Spotlight On Music In Appalachia 2010

Spotlight On Music In Appalachia – Copperhill TN

TCC teamsters @ 1912 Polk County News 

Photo provided by Polk County News

Fiddling George Barnes, Last of the Copper Haulers

By Ethelene Dyer Jones

A considerable amount of romance (meaning legend, mystery, adventure) is tied to the days of early mining and copper exchange in the Copper Basin. This is especially true of the men who were known as the copper haulers along the Old Copper Road. Perhaps none of them were as well known or had as many admirers as George B. Barnes.

We have perhaps heard stories of him, and if we have visited the Ducktown Basin Museum, we have seen displayed there the fine old fiddle that once belonged to this copper hauler, citizen and fiddle-player, George Barnes.

James Barnes (June 13, 1811-August 9, 1859) and his wife, Susan (maiden name unknown – September 23, 1813 – October 14, 1886) had five known children. Daughter Emaline (August, 1836 – July 9, 1885) married first, Enoch Farmer about 1854, and after he was killed in the Civil War, she married, second, John W. Headrick. George B. Barnes (March 20, 1840 – November 5, 1919) married Sarah Gassaway about 1860. They had a daughter, Amanda, who married William Leander Dalton. Nancy was born about 1842, but whether she lived to adulthood is not known. Martha Ann was born about 1844 and married Samuel J. Moore, Jr. in 1869. William C. Barnes, known as Billy, was born January 21, 1872. This younger brother worked with George in the copper mines and as a hauler.

Captain Julius Raht, who had a great influence on the economic growth of the Ducktown Basin area, purchased a fine violin on his travels to Cincinnati or elsewhere and made a gift of the violin to George B. Barnes. Endowed with a natural talent with music, and with the mountain gift of making the strings sing, George was much in demand as an entertainer and a fiddler at various parties throughout the Basin area.

Copper haulers wagon3 polk county news
Photo provided by Polk County News

The copper haulers would often stop off at what was known as the Halfway House, about mid-way between Ducktown and Cleveland, Tennessee on their journey along the Old Copper Road. Mr. Roy G. Lillard, historian, in his book, Polk County, Tennessee, 1839-1999, gives a list of the men employed as copper haulers. There may have been more, but these were documented: George Barnes, I. A. Gassaway, James Rymer, W. C. Barnes (George’s brother), R. Boyd, W. P. Barker, A. J. Cloud, J. H. Williams, R. M. Cole, James Lingerfelt, John Lowry, William Center and W. A. Center. From time to time others joined in the hauls:  Major J. C. Duff, Taylor Duff, Parker Duff, Pen Jones, Jim Ingram, Asbury Blankenship, Joe Dunn, Joe Hasking, Reuben Carver, Samp Orr, Ephraim Woody, Jim Hughes, Jay Fry, Tom Bates, William Williamson, Quint Gilliland, John Hutchins, Posey Parker, Rev. W. H. Rymer, John Moody, Joe Cain and a Greer boy who lost his life along the route. (See Lillard, page 166).  These surnames read like a roster of present-day citizens still in the Copper Basin.

The load limit, strictly enforced, was no more than 500 pounds of copper per draft animal in the team. If a hauler had two mules, his cargo could weigh at 1,000 pounds. But four, six and eight mule teams were not uncommon, and give an idea of the weight of copper these haulers moved. The road was through rough terrain and of poor quality. It was not unusual for the wagon to sink into a rut, and with the grade difficult anyway, the poor mules would stall.

Some of the copper haulers, not as gentle and humane as George Barnes, would use a black snake whip to coerce the mules to move. Mr. Barnes was noted for getting out his violin to play music to soothe the mules. Legend holds that his method for getting the stalled team to pull the load out of the ditch and to get back onto the road worked every time.

At the Halfway House, guests never seemed too tired to hear George Barnes play his fiddle.  A little hoe-down never hurt anyone, and especially the copper haulers. Their spirits were lifted and the music made their stop-over more enjoyable. Captain Julius Raht himself purchased the Halfway House after the Civil War in 1866. He made it into a fashionable place to stop for overnight stays, to eat and to be entertained. Who knows but that it was during his period of ownership of this boarding house along the Copper Road that he gave the violin to Fiddler George Barnes.

