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Radio and the Blue Ridge

Posted by | March 30, 2015

Wilson150Please welcome guest author Joseph Wilson. The folklorist is a 2001 NEA National Heritage Fellow, most well known for his work since 1976 as the Executive Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the oldest organization in the nation devoted to the presentation of folk arts. From this position, Wilson has had a profound influence on folk and traditional arts programming in this country. His mark can be also be seen in the shaping of national institutions such as the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the National Park Service, the Arts America program of the United States Information Agency (now in the Department of State), the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has organized or given programming direction to nearly 40 folk festivals, including the National Folk Festival that is produced annually by his organization. He has organized 21 national tours by musicians, dancers, and storytellers. The following excerpt is from the forthcoming book The Joe Wilson Reader, from University of Tennessee Press’s Charles K. Wolfe Music Series, edited by Fred Bartenstein.


When we got the first radio that had a speaker, we’d set it out here on the porch, and people would come listen to it with us. Sometimes the yard was full. Not long after we got it, an old man from over in Beaver Dams was here listening to the first big boxing match. When the fight heated up and Dempsey began pounding that Frenchman, the old man got real nervous and said ‘Tip, if you don’t turn that dang thing off, he’s a-going to kill that feller.’

Tipton Madron
Trade, TN
December 25, 1961[1]

It seemed like magic, this box that could grab voices from the wind and reproduce them on headphones or speakers. Here were the words, songs and tunes of people who stood hundreds of miles away, words heard instantly as they were spoken — the modulations of voice perfectly audible, the intake of breath heard as if inches away. It was magic, a form of transporting, ancient witchcraft made science; the future had arrived. Nowadays, it is common to equate early radio with early television in assessing impact. This is an error. Nothing like radio had happened before. Radio came before sound films and ignited what was called a craze. That is an apt term because one has to go back to the ancient manias in Europe to find anything with the intensity of excitement that radio generated.[2]

Radio was made possible by the superheterodyne, the so-called ‘tuning circuit’ invented during World War I by Edwin Armstrong. That new development brought startling clarity to voices carried by radio. Before the superheterodyne (the etymological components of which roughly translate as super=above [the sonic], hetero=other, dyne=force) radio had primarily been a medium for wireless telegraphy—messages sent point-to-point in code, the wireless companies decoding and delivering them by messenger boys. Hundreds of amateur radio fans owned receiving and sending equipment before this invention, but the idea of ‘broadcasting’ was unthinkable before the superheterodyne. Point-to-point messages might be overheard, but they were individual communications, not news, not entertainment.

Boyle's Thirty Acres, Jersey City, NJ.  Jack Dempsey posing in ring in boxing position.  Copyright 1921, FC Quimby; Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Boyle’s Thirty Acres, Jersey City, NJ. Jack Dempsey posing in ring in boxing position. Copyright 1921, FC Quimby; Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Change came with amazing rapidity. The first event that could be called a broadcast happened on July 2, 1921, the heavyweight boxing championship match between Jack Dempsey and French challenger Georges Carpentier. An estimated 300,000 people heard a blow-by-blow description of this fight, the largest audience that had ever simultaneously heard a single speaker.[3]

Corporations began building radio stations as part of their advertising and public relations gambits. Some selected call letters that reflected their business. Chicago radio station WLS was owned by Sears, and its call letters were an acronym for ‘World’s Largest Store.’ Nashville’s WSM was owned by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, and its call letters reflected the company slogan: ‘We Shield Millions.’[4]

The number of Americans owning a radio soared: a handful in early 1921, 100,000 in 1922, and 500,000 in 1923. There was one station in 1920, 30 in 1922, and 556 in 1923.[5]

The technology of popular entertainment may greatly accelerate the presentation of older forms and even ‘use them up’ (for example, the use of older films by television.) Among older forms taken up by early radio was blackface comedy. This was a popular form that presented racist caricatures derived from the minstrel stage. Such presentations began around 1840, developed into an internationally popular form, and continued to television in the early 1960s, when the early civil rights movement finally pushed it into obscurity.[6]

Though the form was old, tired, and as unrelentingly racist on radio as it was at its nineteenth-century beginnings, such radio presentations as ‘Amos and Andy’ became hugely popular.

