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Ghost Towns on the Cumberland Plateau

Posted by | July 14, 2014

Beth DurhamPlease welcome guest author Beth Durham. Durham is an author of folklore and Christian fiction. Her work is inspired by the traditional stories and oral history of the mountains of Tennessee. You can find Durham online at where she blogs weekly about the legends and lessons from Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, or on Facebook at:


We’ve all enjoyed the B-westerns where the trail-weary cowboy rides into a town only to discover it has been abandoned and is now only a ghost of a town.  At the mention of ghost towns, that’s the image that comes to mind – the gold rush settlements of the Old West.  But Appalachia has her own version of ghost towns and they are plentiful.  Whether you’re talking about the “company towns” built by big mining operations, nomadic logging camps, or family towns that grew around several generations – all of them share some commonalities.

TN Barn

However, unlike the western towns that stand for decades relatively unscathed by the arid climate, our houses quickly rot, any left-behind equipment rusts and lush green foliage quickly reclaims the land.  Therefore, you have to look a little deeper and listen a little closer to local stories to see the ghost towns of Appalachia.

As you drive along country roads, or better still if you walk carefully through remote woodlands, you may be lucky enough to see an abandoned barn.  More likely, you’ll find a grassy roadway, a lone chimney or just a rectangular pattern of carefully stacked rocks that once served as a home’s foundation.  These are the hints that you’ve found one of our ghost towns.  And if you can find a longtime, local resident then you may just hear the stories of that town which can bring it to life for you.  They become somewhat legendary as the children who lived there grow older and reminisce of their childhood, of good times amid hard, and laughter chasing away sadness.

On Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau we have the memories and the legends from a booming coal town, Wilder.  For twenty years miners dug coal from that mountain and families lived in company houses and made a myriad of memories.  Today, Wilder is a field of scrub pines and saw briars.  No longer does the theatre show black and white films.  No longer can you take a room in the hotel or see a ball game at Wilder High School.  All those buildings were either sold and dismantled, or some fell-in after a period of neglect. Wilder had such a great impact on the surrounding community that  concerted effort has been made to have the stories of Wilder recorded, and the local PBS television station even filmed  a documentary and included many long-time residents telling their part of the story.

courtesy of

Wilder, TN. No date. Courtesy of

But all of the towns weren’t big company towns and haven’t received the same effort to memorialize them.  Many of these neighborhoods grew up around a good stand of timber and the families who would fell and fetch those logs formed the town.  Others sprouted when a family settled on a fertile piece of land and before they knew it, they were surrounded by several generations.  I grew up on the outskirts of just such a place, Key Town.

Now, you can’t Google Key Town, Tennessee.  And sadly the people who could take you there are quickly vanishing.  But the stories from those families have been told and retold until they seem to have a life all their own.

Picture with me the deeply worn roadway that was Key Town Road.  It is thick with grass now, and a tree has fallen here and there across it.  On one side, it runs through a farm and fences cross the road.  But the flat rock where Millard Stepp’s home once stood is, of course, still there.  Weren’t they ahead of their time making such a small carbon footprint by utilizing a rock outcropping for a patio?  The well that supplied that house with fresh water was visible until the farmer’s plow mistakenly snagged the casing.   Mrs. Stepp’s sister, Lena, lived on the neighboring farm.  I can imagine how often the two women crossed the little roadway to share quilt pieces or borrow a key ingredient from their sparse larders when company was expected or a special meal was being prepared.

Just to the west you’d find John and Sarah Key.  They were old even then, but their house outlasted all the others in this part of the settlement.  In the springtime, you can still see flowers surviving in the woods giving testimony to yesteryear’s beauty and happiness in this place.

Then there’s the Jack Atkinson home which saw so much sadness, and yet the family was strong and the descendants are still living in the area.  Mrs. Atkinson died from tuberculosis, that slow plague of the early twentieth century.  Then her daughter contracted the same disease.  As though they had not born enough, they sent a son to fight for our nation in World War II and he contracted the disease and died before the enemy could assault him.

