Alabama’s gourd martin house tradition

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 21, 2015

This past weekend Cullman, AL hosted the Alabama Gourd Society’s 17th Annual Alabama Gourd Show.

This year’s crop of art gourds builds on a grand old Native American tradition of combining beauty with functionality. Alabama gourd artists today often draw inspiration both from Cherokee design sensibilities (classic food vessels of that tribe come to mind), as well as a broader Native American orientation towards using gourds for everyday use. Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes throughout Alabama, for example, mounted gourds on the branches of bare saplings to attract purple martins, a practice that many Alabamians continue in one form or another to this day.

Joey Brackner, the Director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, has written of the ‘Gourd Martin House Tradition’ on the Alabama Arts site; his original article follows (reprinted with permission):

For centuries, Alabamians have recognized the gourd martin house for its usefulness and compelling aesthetic qualities. Tens of thousands of gourd martin houses hang throughout Alabama, a testament to a very healthy folk tradition that symbolizes both our cultural heritage and the close relationship between people and the environment in which they live.

The story of the American gourd martin house has its beginnings in Africa, the home of the gourd plant. Gourds came floating across the Atlantic 9,000 years ago. They grew wild in Mesoamerica until Native Americans realized their usefulness and began cultivating them nearly 7,000 years ago. Gourd agriculture spread northward into what is now the southeastern United States where, it is believed, Indians first erected “trees” full of gourds for purple martins to nest.

The Indians apparently recognized the benefits of having these birds as close neighbors because of the martins’ appetite for insects and their aggressiveness toward other birds. Early historical accounts as well as later ethnographic studies of southern Indian groups document a mutually beneficial relationship between the martin colonies and these Native American communities.

As anthropologist Frank Speck wrote, “the artificial nest habits of the martins were deliberately induced in pre-contact times through the discovery by Indian observers that the birds consume insect pests attacking their corn plots and gardens, and, of still more importance, in a growing economy, drove away the crows and ‘blackbirds’ at planting time.”

This custom soon was adopted by the European and African settlers who were eager to learn from the native peoples any advantage to surviving in this new country. If you ask rural Alabamians today about the practice of putting up gourd birdhouses to attract martins the reasons are much the same. Dewey Williams is quick to tell you the importance of martins on a farm. “Martins will run a hawk to death” said the 95-year-old Ozark native, they’re “as watchful as a cat is to a rat.”

Reuben Norrell of Tallassee explained, “I always put up gourds for them (the martins) to fight the hawks, keep them from eating the chickens.” Arlene Crawford, formerly of Coosa county, added that “they protect the early stuff” in the gardens. In the Mt. Olive community of Coosa County, Mr. D. J. Cannon is known for his distinctive, domed-shaped racks hung with martin gourds. He claimed the birds “take their weight in mosquitoes every day.”

Weldon Vickery of Atmore learned about the birds from his grandmother, a Creek Indian, who said the birds were sacred to her people. For years he has grown gourds and given away birdhouses, an effort he estimates has attracted at least 3,000 martins to the area. As an Escambia County Commissioner, he appreciates the fact that the growing martin population has reduced the amount of spraying needed to control mosquitoes.

The custom of attracting purple martins to gourd trees is one of Alabama’s oldest and most widespread folk traditions. Gourd martin houses are unquestionably a part of the lives and seasonal routines of many Alabamians from the Tennessee River south to Mobile Bay. Each year many Alabamians eagerly await the return of the birds as heralds of spring.

Apart from their benefits to agriculture, the birds are a pleasure to watch as they dart after insects and raise their young in the free-swinging gourds. It seems likely that martin scouts that fly up through Alabama in February and March will continue to find nesting sites among many future generations of Alabamians.

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Halloween’s coming! Time for an Appalachian Ghost Story

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 20, 2015

Between Ohiopyle and Dunbar, PA in Fayette County is a belt of brooding rock-crested ridges, tumbling streams, and abandoned hill farms known to local folks as the Dunbar Mountains.

