Appalachia Cataloochee Heritage

Craftmanship And Cultivation Of Beauty – Lingering Legacies Of Early Mountaineers

Craftsmanship and Cultivation of Beauty – Lingering Legacies of Early Mountaineers

by Don Casada July, 2010

rock wall

Susan and Don Casada perched on a rock wall near the Boogerman Trail area in Cataloochee Valley, NC.

The wanderer through some of the back country of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will encounter – in areas where people once lived but haven’t for some time – certain common vestiges of the former occupants.  Rock walls and chimneys are the two most readily recognized “made by hand” indications.  The old rock walls in the Boogerman Trail area of Cataloochee and the Old Settlers Trail between Greenbrier and Cosby are reflections of the care that the wall builders had not only for the wall itself, but for the land as a whole.  These walls, largely unchanged since they were constructed in the pre-Park era – and with no repairs since – aren’t just piles of rocks thrown together casually.  They were stacked with care to not only clear the areas for cultivation and other service but to make functional things of beauty.  The many chimneys still standing upright – even with the rest of the home either burned, decayed, or hauled away – are likewise a testimony to both craftsmanship and an intent to build something that would last well beyond its builder’s years.

rock wall old settlers trail

An impressive rock wall along the Old Settlers Trail, between Cosby and Greenbrier, TN.

Chimney along the Old Settlers Trail, between Cosby and Greenbrier, TN.

Particularly in the early spring, one may also notice non-native shrubs and flowers planted by early settlers that have managed to survive – in spite of the now complete tree cover and lack of attention for three-fourths of a century.  Boxwoods, yellowbells (forsythia), and daffodils are the three most common such plants.  None of them are native to North America, and all trace their American history to early colonial days.  Boxwoods, which are tolerant of moderately shady conditions, were often used on either side of a path leading to the front of a home.  On the other hand, both yellowbells and daffodils prefer plenty of sunlight.  Yet they survive in the mountains because they bloom and put out their foliage early enough in the spring to harvest sufficient energy from the sun before tree leaves obscure their heavenward view.

old boxwood

Boxwood and yellowbells, late March at an old homesite on Indian Creek, NC.

daffodils at noland creek

Late March daffodils on Noland Creek, NC.

There are other non-native flowers chosen to decorate the landscape by early settlers that bloom in the late spring or early summer, such as the occasional rose and day lilies.  These aren’t nearly as common as they are around both old and new homesteads outside of the Park, but have managed to persist in a few locations – such as in somewhat marshy areas around old fields where the second-growth forest has not yet fully, to use a mountain expression, “taken holt.”

day lily possum hollow

Early June day lily in the Possum Hollow area, near Proctor and Hazel Creek, NC.

Early mountain settlers led lives that involved serious struggles just to make do. One could offer an argument that the rock walls and chimneys are essentially functional in nature, and that the craftsmanship and care that accompanied their construction served a practical purpose in those struggles. But the fact that they took time to cultivate things of frivolous beauty – that is, if beauty could ever be expressed as frivolity – is another matter altogether, and a very telling one.

Popularized writings of the early 1900s virtually ignored these virtues of craftsmanship and appreciation of beauty that clearly prevailed in the lives of many living in the Southern Appalachians.  Perhaps that is because those attributes, unlike the stereotypes painted of backward and moonshine-centric lives, weren’t marketable.  Two cases in point are Our Southern Highlandersby Horace Kephart and The Carolina Mountains by Margaret Morley.  It might be noted here that the view of marketability being a principal factor in the misleading characterizations is neither original nor new. Judge Felix Alley, in his Random Thoughts and Musings of a Mountaineer, published in 1941, took Kephart and – as he referred to her – “Miss Margaret Morley, of Boston” to task, observing that they “write to be interesting and not to tell the truth; their primary object, with respect to what they say about our mountaineers being, to write books that would sell in the North.”

Judge Alley wielded, to employ a Biblical metaphor that I trust would meet with his approval, a razor-sharp two-edged sword with which he divided asunder. (1)

But we are indeed fortunate that our forebears wrote their own stories that directly contradict Kephart and Morley – preserved not in the pages of books sold from shelves in chic urban settings, but in rock-solid and living, blooming testimonies scattered throughout these Great Smoky Mountains even today.

