James Camak botches surveying the GA/TN border. Twice.

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 13, 2015

James Camak started his career as a professor at University of Georgia, left to make a fortune in banking, and went on to become president of Georgia’s first railroad company, a respected newspaper editor, a professor at University of Georgia (again!), and a Trustee of the college. One thing he was not though, was an accurate surveyor. In 1818, early in his career, he was appointed by the state to help survey the boundary line between Georgia and Tennessee. He botched the job. Twice.

When the State of Tennessee was created by an act of Congress in 1796, the state’s southern boundary (and thus the corresponding northern boundary of Georgia, already a state for eight years) was decreed to be the 35th degree of North latitude. At the time, the western boundary of Georgia was the Mississippi River.

In 1802, partly as a result of political maneuvers following the Yazoo Land Fraud, Georgia gave up all possession of what was then known as the Mississippi Territory (currently the States of Alabama and Mississippi). The Articles of Agreement and Cession described the new western boundary of Georgia to be, in part, “…thence in a direct line to Nickajack, on the Tennessee River; thence crossing the said last mentioned river, and thence…along the western bank thereof to the southern boundary of the State of Tennessee.”

On June 1, 1818, James Camak, who was then teaching mathematics at the University of Georgia in Athens, joined with James Gaines, a mathematician hired by Tennessee, to survey the line between the two states. The survey began at a stone, two feet tall, that supposedly marked the corner of the states of Georgia and Alabama and on the 35th parallel, the southern boundary of the state of Tennessee. The stone was described as being “one mile and twenty-eight poles from the south bank of the Tennessee River, due south from near the center of the old Indian town of Nick jack”.

The accepted method of the day was to calculate one’s position on the surface of the Earth by observing specific heavenly bodies at specific times of day and comparing their positions in the sky with published tables called ephemerides.

The survey results were only as good as the charts being used, as well as the apparatus employed. Camak expressed doubts about his astronomical tables, stating they “were not such as I could have wished them to be”.

To compound that problem, the governor had refused Camak’s requests for a ‘Zenith Sector,’ a state-of-the-art surveying instrument, so they were making do with a nautical sextant. Sextants, being primarily for marine use, only get you close to your destination.

how a Zenith Sector worksThe zenith sector, the tool Camak wanted to use, but didn’t. It pointed straight and directly overhead. A telescope rotated on a pivot and allowed astronomers to measure the zenith distances (the angle between the star and the highest point in the sky) of celestial bodies. This also necessitated aligning the instrument in the meridian (a line through the poles). Since the graduated scale was so low to the ground, the astronomer usually had to lie on his back or a special reclined seat in order to effectively make observations with the zenith sector.

The first session placed them anywhere from 11 miles north to 11 miles south of the target line. Wisely, the group decided to dispense with that particular instrument and all calculations to date. Camak observed for 10 more days and nights, finally to arrive at the conclusion to place the corner stone “…one mile and 7 chains [about 5700 feet] from the Tennessee River and about one quarter of a mile south of Nickajack Cave.”

Only 26 days after they had begun, the survey party ended their task atop Unicoe Mountain, 110 miles east of the point of beginning. On July 13, 1818 Camak, along with appointed representatives of both states, met in Milledgeville, GA to certify the survey as correct.

Eight years later, after new observations for latitude had been taken, Camak ran the line again and discovered his original line was almost one mile south of the true 35th parallel in several places.

He again made ten days of celestial observations. This time, he determined that the northwest corner of Georgia was marked 37.9 chains (about 2500 feet) south of the 35th parallel. So that year, the “Camak Stone” was pulled up and moved north to its current, and still inaccurate, location.

If his original placement had been as accurate as we now could make it using GPS, the State of Georgia would include a section of the Tennessee River and the Nickajack Reservoir.

