Two Empty Spaces in Cap Smith’s Little Boy’s Heart

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 23, 2015

shirley noes swieszPlease welcome guest author Shirley Noe Swiesz. Swiesz grew up in southeastern Kentucky knowing she wanted to be a writer; however, raising children and moving around with a military husband did not leave much time. She wrote her first book, Coal Dust, when she was forty nine years old. Her weekly column ‘Quilt Pieces’ appears in Harlan County’s The Tri-City News, and her new book A Great Heart, featuring stories surrounding Mary Breckenridge’s midwives/nurses and the people they served, is being published shortly by iUniverse.


I think that most of us mountain kids were not afraid of much of anything except the occasional haint or two. I am sure you all remember Bert Vincent? Well, once he wrote about a teenager whose friends dared her to go to a graveyard after dark. She was supposed to stick a fork in a grave to show that she had been there.

Well, you know we wore those full skirts back then, probably made out of feed sacks, and this girl squatted down in her pretty skirt and stuck the fork into the grave. She was a brave girl…but that fork went into her skirt and when she got up it felt like someone was pulling her into the grave. Ole Bert swore that she had a heart attack and died.

Now ole Bert was a writer and that bunch tend to stretch the truth about as far as it will go, so I have no idea if this story is true or not! My dad loved to read Bert Vincent’s stories. I can see him now, laughing to himself when he read some of Bert’s tales.

Those of you who don’t know Bert and never heard of him, he was a columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel back when I was growing up. We couldn’t afford a paper so Corrine and Ralph Price gave us theirs after they were finished reading it and Daddy would read it word for word, beginning with Ole Bert.

Bert Vincent. Photo courtesy the author.

Bert Vincent. Photo courtesy the author.

Sam Lewis lent me his book called the Best Stories of Bert Vincent, Sage of the Smokies. It was illustrated by Bill Dyer. Now ole Bert was born in to a family of educators at Bee Springs, Kentucky in 1896. He got a college education and went to work as a newspaperman for the sole purpose of someday becoming a governor.

But I am getting ahead of myself. He taught school for a while but he quit, for he said the students were picking up Vincent habits of cussin’ and chewin’ tobacco. He worked for such newspapers as The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch but eventually returned to the Appalachian Mountains.

At the time of the printing of his book in 1968 he had worked 35 years as a columnist doing his popular ‘Strolling with Bert Vincent’. He started the Cosby Ramp Festival which Harry S. Truman once visited. He solicited funds to build a chapel for people at a ‘poor farm.’ His humanitarianism brought him many awards; his literary talents brought him honorary college degrees. An anonymous friend once said about him, ‘Bert Vincent has religion and doesn’t know it!’ But my words for him are, ‘he was a character!’

A few years ago a man said that he picked up a stranger hitch hiking over around Whitesburg, making his way toward Harlan. ‘He was higher than a kite,’ or perhaps he said, ‘he was drunker than a skunk’…I can’t quite remember exactly how the man said it. Anyway the inebriated man told him his name was Bert Vincent.

I have heard that old Bert liked ‘shine along with tobaccy and cussin. He was a true mountaineer who liked to sit on sacks of grain beside the old men who hovered around a stove at the local store and listen to them tell their stories, trying to outbest one another. He was loved by housewives and adored by children, for he offered homes for pets in his column and was liberal with his compliments to the ladies. I think he only did one book.

I guess my Ole Cap Smith story reminds me of Bert’s stories. The idea of Ole Cap just sort of grew on me after I met an old man who had gone to work in the mines when he was seven years old.

And so, Ole Cap began working in the coal mines that same age. He is sort of a combination of those young children who knew little except hard work and the loss of their childhood either in the coal fields or the logging woods.

Ole Cap was raised right near two big mountains in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky, the Big Black on one side and the Pine Mountain on the other. His Pap got kind of weary of working the poor, tired land and moved his family to a coal camp.

Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, Macdonald, W. Va. Boy had to stoop on account of low roof, photo taken more than a mile inside the mine. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908. National Child Labor Committee Collection /Library of Congress

Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, Macdonald, W. Va. Boy had to stoop on account of low roof, photo taken more than a mile inside the mine. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908. National Child Labor Committee Collection /Library of Congress

Now, I realize that Ole Cap Smith’s story is difficult to read, but after trying to use the words of today, or as we called them ‘proper words,’ it just wasn’t the same. The words they used then, and many still use today, are a version of words brought over from Scotland and Ireland by the first settlers. They got all turned and twisted throughout the years, but we are different and I wanted to bring out that difference. We are a unique people and I hope that all of you stand up tall and proud when you say you are from Harlan County, Kentucky.

Cap Smith’s Story:

“Sissy war th oldest gal an we jest got ta calling her Sissy an hit stuck. She was as beautiful as one o th Lady Slipper flowers thet a body would run acrost in th mountains an as rare. She had allus had a wild streak in her an she wanted real bad ta git away from th mountains. Truth be tolt she hated th mountains an th unending poverty. She had a way o makin fun o th people right in front o them an they didn’t seem ta understand hit. She allus tolt me thet she didn’t feel like she belonged around har.”

“Mam allus had control o her when she war alive but adder Mam died, there war nothing ta do but let her have her way. Thar war times thet Pap stropped her with th leather shavin strop but she didn’t shed a tear. She would stand thar an glare at him with hatred in her eyes.

She war a right good worker an she could make a biscuit as good as Mam’s eny day. And Lordy how thet gal could sang. At least some o us allus went ta church an she would allus sang. Iffen someone war sick, th rest o us would go an thet war about ever Sunday. Hit war usually us younguns fer Pap war allus sick on Sunday’s adder Mam died. I hate ta admit hit but Pap hit th ‘shine right steady adder Mam was gone.

Nobody could hardly blame him. He worked long hard hours in the coal mine an then he come home ta a bunch a younguns. The womern who war keepin the new babe finally got hit on a bottle an Pa wanted ta brang hit home. Sissy got real upsot.

“I can’t take keer o another younun, pap!” She tolt him.

“Ye’ll do as I say gal!” He tolt her an got th strop.

Mam never let Pap use th strop on us. Pap war becoming a right mean drunk. None o us hed ever seed this side o him. I war scart when he staggered ta work with me at his side. He had them little packets of sin-sin thet he would use ta kiver th booze on his breathe.”

“Sissy war no more than a kid herself but she war havin ta take keer o us all an I saw tears stream down her cheek when th babe war brought home. First time I ever saw her cry. She hadn’t even cried when Mam died.

The babe, hit war a purty little thang an Sissy fell in love with hit, but th drudgery o th work got ta her. Three months adder Mam died, Sissy left us. Thar war a drummer (salesman) who follered her around a lot an she complained ta Pap thet he made her feel uneasy like.

“Did ye do somethang ta make him thank ye war interested in him?” Pap ast her in a frightening way.

“No, Pap! He is a horrible man! I hate him! I hate this place!”

Pap got th strop agin.

“Thet night she left us. Pap looked ever where he could but no sign o her. She seemed ta have disappeared inta thin air. Aunt Versie allowed she would stay with th younuns fer awhile an she moved in with us. Aunt Versie war no kin ta us but she loved people an she loved ta hep. She had been hepin out some other folk er she woulda hepped sooner, she told Pap.

“Hit be too hard on thet pretty young girl ta take keer o all them younuns an clean an wash an do a growed womern’s work.”

Pap reckoned hit war. Sissy would have smiled at hearin Aunt Versie defend her thet way, fer th old womern hed often been at th stingin end o Sissy’s remarks.

“Th drummer left th same night thet Sissy did so everybody thought she went with him. I didn’t though. Sissy hadn’t took a thang with her, not even a pair o shoes. She would never have left with somebody without her shoes, sich as they were.

“Somethang’s ahappened ta her, Pap,” I kept sayin.

He allus said th same thang.