Beginning in 1925 as a serialized story of various black stereotypes performed by white actors, the show was syndicated to scores of radio stations. ‘Amos and Andy’ became so popular that restaurants had to put the show on speakers to keep customers when it was on the air.

Nothing could compete with it, and the country almost shut down during its weekly broadcast. President Coolidge made plain that he was not to be disturbed during the time it was on the air. That most of the nation listened was a claim so often made that it must be given some credence. The audience grew until the mid-1930s—unprecedented popularity, escapism on a grand, even national, scale.[7]

Amos ‘n’ Andy was the story of two black characters—the modest, pragmatic Amos and the blustery, self-confident Andy— created by two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. Collection: National Radio Hall Of Fame

Amos ‘n’ Andy was the story of two black characters—the modest, pragmatic Amos and the blustery, self-confident Andy— created by two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. Collection: National Radio Hall Of Fame


Blackface comedy was not the only older form of entertainment form adopted by radio. Sopranos and other classical vocalists, violinists and orchestras, pianists, and poetry reading were heard. At first, virtually all performance was live. Early radio avoided recordings, seeing the recording industry as competition; likewise, some recording companies did not allow the use of their recordings on radio.

At first, stations were on the air for limited periods. As it became evident that people would listen all day, however, stations scrambled to find programming to fill the hours. Exactly when and where older, rural forms of music took to the air is disputed, but it had certainly happened by 1922. Atlanta’s WSB put Fiddlin’ John Carson on the radio that year, and other fiddlers and singers of traditional American musical forms were soon heard on stations across the country.[8]

Consumers of the arts are often interested in the context in which the arts arise, and this is especially true of folk arts. The intensity of a typical sports fan’s interest in where an important athlete was reared cannot compare with the importance the devotee of fiddle music places on the background of a great fiddler. If, as with folk art, the art arises in a community and reflects it, the audience craves to know that community.

This was as true of early radio fans as of other audiences, and the producers made much of the origins of the performers of older music forms. An interest in the ‘other world’ qualities of the Southern Appalachians had been growing for more than a half-century before radio became a craze. This interest seems to have had origins in the North at the time of the Civil War, when major portions of the mountain South opposed the Confederacy and sent many thousands of ‘Mountain Yankee’ troops into Union armies. President Lincoln praised these loyal citizens, and after the war this national interest was fed by the fundraising appeals of home missionaries and local-color writers.



[1] Tipton “Tip” Madron, interview with the author, Christmas Day 1961. “Uncle Tip” had the first radio, automobile, bathroom, electricity, telephone, and refrigerator in Trade, TN, a community 11 miles from the Blue Ridge summit, as the crow flies.

[2] Tom Lewis, ‘Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (New York: Harper-Collins, 1993). This is by far the best analysis and the best narrative I have read that is concerned with early radio, its makers, and its amazing effects.

[3] H. L. Mencken, ‘Dempsey vs. Carpentier,’ New York World and Baltimore Sun, July 3, 1921. Mencken initially ignored the broadcast, but took note of it later when this piece was reprinted in such collections as ‘A Mencken Chrestomathy’ (New York: Knopf, 1949).

[4] Bill C. Malone, ‘Country Music, USA’ 2nd ed. (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1985). First published in 1968, this is a good introduction to country music and how it evolved from folk musics, although even the second edition incorporates a number of small errors involving names and locations.

[5] Lewis, ‘Empire of the Air.’

[6] There are several books concerned with the history of the minstrel business. The best known is Robert C. Toll’s ‘Blacking Up’ (New York: Oxford, 1974). But Toll is a fan, and his work is as much apology as analysis. Nathan provides a great deal about the massive business and how it grew, but relatively little about where it came from and why. The role of free northern blacks in creating material and models for the form has been ignored until recently. Howard and Judy Sacks’ book about Ohio’s Snowden family, ‘Way Up North in Dixie,’ (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press, 1993), will help fill this gap.

[7] Lewis, ‘Empire of the Air.’

[8] ‘Atlanta Journal,’ September 10, 1922. WSB is called a ‘radiophone,’ and there is an individual photo of Carson along with a band photograph. This is reproduced in Gene Wiggins’ ‘Fiddling Georgia Crazy,’ (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1987). This excellent biography is another good offering in the ‘Music in American Life’ series of the University of Illinois.