Three men seated in chairs outdoors in 1923. Left to right: Unknown, Rev. Henry (Het) Phillips, and Rev. Thompson. Phillips and Thompson were Baptist preachers from Wilder, Tennessee. Collection Nelson Family Photographs, 1905-1925/Tennessee State Library and Archives

Three men seated in chairs outdoors in 1923. Left to right: Unknown, Rev. Henry (Het) Phillips, and Rev. Thompson. Phillips and Thompson were Baptist preachers from Wilder, Tennessee. Collection Nelson Family Photographs, 1905-1925/Tennessee State Library and Archives

The Lester Key home stood on the south fork of the road.  They were part of the same Key family but they came late to Key Town, having spent the early years of their marriage a couple of miles away on Mrs. Key’s family property.  But this little house was where Lester and Mary raised seven kids.  The house was log in the beginning but somewhere along the way he was able to cover it with “brickside” (or asphalt) siding.  It had only one bedroom and an open attic/loft where all of the children slept.  Mr. Key often told that he had in his pocket one dollar more when he finished the house than when he started.  The family had only one son and he had a bed partitioned off with a curtain on one end of the loft.  That home was close enough to today’s road that Lester was able to live in it till near the end of his ninety year life.  Even after he passed, his children could not part with the home and kept it standing another twenty years until they felt the decaying timbers were no longer safe.

Most of our readers won’t know any of these names but I’ll bet many of you can relate to the stories.  What a blessing to know these people that we were never able to meet.  What an inspiration they are when we compare the stresses of our modern-day lives to the struggles they faced.  The Atkinsons that I mentioned nursed their sick at home right there in Key Town.  There was little choice in the matter since no hospital was readily available and money to pay hospital bills would have been nearly impossible to come by.

Loretta Lynn said in her autobiographical song Coal Miner’s Daughter, “…a lot of things have changed since way back then and it’s so good to be back home again.  Not much left but the floor, nothing lives here anymore except the memories of a coal miner’s daughter.”  Well, things have certainly changed in Key Town; just within the last year the trees were harvested, wiping out even more of the signs of the town.  But the saws and the skidders cannot touch the memories or the stories.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the history of why a town grew where it did, and even harder to learn why it was abandoned.  Sure, when you can identify a mining community you can deduce that the coal seam played out and the company moved on.  But many of these towns sprang up around very small mines that are practically lost to history.

Just as those western towns often dried up when the railroad passed too far from them, the building and location of new roads often sealed the fate of towns.  In our example, the Key Town road was never developed and as new homes were built, they needed better access to the public road.

We are so accustomed to mobility today that looking at some of the locations makes one ask why anyone settled in the middle of nowhere.  The Baldwin Gulf raises such a question.  This is literally a gulf between two ridges cut by the river.  The Baldwin family settled there prior to The Civil War, locating at the site of a good spring.  Legend has it that the patriarch of the family refused to choose a side in the state’s war and was killed by local guerillas.  Still the family stayed and fifty years later saw the rich timberland of Baldwin Gulf harvested.  However, once again, the public road was built on top of the ridge line and the family began to move out of the gulf.  Hood Town, Zenith, and Hoover Town are very similar stories.

Isoline saw a different fate.  Built around a small mine, Isoline had its own railroad spur and a town grew up around it.  When the mine played out, the railroad pulled out and the town soon followed.  However, the roadway had been built right through Isoline so there is still ready access to it.  However, as you drive through today, only when you see the sign for the Isoline Baptist Church will you know you’ve arrived.

I suppose in fifty or one hundred years from now, many of the places we frequent or even call home will be only memories.  So we add our own stories to those we pass along to another generation until, as Loretta Lynn sang, “nothing lives here anymore except the memories…”


Listen Here: Appalachian History Weekly podcast posts today

Posted by | July 13, 2014

We post a new episode of Appalachian History weekly podcast every Sunday. Check us out on the Stitcher network, available on mobile phones, in-car dashboards and tablets worldwide. Just click below to start listening:

We open today’s show with guest author Barbara J. Butler. Butler is a member of Shady Grove Cemetery Dahlonega, LLC. “On May 10, 1872,” she tells us, “my 2nd great grandfather, Jacob Saine, deeded two acres of land to help his community start The Methodist Episcopal Church South. The log cabin/school was called Shady Grove Cemetery and Grave Yard. A number of my ancestors are buried there. Since 2008, family members have been fighting the battle to get ownership of Shady Grove away from The United Methodist Conference of Gainesville, Ga.”

We’ll pause in between things to catch up on a calendar of events in the region this week, with special attention paid to events that emphasize heritage and local color.

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.

“Museum exhibits and the understanding of shared history evolve at the Lillian E. Jones Museum,” says Megan Malone, director of this Jackson, OH institution. “The current exhibit of ‘Exploring Our Heritage …through wood’ is the perfect example of both statements, because history is simply not a singular experience that belongs to any one group of people.”