“She hated this place an she hated takin keer o all them younuns. I guess I didn’t do right by my little girl,” he would say, an I knowed he grieved.

Sometimes I would find him at th graveyard, talkin an acryin ta Mam. Hit jest about broke my heart. Hit got so thet I started ramblin in th mountains looking fer her. I hed this sinkin feelin deep in my soul. My beautiful sister hed ta be dead.

“Hit war nine days adder she left thet she war found on th river bank. She war deader then a door nail, jest like I thought she war. A man war going fishin an come acrost her body, almost in th water. Pap an me hadn’t gone ta th mine yit when th sheriff come ta see us.

“They fount yer little girl,” he tolt Pap. “Hit looks ta me like she war beat ta death. We figgered the drummer did hit but he is long gone now fer shore. I am sorry!”

“The men at th mine built a casket fer her an Aunt Versie an some o th other womern lined hit with a quilt. They brung her home fer thet last night…th pretty young girl who had never lived. The casket war never opened but Pap went ta th company store an bought her a dress. Hit war th prettiest thang you ever did see an all I could thank o war how much she would have loved hit. Hit seemed so pitiful ta me, even though I war a boy an still a kid, thet she hed never hed a thang beautiful when she war alive an then she war dressed in that purty thang.

Th preacher said, “Th good Lord giveth an He taketh away, an ye all need ta git yer sins shet from ye right here an now so ye can meet up with this girl. Ye needs ta git saved right now!’

Well right thar in our little camp house with my sister laid out in th front room Pap give his life ta th Lord. People started singin an shoutin. I war right glad thet Pap got saved an all, but I war rightly grievin over my sister an not only fer her, but my Mam too. I missed them both so much. I cried and cried.

“Pap never did drank enymore adder thet day an fer thet I war thankful, but thar war two empty spaces in my little boy heart. I jest couldn’t fer th life o me figger out why life was so unsartin and painful. I guess ye might say I couldn’t figger out God. Hit took me a long time ta figger Him out, but I guess He had patience.”

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  • […] Two Empty Spaces in Cap Smith’s Little Boy’s Heart. It’s two stories in one posting, with the second written like it has an Appalachian accent. It talks about the strain and hardships of living there, how alcohol can change a person, and how death affects the whole family. It’s a look into the poor. […]

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Looks like the stork is visiting their house again

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 22, 2015

When I was born, I guess everybody just threw up their hands! The night I was born, Hobart went to visit with the neighbors, the Buckles family, across the street. According to Hobart, Mr. Gray Buckles said, “Well, It looks like the stork is visiting Oscar’s house again.” Joe Bush, one of the Buckles’ relatives who was also visiting, responded: “Hell, that ain’t no stork! That’s a duck! The stork’s done worn its legs off!” So, I came into the world with laughter echoing on Carolina Hill.
—from ‘The Flavour of Home: A Southern Appalachian Family Remembers’ by Earlene Rather O’Dell

Earlene O’Dell, born in Bristol, TN, certainly wasn’t the first person in Appalachia to be exposed to the idea that the stork delivers babies. This myth can be found widely throughout US culture. In O’Dell’s case, it’s entirely possible that she could have encountered North America’s only native stork, the wood stork, as a child. The wood stork has a post-breeding summer range that extends from its Gulf Coast wetlands nest areas north to Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

But the physical presence of wood storks hardly explains why ‘stork stories’ are so prevalent in areas of the US where wood storks never venture. The folk tales and beliefs that Appalachia’s German immigrants brought to their new home are a better place to look. The stork’s association with babies seems to have originated in northern Germany centuries ago.

In that country, white storks are known as “Adebar” which translates as “luck-bringer.” And apparently seed bringer, as well; even today pregnant German women are said to have been ‘bitten by the stork.’

