Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pitching Cullowhee Mountain


“There is not a cranny in the rocks of the Great Smokies, not a foot of the wild glen, but harbors something lovable and rare.”
-Horace Kephart

“For on this elevated tray of undulating mountainous bliss, with its seductive waterfalls and signature winding roads, lies what is perhaps the Southeast’s – nay, America’s most unusual earthly gem.”
-elizabeth adams

It can be a mighty fine line between writing to honor a place and writing to exploit it. The former tends to be more memorable, but the latter has a long history as well.

We’ve read the 21st century wordplay attracting buyers to the River Rock resort development on Cullowhee Mountain.

But go back in time, a century and a half before those glossy brochures published for Legasus, and you’ll find another little book pitching that very same real estate.

Charles H. Ladd wrote “The Copper Mines of Jackson County, North Carolina” after investigating deposits of the metal on Cullowhee Mountain, Caney Fork and Wayehutta in the summer of 1866.

Prior to the Civil War, English mining expert Francis F. Oram had purchased vast tracts of land in Jackson County on behalf of “several gentlemen of property in South Carolina.” Those speculators invested considerable sums to buy the land and construct mine shafts. But as Ladd explained:

This purpose was frustrated by the war, which has greatly impaired the pecuniary resources of the parties; and I have consequently been able to negotiate with them for a conveyance of fifty-one hundredths of the property.

In his prospectus, Ladd went on to detail the great potential for profitable copper mining in Jackson County:

If but a single mile of the veins carries ore of an average richness of 15 per cent copper pyrites, or say 5 percent of metallic copper, then a more valuable mining property than that existing here is barely to be found in all California or Nevada.

A bookseller’s description of Ladd’s 1867 tract suggests the purpose of the document:

A scientific promotional report of the copper mines found in Jackson County by Charles H. Ladd. Ladd was probably a stock promoter from New York who published this geologic report to promote active and future mining company stock ventures. There are several testimonials from men that Ladd solicited to comment of his findings in the county.

One passage from Ladd’s book portrayed the local residents:

The population are, almost without exception, simple and ignorant farmers, living in log houses, with a rude abundance of the necessities of life, and without much ambition for more. They occupy a sort of middle ground between the “poor whites” of the lately slaveholding sections of the South, and the energetic and industrious rural population of the North. They impressed us as a people who would readily yield to the influences of a higher civilization, could they be brought into contact with it.

This district was strongly for the Union during the war, though, when the alternative came to “enlist or hang,” many of them were forced into the rebel army. We found ourselves, everywhere, kindly received as “Yankees,” and an earnest wish expressed that Northern people would settle among them, and develop the resources of the country.

Fast forward to a chapter entitled “Neighboring” from River Rock, Book One:

Appalachia is known as a place where kinship relations and traditions of neighboring are among the strongest. ‘Neighboring’ is formally described as a network of economic and social exchange among households, grounded in a shared sense of place.

Most common among rural communities, the spirit of neighboring resurrects a sense of solidarity, support, and security widely unknown among the communities of today’s middle and upper classes.

Appalachians point to the prevalence of family reunions, the maintenance of family grave plots, return migration, family care of children and senior citizens, and numerous ways of family based sharing as positive aspects of their lives.

In a wilderness this rugged, human connections historically represented more than simply friendly neighbors —they were ultimately vital to survival, and still are. Technology and modernity have never proved a match for the fierceness of Mother Nature, but human spirit has.

And back to Ladd:

Labor is now easily obtainable at about $1 per day. Water-power exists abundantly on every stream, and the finest timber may be had for the cutting. The most magnificent timber we have ever seen - oaks, chestnuts, black walnut, cotton wood, &c. - would supply fuel abundantly till long after the opening of railroads would bring bituminous coal cheaply from the neighboring mines of Tennessee.

The soil is a deep red loam, like parts of New Jersey, and, in the valleys and lower hillsides, of an almost inexhaustible fertility. The use of manure on the land is unknown; and though, of course, this system is ultimately exhaustive, they still continue to plant Indian corn year after year on the same fields, and with satisfactory results.

The higher hillsides are very steep, but are likewise covered with a rich soil, in which grow magnificent deciduous trees, to the very summits of the mountains. On the very top of Cullowhee Mountain, we measured an oak, among many such, nine feet in circumference, as high up as we could reach. If reclaimed, such land would be invaluable for sheep and cattle pastures.

Whether this was enough to entice speculators to join Charles H. Ladd in his scheme on Cullowhee Mountain, I don’t know.

What became of Charles H. Ladd, I don’t know.

Several parties attempted to mine the site in the decades that followed.

But like the recently failed resort development from Legasus, the results never lived up to the promoters' exuberant prose.

Whatever comprises the next attempt to sell Cullowhee Mountain, it will likely involve some extravagant language to pitch the product.

I can hardly wait.

Addendum - Actually, I didn't have to wait long at all. The one-time sure thing copper mine, the one-time sure thing Phil Mickleson golf course, IS on the market again. But if Jim Lorenz wants to move that real estate, he'd best hire a writer to make it more alluring. This is weak:

Webster Creek
1,085 acres with numerous mountain tops and panoramic views. This land was recently foreclosed on and the bank says sell! $4.95 million Call Jim Lorenz for more information. Call today for more information!!. Call Jim Lorenz at 828-966-4960 or 828-966-9533 (evenings)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Song of the Flower

I am a kind word uttered and repeated
By the voice of Nature;
I am a star fallen from the
Blue tent upon the green carpet.

I am the daughter of the elements
With whom Winter conceived;
To whom Spring gave birth; I was
Reared in the lap of Summer and I
Slept in the bed of Autumn.

At dawn I unite with the breeze
To announce the coming of light;
At eventide I join the birds
In bidding the light farewell.

The plains are decorated with
My beautiful colors, and the air
Is scented with my fragrance.

As I embrace Slumber the eyes of
Night watch over me, and as I
Awaken I stare at the sun, which is
The only eye of the day.

I drink dew for wine, and hearken to
The voices of the birds, and dance
To the rhythmic swaying of the grass.

I am the lover's gift; I am the wedding wreath;
I am the memory of a moment of happiness;
I am the last gift of the living to the dead;
I am a part of joy and a part of sorrow.

But I look up high to see only the light,
And never look down to see my shadow.
This is wisdom which man must learn.

-Song of the Flower, by Khalil Gibran

Wildflower photos from Fisher Creek Watershed, March 27, 2010:
Hepatica, Hepatica acutiloba
Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum
Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica
Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum
Hepatica, Hepatica acutiloba

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pioneering Photographer Visits WNC

Sapphire, North Carolina, circa 1902. "View from the Lodge on Mount Toxaway." Glass negative by William Henry Jackson, Detroit Publishing Co.

