WNC was once home to marble mines

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in June 2004)

The destiny of a given region is largely determined by its geology, topography, flora, and climate. That’s certainly been the instance here in the southern mountains, where logging and mining have been supplanted as the major industries by recreation and ecotourism. A prime example of this transition exists in the southwestern tip of North Carolina.

The story behind the man: First-ever Horace Kephart biography explores a complex man and momentous life

Horace Kephart has been dead for 88 years, but his name and his story still pull an undercurrent through Western North Carolina. 

Kephart is acclaimed as the father of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an outdoorsman gifted with an adventurous soul, and the author of such staples of regional literature as Our Southern Highlanders and Camping and Woodcraft. He’s derided, too, as a man with a severe drinking problem, a shirker of family responsibility and an outsider who profited off of sometimes less-than-flattering depictions of the locals. 

Pain was the norm with old-time dentistry

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News on May 14, 2003.

Old-time dentistry as practiced here in the Smokies region wasn’t pretty. All of the descriptions I have found make it seem just about barbaric, but, then again, when you’ve got tooth problems you’ll resort to just about any remedy. John Parris, in a chapter titled “Tooth-jumpin’ With A Hammer” in his book These Storied Mountains (1972), provides these insights in regard to a great-uncle who practiced homespun dentistry.

The first truly showy woodland flower

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in May 2005.

Hepatica doesn’t display the earliest flowers that bloom each year. Those of bitter cress, henbit, purple dead nettle, bird’s-eye speedwell, and others appear in open moist sunny spots by late January or early February. But to my way of thinking, year in and year out, hepatica is the earliest of the truly showy woodland wildflowers. Trailing arbutus has a reputation in this regard. One often reads of those who discover it blooming under late snows. But I hardly ever observe arbutus doing much more than budding before April. Hepatica can still be found in bloom in early May in the higher elevation hardwood forests.     

Cherokee planting method was ‘agronomically sound’

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in April 2004.

These days my wife, Elizabeth, and I just play around at gardening in several raised beds situated beside the front deck of our home. This year, she has already put out patches of spinach, peas, and lettuce.  These will be followed in early May by Swiss chard, a few tomato plants and cucumber vines, a “teepee” of pole beans, and eight or so sweet banana peppers. We do get pretty serious in the fall, trying to establish by early September beds of potherbs (rape, turnip greens, kale, etc.) that will serve as cooked greens during the winter months. 

Blackgum tree trunks have many uses

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in March 2002.

Some months ago I wrote about how the early white settlers here in the Blue Ridge utilized the natural bends in sourwood tree trunks as runners for sleds. Lately I’ve been thinking about the way they utilized the hollow trunks of blackgum trees. 

Birch stills were more common than moonshine stills

Editor’s note: This was first published in 2003.

All this spring, golden birch catkins were dangling throughout the woodlands of the Smokies region. These are the male, pollen-carrying part of the sweet birch (Betula lenta), also known as black, cherry, or mahogany birch. 

They served as a reminder that moonshine stills weren’t the only kind of stills that once proliferated the region. Indeed, there was a time more than a century ago — way back in the 1800s — when birch stills were more common than moonshine stills. For one thing, they weren’t illegal and didn’t need to be hidden. 

Junaluska’s story as told through historians

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in a February 2002 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

Every reader of this column has heard of the person known as Junaluska. But what do you really know about him?  What is his true significance? I decided to look into the matter. Here’s what I found. The sources I primarily depended upon for this account are cited below. 

Mountain lion lore

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in a March 2006 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

I frequently hear from people who have spotted a mountain lion in Western North Carolina. Or at least they think that’s what they saw. I’d guess that about 95 percent of these sightings are of something else. But the other 5 percent seem to be pretty reliable.

Limestone ‘sink’ is just over the mountain

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in a January 2005 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

“If it form the one landscape that we …

Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly

Because it dissolves in water … 

What I hear is the murmur of underground streams, 

what I see is a limestone landscape.”

— “In Praise Of Limestone,“ W.H. Auden (May 1948)

The topography and vegetation here in our part of Western North Carolina is among the most varied and attractive in North America. Most all of the distinctive natural features of the southern highlands — from spruce-fir and upland hardwood coves to highland bogs, escarpment gorges, and grassy balds — can readily be sought out and explored here in the far southwestern counties of the state.

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