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Clad in brilliant white raiment, they appeared to rise off the mountain south of Chimney Rock

Posted by | October 5, 2017

Raleigh Register and State Gazette

September 23, 1806

The following account of an extraordinary phenomenon that appeared to a number of people in the county of Rutherford, state of North Carolina, was made the 7th of August, 1806, in presence of D. Dickie, Esq. of the county and state aforesaid, Jesse Anderson and the Rev. George Newton of the county of Buncombe and Miss Betsey Newton of the state of Georgia, who unanimously agreed, with the consent of the relators, that Mr. Newton should communicate it to Mr. Gales, Editor of the Raleigh Register and State Gazette.

Patsy Reaves, a widow woman, who lives near the Apalachian Mountain, declared, that on the 31st day of July last, about 6 o’clock P.M. her daughter Elizabeth, about 8 years old, was in the cotton field, about 10 poles from the dwelling house, which stands by computation, six furlongs from the Chimney Mountain, and that Elizabeth told her brother Morgan, aged 11 years, that there was a man on the mountain.

Early 20th century penny postcard of Chimney Rock, NC.

Morgan was incredulous at first, but the little girl affirmed it, and said she saw him, rolling rocks or picking up sticks, adding that she saw ‘a heap of people.’ Morgan then went to the place where she was, and called out, said that he saw a thousand or ten thousand things flying in the air.

On which Polly, daughter of Mrs. Reaves, a good four years, and a negro woman, ran to the children and called Mrs. Reaves to see what a sight yonder was. Mrs. Reaves says she went about 8 poles towards them, and, without any sensible alarm or fright, she turned towards the Chimney Mountain, and discovered a very numerous crowd of beings resembling the human species, but could not discern any particular members of the human body, nor distinction of sexes; that they were of every size, from the tallest men down to the least infants; that there were more of the small than of the full grown, that they were all clad with brilliant white raiment; but could not describe any form of their garment; that they appeared to rise off the mountain south of said rock, and about as high; that a considerable part of the mountain’s top was visible about this shining host, that they moved in a northern direction, and collected about the top of Chimney Rock.

When all but a few had reached said rock, two seemed to rise together and behind them about two feet, a third rose. These three moved with great agility towards the crowd, and had the nearest resemblance of two men, of any before seen. While beholding those three her eyes were attracted by three more rising nearly from the same place, and moving swiftly in the same order and direction. After these, several others rose and went toward the rock.

During this view, which all the spectators thought lasted upwards of an hour, she sent for Mr. Robert Siercy, who did not come at first; on a second message sent about fifteen minutes after the first, Mr. Siercy came, and being now before us, he gives the following relation, to the substance of which Mrs. Reaves agrees.

Mr. Siercy said, when he was coming, he expected to see nothing extraordinary, and when come, being asked if he saw those people on the mountain, he answered no; but on looking the second time, he said he saw more glittering white appearances of human kind than ever he had seen of men at any general review; that they were of all sizes from that of men to infants; that they moved in throngs round a large rock, not far from the Chimney Rock; that they were about the height of the Chimney Rock, and moved in a semicircular course between him and the rock, and so passed along in a southern route between him and the mountains, to the place where Mrs. Reaves said they rose; and that two of a full size went before the general crowd about the space of 20 yards, and as they respectively came to this place, they vanished out of sight, leaving a solemn and pleasing impression on the mind, accompanied with a diminution of bodily strength.

Whether the above be accountable on philosophical principles, or whether it be a prelude to the descent of the holy city, I leave to the impartially curious to judge.

George Newton

P.S. The above subscriber has been informed, that on the same evening, at about the same time in which the above phenomenon appeared, there was seen by a gentleman of character, who was several miles distant from the place, a bright rainbow, apparently near the sun, then in the west, where there was no appearance of either clouds or rain; but a haze in the atmosphere. The public are therefore at liberty to judge, whether the phenomenon had any thing supernatural in it, or whether it was some unusual exhalation or moist vapor from the side of the mountain, which exhibited such an unusual rainbow.