Among the early photographers traveling through the Southern Appalachians, William Henry Jackson (1843 – 1942) was one of the most distinguished. His images from along the French Broad and the Toxaway-Sapphire area appeared on postcards sold by the Detroit Publishing Company in 1902.

Growing up in New York and Vermont, Jackson enjoyed painting and by the age of 19 earned acclaim for his artistic talent.

During the Civil War, he fought in the battle of Gettysburg before returning to Vermont. After his art career and a romance faltered, Jackson headed west and eventually got into the photography business with his brother.

"Muddy Pond" - a painting by William Henry Jackson, 1861

Among his first frontier photos were those of the Plains Indians. Jackson was hired by the Union Pacific Railroad to photograph scenery along their route. As a member of the United States Government Survey team he was one of the first to document the Yellowstone region in photos.

The photographer himself, ca. 1872

In the 1890s, Jackson accepted a commission to travel around the world taking photographs for the Marshall Field Museum in Chicago. Later, he began his association with the Detroit Publishing Company.

One of the last surviving Civil War veterans, Jackson served as a technical advisor for the filming of Gone with the Wind.

Whitewater Falls, by William Henry Jackson

Two collections from the Library of Congress American Memory project highlight the work of William Henry Jackson. One is devoted to images from the Detroit Publishing Company and the other features photos from the World Transportation Commission:

Jackson took more than 80,000 photographs during his travels through the American West and with these he earned his reputation as one of the premier 19th Century landscape photographers.

Brigham Young University has an online collection of hundreds of Jackson images from that period of his career:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pickin' with Lester (and Earl)

The youngster in these videos was born about three weeks before I was - back in the 1950s. Needless to say, by the age of seven, I had not caught up with his prodigious musical talent (nor shall I ever).

Just for the heck of it, I won't identify him. Lester Flatt does (but mangles the boy's name).

In a recent interview, the musician said he can't sing those high notes in "Ruby" any more. But he's still pickin' and singin' just fine.

And now a word from our sponsor...

T. Tommy introduces Ann Abby - making Martha White Knick-Knack Sticks. Yum!

And then, Flatt and Scruggs reel off the Martha White Self-Rising Flour Song, one of my all-time faves:

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pictures from the Orgy

I spent the hour of spring’s arrival visiting the magical home of Shortia galacifolia.

Of course.

But nearby, frisky amphibians found their own way to celebrate the turn of the season.

They announced themselves with a thousand high-pitched trills. I didn’t recognize the sound at first. Then I remembered a small pond farther along the trail.

However, it sounded like a pond at sunset, and not the early afternoon.

Getting closer, I heard – and saw – them all around the water’s edge, singing, swimming, cavorting…

What a libidinous…amphibious…spectacle!

Hundreds and hundreds of them!

After I returned home, it was time to brush up on some basic facts about these creatures.

Initially, upon seeing them in the water, I thought “frogs.” But that was incorrect.

For one thing, frogs have smooth, wet skin while toads have dry, warty skin. Female frogs lay their eggs singly, in clumps on the surface of the water while female toads lay them in long strings like the ones I had seen coiling under the water.

I figured I was safe from violating any Blogger terms of services in posting these photos since they didn’t feature any full frontal toad nudity. Evidently, that’s a moot point though:

If you have ever seen a frog or toad up close you will realize that it is nearly impossible to tell males from females because they have no external genitalia. Instead, both males and females have a single opening, called a cloaca, which is a common opening for the digestive, urinary and reproductive tracts.

I read more:

Generally speaking, the mating process begins when males go to a body of water and begin to call. Each species makes a unique type of call, but even within a species the sound of a frog's call can be different from one to the next. The calls you hear are very important in the process of frog and toad mating.

The large egg-laden females make their way to the pond, lake, or stream attracted by the males calling from there and look for a mate. The female must be choosy, because she has many eggs that can only be fertilized by one male.

Once she has selected her mate, the female allows the male to climb on her back. She, by nature of the fact that she has to carry so many eggs, is larger than the male. He grasps her underneath her front arms and holds her tightly with his thumbs (which are large during the mating season) in what is known as amplexus. With the male on the female's back, their cloacae are lined up perfectly. Then, as the female begins to lay her eggs from her cloaca the male releases sperm from his cloaca and fertilizes them. This completes the mating process.

The gelatinous strand of eggs can be up to four feet in length.

Most of the eggs hatch in about 10 days, sometimes sooner if the temperature of the water is above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The tiny tadpoles rest for a few days, receiving nourishment from the yolk sac stored in their bellies. As they develop in the pond, most of them eat aquatic plants, especially algae, as they develop.

Tadpoles have gills, similar to fish, covered and protected by a flap of skin. As they continue to develop, their hind legs form and grow. Then their tail begins to shrink and the front legs appear. Soon the gills are gone, and the tadpole begins to breathe air at the surface, with his brand new lungs. Soon after transforming into froglets or toadlets, they begin life out of the water.

And about the sound I was hearing:

Both frogs and toads have voices and make a sound. Both a male toad and frog produces his call by a rapid back-and-forth movement of air over his vocal cords. And both toad and frog will close its mouth and nasal opening and force air from its lungs into the mouth, then force the air back over the vocal chords into the lungs. Because they are able to do this, it enables these animals to vocalize even under water. They use their enlarged throat or expandable vocal sac to resonate their calls.

N C photographer and nature watcher Kevin Adams wrote of their song:

American toads have one of the most pleasing of all animal calls, sounding something like the long trill of a cricket, but with a much more melodious tune. When several toads call together, as is often the case, the resulting chorus is one of nature's grandest performances.

I did observe that these amphibians were less skittish than most frogs I’ve seen. Like most toads, they were patient photographic models. While toads lack the advantage of quick getaways, they compensate for that:

Frogs jump far to try and escape a predator, but a toad cannot jump as fast as a frog. So a toad defends himself by producing toxic or unpleasant tasting skin secretions, which are released when an animal is seized. Because of their bad flavor, toads are not a popular food among predators. Even their eggs and tadpoles are toxic.

Although frogs also have skin glands which cause them to have a bad flavor, the secretions are not as strong as those of toads. So, of course, frogs are eaten by a much larger variety of predators.

People are generally not affected when these secretions get on their skin. However, if they rub their eyes right after handling a toad or frog, a very nasty burning sensation will be experienced. So always wash your hands after you handle a toad or frog. But the age-old myth that toads can cause warts is not true!

The arrival of Spring 2010 was a memorable one, indeed. And to the many toads and toads-to-be in that little forest pond I wish good health, long life and much hoppiness.