A park ranger at Ohiopyle State Park shares the ghostly tale of Betty Knox with campers.

A park ranger at Ohiopyle State Park shares the ghostly tale of Betty Knox with campers.


In earlier times the rugged land demanded rugged inhabitants, an independent lot who could carve out a life where more timid souls would scarcely visit. Since the 1700s they dragged a living in the form of timber from the hollow, dug narrow veins of coal from the dank, watery mines and hoed corn and buckwheat on hillsides so steep that, according to grinning old timers, seeds were planted by blasting them uphill from shotguns.

Naturally, such a place spawned its share of local folklore. Most of the stories told of the struggles of various colorful individuals against the hardships of mountain life. Miles walked, tons loaded, acres cleared and game trapped or killed are common themes.

Some of the stories survive now only in the dimming childhood memories of the oldest residents. One story will not die. That story is the legend of Betty Knox.

Betty Knox was born in 1843 on a rough mountain farm at Kentuck Knob overlooking the Great Gorge of the Youghiogheny in what is now known as Ohiopyle State Park. Deadly sickness came often and early among the mountain families. When Betty was three years old, her mother died. Leaving the little girl to be raised by her father.

Betty grew into a strong and willing worker and her father depended on her to help with the heavy work as if she were a son. The work was hard and never ending, a daily and seasonal cycle that had to be completed. There was clearing, plowing, planting, hoeing and harvest. In the fall and winter wood was cut for building, fuel and cooking.

Betty became skilled at handling livestock and daily drove their team of oxen in the fields and woods. When she was 17, her father was killed in a timber cutting accident. Betty buried him on Kentuck Knob and was all alone on her mountain.

Being an uncommonly beautiful young woman with long auburn hair and sky blue eyes, she was pursued by all the young men who lived in the lonely hollows surrounding Kentuck. But Betty resisted all their advances, perhaps in hopes of someday meeting some special stranger from far away.

To make a living for herself, Betty began to haul grain on ox-back for other farmers around Kentuck and Ohiopyle. She led the ox northwest, over the mountains to the grist mill in Ferguson Hollow, just outside of Dunbar.

She began each journey at daybreak and soon established a well worn path still discernable to this day. By nightfall she had completed her 25 mile round trip and returned with the grain as flour. Other evidence of Betty’s life still exists. A level piece of bottom land where her route crossed the Dunbar Creek is still known as Betty Knox Park. And nearby, still usable, is a spring she improved by deepening it and lining its sides with creek stones. Its crystal clear waters offered refreshment on each trip over the mountains.

One evening in 1862, during the second autumn of the Civil War, she met along the trail a soldier who had deserted the Union Army in West Virginia (still Virginia and officially Confederate territory at that time).

The young man was badly wounded and racked by fever. Delirious, he had wandered north to this lonely spot in the forest. Betty took the soldier to her cabin, hid him from the Army and nursed his wounds.

She became completely devoted to her soldier, to the point that she began to fear his recovery lest he leave her alone once more. His wounds and their complications proved fatal, and after more than a year of being tirelessly nursed, the soldier died.

Betty buried him on Kentuck Knob near her father. Not too long ago there were old timers who knew the appropriate whereabouts of the graves.

After his death, Betty and the ox returned to their trips over the ridges, transporting many tons of grain and flour. Their travels became quite familiar to people of the settlement growing up around the mill, especially during the peak of the grain harvest, when Betty and the ox, loaded down with grain sacks, would emerge from the woods every day.

Though she was a frequent customer at the mill, she never socialized. She kept to herself, speaking only enough to accomplish her errand before heading back into the forest. Still, the locals felt fondly toward the woman. They admired her independent way of life and respected her physical stamina.

Sometime during the year of 1878, Betty Knox’s trips came to a sudden halt. Grain piled up in the log barns and the folks around the mill quickly noticed the absence of the long haired woman and her ox. Some feared she was ill, resting at her cabin, but when a group of farmers failed to find her there, search parties were formed.

