What was one man doing with so much mountain? The Traveler’s Story.

More chapters from Other Voices, Other Towns

A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns

Chapter 2

The Scene: The Great Smoky Mountains

The Setting: The ghost town of Elkmont, Tennessee

When the mountain farm boys stumbled awkwardly across the threshold of puberty, they diligently searched the corncribs from barn to barn. When someone found a red ear in the pile, he would have the pleasure and sinful distinction of being able to kiss the girl of his choice, provided he could talk her into such a provocative deed.

“We couldn’t be choosey about the girls,” Lem said.

“Why not?”

“There weren’t many of them.”

“How did you find a wife?” I asked.

“We took whatever was available.”

“And what if you married the wrong girl?”

“My daddy always said, ‘You’ve burnt a blister, now sit on it.’”

The mountains bred strong, self-reliant individuals. Lem Ownby called them stubborn. They were his neighbors, and they had been gone so long he sometimes wondered if he had ever really known them at all.

He remembered the day Ephraim Ogle and John Hampton went up the mountain together to bring down an old mule for plowing. “He’s stubborn and wild,” Ephraim said. “There can’t nobody ride him.”

`           John Hampton snorted. He gritted his teeth and rubbed his hands on the back of his overalls. He spit once, then twice. “There ain’t never been a mule I can’t ride,” he said.

John Hampton mounted. The mule ambled slowly, even leisurely, on down the dirt road. John smiled. Nothing to it. He could ride anything. At the mud hole, the mule balked. He laid his ears back, peeled his eyes, stopped, dug in his heels, and would not take another step. John Hampton yelled. Then he pleaded. Finally he kicked the mule in the ribs. A moment later, he was pulling himself, head first, out of the mud hole.

Ephraim ambled over and said loudly, “He threw you, didn’t he?”

John Hampton shrugged and wiped the mud from his eyes. “Well, he sorta did, and he sorta didn’t,” John replied. “I was aiming on getting off anyway.”

Down in the valley was the dastardly Ephraim Bales. He could hoe corn all day long, some said, without ever standing on Tennessee soil. Ephraim Bales would simply walk across the rocks, find a pile of loose dirt, press a corn kernel into the earth, then step on to the next stone. His was a hard life. But then, it was never easy living in a two-room cabin with a wife, nine children, and a mother-in-law. Ephraim Bales was known as the meanest man in the valley. He had his reasons. He was feared. He was cursed. Men rode miles out of their way to keep from passing his cabin.

No one mourned him when he died. Ephraim Bales was buried in the rich sod of his own backyard, and no one came to the funeral. The pews were as empty as his life had been. On Monday, Bales had stalked off into the woods and cut down a chestnut tree, then hauled it by mule to a sawmill. “Cut it up in planks,” he ordered.

He stacked the planks, threw them in the back of his wagon, and brought them home. “When I die,” he told his wife, “make my casket out of them chestnut planks.”

“Why?”

“So when I go through hell,” he said, “I can go through hell a-cracking.”

“God always did say he was gonna make the devil suffer,” Lem Ownby said as he rocked beside the potbellied stove, beneath a clock that no longer ticked. “He did. He sent Ephraim Bales to old Lucifer.”

As a boy, Lem Ownby made a stab at attending the one-room schoolhouse up on Meigs Mountain. “Mostly it was walking in the front door and out the back one,” he recalled. Crops stood in his way. So did the family chores. “It was hard to read books when you’re going hungry,” Lem said. “What I tried to do was keep from going hungry.”

He headed out into the Smokies and gathered a mess of greens: lamb’s tongue, old field mustard, field cress, crow’s foot plant, and poke shoots. He shrugged, “Daddy always said that if it don’t kill a cow, then it won’t kill us.” The garden was a struggle, and Lem Ownby could not recall any day he had been without a mule and a hoe. “Mostly we raised rocks,” he said. The Ownby family dug up potatoes in the spring and managed to shuck a patch of corn, provided, of course, the ground squirrels didn’t come out, either day or night, and steal a winter’s worth of cobs and kernels. The Ownbys always farmed the steep side of the Smokies, which was the only side they had.

Lem Ownby found that sometimes he could depend on the mule, and sometimes he couldn’t, and sometimes it wasn’t even worth the effort. “Mules have a bad habit of sitting down when they want to and taking themselves a rest,” Lem said, “and you wind up grabbing the blister end of an old hoe and working for yourself.”

The mountains gave him little mercy, when they offered him mercy at all, but they gave him a chance to survive. So Lem Ownby took his broad axe and with a pair of callused hands he almost scalped them bald.  The loggers saw dollar signs growing tall and thick on the slopes of the Smokies. They hired men like Lem Ownby, tossed them an axe and crosscut saw, kept them in the timber and working for eleven hours a day, and paid them a dollar fifty every time the sun went down.

“How many trees did you cut?” I asked Lem.

“About a hundred and seventy-five a day,” he said. “A good timber cutter could do a little better.”

“Were you selective about the trees you cut?”

“If they were on the mountain, we took them down.”

“Were they hardwoods?

“Durn right they was hard.”

So down came the maple, red cherry, buckeye, yellow poplar, and hemlock. “We cut one poplar that was nine feet in diameter,” Lem said proudly. “It was so durn big the flatcar couldn’t hold but one log.”

The Saga of Lem Ownby continues tomorrow.

Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.

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