There you have it. Now I can call myself a wildlife photographer, in more than one sense of the word.

Sources –

The following video from is pretty tame compared to the spring rites I observed at the pond…but the musical soundtrack is pretty funny (as is the dog):

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Chronos and Kairos

These interlaced parables chart an intoxicating realm of possibility, the secret passageways that lie between words and meanings, neurons and thoughts, space and time, fact and fiction, sound and music – and in doing so activate that rare, dreaming rapture one felt as a child, entranced.
-From the cover of “The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales,” by Alex Rose

One of Alex Rose’s delicious stories, “Turning Back the Clock,” tells of Havraska, a sixteenth-century city in Eastern Europe:

Water wheels, early chronometers, pendula – all methods of timekeeping were discarded by the Havra in what remains the only known instance in world history.

Rose explains their rationale:

Nature contained its own time, they argued, its own cycles, and as man was bound to the natural world, he should not seek to overpower it, but to embrace its organic phases and rhythms. To the inhabitants of this small city, the clock signified dehumanization. They believed, quite correctly, that time was inseparable from power: It was inevitable that he who held the clock demanded that tasks be completed within its increments. Therefore, instead of submitting to a dogmatic imposition of order, they rebelled against it – reversing the clock, so to speak, to a pre-Chronos era.

You can imagine what the rising tide of Chronos all around did to the island of Kairos that was Havraska. And still today, we try to fit all our time into the convenient formulas of MM:DD:YY and HH:MM:SS.

While anticipating the phenology of another spring I’ve been thinking about chronos and kairos. Most of us are oblivious to phenology unless, perhaps, we choose to plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. [More on phenology at : ]

The cold winter has delayed the blooming of some flowers this year, although they’ve been popping fast in the past couple of days. As ever, they follow their own calendar. People who track these things pencil in March 20 as the average date that Oconee Bells come into bloom. Last year, I relied on that calendar notation to locate them in all their splendor. After that help from Chronos to find those flowers - once in their midst - I slipped into Kairos.

Madeleine L’Engle makes the distinction in “Walking on Water “:

Kairos. Real time. God’s time. That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards, because kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we are constantly checking our watches for chronological time.

The saint in contemplation, lost (discovered) to self in the mind of God is in kairos. The artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside himself in the game, be it building a sand castle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos. In kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation. This calling should not be limited to artists, or saints, but it is a fearful calling. Mana, taboo. It can destroy as well as bring into being.

In Our Town, after Emily has died in childbirth, Thornton Wilder has her ask the Stage Manager if she can return home to relive just one day. Reluctantly he allows her to do so. And she is torn by the beauty of the ordinary, and by our lack of awareness of it. She cries out to her mother, “Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me… it goes so fast we don’t have time to look at one another.”

And she goes back to the graveyard and the quiet company of the others lying there, and she asks the Stage Manager “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” And he sighs and says, “No. The saints and poets, maybe. They do some.”

One of the reasons I love the spring flowers is that they take us beyond Chronos. Here in the Southern Appalachians we have a front-row seat for one of the greatest spectacles of nature on the entire planet. And it is different every year.

The NCNatural website - - provides a list of the approximate bloom times of some of the flowering plants of the southern Appalachians. A portion of that list follows. From their website:

Bloom times are affected by a variety of factors, including elevation. The southern Appalachian mountain region varies in elevation from about 1500 ft. above sea level to over 6000 ft. and generally at higher elevations plants will bloom later and possibly for longer periods of time.

Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidas
Dandelion Taraxacum offincinale

Trout Lily Erythromium americanum
Bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis (into April)
Jack In The Pulpit Arisaema triphyllum ('til June)
Windflower Thalictrum thalictroides
Columbine Aquilegia canadensis ('til May, but 'til frost at higher locations.)
Dwarf Iris Iris verna (into April)
Larkspur Delphinium tricorne (into April)
Dutchman's Breeches Dicentra circullaria (into April)
Toothwort Dentaria laciniata (into May)
Red Bud Cercis canadensis (into April)
Birdfoot Violet Viola pedata (into May)
Halberd Leaved Yellow violet (into May)
Dogwood Cornus florida (into April)
Pinxter Rhododendron nudiflorum (into May)
Oconee Bells Shortia galicifolia (into April)
Wild Strawberry Fraginaria virginiana (into June)
Spring Beauty Claytonia caroliniana
Buttercups Ranunculus hispidis
Yellow Star-Grass Hypoxis hirsuta (into June)
Blue-Eyed Grass Sisyrinchium augustifolium (into June)
Sweet Shrub Calycanthus floridus (into June)
Bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis (into April)

Leucothue Luecothue spp. (into June)
Shooting Star Dodecatheon meadia (into May)
Nodding Trillium Trillium cernuum (into May)
Catesby's Trillium Trillium catesbaei (into May)
Wake Robin Trillium erectum (into May)
Painted Trillium Trillium undulatum (into May)
Large Flowered Trillium Trillium grandiflorum (into May)
Indian Cucumber Root Medeola virginiana
Bellwort Uvalaria grandiflora
Crested Dwarf Iris Iris cristata (into May)
False Solomon's Seal Smilacina racemosa ('til June)
Nodding Mandarin Disporum maculatum (into May)
Twisted Stalk Streptopus roseus ('til June)
Solomon's Seal Polygonatum biflorum (into June at higher elevations)
Lily of the Valley Convallaria montana (into May)
Wild Ginger Asaram canadense (into May)
Pink Ladyslipper Cyprepedium acaule (into June)
Yellow Ladyslipper Cyprepedium calceaolus var. pubescens (into June)
Showy Orchid Orchis spectablis (into May)
Giant Chickweed Stellaria pubera (into June)
Fire Pink Silene virginica (into July)
Mayapple Podophyllum peltatum (into May)
Bleeding Heart Dicentra exima (into June)
Squirrel Corn Dicentra canadensis (into May)
Foam Flower Tiarella cordifolia (into June)
Blackberry Rubus argustus (into May)
Wild Geranium Geranium maculatum (into June)
Phacelia Phacelia bipinnatifida (into May)
Fringed Phacelia Phacelia fimbriata (into May)
Lyre Leaved Sage Salvia lyrata (into May)
Indian Paintbrush Castilleja coccinea (into May)
Squaw Root Conopholus americana (into June)
Golden Groundsel Senecio aureus (into June)
Pinxter Flower Rhododendron nudiflorum (into May)
Heal All Prunella vulgaris (till frost)
Redbud Tree Cercia canadensis (into May)
Dogwood Cornus florida
Blazing Star Chamaelirium luteum (into June)
Blue Cohosh Caulophyllum thalictroides (into May)
Umbrella Leaf Diphylleia cymosa (into June)
Pink Wood Sorrel Oxalis violacea (into July)
Robins-Plantain Erigeron pulchellus (into June)


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Finding Point Lookout, Part Three

“Old US 70” heading west from the Old Fort Picnic Grounds is a quiet stretch of road these days. You wouldn’t guess that it was once the main highway up the mountain. This route came into use in the early 1800s as a connection between Old Fort and Ridgecrest. Long before the age of automobiles it was known as the Western Turnpike.

