Joseph Cathey was a well-read merchant, miller and farmer at the Forks of the Pigeon in Haywood County. May 6, 1853, he planted "a 16 rowed yellow corn that grows with small and low stock and ripens early, has a small cob but rather a deep grain, and shells out well from the ear."
He had soaked the seed in "drippings of stable manure, with copperas and salt petre dissolved in it." Cathey believed that the result of the soaking was "to prevent the moles from eating it, as they run in the ground considerably, but they never interrupted the corn as I could see."
Cathey was competing in the Indian Corn Sweepstakes of the North Carolina Agricultural Society, to see who could grow the most bushels on one acre of reclaimed land. Cathey would take second place, with 101 bushels. The winner, from Buncombe County, was Nicholas Woodfin, who harvested 149 bushels and three quarts with the ears averaging seven and one-half inches long. Woodfin spared no expense to prepare the soil on his Buncombe County farm, applying plaster, ashes, and hundreds of wagon loads of muck and manure to enrich the ground.
Woodfin and Cathey achieved remarkable yields in spite of the drought in 1853. As Cathey noted, "the corn came up and grew well, until the 8th or 10th of July, when the drought, which had lasted then for about six weeks, began to affect it very much, and the drought continued for 2 weeks longer." He went on to say, "The soil was a light poor sandy quality, and I believe that this dry year, without manure, it would not have made more than 8 or 10 bushels of corn."
In earlier years, Cathey's neighbors encouraged him to seek political office. After his 1842-44 service as State Senator, Cathey chose to step out of the political spotlight in favor of his entrepreneurial, community, and family life in the Upper Pigeon Valley of Haywood County.
Later, by 1860, Colonel Cathey was a Unionist who felt that newly elected Abraham Lincoln should be given a chance to carry out his promises not to abolish slavery and to promote compromise within the Union. Cathey was finally forced to declare for secession when President Lincoln asked the states to provide troops to "coerce" South Carolina back into the Union after they fired on Fort Sumter. Cathey knew, too that if North Carolina remained in the Union, it would be surrounded by states that had seceded.
Although there were no schools in Haywood County during his childhood, he was taught to read and do mathematical calculations. That Cathey was a learned man was evident from the multiple correspondences he carried on throughout his life. He was tutored in penmanship since he wrote in an elegant Spencerian style of handwriting. Cathey's meticulous daybooks and ledgers record transactions made at both his mill and his store and indicate an educated and organized mind. The oldest ledger available, dated 1849-1853, is a detailed book containing the names of his patrons, dates of transactions, lists of the exact items purchased, quantity, price, and balances on any accounts.
Cathey endured difficulties during and after the Civil War. He lost two sons, two sons-in-law, and a number of friends to the Civil War, and then on the night of August 14, 1869, Cathey's mill burned down. The miller, George Bryson and his wife perished in the fire. They were buried in the slave cemetery across from the home Dred Blalock started building in 1860 for Colonel Joe Cathey's son, Joseph Turner Cathey. It was rumored that the friends or family of a Confederate widow, who suspected Cathey of keeping money her husband had sent her, burned down the mill.