Book excerpt: ‘Images of America: Mount Mitchell’

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 24, 2015


Please welcome guest authors Jonathan Howard Bennett and David Biddix. Bennett, a national park ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway, graduated from Wake Forest University, where he studied history and archaeology. Biddix is an instructional technologist with Western Piedmont Community College. Both are natives of the Toe River valley and are instrumental in historic preservation projects in the area. Images for their newly released book ‘Images of America: Mount Mitchell’ have been acquired from local families and historical archives.


Newspaperman Bill Sharpe once referred to Mount Mitchell as “the old mountain of mystery and death.” Over the course of its history, the lofty peak has certainly earned this appellation. Mysteries shroud the mountain like the fog that clings to its summit, and death often stalks those who dared assail its forested slopes. The mountain claimed the life of Elisha Mitchell, the man who pushed some of this mystery aside by proclaiming it to be the king of the East’s tallest peaks to the world beyond. Its summit holds the bones of its namesake in his earthly grave to this day, making the mountain itself his tombstone.

No one knows the exact date that mankind first laid eyes on the mountain, but archaeological evidence indicates that this occurred during the last Ice Age, roughly 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, when Native American hunting parties passed through the area in search of animals now long extinct. History is also silent about which of these Native Americans first braved the mountain’s thick tangle of vegetation to reach its summit. It is also unknown whether this early explorer made it back down the slopes in one piece. Historians and archaeologists cannot say with 100- percent confidence what these Native Americans called the mountain either. But they can tell us something about their lives.

book cover

The mountain provided game for the hunters and wild food crops for the gatherers. Finding the river valleys surrounding the peak to be pleasant places to live with abundant food and resources, they eventually established permanent villages. Mount Mitchell and the entire Black Mountain Range fell firmly within the territory claimed by the Cherokee. Spending their lives in the great mountain’s shadow, it entered their imagination and became firmly entrenched in their mythology. Elders recounted stories of the mountain around the campfires to their children and grandchildren.

A few of those stories survived into the modern era; one of them bears a striking resemblance to Aesop’s fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare. In the Cherokee version of the tale, the deer loved to brag about his speed to anyone and everyone. He was so proud and believed that he could best any of the other animals in the forest in a footrace. Rising to meet his challenge, much to the deer’s amusement, was an unlikely contender, the terrapin. They agreed to race and selected a course that ran over Mount Mitchell along the crest of the Black Mountains.

Despite accepting the challenge, the terrapin knew that he could not defeat the deer with speed alone. So, he held a council of the terrapin tribe and decided to enlist his fellow terrapins to help him cheat. He stationed the other terrapins on each peak in the Black Mountain Range with strict instructions of what to do. When it came time for the race, the terrapin and the deer met at the starting line on the first peak in the range. The signal was given, and the deer took off like an arrow loosed from a bow—leaving the terrapin far behind.

The deer charged down the ridgeline and started toward the next peak in the range. To the deer’s amazement, he saw the terrapin give a shout and cross over the peak well in front of him. The deer’s determination grew, and he churned his legs even harder. Crossing the top of the peak, he heard another shout and saw the terrapin cresting the next peak in line. Fearing that he was far behind, the deer ran as hard as he possibly could to catch up, but when he crested the following peak, once again he heard a shout and saw the terrapin cross the subsequent peak.

This process repeated across each peak of the mountains until the deer, humiliated and convinced the race was hopeless, simply quit and walked back to the starting line, finding the original terrapin had never left. Demanding an explanation, the terrapin explained his scheme of using his fellow tribesmen and informed the deer that the mind could accomplish what was often beyond the reach of the swiftest legs.

The opening of the Blue Ridge Parkway and NC Highway 128 in the 1930s and 1940s helped make access to Mount Mitchell available to more people. This photo shows Mitchell in the background while a car climbs to the top of Buck Creek Gap in Yancey County, heading to the Blue Ridge Parkway and a trip to the top of the mountain.

The opening of the Blue Ridge Parkway and NC Highway 128 in the 1930s and 1940s helped make access to Mount Mitchell available to more people. This photo shows Mitchell in the background while a car climbs to the top of Buck Creek Gap in Yancey County, heading to the Blue Ridge Parkway and a trip to the top of the mountain.


