Appalachia children

The Innocent Joys of a Smokies Childhood

smoky mountain childhood


I didn’t know it at the time, just as I’m pretty certain the same holds true for today’s youngsters growing up in the bosom of the Great Smokies, but my childhood was a blessed one. Experiences elsewhere have only reinforced that perspective.

Over the decades I’ve been fortunate enough to travel extensively across the globe and in the course of those wanderings see some truly special places. The Austrian Alps have rare charm. New Zealand’s North Island features scenic beauty along with splendid sporting opportunities. Kruger National Park in South Africa with its abundant wildlife enchants. The more remote regions of the Rockies in Montana and Wyoming offer a trout fisherman’s paradise. Distant regions of Alaska, from the back country around Iliamna to the ruggedness of Kodiak Island, provide a type of wildness any nature lover has to adore. The cities and countryside of Great Britain, where perhaps five years of my life in chunks of two to six months have been spent, hold a cherished place in my heart.

But when it comes to a sense of place and appreciation of the setting which has been most meaningful in my life, nothing comes close to the native heath of my beloved Smokies. I know I’m not alone. All you have to do is think about the way these ancient hills and deep hollows draw those who were raised in them back home, ponder the fashion in which they hold one’s heart, and realization dawns that there’s something magical and mystical about the region.

Maybe you have to be away from the Smokies to appreciate them to the fullest extent, but at least for those of my generation there’s another way to reflect on and understand the allure of the region. That’s through fond looks backward to innocent joys in a geographical setting local poet Leroy Sossamon described as “the backside of heaven.”

In many ways Sossamon was a hard, difficult man, but there’s no denying the truth inherent in the words of his poem (which also furnished the title for one of his books of poetry). I won’t quote it here but rather suggest that you visit the Bryson City Cemetery on School House Hill and look at his tombstone where the words of the poem are inscribed. While there gaze out over the town, look at the Tuckaseigee, and then allow your eyes to reach out to the valley of Deep Creek and upwards to the main ridgeline of the Smokies. You’ll find the time a peaceful and meaningful one.

For now though, let’s turn to some of those joys of youth which shaped my life and that of countless others who have called Swain County home. Since those innocent pleasures varied immensely according to the time of year, perhaps a logical way of viewing them is by seasons. Summer meant the most freedom to play, even if most youngsters had some type of summer job from the time they reached their early teens, and for that reason there are more fond recollections, at least in my mind, of that period in the year. Here, in no order other than how they happen to come to my cluttered mind, are some of those wonderful ways from bygone days.

*Catching lightning bugs in the gloaming, often while adults sat on the porch nearby stringing and breaking beans, shelling crowder peas, or otherwise keeping busy even as they relaxed and enjoyed one another’s company.

*Catching June bugs (which never appeared until July and August) in the early morning, before the sun had warmed and dried them sufficiently to make flight easy, and carefully tying a length of sewing thread to one of their legs. For a time, until the captive insect wised up to the wasted effort of flying, you had your own tethered helicopter. It might have been light years removed from a remote-controlled drone, but there’s no denying the fun involved.

*Catching butterflies and moths and pinning them to cardboard. It wasn’t until many years later that I added the word lepidopterist to my vocabulary, but my interest in zebra and tiger swallowtails, skippers, Luna moths, monarchs, and the like saw many an idle hour vanish in pure delight.

*Swinging on grapevines. A good-sized grapevine anchored to a tree on a steep ridgeline could provide a wonderful ride, and there was just enough hint of danger (you didn’t want the grapevine to tear loose at the apex of your “ride” when you were many feet off the ground) to tickle youthful daredevils. These were the zip lines of my youth, and you couldn’t beat the price.

*A sort of sidelight to swinging on grapevines was “riding” saplings. The idea was to find a limber pine, poplar, or perhaps a hickory, shinny up it until the tree began to bend under your weight, and then hold on until the top of the tree bent far enough to put you back on the ground.