No one in Georgia seemed to care about the location of the border for more than 70 years. But the rapid growth of the rebuilt Atlanta changed all that. Because of typographical errors in a book of mathematical tabulations and use of the wrong measuring tools, the nearly infinite supply of water in the Tennessee River was not available to the citizens of Georgia. Atlanta depends upon Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River for its water, while the Tennessee River flows just out of reach with 15 times greater flow than the Chattahoochee.

GA/TN/AL tristate border area2007 aerial photo with state borders superimposed shows just how close the Tennesssee River lies to the Georgia border.

Starting in 1887, the Georgia legislature began raising the border issue in the form of resolutions. In 1905, 1915, 1922, 1941, 1947, 1971, and again just last year, the state called for discussions between Tennessee and Georgia to resolve boundary issues.

Each time Tennessee did little or nothing to achieve any change. In 1947 Georgia went so far as to form a borderline committee and authorized it to look into the matter and the Attorney General of Georgia to bring suit to the Supreme Court if the committee could not resolve the dispute. Yet the border remained the same.

The long-held legal principle is simple, says modern day border expert Louis DeVorsey: The decisive fact is not where surveyors meant to draw the line — it’s where people have accepted the line to be over time.

“It’s where people adjusted their lives to,” said the retired University of Georgia geography professor.


Sources: www.amerisurv.com/content/view/4637/153
Savage Historical Surveys at bit.ly/3B72lT

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Mapping the ecology of Appalachia’s hardwood forests

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 10, 2015

Starting in 1925 she logged in nearly 65,000 miles exploring the trees and shrubs of Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Her resulting 1950 book, Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, laid the foundation for the measurement and evaluation of all future ecological changes in the hardwood forest. The book has been reprinted three times already, and is still used for reference today.


Dr. Lucy Braun (1889-1971) was one of the pivotal influences in the developing field of ecology. She contributed mightily to the fields of vascular plant taxonomy, plant geography, plant ecology, and land conservation. Braun expanded on the theory that the southern Appalachians were the center of the survival of plants during the glacial era, and from there the forest communities spread. She was the first ecologist to identify the mixed mesophytic forest as a coherent system.

“I have attempted, first, to portray what is (or was) present in any geographic area and to reconstruct the pattern of original forest insofar as the fragments permit,” said Braun in the preface of her most well known book, “second, to give data on composition and aspect of forest communities in all parts of the deciduous forest; and third, to trace through geologic time the development of the present pattern of forest distribution.

“As the years go by, it becomes increasingly difficult to form any concept of the original forest cover. The virgin forests have been cut, the land is either cleared and farmed or is clothed with second-growth forest which may in no way suggest the original forest. In many sections no single tract of virgin forest remains today.”

Braun’s commitment to conservation led to the eventual preservation of over 10,000 acres in Ohio. Much of this land was carefully studied by Braun and her students at the University of Cincinnati, and the plant life cataloged for posterity.

Lucy Braun spent her entire academic career at that school, starting as an assistant in geology (1910-1913) and progressing to associate professor in botany (1927-1946). An early study compared the plant life of the Cincinnati area in the 1920s and 1930s to plant life in the same area 100 years earlier. This work provided a model for analyzing the changes in a plant system over a specific time period, and was one of the first such studies in the United States.

Photo courtesy Cincinnati Historical Society Library

Photo courtesy Cincinnati Historical Society Library

Braun was made a full professor in plant ecology in 1946. She held the position for only two years, retiring early so she could devote the remainder of her career to research involving field studies. From 1934 to 1963 Braun drove her own car on her field excursions, never shying away from difficult backwoods roads. Her sister accompanied Lucy on her travels; Annette studied moths while Lucy observed plants.

During the 1940s Braun described four species and four varieties of vascular plants, all from Kentucky, and one hybrid, a fern from Adams County, OH, as ‘new to science.’ In 1950 she was named president of the Ecological Society of America.

From 1943 to 1967 Braun published several noteworthy books. An Annotated Catalog of the Spermatophytes of Kentucky appeared in 1943. She published The Woody Plants of Ohio (1961) and The Monocotyledoneae: Cat-tails to Orchids (1967) toward the end of her career.