In the years after the Civil War, passengers would disembark from the train at Old Fort, the end of the line, and take the stagecoach to Swannanoa Gap and beyond. In those days, Jack Pence handled the reins on a team of six white horses drawing the stage up and down the mountain daily. I did see some horses along the “Western Turnpike” but these plugs weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to pull a stagecoach anywhere.

When I reached Piney Grove Baptist Church I encountered the barricade across the road. I had been here several years ago and didn’t have time to get out and explore. Things have changed since my earlier visit. A narrow strip of asphalt has been installed over the original concrete road surface.

Despite my hope that an uphill climb might ease the pressure on my injured toes, the Timberlands continued to mistreat my piggies. After considering the smooth blacktop, I freed my feet from boots and bloodied socks. Going barefoot was a great relief.

This section of the road twists and turns through the Pisgah National Forest and provides some of the prettiest scenery on the entire hike.

Almost three miles from the barricade, I reached Point Lookout (elevation 2146) and a long-anticipated view of the Royal Gorge.

The steep banks above and below the overlook are covered with kudzu. And another tell tale sign of abandonment, the invasive paulownia tree, is also thriving. Fragments of rock walls are all that remain of the buildings where you could buy hamburgers, hot dogs, popcorn and soft drinks while enjoying the view in the 1930s.

On the bank across the road from the overlook, a steep rock stairway leads to a flat spot offering an even better view of the gorge.

A flagpole and benches are recent additions to the Point Lookout and a sign on the benches identifies them as an Eagle Scout project by Tyler Smith. Thank you, Tyler, for a job well done!

Clearly, this old stretch of road has attracted recent attention. Volunteers and community groups have worked with the NC Department of Transportation to enhance the route for hiking and biking. In October 2008, what they’re calling the “Point Lookout Trail” was officially dedicated. For a detailed NC DOT report on this project, click on

Nevertheless, the place has retained its ghostly charm.

Above Point Lookout, the road starts intersecting with the rail line that snakes up the mountain. When the railroad was built in the 1870s, it was the most ambitious feat of engineering ever undertaken in Western North Carolina. Seven hand-dug tunnels accommodate the track.

Double Tunnels, Then and Now

The longest of these is the Swannanoa Tunnel built at a cost of $600,000 and 120 lives. (That is another story for another day.)

I recognized one more bend in the road from an old postcard I carried along with me:

Royal Gorge, then and now

After crossing the barricade at the upper end of Point Lookout Trail, I followed the state road back toward Swannanoa Gap and took one last detour to inspect a marker on the Civil War Trail. This one commemorated an engagement at the Gap in April 1865 when Confederate forces effectively blocked Stoneman’s raiders who had come up from Old Fort.

There’s not much more I can say about this trip. I’m glad I took the ten-mile loop…love those endorphins.

One guide to Point Lookout Trail is available here:

Finally, here’s something really special, a beautiful performance of "Swannanoa Tunnel" from the great Bascom Lamar Lunsford:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Finding Point Lookout, Part Two

River Birch (?) by Swannanoa Creek

I could tell you the easiest way to get to Point Lookout, but since I opted for the much longer scenic route, that’s what you get.

I began literally astride the Blue Ridge at Swannanoa Gap. By the time I reached the Kitsuma trailhead, though, I was on the Atlantic side of the Divide.

The first several hundred feet of Kitsuma Trail skirt Interstate 40 West, and you experience the relentless, hellish noise of traffic in a way you avoid while driving in it. Soon, you climb a series of switchbacks overlooking the highway and reach the summit of Kitsuma Peak (elevation 3,159).

Kitsuma Trail, I have learned, is achieving legendary status among mountain bikers - “gnarly” - to quote one fan. They love it…and hate it. The half-mile climb up Kitsuma Peak is the dreaded “calf-popping lung buster.” But the reward for that effort is a long and treacherous descent down Youngs Ridge to the Old Fort Picnic Area.

I’ll spare you the cycling jargon describing the highlights of this single-track trail. To those who can successfully negotiate it (as opposed to a biker like me, who would end up wrapped around a tree), I tip my hat. Even this video made by Al Garcia on June 28, 2009 is enough to give you a mild adrenaline rush:

Kitsuma 6-28-2009 from Al Garcia on Vimeo.

As someone eager to see wildflowers, I don’t anticipate spending precious spring afternoons dodging high-speed mountain bikes on the Kitsuma Trail. Other locations hold greater botanical interest. Most of the trail is on south-facing slopes, reflected in the plant communities along the way. However, with the foliage at a minimum now, the route offers nice views of many surrounding mountain ranges.

Three miles into the hike, I sensed trouble. Expecting rain showers before the end of the day, I had laced up my Timberland boots instead of the lighter weight, but less waterproof, Merrell hikers I usually wear on the trail. On the long decline, my feet got into a disagreement with my boots. The boots were winning decisively, and so my pace slowed on what otherwise would have been an easy downhill cruise.

After the trail turned from the east to the north, I heard running water for the first time and noted a change in vegetation, with lots of rhododendron, dog hobble and lush moss.

I knew I was nearing the Old Fort Picnic Area when I saw the stonework of an old fountain. It was constructed, no doubt, by the CCC boys who had built the picnic area long ago.

Much to my chagrin, I was the only picnicker in the vast dining area along Swannanoa Creek (elevation 1610). I had my choice of tables, and fine tables they were.

After polishing off a can of tuna and a PB&J, I explored the banks of the creek. I really wasn’t expecting to see any flowering plants on the hike, but at the very lowest elevation of the day, I did see some flashy early bloomers at the very lowest elevation of the hike.

I’m guessing the delicate blossoms were river birch (Betula nigra) but it is quite possible that I got this wrong (and welcome correction on this point). The pendulous tassels are the male catkins, and if you look closely, you’ll see cone-like structures that contain the female flowers. When I bumped the catkins while taking pictures, they dispersed small clouds of greenish-yellow pollen.

Swannanoa Creek should not be confused with the Swannanoa River. The former flows east to join the Catawba, while the latter flows west into the French Broad. Their watersheds do adjoin at Swannanoa Gap, so when I crossed the divide I passed from The Swannanoa River drainage to the Swannanoa Creek drainage in one step.

