Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
“THE BACK OF BEYOND”
Of certain remote parts of Erin, Jane Barlow says: “In Bogland, if you inquire the address of such or such person, you will hear not very infrequently that he or she lives ‘off away at the Back of Beyond.’... A Traveler to the Back of Beyond may consider himself rather exceptionally fortunate, should he find that he is able to arrive at his destination by any mode of conveyance other than ‘the two standin’ feet of him.’ Often enough the last stage of his journey proceeds down some boggy boreen, or up some craggy hill-track, inaccessible to any wheel or hoof that ever was shod.”
The back country is rough. No boat nor canoe can stem its brawling waters. No bicycle nor automobile can enter it. No coach can endure its roads. Here is a land of lumber wagons, and saddle-bags, and shackly little sleds that are dragged over the bare ground by harnessed steers. This is the country that ordinary tourists shun. And well for such that they do, since whoso cares more for bodily comfort than for freedom and air and elbow-room should tarry by still waters and pleasant pastures. To him the backwoods could be only what Burns called Argyleshire: “A country where savage streams tumble over savage mountains, thinly overspread with savage flocks, which starvingly support as savage inhabitants.”
When I went south into the mountains I was seeking a Back of Beyond. This for more reasons than one. With an inborn taste for the wild and romantic, I yearned for a strange land and a people that had the charm of originality. Again, I had a passion for early American history; and, in Far Appalachia, it seemed that I might realize the past in the present, seeing with my own eyes what life must have been to my pioneer ancestors of a century or two ago. Besides, I wanted to enjoy a free life in the open air, the thrill of exploring new ground, the joys of the chase, and the man’s game of matching my woodcraft against the forces of nature, with no help from servants or hired guides.
So, casting about for a
biding place that would fill such needs, I picked out the upper settlement of
A mountain settlement consists of all who get their mail at the same place. Ours was made up of forty-two households (about two hundred souls) scattered over an area eight miles long by two wide. These are air-line measurements. All roads and trails “wiggled and wingled around” so that some families were several miles from a neighbor. Fifteen homes had no wagon road, and could be reached by no vehicle other than a narrow sled. Quill Rose had not even a sledpath, but journeyed full five miles by trail to the nearest wagon road.
Medlin itself comprised two little stores built of rough planks and bearing no signs, a corn mill, and four dwellings. A mile and a half away was the log schoolhouse, which, once or twice a month, served also as church. Scattered about the settlement were seven tiny tub-mills for grinding corn, some of them mere open sheds with a capacity of about a bushel a day. Most of the dwellings were built of logs. Two or three, only, were weatherboarded frame houses and attained the dignity of a story and a half.
All about us was the forest primeval, where roamed some sparse herds of cattle, razorback hogs, and the wild beasts. Speckled trout were in all the streams. Bears sometimes raided the fields, and wildcats were a common nuisance. Our settlement was a mere slash in the vast woodland that encompassed it.
The post-office occupied a
space about five feet square, in a corner of one of the stores. There was a
daily mail, by rider, serving four other communities along the way. The
contractor for this service had to furnish two horses, working turnabout, pay
the rider, and squeeze his own profit, out of $499 a year. In
In the group that gathered at mail time I often was solicited to “back” envelopes, give out the news, or decipher letters for men who could not read. Several times, in the postmaster’s absence, I registered letters for myself, or for someone else, the law of the nation being suspended by general consent.
Our stores, as I have said, were small, yet many of their shelves were empty. Oftentimes there was no flour to be had, no meat, cereals, canned goods, coffee, sugar, or oil. It excited no comment at all when Old Pete would lean across his bare counter and lament that “Thar’s lots o’ folks a-hurtin’ around hyur for lard, and I ain’t got none.”
I have seen the time when our neighborhood could get no salt nor tobacco without making a twenty-four-mile trip over the mountain and back, in the dead of winter. This was due, partly, to the state of the roads, and to the fact that there would be no wagon available for weeks at a time. Wagoning, by the way, was no sinecure. Often it meant to chop a fallen tree out of the road, and then, with handspikes, “man-power the log outen the way.” Sometimes an axle would break (far upon the mountain, of course); then a tree must be felled, and a new axle made on the spot from the green wood, with no tools but axe and jackknife.
At the Post-Office
Trade was mostly by barter, in which ’coon skins and ginseng had the same rank as in the days of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Long credits were given on anticipated crops; but the risks were great and the market limited by local consumption, as it did not pay to haul bulky commodities to the railroad. Hence it was self-preservation for the storekeepers to carry only a slender stock of essentials and take pains to have little left through unproductive times.
As a rule, credit would not be asked so long as anything at all could be offered in trade. When Bill took the last quart of meal from the house, as rations for a bear hunt, his patient Marg walked five miles to the store with a skinny old chicken, last of the flock, and offered to barter it for “a dustin’ o’ salt.” There was not a bite in her house beyond potatoes, and “’taters don’t go good ’thout salt.”