An anecdote

In mid-May of this year (2010), after finishing supper and cleaning the dishes dirtied by myself and my 100 year-old father, Commodore Casada, I left the house, drove from Bryson City out the “Road to Nowhere” and parked adjacent to the bridge over Noland Creek, with the intent of walking up the trail – maybe as far as Mill Creek and back before dark.

Dusk was a-coming, it was overcast, and I wasn’t carrying a flashlight or headlamp like I do when taking all-day hikes. While I wanted to just enjoy the surroundings on a pleasant spring evening, a bit of light exercise was also part of the plan, so I put my feet in high gear.  For me, high gear is about four miles an hour on an easy-to-walk trail like that along lower Noland Creek (the section I was on is actually a well-maintained gravel road).

I’ve walked this section of Noland Creek many times, stretching back to around 1960, but have been over it several dozen times in just the last few years.  However, one of the lessons I’ve learned from much tromping around in the Smokies is that, no matter how many times you’ve passed before, close attention is often rewarded by noting something of interest that you’d missed previously.  In part, that is due to changes over both seasons and years, but equally important is the fact that there is much to see that simply goes unseen.  Slowing down helps out a great deal in that regard, but the fading light and interest in exercise were overriding parts of the equation on this particular day. 

In spite of the relatively good clip at which I was walking, about a mile along the way my eye was attracted to what appeared to be a couple of bright yellow flowers about 20 yards down below the trail. It was too late in the year for daffodils at this elevation, so that thought was discarded immediately.  During the preceding couple of weeks, I’d spent considerable time looking for yellow lady slippers (with very modest success).  With the combination of distance, light, and the fact that I wasn’t wearing glasses, I couldn’t tell exactly what I was seeing.  But the recent searching that I’d done for the rare yellow lady slippers overrode the logic that this was not the sort of place they were likely to grow and that it was getting late in the season for them.  I just knew that what I saw was the right color and height for lady slippers.  Setting aside the thought that this area looked like prime snake territory – in fact, I recalled seeing a rattlesnake at this exact spot a few years back – I dropped down off the trail and waded through the spring’s growth – only to find that it wasn’t a lady slipper at all but a yellow iris.  Initially, I was quite disappointed, since the iris was not a native plant, and I really had my heart set on a yellow lady slipper.

But after a bit of reflection, my disappointment changed first to intrigue and then appreciation.  Here was a truly gorgeous flower – but one that normally doesn’t fare well in shady environs and unlike the yellowbells and daffodils, doesn’t come out early enough to beat most of the tree leaves.  Yet here it was, still tenaciously blooming after more than 75 years unattended.  While I took a photo with my point-and-shoot camera that evening, the lack of light and the fact that I wasn’t carrying a tripod made for low quality.  So I went back a couple of days later when the light was better and grabbed a better shot. 

Iris in noland creek

Iris in bloom in mid-May on Noland Creek

The area where the iris grew was far from a prime location for a mountain home. Yes, there’s a weak spring and Noland Creek itself nearby, and a couple of acres of moderately flat land, but beyond that, the land quickly becomes as steep as a horse’s face.  So it is a virtual certainty that the lives lived there were hardscrabble indeed. Yet the difficulties and challenges were not enough to dominate them to the point that they wouldn’t take time to plant and cultivate these beautiful iris.  Perhaps the fact that the iris still survive and bloom is because the plants took on some of the characteristics of those who planted them – enduring under difficult circumstances, and doing so with a great and beautiful spirit.

The people who settled in these mountains had to be tough as nails and sharp as tacks to endure.  But all the while, their lives were much, much more than just survival, a fact borne out time and time again all throughout the hills and hollers. We are truly blessed to be their heirs.

(1) Hebrews 4:12


I hope you enjoyed Don’s thoughts as much as I did. Neat to think some of the beauty those early mountaineers shaded their lives with-can still be seen today. I think they’d be mighty proud that a few folks like Don-take the time to appreciate what they lined their lives with all those years ago.

