Appalachia Profiles of Mountain People

Gnat Smokes

“We never throwed away nary scrap of cloth til it got so wore out it coutn’t even be used for a dishrag. Old wore-out rags was used to make gnat smokes to smoke away gnats and ‘skeeters in the evenin’. We rolled ’em up in a roll about two inches acrost, and tied it loose so hit’d keep afire, but not blaze and burn it up. Sometimes we put gnat smokes in an ol’ rusty surp bucket, so we could move it, ‘stid of us a-havin’ to move when the wind changed an blowed the smoke torge us. Dad allus kep’ a gnat smoke handy on the porch. He liked to set in a straight back cher out on the porch in the evenin’. He’d lean backerds til the top of his chair was scotched back again the wall with the front legs r’ared up off the porch and his whole weight on the two back chair legs. Then he’d put his feet on the bottom rung. I ‘spect you might call that a hillbilly recliner. I come in a bean of a gittin’ my killin’ when I tried it. I must’ve been too fer away from the wall, and r’ared back too fer, for the back laigs slid fards on the floor, the top of the chair hit the wall, raked down and slammed it down on the porch, with me on the inside of it, there. Well sir-there I laid, flat a my back like a mud turkel (turtle) on its back, with my laigs ‘n arms a-stickin’ up ‘n flappin’ the air, a-tryin’ to git up. Fool like, though, I kep’ at it til I got so I could set like that, too. I never was one to give up easy. Stubborn as a flop-eared mule, I was.”

~Gratitude for Shoes Growing up Poor in the Smokies – Cleo Hicks Williams
Pap would always take an old rag and start a little smoky fire with it if we were outside having a weenie roast or fishing to keep the bugs away. And I can’t’ count the times I’ve seen men sit in a straight back chair in the manner described in the excerpt. Unlike Williams, I never got up the nerve to try it myself.


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  • Reply
    lynn legge
    July 14, 2018 at 4:25 am

    tipper, I can actually see the boy trying to do what pappy did in the chair lol
    I love your stories…and ill have to tell my brother about the rag rolls to help him..he lives on sugar island in Michigan..near the up. has lots of trees around his home and as you said..the little gnats go wild. hope all is well in your corner of the world…wish I lived nearby so I could see the girls…sending love and ladybug hugs

  • Reply
    July 13, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    I found Cleo Hicks Williams in my family tree and got to read her obituary. She was quite a renaissance woman beginning as an old time nurse. She worked back when nurses were more like doctors of today. She was also an artist, musician and author. I just had to order the book. I got it on Amazon Prime. It’s $30.00 dollars. I could have got it cheaper but would have had to wait longer. Amazon will have it at the Post Office Monday morning.

    • Reply
      July 13, 2018 at 8:55 pm

      Papaw-it is a wonderful book. I sure hope you enjoy it as much as I did! I was sad when it was over. She had an amazing life 🙂

  • Reply
    July 13, 2018 at 4:03 pm

    We shew all those gnats away by smoking them as a child and still doing it with rags and leaves. It sure does help. Love your post.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    July 13, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    When anyone built a small fire Mom and Dad always called it a gnat smoke.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    July 13, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    I been watching The Queen of England, our First Lady, and President Trump, meeting the 92 year old Queen at Windsor, England. That place was built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror. Queen Elizabeth 11 has met 11 or our 12 Presidents. (Johnson didn’t go for some reason.)

    Old Rags a smoken’ are hard on a human’s eye, let alone what it must do for a gnat. Sometimes we burned leaves, which made it hard to breathe also. …Ken

  • Reply
    July 13, 2018 at 11:48 am

    I used to eye gnats in my eyes all the time (still do occasionally). Mommy would tell me to close my eye and look to the right and open then close it again and look to the left. A few times like that and the gnat ends up in one corner of my eye. Then Mommy folds a handkerchief to make a sharp point and touches it to the gnat. The gnat is wet, the hankie is dry. Gnat sticks. Voila! No more gnat.

  • Reply
    July 13, 2018 at 11:37 am

    Gnat Smoke! never heard of it – but so practical! Loved the descriptions, loved the dialect; but what caught my eye was the use of the word “scotched” – is it a practice common in Scotland? Was making a chair “stick” in place an inspiration for “scotch tape”? – or maybe its a variant of “scootch” as in the chair was “scootched” (moved little by
    little) against the wall.
    Lots of things to ponder in today’s post.
    When I’m done pondering I may have to try making a “gnat smoke” – where in for a long dry spell, the creeks drying up, the mosquitoes are rapidly multiplying, and the swifts and martins aren’t keeping up with them.