In our primitive community there were no trades, no professions. Every man was his own farmer, blacksmith, gunsmith, carpenter, cobbler, miller, tinker. Someone in his family, or a near neighbor, served him as barber and dentist, and would make him a coffin when he died. One farmer was also the wagoner of the district, as well as storekeeper, magistrate, veterinarian, and accoucheur. He also owned the only “tooth-pullers” in the settlement: a pair of universal forceps that he designed, forged, filed out, and wielded with barbaric grit. His wife kept the only boarding-house for leagues around. Truly, an accomplished couple!
About two-thirds of our householders owned their homes. Of the remainder about three-fifths were renters and two-fifths were squatters, in the sense that these last were permitted to occupy ground for the sake of reporting trespass and putting out fires — or, maybe, to prevent them doing both. Nearly all of the wild land belonged to Northern timber companies who had not yet begun operations (they have done so within the past three years).
Titles were confused, owing
to careless surveys, or guesswork, in the past. Many boundaries overlapped, and
there were bits of no-man’s land here and there, covered by no deed and subject
to entry by anyone who discovered them. Our old frontier always was notorious
for happy-go-lucky surveys and neglect to make legal entry of claims. Thus
Boone lost the fairest parts of the
As our territory was
sparsely occupied, there were none of those “perpendicular farms” so noticeable
in older settlements near the river valleys, where men plow fields as steep as
their own house roofs and till with the hoe many an acre that is steeper still.
John Fox tells of a
Even in our new region many of the fields suffered quickly from erosion. When a forest is cleared there is a spongy humus on the ground surface that is extremely rich, but this washes away in a single season. The soil beneath is good, but thin on the hillsides, and its soluble, fertile ingredients soon leach out and vanish. Without terracing, which I have never seen practiced in the mountains of the South, no field with a surface slope of more than ten degrees (about two feet in ten) will last more than a few years. As one of my neighbors put it: “Thar, I’ve cl’ared me a patch and grubbed hit out — now I can raise me two or three severe craps!”
“Then what?” I asked.
“When corn won’t grow no more I can turn the field into grass a couple o’ years.”
“Then you’ll rotate, and grow corn again?”
“La, no! By that time the land will be so poor hit wouldn’t raise a cuss-fight.”
“But then you must move, and begin all over again. This continual moving must be a great nuisance.”
He rolled his quid and placidly answered: “Huk-uh; when I move, all I haffter do is put out the fire and call the dog.”
His apparent indifference was only philosophy expressed with sardonic humor; just as another neighbor would say, “This is good, strong land, or it wouldn’t hold up all the rocks there is around hyur.”
Right here is the basis for much of what strangers call shiftlessness among the mountaineers. But of that, more anon in other chapters.
In clearing new ground, everyone followed the ancient custom of girdling the tree trunks and letting them stand in spectral ugliness until they rotted and fell. This is a quick and easy way to get rid of the shade that otherwise would stunt the crops, and it prevents such trees as chestnut, buckeye and basswood from sprouting from the stumps. In the fields stood scores of gigantic hemlocks, deadened, that never would be used even for fuel, save as their bark furnished the women with quick-burning stove-wood in wet weather. No one dreamt that hemlock ever would be marketable. And this was only five years ago!
The tillage was as rude and
destructive as anything we read of in pioneer history. The common plow was a
“bull-tongue,” which has aptly been described as “hardly more than a sharpened
stick with a metal rim.” The harrows were of wood, throughout, with locust
teeth (a friend and I made one from the green trees in half a day, and it
lasted three seasons on rocky ground). Sometimes no harrow was used at all, the
plowed ground being “drug” with a big evergreen bough. This needed only to be
withed directly to a pony’s tail, as they used to do in ancient
Corn was the staple crop — in fact, the only crop of most farmers. Some rye was raised along the creek, and a little oats, but our settlement grew no wheat — there was no mill that could grind it. Wheat is raised, to some extent, in the river bottoms, and on the plateaus of the interior. I have seen it flailed out on the bare ground, and winnowed by pouring the grain and chaff from basket to basket while the women fluttered aprons or bed-sheets. Corn is topped for the blade-fodder, the ears gathered from the stalk, and the main stalks afterwards used as “roughness” (roughage). The cribs generally are ramshackle pens, and there is much waste from mold and vermin.
So, too, the gardens are slighted. Late in the season our average garden is a miniature jungle, chiefly of weeds that stand high as one’s head. Cabbage and field beans survive and figure mightily in the diet of the mountaineer. Potatoes generally do well, but few farmers raise enough to see them through the winter. Generally some tobacco is grown for family consumption, the strong “twist” being smoked or chewed indifferently.
