Listen Here: Appalachian History Weekly podcast posts today

Posted by | March 23, 2014

We post a new episode of Appalachian History weekly podcast every Sunday. Check us out on the Stitcher network, available on mobile phones, in-car dashboards and tablets worldwide. Just click below to start listening:

We open today’s show with guest author Lee Carpenter, editor of Foxfire News. “The bulk of the Foxfire Museum was collected and assembled between the early-1970s and the mid-1980s, with only a few select additions joining the facility since then,” Carpenter tells us. That has just changed, though. “The latest structure to be added to the Museum grounds,” he says, “is a spectacular local barn of a style not often seen in the north Georgia mountains.”

We’ll pause in between things to catch up on a calendar of events in the region this week, with special attention paid to events that emphasize heritage and local color.

Barns aren’t the only historical items being recovered and restored these days. In our next piece, Jody Shaw of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad takes us behind the scenes of that group’s efforts to refurbish a once famous Pullman car. “After 50 years nestled by a lake and far from the bustle of a main line railroad, Western Maryland Railway Office car No. 204 is coming home–literally, to the tracks it once regularly travelled. It is a remarkable story of chance preservation.”

We’ll wrap things up with Bryson City, NC storyteller Tim Hall. “Do you hear it?” he asks. “The plaintive sounds of the steam whistle caressing the senses. The iron horse throbbing on the ribbons of steel. The shovel scraping against the coal in the tender. The shouts of the engineer for more steam. Thus is the heritage of the Western North Carolina Railroad.”

And thanks to the good folks at the Internet Archive, we’ll be able to enjoy some authentic Appalachian music from Eck Robertson in a 1929 recording of Great Big Taters.

So call your old Plott hound up on the porch, fire up your corncob pipe, and settle in for a dose of Appalachian history.

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Foxfire Museum adds a rare German-style barn to its collection

Posted by | March 21, 2014

Please welcome guest author Lee Carpenter. Carpenter is the editor of Foxfire News.


The Foxfire Museum & Heritage Center is a testament to the amazing things that can be accomplished when a group of students converge on a single idea—in this case, the preservation of the unique way of life of their rural Appalachian families. Here you will find the homes, tools, trades, crafts, and the lifestyle of the all-but-vanished pioneer culture of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Foxfire students began interviewing their families, friends, and neighbors in 1966.

This photo shows how the barn stood on the Beck property in the Warwoman community in Clayton, GA, right after the exterior boards and tin, which were protecting the logs, were removed.

This photo shows how the barn stood on the Beck property in the Warwoman community in Clayton, GA, right after the exterior boards and tin, which were protecting the logs, were removed.

Often, these folks would give the students an old tool or a finished hand-crafted item they were discussing or documenting. Very quickly, the students amassed a very extensive artifact collection. When The Foxfire Book became a national phenomenon, Foxfire gained a source of capital (book royalties) to fund new growth, and the students in the program chose to create a physical home for their program. They purchased a tract of land on an eastern slope of Black Rock Mountain near Mountain City, GA, intending for the property to be a place of interaction between themselves, their work, and their community.

Foxfire’s new homeplace opened up a world of possibilities for the students—they could now collect and preserve one very significant piece of their culture that they had never been able to attempt before – log cabins. About half of the 20+ log cabins at the Center are authentic structures, standing basically as they were originally built as much as 190+ years ago. The Museum’s log structures range from an authentic 1820s one-room log cabin (home to three family generations with 10 children each) to “dog-trot” cabins (known for summertime comfort), to reconstructions of traditional buildings, like the Museum’s Chapel, that could not be found intact or available within the student’s local region. The bulk of the Museum was collected and assembled between the early-1970s and the mid-1980s, with only a few select additions joining the facility since then.

The latest structure to be added to the Museum grounds is a spectacular local barn of a style not often seen in the north Georgia mountains.

