No Place Like Home…in More Ways
By Beverly Hicks Burch
Why are we so stupid when we’re young? We spend wasted time…days, months even years pursuing the hubris of youth. Time is spent on things that in the grander scheme of life mean absolutely nothing in the long run. We can never, never ever get back that lost time and all of the experiences we let pass us by even though they were so close to us we could have reached out and touched them with our fingertips.
I realize in many situations we were just unaware or even caught up in the daily struggle to survive in an ever increasingly hostile world. Other times we were just foolish. We get hung up on bad hair days, the right pair of shoes, the smallest of slights or arriving at the finish line with the most “stuff” or toys.
Recently as I sat on my bed one morning and looked out the window of my hotel my eyes drank in and feasted upon the towering mountains and vistas of North Carolina. Even though autumn colors were past their prime for the area and some trees were already shivering bare in winter temperatures and snow flurries, it was still stunning…even breathtaking. Some trees still stubbornly held onto their fall wardrobe and as that pattern repeated as mountain yields to yet another silent giant, the effect of scattered patches of color resemble a patchwork quilt once crafted out of need by the mountain women of the area.
Heritage. Legacy. I always feel that when I am in the mountains. Little did I know when I was younger what my heritage and legacy truly was. I’ve never been secretive of the fact I was born in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. My earliest and formative memories are from the area. Even though from the age of 12 on ward I grew up in and lived in my beloved Alabama, East Tennessee was “back home” or as Kenney Chesney puts it…“back where I come from”. (Kenney, by the way is an East Tennessee home boy.)
The mountains are my roots. They run deep and can not be torn away from me. When I first met Tall & Handsome, I called myself an East Tennessee mountain gal. I’ve often speculated the feeling I have for the mountains runs through my veins carried by my Scots – Irish ancestry. (Of course there’s a little German and it’s said Native American thrown in the mix.) One of my most favorite respites has been to return to the area and hole up in a cabin on the “quiet side of the Smokies”…in sleepy little Townsend, the little burg where my Daddy was born.
Recently as I continued to transcribe the census records from that area for 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 I was reminded of my roots and ancestral home. I also learned a few new tidbits. I knew my Papaw…my paternal grandfather, Jonas Hicks, had worked for the Little River Lumber Company…a local saw mill. One census record enumerated his occupation as “Retail – grocery salesman”. That explains the picture of him standing behind the counter in an old “general store”. Papaw worked at the company store…the lumber company store. I knew Papaw had been considered a master carpenter by many, skills I guess he learned from working around that lumber yard. In other census records his occupation was listed a “labor” at the lumber yard or saw mill.
Papaw was like a mountain Renaissance Man…he was a man of many skills, talents and even trades. He could play the fiddle, clog (that’s dancing kids), was a carpenter and was the substitute mail carrier for Cade’s Cove. Cade’s Cove is a secluded little valley nestled in the Smokies. There are days in the Cove when you can still see that infamous “smoke” rising from the surrounding mountains. It’s almost mystical to experience and fills the mind and imagination of by-gone days and lives.
Decades ago…and still today…there was one way in…and one way out of the Cove. Years ago that was by horse and wagon. You can still see the wagon wheel ruts left on long ago traveled routes. Today there is a loop maintained by the US National Park System that carries you around and through the Cove. You pass by and through old home places, historical cemeteries and churches. An old cantilever barn is a favorite landmark for visitors. Recently I found out there was a young lad who caught his first glimpse of the Cove while accompanying my grandfather on his mail route. That young lad was my dad…
The Old Cantilever Barn in Cade’s Cove
As I was perusing the aforementioned census records, I noticed the name “Townsend” popped up as a family surname name with a group of people who were originally from Pennsylvania. As unthinkable as it is for a Southern gal, it seemed Townsend got its current name from a “carpet bag” family. When I mentioned my findings to my parents, they confirmed my supposition. I don’t know if the Townsend family stayed after the lumber business crashed, but the name stuck…
My family is musical…on both sides. As I mentioned Papaw was a fiddler, an ace clogger and he sang. Apples don’t fall far from the tree as they say and as a result, his boys picked up musical talents. Daddy and his brother J. H. or Jay as Daddy called him were both part of the music program at church. Music was a big part of their church life. (Another tangent story is about the pastor of that church…my maternal grandfather. Yes, Daddy married the preacher’s daughter. And, that my friends, is a story for a different time.)
Alcoa Church of God Music Group – I’m related to 5 or 6 people in this picture. My grandfather, the pastor in the 1st person on the left in the back row; my maternal aunt is the 3rd person from the left in the back row; my paternal uncle JH Hicks is in the back row holding the long neck guitar and I believe his wife is on the left. My daddy Oakley Hicks is in the front row holding the steel guitar and my mother’s brother is sitting on the edge of the stage on the right wearing the headphones.
