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The country is full of gold

Posted by | June 16, 2015

Here’s a letter written by one George A. Barrows to a Lewis ______ (perhaps Coleman) in Seattle, Washington, dated June 16, 1901. It’s from the James B. Frazier Papers Collection in the University of Tennessee Special Collections Library. James Beriah Frazier (1856-1937) was admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1881, and began his practice in Chattanooga. This partially explains the presence of this letter in Frazier’s possession: Barrows (1863-1909) got his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1885, and during the next three years practiced law in Chattanooga. So they traveled in the same circles, and clearly were friends.

“[Barrows] was also largely interested in real estate matters in that city,” says his obituary, “but with the decline in prices in 1888 disaster overtook him and many others, and he returned to Philadelphia.”

Frazier & Barrows must have remained in contact after Barrows left Chattanooga in order for this letter to find its way back to Frazier after Barrows died. But we don’t know the identity of ‘Lewis,’ the letter’s recipient, and his connection to the other two men.

Why is this letter relevant to Appalachian history? It captures perfectly the gold fever that swept the region and the nation shortly after the yellow nuggets were discovered in Alaska’s Yukon. News reached the United States in July 1897 at the height of a significant series of financial recessions and bank failures, and held out hope for adventurers willing to try their luck.

Barrows first lit out for the gold fields in May, 1899 with a government expedition, under Captain E. F. Glenn, to Cook Inlet, Alaska. By that point in his life he’d left the law, gone back to school and become a doctor. The following November he sailed for Nome as a surgeon on the Laurada. The ship sprang a leak in Bering Sea and went to pieces on St. George Island, but everyone on board was rescued.


Dear Lewis: Many thanks for your long and very interesting letter. I am very glad the news personal to yourself is so good. A man of family, of position and of aldermanic proportions, you are certainly in luck. May all sorts of good fortune continue.

Klondike prospectorsKlondike prospectors, no date.

I hardly know how to start to tell you of my very eventful career during the last few years. I have not time now to write a book, so will send you my diaries of ’98 and ’99 wherein you will see among other things how I was twice wrecked at sea, on one occasion being cast away on an island in Behring [sic] Sea.

As soon as I stopped keeping a diary I stopped getting ship wrecked. Last summer I was Ship Surgeon on a large Steamship–the “Oregon”–running between Seattle and Cape Nome. A great deal happened then but I have no record of it and it would take too long to tell.

Since last Fall I have been teaching Obstetrics and Diagnosis of diseases in an Institute here; but this job is now over – for the summer vacation – and we are “up against it” again almost as badly as when we struck Seattle. I hoped to get the “Oregon” again this summer – but a doctor who is a great friend of the owner has thus far euchered [sic] me out of it.

You see I am as far off as ever from my “Four Million,” although the experience I have had may sometime help me to get it. I know Alaska pretty well and how they work the ropes there, very well. The country is full of gold and if we are ever so fixed that we could get there – with the means to stay a year or two – I believe the “Four” would be on the way.

One must winter there in order to get a chance at new diggings before news of them reaches the States. Before the rush of people to Nome got there every valuable claim had been taken up by men who had wintered up the Yukon.

The LauradaThe Laurada in 1896, courtesy of Illustrated American Magazine.

People who are not Capitalists who go in for the summer, invariably, are sorry — others too, for that matter, who lack necessary knowledge and judgment. This is a great country out here. You ought to take a long vacation sometime and come out and see what God’s country really is like. Magnificent scenery and climate, living cheap, things civilized and a bracing move and get-up to affairs that would make the effete East hold its breath. Let me hear from you soon. No hurry about returning the diaries.

Your sincere friend Geo. A. Barrows. 16 June 1901.


Sources: James B. Frazier Papers / University of Tennessee Special Collections Library at

OBITUARY RECORD OF GRADUATES OF YALE UNIVERSITY DECEASED FROM JUNE, 1910, TO JULY, 1915, No. i of the Sixth Printed Series, and No. 70 of the whole Record at


They tell me I can’t pull a flower after there’s a park

Posted by | June 15, 2015

On June 15, 1934 it all officially came together at long last. Congress’ act dated that day noted that an area of 400,000 acres within the minimum boundary of the park had been acquired, and therefore it established the Great Smoky Mountains as a national park (GSMNP) with sufficient land for administration, protection, and development.

