Profiles of Mountain People

Way Up On Pilkey Creek

Today’s guest post was written by Don Casada and portions of it were originally published here on the Blind Pig in February of 2012. 


Pearl Cable: a sweet young filly, from way up on Pilkey Creek written by Don Casada

Pearl Crisp was born on April 26, 1920 (if you’ll do the math, you’ll see that she’s 94 going on 95) and raised on Pilkey Creek. Pilkey Creek is, to the person who can only get there by walking, the most remote mid-to-major size stream on the north shore of Fontana Lake. It is 13 or more miles from any point which you can reach by wheeled vehicle. Most folks who go there travel across Fontana to the creek by boat. But even going that route, there’s a fair amount of walking left to reach some of the old home places – such as that of Miles and Sarah Pilkington Crisp, the parents of Pearl.

Pearl met her future husband, Sam Cable, at the Tennessee River Baptist Church near the mouth of Chesquaw Branch. From the Crisp home, it was 1.7 miles down out of the holler to old NC 288, then another 1.9 miles down to the church. As you might guess, the family traveled by foot – both ways of course. Now it was only uphill one way, but there was a 700 foot climb involved in the 3.6 mile trek back home.

River Baptist Church (TVA photo)

Tennessee River Baptist Church (TVA photo)

After they got to courting, Sam would regularly walk Pearl home from church on Sunday. Along the way, they’d walk past the old elementary school at Dorsey, Dad Collins little country store at the mouth of Clark Branch – closed on Sunday, of course – and then on up Pilkey Creek past Miz Laura Mae Clark Posey’s grist mill.

The old Dorsey School (photo courtesy of Swain County Genealogical Society)

The old Dorsey School (photo courtesy of Swain County Genealogical Society)

Dad Collins store (TVA photo)

Dad Collins store (TVA photo)

A little ways after you turn off of the Pilkey Creek road up towards the Crisp place, there’s a fine old beech tree standing on the bank of the little unnamed branch that flows out of the Miles and Sarah Crisp holler. I took a picture of that Beech back last year and showed to Pearl to see if she remembered it. Her eyes lit up even brighter than normal and she said “Why I well remember that tree – I spent many an hour there.” I later wrote a little song that included a line saying that she and Sam “would sit and spark a bit beneath that old beech tree,” intending to tease her. But she never denied it, so it just may be that a recollection of sparking was part of what lit up her eyes.

Beech tree Large e-mail view

The fine old beech tree alongside the stream below the Crisp place

After Pearl and Sam were married, she moved just across the high ridge that defines the western edge of the Pilkey Creek basin, and made a home with Sam on Calhoun Branch, just down the holler from where Sam grew up. Their daughter Velma was born there in 1942 – one of the last babies born on the north shore. Velma was but a month old when Sam had to leave for basic training in Kansas. The picture below has handsome Sam, beautiful Pearl, and sweet baby Velma when Sam was home for a few days just before leaving for Europe, where he fought for us in WW2.

Sanford (Sam), baby Velma, and Pearl Cable - 1943

Sanford (Sam), baby Velma, and Pearl Cable – 1943

While Sam and many other boys from Swain County were off fighting for us and Uncle Sam, another of Uncle Sam’s outfits – which went by the name Tennessee Valley Authority– moved in to the upper Little Tennessee Valley and began to build Fontana Dam. I don’t want to start traveling the literally hundreds of roads that could take us down, or we’d still be here next year. But suffice it to say that by the time Sam got back, their property had been taken, and Pearl, Velma, the Crisps and countless others had been moved out. The cross on the steeple of the Tennessee River Baptist Church was covered by more than 100 feet of water, as were the old Dorsey Elementary School and Dad Collins Store. The Posey mill stood above the flood, but was to never again grind corn to meal; there was no one left to grind for.