Be sure to leave Don a comment-and I’ll make sure he reads it.



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  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    August 21, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Kim–My brother offered you one version of how the Boogerman Trail got its name, or more specifically how Boogerman Palmer got his moniker. Another explanation, and I really like it, is that when the first-grad teacher asked each student what they wanted to be, when it came Robert Palmer’s turn, he forthwith stated: “I want to be the boogerman.”
    I’ve never heard of another “Boogerman” but I did know a hunting guide and lodge operator over in eatern N. C. named “Booger” Harris.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    August 20, 2010 at 7:48 am

    The name comes from Robert “Boogerman” Palmer, who made his home in the area. The Boogerman Trail is my favorite low elevation trail in the Smokies and is located in my favorite region – Cataloochee Valley. The Boogerman Traiil is for hikers only – thankfully. While the trail is pretty moderate over most of its length, there are a couple of sections that are steep and would be badly chewed up by horse traffic.
    There are varying versions of how the name Boogerman came to be. One is that on his first day at school, the teacher asked everyone to introduce themselves to the class. Robert, apparently shy, put his head down in his arms on top of the desk and said “Boogerman.”
    Robert Palmer did not allow the land he owned to be timbered. The middle section of the Boogerman Trail passes through what is – to my eye – some of, if not THE most beautiful forests in Western North Carolina. Here’s a picture my wife took of me standing alongside a large poplar in the Boogerman area last fall:

  • Reply
    Kim Campbell
    August 19, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    Another wonderful piece Tipper. I am curious how it got the name of Boogerman Trail??

  • Reply
    Charline Venturini
    August 17, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    I really enjoyed this article, the Cataloochee photos and discussion of Kephart – so, thank you.

  • Reply
    August 17, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    That lintel is a work of art! What a bittersweet post — I spot the hedges of lilacs standing alone or lines of daylilies and always think of the families past. Ben Franklin said that you need to write a book to go down in posterity but actually you could just plant a lasting garden.

  • Reply
    August 17, 2010 at 12:11 am

    The rock wall and chimney are impressive, the handiwork in them that has survived all this time.
    That is one of my favorite Iris, it grew here and there around our home in MI and I’ve not seen it since moving to the PNW. Happy to see it.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    August 16, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    Ginny Hartzler, yours are absolute words of wisdom:
    “And who’s to say that a lily is not prettier than a lady’s slipper? It is just that the lady’s slipper is more rare that they are so prized.”
    That is true with respect to many things in life, isn’t it? I need to remind myself of that more often.
    Lines from the Dolly Parton’s song, My Tennessee Mountain Home, such as “Sittin’ on the front porch on a summer afternoon, in a straightback chair on two legs, leaned against the wall. Watch the kids a-playin’ with June bugs on a string, and chase the glowin’ fireflies when evening shadows fall” may hold nothing for some, but they are pure glory to me because they bring back fond memories of what were once common experiences of mountain folks.
    I had a similar thought as yours earlier this year when looking at some “common” violets out in the yard at my father’s house. Some people pay cash money to get rid of them, and yet when you stoop to examine them, they are absolutely beautiful. Sort of like the folks my little essay was about, maybe.
    If anyone is interested, here are some pictures of yellow and pink lady slippers, along with a larger version of the yellow iris mentioned in the article, and a lowly violet backlit by the morning sun.

  • Reply
    August 16, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Those remains in the woods are poems whispered from the past. Lovely to find them, lovely the earth has reclaimed them.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    August 16, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    Excellent essay. Absolutely excellent. I hope Mr. Casada contributes again to Blind Pig. Thank you, Tipper, for the sharing.

  • Reply
    Chef E
    August 16, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    I just spent a week with Robert in AZ and we went to Tombstone, and it really gives you a feel for how people might have lived during those times, and they are baby in comparison to your areas history!
    I am advertising your site on my facebook site!

  • Reply
    August 16, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    the rock walls are gorgeous!