They were written as part of a project, undertaken by the Ohio Flora Committee of the Ohio Academy of Science, to do a comprehensive study of the vascular flora of Ohio. Braun also edited Wildflower, the journal of the Cincinnati chapter of the Wildflower Preservation Society, which she founded. In all Dr. Braun published more than 180 works.


Sources: Women in the Biological Sciences: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook, by Louise S. Grinstein, Carol A. Biermann, Rose K. Rose, 1997, Greenwood Publishing Group
E. Lucy Braun (1889-1971): Ohio’s Foremost Woman Botanist – Her Studies of Prairies and Their Phytogeographical Relationships, compiled by Ronald L. Stuckey, RLS Creations, Granville, OH, 2001

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Revenuers or spies

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 9, 2015

Kephart: “People up North, and in the lowlands of the South as well, have a notion that there is little or nothing going on in these mountains except feuds and moonshining. They think that a stranger traveling here alone is in danger of being potted by a bullet from almost any laurel thicket that he passes, on mere suspicion that he may be a revenue officer or a spy.

“Of course, that is nonsense; but there is one thing that I’m as ignorant about as any novel-reader of them all. You know my habits; I like to explore–I never take a guide–and when I come to a place that’s particularly wild and primitive, that’s just the place I want to peer into. Now the dubious point is this: Suppose that, one of these days when I’m out hunting, or looking for rare plants, I should stumble upon a moonshine still in full operation–what would happen? What would they do?”

Revenue officers with a captured still on Rich Mountain, NC in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, November 18, 1931. Photographer George A. Grant.

Revenue officers with a captured still on Rich Mountain, NC in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, November 18, 1931. Photographer George A. Grant.


Moonshiner: “Waal, sir, I’ll tell you whut they’d do. They’d fust-place ask you some questions about yourself, and whut you-uns was doin’ in that thar neck o’the woods. Then they’d git you to do some trifflin’ work about the still–feed the furnace, or stir the mash–jest so’s’t they could prove you took a hand in it your own self.”

What good would that do?

“Hit would make you one o’them in the eyes of the law.”

I see. But, really, doesn’t that seem rather childish? I could easily convince any court that I did it under compulsion; for that’s what it would amount to.

“I reckon you-uns would find a United States court purty hard to convince. The judge’d right up and want to know why you let grass go to seed afore you came and informed on them.”

He paused, watched my expression, and then continued quizzically: “I reckon you wouldn’t be in no great hurry to do that.”

“No! Then, if I stirred the mash and sampled their liquor, nobody would be likely to mistreat me?”

“Shucks! Why, man, whut could they gain by hurtin’ you? At the wust s’posin’ they was convicted by your own evidence, they’d only get a month or two in the pen. So why should they murder you and get hung for it? Hit’s all ‘tarnal foolishness, the notions some folks has!”

Horace Kephart (1862–1931). Photo courtesy Western Carolina University, Hunter Library Special Collections.

Horace Kephart (1862–1931). Photo courtesy Western Carolina University, Hunter Library Special Collections.

I thought so. Now, here! The public has been fed all sorts of nonsense about this moonshining business. I’d like to learn the plain truth about it, without bias one way or the other.

I have already learned that a stranger’s life and property are safer here than they would be on the streets of Chicago or of St. Louis. It will do your country good to have that known. But I can’t say that there is no moonshining going on here; for a man with a wooden nose could smell it. Now what is your excuse for defying the law? You don’t seem ashamed of it.

The man’s face turned an angry red.

“Mister, we-uns hain’t no call to be ashamed of ourselves, nor of ary thing we do. We’re poor; but we don’t ax no favors. We stay ‘way up hyar in these coves, and mind our own business. When a stranger comes along, he’s welcome to the best we’ve got, such as t’is; but if he imposes on us, he gits his medicine purty damned quick!”


Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart
(Outing Publishing Company, 1913)


Our+Southern+Highlanders Horace+Kephart moonshining revenuers rich+mountain+nc Great+Smoky+Mountains+National+Park appalachia appalachian+mountains+history

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You hurd of the oald Virginia land grant

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 8, 2015

A Letter written by Isaiah [Zade] Greer, July 8th 1912
Pike County, KY

this badly dun cold & dark, but you can draw it of it is true. we have had some Sickness. Sabra 31 days that she was not On a cheer better now we air about commun for our age We have plenty do doo but wood like to talk to sum north caroline a week so if can’t cum you must write Levi had a bad soor on his neck I think unto death it is 3 inches across.

J.J. Greer past this life on the 3 of February leaves Fanny lonly I must write Lotta We have not saw hir in a long time Tel hir write to Barbra and give all the nuse that she had good and bad We air in sum trubble Phillip you hurd of the oald Virginia land grant that have lawing Pike Co. for 2 months Six Hundred 66 thousand acres all west side of the river but 200 acres is clean seep Tha is more than I cood write in a week so I will close for this time
Isaiah and Barbra Greer fair well.

Virginia Land grants were issued for services rendered to the governor and to the colony. To stimulate colonization, a headright system offered fifty acres to any person who paid his own transportation to Virginia. Any individual or entrepreneur who paid transportation costs for one or more persons could obtain fifty acres per person. Many headrights went unclaimed because of Virginia’s high mortality during the early years of colonization, and some were claimed many years after the headright was awarded.

Surveyor’s chain used to establish horizontal distances along compass sight lines. One link equals .66 feet or 7.92 inches. One chain equals 66 feet or 100 links. An area of 10 square chains is equal to one acre. This early piece of equipment enabled plots to be accurately surveyed and plotted for legal and commercial purposes.

Surveyor’s chain used to establish horizontal distances along compass sight lines. One link equals .66 feet or 7.92 inches. One chain equals 66 feet or 100 links. An area of 10 square chains is equal to one acre. This early piece of equipment enabled plots to be accurately surveyed and plotted for legal and commercial purposes.


The Virginia Act of 1781 granted bounty land to veterans. The individual who received a warrant may have claimed the land himself or may have sold his warrant to someone else. Many Virginia land grants applied to Kentucky County, VA, which later became Kentucky. Approximately 10,000 Virginia Land Grants were filed, the last in June 1792.


Sources: http://files.lib.byu.edu/family-history-library/research-outlines/US/Virginia.pdf


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Howard Finster, master of Paradise Gardens

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 7, 2015

Howard Finster (ca. 1915-2001) described himself as a Stranger from Another World, a Messenger from God, a Man of Visions, a second Noah, and God’s Last Red Light on Planet Earth.

This unlikely candidate for celebrity status on the post-modern art scene became known to millions of people by the end of his life. His paintings, sculptures, constructions, and other works have been shown in prestigious museums and galleries from SoHo to Australia and from Los Angeles to the Venice Biennale.

His grinning visage and eccentric art have appeared in dozens of national magazines and newspapers, on network television, and on the covers of rock albums. Finster was as well known for his winningly folksy, loquacious manner as for his obsessive artistic vision.

Reverend Howard Finster in the 1940s.

The Rev. Howard Finster (in dark suit fourth from left) baptizes the faithful at Mentone, AL, in the early 1940s.

He became something of a guru to thousands of academically trained young artists, ambitious collectors of outsider art, musicians, and others who made the pilgrimage to Pennville to meet him and to visit the two-acre Paradise Garden that he spent fifteen years building in his backyard.

Born in DeKalb County, AL in 1915, Howard was one of thirteen children growing up (and sometimes dying off before they grew up) on a remote forty-acre farm in the shadow of Lookout Mountain. He and his family were humble, self-sufficient country folk — proud people who took care of their own and didn’t pay much attention to what went on outside the territory where they lived and worked.