It was a cold morning in late November when the bus pulled up down in front of Dent’s Café in Bryson City. I’m sure the ground of his home county underneath his feet never felt better when Sam Cable stepped off, retrieved his duffle bag from the underbelly storage of the bus, and went inside to get some breakfast after an all-night ride. War time communications had been restricted, so while Sam knew the families had been forced to leave their homes, he didn’t know the details of why or even where his folks were. Fortunately, a taxi driver just happened to know where Pearl’s folks had moved to, knew that Pearl and Velma were living there with them, and gave Sam a free ride up to their place up off of Franklin Grove Church Road. Can you imagine the laughter, tears, and pure joy that filled the Crisp home that morning?

Pearl and Sam settled just up the road from Pearl’s parents, had another child – Marvin – and made a fine life for themselves here in Swain County. Sam bought and ran a Gulf gas station up above town and Pearl took care of the young’uns and worked as a doctor’s assistant. The phrase “the greatest generation” surely applies.

Old days and harder ways

I’ve spent many days talking with Pearl about old times – days that I count as a true blessing. She’s sweeter than the petal of a rose, sharper than its thorn, and has an absolutely amazing memory of the people, places, and times. Spend a few minutes with her, and your steps for the rest of the day will be lighter and your outlook brighter.

While she always has a positive outlook, Pearl doesn’t look backwards through rose-colored glasses. She has some wonderful memories about life growing up on Pilkey Creek – but is also quick to tell you that you couldn’t pay her to go back in there – it was hard, hard, hard work.

A part of the hard work that Pearl remembers involved rocks. Now I don’t mean to offend anyone with Pilkey Creek roots, but there are parts of Pilkey Creek that grew, and apparently still grow, some of the finest crops of rocks a body ever laid eyes on. Pearl says she spent many a day stacking rocks. The photo below is my wife Susan standing below a rock wall a little further up Pilkey creek above the Crisp place. That wall is stacked a little higher than normal – about 6 feet (4 feet thick and perhaps 100 yards long), but is similar in other respects to dozens that you’ll find scattered throughout the Pilkey Creek drainage.

Rock wall below the John Pilkington place; October, 2011

Rock wall below the John Pilkington place; October, 2011

Pearl and her mother also did a lot of the firewood gathering, she recalls, most of which went into the fireplace of the home her father (shown below) built in 1930. That’s Pearl, holding her sister Vergie’s baby. The one-story frame home was built with sawn lumber and covered with shingles rived by Pearl Crisp Cable’s father, Miles Crisp, a very gifted – and giving – man. You can see a bit of his smokehouse just to the left of the chimney – or to spell it the way we mountain folks say it – chimley (try it, by the way, and see if chimley doesn’t roll off your tongue a lot smoother than chimney).

Miles and Sarah Crisp and family – circa 1940

Miles and Sarah Crisp and family – circa 1940

While he did all the other work on the home – the foundation, framing, riving and laying of the shingles – Mr. Crisp hired a fellow known to be skilled in stone work, Huston Nelms, to build the chimney. Nelms was a young 68 years old in 1930 when the frame home was erected. According to Pearl, he built many chimneys in the area. He made his own home a few miles to the west, alongside Mill Branch. His own home had an exceptionally nice springhouse, the foundation of which can be found hidden by a patch of doghobble about two good spits from the Lakeshore Trail.

Today, the chimney that Huston Nelms erected still stands sentinel watch over the Crisp place, a “country mile” up that feeder to Pilkey Creek. Other than a few rocks missing from the top (no doubt knocked off by falling limbs), the chimney is in excellent shape.

It might be noted that the clay chinking used in this chimney, some of which is still in place (you might be able to make it out in the middle section), came from just up the holler. It is almost white in color, bringing kaolin clay to mind. The Crisp place is one of those homes that – when you visit – just has a really good feel about it. You sense both love and hard work about the place.

Miles and Sarah Crisp family chimney November, 2011

Miles and Sarah Crisp family chimney; photo taken in November, 2011, 67 years after the family was forced to leave (the home was burned – or to use their terminology – “melted” by the U.S. Park Service).