  • Reply
    Ginny Hartzler
    August 16, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    This is a quite charming and fitting tribute to these people. And who’s to say that a lily is not prettier than a lady’s slipper? It is just that the lady’s slipper is more rare that they are so prized. The old chimney is very impressive1 Thanks for entering me in your giveaway!

  • Reply
    August 16, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    What a wonderful post! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now, thanks to Don, I feel richer as I’ve gained so much knowledge on a topic I hardly knew anything about. I was particularly impressed by those walls whose builders so respected the beauty of the land but also by those gorgeous yellow flowers- yellow lady slippers? – which have survived unattended for such a long time.

  • Reply
    Lonnie L. Dockery
    August 16, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Fantastic subject and wonderful writing! I enjoyed that very much. And Tim…you are wrong. Unfortunately, most “Appalachian Scholars” aren’t appalachian. Horace Kephart, though he did develop an affection for the mountaineers, was most certainly the one disconnected and predjudiced. The first evidence is in the title: “Our” Southern Highlanders? Indeed.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    August 16, 2010 at 10:49 am

    For Mr. Tim Hill–I guess I qualify as one of those Appalachian scholars, and frankly, you are way off base on Kephart. If you think he had great affection for mountain folks, you need to re-read “Our Southern Highlanders.” He depcits residents of the high country in a singularly negative and misleading way. That’s precisely why Judge Felix Alley, a splend example of a staunch son of the Smokies, so roundly condemned Kephart’s book. Here are a few flat-out facts about Kephart: (1) 40 percent of “Our Southern Highlanders is devoted, in one way or another, to moonshine. Hardly a true reflection of mountain life. (2) Kephart was an alcoholic, died drunk, and went on a “toot” every time he got a letter from his wife. Interviews with five separate folks who knew him well confirmed that. (3) He abandoned a wife and six children, and while his descendants try to say the couple remained in love and very close, that is unmitigated hogwash. (4) You need to rethink your statement about “most scholars.” Read what Mike Frome has to say in “Strangers in High Places.” Read various pieces I have written over the years in national magazines or in the UT Press reprint of “Camping & Woodcraft.”
    There is much which was good about Kephart, and I was the one who nominated him for the American Camping Hall of Fame. His knowledge of woodsmanship is in a class by itself. He played an important role in the creation of the Park. His studies of Appalachian dialect were of lasting importance.
    But he was anything but accurate when it came to depictions of mountain folks, which is doubly troublesome given the fact that Granville Calhoun and his wife, true mountain folks, literally saved the man’s life.
    All this turning of blind eyes to the true nature of the man and attempts to make him an icon of shining brightness is just flat-out wrong, and it does a great injustice to the old mountain way of life (which he misrepresented).
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Tim Hill
    August 16, 2010 at 9:39 am

    A sterling post. It is too bad that Mr. Casada tarnished it with his totally disconected and prejudiced comments about Horace Kephart. Most Appalachain scholars take a totally opposite view of Mr. Kephart’s writing, both in accuracy and affection for the people he was writing about.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    August 16, 2010 at 1:58 am

    Well, I thank all of you’uns for the nice comments (has “you’uns” been in Tipper’s delightful Appalachian vocabulary?). I enjoyed trying my hand at a bit of writing. Jim IS the writer of the family. I’m an engineer, and writing is just flat out hard work for me. But for him, words just flow and refresh like mountain spring water on a hot summer’s day (which we’ve had aplenty of lately).
    I really appreciate Barbara’s thought about plants being a living reminder of those gone before. I tend to especially strongly associate a couple of plant smells – mint and butterfly bush – with summer days at my Grandma’s house.
    Cheryl, your relation to Mark Hannah and the episode involving sister’s painting is something that you rightly cherish – what a neat story. You touched on a very special place, in my view. I’ve walked every maintained trail in the Great Smoky Mt National Park (many of them multiple times), and done a fair amount of tromping around off trail as well. While there are many places that I dearly love, if I had to pick just one area to spend all my time, it would, without question, be the Cataloochee Valley (including Little Cataloochee)and surrounding mountains, for a host of reasons. But I’ll also have to say that I prefer the Little Cataloochee Church to Palmer Chapel. That’s because it sees far less traffic, since you have to walk a bit to get to it. I’d bet that there are 20-50 times as many people who visit Palmer Chapel as the Little C Church. Now I like solitude, so that is a factor in my preferring it, but what REALLY makes the deal for me is that I can walk in the church, close the doors, and sing to my heart’s content without embarrassing myself and scaring the dickens out of a bunch of tourists who’d likely figure that there was a painter (panther) screaming in there 😉
    When I walk through Cataloochee, I am torn between emotions. There is immense gratitude that I’m able to be there and enjoy its beauty. But on the other hand, my heart absolutely breaks when I think of the Cataloochee folks such as the Hannahs, Caldwells, Palmers, Messers, Cooks, and others who were forced to leave the valley that they had clearly loved so greatly. May God richly bless them in heaven, for they had a near heaven on earth taken from them.
    For those that are interested, here are some pictures of the Little Cataloochee Church (hopefully the links will work):
    Thanks again, all, and especially to you, Tipper.