Other than a few Cherokee legends and what excavations of Cherokee villages at Cane River Middle School and Warren Wilson College have told us, the lives of the first people to live at the foot of Mount Mitchell largely remain a mystery.

Other mysteries surround the mountain; research conducted by Dr. David Moore, Dr. Christopher Rodning, and Dr. Robin Beck on the Catawba Indian village of Joara have proven that Spanish conquistadors reached the area in 1540, narrowing down the list of potential candidates for the first European to see Mount Mitchell. None of the surviving Spanish records mention Mount Mitchell, but their route from Joara west would have taken them through the river valleys surrounding the mountain within sight of the peak. The identity of the expedition member to see the mountain first will never be known, but it may have been Hernando de Soto himself.

The first European to reach the summit of Mount Mitchell is also unknown. By the mid-1760s, long hunters from the colonies of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina were frequenting the area. It is possible one of these men made it to the summit. One of them, “Hunting” John McDowell, built a homestead within sight of the mountain at Pleasant Gardens in McDowell County—perhaps he climbed the peak. British and American armies both came within sight of the mountain during the Revolutionary War, but there is no record of either of them sending any soldiers to its summit. Regardless, by the time French royal botanist André Michaux collected plants from its slopes in the 1790s, his local guides were familiar enough with the peak that they had no trouble leading him there.

Elisha Mitchell is the subject of several mysteries connected with the mountain. While it is undisputed that Mitchell was the first man to scientifically establish that the tallest peak in eastern North America lay in the Black Mountains, there is some doubt both today and at the time as to whether he ever actually set foot on the peak of Mount Mitchell itself. The poor professor lost his life trying to clear that mystery up.

Elisha Mitchell's grave received its first marker in the 1880s when a white bronze obelisk was installed at a cost of $400. The monument only stood about 30 years before it was destroyed in a storm. Featured in this photo is a temporary gravestone that was installed for approximately 20 years before his cairn was cemented closed and a bronze marker installed at the dedication of the first stone tower atop the mountain in 1927.

Elisha Mitchell’s grave received its first marker in the 1880s when a white bronze obelisk was installed at a cost of $400. The monument only stood about 30 years before it was destroyed in a storm. Featured in this photo is a temporary gravestone that was installed for approximately 20 years before his cairn was cemented closed and a bronze marker installed at the dedication of the first stone tower atop the mountain in 1927.


Other mysteries associated with the mountain include airplane crashes, the mountain’s role in World War II, the whereabouts of a Hollywood movie filmed on the mountain, the massive death of its trees, and even one of the few unsolved cases of a UFO sighting that was reported to Project Blue Book. This book only scratches the surface of Mount Mitchell’s many mysteries and fascinating history, but it is hoped that the reader will find something of the “old mountain of mystery and death” that inspires further investigation—just beware of Mitchell’s fate.



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Kentucky’s fotched-on women

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 23, 2015

In the late 1800s, the Progressive Movement was sweeping the industrialized cities of the North. One of the key features of this urban social and political reform movement was the creation of settlement houses and schools to meet the needs of economically deprived families.

May Stone. Collection Hindman Settlement School.

May Stone. Collection Hindman Settlement School.

Beginning in 1899, two intrepid young women, Katherine Pettit and May Stone, spent three summers in social settlement work in Kentucky at Camp Cedar Grove, Camp Industrial, and Sassafras Social Settlement.

They became educational lamplighters in an area of eastern Kentucky where there was little opportunity for boys to get jobs and education was considered superfluous for girls, who often married at thirteen.

Loaded with books, games, and a small portable organ, they proceeded to hold “school” for the people of the mountains. The activities of the summer camp were practical in nature—crafts, reading, singing, learning to make biscuits and bread.

In the summer of 1900 Stone and Pettit pitched their tents on the side of a hill overlooking the small village of Hindman, KY, the county seat of the newly created Knott County. When the summer ended, local leader Solomon Everage implored the two women, “quare fotched-on women from the level land,” to remain and establish a permanent industrial school in the Troublesome Creek area.

“Fotched-on” women was a colloquialism peculiar to eastern Kentucky. It refers to women reformers–missionaries, nurses, and teachers–who came to work among the mountain people during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Katherine Pettit. Collection Pine Mountain Settlement School.

Katherine Pettit. Collection Pine Mountain Settlement School.