*Playing in branches. One of the most appealing aspects of the mountain landscape is that there are little spring branches pretty much everywhere. They offered an ideal playground for budding engineers. By moving rocks and perhaps a log or two it was possible to raise the water level from two or three inches to a couple of feet, perhaps turn some bream or other fish caught in a larger stream nearby loose in your pond, deal with the thrill of a water snake showing up, or simply piddle.



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  • Reply
    Charles Howell
    January 25, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    I’ve been thinking about a country place The memory won’t be erased I’m going to take the road that leads back home

    Somewhere south of Baltimore Lies the land I’m longing for Seems like there’s a place that I belong

    Momma cooking Pinto Beans Patching up my old Blue Jeans The Log Train slowly moving down the line

    Yes, I’m in a Rambling state of mind Big City just can’t hold my kind I’m going back to the hills where I belong Appalachia’s calling me.
    Kids and Rivers running free I’m going back to my Smokey Mountain home

  • Reply
    August 16, 2018 at 10:50 pm

    Well Tipper, as few as the others, i was a tom boy myself. I would swing on the grapevines and climb the trees and hang out over them till it brought you to the ground. We did all that for our entertainment. So much fun back then.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    August 15, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    Tipper–For Charles Howell–One of my longtime friends and a cherished fishing buddy, Marty Maxwell, is a native of Robbinsville and, except for his college years, has spent his life there. He knows local history and folklore in a masterful way, and I’ll have to ask him about your grandparents. It’s possible he would have, as a youngster, known them, and I’ll virtually guarantee he will know about them. He lives right in town, in a house perched on a hill adjacent to the grave site of Junaluska.

    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    August 15, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    What wonderful memories woven with eloquent images, reminding me of long ago Tennessee and Arkansas summers as the folks visited on the porch of an evening while we played tag and caught lightning bugs.

  • Reply
    Charles Howell
    August 15, 2018 at 2:05 pm

    My Grandparents, Robert Vance Howell and Polly Renfro Howell finished out their days in Robbinsville North Carolina. Grandfather Bob was a skilled logger in the Smokies in the early 1900’s. He designed Skidder systems, I’m told, and was offered the senior management job when the National Park was being constructed. Family lore: He despised Franklin Roosevelt, got Drunk, and lost the job quickly. He built a Log House for his newlywed daughter Ada Howell Stone in the late 30s or early 40s. I was in Robbinsville when V-J day was declared. I was about 8 years old. Park Stone was Fireman on a logging train that ran near his home, the log cabin. He bought a WWII Surplus Jeep and we would ride from town out to the Log House which had several rooms (NOT A Cabin) and a Well on the side porch, Bucket, Dipper, Rope on a hand cranked spool. We kids, first cousins had the woods to ourselves for play. “Whistle,” my Tomboy cousin and I would climb saplings, in a race to the top,d ride them down. Life was Simple in Robbinsville. Small pleasures, memories, live on. I hear the Log House is now Stucco, but standing. I will send a picture when I can find one.

  • Reply
    August 15, 2018 at 1:16 pm

    My Mama talked about tying a thread around a June bug’s leg and swinging around her head. She grew up in Richmond, Va. My brother and I used to catch lightning bugs. Even now, I get excited when I see the first one of the summer.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    August 15, 2018 at 12:18 pm

    We did so many of the same things and many more too numerous to mention, but one of my favorite things when we could get enough people together was a corn cob fight. We would go to the barn and divide up into two teams. Then the war would start. The only object of yhe game was to hit someone on the other team. Sometimes a body would get hurt alittle but the adults never stopped us from playing. I can’t fully describe the hollering, running and hiding, but it was great fun.