Storks nesting on one’s roof means good luck generally, and especially in the form of family happiness. The birds were actively encouraged to nest there. German nursery stories are full of references to the stork delivering babies down a chimney. By contrast, in rural Denmark, it means bad luck if a stork builds a nest on your roof; someone in the house will die before the end of the year.

stork delivering babies, Germany 1890sOne popular German stork tale revolves around the folk legend that the souls of unborn children live in watery areas such as marshes, wells, springs and ponds. Since storks visit such habitats frequently, they were believed to fetch babies’ souls and deliver them to their parents.

White storks are highly migratory, leaving Europe for Africa in the fall. They return to central and northern Europe in late March or early April, and hence are regarded as a herald of spring.

They arrive just about nine months after Midsummer’s Day, June 21, the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. This was a major festival in pagan Europe, a time for weddings and merrymaking well lubricated by fermented beverages.

(After the arrival of Christianity the feast continued to be celebrated as Saint John’s Day; the modern association of June with weddings may also be related to this festival.) The return of storks just as the progeny resulting from summer revels put in their appearance would not have gone unnoted.

Furthermore, storks are monogamous, tend to return to and raise their annual offspring in the same nests, and seem to attach themselves to the same houses or villages year after year.

No surprise, then, that they’ve come to symbolize traditional human ideals of home, family, fertility, faithfulness and constancy.


Sources: The Flavour of Home: A Southern Appalachian Family Remembers, by Earlene Rather O’Dell, The Overmountain Press, 2000
Beacham’s Guide to the Endangered Species of North America, by Walton Beacham et al., Thomson Gale, 2000

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Book Review: “The Secret Wisdom of The Earth”

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 20, 2015

crystal goodPlease welcome guest book reviewer Crystal Good. Good is a writer poet, Affrilachian homecoming queen, TEDx Talker, tunk player, Mom of three, author of “Valley Girl.” She is currently entangled in Charleston, West Virginia. Find her online at and @cgoodwoman


The Secret Wisdom of the Earth started out with a boom boom. My expectations were high for the novel when I read its opening:

“It was always coal……

And then, after they gave their years to the weak light and black sweat,

Coal killed them.

And began again”

The book takes you into a world where Kevin, a 14 year old white boy and his mother, move into the Appalachian town called Medgar. Kevin meets another young white boy and local, Buzzy. Through the narrator, Kevin readers start to uncover the hard facts of the region: prejudice, mountain top removal beside the intimacy and challenges of family. In one chapter, Buzzy takes Kevin to the Telling Cave. In the Telling Cave you tell your truth, you share a secret about yourself.

secret wisdom

Well, here is my truth, my Telling Cave secret: I didn’t enjoy the book.

On the surface, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth looks like a book my personal taste would agree with – its Appalachian characters, environmental themes and coming of age storyline. But, I didn’t.

I don’t know if it’s because I tend to prefer the economy of language, and the dialogue in “Secret” was excessive to me. I found details to be over described. I just don’t understand why a sentence such as “As he defecated, I turned to the travois.” is needed.

I like things edgy and out of the ordinary — for instance, I’m fond of the novels West Virginia native Giancarlo DiTrapino is publishing. This novel, by contrast, felt safe.

Most everything about “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” was predictable to me – the Appalachian plot and characters, the “modern” twist with “diversity” in a gay character, a black family, and the ending. I saw all the plots and turns coming like an Andy Griffith show episode– except for what I’m calling the ‘Ode to Deliverance’ canoe chase. Didn’t see that plot twist coming.

I clomped through “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth”. I trudged to the end. I even scented the pages with “Mental Clarity” essential oil to help me stay focused. It was not an exciting read for me. Sure, it has all the elements of craft, and the author, Christopher Scotten, spent years of his life writing and doing all the things a good writers do to birth a story, but it was a slow, a very slow read for me.

But while I’m telling my truth, I need to tell you why I persisted in the book and why maybe you should too.

I was enchanted by the titles; the titles carried each chapter like a poem! I paused in them and used them to reflect on them across the chapters. The titles were a delightful detail, and so were the little nuggets of what I consider prose poetry preceding certain chapters:

The mountains have their memories.

Rooted in narrow rock, hard set to the crest, fused in the folds and braes where the white water races. Their earliest recollections manifested to primordial, wild and feral, then become tamed with people.