According to anthropologist James Mooney, the name “Swannanoa” is derived from the Cherokee “Suwali-Nunna” meaning “trail of the Suwali tribe.” The “Suwali” or “Sara” people lived to the east of the mountains, and their ancient trail followed the Cartawba River (south of the present-day interstate) before crossing the Blue Ridge at Swannanoa Gap.

A century ago, Buncombe historian Foster Sondley cited Mooney’s explanation along with other theories on the origin of “Swannanoa:”

Sometimes it is said to be a Cherokee word meaning "beautiful"; sometimes a Cherokee word meaning "nymph of beauty"; sometimes a Cherokee attempt to imitate the sound made by the wings of ravens or vultures flying down the valley; sometimes a Cherokee attempt to imitate the call of the owls seated upon trees on the banks of the stream…

Sondley dismissed all of these:

[Swannanoa] is merely a form of the word "Shawano," itself a common form of "Shawnee," the name of a well-known tribe of Indians. These Shawanoes were great wanderers and their villages were scattered from Florida to Pennsylvania and Ohio, each village usually standing alone in the country of some other Indian tribe. They had a village in Florida or Southern Georgia on the Swanee or Suanee River, which gets its name from them.

Another of their towns was in South Carolina, a few miles below Augusta, on the Savannah River which separates South Carolina from Georgia. This was "Savannah Town," or, as it was afterwards called, "Savanna Old Town." The name of "Savannah," given to that river and town, is a form of the word "Shawano," and those Indians were known to the early white settlers of South Carolina as "Savannas." The Shawanoes had a settlement on Cumberland River near the site of the present city of Nashville, Tennessee, when the French first visited that region…

These Shawano Indians had a town on the Swannanoa River about one-half mile above its mouth and on its southern bank, when the white hunters began to make excursions into those mountain lands.

Between 1700 and 1750 all the Shawanoes in the South removed to new homes north of the Ohio River where they soon became very troublesome to the white people and were answerable for most of the massacres in that region perpetrated in that day by Indians, especially in Kentucky, it being their boast that they had killed more white men than had any other tribe of Indians.

Their town at the mouth of the Swannanoa River had been abandoned before 1776, but its site was then well known as "Swannano." At that time the river seems not to have been named; but very soon afterwards it was called, for the town and its former inhabitants, Swannano, or later Swannanoa River. One of the earliest grants for land on its banks and covering both sides and including the site of the present Biltmore, calls the stream the "Savanna River."

A little lunch, a little rest, a little botany, a little toponymy, and the picnic was over. I shouldered my pack, crossed Swannanoa Creek and reached Old Highway 70 for the second part of my hike, back up the mountain via Point Lookout and the Royal Gorge.
[to be continued]

Monday, March 15, 2010

Finding Point Lookout, Part One

Seventy-five years from now, what will people think as they amble through the ruins of our pride…

This story begins with a vintage postcard I acquired several years ago. It shows a roadside stand at Point Lookout on NC 10 in Western North Carolina.

I had never heard of Point Lookout. Where could that be? Another old postcard identifies the same Point Lookout as being on US 70 and overlooking the Royal Gorge.

As someone moderately familiar with Western North Carolina geography, I was stymied. Why had I never heard of a place with the majestic name of “Royal Gorge”?

Upon further reflection I guessed the tourist stop at Point Lookout had been wiped out by the construction of Interstate 40 snaking up the mountain from Old Fort to Ridgecrest. That premise made good sense until I studied a map showing Royal Gorge a full mile north of I-40 and separated from that road by Kitsuma Peak and Youngs Ridge.

After more sleuthing, I learned that NC 10, a.k.a. “The Old Central Highway,” a.k.a. US 70, DID follow a route about a mile north of the present I-40 and was the primary highway leading up to the Swannanoa Gap, until the 1940s. I discovered the road was still there although barricaded at the top and the bottom of the mountain.

A pilgrimage to Point Lookout was not only a possibility but, for me, a necessity.

Finally, I made the much-anticipated sojourn this past Saturday. And it more or less lived up to my expectations. I mean, we have seen forests wiped out to build highways. But how often have we seen old thoroughfares overtaken by the forest? This was a “man bites dog” story, for sure.

A trip like this makes you think about the past, the future and the delusions of permanence. I pictured some pensive anchorite trudging up Old Fort Mountain in the year 2085 - ruminating on the crumbling remains of an abandoned and long silent Interstate 40.

When I finally reached Point Lookout, I lingered for a while and exchanged pleasantries with the people in those old postcards.

One man admiring the view of Royal Gorge had driven all the way from Raleigh. I noticed the camping gear in his car and he explained that he was on his way to explore the Great Smokies. He had been reading about the new park and wanted to see it for himself.

Point Lookout, then and now

Nearby, a boy and a girl were watching the black bear, Prohibition Sally, take a long swig from a bottle of pop. Mom and Dad told them, “c'mon kids, we need to go.” The family had been to Barnardsville visiting grandparents and cousins and were on their way back down the mountain to a mill village in Marion.

Several young fellows were examining their old jalopy with dismay. The radiator was boiling over. One of the guys went to fetch of can of water to cool it.

My reverie was interrupted by a train whistle up the mountain a ways. With metallic squeaks and squeals and a steady “clickety-clickety-clickety-clickety” the train began its slow and winding descent toward Old Fort.

I could feel drops of rain and still had a two-mile walk from Point Lookout to my car at the crest of the mountain.

It was time to go.

[to be continued]


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Prohibition Sally Takes a Drink

Prohibition Sally Takes a Drink - of Pop - at Point Lookout.

[details to follow]

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Area 51"...In Transylvania County?

I'll leave it to the skeptics and the true believers to debate the existence of an "Area 51" in our own backyard. I haven't had enough close encounters of the third kind to be anything other than a neutral messenger. With that said...

Drive south from Cullowhee, and when you get to Tuckasegee, turn left onto NC 281. Follow it through Little Canada and past Wolf Lake into Transylvania County. Take a couple of more turns, and before you reach NC 215 near Rosman, you will drive right past the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI).

Log on to the PARI website and you will learn more about this relic from the Cold War Era:

Our goal is to become a recognized center for world-class research, while providing educational opportunities for all levels of students: K-12, undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral. PARI’s mission is to promote science and excite the imagination; to become a place where researchers can try unconventional ideas, where pure research combines with practical application, and where people can begin their education and be inspired to continue.

