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Her editor published her work for several years before realizing she wasn’t a man

Posted by | May 18, 2017

“The clouds were blowing away from a densely instarred sky; the moon was hardly more than a crescent and dipping low in the west, but he could see the sombre outline of the opposite mountain, and the white mists that shifted in a ghostly and elusive fashion along the summit. The night was still, save for a late katydid, spared by the frost, and piping shrilly.

“He experienced a terrible shock of surprise when a sudden voice—a voice he had never heard before—cried out sharply, ‘Hello there! Help! help!’

“As he pressed tremulously forward, he beheld a sight which made him ask himself if it were possible that Alf Coggin had sent for him to join in some nefarious work which had ended in leaving a man—a stranger—bound to the old lightning-scathed tree.

“Even in the uncertain light Tom could see that he was pallid and panting, evidently exhausted in some desperate struggle: there was blood on his face, his clothes were torn, and by all odds he was the angriest man that was ever waylaid and robbed.

“‘Ter-morrer he’ll be jes’ a-swoopin’!’ thought Tom, tremulously untying the complicated knots, and listening to his threats of vengeance on the unknown robbers, ‘an’ every critter on the mounting will git a clutch from his claws.’

“And in fact, it was hardly daybreak before the constable of the district, who lived hard by in the valley, was informed of all the details of the affair, so far as known to Tom or the Traveler,—for thus the mountaineers designated him, as if he were the only one in the world.”

—from The Young Mountaineers / Short Stories, by Charles Egbert Craddock, with illustrations by Malcolm Fraser, 1897

Tennessee author Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1922), better known as Charles Egbert Craddock, was born in Murfreesboro, TN. For fifteen years she spent her summers in the Tennessee mountains among the people of whom she writes.

“Miss Seawell might have written her stories from anywhere, but that is not true of the greatest woman writer in the South, Miss Mary Murfree,” commented Anna Leach in Literary Workers of the South (1895).

“It is her delineations of mountain character, and her descriptions of mountain scenery, that have placed her work in the place it holds. Her style is bold, full of humor, and yet as delicate as a bit of lace. To Mary Wilkins’ gift of giving exact pictures of homely life, Miss Murfree unites great power of plot and a keen wit. The little old woman who sits on the edge of a chair in one of her novels, has added stores to America’s proverbs. ‘There ain’t nothin’ so becomin’ to a fool as a shet mouth,’ has taken its place with its older kindred.”

“Her work was published by a well known Boston editor for several years before he discovered that she was not a man. Her handwriting is very heavy and black, and it was Mr. Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s joke to say, ‘I wonder if Craddock has taken in his winter supply of ink, and can let me have a serial.’

“One day a card came to Mr. Aldrich bearing the well known name in the well known writing, and the editor rushed out to greet his old contributor, expecting to see a sturdy Tennessee mountaineer. When a slight, delicate little woman arose to answer his greeting, it is said that Mr. Aldrich put his hands before his face, and simply spun around without a word, absolutely bewildered by astonishment.”

Charles Egbert Craddock“The sensation in the Atlantic office spread everywhere and gave tremendous vogue not only to the book but to the type of short story that it represented,” observed the Cambridge History of English and American Literature in retrospect. “No one had gone quite so far before: the dialect was pressed to an extreme that made it almost unintelligible; grotesque localisms in manners and point of view were made central; and all was displayed before a curtain of mountains splashed with broad colours.”

Murfree’s critical reputation has not fared well more recently. “Her fiction has been consistently criticized for its stereotyping of the mountaineer and for its overblown, highly romanticized descriptions of the landscape,” says Allison Ensor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Almost every reader notices the wide gap between the tone and vocabulary of the narrator and the mountain dialect of her characters. Like many other local color writers, she felt it necessary to provide as narrator a cultured, sophisticated intermediary, someone like the reader she hoped to reach.”

Literary Workers of the South, by Anna Leach, Munsey’s, 1895 at
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21) VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.


They were a people called Welsh and they had crossed the Great Water

Posted by | May 17, 2017

In 1170 A.D., a certain Welsh prince, Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd, sailed away from his homeland, which was filled with war and strife and battles between his brothers. Yearning to be away from the feuds and quarrels, he took his ships and headed west, seeking a better place. He returned to Wales brimming with tales of the new land he found–warm and golden and fair. His tales convinced more than a few of his fellow countrymen, and many left with him to return to this wondrous new land, far across the sea.

Dolwyddelan Castle in Gwynedd, Wales

Dolwyddelan Castle in Gwynedd, Wales; the birthplace of Madoc.

This wondrous new land is believed to be what is now Mobile Bay, Alabama. The choice of Mobile Bay as Madoc’s landfall and the starting point for his colonists is grounded in two main areas. One is the logical assumption that the ocean currents would have carried him into the Gulf of Mexico. Once there and seeking a landing site, he would have been attracted to the perfect harbor offered in Mobile Bay, as were later explorers Ponce de Leon, Alonzo de Pineda, Hernando de Soto, and Amerigo Vespucci.