Ramsey Cascades, Great Smoky Mountains National ParkPhoto caption: “Ramsey Cascades on the Ramsey Prong.” Taken by Albert “Dutch” Roth on June 24, 1934.

If you thought GSMNP was previously an enormous parcel of pristine wilderness just waiting to be christened a national park, think again! Merely acquiring the land took decades of work and millions of dollars.

By the late 19th century, logging had grown to become a major industry in the mountains. One socially unacceptable side effect was that cut-and-run style clearcutting was destroying the natural beauty of the area. As a response, there was a growing national interest, including from the National Park Service, in establishing a large national park in the southern Appalachians.

However, there was no parcel of federally-owned land large enough. The rolling mountains of forest that now make up GSMNP were then owned by many separate entities, primarily logging interests.

On May 22, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill committing the Federal government to administer the land for a national park in the Great Smokies as soon as Tennessee and North Carolina donated 150,000 acres, and to begin park development when the states had donated 423,000 acres. So, though Congress had authorized the park, there was no nucleus of federally-owned land around which to build such a park, and furthermore Congress did not want to spend any money to establish one — the bill explicitly declared that no federal funds would be used to purchase park lands.

Then there were the current owners of the proposed park land to contend with. The large lumber companies pulled out all stops, first to derail the project and, when that failed, to get the best possible price for their land. The Champion Fibre Company, owners of the largest land holdings in the proposed park, hired famed attorney Charles Evans Hughes to represent them and even bribed a lawyer hired by the Tennessee Park Commission to influence jury selection in a condemnation hearing. The process of taking all five of the major timber companies to court–in the case of the Suncrest Lumber Company to the U.S. Supreme Court–delayed the purchase of land until the late 1930s.

Private citizens from Tennessee and North Carolina pitched in to help assemble the land for the park, piece by piece. In 1927 the North Carolina and Tennessee state legislatures each committed two million dollars in bond funds to purchase land for the park. In 1928 John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated the final five million dollars needed for land purchases.


With the money in hand, the state-appointed commissions faced the daunting task of buying land from over 4,000 individual homeowners who did not want to sell. As one resident put it: “They tell me I can’t break a twig, nor pull a flower, after there’s a park. Nor can I fish with bait, nor kill a boomer, nor bear on land owned by my pap, and grandpap and his pap before him.” Litigation costs and loss of pledge money due to the Depression quickly used up the available funds for land purchases.

The Department of the Interior and its head, Harold Ickes, found ways to circumvent the no-federal-funds-to-be-used proviso. In 1933 President Roosevelt issued an executive order to allocate $1,550,000 to complete land purchases in the park, justifying the expenditure as a means to “enhance the effectiveness and enlarge the opportunity” for Civilian Conservation Corps work in East Tennessee and western North Carolina. When this proved insufficient, Congress reversed its position and appropriated an additional $743,265.29 to secure the required 423,000 acres.




And it’s home little gal and do-si-do

Posted by | June 12, 2015

Traditional dancing in Appalachia includes several types: step dancing, set dancing, and couple dancing. Step dance traditions include clogging, buckdancing, flatfooting, and the Charleston. Set dances, involving two or more couples, include four couple squares, big set (ring) dances, reels, country (contra) dances, and play parties. Couple dancing, often referred to as “round dancing,” includes the two-step and waltz.

Square dancing, one of the oldest forms of American folk dancing, evolved from several different Old World group dances, mainly the English country, or contra, dance and the French quadrille.

In the American version of square dancing, four couples form a square and dance to music from an accordion, banjo, fiddle, and guitar.