This! Yes. And, the section doesn’t stop there it keeps going with throttle and truth, and there are several of these nuggets. These italicized passages that preceded a few chapters were my favorite sections of the book, and of my reading experience.

I was encouraged to keep reading by thinking about how others might read this story and take an activist stance, how others might see Appalachia and the devastation of mountain top removal, how others might see the region in all its beauty that is both of the land and its people. The book is set in 1985, but mountain top removal is still happening today, right now somewhere in Appalachia.

I was impressed with the way the author crafted the dialect. I thought for an outside writer he did a great job capturing conversation. He wasn’t stereotypical, and this impressed me as an Appalachian and writer. There were plenty of aint’s and messn’ and colloquial phrases, but it wasn’t overdone. It felt natural and genuine – the way people talk. I’m sensitive to these things. I own that. His skill in this area impressed me, especially when infusing dialogue with humor.

When he used humor in the dialect, this is where the author’s understanding of the region stood out to me. Humor is one of my favorite Appalachian traits. Appalachians tend to find humor in most anything but it’s a raspy type of funny, often during the most inappropriate times. Perhaps this is how we survive.

I have a hard time recommending this book; however, John Grisham is recommending the book, and to everybody.

“The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” is a marvelous debut novel by Christopher Scotton. The setting, in the coal country of Appalachia, is rich in history and lore and tragedy. A young teenager comes of age under the wise counsel of his grandfather. An ugly murder haunts a small town. The story has everything a big, thick novel should have, and I hated to put it down. —John Grisham

He likes it and maybe you will too. He’s a famous writer. I’m not.

One thing is for certain: this book asks that we all tell our truths.

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A school for subversives and Communists?

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 19, 2015

How would you like to have attended the same school that Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, and Fanny Lou Hamer all attended?

That would be Highlander Folk School, near Monteagle, TN, for many years the only place in the South where white and African-American adults could live and work together, something that was highly frowned upon in that strictly segregated society. The 1950s brought Highlander to national attention, as civil rights legends and social activists learned the ways of non-violent protest there in the school’s “Citizenship School Program.” Rosa Parks’ participation in a Highlander workshop in the summer of 1955, 5 months before her back of the bus incident, had a crucial influence on her. And during the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott, Highlander co-founder Myles Falls Horton introduced Rosa Parks to Eleanor Roosevelt as “the first lady of the South.”

billboard denouncing Highlander Folk SchoolPolitical enemies angrily erected billboards across the South showing Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks attending an integrated event at the Highlander Folk School in 1957.

But two decades earlier when the school was first begun, poor, uneducated miners learned about self-respect and self-empowerment at the school. In his autobiography, Horton wrote, “We didn’t think of ourselves as working-class, or poor, we just thought of ourselves as being conventional people who didn’t have any money.”

Highlander, Horton once claimed, held the record for sustained civil disobedience, breaking the Tennessee Jim Crow laws every day for over forty years, until the segregation laws were finally repealed.

Horton attended Cumberland College in Tennessee, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and studied Danish folk school models on site before opening the Southern Mountains School, in 1932. A short time later, he and co-director Don West, a Congregational minister from Georgia, changed the name to the Highlander Folk School. At Highlander the purpose of education was to make people more powerful, and more capable in their work and their lives. Horton had what he called a “two-eye” approach to teaching: with one eye he tried to look at people as they were, while with the other he looked at what they might become.

Not everyone was tickled by the Highlander formula. One anonymous Tennessee citizen wrote FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in 1936: “This school is a hot-bed of communism and anarchy. This is proven by the part taken by its members in the strikes at Harriman Tenn., Daisy Tenn. and at the present at Rockwood Tenn.” Hoover promptly opened a file, one that over the years accumulated in excess of 1,000 pages.

For his outspoken support of union, civil rights, and poor people’s organizations, Horton endured arrests, threats, violence, and denunciations from industrialists, politicians, and segregationists.