The second, and more convincing reason, is a series of pre-Columbian forts built up the Alabama River, and the tradition handed down by the Cherokee Indians of the “White People” who built them. Testimony includes a letter dated 1810 from Governor John Sevier of Tennessee in response to an inquiry by Major Amos Stoddard. The letter, a copy of which is on file at the Georgia Historical Commission, recounts a 1782 conversation Sevier had with then 90-year-old Oconostota, a Cherokee, who had been the ruling chief of the Cherokee Nation for nearly sixty years. Sevier had asked the Chief about the people who had left the “fortifications” in his country.

Oconostota, Cherokee chief

Cunne Shote, also known as Oconostota, painted by Francis Parsons in 1762.

The chief told him: “they were a people called Welsh and they had crossed the Great Water.” He called their leader “Modok.” If true, this fits with the known history of 12th century Welsh Prince Madoc. He further related: “It is handed down by the Forefathers that the works had been made by the White people who had formerly inhabited the country. . .” and gave him a brief history of the “Whites.” When asked if he had ever heard what nation these Whites had belonged to, Oconostota told Sevier that he “. . .had heard his grandfather and father say they were a people called Welsh, and that they had crossed the Great Water and landed first near the mouth of the Alabama River near Mobile. . ..”

Three major forts, completely unlike any known Indian structure, were constructed along the route settlers arriving at Mobile Bay would have taken up the Alabama and Coosa rivers to the Chattanooga area. Archaeologists have testified that the forts are of pre-Columbian origin, and most agree they date several hundred years before 1492. All are believed to have been built by the same group of people within the period of a single generation, and all bear striking similarities to the ancient fortifications of Wales.

The first fort, erected on top of Lookout Mountain, near DeSoto Falls, Alabama, was found to be nearly identical in setting, layout, and method of construction, to Dolwyddelan Castle.

DeSoto Falls, AL

DeSoto Falls, Alabama.

The situation of the forts, blended with the accounts given by the Indians of the area, has led to a plausible reconstruction of the trail of Madoc’s colonists. The settlers would have traveled up the Alabama River and secured themselves at the Lookout Mountain site, which took months, maybe even years to complete. It is presumed the hostility of the Indians forced them to move on up the Coosa River, where the next stronghold was established at Fort Mountain, Georgia. Situated atop a 3,000 foot mountain, this structure had a main defensive wall 855 feet long, and appears to be more hastily constructed than the previous fort.

Having retreated from Fort Mountain, the settlers then built a series of minor fortifications in the Chatanooga area, before moving north to the forks of the Duck River (near what is now Manchester, Tennessee), and their final fortress, Old Stone Fort. Formed by high bluffs and twenty-foot walls of stone, Old Stone Fort’s fifty acres was also protected by a moat twelve hundred feet long. Like the other two major defense works, Old Stone Fort exhibits engineering proficiency well beyond the skills of the Indians.

A section of the ancient wall at Fort Mountain, GA.

The trail of the settlers becomes more speculative with the desertion of Old Stone Fort. Chief Oconostota, in relating his tribal history, tells of the war that had existed for years between the White people who had built the forts and the Cherokee. Eventually a treaty was reached in which the Whites agreed to leave the area and never return. According to Oconostota, the Whites followed the Tennessee River down to the Ohio, up the Ohio to the Missouri, then up the Missouri “. . .for a great distance. . .but they are no more White people; they are now all become Indians….”

Chief Oconostota’s testimony has been very thoroughly followed up by later historians, and several points have been corroborated with other reports of “bearded Indians” and their trek upriver in retreat from hostile natives. Throughout the years “. . .there was abundant evidence. . .that travelers and administrators had met Indians who not only claimed ancestry with the Welsh, but spoke a language remarkably like it.”

It must be assumed that the remaining settlers were eventually assimilated by Indians, and that by the early eighteenth century very few traces of their Welsh ancestry remained.

source: “A Consideration: Was America Discovered In 1170 by Prince Madoc Ab Owain Gwynedd Of Wales?” by Jayne Wanner, Barstow Community College, Barstow, CA, 1999
online at


No stop-leak for the dripping radiator? Dump in a handful of cornmeal!

Posted by | May 16, 2017

Relatives of the gone-away families often visited if they owned a car or could get a ride with someone who did have one. Susan’s son Henry Hampton (by a former marriage) and wife Mint lived with their children in the Carcassonne community.

Henry worked in the mines and owned a car of what age, make or model I am not sure. I do know there were no late models in the community until many years later. We did the maintenance on our old models, tied them together with baling wire, cleaned the spark plugs and breaker points regularly, took up the slack in the adjustable tie rod ends so the driver need not give the steering wheel more than a full turn on the curves.