Donated by Mr. Sam Beck, a native of the Warwoman community in eastern Rabun County, GA, this “four-pen, crossed-hall” log barn has stood on his family’s property for generations. Foxfire curator Barry Stiles estimates that the barn was originally constructed around 1900, built from mostly clean, straight 8”-10” diameter pine logs. Four separate log structures measuring approximately 11’ square, the “pens,” make up the base of the barn and leave the namesake open hallways between them, similar to “dog trot” cabins like the Museum’s Moore House. A few upper log rows running the full 31’ length and width of the four pens tie the structure together and anchor the roofline covering the barn’s massive hay loft. When first given to Foxfire in 2010, the barn was almost entirely clad with tin roofing, so the bulk of the structure had been well-protected from the elements for decades. Barry noted, “The cross-hall design is supposedly a German style…which is very unusual for this area.”

Pen number two, of four pens, before dismantling.

Pen number two, of four pens, before dismantling.

The Beck Barn was constructed on sloped ground, and since the original builders lacked heavy construction equipment, they stepped the river-rock-and-mortar foundation rather than digging the ground flat. Because of the ground’s slope, two of the four pens had to be built just over a foot taller the other two. As the barn stood in 2010, the up-hill and down-hill hallways were still open, while the two relatively level left- and right-side hallways had been enclosed at some point to create additional livestock pens. Two 10-foot width sheds were also joined to the outside of the barn, also on right and left sides, adding even more protected space underneath the barn’s immense tin-covered roof. Barry felt that the barn would be a great addition to the Museum’s building collection because of its age, local origin, and the fact that the crossed-hall construction was not represented by any other structures at the Foxfire Museum.

Preparatory work for relocating the Beck Barn progressed slowly over 2010 and 2011, with disassembly occurring only after a foot-thick layer of old hay was removed from the loft, the tin siding was stripped from the outside walls, extensive measurements were collected, hundreds of pictures were taken, and each and every individual log in the structure (over 200 of them) was fitted with a tin tag stamped with an identifying number.

The barn pieces were moved to the Museum in 2012, and work began on its new home in 2013, beginning with the grading of a relatively flat area on a hillside near the end of the Museum’s walking-tour trail. Modern formed-concrete foundations were poured for each of the four log pens, with two of them being stepped down about 13″ to simulate the ground slope at the barn’s original location. Barry and student worker Taylor Shirley assembled the two higher-sitting pens—the two most-intact pens. The third pen’s walls contained a handful of deteriorated logs that needed to be replaced in order to make the reassembled structure stable. The third pen’s reassembly was carried out on a late-fall Saturday by the hands of Foxfire Community Board members, former Foxfire students, and other volunteers. Under Barry’s careful eye, those folks spent the day wielding axes, chisels, and other sharp objects to craft replacement V-notched logs to fit in place of the original, damaged logs.

The barn’s fourth pen, intentionally saved for last, is the biggest challenge of the project. Some years prior to 2010, a storm damaged the barn’s roof, tearing loose a piece of tin directly over one corner of this pen. The century-old and very, very dry logs soaked up the area’s plentiful rainfall and decayed rapidly, destroying the notched ends and at least a foot’s length of every log in both walls making up that corner. Literally half of the fourth pen is being replaced during its reconstruction, a process that began in early 2014 with a second volunteer Saturday; the process will then be continued for the entertainment and education of Museum visitors as part of Foxfire’s Living History Day event on April 5, 2014.

Left to right: Foxfire Community Board members Ramey Henslee, Danny Flory, Dr. Scott Beck in khaki slacks (son of Sam Beck, who contributed the barn), and volunteer Lee Carpenter, carrying the next log to place on one of the pens.

Left to right: Foxfire Community Board members Ramey Henslee, Danny Flory, Dr. Scott Beck in khaki slacks (son of Sam Beck, who contributed the barn), and volunteer Lee Carpenter, carrying the next log to place on one of the pens.