We’ll wrap things up with an oral history excerpt with WV deer tanner Kerth Snyder from Marshall University’s Oral History of Appalachia Collection. “We just, I used to flesh them by hand, used to air ‘em by hand. I used to do everything by hand. If I counted my time at normal wages, I’d have to have two or three hundred dollars per hide to come out and make wages.”

And thanks to the good folks at the Blue Ridge Institute Archives at Ferrum College, we’ll be able to enjoy some authentic Appalachian music from ‘Georgia Slim’ & Ivey Rutland in a 1950s recording of Chicken Reel.

So call your old Plott hound up on the porch, fire up your corncob pipe, and settle in for a dose of Appalachian history.


Upcoming play delves into Frankie Silver saga

Posted by | July 11, 2014

The following article by Brianne Fleming ran July 8 in The News Herald [NC]. It is re-posted here with permission.


The legendary story of Frankie Silver will be retold in Burke County again this weekend in a one-woman play entitled “Silver Shadows…a birthin,’” which is meant to give the audience more insight into what really happened in Silver’s life that led to her ultimate downfall.

Kim Cozort, who is the education director at Flat Rock Playhouse in Flat Rock, has written and conceived the play herself, along with her husband, Kenneth Kay, who directs it.

Kim Cozort and Kenneth Kay.

Kim Cozort and Kenneth Kay.

This is the 62nd show they have been involved in together, Cozort said of her and her husband, who have been married for almost 25 years.

“We love the work and we love each other,” she said. “We think the camaraderie with the work has helped us with the work and as a couple.”

Cozort, who is from Drexel and now lives in Flat Rock, said she was completely intrigued by the story of Frankie Silver since the first time she learned about it in her fourth-grade history class.

“I’ve been writing this for a very long time,” she said. “The story just stayed with me. When I started getting older, I thought, there’s more to this. I thought, what happened, and did it really happen the way they say?

“I started investigating a little more. I didn’t want to just know the facts, I wanted to know who Frankie was. Who was that person, and how can I make them real?”

Frankie Stewart Silver is known as the woman who was hanged in Morganton for murdering and dismembering her husband, 19-year-old Charles Silver, with an axe in the cabin that they shared with their 13-month-old daughter Nancy on Dec. 22, 1831. Silver’s family then helped her escape from jail and disguised her as a boy, but she was caught and returned to prison before her execution. The parts of Charles’s body were discovered at different times, and there are three separate graves for him at the Silver family cemetery in Mitchell County, North Carolina.

Cozort said she has been rehearsing the play for about six weeks now. It will be different from other plays about Silver’s life because one person will be playing the part of eight to 12 characters, Cozort said.

“It’s only me,” she said. “It’s unique in the fact that I’m doing all these different characters. Finally, we’re able to do this at the courthouse, and that’s unique as well. Frankie, while she was in the prison, probably heard it (the courthouse) being built. I wanted to do it in an intimate space, and I’m really excited about that.”

A photo of Frankie Silver’s gravestone, along with many other photos and trial documents, are viewable in a room at the History Museum of Burke County, NC.

A photo of Frankie Silver’s gravestone, along with many other photos and trial documents, are viewable in a room at the History Museum of Burke County, NC.

Dr. William Harbinson, a music professor at Appalachian State University, will be playing original music from Appalachian culture, Cozort said.

“He wrote some beautiful music,” she said. “I’m very excited about that.”

The play will be performed on the 181st anniversary of the day Silver was hanged, which was July 12, 1833.

“It’s very significant, and it takes us back to the idea that she was real, not just a story,” Cozort said. “Something happened to her for this to happen, and I’m hoping to make that a little clearer to the audience.”

It is important for the people of Burke County to know about parts of their history, Cozort said.

“All of this took place in Burke County,” she said. “For people to celebrate their history, their heritage and know a little bit more about what life was like in their community, I think that is significant.”

It also is important to display other parts of Frankie’s life, besides the basic things that people have already heard, Cozort said.

“I just want to give a little more of who Frankie was,” she said. “People tend to think of her as just a woman who chopped up her husband and that was it. There are other factors I want people to be aware of.”

Cozort said she wants to provide the audience with another view of Frankie Silver’s story.

“There are a couple of characters that I invented, but this is all done from factual research,” she said. “I interviewed a lot of the family, and I really want it to be about Frankie’s life in 1830. It was a hard way to live, and I just want to give people another take on it, let them slow down and see exactly what life was like in that time period.”