The Greer boy who assisted the copper haulers, probably as a groomsman for the mules or a general helper, met his death while he was working as a hauler’s helper. He requested that he be buried along the road so he could see and hear the haulers as they passed by. Is it any wonder that legends evolved about this lad whose likeness could sometimes be seen at twilight, keeping his vigil along the mile-long stretch where his grave overlooked the Copper Road?

During or immediately after the Civil War, George B. Barnes met misfortune at the hands of the notorious John Gatewood, leader of the infamous gang of bushwhackers. Gatewood shot at Uncle George Barnes, hitting him in the eye area and permanently damaging his sight.  But Mr. Barnes was not killed by the blast. In fact, he was able to live for several more years, dying in 1919.

I recently had a delightful call from Mr. Pat Terry, former citizen of the Copper Basin and now a resident of Atlanta. He commented about Captain Julius Raht, and we went from that to talking about Fiddler George Barnes, his wife’s uncle. He knew the violin came as a gift from Captain Raht. Mr. Terry told me that the violin was damaged, its neck broken badly. Mr. Barnes got cherry wood and carved a new neck to attach to the old violin. The workmanship was so perfect and the mend so flawless that the violin looked as though it had never been damaged.

Fiddling George Barnes had the distinction of taking the last load of copper from Ducktown to Cleveland just prior to the change from mule-drawn freight to railroad shipping.

I wonder, during the cold December hauls, did Fiddling George Barnes play Christmas carols to soothe his mules stranded in the ruts of the Old Copper Road? Were the evenings near Christmas at Halfway House filled with strains of “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?  I like to think so. I can almost hear him now, making that violin talk.


I hope you enjoyed Ethelene’s post as much as I did. A fiddle player that could sooth the mules-pretty neat uh?



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  • Reply
    Charles L. Barnes
    September 4, 2011 at 10:40 am

    I just returned from a trip to East Tennessee which included a visit to the Copperhill area where my family has roots. I wonder if anyone knows if Jehu H. (Jade) Barnes, my great grandfather might have been related to George Barnes? Jade is the farthest back I have been able to find in the Barnes line, and I only have that from a book on the Kimsey family because Jade married Alice M. Kimsey.
    Charles Leslie Barnes

  • Reply
    August 20, 2011 at 11:40 am

    What a wonderful and haunting piece by Ethelene Jones! I don’t know how I missed this – perhaps it was just before I joined “Blind Pig”. I would have loved it, in any case, but some of my ancestors are rooted in Polk Co., so some of the names are familiar. One of them (in Greasy Creek) made liquor of such high quality, he was licensed by the state of Tennessee! – or so I’m told. Perhaps the above mentioned judge recommended him?

  • Reply
    Deborah Scott Spencer
    March 9, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    George B. Barnes was my 3rd Great-grandfather. My grandfather told me stories of him as he was 14 when his grandfather Barnes passed away. He told me stories of that fiddle and recalled him playing it for him and his brother at the fire at night when they were young.
    The TN Copper Company train hit him and killed him. They sent him to the Company Hospital but he couldn’t withstand the injuries, being that he was 79 years old. They have never found a death certificate recorded [even though it was required by law!] I suspect it was probably to hide their liability.
    The only correction to Etheline’s story is that of the fiddle that sits at the museum. George B. Barnes gave his original fiddle to his youngest son Charles L. Barnes, who lost the fiddle in his house fire. The one on display was more of a ‘pretty’ fiddle vs. the one he used on the copper road with his mules. It’s pretty obvious when you take a good look at the fiddle that it wasn’t subjected to sitting under his wagon seat all those years!
    Thanks for the continued memories of my ancestor. FYI – the I.A. Gassaway listed with George B. Barnes was his father-in-law. George B. Barnes married Sarah Matilda Gassaway on 17 Nov 1859 in Polk Co TN. George B. Barnes mother’s maiden name was Sherrill. She was a descendant of Adam Sherrill, of Sherrill’s Ford in Catawba Co NC. Susannah lived with George & Sarah M. in TN while a widow, although she was buried back in Bear Paw, NC with her husband James Barnes.