After the fourth pen’s repairs are completed, the barn’s huge 31-foot-long loft logs will be set in place, re-joining the four pens into a single structure. A new roof will be constructed overhead, the two shed roofs will be added back on to the right and left sides, and the Beck Barn will be complete in its new home at Foxfire, ready to be shared with Museum visitors for generations to come. The barn will hopefully have room for demonstration space and other artifact displays in addition to housing the Museum’s growing collection of farm tools and equipment. Supplementing the farming equipment and tools previously gathered by Foxfire students, Shannon Moses of Prosperity, SC recently donated a large collection of late-19th-century implements from his grandfather’s farm in Virginia, including a logging wagon, two mule-drawn mowing machines, and other equipment and tools.


For more information on the Beck Barn project or to arrange a guided tour of the Foxfire Museum, visit or call 706-746-5828. You can also visit the Foxfire Museum & Heritage Center at 98 Foxfire Lane, off of Cross Street, in Mountain City, GA. Hours of operation are Monday–Saturday, 8:30am–4:30pm, closed only on some major holidays or for inclement weather.

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Western Maryland Railway Business Car 204 to return home to the rails

Posted by | March 20, 2014

Please welcome guest author Jody Shaw of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad (WMSR). Shaw, the Media and WMSR Foundation (WMSRF) coordinator has had a lifelong interest and passion for steam and rail preservation. The WMSR Foundation, formed in September 2013, is in the infancy of what it hopes will become a long legacy of preserving railroad history through the partnership of the WMSR and the WMSRF. This partnership leverages the best benefits of both organizations to preserve, restore and operate more equipment than the WMSR can do alone.


After 50 years nestled by a lake and far from the bustle of a main line railroad, Western Maryland Railway Office car No. 204 is coming home–literally, to the tracks it once regularly traveled. It is a remarkable story of chance preservation.

This afghan of the 204 will soon be available to support the project, from the WMSRF Gift Shop in Frostburg, MD.

This afghan of the 204 will soon be available to support the project, from the WMSRF Gift Shop in Frostburg, MD.

Car 204 was originally built by Pullman in 1918 for Peter Winchester Rouss. It was named “Winchester” when delivered; Rouss later renamed it “West Point”. Car 204 was known to travel to the Rouss private camp in Adirondacks, NY from Winchester, VA. The car was typical for its day. It had an observation room, four bedrooms (including a larger master bedroom), a dining room, and at the front of the car, a kitchen, pantry, and crew quarters. On the back was a classic open platform–a back porch for watching the world fly by at 60 mph.

In those days, private cars were a combination of private jet and yacht, used by wealthy business people for both business and pleasure travel. Mr. Rouss later sold the car to Harry Payne Whitney, who was married to Gertrude Vanderbilt, of the famous wealthy Vanderbilt family. Mr. Whitney was well known as an American businessman, a thoroughbred horse breeder whose horses raced the Kentucky Derby. He would arrive at the Derby in his private car, now named “Adios”.

The American Railways Equipment Company owned the car from 1942-1943 and on February 12, 1943 the Western Maryland Railway (WM) purchased the car for use as their executive business car. The car was assigned to and used by George Leilich, Vice President of the WM Railway. Railroads used office cars a little differently from the previous owners. Company officials used railroad cars to travel to meetings, entertain shippers, make inspection trips, and conduct railroad business anywhere out on the railroad. The cars were like mobile offices or command posts and could travel almost anywhere there were tracks. For a little over 20 years, the WM Railway used the 204 and a similar car, the 203, on its lines between Baltimore, Connellsville, PA, and central West Virginia. By the mid-1960s, the railroad business was rapidly changing and WM simply did not need two office cars.

welder closeup

Deep Creek Lake was part of a 1920s hydroelectric project, and by the 1960s had become a popular summer getaway. In 1964 the Western Maryland Railway sold the car to the R.R. Johnson family, who transported it to Deep Creek Lake, near Swanton, MD. The Johnson family had property at the lake, and purchasing the 204 seemed a wonderful way to both have a sturdy summer place and preserve a bit of Western Maryland Railway heritage. They used it as a camp and then later a home. They have many memories of dinners cooked by Mrs. Johnson on the dining room table, which, stories tell us, was built by John Knibbs, who also built the furniture for the House of Congress.

