Let us set the mountain people as they are related to the civilization of which they are a part

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 28, 2015

We need to be less aware of the picturesque, amusing or distressing differences, and more keenly conscious of the kinship of the mountain people with their kind elsewhere and everywhere. Otherwise we shall bring to noble effort in the mountains a certain disabling attitude that is fatal to success.

And so over against the types we find in the pages of Craddock, Fox, Kephart, and the rest, let us set the mountain people as they are related to the civilization of which they are a part. I therefore urge upon your attention the fact that they are not more poverty-stricken, nor more lawless and violent, nor more unorganizable than the democratic mass in rural North Carolina.

In the first place and quite contrary to popular notions, our mountains are not a region of widespread poverty. In per capita rural wealth Alleghany is the richest county in North Carolina. Among our 100 counties, five highland countines, Alleghany, Buncombe, Ashe, Henderson and Watauga, rank 1st, 5th, 6th, 13th and 14th in the order named, in the per capita farm wealth of country populations; and two more, Yancey and Transylvania, are just below the state average in this particular. The people of these counties are not poor, as country wealth is reckoned in North Carolina. They dwell in a land of vegetables and fruits, grain crops, hay and forage, flocks and herds. It is a land of overflowing abundance.

West Jefferson NC circa 1920A view of West Jefferson, NC circa 1920.

It is not easy for such people to feel that they are fit subjects for missionary school enterprises. As a matter of fact, they need our money far less than they need appreciative understanding and homebred leadership. Their wealth is greater than their willingness to convert it into social advantages. They need to be shown how to realize the possibilities of their own soils and souls. Mountain civilization, like every other, will rise to higher levels when the people themselves tug at their own bootstraps; and there is no other way.

It is true that three of the poorest counties in the state in per capita country wealth are Graham, Cherokee, and Swain—counties set against the steeps of the Great Smokies. They rank in this particular 92nd, 94th, and 96th respectively; but their poverty is duplicated by that of Moore, Brunswick, Carteret and Dare—four counties in our coastal plain. The rank of these eastern counties is 93rd, 95th, 97th, and 98th in the order named. The two poorest counties in North Carolina in per capita farm wealth are in the tidewater region, not in the mountains.

Approaching the poverty of our mountain people from another angle, let us consider indoor pauperism in 11 mountain counties that maintain county homes or poor houses. The 1910 census discloses an average rate for the United States of 190 almshouse paupers per 100,000 inhabitants. In North Carolina the rate was 96; in these 11 highland counties it was only 79. Six of the mountain counties make a far better showing than the state at large. Buncombe with a rate of 125 and Watauga with a rate of 139, the two highest rates in the region, make a better showing than all the North Atlantic and New England states, where indoor pauper rates range from 153 in New Jersey to 447 in Massachusetts.

But we may make still another and better approach to the subject of poverty in our mountains by examining the outside pauper rates; better, because outside help is less repugnant to the feelings than residence in the poor house. In 1914 the state rate for outside pauperism was 234 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 12 highland counties the average rate was 205. Seven of the counties have rates far smaller than the state average, ranging from 35 in Mitchell to 184 in Cherokee; three are just below state average; and only two, Buncombe and Clay, are near the bottom.

It ought to be clear that poverty in the mountains of North Carolina is actually and relatively less than elsewhere in the state. Here both indoor and outside paupers in 12 counties in 1914 numbered only 559 in a population of 209,000 souls.

—excerpt from “Our Carolina Highlanders,” by E.C. Branson, professor of Rural Economics and Sociology, University of North Carolina, in the July 1916 UNC Extension Bureau Circular No. 2

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Well the son-of-a-gun pecked in, now let him peck out

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 27, 2015

Nationally recognized herbalist Tommie Bass (1908-1996) was the subject of scholarly and popular books, television features, a front-page essay in the Wall Street Journal, and numerous articles in newspapers and magazines. Bass lived almost his entire life in the Tennessee Valley and Ridge section of Alabama, primarily in Cherokee County.

“I don’t ever get a letter, but what I answer it. One way or the other. And generally speaking, some of them sends a self-stamped envelope, but some of, a lot of them don’t. But when you answer around a hundred letters for twenty-five dollars, twenty-five cents a letter, that runs into money (chuckles). But I answer ‘em anyway.

[Looks through junk mail] “Most everybody gets something like that. And, course, this one here is from the Baptist Church at Centre, their bulletin. And this one here is a-wantin . . . this here is a politician they want me to send money to help me get along, you know, I get ‘em from the Democrats and Republicans, regardless of who they are, and I even get letters from the Catholic priests wanting me to help ‘em, you know, along.

Tommie Bass, Alabama herbalistPhotograph of Tommie Bass by Tom Rankin, 1983.

“Course this is one of them get rich letters here this make you a million dollars in just a few days, you know, send five people five dollars apiece and then when your name gets to the top, why you’ll go a-getting the five dollars — but don’t try it buddy it won’t work.

“Course this here one, here’s another politician. I get ‘em . . . when they’s running here in our state from the Democrats, I’d average two or three letters a day, and then the same way about the Republicans, you know, it just didn’t make no difference just so they can get some money. (chuckles) But I didn’t give ‘em none. I figured . . . the fact of the business is a fellow running for office, a man or a woman, I’m like the little boy was about the peckerwood.

“Peckerwood pecked a hole in a hollow tree and he went over in there, and the little boy he drove a peg in behind it. Somebody said to him, “Son,” said, “you shouldn’t of done the little bird that way.” He said, “Well the son-of-a-gun pecked in, now let him peck out.

“And so I’m that way about a politician. If he wants to get into office, let him get in there (chuckles), but I ain’t gonna try to help him. Course, if he’s a good guy, I’d talk for him, but as far as paying him in there, I don’t go along with that.”