The PARI site was initially developed by NASA in 1962 as the east coast facility to track satellites and monitor manned space flights. Located in the half-million acre Pisgah Forest about 30 miles southwest of Asheville, North Carolina, the PARI campus is a well-protected site for astronomy and should remain so for generations to come. The 200 acre campus contains 30 buildings with more than 100,000 square feet of floor space. PARI has redundant systems for water, power, fire protection and security. An extensive fiber optic communications network connects campus buildings and provides remote access to telescopes and instruments via the Internet.

Scientific instruments at PARI include: two 26 meter (85ft) radio telescopes, a 12.2 meter (40ft) radio telescope housed in a radome, a 4.6 meter (15ft) radio telescope (dubbed “Smiley” and operated remotely by high school students), a high frequency Jupiter-Io/Solar antenna, several optical telescopes on the PARI Optical Ridge, five weather and atmospheric monitoring stations, and various environmental monitoring instruments.

You can believe that if you want to, but the vigilant observers who run the website, Sky Ships Over Cashiers, have a different explanation of PARI:

There’s stuff going on within and around the Balsam Mountain Ridge that could be detrimental to the wellbeing of those living in Western North Carolina and beyond. The shadow government has a coffer there that goes six stories down into the ground. Survival supplies and equipment are stored there as well as stuff that could be harmful to the general population – and even wipe it out. They also have electromagnetic equipment that can be used to destroy human memories.

"Welcome to PARI. I'll be your host today."

Because of all this, the Star-born ships are in the area to keep any of this from happening. To confuse matters, there also are man-made ships and ships piloted by the renegade aliens that the shadow government uses to manipulate human reactions and behavior.

Many individuals with high energy vibrations and wisdom from the future are drawn to Western North Carolina and other significant locations around the world to uplift the vibration of an area and counteract the negativity generated by the shadow government.

I've never been to PARI, although I have wanted to attend one of the programs they offer. I take it there are doors that remain closed and locked during your tour of the facility.

And that leads to the question - what are they hiding behind those doors...?

I can tell you this...

It was a dark and stormy night. As I was driving back from Brevard, I peeled off from US 64 to take the short way home. Riding past PARI, I had an eery feeling. It is DARK around there, even by my rural standards.

Aerial view of PARI

Had I stopped I might have gotten a good view of strange phenomena in the sky. But it is just as well I didn't. Had I stopped I might have gotten spirited away for an extended tour of nearby galaxies.

No, I can't tell you much about Transylvania County's own Area 51, but here's someone who can:

Over the past couple of days, this video has inspired a lively discussion within a worldwide network of folks who track such things. For the thread on this, click:

Given all these revelations, I have one more burning question...

How ya' gonna' keep 'em down on the farm...

After they've seen PARI?


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sing Me Back Home

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
-Chinese Proverb

There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of bodies, of body on body, wind on snow, rain on trees, wave on stone. It is the language of dream, gesture, symbol, memory. We have forgotten this language. We do not even remember that it exists.
-Derrick Jensen

Without music, the prehistoric past is just too quiet to be believed.
-Steven Mithen

On Ellijay, 3/7/10

As life rolls along, all the trappings of human ego (except for my own, of course) hold less and less appeal. I used to think I could figure out people. I used to think there was some reason to figure out people. It was one tool, I reckoned, for overcoming the loneliness that is measured in degrees of separation from other human beings.

But I don’t see it that way anymore. Society no longer possesses the allure it once did. If I have a home, it is with the birds and flowers, the trees and butterflies. An unexpected and fleeting encounter, let's say an eye-to-eye moment with a hawk, is companionship enough for me.

One of the delights of spring is to step outside and listen to the birds singing. Even in town this morning, I could hear their music despite the horrisonant buzz of industrial equipment and the raucous roar of diesel engines. Our human noise was not enough to silence those birds.

Sometimes when I have music playing, a fine classical masterwork, I'll hear the birds singing from the trees around my house. It is no contest. I turn off the stereo and attune my ears to their sweeter song.

I seldom hear mockingbirds sing, so when I do, it stops me in my tracks. I've been treated to some memorable performances, most recently in Southport, in Fayetteville, in Highlands. Thomas Jefferson also had an affinity for the mockingbird, of which he wrote:

Learn all the children to venerate it as a superior being in the form of a bird, or as a being which will haunt them if any harm is done to itself or its eggs.

While serving as President, Jefferson kept a mockingbird in a cage suspended among the roses and geraniums in the window recesses of his study. Jefferson regarded his bird named “Dick”…

…with peculiar fondness, not only for its melodious powers, but for its uncommon intelligence and affectionate disposition, of which qualities he gave surprising instances. It was the constant companion of his solitary and studious hours. Whenever he was alone he opened the cage and let the bird fly about the room. After flitting for a while from one object to another, it would alight on his table and regale him with its sweetest notes, or perch on his shoulder and take its food from his lips. Often when he retired to his chamber it would hop up the stairs after him and while he took his siesta, would sit on his couch and pour forth its melodious strains.

The evolution of human language is not something I know much about, but my guess is that rhythm and melody preceded words. Steven Mither advances this idea in The Singing Neanderthals* while another scholar, Steven Pinker, contends that music, in evolutionary terms, is an afterthought to language, little more than a linguistic flourish.

I have to side with Mither. This morning’s birds announcing the approach of spring convinced me there is an ancient language, "a language older than words" to borrow the phrase from Derrick Jensen. Though it may be forgotten, though it may be stifled by the proud blare of human progress, it endures, and it is my own.

How could I deny it?

In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.
- Robert Lynd

The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited. Everything has its own voice. Thunder and lightning and stars and planets, flowers, birds, animals, trees--all these have voices, and they constitute a community of existence that is profoundly related.
-Thomas Berry

Life is good only when it is magical and musical, a perfect timing and consent, and when we do not anatomise it.... You must hear the bird's song without attempting to render it into nouns and verbs.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

*A note on The Singing Neanderthals - The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, by Steven Mithen:

The propensity to make music is the most mysterious, wonderful, and neglected feature of humankind: this is where Steven Mithen began, drawing together strands from archaeology, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience--and, of course, musicology--to explain why we are so compelled to make and hear music. But music could not be explained without addressing language, and could not be accounted for without understanding the evolution of the human body and mind. Thus Mithen arrived at the wildly ambitious project that unfolds in this book: an exploration of music as a fundamental aspect of the human condition, encoded into the human genome during the evolutionary history of our species. Music is the language of emotion, common wisdom tells us. In The Singing Neanderthals, Mithen introduces us to the science that might support such popular notions. With equal parts scientific rigor and charm, he marshals current evidence about social organization, tool and weapon technologies, hunting and scavenging strategies, habits and brain capacity of all our hominid ancestors, from australopithecines to Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals to Homo sapiens--and comes up with a scenario for a shared musical and linguistic heritage. Along the way he weaves a tapestry of cognitive and expressive worlds--alive with vocalized sound, communal mimicry, sexual display, and rhythmic movement--of various species. The result is a fascinating work--and a succinct riposte to those, like Steven Pinker, who have dismissed music as a functionless evolutionary byproduct.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Musical Interlude

I've been working on lots of new stories that overtax my feeble brain, but I'll get them posted eventually. Just the other day, for a little road music, I played a cassette I'd never really listened to before. Apparently, "Gling Glo" is not particularly representative of Bjork's overall musical output. With the piano trio backing her up, it is more in the vein of lounge music, and I enjoy hearing someone singing something other than English. With all the Icelandic and assorted wails and shrieks and growls, it was a good choice for traveling music.