The Johnson family, hearts heavy and filled with decades of cherished memories, finally made the decision to transfer ownership of the 204 to the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad to be restored and operated publically. In January 2014, 50 years after it was first delivered in Swanton, MD, Carl Belt Inc and Bill Miller Equipment, with the help and donations of many others, returned the car to the WMSR and the WMSR Foundation for restoration and operation. Bob Leilich, the son of George Leilich (the Vice President of the Western Maryland Railway mentioned earlier), also gave a generous cash donation.

The car is significant for several reasons. It is complete and represents a typical Office Car from the classic period of American railroad car building (roughly 1910-1930). The car has significant association with the Western Maryland Railway, its employees, Cumberland, MD, and Allegany County. For over 35 years it regularly operated over the tracks that now host the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Often it could have been seen parked at the Cumberland Western Maryland Railway Station. It is unusual to have a car acquired by an operating railroad so closely associated with its original railroad line and location.

Through the operation of the newly formed WMSR Foundation, The Pullman will be programmed in a variety of ways: as a living history museum object to be actively used; as a historic space for educational and interpretive activities; and in additional ways to enhance the community and railroad preservation efforts. The WMSR pursues this project to preserve and interpret Maryland and local railroad heritage.

204 lifted onto flatbead

Car 204 will undergo a two-step conservation, which will include fixing rusted side sheets, refurbishing interior woodwork, installing all new windows and more. Once fully conserved, the 204 will be a pristine physical artifact of the state’s 20th century railway heritage.

Fifty years ago it appeared that the 204 had left its life on the tracks for what everyone thought would be permanent retirement in the woods of western Maryland. Instead, it is again back on rails–the very same rails it traversed when it was WM Railway Office Car No. 204.

We all look forward to celebrating the car’s 100th Anniversary in 2018, when the car will once again be showered with cinders from a powerful steam locomotive as it ascends the grade on Big Savage Mountain.

204 en route to station

The WMSR Foundation is currently offering donors the opportunity to sponsor a window or otherwise donate. Come be an essential part of this conservation and operation of the Western Maryland Railway Business Car 204! Each donor name will be listed on the donor wall in the car. You may also make a donation in memory or honor of someone special.

Moving Full Steam Ahead-Western Maryland Scenic Railroad- Come ride with us! Tickets available now for our season of May – December.

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The iron horse throbbing on the ribbons of steel

Posted by | March 19, 2014

Tim Hall portraitPlease welcome guest author Tim “Seanachai” Hall. On most days, you can find him telling stories, giving living history demonstrations on cooking—planting crops— musketry, or broadcasting his Saturday morning radio program. He is in the process of restoring multiple buildings and antiques, which are part of the heritage of the south that he is striving to preserve. Tim’s driving passion is to restore The Citizens Bank Building in Bryson City, NC that will house “The Storytelling Center of the Southern Appalachians in Bryson City”. Tim has a storefront in Bryson City containing museum exhibits of the Southern Highlands, an area for storytelling, a place for craft demonstrations, and a gallery of Southern Appalachian crafted items.

Haunted Cowee Tunnel. Courtesy the author.

Haunted Cowee Tunnel. Courtesy the author.

Do you hear it?
The plaintive sounds of the steam whistle caressing the senses.
The iron horse throbbing on the ribbons of steel.
The shovel scraping against the coal in the tender.
The shouts of the engineer for more steam.

Thus is the heritage of the Western North Carolina Railroad…

The Murphy branch of the WNC RR began in Asheville, made it to Pigeon River (present-day Canton) in January 1882, and Waynesville later the same year. Balsam Mountain then challenged the railroad’s trek west. Abandoning plans to tunnel through the mountain, engineers laid the tracks along a dangerous and difficult grade up and over the Balsams. At 3100 feet, Balsam Gap became the highest railroad pass east of the Rockies. From there the WNC RR dropped into Dillsboro and proceeded to Bryson City and Andrews, finally reaching Murphy in 1891. Murphy celebrated by laying the cornerstone of its new courthouse on the same day the railroad made its first scheduled stop in the town.