An old-fashioned Southern “square”, sometimes called “running set”– English musicologist Cecil Sharp coined the term while describing dancing in eastern Kentucky in 1916–, can accomodate as few as four or as many couples as want to crowd in. The formation is really a big circle with any number of couples. (There are, of course, a body of Southern squares that are done in 4-couple sets.) Most commonly, a Southern “running set” type of square dance is structured in two parts: First the major circle and then the minor circle. With all hands joined in one big circle around the hall, one or more introductory big circle figures are danced.

Square dance, Skyline Farms, AL, 1937Square dance, Skyline Farms, AL, 1937. Photo by Ben Shahn.

The big circle then breaks up and each couple joins with an adjacent couple to dance some little circle figures. The movements are not so much geometrical figures but little pantomimes: “Birdie in the cage and three hands around” (a girl steps into the center, the other three circle around her); “Around that couple and take a peek” (the active couple tries to look at each other behind the backs of of the inactives, who try to hinder them); “Chase a rabbit, chase a squirrel, chase a pretty girl around the world” (the man pursues his partner around the other couple); to name just a few.

The little circles can be spaced in a major circle around the hall, as in a Sicilian circle; or they can be scattered all over the dance floor. The couples move on to join a new couple and repeat the little figures; progression may occur several times. To conclude, all rejoin in a large circle and dance a finishing big circle figure. An American addition to square dancing is the caller.

Ladies do and the gents you know,
It’s right by right by wrong you go,
And you can’t go to heaven while you carry on so,
And it’s home little gal and do-si-do,
And it may be the last time, I don’t know,
And oh by gosh and oh by Joe.
—(Ernest Legg, WV)

Ernest Legg’s calls were featured on a number of 78s recorded by the Kessinger Brothers in 1928.

The caller–someone who calls out the dance steps in time to the music–was a completely American invention. At first dancers memorized all the steps for a particular dance, but eventually the dances became so complicated that it was necessary to have someone yell out cues so that dancers didn’t have to remember so many steps. The caller didn’t just call out “do-se-do your partner”; a good caller also came up with colorful sayings or witty lines that he would say in between the cues such as “Don’t be bashful and don’t be afraid. Swing on the corner in a waltz promenade.” A caller might also come up with new dance steps and routines.

Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennesse and Virginia have all seen fit to make the square dance their ‘folk dance’ State Symbol. North Carolinians prefer clog dancing receive that designation, and West Virginians and Kentuckians haven’t included any sort of dance as a state symbol.


sources:  “Pretty Gal!,” Forbes Parkhill, Parkhill, Saturday Evening Post, Aug 02, 1941; Vol. 214, No. 5, p. 18-22
Marguerite Butler Bidstrup, “Kentucky Set Running – 1914 firsthand account,” Square Dance History Project



The bottle tree

Posted by | June 11, 2015

Are your premises safe against haints, furies and other such ornery spirits? Have you painted your front door blue? Has the neighborhood seen a sudden upsurge of bottles dangling upside down in the trees?

She knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house — by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again.
Livvie, by Eudora Welty

Glass ‘bottle trees’ originated in ninth century Kongo during a period when superstitious Central African people believed that a genii or imp could be captured in a bottle. Legend had it that empty glass bottles placed outside, but near, the home could capture roving (usually evil) spirits at night, and the spirit would be destroyed the next day in the sunshine. One could then cork the bottles and throw them into the river to wash away the evil spirits.

Furthermore, the Kongo tree altar is a tradition of honoring deceased relatives with graveside memorials. The family will surround the grave with plates attached to sticks or trees. The plates are thought to resemble mushrooms, calling on a Kongo pun: matondo/tondo [the Kongo word for mushroom is similar to their word to love].

And so, trees and bottles eventually came together.

This practice was taken to Europe and North America by African slaves. Thomas Atwood, in History of the Island of Domi (1791), made particular note of the bottle tree as a protection of the home through an invocation of the dead. Atwood writes of the confidence of the blacks “in the power of the dead, of the sun and the moon—nay, even of sticks, stones and earth from graves hung in bottles in their gardens.”

blue bottle tree, from Alabama, One Big Front PorchWhile Europeans adapted the bottle tree idea into hollow glass spheres known as “witch balls,” the practice of hanging bottles in trees became widespread in the plantation regions of Southern states and from there migrated north and inland into Appalachia.