The more they dug, the more money piled up

Posted by | March 26, 2015

Hoard Of Ancient Coins Found Near Madisonville

Maryville Times, Monday, July 11, 1927

(By Mrs. Robert Magill in Chattanooga Times)

MADISONVILLE, Tenn—Just imagine how it must feel to be hoeing cotton with a long, hard day in prospect, and all at once begin to dig up clinking coins—and the deeper you dug the more coins rolled out. It sounds like one of [Robert Louis] Stevenson’s stories; but such was the experience of Eva Watson and her sister, Edith Watson, and their cousin, Bertha Mae Torbett, who, together with their brothers, were hoeing cotton on the farm of Ransom Watson, formerly the Joe Torbett farm near here last week.

The girls were working on a hillside in sandy land which had been cultivated this year for the first time. The “new ground” had been cleared about two years ago. The girls had gone to work early and had been working about an hour when Eva Watson saw something round as she was digging up some dirt around a cotton hill.

Ferdinand VII coin

One of the types of coins discovered in the buried cache. Obverse: The Latin inscription is FERDIN(ANDUS) VII DEI GRATIA 1821 – “Ferdinand VII, by the Grace of God, 1821.” Reverse: The Latin inscription is HISPAN(IARUM) ET IND(IARUM) REX M(EXICO) 8 R(EALES) — “King of the Spains and of the Indies, Mexico City Mint, 8 Reales.”

Her first thought, she said, was that someone had lost some money. She stopped to pick it up and began to scratch in the dirt, looking for more coins. The other girls came running at her call and began to dig. The more they dug, the more money piled up. By this time the boys had noticed the excitement and arrived on the scene.

Edwin Torbett, with his hands filled with coins, ran to the place where his father, Joe Torbett, and Sam Watson, were plowing in the same field. Mr. Torbett and Mr. Watson said when they reached the place where the money was found it looked very much like a flock of hens had been turned out on the hillside. The cotton crop near the scene was not spared, and now no cotton grows near the place.

It is needless to say that work on the farm was suspended for most of the day.

The girls said that when they found the coins, part of them were stacked together. There was no box, pot or any sign of anything in which the money had been hidden. Possibly it had been hidden near a stump and the stump decayed. It was all found within a radius of a few feet.

All the money was unusually well preserved, considering its age. As it was dug up it was not dark as might be expected; but appeared as though it had just been dropped in the sand. Soon after the money was found it was brought to the Bank of Madisonville and the bank soon filled with people to see it. It has since been on display there.

Among the coins found were some of the first ever to be coined in America. The first money was coined in 1792, and a 50 cent piece found was dated 1795. An American dollar was dated 1797. There was also a Spanish dollar with the words “Dei Gratia Ferdin VII,” dated 1797. This is the size of an American dollar.

There were four Spanish coins the size of the American dime or a little larger, which had the words “Dei Gratia Carelus III.” Three of these were dated 1780 and one 1807. Another Spanish dollar had the words “Dei Gratia Carelus III,” dated 1797. There was also some Mexican money.

Beginning in 1806, there were 50 cent pieces representing every year but three up to 1831. This was the latest dated coin found. There were eight 1824 50 cent pieces, the same number of 1829, and five of 1807, 1818, 1825, 1826, respectively. In all there were eighty-four 50 cent pieces.

The quarters, numbering twelve, were dated from 1805 on up to 1825. Five of the earlier coins have holes in them. The half-dollars had the words “Fifty-Cents” on the edge. The coins found at first amounted to more than $50, and some have been found since. The value, of course, depends on the premium on them. The good condition of the coins makes them more valuable; none of them being worn except those with holes in them.

The Old Federal Road in eastern Tennessee

Map of the Old Federal Road, showing Madisonville, TN, location of coin find.

Was the $50, a small fortune in early days, the property of an Indian or some one who lived in the community? These questions have perplexed the neighbors since the finding of the money. Some believe that it had been hidden by the Indians as it was near the trail of the Cherokees.

The trail which led from the Cherokee settlement in this county to the settlement of the same tribe in the Sevier County, followed approximately what is known as the Old Federal Road. The trail, it is said, led near the place where the coins were found, to the Indian town of Tellequah, now known as Tellico Plains.

This was a rendezvous and camping ground for the Cherokees when they were masters of this domain. Here the great chiefs called their clans together in councils of war. Here they planned their battles and their hunts, here they built their mounds and buried their dead. It is thought that when the town of Tellequah was destroyed, some Indians hid the money near the old trail.

