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Wednesday, 26 March 2014 14:43

Another storyteller to add to the list

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For years I’ve been enjoying and sometimes writing about a group of old-time Western North Carolina storytellers I think of collectively as “The Mountain Humorists.” These weren’t professional storytellers in the sense that they made formal appearances for pay or aspired to produce books. They were individuals located in various counties during the late 19th and early 20th centuries who could be counted upon to tickle their neighbors’ funny bones on a regular basis with either tall tales or humorous observations. 

 

These include Wid Medford and Turkey George Palmer of Haywood County, as well as Quill Rose, Bob Barnett (as quoted by Horace Kephart) and Mark Cathey of Swain County. I have recently added another name to this category: Britton Sawyer of Graham County. 

While looking for some information related to that county’s history, I stumbled upon a profile of Sawyer written by Howard Edwards for “Graham County Heritage” (Graham County Historical Society, 1992). The profile is the lead article in a section headed “Humorous Highlights.” Edwards states that Sawyer was 85 when he died.

We are told that “Britton, a strong man, was born on Panther Creek in Graham County, and grew up there when the big timber was being harvested. He spent his life in timber and construction work ….  He usually met one with a smile and a low laugh. His drawl was slower than the average, just enough to make it noticeable. He pronounced his words with a slight twist that gave him a dialect all his own. The word ‘man’ he pronounced with a broad ‘a’ – ‘mahn.’ Old-timers who tell his stories never fail to tell his last line, mimicking his drawl and pronunciation.” Here are several Britton Sawyer anecdotes, as related by Howard Edwards.

“Once during World War I, a group of men were discussing rifles. Britton told them, ‘I’ve got a rifle that will shoot through a railway iron.’ As there was no negative response, he added — ‘lengthwise.’”       

One day Sawyer spotted a bunch of blackbirds in a ditch. Aligning himself just right at the open end of the ditch, he killed them all with a single shot. He counted them carefully and reported to a group of his friends that he had killed “‘nine hundred and ninety-nine blackbirds.  His young son was present and observed that “‘Why, Dad, I would have said just a thousand.’ Britton looked at the boy reproachfully and said, ‘Son, I would not tell a lie for one little old blackbird.’”

Sawyer was so sick one time “that he wished one of his friends would shoot him and put him out of his misery …. After a short conversation, one of them got up, glanced at his rifle and said, ‘Well, Britton, I can shoot you any time now.’ Britton looked up from his sick bed and drawled weakly, ‘I’m a LEETLE BETTER.’”

While in Arkansas visiting his brother, Sawyer shot an eagle from a considerable distance. According to Edwards, “On his return he told a group of friends, ‘At twelve o’clock one day, I saw a tiny speck right up against the sun …. I got my rifle and took dead aim and fired. And the next day at exactly twelve o’clock, the biggest eagle I ever saw fell in the front yard.’”

While visiting the Gulf Coast one time, Sawyer decided to catch a big fish. He commissioned a local blacksmith to construct a huge hook to which he attached a beef head for bait. How big was the fish he caught with this outsized rig? According to Edwards, Sawyer modestly observed:“‘When I landed the fish, the level of the water in the Gulf of Mexico sank three feet.’”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .      

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