At the age of three, like a toddling Ezekiel, Howard saw his first vision. Although his parents weren’t regular churchgoers, he was later encouraged by a schoolteacher to attend Christian revival services, and at age thirteen he got saved. Two years later Howard “got called by God to become a preacher.” Armed with only his faith, good intentions, down-home demeanor, and a sixth-grade education, Howard set out to preach the Gospel and “bring the people of Earths Planet back to God before its too late.” In those days he thought of himself simply as a dedicated tenderfoot evangelist from the Alabama hills. It wasn’t until much later that the Lord revealed to him his special mission as a “Stranger from Another World,” sent to earth to save souls through sacred art.

Finster began his preaching career in the 1930s, exhorting sinners to repent and testifying for Jesus from rustic church altars, at tent revivals and river baptisms, and even from atop his automobile on small-town streets. By the time he was in his mid-twenties he had established enough of a reputation on the revival circuit that he “got called” to a regular job at the first of a dozen small rural churches he would pastor over a period of forty years.

For most of his pastoring career, Finster supplemented the meager income his churches provided by traveling the countryside as a roving evangelist, working as a handyman, repairing small engines and bicycles, and holding down jobs in the textile mills. It’s surprising enough that he could find any time away from his demanding schedule and responsibilities of keeping his wife and five children fed, clothed, and sheltered. Even more surprising is what he chose to do with that spare time.

Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens

Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens.


From childhood Finster had been fascinated with making things. As a youngster he delighted in creating miniature architectural environments of sticks, stones, and anything else he could find. Long before leaving the family farm he set up a makeshift woodworking shop to produce ornamental wooden bottles and jugs. Then, in the late 1940s, when he was raising children and preaching regularly, he returned to building small-scale architectural environments.

Around this time, Finster began work on his first “garden” in the small yard behind the house and grocery store he had recently built in the little community of Trion, GA. This environmental work–which its creator called a “museum park” in those days–consisted of several miniature and full-scale buildings, an eight-foot-tall Christian cross made of bricks and cement, various hand-lettered signs, a wading pool and duck pond, and an “exhibit house,” which served as home for sixty pet pigeons as well as for a constantly expanding display of castoff items intended to “represent the inventions of mankind.” The latter apparently encompassed virtually every tool and product known to humankind.

After putting more than a decade of work into the garden, Finster began looking for a new and larger location for his “museum park.” Frustrated by his inability to acquire adjoining land for his ambitious roadside attraction and by the fact that the new highway through Trion had unexpectedly bypassed his place, he bought and renovated an old house in the unincorporated community of Pennville, just south of Trion.

Oil on wood paneling, after 1970. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr.

Oil on wood paneling, after 1970. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr.


He moved his family there and started filling in the swamp that composed most of his new backyard. It was here, in the early 1960s, that Finster began work on the second, expanded version of his visionary outdoor museum–an idiosyncratic realm that came to consist of makeshift monuments, found-object constructions and displays, bottle houses, and hand-painted religious signs, interspersed with narrow streams and pools of channeled swamp-water and a wide assortment of flowering and fruit-bearing plants. Originally bestowed by its creator with the name “Plant Farm Museum,” this outrageous environmental work came to be popularly known as “Paradise Garden,” and as it grew more elaborate in the 1970s, it began to attract attention from the world outside northwestern Georgia and northeastern Alabama.


excerpt from Howard Finster, Stranger from Another World, by Howard Finster & Tom Patterson, Abbeville Press, New York, 1989

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  • Denise Olson says:

    I enjoyed your article on the amazing Howard Finster. My mother’s family has lived in that part of Georgia for generations and summer vacations almost always included a visit to his Paradise Garden – although that was not what we used to refer to it.

    I haven’t been there in ages, but I hear from others that the garden has suffered since his death. I’d rather remember the place as it was so I doubt I’ll ever visit again. Thanks for reminding me of fun times past.

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