An interesting crop in our
neighborhood was ginseng, of which there were several patches in cultivation.
This curious plant is native throughout the
“Though Practice wilt soon
make a man of tolerable Vigour an able Footman, yet, as a help to bear Fatigue
I us’d to chew a Root of Ginseng as I Walk’t along. This kept up my Spirits, and made me trip
away as nimbly in my half Jack-Boots as younger men cou’d in their Shoes. This
Plant is in high Esteem in
Alas that only Chinamen and eighteenth-century Cavaliers could absorb the virtues of this sovereign herb!
A successful ginseng grower of our settlement told me that two acres of the plant will bring an income of $2,500 to $5,000 a year, planting 100,000 to the acre. The roots take eight years to mature. They weigh from one and a half to four ounces each, when fresh, and one-third of this dried. Two acres produce 25,000 roots a year, by progression. The dried root, at that time, brought five dollars a pound. At present, I believe, it is higher. Another friend of mine, who is in this business extensively, tried exporting for himself, but got only $6.50 a pound in Amoy, when the U. S. consul at that port assured him that the real market price was from $12.60 to $24.40. The local trader, knowing American prices, pocketed the difference.
In times of scarcity
many of our people took to the woods and gathered commoner medicinal roots,
such as bloodroot and wild ginger (there are scores of others growing wild in
great profusion), but made only a pittance at it, as synthetic drugs have
mostly taken the place of herbal simples in modern medicine. Women and children
did better, in the days before Christmas, by gathering galax, “hemlock” (leucothoe),
and mistletoe, selling to the dealers at the railroad, who ship them North for
holiday decorations. One bright lad from town informed me, with evident pride
of geography, that “Some of this goes to
The Author in Camp in the Big Smokies
Most of our farmers had neither horse nor mule. For the rough work of cultivating the hillsides a single steer hitched to the “bull-tongue” was better adapted, and the same steer patiently dragged a little sled to the trading post. On steep declivities the sled is more practical than a cart or wagon, because it can go where wheels cannot, it does not require so wide a track, and it “brakes” automatically in going downhill. Nearly all the farmer’s hauling is downhill to his home, or down farther to the village. A sled can be made quite easily by one man, out of wood growing on the spot, and with few iron fittings, or none at all. The runners are usually made of natural sourwood crooks, this timber being chosen because it wears very smooth and does not fur up nor splinter.
The hinterland is naturally
adapted to grazing, rather than to agriculture. As it stands, the best
pasturage is high up in the mountains, where there are “balds” covered with
succulent wild grass that resembles Kentucky bluegrass. Clearing and sowing
would extend such areas indefinitely. The cattle forage for themselves through
eight or nine months of the year, running wild like the razorbacks, and the
only attention given them is when the herdsmen go out to salt them or to mark
the calves. Nearly all the beasts are scrub stock.
The truth is that mountain beef, being fed nothing but grass and browse, with barely enough corn and roughage to keep the animal alive through winter, is blue-fleshed, watery, and tough. If properly reared, the quality would be as good as any. Almost any of our farmers could have had a pasture near home and could have grown hay, but not one in ten would take the trouble. His cattle were only for export — let the buyer fatten them! It should be understood that nobody had any provision for taking care of fresh meat when the weather was not frosty.
On those rare occasions when somebody killed a beef, he had to travel all over the neighborhood to dispose of it in small portions. The carcass was cut up in the same way as a hog, and all parts except the cheap “bilin’ pieces” were sold at the same price: ten cents a pound, or whatever they would bring on the spot. The butchering was done with an axe and a jackknife. The meat was either sliced thin and fried to a crackling, or cut in chunks and boiled furiously just long enough to fit it for boot-heels. What the butcher mangled, the cook damned.
Few sheep were raised in our settlement, and these only for their wool. The untamed Smokies were no place for such defenseless creatures. Sheep will not, cannot, run wild. They are wholly dependent on the fostering hand of man and perish without his shepherding. Curiously enough, our mountaineer knows little or nothing about the goat — an animal perfectly adapted to the free range of the Smokies. I am convinced that goats would be more profitable to the small farmers of the wild mountains than cattle. Goats do not graze, but browse upon the shrubbery, of which there is a vast superfluity in all the Southern mountains. Unlike the weak, timorous and stupid sheep, a flock of goats can fight their own battles against wild animals. They are hardy in any weather, and thrive from their own pickings where other foragers would starve.
A good milch goat gives more and richer milk than the average mountain cow. And a kid yields excellent fresh meat in manageable quantity, at a time when no one would butcher a beef because it would spoil. I used to shut my eyes and imagine the transformation that would be wrought in these mountains by a colony of Swiss, who would turn the coves into gardens, the moderate slopes into orchards, the steeper ones into vineyards, by terracing, and who would export the finest of cheese made from the surplus milk of their goats. But our native mountaineers — well, a man who will not eat beef nor drink fresh cow’s milk, and who despises butter, cannot be interested in anything of the dairy order.
