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Wednesday, 15 August 2012 14:34

Rare book harkens back to a different time

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bookRamblin’ in Rabun is a reprint of a delightful book that was written down in Clayton, Ga., some 40 years ago. I have always been a fan of books that were compiled by some imaginative journalist who became profoundly interested in the region where he lived and decided to develop a column composed of anecdotes, jokes and vanquished history. L.P. Cross started “Ramblin’ in Rabun” back in 1937 and it continued until 1953. During that time, Cross spent his weekends prowling through Rabun County, collecting odd bits of folklore, oral history and “folksy wisdom.” The column was extremely popular, and in time people sought Cross out to share some special bit of information, such as folk remedies, ancient murders and gossip.

After The Tribune was sold in 1953, Cross attempted to compile all of his columns and publish them. That didn’t happen until 1964. It was quite popular at one time, but eventually, it went out of print until George and Vicki Prater, who operate a bookstore in Clayton, decided to do a bit of minor editing and reissued Ramblin’ in Rabun in 2007.

When I was teaching elderhostel in north Georgia, I often had local people in my classes who told me marvelous bits of history and folklore that they had gleaned from L.P. Cross’ collection of memorabilia, but I could never lay my hands on a copy. I even spent hours in the Clayton Tribune office searching the “morgue files” and never found a column. The only viable information I had was a single page that had been photographed by one of my students’ grandfather and dealt with a man who swapped his wife for a horse. The story fascinated me because everybody was happy with the trade — the horse owner, the husband and the wife!

Recently, while I was surfing obscure bookstores on the internet, I found it: Ramblin’ in Rabun for $14.95 and shipping. I called the Prater Book Store in Clayton, and finally, after all of this time, I have it. It is all I hoped that it would be. For anyone interested in the history of this region and the thousands of fading customs and traditions that characterized the way our grandparents lived, this book is a “must have.”

Ramblin’ in Rabun reminds me of Louise Howe Bailey’s, Draw Up a Chair which is a collection of the author’s columns for the Hendersonville Times-News and contains hundreds of anecdotes, personal memories and obscure histories of Henderson County. There is also a marvelous collection called Jes’ A’ Broguin’ About by Scottie Andrews that did the same thing for the region surrounding Haywood County. However, here is the point. All of these books have a precarious existence. They are either out of print or in danger of becoming so.

Reading Ramblin’ in Rabun evokes a lost era ... a time when affluent folks in south Georgia and South Carolina fled the sweltering summer heat by catching a train to the north Georgia mountains and renting buggies and surreys which would take them to a dozen summer hotels with great, sweeping porches that provided panoramic views of cool mountain coves. Here, they could sit sipping mint juleps and eating potato custard while they listened to marvelous music and tales of the Blue Ridge.

One of Cross’ favorite gambits was to solicit the assistance of his readers in solving a mystery. For example, when he asked if anyone knew the purpose of the three large blocks of granite next to the Clayton Inn, an elderly reader promptly informed him that they were called “upping blocks,” and they were used by ladies who were patrons of the Inn to mount horses. Since many wore bustles, they could not mount horses in the normal fashion. Instead, they stepped from the top of one of these gradated stones into the saddle.

Cross’ columns are seasoned with marvelous sayings like “Promises and pie crusts were made to be broken.” When readers complained about the editor’s misspelled words, he replied, “As Andrew Jackson once observed, a man has little imagination if he can only spell a word one way.” Cross also engaged in spirited, tongue-in-cheek feuds with other editors in the region on political and moral issues and was noted for the recommendation that the Supreme Court be replaced by a less expensive system designed to save money and it would be called “The Inferior Court.” Cross developed a list of offenses that should be referred to this “lesser court.” The suggestions were humorous but the idea actually sounded like a practical solution.

Cross turns out to be a devoted collector of folklore and tall tales, and Ramblin’ in Rabun is packed with vintage tales about talking dogs (one of my favorites) and blue jays who commute between hell and Clayton and a dozen “snake stories.” (I loved the one about the rattlesnake hunters who mistook the sound of the barber’s new clippers for an angry serpent. There are also accounts of folkways, like the need to “salt the bees” to keep your hive happy. In addition, there are some imaginative events that predict the weather. In addition to the groundhog and his shadow, there are cats, dogs, pigs and mules that foretell cold weather by their behavior.

There is a marvelous tale that may very well be true about the “Wild Man of Tallulah Gorge,” who was later identified as Virgil Ledford, a man who lived in a cave in the gorge for many years. There is an interesting account of a “sinking mountain,” which actually sunk some 50 feet overnight and Cross spent considerable time monitoring the event. I especially enjoyed the description of a school ritual that Cross called “wiping the slates,” in which Clayton school children carried their writing slates to a nearby creek when they became illegible due to a build-up of grease and chalk. Cross finds this task good advice for all of us (politicians and family members). Occasionally, we all need to start with “a clean slate.”

Some of Cross’ recorded beliefs and superstitions of Rabun County were familiar to me. For example, like this newspaperman’s neighbors, my family believed that a hard rain invariably came after the “road-scraper” came to Rhodes Cove. Then, there was the adage that Cross used to warn against having low expectations of life: “Don’t take a small pail when you go to milk the cow. It might discourage her.”

What may be Ramblin’ in Rabun’s most appealing characteristic is the one that has vanished from today’s small-town press. That is the personal warmth and intimacy that exists between the columnist and his readers. Cross call’s his neighbors by name; criticizes the town officials with good humor and occasionally scolds them for inaction or a lack of imagination. He also likes to embarrass them. For example, he sometimes to use his column to complain about tools that have been borrowed and not returned. Finally, what is most obvious is that L. P. Cross loved the people of Clayton ... and they loved him.

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