    • Reply
      Edwin Ammons
      August 15, 2018 at 7:28 pm

      A girl got over into the hog lot and picked up a cob that the pigs had saturated. She threw it at me and I dodged. I picked it up and threw it back not intending to hit anybody. I wasn’t even involved in the cob fight. Got her right up beside her nose. She ran to her mother who promptly took me home and demanded that Mommy whip me while she watched. Mommy told her “You better get on back home before I whup you. Ain’t nobody tellin me when to whip my youngins.”(a few mild expletives have been deleted) I didn’t get punished at all.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 15, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    It’s the attitude more than the altitude that makes the mountains home!

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    August 15, 2018 at 11:45 am

    One of my earliest memories is of me going someplace and my grandmother coming after me. My mother told me that we moved from that house shortly after I started walking. I guess that was the pattern for my life, I have always wanted to see the place just over the horizon. As I grew, I read of the Navy and ships. I went to the Navy on my seventeenth birthday and stayed for thirty years. Like Jim, I have been to many wonderful places in this world. I have also fought in two wars, one hot and one cold that came very close to turning hot on numerous occasions. I have also seen places where humans live in conditions that are hard for one to comprehend.

    I often stand on my rear patio with my binoculars and watch a destroyer standing out to sea from Pearl Harbor and envy the crew the adventure that awaits them. There is a country song, “Where corn don’t grow.” For me, it was, “Where Bakker don’t grow.”

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    August 15, 2018 at 11:38 am

    And Jim,
    I bet Don and Annette are proud of their older brother, telling them stories of the places he had seen. I know I am. When you’all’s daddy died, it was Jim that wrote that ‘touching’ story about Commodore. It made my glasses fog up, because my daddy was born that same year.

    I’m glad Jim is a “Son of the Smokies”, and I’m proud to call him “Friend”. …Ken

  • Reply
    August 15, 2018 at 11:13 am

    In addition to the adventures mentioned several of us would get together and play follow the leader in the tops of a pine thicket. We also built wooden wheeled wagons and raced down hillsides.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    August 15, 2018 at 11:12 am

    And Jim,
    I’ll bet Don and Annette are more proud to have Jim, an older brother, telling them stories of where he had been. I know I am. He has experienced more than most of us will ever know, but I’m glad he’s a ” Son of the Smokies.” Jim talks about the things I grew-up with and I’m proud to call him “friend”. …Ken

  • Reply
    Kenneth Ryan
    August 15, 2018 at 11:08 am

    This brought back a lot of memories for me. We had a lot of independence growing up in the woods…to study, explore, to learn how to do for yourself and make things work out. Jim’s description of climbing sapling trees brought back particular memories. We had a lot of pine sapling thickets around us. I don’t remember leaning them over to get back on the ground, but we would lean them over and get into another sapling. We could go an enormous distance from tree to tree, never touching the ground. Thank you for the memories, Jim.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    August 15, 2018 at 9:46 am

    I enjoyed this so much! I truly believe childhood in that time was more fun than today. We were outside nearly all day, every day. We exercised without even knowing it and got so hungry we ate most anything.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    August 15, 2018 at 9:30 am

    Thanks Jim for your recollections of your youth in the Appalachian mountains…Mine was pretty much like yours. We loved catching lightning bugs, June bugs and butterflies. We also fished for pinching worms/larve in the ground with wild onion stems. We laid flat on our bellies calling out to “doodle bugs” inverted cone shaped home in the dry dusty area where previously my brothers, neighbors and I carried on a great game of marbles!
    “NO STEALIES” someone would yell before a game commenced. Homemade slingshots made with an old rubber tire tube, leather of an old shoe tongue, and forked branch of a hardwood tree…Yes, I thought my boys to make one…But, you are a girl, they say! When you have brothers you learn tomboy things…like making slingshots, playing marbles and
    “Cork Ball”. We went to a stand of trees where our grape vine swing was located…below the trees was a fresh water stream where the largest crawdads and salamanders lived in peace, that is until we decided to turn over every rock in the creek! When we got hungry, we searched our area for thrown away glass pop bottles…gathered as many as we could carry in our bicycle baskets and off to the store for a refund. A pack of baseball cards with gum, or wax lips or those little bottles of wax filled with pure sugar water was had for a few cents…Yes, I could go on forever…Those were the good ole days for sure…Thanks Jim…
    Thanks Tipper,

    • Reply
      aw griff
      August 15, 2018 at 12:24 pm

      I wondered if anybody else had fished for pinching worms. We called them hump back minners. Sometimes they were hard to drag out of their hole.