—excerpt from ‘Tommie Bass A Life in the Ridge and Valley Country,’ 1993 video produced by Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Cherokee County Historical Society

sources: www.folkstreams.net/pub/ContextPage.php?essay=154

3 Responses

  • Roger Browning says:

    In a world of black garnin and woods colts running amonk, why does a site based outta New York City even care about a world long gone? A world of time and space we were raised to leave and even now, ridiculed for staying near. Mama was right..you can’t escape your raisin. Yes, we still will, “wrestle you for it”, whether you be the King or just a taker. We still take our part , when called on either to fight or pray. This appears to be a concept that will never completely die. However , our youth stay confused as the roots/memories of our past become layered over with each successive load of garbage covering the ancient soil.

  • Dave Tabler says:

    As you point out, Appalachia was/is “a world of time and space we were raised to leave,” and hence one with roots there can easily find himself following a career to NYC, despite 5 generations of West Virginians behind him.

    I assume the ‘garbage’ you refer to in the statement: “our youth stay confused as the roots/memories of our past become layered over with each successive load of garbage covering the ancient soil” has something to do with the content of this site. How very easy it is to throw stones at the efforts of others. Start your own site and set the record straight as you see it if you feel a compelling need to defend the ancient soil.

  • Roger Browning says:

    Sorry, Mr. Dave…wasn’t about you or the website. Was no point to it for you. Doesn’t always have to be….just a general lament on the shape of the US of A. Peace out and good hunting…

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When I went to suck my bottle of milk, Uncle made fun of me

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 26, 2015

I was born September 13, 1893, at the old Sapp homestead, my lifelong home, which my parents, John R. and Sanepta A. Sapp, bought in the early ’80s from Lewis Wilson. At my birth, Dr. Luther Grimes and Mrs. Amanda Mills (she was Bob Mills’ grandmother and lived in the brick house south of the Knoxville School) were the attendants. Hence my middle name Mills.

I was the youngest of six sons: Charles, 14 years my senior; Wilbur, 13 years older; Lloyd, 12 years older, (now all dead); Edgar, 11 years older, now 93 years old and living alone in his home in Richmond, Ohio, well and strong, reads without glasses and needs no medicine; and Elbert, 7 years older, died March 7, 1971.

I was a very cross, bottle fed baby, with milk from a certain Jersey Cow, and my nurses—my older brothers—had to keep me outside when the weather was mild, so not to wreck mother’s nerves. My crib was the back of the old fashioned hand-turned grain cleaning windmill.

One day when I was past 3 years old, I was still sucking my bottle and I remember getting up at nights and filling my bottle. Well, this day Father and Mother took me and went to see Grandpa and Grandma Sapp and Uncle Anson, then when I went to suck my bottle of milk, Uncle made fun of me, so I took my bottle and hid behind the room door and he still teased me, so I crawled under the bed and finished it and after that I drank my milk from a tin pint cup, like they used in those days at farm sales for coffee and a free sack lunch.

The Anson Sapp Family. Left to right, Anson Jr., Uncle Anson, Mary, Aunt Clara and Martha.

The Anson Sapp Family. Left to right, Anson Jr., Uncle Anson, Mary, Aunt Clara and Martha.

Those days children wore long black stockings held up with rubber garters. Boys wore knee pants till they were 12. They had no kindergarten, but I remember brother Elbert taking me to school one day with him when I was 5 years old.

We had no RFD Mail, but a post office in the Knoxville Store, and Fred Mills—Bob’s uncle—was post master.

School took up with Bible reading and prayer at 9 a.m. with a 15 minute recess at 10:30, then an hour at noon till 1 p.m., recess again at 2:30, and out at 4 p.m. We always ran home at noon for our dinners and took the mail, and usually had some quick chores to do, then hurried back and had time to play some before the bell rang for classes.

We had a big pot bellied iron stove in the center of the room for coal heating and pupils used slates and slate pencils and black boards for arithmetic classes, and lined up on the floor for reciting a reading or spelling lesson. Then there was the water bucket shelf in one corner, with water bucket and dipper. We got the water from the Issac/Willis dug well, across the street, and drew the water with a windlass and a bucket. Two boys always got to go for a bucket of water.

I remember many a winter night, when I was small, that Father and I would take the lantern and go check on the sheep. Perhaps a new lamb, or perhaps twins, had just been born, so we would quickly wrap them up in a feed sack, put it in a bushel basket and hurry back to the house and get it out in front of the old coal grate fire and soon have it dry and warm, ready to take it back to get its first milk. I remember the big cut sandstone door sill a foot high that the lambs had to hop over, or we had to help the smaller ones over.

At shearing time, on a warm spring p.m., we would wash the sheep, as washed wool brought a higher price than unwashed wool.

We had a special sheep lot built with boards with a 3 foot wide chute to the washing box, down in the pasture field by the big old sycamore tree. We would build a small dam upstream 100 feet, then use 20 foot wooden “V” troughs to carry the water to the wooden 3 x 4 foot and 3 foot deep washing box.

Two would wash a sheep and lift it out and start it wobbling on its way. One man put a sheep in the wash. Then after a week of warm sunny days they were ready to shear, with hand clippers.


source: “Knoxville Facts,” by Joseph Mills Sapp (1893-1989), Knoxville [OH] Area History 1802 – 1976, published by the Knoxville Bicentennial Committee, Mrs. Richard Jacks, History Chairman  http://perma.cc/GX2Z-YJQD

One Response

  • Joan says:

    When my brothers were growing up, they had what they fondly called, “Sheepy Sundays.” Work week jobs and “real farming” took up most of the time, but on Sunday the family would be down at the sheep barn doing the Sheepy Sunday kind of things. Great Sundays – in retrospect.

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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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