This might account for the holes in the small pieces, as it was the custom of the Indians to wear money around their necks. It is said that the hills nearby were burned off and used by the Indians to observe the approach of the enemy.

During the Civil War, Sherman’s men camped near the place where the money was found and some think it belonged to some of his men. But others think that because the latest dated coin was 1831, that it was buried long before the Civil War.

The story is told by some in the community of an old Indian coming to a house nearby and telling the people that some money was hidden “beneath a stooping hickory” on the hill. It was said that he hunted several days for the money and never found it. He died soon afterwards, it was said.

The story which is more likely to be true is that “Uncle Husey” Torbett, who lived near the place where the money was found, hid it. Mr. Torbett, the great grandfather of the children who found the coins, lived some little distance from the hill of treasure. It was on what was once his farm that the money was found. He lived on what was known as the Old Federal Road, cut in 1812. He owned a large farm but did not work on it, working at Coker Creek.

Placer mining with primitive methods was used at Coker Creek up to the beginning of the Civil War. Mr. Torbett was in the War of 1812. It is supposed that there was where he got the Spanish and Mexican money. He was an old man at the beginning of the Civil War. As there were no banks in those days the people had to hide their money anywhere they could.

The Indians were also here, and the people did not know at what time there would be an outbreak among them. It was said that Mr. Torbett had more money than anyone in the community where he lived. Old residents recall the story among the neighbors of how “Uncle Huse” had lots of money when the war broke out and that he was told to hide it.

Where he put it remained a secret. One day he had been working at Coker Creek and came home ill. He died that day or the next. His sudden death is explained by some as being the reason he never disclosed where his money was hidden.

The old house on the farm of Ransom Watson, near here on the Old Federal Road, is said by old residents to be the oldest house in this section. It was built by “Uncle Huse” more than 130 years ago. Until recently it has belonged to the Torbetts.

The building of logs is situated on a slight rise overlooking the Old Federal Road. The house itself and the farm are rife with historic interest. During the Civil War the old house was used as headquarters for Sherman’s staff. The army camped not far from the house.




There is no suspicion that he desired to commit suicide

Posted by | March 25, 2015

Moseley’s Administrator v. Black Diamond Coal & Mining Co.
Appeal from Muhlenberg Circuit Court filed April 16, 1908
Opinion of the court by Judge Carroll, reversing.

James Moseley was employed as night fireman and engineer by the Black Diamond Coal & Mining Company. The engine room was situated some sixty feet from the mouth of a shaft sunk from the top of the ground to the coal stratum, about one hundred feet below the surface.

The opening of this shaft on the surface of the ground was sixteen by sixteen feet. It was divided into two compartments, in each of which was a cage or elevator used for hoisting and lowering the employees and material from and into the mines. When a person in the bottom of the shaft desired the elevator to be lowered or hoisted, he could notify the engineer by blowing a whistle which could be heard by the engineer.

Moseley was not the regular engineer or fireman, and was only temporarily in charge of the engine on the night he met his death. On that night, a party of young people had gone down into the mine, in company with Tilden Bridges, who was one of the bosses.

After the party went down into the shaft, the regular engineer went off duty, leaving Moseley alone in charge of the engine. A short time after this, Bridges, who was at the bottom of the shaft, blew the whistle to notify the engineer to hoist the elevator, and at this moment, or immediately afterwards, Moseley fell into the shaft from the top, landing in the bottom, fatally injured. He never recovered consciousness.

winding engine room and mine elevatorPostcard showing Coil Coal Company Mine, Madisonville, KY. Early 20th century, no date. The engine room, or ‘engine,’ is far right. The vertical shaft elevator structure leading down to the mine is on the left.

In this action by his personal representative to recover damages for his death, the trial judge, at the conclusion of the evidence for the appellant [Moseley’s representative], directed the jury to return a verdict for the appellee [Black Diamond.] The correctness of this ruling depends upon the question whether or not there was any evidence to show that Moseley’s death was caused by the negligence or carelessness of the company.

The opening in the shaft was enclosed by a fence, and it is not probable or reasonable that the deceased, who was in his right mind and a sensible man, would have climbed a fence and deliberately precipitated himself into a hole one hundred feet deep. There is no suspicion in the record that Moseley desired to commit suicide, or that he was laboring under any mental disease; and the only reasonable explanation of the manner in which he came to his death is that he walked through the open gate and fell into the open shaft.