Before starting on a trip the trunk or back seat of the car should contain a water pail, hand tire pump, jack, tube patches and glue, three quarts of motor oil, a gas can, assorted tools, wrenches, hammers and screwdrivers. In the absence of stop-leak for the dripping radiator, dump in a handful of cornmeal which is sure to stop the leak and maybe the whole circulation system.

The motor gets hot. Can’t hardly see the road for the steam boiling up. “You hear that noise out there? What is it? Sounds like a loose rod to me. I just tightened them all up last week. Guess I had better pull off to the side of the road, drop the oil pan and take out a few shims, it won’t take long and we will save the oil to put back in when we get done.”

cars on Pine Mountain in Letcher County KYOriginal caption reads: Letcher County, Kentucky. A road scene near foot of Pine Mountain.

Flat tires, motor overhauls and other repairs were common sights along our few winding and narrow highways of those days. Today’s motorist would probably take a dim view of such modes of travel. But to those of us who owned one of these ancient vehicles, the door was opened to the outer world.

We could go to Whitesburg or Hazard and return the same day or even a hundred or more miles to visit gone-away relatives or friends. I have made trips to Tennessee and Ohio in trucks at that time that I would now not trust to get to Blackey and back – a distance of five miles each way.

In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the route by car from Letcher County to Pulaski County was from Whitesburg across Pine Mountain and down the Cumberland River to Pineville on 119 which was a graveled road at that time. Highway 25 was blacktopped and led to the Bluegrass region.

On the outskirts of Pineville the Hamptons pulled into a small filling station for gas from the hand operated pump. As Henry pulled away from the station with a full tank of 17 cent-per-gallon gas, Mint leaned from the open car window and above the roar of the motor issued this invitation to the startled attendant, “Come and go with us, we are going to Pulaski County to see Henry’s ma.”

In the 1920’s Uncle Tom Dixon, a brother of grandfather Wilburn, owned the part of Dixon Mountain which was across the road and opposite the cemetery.

In summertime anyone traveling along the rough and rutted dirt road through Dixon Mountain would most always come upon Uncle Tom seated by the roadside, leaning back against a huge chestnut tree, a big pile of shavings was around his feet – the result of much whittling as he eagerly awaited the next traveler. Uncle Tom was a great storyteller and philosopher and a firm believer in an unhurried lifestyle. A theory that I fully support.

source: Eastern Kentucky Mountain Memories, by Clifton Caudill, published by s.n., 1996; this excerpt from article in ‘The Mountain Eagle,’ at


Operator, ring me up

Posted by | May 15, 2017

In 1879, just 3 years after Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated the telephone, the Behrens brothers established West Viriginia’s first telephone line, connecting two of their grocery stores in Wheeling. A year later, on May 15, 1880, the city established one of the first telephone exchanges in the country. A switchboard was set up in the basement of the People’s Bank to serve 25 subscribers. Wheeling’s original telephone technology only allowed customers to make local calls. Subscribers couldn’t place a call to nearby Pittsburgh until a long distance line was strung in 1883.

During the early 1880s, switchboards and lines were installed in Parkersburg, Moundsville, and Clarksburg. By the turn of the century, much of northern West Virginia had been linked to the major cities of surrounding states.

Telephone technology developed more slowly in southern West Virginia. Although Charleston and Huntington had telephone exchanges by the early 1880s, long distance service did not begin until 1897. To accommodate southern West Virginia’s growing population and expanding industry, Charleston became the hub of the state’s communication services in the early 1900s.

Below left: Late 19th and early 20th-century telephones, including the tombstone (rear left), battery box wall model (rear center), and Strowger dial phone (right front). This group of telephones shows the changing design of instruments from the late 19th through the early 20th century. Note that the earlier telephones have no dials. Dialing a number only became possible after automated equipment was developed to make connections originally handled by human operators.

19th and early 20th-century telephonesAlmost all telephone operators were women. But not all women could be operators. To be an operator, a woman had to be unmarried, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six. She had to look prim and proper, and have arms long enough to reach the top of the tall telephone switchboard. Much like many other American businesses at the turn of the century, telephone companies unfairly discriminated against people from certain ethnic groups and races. African American and Jewish women were not allowed to become operators.

Because women were generally discriminated against, operators’ wages were low. And operators seldom got the respect they deserved. The typical operator earned about $7 per week — a small salary even in 1900. She worked ten or eleven hours a day, six days a week. If necessary, she also worked nights and holidays. An operator who got married was forced to leave her job. To many early telephone users — most of whom were wealthy — the telephone operator was just another household servant.

telephone switchboard operatorPhotograph of a female telephone operator at switchboard by traveling photographer Albert J. Ewing, likely taken in southern Ohio or West Virginia, ca. 1900-1910.

