Logging Company Houses in Elkmont Credit: NPS Archives
“Summer brought a phenomenon never seen in the mountains. We awoke one morning to find the camp filled with huge rats. Black rats, brown rats, and spotted rats ran wildly from the river. They were into everything. Baby chicks were killed and partially eaten. Food for the livestock was scattered. Holes gnawed in the feed sacks left grain pouring onto the ground. Before morning was over, they had found every hole and weak spot in our homes. They ran across the floors and under the furniture. Women forgot their squeamishness and were battering them with brooms and mops. Men got guns and clubs to try to herd them away. Every time one was killed, two more showed up to take its place.
All our metal and glass containers were used to protect our food. Lamps stayed lit all night. We didn’t dare step out of bed in the darkness. There was no place to keep the livestock food away from the rats. Hundreds were killed. We took sticks, clubs, hoes, or any weapons available when we went outside. I was thankful I didn’t have a tiny baby to watch constantly. When we fed the pigs, the rats came in droves to the troughs. They were so greedy, they tumbled into the swill and ate while they swam. The pigs squealed helplessly as food was taken out of their mouths.
The invasion lasted about a month before they went en masse on up the river. We felt a great plague had been called down upon us and was now lifted. Men no longer carried guns every time they went out the door. Sunday afternoons, which had been used as hunting days for the rats, were once again silent and peaceful.
We heard they were Norwegian wharf rats, which had come from a seaport in Louisiana. It was thought that they came up the Mississippi River, The Tennessee River, and eventually into Little River. Almost like one of the plagues in Egypt, they came and went without warning. In spite of the rat invasion, we felt everything was going well on the job.
We hadn’t had any serious injuries, but our luck was about to run out. Hobert Proffitt was sitting beside the skidder, eating his lunch with the crew. Above him, the cable holding a newly cut log snapped. The log swung free and crushed him against the skidder. A sad crew brought him home. Ma went to his home to help the family and to prepare him for burial. They dressed him in his overalls and laid him on the bed. Friends and relatives came to comfort his family and to view his body.
Before the shock of Hobert’s death wore off, we lost another crew member. Pete McCarter had his neck broken by the handle of a jack. Having lost two men in so short a time was a blow to us. Mountain people believe deaths occur by threes. Who would be the third one, we wondered?”
Excerpt from Dorie: Woman of the Mountains pgs 173-174 (1924-1937)
I’m probably drawn to this excerpt from the book because I’m terrified of mice and rats. I cannot fathom an invasion of rats like the one Dorie experienced. On one hand there’s the terror aspect and on the other the weirdness of an army of rats showing up in the mountains far away from cities and towns.
The excerpt is also memorable in its raw up-close look at the dangerous, even deadly, working conditions loggers experienced throughout the book. The bit of folklore in the last line about deaths coming in 3s is still alive and well in my neck of the woods. I’ve witnessed the lore myself, so I guess I’m helping perpetuate the belief for the next generation.