Solomon, age 80, watched the two women quietly for hours before he introduced himself to them, saying “Women my name is Solomon Everage. Some calls me the granddaddy of Troublesome. Since I was a little shirttail boy hoeing corn on the hillsides, I’ve looked up Troublesome and down Troublesome for someb’dy to come in and larn us sumpin.

“My chilehood pass and my manhood and now my head is abloomin’ for the grave and still nobody hain’t come. I groed up ignorant and mean. My offsprings wuss and my grands wusser and what my greats will be if something hain’t done to stop the meanness of their maneuvers, God only knows. When I heard the tale of you two women I walked the 22 miles across the ridges to search out the truth of it. I am now persuaded you are the ones I have looked for all my lifetime. Come over to Troublesome women and do for us what you are doing hyre.”

The pleas resonated with Stone and Pettit, and so, in the words of Stone, “… with little experience and less money, we started a school.” In 1902, at the forks of Troublesome Creek, the Hindman Settlement School was born.


“A Portrait of a Collaborative ARSI Team in Knott County, Kentucky” By Elizabeth Horsch at
“History and Families-Knott County, Kentucky,” published by Turner Publishing Co., 1995, Paducah, KY

related post: “Educating the Melungeons”

Katherine+Pettit May+Stone settlement+schools Hindman+Settlement+School Troublesome+Creek+KY appalachia appalachia+history appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

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  • Janet Smart says:

    Great post. I had never heard of the term ‘fotched-on women before. this reminds me of the book, Christy. Where she went into the mountains to teach in the early 1900s.

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The (accidental) discovery of a lifetime

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 22, 2015

Leo Lambert (1895-1955), though trained as a chemist, was an avid cave enthusiast. He was the first person to explore the Tennessee Cave on Mount Aetna (now known as Raccoon Mountain Caverns), and at one time managed the Nickajack Caverns in Marion County, TN. He moved to Chattanooga because his fiancée Ruby Eugenia Losey moved there with her family; they were married in 1916.

It had been 11 years since the Southern Railway had built a railroad tunnel along the face of Lookout Mountain and through some portions of the mountain for one of its lines, a construction project that had permanently sealed a well known natural opening to Lookout Mountain Cave.

Leo & Ruby LambertGiven his knowledge of Tennessee caves, Lambert surely would have been aware of the cave’s colorful history: used first as a campsite by Native Americans, later a hideout for outlaws. During the Civil War, the caverns were used by both Confederate and Union troops. Many soldiers wrote their names and units on the walls. Southern Railway had left in its wake a business opportunity. Lambert decided in 1923 to drill open the cave and become a tour operator.

He formed Lookout Mountain Cave Company and purchased land above the cave. He planned to make an opening further up the mountain than the original natural opening and transport tourists to the cave via an elevator.

In 1928 Lambert selected a site for an elevator shaft into the original cave and began drilling. Midway into drilling the 400-foot elevator shaft, on December 28, a worker operating a jackhammer discovered a void in the rock and felt a gush of air. A small crevice was opened, about 18 inches high and five feet wide.

Opening day poster for Lookout Mountain Cave tourLambert and other corporate officials immediately decided to investigate it and spent 17 hours on this first exploration trip. A passage opened into a falls cave. They came back with a description of a cave with beautiful formations and an amazing 145-foot waterfall, located 260 ft inside Lookout Mountain. The falls flow into a landing pool which drains into the Tennessee River. On his second trip Lambert was accompanied by his wife Ruby. On this trip he named the waterfall – after her – Ruby Falls.

Lambert decided to develop both caves and to offer two cave tours. After 92 days of work, day and night, the elevator shaft reached the original cave. The elevator was installed, paths were prepared, and the original cave opened to the public in 1929. The entrance building, Cavern Castle, looks like a 15th century Irish castle. It was constructed from limestone excavated from the elevator shaft. Development continued in the new cave and in 1930 the second tour to Ruby Falls was opened to the public.

At first the two caverns were shown on separate tours, but the popularity of the falls far exceeded that of the lower cave and that trip was discontinued in 1935.

After years of financial struggle during the Great Depression, the Lookout Mountain Cave Company declared bankruptcy. New ownership launched an aggressive advertising campaign, based on roadside signs, and made Ruby Falls into what is today one of Chattanooga’s major tourist attractions.