Source: article first cited in Travels Through the Northern Parts of the United States in the Years 1807 and 1808, by Edward Augustus Kendall, Esq., publ. I. Riley, New York, 1809


Stack Cake

Posted by | October 4, 2017

The dried apple stack cake is one of the most popular southern Appalachian cakes— no surprise considering apples are found aplenty in the mountains. Culturally it’s akin to the classic European torte. It looks like a stack of thick pancakes, with apple preserves, dried apples or apple butter spread between each layer. At holidays and weddings, early mountain settlers traditionally served stack cake in lieu of more fancy, and costly, cakes. Neighbors, according to folk wisdom, would each bring a layer of the cake to the bride’s family, which they spread with apple filling as they arrived. It was said that the number of cake layers the bride got determined how popular she was.

apple stack cakeKentucky lays claim to originating the dessert via Kentucky pioneer washday cake. “Some food historians say that James Harrod, the colonist and farmer who founded Harrodsburg in 1774, brought the stack cake to Kentucky from his home in Pennsylvania,” observes Mark F. Sohn in Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes. “While Harrod may have brought the first stack cake to Kentucky, the cake could not have been common until more than 100 years later when flour became readily available.” Tennessee proudly points to Tennessee stack cake as the first, but in fact variations of the cake abound throughout the region.

The cake is many layered, low in fat, and not sweet. It’s made with layers of stiff cookie like dough flavored with ginger and sorghum and spread with a spiced apple filling. When served, the cake is tall, heavy, and moist.

Appalachian Apple Stack Cake (Sheri Castle’s recipe)

Makes 12 to 16 servings

Dried Apple Filling

1 pound (4 to 5 packed cups) dried unsulphured apples
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
4 to 5 cups water, divided

Cake Layers

5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup sorghum molasses
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk

1. For the filing: Place the apples, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and mace in a large saucepan. Add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low, and let simmer, stirring frequently, until the apples are tender and the filling is very thick, about 1 hour. If the mixture gets dry, add more water. If it is soupy, continue to simmer until the excess cooks away. Use a potato masher to break up the apples into chunky sauce. Set aside.

2.For the cake layers: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. You will be baking the layers in batches, for a total of six layers. (Alternatively, you can bake the layers one at a time in a greased and floured, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, which is the traditional technique. Yet another option is to pat the dough into six 9-inch rounds and bake them on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.

3. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.

4. In another large bowl, beat the shortening, sugar, and molasses with an electric mixer set to medium speed until the mixture is smooth and creamy.

5. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

6. Add the flour mixture in thirds, alternating with half of the buttermilk. The mixture should be the consistency of cookie dough, so knead the dough together with your hands if that works better than the mixer. Add a bit more flour if needed.

7. Pour the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into six equal pieces. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap so it won’t dry out. Use lightly floured hands to pat a piece of dough evenly into the bottom of the prepared cake pans. The dough should be about 1/2 inch thick. Lightly prick the dough all over with a fork, making a pretty pattern if you wish. Bake until the layers are firm when lightly pressed, about 15 minutes. The layers do not rise as they bake.

8. Turn out the first layer onto a large cake plate. Immediately spread it with one-fifth of the apple filling (about 1 heaping cup). Continue baking, stacking, and topping the warm layers. Leave the top layer bare.

9. Cover the cake with several layers of plastic wrap and then tea towels, or store it in an airtight cake carrier. Let the cake rest at room temperature for at least two days before cutting.


Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes, by Mark F. Sohn, University Press of Kentucky, 2005


May Justus: Tennessee’s Mountain Jewel

Posted by | October 3, 2017

On the top of the Cumberland plateau in the middle Tennessee community of Summerfield lives a small, energetic, gray-haired woman who is a great favorite with her next door neighbors. These neighbors are the school children of the community, for the Little Brown House in which she lives is next to the school where she taught for twenty-five years.

May Justus reading to Charis and Thorsten Horton, children of Myles and Zilphia Horton, at Highlander Folk School. Image ID: WHi-52775 / Wisconsin Historical Society

May Justus reading to Charis and Thorsten Horton, children of Myles and Zilphia Horton, at Highlander Folk School. Image ID: WHi-52775 / Wisconsin Historical Society

Friday is her visiting day at the school. On that day Miss May Justus, who has thrilled thousands of boys and girls throughout the country with her numerous juvenile books, entertains these pupils by telling stories or reading from her latest book. She often picks up her guitar and sings old mountain folk ballads to accompany her storytelling’s.

Miss Justus’s first book, Peter Pocket, was written in 1925. Many others have followed in rapid succession, almost every year seeing the publication of one or more of her books. She has written stories for every age level from nursery school to junior high school.

May Justus writes about the folk in the Tennessee mountains—people she knows and loves. Most of the glad and sad adventures  of her ‘book children’ are rooted in her own experiences as a little girl. For example, her childhood home was a cabin very much like Matt’s and Glory’s in The Cabin on Kettle Creek. “I don’t do research for my books. I write from memory, about things my parents and my grandparents told me,” Miss Justus once told a reporter.