Traditionally the bottles are placed on the branches of a crepe myrtle tree. The image of the myrtle tree recurs in the Old Testament, aligned with the Hebrews’ escape from slavery, their diaspora and the promise of the redemption of their homeland.

Bottle tree colors can range from blue, to clear, to brown, but cobalt blue are always preferred: in the Hoodoo folk-magic tradition, the elemental blues of water and sky place the bottle tree at a crossroads between heaven and earth, and therefore between the living and the dead. The bottle tree interacts with the unknown powers of both creative and destructive spirits.

The bottles are placed upside down with the neck facing the trunk. Trees need not be thickly populated with bottles. Malevolent spirits, on the prowl during the night, enter the bottles where they become trapped by an ‘encircling charm.’ It is said that when the wind blows past the tree, you can hear the moans of the ensnared spirits whistling on the breeze. Come morning they are burnt up by the rising sun.

Today, the bottle tree has entered the realm of folk art. Companies now market bottle tree armatures meant to serve, once clothed with milk, wine, or milk of magnesia bottles, as colorful garden ornaments. The poor man’s stained glass window, you might say.


Sources: Tradition and Innovation in African-American Yards, by Grey Gundaker, African Arts, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Apr., 1993), pp. 58-96
Alabama, One Big Front Porch, by Kathryn Tucker Windham, NewSouth Books, 2007

blue+bottle+trees bottle+trees Hoodoo haints appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history


Summer mountain meadows are full of toys

Posted by | June 10, 2015

Mountain woods and meadows are full of toys for any child with eyes to see. Skipping stones across a creek or running alongside a fence, stick in hand, clacking the fenceposts—these pastimes are available any time of year.

But the summer meadow has always held special treasures. Two of the best just happen to grow cheek by jowl: the clover, endless provider of necklaces white or red, and the English Plantain.

Before the advent of the manicured lawn, in which the plantain is an unwanted guest, mountaineers viewed this marvelous plant through very different eyes.

English Plantain“Plantain is a vulnerary (a wound plant), and in everyday use it is excellent for relief of stings and bruises, and an alleviant for nettle stings,” says Bill Church in Medicinal Plants, Trees, & Shrubs of Appalachia – A Field Guide. “Traditionally, leaf tea used for coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, and blood urine. Leaves applied to blisters, sores, ulcers, swelling; also used for earaches and eye ailments; thought to reduce heat and pain of inflammation.”

In addition to its medicinal uses, English plantain (also known as buckhorn plantain) helped keep backwoods aviary inhabitants chirping; the seeds are often eaten by songbirds.

This common European perennial has been naturalized worldwide; Native Americans from Massachusetts first noticed it seemed to spring up wherever the Europeans settled in the New World, and the nickname “white man’s foot’ or “Englishman’s foot” has stuck ever since.

But back to plants kids can make toys from. The plantain’s botanical name is ‘plantago lanceolata,’ and that ‘lance’ part has a special attraction for mountain boys at play, who prefer to call it the ‘shooter plant.’

If you’re going to fire one of these little devils at your buddies, you’ve got to select carefully. Look for a seed head that has NOT blossomed yet! It should be tightly formed and look like a bullet (photo #1).

If the seed head is long and rangy, it just will not pop off the stem when you go to shoot it (photo #2). Select a stem long enough that you can break it into two halves about 8-9 inches apiece (photo #3).

Fold the stem piece without the seed head in half, and thread the other piece through it (photo #4). As you can see, it reminds one a bit of the bow & arrow, and that’s exactly the way to shoot the seed head off. You have to squeeze the folded piece together tight enough so that the seedhead doesn’t simply pull through it.

This is one of those childhood arts, like whistling with two fingers under your tongue, or riding a bike, that you simply have to learn by trial & error. No amount of written instruction, diagrams, or photos can ever replace that.

sources: Medicinal Plants, Trees, & Shrubs of Appalachia – A Field Guide, by Bill Church,, 2006


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