  • Reply
    William R. Hughes, Jr.
    January 19, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Excellent story! Copperhill is where my roots are. Hughes – Falls Family. Love to see stories like this one.. well done!
    Bill Hughes

  • Reply
    Kim Campbell
    August 22, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Thank you! I am so excited!!!!
    I posted the Music in Appalachia link on my blog.

  • Reply
    Bob Dalsemer
    August 19, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    As a fiddler and fan of old time fiddle music, I really enjoyed this article! Tipper, your brother Paul introduced me to the music of another fiddler who worked in Copper Hill – Allen Sisson, who was Tennessee State Fiddle Champion in 1921 and recorded a number of tunes for Edison in 1925. Ethlene’s article explained for me the origin of the title of one of Sisson’s tunes: Rymer’s Favorite. Another one is called Farewell Ducktown (after Ducktown, TN near Copper Hill).

  • Reply
    August 19, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    Thanks for the history of the music and the music makers.

  • Reply
    August 19, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    Great story: I love local history and the photos were a great addition. Growing up around mules, I am not surprised the music helped.

  • Reply
    August 19, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    Congradulations to Kim and Janice
    on their CD wins. I know the feeling. A very nice post about
    your home town, Copper Hill, Tenn.
    Ethelene Jones captures the events
    of the Copper highway very well.
    Chatter does a serious job with
    the fiddle on the You Tube polka,
    while Chitter playes the piano
    and shows that proud smile.
    Reading the Blind Pig and the Acorn is just nice…Ken

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    August 19, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    Eva Nell (I’ll take the liberty of not using Dr. Wike, figuring that since I hold a comparable degree but seldom mention the fact that any sense of uppitiness on my part will be excusable)–I found your family links in Clay County–more specifically, Tusquittee–quite interesting. My father’s family roots are there as well, and while that drainage is known for producing musicians, that’s not its top claim to fame. Dad is fond of telling an anecdote about what Tusquittee was long most famous for, the production of top-drawer snake bite medicine (peartin’ juice, squeezin’s, moonshine, golden moonbeam, white lightnin’ or a synonym of your choice). Judge Felix Alley, a grand old man of the mountains who had every bit as much common sense as he had book larnin’ and lawyerly education, had a case before him concerning a Tusquittee liquor maker. He questioned the man in detail and the individual truthfully told of his wrongful doings. Then Judge Alley asked something to the effect of “Do you make liquor in the true Tusquittee tradition?” The defendant replied in the affirmative, and Judge Alley said: “Case dismissed. I can’t fault a man for being the best there is at this ancient craft.”
    The great novelist Louis L’Amour also mentions the area, although it may be Shooting Creek rather than Tusquittee.
    My brother, Don, and I are heading over that way this coming week to look at some family property on Lick Login which we have a small interest this coming week. You’ve got to love those place names even as you wonder about their origins.
    Tipper, in closing, there’s a subject for you. Who can resist names like Needmore, Huggins Hell, Long Hungry Ridge, Breakneck Ridge, Desolation and Defeat branches, and literally hundreds more. Our ancestors had a rare knack for using descriptive names for geographical locations.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Amanda,momof 3nOK
    August 19, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Wonderful story, thank you Tipper and Ethelene. I love learning of historical things like this, and when there is a personal touch to the story, it makes it so much better.

  • Reply
    August 19, 2010 at 9:40 am

    What a neat story. I love hearing stories from the past. Glad to hear Chatter is learning to play the fiddle.

  • Reply
    August 19, 2010 at 9:09 am

    B. Ruth-Copperhill looksmuch better these days : ) A lot of thevegatation has grown back.
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Music, Giveaways, Mountain Folk
    All at

  • Reply
    August 19, 2010 at 1:38 am

    I’m going to watch out for gangs of Bushwhackers!