I could have picked her out a police lineup (maybe), but didn't know her work to any degree, so I went on a YouTube binge and discovered she's not just a jazz crooner.

It's hard to top tigers and rabbits dancing together and bears playing horns, but her other video of "It's Oh So Quiet" has some cool choreography. Since I'm prevented from posting it, here's the link:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Back to Maggie's Mill

Update – March 10, 2015

After being upbraided by the self-appointed guardian of the so-called “Maggie’s Mill” (actually Harris Mill) near Reliance, TN it is necessary for me to issue an urgent travel advisory in case you are considering a visit!

Here's the comment that precipitated this advisory:

I grew up at Maggie's Mill in Polk County! No one is claiming fame to the famous poem or folk song. We have many people wonder to our family home to tell us how mistaken we are. We did not ask for "historic site"! We did not ask D. A. R. to set up the mill rock! We did not ask the Boy Scouts to come and rededicate anything! And we certainly did not ask or invite for the know-it-all who blalantly insist that his opinion is all that matters to make himself welcome on our family property so he could discredit our (unwanted) claim to fame. We love our homesite! We love our land! We love our old Mill site! We love the old song "When you and I were Young, Maggie". We also could care less your opinion, so build your own monument. I am sure your un-invited guest will not be as welcome to wonder your property as they have been at Maggie's Mill in Reliance, Tennessee, even when they did just come by to insult our intelligence on the matter. This is our home and it will always be "Maggie's Mill. So just get over it!!!!!

Blah, blah, blah. Where shall I begin to respond to that challenge? Kinda makes me wander...wonder...whatever....

First of all, travelers, if you do make the mistake of following the big road sign pointing you to the bogus marker commemorating a song that was not written there, exercise extreme caution. Unless you are willing to play along with the elaborate and wholly uninvited hoax foisted upon that sweet community by the Daughters of the American Revolution in cahoots with the Boy Scouts of America, then you just might be in for a rude welcome.

  You know, I feel exactly the same way when uninvited idiot gawkers stop by my place and giggle disrespectfully at the “Beethoven Slept Here” monument in my front yard, blalantly insisting that their opinion is all that matters, as if they could discredit my unwanted claim to fame. Like I always tell those know-it-alls, "get over it!!!!!" And then I snarl at 'em to "GITTTT AWWWWFFFFF MAH LAAAWWWWNNNNNNN" jus' like ol' Clint.

I'm not sure why this joker from Tennessee is so unhappy with me. I thought it was a wanderful area, a beautiful place with an interesting history and fine folks. Why, I didn't even know about the little problem with the fraudulent monument until I got home and started reading about Harris Mill. Like me, this joker fingers those old broads from the DAR for their role in creating this screwed-up situation to begin with...and five years ago to the day, I was already proposing a petition drive (as you'll read below) to get the DAR to do the right thing. (Take back their misleading millstones.) Where was our friend from Tennessee back then when I was trying to address the root cause of the problem with a petition drive?

Frankly, I would encourage you to skip your visit to the Maggie’s Mill monument. It really isn’t worth the time. And, obviously, (and quite understandably) the folks who live nearby are growing increasingly tired of the tourists, especially tourists who know that there is no actual connection between Reliance, TN and the CANADIAN folk song, “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.”

However, I did go back to Tennessee today to capture the sights and sounds of other fun things to see and do while you are enjoying your visit. (Helpful hint - to get the full effect, you need to PLAY ALL FOUR OF THESE VIDEOS SIMULTANEOUSLY - and CRANK UP THE VOLUME.)

Observe skilled practitioners of traditional mountain crafts hard at work:

 Meet friendly folks happy to share their love of critters:

 Partake of warm fellowship and spirited dancing around a bonfire, shake a leg and roast a few weenies and marshmallows. Vanilla s'mores anyone?:

 And thrill to the music when the valedictorian of the local one-room school house picks up his banjo and graces you with a rousing rendition of “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.”

 There you have it.

Yep, anytime I want a little mini-vacation, I just PLAY ALL FOUR OF THESE VIDEOS SIMULTANEOUSLY - and CRANK UP THE VOLUME. It's the next best thing to being there.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy your visit just as much as I did. Seriously. I don't even live there and I too love the homesite, I too love the land, I too love the Hiwassee River, I too love Webb's store, I too love the old Texaco sign, I too love Rosine Parmentier, I too love Junebug Creek, I too love Copper Basin (especially the way it was before the mines closed and before the river rats moved in), I too love the old Harris mill, I too love the CANADIAN song that they very humbly and wisely do not lay claim to. So we're on the same page there. Even so, if you go there for a visit, it would be best if you'd not mention Maggie. It's an awkward subject.

By the way, this joker who claims to be from Reliance ordered, "build your own monument." Well, I already did. In recognition of Beethoven's composition of the Fifth Symphony while he was hanging out on my front porch, I erected the monument seen here, situated smack dab in the front yard of my cabin in the Smokies. (But please, no more wisecracks about Beethoven's Last "Movement". I've heard it about a hundred times and it's not funny anymore.)

Pretty nice, huh? Beats the heck out of anything you'll find at Harris Mill, Tennessee.

Sorry, bub.

Now back to the original post….

I witnessed the reach of the Google search engine after one of my earliest blog posts went online. I don’t know how many people were searching “when you and I were young, Maggie” but I do know that a flock of those who were - found this blog.

The story begins in the beautiful Hiwassee River Valley, just beyond the state line in Polk County, Tennessee. There you will find a roadside monument at “Maggie’s Mill.” That mill, according to legend, inspired one of the most popular songs of the nineteenth century.