I vaguely remember Uncle Jay playing the guitar and singing. Daddy on the other hand is a different story. Since I was “knee high to a grasshopper” I have heard my Daddy play the steel guitar, regular guitar, pick a few songs on the piano and sing in that smooth, perfect baritone of his. There are times when I hear my Daddy sing that I am almost brought to tears…I just can’t bare to think of a time when I will not be able hear him sing again…
Daddy – Oakley Hicks ca 1950’s
Young JH Hicks
So, where did all that talent come from? We can give some of the credit to Papaw. I never really considered Mamaw “musical”. As a matter of fact, I don’t know if Versie (Mamaw to us kids and Mom to her boys) could even “carry a tune in a bucket”. But, read on…
Versie was a one of a kind. She had grown up hard in the mountains of Western North Carolina. She was born in Hanging Dog in Cherokee County, a county named for the local tribe of Native Americans and an area surrounded by the Smokies, the Blue Ridge Mountains and water…it was a place of green and blue and abundant beauty, but a hard life nonetheless. Her family had drifted down into the area years before from other Western North Carolina counties.
Mamaw was the next to youngest child of nine born to George Washington Allman and Lucinda Lunsford. From what I have heard through “family lore”, it was a tumultuous relationship. It seems that George may have had a little “side” business…called moonshine, or at least running the “mountain dew” for the moonshiners. He also may have had an eye for the ladies. Some descriptions have him as a “red-headed Irishman”
George Washington Allman
They say Lucinda was a hard woman…difficult even. But, I guess she had to be raising nine kids on her own. Some say she drove George off with her hard ways, other just say George left. Whatever the reason, the end result was the same…Lucinda was left with nine kids to raise, practically on her own. Mamaw was a young girl when George left. In later years George ended up in LaFollette, Tennessee in Campbell County with a new “wife” and daughter and some notoriety…which usually seem to center around women and `shine.
Mamaw looked as if she had been born on the reservation there in Western NC. Long jet black hair, dark eyes and high cheek bones and a nose that screamed “Native American” ancestry rounded out her physical features. Even as she aged…and at the time of her death at age 85 her head was still peppered with jet black hair…she never totally grayed. He boys lovingly and kiddingly called her “squaw”. She looked that much like a Native American…and she was formidable!
Versie Allman Hicks Dec. 1968 – Mamaw was 2 months shy of her 66th birthday here
Mamaw’s will and fortitude was like concrete…and steel. Concrete surrounded that stubborn head of hers. In Versie’s mind, cloths were never truly clean unless they were pounded with a rock at the local creek or river…she just didn’t trust those new fangled contraptions called washing machines. She could be found on occasion raking the yard in high heel shoes…in her book, the hard way was the best way.
Daddy tells a story from his childhood. One day Mamaw had tasked Daddy and one of his brothers, Uncle Jay if I remember correctly to cut some wood. She had given them a cross cut saw…one of those saws with handles at both ends for two people to use at once. Papaw came home and saw the boys struggling with a saw so dull it wouldn’t cut butter. Smart man that he was, he sharpened that puppy up for the boys and in no time they were burning through wood like greased lightening.
Well, of course Mamaw noticed the new, efficient manner in which her boys were working…fast, speedy, efficient and noticeably more productive…and yes, a tad easier! (Cutting wood could never be called “easy”.) There was a reckoning coming…Papaw heard about it first!
“Jonas, did you sharpen that saw for the boys?”
“Well, yes, Versie, that saw was duller than a table knife. Now they can really cut wood with it.”
“Well, Jonas, I guess I’ll just have to whip those boys now.” Typical Mamaw logic! I don’t recall if they really did get a walloping for the sharpened saw or not…
Jonas and his Boys – Daddy is the little scutterhead in the front
As she aged, she didn’t become any less formidable…in mind set or appearance. Once, when he was about four years old, my son rode up from Birmingham to East Tennessee with Daddy to visit Mamaw. When they returned I asked Jared what he thought of Mamaw. He reply was classic “out of the mouths of babes”.
“Well, Mom, she reminded me of one of those Presidents.”
I had never heard Versie described as Presidential! My mind did flip flops as I tried to figure this one out and not trounce on the little one’s opinion…so, when in doubt…just ask…
“What do you mean, honey?”
“You know Mom…one of those Presidents up on that mountain.”