Her books have lasting value as real Americana. They are regional literature in the best sense of the word. The old customs, the folk speech, the ballads, the fiddle tunes, the play-party singing games, the herb lore, the weather signs, the nonsense rhymes, the tall tales, even the riddles—they are all to be found in the books she has written.

Illustration from 'Use Your Head Hildy' (1956).

Illustration from ‘Use Your Head Hildy’ (1956).

Miss Justus does not think the southern mountaineer is unfortunate—as some “outlanders” might. She happily sings the wild tales of the hills to the plaintive music of fiddle and dulcimer. She tells of the superstitions of Elizabethan days. The dialect of her ‘book people’ antedates Chaucer. Miss Justus kindly reminds folks that Chaucer, the first great English poet, used hit for it and spoke of ‘bird nestes’; Shakespeare in MacBeth used afeared for afraid; Lord Bacon, Sir Philip Sidney, and Spenser commonly used expressions such as ‘yander,’ ‘holp,’ ‘hopen,’ and ‘clumb.’

“Social changes have come,” says Miss Justus. “Under the influences, the folklore so long preserved has disintegrated. The juke box tunes are taking the place of the old-time fiddle music. Play parties have given place to amusements in the honky-tonk. As time goes on much mountain folklore which has distinct value will be lost forever unless it is set down in literary form. It is of more value, or so it seems to me, than Hepplewhite furniture or Haviland china. It is true Americana—a precious jewel to be treasured for posterity.

“If my own stories and books have a lasting value,” she continues, “it is, I hope, in the field of regional literature. For in this field may be preserved the history of a people to whom I belong, with whom I am glad to claim kin as a Tennessee Mountaineer.”

Miss Justus has had little change of feeling about writing for children through the years. She does “seem to be writing for younger children” as she grows older! She feels that the attitudes and interests of children are basically the same as when she began writing. Children’s wider scope of knowledge because of radio and television has not particularly affected her writing since she writes of fundamental values which do not change.

from 'Smoky Mountain Sampler' (1962)

from ‘Smoky Mountain Sampler’ (1962)

A study of the characters in her books reveals some of these fundamental values. The children in her stories learn from experience the necessity for hard work. They learn the value of education. They are proud and self-reliant. From their elders they learn honesty and fairness, cooperation, generosity, neighborliness, and hospitality to strangers. Though their material possessions are few, they know the meaning of real happiness. They know how to play as well as to work. However, they are not so extremely good as to seem unreal; they can be mischievous, too.

Children all over the world write to Miss Justus and she answers each and every letter personally. If you were to visit at her home, you shouldn’t be surprised to find her busy with her favorite recreation, making a garden—raising gourds in particular.

Introducing to the reader other beloved Tennessee mountaineers, Miss Justus, in Smoky Mountain Sampler (1962) says: “The outlander must linger with us awhile…if he will stay and make himself at home with us under the roof of our cabin, eating our sallet and corn pone or ash cake, maybe—if he will play with our young ‘uns and brag on our hound dogs—why we’ll forget to be tongue-tied and in the middle of a churning or half-way down a furrow we may head into a song.”

Thus, Miss Justus brings to life in realistic stories a homespun picture of a unique people living in the quiet atmosphere of an isolated, charming region set apart from the hustle-bustle world.


Adapted from May Justus: Tennessee’s Mountain Jewel, by Paul C. Burns and Ruth Hines, Elementary English, Vol. 41, No. 6 (October, 1964), pp. 589-593

Special thanks to Cindy B. Cady for her input on this article.


And the goats are fine, thanks

Posted by | October 2, 2017

The poet who penned “the fog comes in on little cats’ feet” moved to western North Carolina for the sake of the little goats’ feet. Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg and his wife Paula had lived for 17 years on Chicago’s foggy shores by Lake Michigan, but left it all behind in 1945. Flat Rock, NC, twenty-four miles south of Asheville, offered greener pastures and a longer browsing season for their Chikaming goat herd.

The Sandburgs paid $45,000 for 248 acres of land, a three-story, 22 room main house of over 9,000 square feet on a hill fronted by green pastures with various lakes, a barn complex and several outbuildings. Plenty of room for them, their three daughters, two grandchildren, their library of more than 10,000 volumes, and the goat farm operation. The hill approaching the house is steep and the climb ascends 100 feet over a third of a mile. Sandburg believed they had bought a “village” and Mrs. Sandburg a “million acres of sky.”

