifteen Mary Brooks met William York, the son of Uriah York, and they were married. A home was built for them, beyond the branch, beside the spring. And Alvin York was their third son.”


Excerpt from Sergeant York And His People
by Sam K. Cowan
Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1922


The first African-American woman to serve in a legislative body in the US

Posted by | January 10, 2017

On January 10, 1928 Minnie Buckingham Harper (R-McDowell) was appointed to succeed her late husband in the West Virginia House of Delegates, becoming the first African-American woman to serve in a legislative body in the United States. Harper was appointed by Governor Howard Gore to fill the vacancy caused by the death of her husband, E. Howard Harper.


Prior to her husband’s passing, Minnie Harper had been a housewife in Keystone. She did not run in the state legislative elections held later that year.

During the early part of the 20th century the southern half of the WV, and McDowell County in particular, attracted a relatively large number of African Americans from surrounding states who were looking for work in the coal mines.

Although the work was hazardous and hard, the pay was relatively good, especially given the limited career alternatives available to African-American men. By 1920, the state’s African-American population had increased to almost 86,000. McDowell County became known as a place where African-Americans could achieve considerable social mobility in an otherwise segregated society.


Let the bells peal!

Posted by | January 9, 2017

There are two places in today’s Appalachia where you can hear an authentic peal of the churchbells: at Breslin Tower in Convocation Hall at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, and at Patton Memorial Tower in St James’ Episcopal Church in Hendersonville, NC. “What are you talking about?” you may say. “Why, my own local church has bells in the tower!”

The Bells at Breslin Tower, University of the SouthThe Bells at Breslin Tower, University of the South.

But a ‘peal’ is a technical term which comes down to us from the ancient art of change ringing. Change ringing of bells produces not a specific song, but rather a cascade of sound, and requires special bells. They are large, ranging in weight from a few hundred pounds to several tons. Bells for change ringing are hung in stout frames that allow the bells to swing through 360 degrees. Each bell is attached to a wooden wheel with a handmade rope running around it. The harmonic richness of a swinging bell cannot be matched by the same bell hanging stationary, and each swinging bell requires one ringer’s full attention.

Change ringing is based on mathematical formulae in which every bell in a church’s tower is rung in a sequence, or a ‘change,’ followed by another sequence in which they are rung in a different order until a ‘peal’ is completed.

The more bells involved, the longer the bells can be rung without repeating a row. Five bells allow 120 changes. The numbers increase rapidly. Six bells yield 720 changes, seven bells 5,040. Eight bells can be rung through 40,320 changes. As a result of all the possible combinations, peals customarily last about three hours.

The changes, which are notated, are passed along through the sub-subculture of bell ringers just like folk songs. Change ringing is also called “ringing the changes.”

Early American churches outfitted for change ringing naturally patterned themselves after the British model, in which a small number of bells, usually no more than twelve, were used. The first peal was rung in England in 1715. The first peal in North America was rung at Christ Church, Philadelphia, in 1850.

Breslin Tower was built in 1886 and modeled after Magdalen College of Oxford. It was not initially engineered for change ringing, but at first had only clock bells (installed around 1900) that were struck with hammers and did not swing. As a result, the stress placed on the tower was relatively insignificant when compared to that which would occur with change-ringing bells.

To the casual observer the bell tower looks imposing and strong. In reality, however, it required significant renovation to accommodate bells for change ringing (see this Traditional Masonry article for a discussion of how 4SE Inc., a structural engineering firm based in Charleston, S.C., dealt with the challenge.)

Today the tower houses Sewanee’s Bentley Bells, which were made possible by a 2004 gift from Mrs. Donne Bentley Wright of Chattanooga. These English change ringing bells were cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry of London, England, which was also responsible for Big Ben and our Liberty Bell.

Early photo of St James & modern photo, showing Patton Memorial TowerEarly photo of St James & modern photo, showing Patton Memorial Tower.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry had also cast the bells for Patton Memorial Tower at St James’ Episcopal Church in Hendersonville. The tower and bells were dedicated in 1978, though the church congregation itself was by that point 135 years old.

In 1843, St. James was a scion emerging from the summers-only congregation of St. John’s-in-the-Wilderness at Flat Rock—the “little Charleston of the mountains.” St. James was carefully nurtured by the Rt. Rev. Thomas Atkinson, Bishop of North Carolina, who appointed the first rector, Nicholas Collin Hughes. The first church of St. James Parish was consecrated on September 19, 1863, with eight communicants.


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