The chickens ran wild and scratched for a living; hence were thin, tough, and poor layers. Eggs seldom were for sale. It was not of much use to try to raise many chickens where they were unprotected from hawks, minks, foxes, weasels and snakes.
Honey often was procured by spotting wild bees to their hoard and chopping the tree, a mild form of sport in which most settlers are expert. Our local preacher had a hundred hives of tame bees, producing 1,500 pounds of honey a year, for which he got ten cents a pound at the railroad.
The mainstay of every farmer, aside from his cornfield, was his litter of razorback hogs. “Old cornbread and sowbelly” are a menu complete for the mountaineer. The wild pig, roaming foot-loose and free over hill and dale, picks up his own living at all seasons and requires no attention at all. He is the cheapest possible source of meat and yields the quickest return: “no other food animal can increase his own weight a hundred and fifty fold in the first eight months of his life.” And so he is regarded by his owner with the same affection that Connemara Paddy bestows upon “the gintleman that pays the rint.”
In physique and mentality, the razorback differs even more from a domestic hog than a wild goose does from a tame one. Shaped in front like a thin wedge, he can go through laurel thickets like a bear. Armored with tough hide cushioned by bristles, he despises thorns, brambles, and rattlesnakes, alike. His extravagantly long snout can scent like a cat’s, and yet burrow, uproot, overturn, as if made of metal. The long legs, thin flanks, pliant hoofs, fit him to run like a deer and climb like a goat. In courage and sagacity he outranks all other beasts. A warrior born, he is also a strategist of the first order. Like man, he lives a communal life, and unites with others of his kind for purposes of defense.
The pig is the only large mammal I know of, besides man, whose eyes will not shine by reflected light — they are too bold and crafty, I wit. The razorback has a mind of his own; not instinct, but mind — whatever psychologists may say. He thinks. Anybody can see that when he is not rooting or sleeping he is studying devilment. He shows remarkable understanding of human speech, especially profane speech, and even an uncanny gift of reading men’s thoughts, whenever those thoughts are directed against the peace and dignity of pigship. He bears grudges, broods over indignities, and plans redresses for the morrow or the week after. If he cannot get even with you, he will lay for your unsuspecting friend. And at the last, when arrested in his crimes and lodged in the pen, he is liable to attacks of mania from sheer helpless rage.
If you camp out in the mountains, nothing will molest you but razorback hogs. Bears will flee and wildcats sneak to their dens, but the moment incense of cooking arises from your camp every pig within two miles will scent it and hasten to call. You may throw your arm out of joint: they will laugh in your face. You may curse in five languages: it is music to their titillating ears.
Throughout summer and autumn I cooked out of doors, on the woodsman’s range of forked stakes and a lug-pole spanning parallel beds of rock. When the pigs came, I fed them red-pepper pie. Then all said good-bye to my hospitality save one slab-sided, tusky old boar — and he planned a campaign. At the first smell of smoke he would start for my premises. Hiding securely in a nearby thicket, he would spy on the operations until my stew got to simmering gently and I would retire to the cabin and get my fists in the dough. Then, charging at speed, he would knock down a stake, trip the lug-pole, and send my dinner flying. Every day he would do this. It got so that I had to sit there facing the fire all through my cooking, or that beast of a hog would ruin me. With this I thought he was outgeneraled. Idle dream! He would slip off to my favorite neighbor’s, break through the garden fence, and raise Ned instanter — all because he hated me, for that peppery fraud, and knew that Bob and I were cronies.
I dubbed this pig Belial; a name that Bob promptly adapted to his own notion by calling it Be-liar. “That Be-liar,” swore he, “would cross hell on a rotten rail to git into my ’tater patch!”
Finally I could stand it no longer, and took down my rifle. It was a nail-driver, and I, through constant practice in beheading squirrels, was in good form. However, in the mountains it is more heinous to kill another man’s pig than to shoot the owner. So I took craft for my guide, and guile for my heart’s counsel. I stalked Belial as stealthily as ever hunter crept on an antelope against the wind. At last I had him dead right: broadside to me and motionless as if in a daydream. I knew that if I drilled his ear, or shot his tail clean off, it would only make him meaner than ever. He sported an uncommonly fine tail, and was proud to flaunt it. I drew down on that member, purposely a trifle scant, fired, and — away scuttled that boar, with a broken tail that would dangle and cling to him disgracefully through life.
Exit Belial! It was
equivalent to a broken heart. He emigrated, or committed suicide, I know not
which, but the
1 A friend of mine on the U. S. Geological Survey tested with his clinometer a mountain cornfield that sloped at an angle of fifty degrees