Lilian Sandburg at Connemara, Carl and Lilian Sandburg homePhoto caption reads: “Carl Sandburg spends most of his time writing, and his wife, Lilian Paula Sandburg, most of hers with her goats. She is shown here with her grandson, Joe Carol Thoman.”

The name of home they purchased, Connemara, is Irish, meaning of the sea. Connemara is a region in the country of Ireland located on the northwest coast in the county of Galway, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. The home was built in 1838 as a summer home by Christopher Gustavus Memminger of Charleston, SC, who later served as the secretary of the treasury for the Confederacy. After his death the property passed to the Gregg family and then to textile tycoon Capt. Ellison Smyth, also of Charleston, who named it Connemara in honor of his Irish heritage. The Sandburgs bought the estate from Smyth’s descendants and kept the name.

The Asheville area was familiar to Mrs. Sandburg because her brother, photographer Edward Steichen, had spent time there and recommended it as a place to investigate.

Sandburg died on July 22, 1967 at the age of 89. His wife followed ten years later. Both of their remains were cremated and their ashes buried at Carl Sandburg’s birthplace in Galesburg, Illinois beneath a large boulder named after Carl Sandburg’s first and only novel, Remembrance Rock. Connemara, meantime, was sold to the government and is now maintained as a National Historic Site by the U.S. Park Service.


Carl+Sandburg Connemara Flat+Rock+NC Asheville+NC +appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia Appalachia+history


Claytor Lake: what’s in a name?

Posted by | September 29, 2017

It probably should have been named William Christian Lake, considering the multi-generational efforts of the Pulaski County, VA community to preserve that man’s legacy.

Instead, both the dam across the New River and the reservoir it creates were named for Graham Claytor, who just happened to be a senior executive of American Gas and Electric Company, the utility that built the dam in 1937-39. The Visitor Center at Claytor Lake State Park has an unremarkable small plaque about Claytor’s life in a tightly packed case surrounded by other plaques. It’s a facsimile of a typed page that reads like a resume. There are no portraits of Claytor in the public area of the Visitor Center, and the chief park ranger didn’t mention anything about his life to a tour group I joined up with last week.

Original caption reads: “In September 1938 this Appalachian Power dam on the New River above Radford was about a year from completion. The water it impounded became Claytor Lake. Courtesy Claytor Lake State Park/ Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation

Original caption reads: “In September 1938 this Appalachian Power dam on the New River above Radford was about a year from completion. The water it impounded became Claytor Lake.” Courtesy Claytor Lake State Park/ Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation

William Christian, by contrast, captured the attention of the Count Pulaski Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution at exactly the time American Gas and Electric Company began to build the dam whose reservoir would engulf Dunkard’s Bottom, the colonial era town where Christian lived for 15 years.

In 1937, the DAR contacted the Cloyd family, owners since 1808 of William Christian’s property at Dunkard’s Bottom. Before American Gas and Electric flooded the valley, the DAR dismantled the chimney rock of the house Colonel Christian built in 1771 at “the first white settlement west of New River, made in 1745 by Dunkers”, and reassembled it as a memorial to Christian, on County 611 outside of Dublin, VA.

In 1989 the Pulaski County Sesquicentennial Commission, the Pulaski County Chapter of the New River Historical Society, and the Virginia Division of State Parks hired stone artisan Samuel Lucas to move the monument and its accompanying bronze plaque to their present site in Claytor Lake State Park, prominently displayed along the road leading to the administrative offices. “This chimney,” adds a new plaque, “formerly of the home of William Christian, brother-in-law of Patrick Henry and frontier militia commander, was built about 1772 a mile downstream at a site now submerged by Claytor Lake.”

Composite portrait of Colonel William Christian by Manx artist Victor Kneale in conjunction with, in 1976, Isle of Man issuance of a commemorative stamp honoring Col. Christian; from study of early portraits of presumed Isle of Man ancestors. Now hanging in Botetourt County (VA) Historical Museum.