Ruby FallsRuby Falls is the largest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States. It and the larger Lookout Mountain Caverns complex have been designated a National Historic Landmark.


sources: “The history of Ruby Falls,” by Ed Brinkley, Service Printing Co; 3rd edition (1980)

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Blennerhassett Island – staging ground for high treason

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 21, 2015

The July 29, 1806 letter was the thing that undid the Burr Conspiracy.

Harman Blennerhassett had been a moderately well off Anglo-Irish aristocrat prior to his becoming involved with Irish revolutionaries in the last decade of the 18th century. Fearing that British authorities might arrest him, he sold his property in Ireland and bounded for the United States with his wife Margaret.

In 1799 Blennerhassett bought half the island that now bears his name, an island on the Ohio River below the mouth of the Little Kanawha River, located near Parkersburg, WV. Blennerhassett and his wife proceeded to build a mansion on the island, where they entertained neighbors and any notables that came by.

Harman Blennerhassett,  1765-1831. Collection The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection/New York Public Library

Harman Blennerhassett, 1765-1831. Collection The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection/New York Public Library

In May 1805 Aaron Burr, former Vice President of the United States, and victor in the duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton, visited the Blennerhassett home.

After the visit Blennerhassett wrote to Burr:

“I should be honored in being associated with you, in any contemplated enterprise you would permit me to participate in….Viewing the probability of a rupture with Spain,…I am disposed, in the confidential spirit of this letter, to offer you and my friends’ and my own services in any contemplated measures in which you may embark.”

Using the 300 acre island as a staging ground, Burr aimed to form a new country fashioned from the Louisiana Purchase territories. He also proposed to conquer Texas and the rest of Mexico to add to this western nation. Apparently Burr found a friend in Blennerhassett—during one conversation the Irishman told Burr he would be King Aaron I of Mexico and his daughter Theodosia would be a princess.

By the end of August 1806, Burr returned to Blennerhasset’s Island, making final preparations for his expedition. Burr brought with him to the island a force of less than fifty men, which he planned to be the nucleus of a conquering army. He contracted to purchase fifteen boats capable of carrying 500 men, and a large keel boat for transporting provisions. He made orders for huge quantities of pork, corn meal, flour, and whiskey. Burr and his men planned to head down the Mississippi to confer with James Wilkinson, the U.S. Army’s ranking general and one of Burr’s oldest friends, then in New Orleans.

Aaron Burr exhorting his followers at Blennerhassett Island, 1806. Granger Collection/NYC

Aaron Burr exhorting his followers at Blennerhassett Island, 1806. Granger Collection/NYC

In early October, a ciphered letter sent by Burr reached Wilkinson in New Orleans.

I have obtained funds, and have actually commenced the enterprise. Detachments from different points under different pretenses will rendezvous on the Ohio, 1st November– everything internal and external favors views–protection of England is secured.

T[ruxton] is gone to Jamaica to arrange with the admiral on that station, and will meet at the Mississippi– England—Navy of the United States are ready to join, and final orders are given to my friends and followers–it will be a host of choice spirits. Wilkinson shall be second to Burr only–Wilkinson shall dictate the rank and promotion of his officers.

Burr will proceed westward 1st August, never to return: with him go his daughter–the husband will follow in October with a corps of worthies. Send forthwith an intelligent and confidential friend with whom Burr may confer. He shall return immediately with further interesting details–this is essential to concert and harmony of the movement….

[T]he project is brought to the point so long desired: Burr guarantees the result with his life and honor–the lives, the honor and fortunes of hundreds, the best blood of our country. Burr’s plan of operations is to move rapidly from the falls on the 15th of November, with the first five hundred or one thousand men, in light boats now constructing for that purpose–to be at Natchez between the 5th and 15th of December–then to meet Wilkinson–then to determine whether it will be expedient in the first instance to seize on or pass by Baton Rouge.

On receipt of this send Burr an answer–draw on Burr for all expenses, &c. The people of the country to which we are going are prepared to receive us–their agents now with Burr say that if we will protect their religion, and will not subject them to a foreign power, that in three weeks all will be settled.

The gods invite to glory and fortune–it remains to be seen whether we deserve the boon…. –29th July.

But Wilkinson saw the new army’s dark future. British Prime Minister William Pitt had recently died and Wilkinson learned of Charles Fox taking over the government. This would end British support for the expedition and ultimately drive it to the ground. He panicked, and dropped out of Burr’s conspiracy.