  • Reply
    Jennifer in OR
    August 18, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    Thank you for this special story, Tipper and Ethelene!
    “Mr. Barnes was noted for getting out his violin to play music to soothe the mules.” Love that.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    August 18, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    My, my, haven’t been to Copperhill since I was in high school…long ago..
    My friends family was from there…and my parents ‘lowed me to ride up there with them for a visit…Goodness, what I remember (I’m 69) was red red red hills and ground..and a few small trees some on the houses, I thought that very strange back then…Has it changed much in all these years…
    Wonderful post…love fiddle playing and banjo myownself..LOL…Whoops, I don’t play a stringed instrument except the piano and ukelele…LOL…neither one very well a’tall..

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    August 18, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Here’s a nice version of Grooms Tune by a Chatter contemporary with a bit of the lonesome sound befitting of the circumstances of the Groom and Caldwell fellers:
    I hope my comments don’t distract from the original article – which I thoroughly enjoyed; thank you very much. The fiddle is a special instrument.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    August 18, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Ironically, another fiddler, Henry Grooms, his brother George Grooms and comrade Mitchell Caldwell, were killed by another set of bushwhackers (Teague’s Home Guard)just before the end of the Civil War. This happened near Mount Sterling (in the Big Creek/Cataloochee area of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains Nat’l Park).
    As the story goes, Henry was forced to play his fiddle prior to their execution. He chose Bonaparte’s Retreat, which later became known locally as Grooms tune.

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    August 18, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Fascinating story! I didn’t know about the Copper Road. Thanks to Ethelene!
    (But don’t enter me for the guitar — alas, I and the rest of my family are sadly unmusical.)

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    August 18, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    I also remember my trips in the ’50’s through Copperhill and Ducktown on my way to my grandparents’ farm in Sylva, NC. I was back through there a few years ago and relieved to see that a lot of healing of the land had finally occurred.

  • Reply
    August 18, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    i love reading your blog and listening to the music here… me n the hubby live about 10 miles as a crow flies from copperhill… aint no better place to live if you ask me

  • Reply
    August 18, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Neat bit of history. I love your blog. I used to live in Cleveland, TN for a spell. But, WV is our home.

  • Reply
    August 18, 2010 at 11:11 am

    How I enjoyed this article!!! Love fiddle music-and when it is played along with a banjo -well it cant be beat!!

  • Reply
    August 18, 2010 at 9:35 am

    Tipper, i am in shock. my son David and his wife and 8 dogs live in Copperhill TN. they have been there for 4 years. his wife has most of her family there also. Had no idea you were born there. i am sending this post to Deanna, lot of info they might not know about where they live.

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, Ph.D.
    August 18, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Oh my Tipper: This post is so meaningful to me! I use to drive through Copperhill for so many years going from Tennessee to the Matheson Cove to visit my folks! My Uncle Johnny, who lived upon Tusquittee, was THE BEST FIDDLER I EVER KNEW! We miss him so!
    There is a fellow over in Hiawassee,GA, Don Fox, who is described as the BEST FIDDLER aroud! He and his neice are restoring my fiddle, which WAS UNCLE JOHNNY’S MOST FAVORITE FIDDLE! Don is HOPEFULLY going to come to our MULL FAMILY REUNION on Sept. 25. YOU ARE INVITED ALSO!
    Cheers, Eva Nell

  • Reply
    August 18, 2010 at 9:12 am

    What an interesting story. Always enjoy hearing stories of the past. Those folks had to be tough to survive.

  • Reply
    August 18, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Old pictures and stories of days gone by are always more appealing than the present.
    Whitetail Woods Blog / Muzzleloader Testing

  • Reply
    August 18, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Very interesting story!
    I can see how the fiddle could calm the animals. I think Mr. Barnes was a very intelligent man.
    How cool that Chatter is learning to play the fiddle. I love the sound a fiddle makes. Always wanted to learn to play one and I actually have one, but I’m not too sure I have the ear for it. And isn’t it neat to learn a little about the town where you were born? I’ll bet it has made you want to learn more.
    Congratulations to the winnters!!!

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