Every trestle constructed…
Every rail laid…
Every railroad tie formed…
Every tree cut…
Every rock turned…
Every tunnel dug…

Performed by convict labor…

A. B. Andrews, an honest and highly respected man, was the driving force behind the construction of the Murphy Branch. Asheville boasted a mainline to the east, a route to Charleston to the south, and a newly completed rail line to Painted Rock, to the north. Andrews envisioned a “temporary” rail line to the west that would open the Western North Carolina mountain region to new economic wealth, developed from tourism and industry. It was quickly to earn a reputation as a rail line steeped in hardship and unparalleled tragedies in mountain railroad construction.

The saddest episode in the construction of the WNC RR occurred when workers were constructing the 863-foot Cowee Mountain Tunnel, just about a mile west of Dillsboro. On December 30, 1882 one of the most horrible of railroad tragedies occurred.

All accounts state that it was a cold, blustery day. The Tuck (Tuckaseegee River) was flowing hard, rain had fallen over the past several days and had caused the Tuck to be high and turbulent. In order for the convict workers to get to the western end of the tunnel worksite for a day of crushing granite rock with 10 lb. hammers, they had to cross the fierce river.

Goin' home. Courtesy the author.

Goin’ home. Courtesy the author.

A flat bottom boat was used to ferry the convicts across to the work site. On board: 19 convicts, shackled together with leg and wrist irons, 1 trustee (a convict with no leg or wrist shackles), and one guard.

The flat bottom boat was pushed off from the northern bank of the Tuck. The convicts began tugging on the rope that was tied to both sides of the river, giving them a means by which they propelled the boat across the rough water. Water splashed into the boat, it began to flow back and forth as the boat rode the waves, the convicts thought that the boat was in peril of sinking, that it might have a leak, and they panicked! They moved as one, gathering together in one end of the boat, causing the boat to capsize. Shackled together by wrist and leg, bound together in death as in life, the 19 inmates sank to the bottom of the river, and drowned.

The trustee saw that the guard was floundering, weighted down by his guns and the keys to the shackles of the convicts. He swam to the guard, removed the keys attached to the guard’s belt, threw off the guns, and pulled him to the bank of the river. His deed of heroism was banished, though, for it was found that during the saving of the guard, he had removed $30 from the guard’s pocket and put it in his own.

The convicts who had drowned were buried in unmarked graves on a hill overlooking the river and tunnel.

The drowning cast a shroud over the Cowee Tunnel that exists to this day. If you venture into the tunnel you will find that it is always wet. Water drips from the ceiling of the tunnel, down its walls, coursing to the opening at the western end of the tunnel. It is said that there is no explanation for this fount of water, no spring, no creek, and no rivulet is found to be the source.

Ela Trestle. Courtesy the author.

Ela Trestle. Courtesy the author.

Yet, those who tell the story say that there is an explanation. The answer lies in the tears of the convicts buried on the mountain. The water that flows into the Cowee Tunnel comes from the tears of those whose graves have never been found, the tears of those who have never been taken home, the tears of those who drowned, building the Murph, from Asheville to the west.


A Postscript:
No accurate count has ever been given as to the number of convicts who died building the Murphy Branch of the Western North Carolina Railroad, but, by some accounts, the number is in excess of 400 men. They were all buried where they died.

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Grisly anniversary: hanging the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell

Posted by | March 18, 2014

This piece by David Sibray originally appeared March 14 in West Virginia Explorer. It is reprinted here with permission.


On the morning of March 18, 1932, Harry Powers dropped through the floor of the gallows at the West Virginia Penitentiary and hung for 11 minutes before a team of physicians pronounced him dead. His body hung motionless, lips as still as ever, never revealing his thoughts about the murders with which he had been charged.

Harry Powers: the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell. Courtesy WV Explorer.

Harry Powers: the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell. Courtesy WV Explorer.