Internally, my mind collapsed into a fit of laughter and mirth…Jared was telling me his great-grandmother reminded him of a President on Mount Rushmore! Cragged and wrinkled…and formidable, especially to a four year old. No, Versie and Estee were not acquainted…
Where and how Mamaw got this exotic, dark look is a mystery. Family lore says she inherited the Native American blood from her mother, Lucinda. One picture I’ve seen of Lucinda reveals a woman with lighter hair than my grandmother and an almost “Germanic” appearance…Daddy has mentioned his maternal grandmother and his memory of her is with dark hair.
Lucinda Lunsford Allman & 2 Daughters – Lucinda is seated
Even though I’ve enumerated Lucinda and her family on some census records, there is a lot I don’t know about her and the Lunsford side of my family. Unfortunately, Mamaw died before I realized the value and started pursuing family history and heritage. I just assumed they were hardscrabble mountain people…well, you know what they say about assuming…
You see, as you research and dig and record census records, your family files and data base begins to grow and incorporate quite a few names and families…did I say thousands of names…yes, thousands? My files hold the history for 5,000+ people. (That’s apiece on both my families and Tall & Handsome’s families.) I had recorded many of my grandmother’s kin…and often wondered who and what they had been in their life.
Well, recently I had the coincidental fortune to discover the life story of one such kin folk.
I had been in Asheville, NC with Tall & Handsome. As he is want to do, he brings me reading material…he knows I hate an idle mind. T & H had brought me a local event and history magazine related to Asheville and the surrounding area.
After I got home, one day I was flipping through the magazine when an article caught my eye. The article was about an upcoming bluegrass festival in Asheville. The event was called “The Bascom Lamar ‘Minstrel of the Appalachian’ Lunsford Festival”. Humm…the name seemed vaguely familiar…Lunsford had been my great-grandmother’s maiden name and the given names “Bascom Lamar” rang a distant bell. So, being the curious gal that I am, I opened up my family file, searched it a bit and…bingo!…there it was…the name Bascom Lamar Lunsford in my family file.
Being the research hound that I am, I went into motion, trying to learn what I could about this distant kin who had a festival that carried his name. I was surprised to say the least.
You see, Bascom Lamar Lunsford was a “rock” star of his time. He was born on the campus of Mars Hill College in Madison County, NC. His father had been a teacher at the college. At a young age Bascom picked up musical instruments and the rest is history as they say.
Oh, music wasn’t Bascom’s only mark and legacy on the mountain community…or the state of North Carolina. He went on to college (what is now Duke University), became a lawyer, the reading clerk of the NC House of Representatives, teacher, fruit tree salesman, “revenuer”, writer, musician and more. He even once played mountain music for the King and Queen of England at the request of the US President at the time. He was a very busy man…
He wrote the song “Good Ol’ Mountain Dew”…a song about that aforementioned elixir of the mountains…moonshine. Legend has it Bascom wrote the song after defending a client who was on trial for the production of that famous beverage. Bascom made the bold move of entering a sample of his client’s product into evidence for the judge to taste. The case against his client was dismissed after the judge sample the moonshine and said anyone who made “dew” that good didn’t belong in jail. Those words gave birth to the famous song which was used in the first add campaign for the soft drink Mountain Dew.
Bascom’s biggest legacy was preserving the music of the people of the South and Appalachia. Because of Bascom, the Smithsonian has the largest collection of the folk music of the area. Bascom became known as the “Minstrel of Appalachia”. In 1928 Bascom was asked to perform at the Asheville Rhododendron Festival…long considered the first festival of its kind…the granddaddy of bluegrass music festivals. The Festival continued for many years under that name. In 1967, the name of the festival was changed to the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Music Festival. October 2008 marked the festival’s 41st anniversary.
It’s not often you run across such delightful surprises like finding Bascom and his legacy. All too often we fritter away the memories and history of our elder folk and it’s lost for ever. We get caught up in that daily struggle I mentioned before. Unfortunately for us, we don’t realize we are frittering away our history…our legacy and what makes us…us.
I wish I had known more about that side of my family. Did my grandmother even realize Bascom was her third cousin? Did she have pride in his notoriety? Was anyone else musical in the family?
For me, this little discovery just goes a little further in explaining why I am who I am and why I seem drawn to some things. I never really understood until now why a suburban raised gal like me had this strange pull toward bluegrass music. I guess it’s in the blood…
Folks, the 2008 holiday season is upon us…knocking at our door. I don’t think I can admonish you enough…take the time this year to really talk to the older members of your family and get to know your family history. You just don’t know what little gems you will discover…after all…there’s no place like home…
© 2008 Beverly Hicks Burch All Rights Reserved.