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  • Reply
    Susan Pilkey Stone
    June 14, 2021 at 4:06 pm

    A few years back we backpacked the Lakeshore trail in its entirety. I was thrilled when we came to Pilkey Creek because my maiden name is Pilkey. I was born in Mi and moved to Sylva in 1981. I did a little research but not much was found relating to any “Pilkey’s “

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    January 9, 2020 at 8:18 am

    Pearl’s toughness and sweetness may be partly genetic, I am lucky enough to be married to Pearl’s first cousin once removed and she has the same attributes that Pearl possessed. Bunny’s Grandparents were forced to move off of Chamber’s Creek while they had two sons fighting for the US, Bunny’s father was in the Army and recalled during the Korean Conflict where he was captured and held for thirty three months as a POW. Her uncle served in the Navy and while unloading supplies at Omaha Beach suffered a head injury when a truck near him hit a land mine and the shrapnel hit his head. These families served proudly while the same government they were serving was forcing their families off their homesteads. . Bunny’s father and uncle both paid a high price for their service.

  • Reply
    jim conley
    October 15, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    does anyone remember the Conley’s who lived on Pilkey Creek ?

  • Reply
    R.Gordon Floyd
    February 25, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    Wonderful Story, Don!

  • Reply
    Dan O'Connor
    February 23, 2015 at 1:15 pm

    Knowing Don, he is not one to reach out unless circumstances demand. Pearl will be in my thought and prayers. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    February 21, 2015 at 10:23 am

    I am so thankful to Don and Tipper for sharing so eloquently of Pearl and other worthy souls. Inspiring.And the photos are wonderful!

  • Reply
    Jim Corbin
    February 21, 2015 at 6:04 am

    What a fantastic tribute to Pearl, only wish I had known her… thanks to Don, I now do. I did know Velma and it’s obvious the acorn didn’t fall far from the tree.

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    February 21, 2015 at 3:01 am

    Awww, praying for Ms. Pearl. Praying God leads her gently on home.
    Reading Don’s story made me think about old times and about young people today thinking they’ve got it tough. I wonder how many of them would make it through tough times like we grew up in and even harder ones the generation before us did. I feel sorry for today’s generations. I purely do. Because those tough times taught us survival tips and good old common sense, something that so many of today’s youth (and some of their parents) seem so bereft of. I don’t think many would survive if tough times came again, unless they’ve still got an elder in their family who remember how (and could get them young’uns to listen to them).
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    February 20, 2015 at 11:51 pm

    Wonderful story and I will keep Pearl and her loved ones in my thoughts-

  • Reply
    Barbara Fortner
    February 20, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    Thank-You for all the wonderful things you have wrote and will write about Pearl. I know you had a bond with her and I can feel for you at this time.
    She is a very nice-tough-strong Mountain Lady. She has the determination and Loves the Lord very much.
    She has experienced many changes in her life and has God’s Hand in hers.
    Praying for Pearl& Family.

  • Reply
    Annette Casada Hensley
    February 20, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    Don & Tipper,
    Prayers for Miz Pearl. Her daughter Velma was a year ahead of me in school but I didn’t meet Pearl until Don “discovered” her. He loves and charms these older ladies, believe me, to the point that some of them swear they’re going to adopt him!

  • Reply
    Ed Wall
    February 20, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    It’s amazing how the grace, courage, generosity, toughness and love of some human beings seem to transcend geographic boundaries. Don’s vivid description of Pearl brought to mind memories of my great aunt Lila Wall. Aunt Lila lived her whole life in the other end of the state from Pearl – in the country outside of Micro in Johnston County. Well into her nineties she was tending her garden, toting firewood, babying her many cats and taking care of everyone, whether kin or not, in her backwoods neighborhood – and delivering the coup de’grace with a tobacco stick to any snake foolish enough to show itself in the vicinity of her chicken pen. The land where Aunt Lila lived was flat as a pancake but I think she would have been right at home up around Fontana. She also called the thing the smoke came out of a “chimley.”