Although it has been a challenge transitioning from playing character to character, she has enjoyed writing and creating the play, and hopes to see it performed in the future, Cozort said.

“This premiere is (so) I can see if it works and if my story is clear,” she said. “The advantage of having my husband and I working together (is) we already have ideas about the next incarnation, and have already thought of ways to add a little more.

“I would love to do it again. I’ve had such a good time working on it.”

Cozort said the show’s sponsors include the Town of Drexel, Cozort Builders, John Ervin Jr., Drexel Discount Drugs, Sossoman Funeral Home and Crematory Center, Donnie Powell and Don and Maxine McCall.

The play will be performed on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Old Burke County Courthouse. General admission tickets for adults are $20 and $10 for students 12 to 18 years old. The show is not recommended for those under 12 years old. For tickets, call the Historic Burke Foundation at 828-437-4104.


New Exhibit Offers a Different Way of Looking at Wood in Jackson County, OH

Posted by | July 10, 2014

Megan MalonePlease welcome guest author Megan Malone. Director at the Lillian E. Jones Museum since 2012, Ms. Malone is a graduate of the University of Dayton with B.A. in Communication. Her professional experiences include newspaper reporting at ‘The Canton Repository’ and the ‘Dayton Daily News,’ and public information work at the Stark County Board of Developmental Disabilities.


Museum exhibits and the understanding of shared history evolve at the Lillian E. Jones Museum, which is known as Jackson County, Ohio’s home for history, culture and education.

The current exhibit of “Exploring Our Heritage …through wood” is the perfect example of both statements because history is simply not a singular experience that belongs to any one group of people.

On display inside the Jones Museum are 31 different delightful pieces of wood carvings by Ralph Poetker, who is a long-time resident of Jackson County. These pieces, on display through August, are wonderful and fun in their own right, showing not only the perseverance and skill of the carver, but also what is important to him personally, and his interests.

Ralph Poetker

Ralph Poetker

Displaying Poetker’s work was the original focus of the summertime exhibit, but it grew.

I knew I wanted an audio dimension to the exhibit to add life. Visitors to the museum’s Arts Room linger over the Fletcher Benton Collection watching DVDs with the voice of the artist, a 1949 Jackson High School graduate and a world-renowned sculptor.

Then I remembered the wonderful 2005 DVD “A Forest Returns: the success story of Ohio’s only National Forest” as told by Ora E. Anderson, a former Jackson Herald newspaper editor of the 1930s. Anderson talks of the deforestation that came out of Jackson’s iron furnace heydays. Before iron there were the salt boilers that ultimately brought Ohio statehood in the early 1800s through this region’s natural resources.

That is a different way of looking at wood’s role in Jackson County.

For museum visitors, there is no overlooking the Jones Museum’s beautiful hardwood floors, refinished in 2012. The narrow boards are of a distinct size that is repeated in many of the early 1900’s houses in the neighboring Broadway/South St. area. Floor refinishers often wonder about the unusual size boards. Who knows where the boards came from for all the homes and why the special size? The Jones Museum building was first used as a home in 1867, then purchased by the Jones family in 1921 with a few renovations by the architect who built the Cambrian Hotel in 1900.

Ralph Poetker's newest carving, ‘Wild Horse Saloon’ has 15 characters.

Ralph Poetker’s newest carving, ‘Wild Horse Saloon’ has 15 characters.

Then there’s the 8-foot wooden fish weathervane, planed in Jackson in 1856, still on display in the museum’s main area from the April-May Jackson High School History exhibit. ‘The Fish,’ as it was known, sat atop Central School, the city’s first high school, until the building was demolished in 1931.

Quickly, the exhibit development jumps to all the different ways we have used wood in the past and in the present.

The archives of the Merillat Cabinetry plant that made high-end oak cabinetry for 35 years are now a part of the museum’s permanent collection, after the facility closed in March. A few personal contacts and phone calls brought an opportunity for wood samples from Ohio’s extension services that show all the different types of hardwoods currently growing in the area. The woodcarvers who meet monthly in Jackson say they might visit the Jones Museum to share the process of woodcarving for pleasure. Another unexpected personal contact shared business contacts with preeminent saw mills in the area that do work across the state and the nation.

Wood is not just history, it is modern day tourism and industry.

Suddenly, it’s about more than Ralph Poetker’s carvings. But truly nothing about history, culture or education is singular. It is all about the exploration of the shared experience.