  • Reply
    harry adams
    July 13, 2018 at 11:35 am

    We lived in red clay area of SC, but just 15 or less miles away was Johnston and sand country. we would go every summer to get peaches and we all thanked God we did not have the gnats that were there. They would cover you when you got out of the car until you got back in. Of course there was no such thing as AC in a car so the windows were down. we tried to kill as many of the creatures as we could in the car. We didn’t want them raising where we lived.

    I don’t remember anyone ever burning a rag when we sat outside. Usually too dry in the summer for mosquitoes I guess.

  • Reply
    July 13, 2018 at 9:59 am

    Those smoky fires would sure keep the gnats away. We had many marshmallow and weiner roasts back in the day. We were fortunate, as West Virginia has the mountains and is cooler with a bit of wind. so gnats did not seem quite as pesky as more southern areas I have lived. Now, when it comes to chiggers, they are the most miserable. They will trouble you for days! One learns a lot about pests growing up in the outdoors. Those ole big flies that hang around animals are slower and easier to kill than common house flies. I had to pick up my speed with the swatter when I moved to town. I totally love reading the dialect in today’s post.

    It seems the pests have moved into the house now with drain flies or fruit flies or whatever each year with gardening veggies brought in the house. Most people here simply call them gnats, but gnats are slower and seem easier to kill. Closer inspection show they are a type of fly. I declare war each year, but have found a fan blowing keeps them away from my face. I concocted gallon plastic jugs with banana peels in the bottom as I saw on You Tube, and that helped. Air conditioner cooler made them unhappy and sluggish.Two gallons of bleach poured down the drain over time, and I still had some. They continued until the blissful cold weather. Tipper, you had a post once on those pesky varmints that plague us during gardening season. I do not recall them being a problem growing up, and we always had produce and doors swinging wide open. I dread them! Great post.

  • Reply
    July 13, 2018 at 9:04 am

    Now I would have said “I come in a gnat’s @$$ of gittin my killin.

    Mommy couldn’t stand to see somebody “rock back” a chur like that. She’d say “git down, that ain’t rockin chur” She thought it would wear the laigs off uneven, make holes in the floor and the wall behind it too. She’s right, I’ve seen a many of an old chur zackly like that.

    Rags is what you burn in your bee smoker when you go to rob them or work with their gums. I think it works with all manner of insects. Makes them think their little world is on fire so they go in search of a better place to spend the evening.

    As far as the quaint dialect, it ain’t. Not to me. I hear it all the time. Every time I talk.

  • Reply
    July 13, 2018 at 8:59 am

    Gnat smokes used to be essential when sitting outside, which was daily if the weather permitted. I wonder if the EPA would get riled if they found a gnat smoke now. We have a burn ban where fire pits are included. Last time I checked, grills were still legal…

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    July 13, 2018 at 8:46 am

    We used to use green branches with the leaves on as gnat smokes, mostly when fishing. Burning rags was what Dad used in his bee smoker.

    The leaning back against the wall was really common in those straight-backed chairs made out of hickory. And there is an art to having the sense of position and forces that will work just right. Same way with a ladder, too steep or too flat either can get one in trouble.

    Tipper, If you could catch an old timer in faded overalls leaned back against the wall it would make an iconic picture. Wish I could take one myself. But some of those things that were once so common place are hard to find now.

  • Reply
    Lee Mears
    July 13, 2018 at 8:15 am

    I LOVE the dialect of this! Of course its very familiar to me. And to the point, we used smoke also, to shoo away gnats .
    I’m not sure we had mosquitoes in southern Haywood Co when I was growing up?? I never saw rags lit ablaze tho, the elders took someones cigarettes and lit a few to burn on the front porch is all I can remember. The way I can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke now, I cant imagine it. But I did enjoy reading Cleo’s telling of it.
    I always love our “Archaic speech which can be narrowed down to sort of a Scottish-flavored Elizabethan English.”
    It isn’t’ the Queens English for sure..

  • Reply
    July 13, 2018 at 7:42 am

    I remember visiting my Granny on Wilson Mountain in Morgan County Alabama, and we’d all set out under the maple tree and she’d start a gnat smoke in an old dish pan she kept, and it would keep the gnats and skeeters away, and those pesky no see ums, you know that little bug you can’t see but can feel, I do believe they’re all teeth and no body. Ouch.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    July 13, 2018 at 6:28 am

    You all have a busy weekend coming up!
    I could easily follow everything she was saying, even though It’s like a different language, except the bean thing. I’ve never heard of coming in a bean of something but easily understood it to mean she came close. A bean’s worth of distance would be pretty close!
    Wonderful story, Thanks!
    The gnats are so bad right now I may have to burn a rag!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    July 13, 2018 at 6:20 am

    I love how theis was written in the dialectof thy he timess. I can slmost hear the words. I wish I had known of yhose gnat rags long sgo, it is so nadty to have thy hem go up youe nose when trying yo breathe.

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