  • Reply
    Janet Pressley
    August 16, 2010 at 1:31 am

    Beautiful post – thankss for the info. I have seen some of this and thank you for bringing it back!!!!11 I would love to go camping at Deep Creek or something like that when I was a kid.

  • Reply
    August 15, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Enjoyed this. Always like to learn about old home places and see remains of former life. Amazing that the flowers are still there.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    August 15, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Of course I’m biased since the post’s author is my brother, but we share a common perspective on vanished mountain days and ways. I’m ostensibly the writer in the family, but frankly I wish I had written this. Other than one tiny slip in the form of a split infinitive (blame that on the proofreader, yours truly!), the whole guest blog sends literary and visual echoes of a wonderful world we have largely lost. Yet through preservation of heirloom flowers and remembrance of the folkways of those who went before us, we can cling to the magic of mountain tradition.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    August 15, 2010 at 11:03 am

    the chimney is my favorite, and what a wonderful surprise to find that flower (imight have thought rattle snake first and missed it).
    i am sitting here in my air conditioned home with computer and thiniking how hard it must have been to build all those stone walls and chimeny. talk about talent and true grit. they had it all back then.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 15, 2010 at 10:19 am

    What a wonderful guest post. Thank you, Don! There is a big difference listening to the words of someone who loves these mountains and the culture here and those write to make fun and money from a culture they will not ever know or understand.
    There is such beauty here as well as sound ethical ways of life. I love the stories of our honorable people.
    Thanks again!

  • Reply
    Cheryl Soehl
    August 15, 2010 at 9:55 am

    It’s important that the park service has retained and restored the homesteads and church in Cataloochee Valley — where one can see what people’s lives were like before modern development took over. My brother in law grew up there and his father, Mark Hannah, became a park ranger when the land was purchased for the national park. My sister, Trina Hannah painted many of these buildings, including the Palmer Chapel. Some years after she passed away I was surfing the internet when I found the painting of Palmer Chapel for sale by the estate of her friend, Elizabeth Lurie. I was lucky enough to purchase the painting and bring back to the family. There are photographs of the chapel and the Hannah cabin at: The cabin has a rather fancy for the time handmade brick chimney rather than stone.

  • Reply
    barbara gantt
    August 15, 2010 at 8:55 am

    My Grandmother family came across the mountain from Ga into NC, settled in Waynesville. She moved to Lenoir in the 30s bringing with her a hostalily with a purple flower. We brought it to VT in 1990. Hope to pass it on to my grandkids. Plants are a living reminder of those gone before. Grandma died in 1957 at the age of 75, Barbara

  • Reply
    August 15, 2010 at 8:32 am

    Very interesting, Don.
    I, too, like to walk in places where no one usually goes. Just to see what I can find. You never know what you’ll run across. I like to think about the hands that planted the flowers. And what their daily life might have been like.
    Here on the farm there is an old homesite, I found purple iris and daffodils. Seems those were commone in days gone by.

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    August 15, 2010 at 8:09 am

    I love seeing those remains of previous lives — the old chimneys, the boxwoods.
    Such an interesting post!

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