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:
http://www.state.tn.us/tsla/exhibits/myth/mythcellaneous.htm

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:http://www.state.tn.us/tsla/exhibits/myth/images/maggiebooklet.pdf

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 (http://gulahiyi.blogspot.com/2008/01/maggie-revisited.html).

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, Ontario...so 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.

3 comments:

dwbrewin said...

We have a great version of that song here at the Mountain Heritage Center. It's played by Cherokee, Co. fiddler Gar Mosteller and guitarist Doyle Barker, also from over near Murphy.

AHAJR said...

There is another quite different story here: http://www.glanbrookheritage.ca/maggie.htm

Anonymous said...

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!!!!!