Her neighbors combed the wooded hills between Dunbar and Ohiopyle, looking for Betty or some clue to her disappearance. They found neither. A few said that she had been killed by wolves or a panther, still plentiful at that time. Others maintained that she had simply grown weary of her lonely routine and left the area.

The mystery grew stranger still the following spring when some children gathering wild ramps and morels made a ghastly discovery. Chained to a tree near the spring that Betty improved was the skeleton of an ox. The find was especially strange because the intense search of only a few months before had centered on that very place. No trace of the ox had been seen at that time, and stranger still, Betty had never been known to use a chain to lead the beast.

To this day, no other clues have been found and the fate of Betty Knox has never been revealed. The legend is an old one and like the rest of the mountain stories, it isn’t told as frequently as it once was. Sometimes years go by without any direct mention of the stalwart young woman who hauled grain along through country avoided by most men.

But always it seems, when the legend grows so dim that it nearly vanishes as sure as the woman who inspired it, strange occurrences are reported. Visiting deer hunters, turkey hunters and fisherman from all over have told of a pale feminine form flickering through the trees before daylight.

Young couples out for a late night drive have claimed to have heard the mournful lolling of oxen miles from the nearest farm. And strangest of all, on some dark nights when a damp breeze oozes out of the heart of the mountains and stirs the boughs of ancient hemlocks standing along Dunbar Creek, the pained voice of a young man can just be made out whispering,”Betty Knox, Betty Knox.”

To find Betty Knox Park on a starry, quiet night, travel past Stefano Printing toward Ohiopyle. Turn right at the Game Commission Shed onto the dirt road bearing right for less than 1/8 mile. Stop, and listen carefully!

“County Chronicles, A Vivid Collection of PA Histories: Vol. I, 2nd Edition,” by O’Hanlon-Lincoln, Mechling Bookbindery, Chicora, PA, 2004
(The story originally appeared in the Connellsville, PA newspaper The Daily Courier, August 9, 1919, pg 1)

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First RFD mail delivery in America

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 19, 2015

It’s right there on his gravestone:

Harry C. Gibson, June 8, 1876; April 19, 1938; Carried First Rural Mail in the United States; October 1, 1896.

“He was so anxious to deliver mail, he started a few weeks before the official starting date,” explained Thomas ‘Buddy’ Owens, Jr., retired Charles Town, WV postmaster, in a 1996 Postal Life interview.

“Imagine what it must have been like,” recounts Owens, “a lean rider galloping on horseback from farm to farm, placing a letter or newspaper in a cigar box, lard pail or other creative receptacle at the end of a long lane. The roads, worn with wagon-wheel ruts and mud from a summer rain, or nearly blocked by thigh-high snowdrifts, challenge man and horse as they deliver the day’s correspondence.”

Rural Free Delivery (RFD) service began as an experiment on October 1, 1896, at Charles Town, Halltown and Uvilla, WV. Charles Town happened to be the hometown of then-Postmaster General William L. Wilson. Wilson is credited with launching RFD, though in his personal diary, he mentions RFD only once, in just one sentence: ‘Talked to Marche about the experiment in Jefferson (County).’ (Col. Thomas) Marche was one of his assistants.

RFD mail delivery 1905Postmaster General John Wanamaker, a predecessor of Wilson’s, first suggested Rural Free Delivery in 1889, but it took several years to convince Congress to allocate funds. Wanamaker traveled throughout rural America, speaking to the Grange and Farmers’ Alliance clubs about this service that had been enjoyed by city dwellers since 1863. Congress finally authorized a $10,000 grant in 1890 as a test for the free delivery system in 46 small towns and villages. The move was controversial because of the expense involved.

“Four other routes also officially began October 1, 1896,” noted Owens. “Harry Gibson, Frank Young and John Lucas left Charles Town on horseback that morning. Keyes Strider left on horseback from Halltown Post Office, and his cousin Melvin Strider delivered mail from the Uvilla Post Office. Melvin Strider was only 15 years old. He couldn’t even collect a paycheck until he turned 16, and he rode his bicycle. Mind you, these routes were all around 20 miles long.”