Still, the operator was the heart of the telephone system. She watched over a switchboard containing up to 200 phone lines, listening in with her clunky metal headset. Her main job was to plug callers’ phone lines into the phone lines of the people they wanted to speak to. But she often acted as the town’s information source, too. Operators were also expected to inform customers of election results, streetcar breakdowns, storms, train arrivals, and much more.

In 1900, the life of the rural operator was very different from her peers in the city. The telephone was a big hit with the farm families who could afford one. But there were rarely enough calls to tie a rural operator to her switchboard. To help pass the time, some women attached long cords to their headsets. That way, they could walk around their homes doing chores while they waited for the phone to ring. Rural operators enjoyed a lot of independence.


telephones West+Virginia+telephone+history telephone+operators appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history


I wasn’t such a hot teacher, but we had a swell ball team

Posted by | May 12, 2017

As a ballplayer nothing about Earle Bryan Combs was commonplace except his throwing arm; that seemed ordinary only because he shared the Yankee outfield with Bob Meusel and Babe Ruth, both exceptional and accurate throwers.  Combs was a dangerous hitter, a fleet, graceful outfielder, and the best leadoff man baseball had yet seen.  In the annals of “Murderer’s Row” he is celebrated as first in line of that wrecking crew.

Earle was a country boy, born May 14, 1899 on a hardscrabble hillside farm in the Cumberland Mountains of Eastern Kentucky.  From the time he was a child he wanted to be a professional ballplayer, an ambition that brought him into conflict with his father, James Combs.

Farming those Kentucky hills was hard work; the living the Combs family (there were seven kids with big appetites) took from the stubborn, rock-strewn earth was marginal at best. So James Combs, seemingly an unbending father, decided Earle would be a teacher.  Teachers didn’t get rich, but neither did Kentucky hill farmers.  And teachers had assured, if paltry, incomes.

Yet, in some obscure corner of James Combs’s mind there must have lurked doubts about his decisions. In a January 19, 1933 Sporting News interview Earle said,

“I lived on the farm until I was 17 years old, and from boyhood my brothers—Matt, Conley, and Clayton—played ball with me, and frequently Dad would join us.  He made us all our balls and bats.  Many a time I’ve watched him make a baseball.  He would get some old socks which mother had knitted…an old gum shoe and an old high-topped woman’s shoe for his materials.  He would unravel the socks, cut a ball from the gum shoe for the center, wind the yarn about this, and then cut a cover from the shoe top.  He made bats…out of hickory and poplar.”

For a father who didn’t want his son to be a ballplayer, James Combs had an odd way of discouraging young Earle.

Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College 1918 baseball team. Earle is standing top right.

A dutiful son, Earle conformed to his father’s wishes by diligently preparing for teachers college.  Nevertheless, in his fantasizing moments he read all he could about baseball, collected pictures of ballplayers, and daydreamed about  becoming a great player like his idol, Ty Cobb.  At 17 he entered Eastern Kentucky State Normal School.  But, said Earle, “When I wasn’t in the classrooms I was on the ball field watching games, studying players, and asking the coach questions.”

Combs was 20 in 1919, desperately wanting to play professional baseball but instead teaching school in the little hill town of Ida May, KY.  He had 40 pupils in his one-room schoolhouse, their age span was 6 to 16.

“It wasn’t much of a school,” Combs recalled in the 1933 interview, “and I wasn’t such a hot teacher.  But we had a swell ball team and I was an excellent player/manager.  Those kids played ball morning, noon, and night, whether they wanted to or not.  I had the whole class, including girls, shagging baseballs.”

Combs returned to Normal School in the fall of 1919 for his advanced-grade teacher’s certificate, played ball on pickup teams, and taught.  “I was given the Cross Roads School, and once again the whole class pitched to me and chased flies I hit.”  So much for education, Earle Combs style, in the Cumberland mountains.

Word got around about the baseball-crazy schoolteacher, and Combs got an offer from the Mayham Coal Company to join their company team.  They would pay him $225 per month, plus room and board, a bounteous deal no hill-country school board could match.  Earle joined, batted .444, and supplemented his wardrobe with a bonus of two suits from the town merchants.  Inevitably, the Louisville Colonels, an AA team managed by Joe McCarthy, contacted him.  Would Earle like to play with the Colonels?

Impossible, he told them; his father insisted he teach school.  Fortunately, the side of James Combs that took pleasure in making balls and bats for his kids prevailed when Earle told him about the pro ball offer.

“You may as well try your wings,” Earle recalled his dad saying.  “You’ll never be satisfied until you do.”  Smart father: his common sense decision activated a great baseball career, one crucial to the creation of the 1927 Yanks.

Source: The wonder team: the true story of the incomparable 1927 New York Yankees, by Leo Trachtenberg, Popular Press, 1995

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