Finally, in 1961, the state of Tennessee closed the school, revoked its charter, and sold off the assets at auction. During this time, many of the buildings were burned by arsonists. Undaunted, Myles Horton redesignated the folk school as a research center under a new charter and moved from Monteagle to Knoxville, and then to the present location in New Market, Tenn., where it is now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center.

Related posts: “Don West background”

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The shock was so sudden and violent they could not stand it

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 16, 2015

On January 17, 1781, American General Daniel Morgan scored a stunning victory over British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre “Barbarous Ban” Tarleton’s regulars at the Battle of Cowpens, in what is now Cherokee County, SC. This win came at a crucial time for Revolutionary War patriots in the South, who had been repeatedly forced to retreat.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Col. Washington at the Battle of Cowpens

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. ‘Col. Washington at the Battle of Cowpens’.


Private James Collins, a 17-year-old South Carolinian, served in that state’s militia during the campaign in the South. He writes of the day:

“It was not long until it became necessary for us to seek safety by joining Morgan, who was encamped at the Cowpens, but we were not permitted to remain long idle, for Tarleton came on like a thunder storm, which soon put us to our best mettle.

“After the tidings of his approach came into camp–in the night–we were all awakened, ordered under arms, and formed in order of battle by daybreak. About sunrise on the l7th January, 1781, the enemy came into full view. The sight, to me at least, seemed somewhat imposing; they halted for a short time, and then advanced rapidly, as if certain victory.

“The militia under Pickins and Moffitt, was posted on the right of the regulars some distance in advance, while Washington’s cavalry was stationed in the rear. We gave the enemy one fire, when they charged us with their bayonets; we gave way and retreated for our horses, Tarleton’s cavalry pursued us; (“now,” thought I, “my hide is in the loft;”) just as we got to our horses, they overtook us and began to make a few hacks at some, however, without doing much injury.

“They, in their haste, had pretty much scattered, perhaps thinking they would have another Fishing creek frolic, but in a few moments, Col. Washington’s cavalry was among them, like a whirlwind, and the poor fellows began to kneel from their horses, without being able to remount.

“The shock was so sudden and violent, they could not stand it, and immediately betook themselves to flight; there was no time to rally, and they appeared to be as hard to stop as a drove of wild Choctaw steers, going to a Pennsylvania market.

“In a few moments the clashing of swords was out of hearing and quickly out of sight; by this time, both lines of the infantry were warmingly engaged and we being relieved from the pursuit of the enemy began to rally and prepare to redeem our credit, when Morgan rode up in front, and waving his sword, cried out, ‘Form, form, my brave fellows! Give them one more fire and the day is ours. Old Morgan was never beaten.’

“We then advanced briskly, and gained the right flank of the enemy, and they being hard pressed in front, by Howard, and falling very fast, could not stand it long. They began to throw down their arms, and surrender themselves prisoners of war. The whole army, except Tarleton and his horsemen, fell into the hands of Morgan, together with all the baggage.

“After the fight was over, the sight was truly melancholy. The dead on the side of the British, exceeded the number killed at the battle of King’s Mountain, being if I recollect aright, three hundred, or upwards. The loss, on the side of the Americans, was only fifteen or sixteen, and a few slightly wounded.

“This day, I fired my little rifle five times whether with any effect or not, I do not know, Next day after receiving some small share of the plunder, and taking care to get as much powder as we could, we (the militia) were disbanded and returned to our old haunts, where we obtained a few day’s rest.”

— from Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier, by James Collins, Clinton, LA: Feliciana Democrat, 1859


Cowpens, along with the recent battle at King’s Mountain, was a triumph that the Continentals urgently needed to boost their morale, and demoralize the British army and loyalist sympathizers. It was a decisive blow to Britain’s commanding General Cornwallis, who might have defeated much of the remaining resistance in South Carolina had Tarleton won. That cold clear January day was a turning point in the Patriots’ war for independence.


Sources: The Historical Atlas of the American Revolution, by Ian Barnes, Charles Royster, Routledge, 2000

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