Who was Harry Powers, one of the first men in modern history to be labeled a serial killer? His barbarity has inspired much speculation. The 1953 novel “Night of the Hunter,” and the 1955 film of the same name, starring Shelley Winters and Robert Mitchum, were based on the tale. As recently as 2013, Jayne Anne Phillips in her novel “Quiet Dell” examined the case anew.

Harry F. Powers was born Herman Drenth in the Netherlands in 1892. In 1910, at age 18, he emigrated with his family to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and, fourteen years later, at age 32, allegedly after having lived overseas, he moved to Quiet Dell, near Clarksburg, West Virginia, under the name Harry Powers. There he began to assume the character of an Oklahoma oil-stock promoter, the first of several aliases he adopted. A year later, after having responded to her advertisement in “Lonely Hearts Magazine,” he married Luella Strother, who owned a farm and nearby grocery store.

But his taste for lonely-hearts correspondence wasn’t satiated by finding a wife. He began to take out his own advertisements, posting false information in an attempt, apparently, to capture the attention of lonely, wealthy women. Many wrote in response. According to the U.S. Post Office, letters poured into Clarksburg at a rate of 10 to 20 per day. At about this time, Powers built a garage and basement behind his home.

The Eicher Murders

Using the name Cornelius O. Pierson, Powers began writing to Asta Eicher, a widowed mother of three who lived in Park Ridge, Illinois, a suburb just north of Chicago. His trap set, he went to visit her in June, during which the couple left on a romantic interlude while the children — Greta, Harry and Annabel — remained with Elizabeth Abernathy, a sitter. Several days later, Abernathy received a letter from Eicher that indicated Pierson would be back to pick up the children. Afterward, one of the children, young Harry, was seen briefly at a Park Ridge bank, into which he had been sent to withdraw a check on the Eicher account. Tellers, who believed the check to be forged, declined the transaction, after which Powers and the children hastily departed.

The Lemke Murder

Sometime later, Powers began to correspond with Dorothy Lemke, of Northboro, Massachusetts, and persuaded her to move in with him in Iowa, where he claimed to live, and to withdraw $4,000 from her bank. She apparently did not notice that Powers had asked her to send her trunks to Fairmont, West Virginia, in care of Cornelius O. Pierson.
Events Unfold

Meanwhile, police in Illinois began to investigate the disappearance of Eicher and her children. They inquired into her last known contacts, among whom was Cornelius O. Pierson of Clarksburg. Police in Illinois and West Virginia soon realized that no one named Cornelius Pierson lived in Clarksburg, though the description matched that of grocer Harry Powers, who they then arrested as a suspect. Sheriff Wilford B. Grimm of Harrison County obtained a search warrant, and the horrors of Quiet Dell quickly began to unfold.

Grimm and his deputies found four rooms secreted beneath the Powers garage. The small bloody footprint of a child, a burned bank book, blood-soaked hair and clothing — these they discovered in the damp and shadow. A crowd gathered as police began to dig into a new-made ditch behind the house. There the bodies of all five victims were found rotting.

Thirst for Blood

After his arrest, hysteria ensued. On September 20, 1931, thousands surrounded the Harrison County jail where Powers was being held and demanded that he be given to the mob. The Clarksburg Fire Department was forced to employ tear gas to disperse the crowd.

The trial, in Clarksburg, began on December 7 and lasted five days. So many people were in attendance that the venue was moved to Moore’s Opera House. After being found guilty, Powers was transported to Moundsville for state execution.

According to a newspaper in Camden, New Jersey, the thirst for blood had reached theatrical proportions: ”Moundsville had taken on a holiday festive appearance in preparation for the execution of the man whose crimes startled the world. Outside the prison a crowd gathered along the curbs. Automobiles were lined up for blocks.”

Only five of Powers’ victims were ever identified, though some researchers believe there were more. Patterson Smith, who authored a 1988 review of serial killings, proposed that Powers might have killed more:

“Police estimated that before his arrest in 1931 he had killed fifty victims, although that number seems highly doubtful. He confessed to killing only those five whose bodies were found buried next to his “murder garage,” wherein he bound and gassed his victims and watched in delight as they died.”
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