  • Reply
    August 15, 2018 at 8:45 am

    Thank you, Jim Casada, for such a well written account of most of my own childhood. I did not grow up in the Smokies, but actually in the southern mountains of West Virginia. Most folks who leave here long to return to not only the mountains, but they remember the warm giving folks they left behind.
    I would add that even as teens there were activities we enjoyed that I have not seen elsewhere. The many small waterfalls that were found along country roads served as great car washes. You could simply pull off the road and actually enjoy all the water to wash your car or fill up jugs if you had the misfortune of having “city water” in your home. These were so much more enjoyable than carwashes in stalls where you chug coins in a slot. There were usually scattered areas where they had dammed up a creek or stream for teens to get together and swim. It was not against the law back then for a bunch of kids to pile in the back of a truck to go on some big adventure. Get togethers were cheap, because it usually only took a good fire, some sticks, and a few bags of cheap marshmallows.
    Still today, I don’t want to visit the beach when I go on vacation. I see the ocean and all the brown bodies for a few minutes, and I am ready to move on to another scene. No, I want to visit the Smokies, taste the good country food, and see Cade’s Cove. Perhaps also it is as if there is a totally different landscape around every turn. My Dad tried to describe it one time. He said, “when you stand in the mountains you can see everywhere, and when you stand in the city all you see is just right around you.”
    I especially liked your rekindling the memory of June Bugs, and I still enjoy spotting one of those colorful little creatures. I do miss all the many butterflies we used to see.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    August 15, 2018 at 8:22 am

    Pennsylvania has hills instead of large mountains but we had hollers, streams and lots of woods to play in.
    My Mother tried so hard to have me be a perfect little girl but growing up with all boys she was fighting a loosing battle.
    I would come home with missing hair ribbons, skuffed shoes and torn dresses. For some reason my brother always came home with clean jeans and shiny shoes.
    It was something to laugh about later in life but I am sure it was one of the things that turned my Mother’s hair grey and now gives me lots of good memories.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    August 15, 2018 at 8:11 am

    Yep, the outdoors was the playground, and larder to. There were more fun things to do than there was time to do them. And many sources of fear now didn’t even exist then, at least out in rural areas. Nature has such infinite variety interests could go in all kinds of directions and for some of us became the basis of our life work.

    I think Jim has tested the width and depth of the idea that there is no place like home and knows better than some that it is true.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    August 15, 2018 at 7:14 am

    My cousin and I ran tame through a piney woods and did many of the same things, we loved our river especially when it was low enough to walk scross except in a very few spots.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 15, 2018 at 6:53 am

    Thanks for the memory’s, Jim, I did all those childhood things you mentioned. I think catching lightening bugs was my favorite of them. It really was a different life and a different world then.
    I can remember a big, very old tree near where I lived in Haywood County, that had a long low limb that we could ride, gently swaying up and down. I don’t remember what kind of tree it was but it was up on a hill about a mile from where I lived.
    That was another lifetime, for sure!

  • Reply
    wayne smith
    August 15, 2018 at 6:49 am

    Jim’s memories are the same as mine, though i grew up in Alabama.
    Thank you

  • Reply
    August 15, 2018 at 6:46 am

    Sounded just like my childhood, I felt I had a close connection to Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry finn all tho we didn’t grow up on the Mississippi River, we had the next best thing and that was the Tennessee River and multiple creeks and streams close to home, where a Boy or Girl could let their imaginations run wild, with skint knees, bruises and torn blue jeans to prove it.

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