Section 2731 of the Kentucky Statutes provides in part: “And at every mine operated by a shaft there shall be provided an approved safety catch, and a sufficient cover overhead on all cages used for lowering and hoisting persons.”

[Black Diamond] partially complied with this statute by enclosing the opening or mouth of the shaft with a fence, provided with gates, through which persons desiring to go in or come out of the shaft might enter, but there was evidence tending to show that the gates were constantly left open, and could not be closed on account of coal and other material that had accumulated and was allowed to remain about the gates. To provide a gate and then permit it to be and remain in such a condition, for any cause, that it can not be closed, is the same as if no gate had been provided.

The argument is made in behalf of the company that, although it may have been negligent in this respect does not render it liable in damages for the death of Moseley, because his duties as engineer and fireman did not require him to leave the engine room, or go to the shaft.

It is said that, in going to the shaft, he was not in the performance of any duty owing to the company, or acting within the scope of his employment. That if he had remained at the place where his duties required him to be, he would not have fallen into the shaft or have been injured.

Moseley’s duties as engineer and fireman placed him in charge of all the machinery connected with the lowering and hoisting of the elevators by the engine. It was as much a part of his duties to see that the pulleys and cables attached to the elevators were in working order and good condition, as it was to see that the machinery directly attached to the engine was in proper condition.

It can not be said that his duties were confined exclusively to the engine house, or that he had no right to go about the shaft where the elevators operated by the engine were located. He was not a trespasser, but was rightfully on the premises.

Nor, in view of the darkness of the night and the failure to have the premises lighted, can it be said that the shaft into which Moseley fell was so obviously dangerous, or the hazard in going about it so apparent, that a person of ordinary prudence would not incur risk.

We are of the opinion that there was evidence sufficient to authorize a submission of the case to a jury, and the judgment is reversed, with directions to grant a new trial.

Source: The Kentucky Law Reporter, by Kentucky Court of Appeals, Vol 33 No 8, pp. 110-13, Published by G. A. Lewis, 1908


The Long Trail of Shortia, part 2 of 2

Posted by | March 24, 2015

The Long Trail of Shortia, by Charles Elliott, appeared originally in Horticulture Magazine, August 2001

(continued from yesterday)…

In the autumn of 1886, Charles Sprague Sargent, founder of the Arnold Arboretum and by then America’s most distinguished dendrologist, journeyed to the corner where Georgia, North and South Carolina come together. This mountain region, about 75 miles southwest of the point where George Hyams found shortia, was well outside the previous search range.

Charles Sprague Sargent,  charcoal by John Singer Sargent, 1920.

Charles Sprague Sargent, charcoal by John Singer Sargent, 1920.

Sargent was trying to discover something of the origins of a magnolia whose roots Michaux had collected here in December of 1788. As it turned out, there had been a confusion of names and Sargent’s magnolia venture came to nothing, but in examining Michaux’s journal for that period he noticed something else.

On the day the explorer arrived in the mountains, hungry and cold and suffering from high fever – he had made note of a “Nouvel Arbuste a.f. denteles rampant sur la Montange” (“New shrub with denticulate [minutely notched] leaves flourishing on the mountain”). He apparently collected samples, but said not more about it.

Michaux’s directions to the point where he had camped were so detailed that Sargent was able to follow them easily, and to trace the excursions the plant hunter had made. At the junction of two “torrents,” the Toxoway and the Horse pasture, in a “little fertile plain,” Sargent discovered shortia.

This was almost certainly the source of the plant Gray had come upon in the herbarium in Paris. Many more were later found in the general area (including Oconee County, SC, whence its common name), although because of dam and road building, aggressive collecting and incursions of civilization in the form of farms and second homes, they have once again become rare in the wild.

Why Michaux called it a shrub remains a mystery – shortia is without question an herbaceous perennial, though no doubt it doesn’t show its best face in December. But why Asa Gray termed it “perhaps the most interesting plant in North America” may possibly be answered. This has little to do with its beauty (modest) or its elusiveness (legendary), but rather with the role shortia played in the greatest scientific drama of the 19th century: the debate over Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species.’