The number of RFD routes grew quickly. By June 1900, there were 1,214 RFD routes, serving an estimated 879,127 people in nearly every state. Six months later the number of routes had increased to 2,551. These provided mail service to almost 2 million Americans. Rural Free Delivery became a permanent postal service in 1902.

Once the Post Office Department designated a RFD route, the local postmaster was responsible for hiring a carrier who would travel the route delivering and receiving mail.

Early rural letter carriers made their rounds by whatever means they could. For most that meant by horseback or by buggies and wagons. During winter months, rural carriers who faced bad winter weather, and could afford to buy another vehicle, used horse-drawn sleds. Unlike city carriers, rural carriers were (still are) responsible for purchasing their own vehicles. Those who used horses to draw their wagons or sled were also responsible for purchasing, feeding and stabling the animals.

The only exceptions were a few experimental routes on which postmasters arranged for the purchase and use of special wagons that required two carriers to operate. The specially-designed two-person wagons allowed one carrier to drive the wagon while the other processed mail along the way. Each of these wagons had a bell that announced its arrival.

They were used on an experimental basis in large counties, beginning at Westminster, Maryland, in 1899 and continuing to Carroll County, Maryland, Frederick County, Maryland, Washington County, Pennsylvania, Jackson County, Missouri, and Newton County, Georgia. The wagons did not prove as useful as first thought and were discontinued by 1905.

One difference between city and rural carriers was that the RFD carriers brought the post office to their patrons. Each RFD vehicle functioned as a miniature post office on wheels, with carriers able to receive and postmark mail and sell stamps, money orders, and other postal supplies.

Rural Free Delivery not only improved communications for rural residents, but was a shot in the arm for the U.S. economy, stimulating road and bridge development, and all kinds of economic growth.

sources: Horse-Drawn Mail Vehicles, by James H. Bruns, Polo, Illinois: Transportation Trails, 1996
National Rural Letter Carriers Association, RFD News, Chicago, NRLCA, 1903 [Smithsonian Institute/National Postal Museum]

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  • ROGER PIPER SR says:


    my # is 301 478 5395

  • Carol Biggs says:

    I recently purchased a RFD Route 6 mail delivery wagon in excellent shape. I saw a picture on ebay of a similar wagon. I am very pleased to own this piece of history. and I think my Percheron will look splendid in front of it in our local prades and at the Draft Horse Classic Americana class.
    Any information you have about the history of the wagon would be appreciated. I think it is a Studebaker wagon.

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Stalking game with his slingshot

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 16, 2015

“One of boyhood’s traditional toys has come of age. Jim Gasque, North Carolina sportsman, has proved that the ordinary slingshot, when properly made and used, can be an adult weapon of deadly accuracy at distances up to 30’ — a range sufficient for stalking small game. He shoots regular No. 0 buckshot.

NC sportsman Jim Gasque“His slingshots are made as shown, the dogwood forks being dried in a slow oven overnight after tying. Instead of inner-tube strips, he uses two rubber bands 1/16” thick, 5/8” wide, and 7½” or 8” long.

“When shooting, he takes a stance similar to that in archery, body at right angles to the target, feet apart, and weight balanced on both feet. Holding the shot cup at the right eye, he stretches the rubber by extending his left arm fully while aligning the target in the sights.”

Rubber Band Sharpshooter; How a North Carolina Sportsman Makes and Shoots His Slingshots, by Tom Cushing, Modern Mechanix, Aug 1946

Jim Gasque, an outdoor writer from Asheville, NC, authored Hunting and Fishing in the Great Smokies, a classic 1948 work that offers a period portrait of outdoor life in those mountains.

The book, re-released last month by the University of North Carolina, was the first nationally distributed book on fishing in and around the Smokies, although Horace Kephart, who also was a great fan of angling in the region, often wrote about it as well.

NC sportsman Jim GasqueFilled with anecdotes, fishing and hunting stories, and recollections of legendary local sportsmen and guides, the book presents a social history of these activities before the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934.