Composite portrait of Colonel William Christian by Manx artist Victor Kneale in conjunction with, in 1976, Isle of Man issuance of a commemorative stamp honoring Col. Christian; from study of early portraits of presumed Isle of Man ancestors. Now hanging in Botetourt County (VA) Historical Museum. Courtesy

Claytor Lake State Park displays a third plaque honoring Colonel Christian in this outdoor enclave. Though it’s undated and there’s no organization taking credit for it, it appears to be about the same age & style as the 1937 DAR plaque. This plaque reads: “Christiansburg, VA was named for this Revolutionary War leader and Virginia Patriot. Chairman of the Fincastle Resolution Committee and brother-in-law of Patrick Henry.” Not remembering what the Fincastle Resolution was? Stay with me, dear reader, we’re rounding that bend in a moment!

In 2005, Appalachian Power Company, the modern day successor to American Gas and Electric Company, submitted a periodic application to renew its license to operate the Claytor Hydroelectric Project to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission/Office of Energy Projects/Division of Hydropower Licensing.

“During the pre-filing consultation process,” notes a 2010 FERC progress report, “‘scoping meetings’ were held to determine what issues should be addressed in the Environmental Assessment. Scoping meetings were held in Dublin and Pulaski, Virginia on April 5 and 6, 2006, respectively, to request comments on the project.”

The Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer for Pulaski County, Friends of the New River, the New River Land Trust, and several other groups who were consulted, recommended that the Dunkard’s Bottom site be included in the National Register of Historic Places.

And they wanted one more thing.

Sketch of William Christian home, with ruins of a Dunkard home in foreground. From "Dunkard’s Bottom: Memories On The Virginia Landscape..."

Sketch of William Christian home, with ruins of a Dunkard home in foreground. From “Dunkard’s Bottom: Memories On The Virginia Landscape…”

Appalachian Power hired two architectural historians, Heather C. Jones, M.A. of Columbia, SC, and Dr. Bruce Harvey of Syracuse, NY to prepare a historical narrative of the site. DUNKARD’S BOTTOM: MEMORIES ON THE VIRGINIA LANDSCAPE, 1745 TO 1940 —HISTORICAL INVESTIGATIONS FOR SITE 44PU164 AT THE CLAYTOR HYDROELECTRIC PROJECT —PULASKI COUNTY, VIRGINIA —FERC PROJECT NO. 739 released in July 2012.

Representing the curt passive voice of bureaucrats who’ve been pushed to spend money when they didn’t wish to, the two announce in their introduction: “As part of Appalachian Power Company’s application for a new license to operate the Claytor Hydroelectric Project near Pulaski, Virginia (FERC No. 739), cultural resource studies of the dam and surrounding area were completed…Site 44PU164 was determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Because the site is being adversely affected by the operations of the Claytor Hydroelectric Project, this booklet is being produced to mitigate those adverse effects. The booklet is a compilation of historical research on the inhabitants of the area, from the 1740s through the 1930s, and is intended to make this information readily available to the public.”

Christian chimney shown in modern day photo at its Claytor Lake State Park site. Courtesy Bernard Fisher/

Christian chimney shown in modern day photo at Claytor Lake State Park site. Courtesy Bernard Fisher/

Their full 35 page report is actually well sourced and thoughtfully written for the most part. Alas, poor Graham Claytor is named nowhere in it. And the Fincastle Resolution mentioned earlier? Here’s an excerpt from the ‘Memories’ booklet that speaks to that:

As the colonial relationship with England disintegrated, in 1775 and 1776, William Christian supported the revolutionary policies that his brother-in-law, Patrick Henry, advocated. In January 1775, Christian was one of 15 men selected by the freeholders of Fincastle County, which had been created in 1772 from Botetourt County, to represent the county‘s interests.

This committee, of which Christian was elected chairman, drafted a written address to Virginia‘s delegates to the Continental Congress, which was adopted on January 20, 1775, and came to be known as the Fincastle Resolutions. Many of the signers of these resolutions, including Christian, had at least distant family ties to Patrick Henry and his influence on the document is evident.

Although not calling specifically for war, the Fincastle Resolutions clearly stated that the men ―by no means desire[d] to shake off our duty or allegiance to our lawful sovereign…but if no pacifick [sic] measures shall be proposed or adopted by Britain, and our enemies will attempt to dragoon us out of these inestimable privileges which we are entitled to…we are deliberately and resolutely determined never to surrender them to any power upon this earth, but at the expense of our lives ‖ (The Fincastle Resolutions, in Glanville 2010:102–103).

Christian‘s political activities continued in 1776, when he was part of the Convention that adopted the Constitution of Virginia and elected Patrick Henry as the first governor of the new Commonwealth.


More personal experiences from Claytor Lake State Park here.

Appalachian Power Company, Project No. 739-022-VA: online at

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