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882). At the age of 51, Charles Darwin had just published 'On the Origin of Species.'

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882). At the age of 51, Charles Darwin had just published 'On the Origin of Species.'

In the years before Darwin published his epochal work, Asa Gray had been one of his primary correspondents, supplying him with information and exploring aspects of plant distribution and other key subjects on which Darwin’s thesis would depend. He was one of the very few people to whom Darwin revealed himself, and a man whose own adventurousness in building large ideas out of an infinity of close observations could match Darwin’s own.

In time, though the two of them were far too strong-minded and individual to align their opinions perfectly, Gray would become Darwin’s principal American supporter and spokesman, at the same time doing much to create a modern scientific establishment in the United States.

In 1858, Gray was examining a group of specimens from Japan brought back by Commodore Perry’s expedition. For a long time – indeed, from the time the first collectors had begun sending samples of Japanese species to Europe and America – botanists had been aware of an odd fact: certain plants could be found in Japan and in the eastern United States but nowhere else.

With this flood of new material, the connection appeared even stronger. Now, suddenly, Gray recognized something familiar: a plant almost identical to his own shortia galacifolia. It had been resoundingly named schizocodon uniflorus by a Russian botanist (the Japanese called it iwa-uchiwa, or “crag fan,” from the shape of its leaves), but it was without question a shortia (and would eventually go by that name too).

Japanese relative of Shortia galacifolia, originally named Schizocodon uniflorus by a Russian botanist, later recategorized as Shortia Uniflora. The Japanese called it iwa-uchiwa, or “crag fan,” from the shape of its leaves.

Japanese relative of shortia galacifolia, originally named xchizocodon uniflorus by a Russian botanist, later recategorized as shortia uniflora. The Japanese called it iwa-uchiwa, or “crag fan,” from the shape of its leaves.

But how was one to account for this peculiar identity between two so widely separated flora, marooned on opposite sides of the world? Given the still primitive level of understanding about geological history at the time – Gray’s explanation of the connection was brilliant.

He concluded that during the last ice age, the spread of glaciers had forced plant species common to the entire North Temperate Zone of American and Asia to retreat southwards, and only where there was room for them to shelter in agreeable surroundings (as in Japan and the eastern United States) did they survive.

When the glaciers melted back, changed conditions made it impossible for many species – including shortia – to follow, and they were left isolated. Gray’s thesis fit beautifully into Darwin’s grander argument, and helped support it. Many plants, from pachysandra to magnolias, had been used to illustrate the Japan-America link.

But shortia, still at that date blooming unseen in the Carolina mountains, already represented something special to Asa Gray. It must have fascinated him more than ever, maybe even enough to make him call it “perhaps the most interesting plant in North America.”

Editor’s note: A big thanks goes out to Tammy DeLauter Fletcher, who took the time to point out to me Andre Michaux’s contributions to botany and to Appalachia.


The Long Trail of Shortia, part 1 of 2

Posted by | March 23, 2015

The Long Trail of Shortia, by Charles Elliott, appeared originally in Horticulture Magazine, August 2001

It doesn’t sound like much, really. “A charming, small, but not easily grown evergreen perennial for the experienced plantsman,” is all that one standard handbook can manage to say on its behalf. But to the great American botanist Asa Gray (1810- 1888), Shortia galacifolia – otherwise known as Oconee bells or little coltsfoot – was “perhaps the most interesting plant in North America.” What could have possessed him?

This photo of shortia galacifolia was taken March 20, 2011 at Devils Fork State Park, SC, very near where French botanist Andre Michaux first discovered it.  His diary entry of the discovery reads: "The roads became more difficult as we approached the headwaters of the Keowee (spelled Kiwi by Michaux) on the 8th of December, 1788.... Two miles before arriving there I recognized the ‘Magnolia montana’ which has been named ‘M cordata’ or ‘aunculata’ by Bartram. There was in this place a little cabin inhabited by a family of Cherokee Indians. We stopped there to camp and I ran off to make some investigations. I gathered a new low woody plant with saw-toothed leaves creeping on the mountain at a short distance from the river."