Gasque’s guide covers trout fishing on well-known creeks like Cataloochee, Deep, and Hazel; smallmouth bass fishing on rivers like Oconaluftee, Tuckasegee, and others; and lake fishing on Fontana, Nantahala, Chatuge, and Santeetlah. Thanks to careful preservation by the park, the streams Gasque describes still draw sportsmen today.

“The techniques and few flies noted in the book are as deadly on trout today as when the information was penned half a century ago,” says Don Kirk, author of Fly-Fishing Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains. “Gasque’s chapters on Cataloochee and Deep creeks are extremely insightful.” The book offers a nuanced glimpse of the region just prior to an era of significant development and growth.

Gasque is best known for his only other book—Bass Fishing: Techniques, Tactics, and Tales.



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Eerie Night In A Haunted House

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 15, 2015

Reprinted from Kingsport Times News
January 23, 1966
by James M. Evans, United Press International


HILTONS, VA – It’s likely that most folks at one time or another have wondered what it would be like to spend the night in a haunted house.

It’s also likely that a good number of them have taken steps to satisfy their curiosity.

It was an early Autumn evening when I and three other men moved into one – at least everybody said it was haunted.

"The stories range from tales of a woman's hand print, permanently embossed on a stair tread, to ghostly music."

“The stories range from tales of a woman’s hand print, permanently embossed on a stair tread, to ghostly music.”

It was certainly dark enough, isolated enough, and old enough.The white-frame, tin-roofed, two-story house was built in pre-Civil War days by Mann Hart in the midst of a 300 acre farm he and his brother owned in this section of gently rolling Virginia hill country, split down the middle by a gurgling river.

Stories circulated through these hills about Hart indicate he was a big man in every sense of the word. People who knew him shortly before his death in about 1915 say he weighed close to 300 pounds and he was prosperous. And some of the stories speculate he was not exactly scrupulous in obtaining his wealth.

There are tales of lumbermen, returning upriver with profits in their pocket, never being traced after stopping the night at Hart’s.

The house, except for a sprayed-on coat of white paint and a set of green shutters, stands today almost as it did more than a century ago.

The interior walls, made of long-lasting yellow poplar, look as though they were artificially stained at one time, but the dark color stems mostly from age. The furniture has long been gone.

In fact, a close inspection of the wall panels reveals square-headed nails used during the 19th century.

The present owner is Kingsport businessman John Miller.

He, Bert Vincent, Bob and I were the first party to spend a night in the house since the early 1950s when a family named Graham lived there.

Miller said he had established a standing offer of $25 for any person who would spend the night alone there. He has had no takers. As a party of four, we didn’t qualify.

I can see why the dare has not been taken.

Miller, who knows most of the stories, says they range from tales of a woman’s hand print, permanently embossed on a stair tread, to ghostly music.

We did not see the hand print, but we did hear something which could be called ghostly music and other unexplained sounds.

Breeden and I were sitting on the front porch when we heard some thumping and bumping noises from the barn, located about 25 yards diagonally across the road from the house.

These were startling enough, but they were followed by a weird screeching. It could have been a wildcat, but somehow it didn’t sound like one, Bob and I agreed.

It also could have been some kind of bird, but if it were, we didn’t want to meet it.

We were still sitting on the porch when Miller returned from a trip to Kingsport.

The noise cranked up again. We decided to investigate and found only two birds – later identified as some sort of wild chicken – sitting on the long rafter which ran the length of the 50-foot barn at the peak of the roof.

Breeden fashioned a snare from a wooden lath and baling wire and captured the birds. Their squawking wasn’t the noise we heard.

Miller said an upper bedroom in the house was supposed to be “the worst” in the place. So we packed our cots and moved in.

This was the place, so legend has it, where sheets gently floated from the beds of no longer sleeping travelers. They didn’t for us.

But the “music” was there. We all heard it.

It was a low throbbing, barely audible sound, like the bass note on an organ being held continuously. There probably is a good explanation for the sounds – but we didn’t find one. I’m just as glad.

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