Wilkinson instead rushed troops to the Mississippi Valley and ordered troops in New Orleans to be on alert for an attack. He sent Burr’s ciphered letter (in decoded form), together with one from another co-conspirator, to President Thomas Jefferson.

The arrest of Aaron Burr for treason in 1807 as he attempted to flee the United States to Spanish territory. Steel engraving, American, c 1850. Granger Collection/NYC.

The arrest of Aaron Burr for treason in 1807 as he attempted to flee the United States to Spanish territory. Steel engraving, American, c 1850. Granger Collection/NYC.


A militia detachment of thirty men caught up with Burr when he and his expedition of between sixty and hundred men were camped across from Natchez, on the west bank of the Mississippi. Burr was handed a letter from the Governor of Mississippi demanding his surrender. Burr responded to the letter by denouncing Wilkinson, whose “perfidious conduct” had “completely frustrated” his “projects.”

Meanwhile Ohio and Virginia militias were sent to stop boat traffic on the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers and seize the Blennerhassett home. Blennerhassett escaped down the river, and his wife, after much difficulty with the invaders, followed him with their three children. The mansion was heavily damaged by the militiamen, who were no doubt frustrated by the elusive Blennerhassett. But when Blennerhassett tried to return to recover some of the furnishings he too was arrested.

The government had no problem proving that Burr raised money and men on Blennerhasset Island. The only problem was that they could not work the evidence into anything higher than a misdemeanor charge. As a result the trial, conducted by Chief Justice John Marshall, resulted in acquittal of both men on the grounds that Burr had never committed an overt act, as required by the constitutional definition of the offense.

The Blennerhassett mansion burned in 1809.

During the 1980s, the mansion was reconstructed on its original foundations. Today the island is the site of Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park.



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Hobo Nickels

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 20, 2015

Coin collectors today consider the hobo nickel a numismatic treasure, a tribute to long- forgotten folk artists who often literally carved for their supper. The Buffalo nickel debuted in 1913, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression struck that hobo nickel carving reached its peak. During this period, buffalo nickels were the most common nickels in circulation.

The sudden scarcity of jobs in the early 1930s forced a huge number of men to hit the road. Certainly some coins were carved to fill the idle hours. More importantly, a ‘knight of the road,’ with no regular source of income, could take one of these plentiful coins and turn it into a folk art piece, which could in turn be sold or traded for small favors such as a meal or shelter for a night.

The nickel was an ideal coin from which to fashion such a token. The large profile of the Indian on one side and the classic image of the very wide American bison that complemented it on the reverse side provided an adequately sized canvas for the wandering hobo artist to use. It was portable, and the nickel (a copper-nickel alloy) is the hardest U.S. coin in circulation, ideal for carving.
hobo nickels
In a community of generally anonymous drifters, two carvers rose to prominence among hobo nickel creators. Bertram ‘Bert’ Wiegand was born in 1880 and carved from 1913 to 1949. He signed his coins by removing L I and Y from L I B E R T Y, leaving only B E R T. He tutored the man coin collectors consider the giant of hobo nickel carving: George Washington ‘Bo’ Hughes (born between 1895 and 1900 in Theo, Mississippi). Bert met the young teenager in a jungle, or hobo camp, along the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio railroad line, and Bo’s first nickels appeared two years later, in 1915. Bo carved till about 1980, when he was last seen by his friend of 40 years, Williard Chisolm, in a Florida camp.

Life as a hobo took its toll: the rigorous manual labor Bo undertook to survive during the money-tight, poverty-ridden 30s rendered his hands stiff and permanently damaged. Frequent beatings by ruthless detectives prowling railroads (where many hobos resided) in search of freeloaders and thieves compounded his dexterity impairment.

Nevertheless, devoted to his craft, Bo worked through the pain and frustrating impediments throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, but in 1957, while he was working on a nickel, his chisel suddenly slipped and struck his hand. The injury forced the once-great hobo nickel engraver to resort to a haphazard punching method. Bo continued his work, but with less frequency and diminished quality, and as America moved into the post-war era genuine hobo nickels became a thing of the past.

The U.S. Mint ceased striking Buffalo nickels in 1938.

Related posts: Riding the Rails



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