Right off the bat, I wanted to know more. After a little research, I had debunked the myth, but still had questions about it started. Just last week some of those questions were answered when I clicked on the Tennessee State Library Asssociation’s Mythcellaneous website:

In 1924, a booklet was published about the origin of the song: When You and I Were Young, Maggie. The booklet, written by Daisy Rice Spradling, stated that “both the author and the subject…were native Tennesseans.” According to the booklet, the setting of the song was the Unaka Mountains (a chain of the Great Smoky Mountains) in Polk County, Tennessee. The author of the song, George W. Johnson, lived near the mouth of the Hiwassee River and his parents were early settlers from Virginia that leased land from the Indians. At least, that was the claim.

As the story goes, Johnson went to the Unaka Mountains to look for gold. Johnson rowed up the Hiwassee River to Spring Creek. Going up the stream, he came to what was then known as the Harris Mill. As he strode toward the mill, he saw a young girl, Maggie Harris, standing in the doorway. He fell in love with her and, supposedly, they later married. He wrote the poem (that would later become the song) to memorialize their love.

Click here to read the 1924 booklet on the origin of When You and I Were Young, Maggie:

Mythcellaneous continues:

On June 14, 1930, the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) placed a marker on Spring Creek, in Polk County, Tennessee, to commemorate the old song.

After the marker was set, Donald H. Johnson of Seattle, Washington, wrote a letter to the D.A.R. requesting that they take the marker down. He stated that George W. Johnson (the author of the song) was his great-uncle. He also stated that his uncle was from Canada and was never in Tennessee. He claimed that the song was written about Maggie Clark, his uncle’s wife, and not Maggie Harris as the D.A.R. marker claimed. He said the mill in the song was in Canada near where George Johnson and Maggie Clark grew up. Mrs. Elizabeth C. Badgham,

Maggie Clark Johnson’s sister, also wrote the D.A.R., expressed the same sentiments as Mr. Johnson and asked them to take the marker down. The D.A.R. did not take the marker down and, in 1991, it was rededicated as an Eagle Scout project.

(You know, it may be time to launch a petition drive demanding the D.A.R. to do the right thing...and take down that marker.)

In 2005, the song was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. As you can see, the debate about this song’s origin continues into the current day and the controversy surrounding it has been the subject of numerous blog entries and websites (

In the end, the story of this song is a great representation of how legends are written and, in the words of the old song, “time alone was the pen.”
Below, I’m reposting an update of the story that first appeared here on January 3, 2007. But first, some renditions of the song via Youtube. John MacCormack’s carefully enunciated singing made for a popular recording:

Next, Speedy Haworth on his Strat from the Ozark Jubilee:

And from the album,"Banjo at the Gaslight Club" Marty Grosz and his Gaslighters:

The following first appeared here January 9, 2007. Subsequently, I heard from the person living in Maggie's house in Mount Hope, here's a rerun of the original story, along with that comment.

I wandered today to the hill, Maggie,
To watch the scene below -
The creek and the creaking old mill, Maggie,
As we used to, long ago.

The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie,
Where first the daisies sprung;
The creaking old mill is still, Maggie,
Since you and I were young.

If you can’t trust the Daughters of the American Revolution and an Eagle Scout then who can you trust?

The story begins as we meander along the route of the millenium-old Unicoi Turnpike in the hills of Tennessee, just north of the spot where John Muir crossed the Hiwassee River on his thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico (September 17, 1867). As soon as I saw the sign for Maggie’s Mill Historic Site, I pulled onto the gravel road leading to a small stream. Some pilings along the creek told me that a mill, long since gone, had operated there. And then, at the edge of the road, I read this marker:

I made a mental note to get to the bottom of the story. But the road beckoned, and more places to explore. At Reliance, Webb’s Store stands on the southern bank of the river. Been a long time since I’ve seen a Texaco sign like this:

And just down river, near the confluence of Junebug Creek, this vintage house is a real beauty:

But I kept thinking about that song, Maggie.
Back home, it didn’t take long to find some recordings of the song, plus lyrics and sheet music. I was on a roll!
I even found a picture of the dapper songwriter:

And a picture of his beloved Maggie Clark:

Clark? I thought her name was Harris, but we’ll let that slide. Johnson didn’t scrimp on the sentimentality, and when you learn the story behind the song, you understand why. He was a schoolteacher in Hamilton, Ontario and Maggie was one of his students. I guess there weren’t any vigilant school administrators to question the propriety of what happened next. G. W. and the tubercular Maggie fell in love and were engaged to be married. When she became ill, he penned the lyrics to "When You and I Were Young, Maggie" and published them in his book of verse, Maple Leaves. (This was Ontario, CANADA, after all.)

They married later that year, but after seven months, poor Maggie died on May 12, 1865. Johnson’s friend James A. Butterfield (1837-1891) set the words to music and the rest, as they say, is history. Now hold on, what about the 1820 date carved in the monument at Maggie’s Mill? George Washington Johnson was born in 1839 and wrote his poem in 1864. Maggie whatever-her-name-was was born in 1842.

So they got the 1820 date wrong, but there must have been a Tennessee connection for George and Maggie. Let’s see, the widower marries two more times, moves from Canada to Cleveland and eventually to Pasadena, California where he died in 1917. No mention of Tennessee at all.

But the song lives on, recorded by everyone from John McCormack to Benny Goodman to Fats Waller to Mac Wiseman.

And to cap it all, "When You and I Were Young, Maggie" made it into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. Wow!

So what of the Tennessee claim? All I could find was a gazetteer listing for Springtown, Tennessee:
"A picturesque mill adorned the bank of the creek and was first known as Harris Mill. During another period, it was known as Maggie’s Mill; local residents insist that it inspired the ballad, ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie.’" INSIST!!!!! That’s not going to cut it. I might as well INSIST that Beethoven wrote the Fifth Symphony on MY back porch. Look for the granite monument, coming soon.

Despite all my big talk about the value of preserving local legends, I’ll make an exception for something as blatantly misleading as the Maggie’s Mill "Historic" Site.

Polk County, Tennessee should be ashamed.

The Ocoee Chapter D.A.R. should be ashamed.

And I found the phone number for that Eagle Scout, Dan Cain. I’m tempted to give him a call, because he’s got some ‘splainin’ to do, Maggie.

They say that I'm feeble with age, Maggie,
My steps are less sprightly than then,
My face is a well-written page, Maggie,
And time alone was the pen.
They say we are agèd and grey, Maggie,
As sprays by the white breakers flung,
But to me you're as fair as you were, Maggie,
When you and I were young.

Comment from hlp111, 1/17/08:

Just wanted to say that I found your post by accident while I was looking up some information on my house. I live in the farmhouse that Maggie Clarke grew up in Ontario (and her name was definately not Harris). I find it funny that there are so many people that want to claim this song and story. It's original to Mount Hope, a tiny little dot on the map. It's fun though to hear other peoples stories and it makes it easy to see how old tales and stories can become so distorted after time.