This photo of shortia galacifolia was taken in late March 2011 at Devils Fork State Park, SC, very near where French botanist Andre Michaux first discovered it. His diary entry of the discovery reads: "The roads became more difficult as we approached the headwaters of the Keowee (spelled Kiwi by Michaux) on the 8th of December, 1788.... Two miles before arriving there I recognized the ‘Magnolia montana’ which has been named ‘M cordata’ or ‘aunculata’ by Bartram. There was in this place a little cabin inhabited by a family of Cherokee Indians. We stopped there to camp and I ran off to make some investigations. I gathered a new low woody plant with saw-toothed leaves creeping on the mountain at a short distance from the river."

The story is a curious one, involving three continents, numerous frustrated plant hunters, and Charles Darwin himself. It starts back in the 18th century with the French botanical explorer and sometime spy Andre Michaux (1746-1802?).

Commissioned to scavenge the back country of the brand new United States in the search of native trees that might help restore France’s decimated timber stock, Michaux traveled thousands of difficult miles between 1785 and 1792 collecting plants.

In all, he rode, walked, or paddled through three quarters of the states and territories east of the Mississippi (as well as Quebec and the Bahamas), suffering hardships that can only be guessed at from the laconic entries in his surviving journals.

His most frequent complaint, in fact, is that his horses keep straying at night and take hours to find again. Michaux’s favorite collecting area was the Carolinas and Georgia, partly because from 1786 on he made Charleston, SC his base. Again and again he trekked northwards across the Carolina Piedmont to scour the high mountains east of what is now Asheville, NC: Roan Mountain, Grandfather Mountain, and others.

He also went into the Smokies and to the headwaters of the Savannah River. And somewhere in this country he found and preserved a specimen of a plant new to him. It was incomplete, consisting only of leaves, stem, and a single fruit. Along with his many other more impressive discoveries, the specimen eventually found a place in the Musee National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, identified only by a location tag reading “Hautes montagnes de Carolinie.”

Michaux's original shortia specimen, with notations.

Michaux's original shortia specimen, with notations.

Now we move on to 1839. Young Asa Gray was traveling in Europe, ostensibly buying scientific books for the fledgling University of Michigan, but in fact indulging his first love by meeting botanists and investigating herbaria. In the Michaux Herbarium he came upon the still unclassified plant from Carolina and realized with excitement that it represented a new genus. The find also suggested that the Carolina mountains were an area ripe for botanical explorations.

But the mysterious plant proved to be elusive. In 1841 Gray made the first of several trips into the region, despite warnings from an acquaintance that “you will be obliged to put up with accommodations on the way, such as you have never dreamed of,” while letters of recommendation to locals wouldn’t be needed, because “I doubt if they can read.”

In any case, Gray couldn’t find the plant, search as he would through the rhododendron-choked valleys and along the rocky cliffs. In 1842, however, he ventured to publish with his colleague John Torrey, a description based on the sketchy material in Paris. Having claimed “the right of discoverer” to name it, he called it Shortia galacifolia after Dr. A. W. Short, a well-known Kentucky amateur botanist.

Shortia became a kind of Holy Grail for collectors. In the words of Charles Sprague Sargent (whose own involvement in the story comes a bit later), “the keenest-eyed plant hunters looked for it in vain year after year in all the region in which Michaux was supposed to have traveled.”

Not until 1877 was it found, and then in the wrong place – not the high mountains at all, but on the banks of the Catawba River near Marion, NC. A teenage boy named George Hyams gave it to his father, a professed herbalist, who didn’t realize what a precious thing he had for more than a year.

Gray was delighted (“Now let me sing my nunc dimittis,” he wrote); with complete specimens in hand he could confirm and refine his description.

Asa Gray in 1864.

Asa Gray in 1864.

In 1879 he went with his wife on a pilgrimage to North Carolina so that he could see the sacred spot for himself. The fate of the Catawba shortia was less happy; poachers dug up every plant they could find for sale at high prices. Attempts at garden use came to nothing, and the plant’s rapid extinction appeared inevitable.

But was this the only place shortia cold be found? Gray continued to have faith in Michaux’s accuracy. If Michaux said the plant had come from the high mountains, then that’s where it came from. The Catawba specimens must be a separate group, perhaps washed down from the mountains immediately to the west. Searchers proceeded to cover those slopes with great care. Nothing. Shortia seemed doomed to be lost yet again.

(continued tomorrow)…

Editor’s note: A big thanks goes out to Tammy DeLauter Fletcher, who took the time to point out to me Andre Michaux’s contributions to botany and to Appalachia.

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