The Jones Museum at 75 Broadway St. in Jackson, OH is open Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Admission is free to the museum. Private appointments to explore the museum’s permanent collections can be easily arranged by contacting Director Megan Malone by phone at 740-286-2556 or email at For online information, visit or see what’s happening on Facebook/The Lillian E. Jones Museum.


Community breathes life into restored pavilion

Posted by | July 9, 2014

Year after fixes, historic structure sees resurgence

The following article by Jeff Gill ran in the Gainesville Times on June 30. It is re-posted here with permission.


The Chattahoochee Park pavilion has a colorful history, but its present-day operations have been lively as well.

More than a year after restoring the 100-year-old structure off Lake Lanier, the American Legion Paul E. Bolding Post 7 has been busy leasing it out for a variety of functions, from weddings to reunions. The Phoenix Rising Veterans Drum Circle meets there every other Wednesday.

The American Legion Paul E. Bolding Post 7’s Chattahoochee Park Pavilion on Lake Lanier was recently renovated and is now seeing more rental activity. On June 28th the 2004 Lakeview Academy class reunion was held there.

The American Legion Paul E. Bolding Post 7’s Chattahoochee Park Pavilion on Lake Lanier was recently renovated and is now seeing more rental activity. On June 28th the 2004 Lakeview Academy class reunion was held there.

“Since we got that (renovation) done and we decided to rent the (post) building, I’m renting it about every Saturday,” said Dave Dellinger, senior vice commander for the post.

The pavilion, which sits off Lake Lanier at the end of Riverside Drive, was part of an amusement park, Chattahoochee Park, built about 1900 on the banks of what was then Lake Warner. An electric streetcar line was built from downtown Gainesville to the area.

Georgia Power bought the park in 1923 and operated it as an employee retreat until 1955. When Lake Lanier was completed in 1958, most of the buildings of Chattahoochee Park were covered by water, leaving behind just the pavilion.

The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, included the aging pavilion in its 2012 list of the state’s top 10 “Places in Peril.”

“The pavilion has a large amount of rotting timbers that are in need of repair and replacing,” stated the Georgia Trust website in its report on the property.

Gainesville City Council later voted to spend $25,000 for building materials to restore the pavilion, with the work done by Georgia Department of Corrections crews.


In return, the post agreed to allow the city to use the building to promote tourism and to conduct public safety training exercises for a 10-year period.

A dedication ceremony is set for Aug. 9 at the pavilion. The American Legion is inviting Gov. Nathan Deal, a post member, as well as Georgia Power, HCCI and city officials. A brass plaque is being made describing the dedication and giving a brief history, Dellinger said.

The building rents for $200, plus $75 for cleanup, for up to 50 people. The charge goes up $50 per 50 additional people.

“There’s nothing in town that’s anywhere near that cheap,” Dellinger said. “But it’s something we want to do for the public, to have something available for them at a minimum cost that just covers our expenses.”

Taylor Kizziah, involved in Lakeview Academy’s 10-year reunion activities at the pavilion on Saturday, grew up very familiar with the American Legion.

“My grandparents live right across the cove on the island … so I’ve seen events there my whole life, Fourth of July and all that,” she said.

The pavilion turned out to be “the perfect location.”

“They allow you to bring in your own food and beverage, there are pretty waterfront views and places where we can play games,” she said. “And there’s power and water hookups and a shaded area.”

The American Legion also has worked to spruce up the main post building, using a Home Depot grant and volunteer labor.

In September 2012, crews underwent a one-day blitz of renovations, including putting down new carpeting, laying new drainage lines, installing new landscaping and restoring a monument bearing a faded plaque with the names of World War I veterans.

What: Dedication of the American Legion Paul E. Bolding Post 7’s Chattahoochee Park pavilion

When: 11 a.m. Aug. 9

Where: 2343 Riverside Drive, Gainesville

Contact: 770-534-7091

Dellinger said he would like to get another Home Depot grant for landscaping around the pavilion.

Another area of concern is the road leading to the wooden structure.

“It has really eroded,” Dellinger said. “We’re working hard getting somebody to pave it for us, but we also try to keep a good fund to help veterans.

“We’re always getting a call from somebody to help pay their car repair bill, electric or water bill, and rent.”

The American Legion is always to happy to accept donated labor.

“If somebody would come out their with equipment, we’ll pay for the supplies,” Dellinger said.

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