  • Reply
    Mary Lou McKillip
    February 20, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    these posted stories make us sit on seats straight and take all the info of these wonderfully written stories of the past. I do love to read all about people close by where I grew up and love the the beauty of these mountains.
    I thank God he placed me here and now I am about to bark on strange territories at age 72. I pray God fill we with love for Mo.

  • Reply
    Glynda P. Chambers
    February 20, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Great story and pictures. Thanks Tipper and Don. I got to know Pearl several years ago when she was working for the Dr. in Sylva and I was working for a Dr. next door to her. She was a very sweet lady and I am grateful that I got to know her, just wish I had known some of her history at that time. I send prayers to her and to her family. What a treasure she is to all who knew her.

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    February 20, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    Along with the joys, Pearl and all the tough mountain folk surely endured hardships. The lives of the Crisps and the Cables must have been as depicted by Horace Kephart, writing from Bryson City at the time. But I bet Miss Pearl has no regrets and wouldn’t have traded her life for any other.
    Don tells it so well–a great post. And the photos evoke my own memories of mountain scenes many decades ago. I have tramped to dozens of those stone “chimleys” in the Blue Ridge, relics of the 500 families forced off their homesteads to form Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park in the 1930’s.

  • Reply
    February 20, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    I recall reading about Pearl a while back, and really enjoyed another “visit” with such a wonderful woman. Thank you, Don and Tipper, for sharing this evocative piece, and photographs.
    I will certainly be keeping Pearl Cable and her loved ones in my thoughts.

  • Reply
    February 20, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    And Don, what a wonderful picture
    of life in the Appalachians! Pearl
    will certainly be in my prayers.
    I got lots of friends that lost
    their homes when they backed up
    Fontana, my parents lived at
    Bushnel and now under 300 feet of
    The song Don made and sung was
    really nice. I already knew he
    was a good singer and everyone
    knows of his bushwackin’ in the
    beautiful Smokies…Ken

  • Reply
    Rooney Floyd
    February 20, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Don records that Pearl Crisp met her husband, Sam Cable, at church on the Tennessee River. We had a prolific carver of hound dogs named Lou Cable (female) at the Folk School during the 1940’s and 1950’s. I wonder if there is any connection. This is the only other time I have heard the name Cable.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    February 20, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    Isn’t Pearl an apt name for mountain gems such as Mrs. Cable? Created by years of hard times yet they remain smooth, soft and iridescent. Their beauty rivals the rarest of crystals yet they are fashioned by a living being. Their value is described in Matthew 13:45-46.
    Although Ms. Pearl’s glow may appear to be dimming, heaven seems to be that much brighter!

  • Reply
    February 20, 2015 at 11:06 am

    Beautiful story, and thank you very much, Don. I thoroughly enjoyed all the fine details and descriptions you had in the story about sweet Pearl.
    As always many of the stories and comments found on The Blind Pig remind me of my own early life. Growing up in the hills is not for sissies, but I would not trade it for the world.
    I sometimes had a beautiful walk downhill to the school bus with beautiful snow covered trees forming an arch above me. However, the trek back up the hill was not so magic. The snow had time to become mushy and muddy, and it was hard going for about 1 1/2 miles. A really nice neighbor built a box of sorts between two mailboxes near the bus stop, and several of us would stuff our boots in the box each morning. The thoughtful, Mr. Shrader, has been gone for a long time, but his kindness lives on in the memories of many. After the boot stash we would don our trendy saddle oxfords, and then off to school we would go. My sister once flicked a huge wad of dirt in her eye after a hard tug on a muddy boot. As her older sister, I was the only one who would dare attempt cleaning her eye. Saving the day, I grabbed some random piece of clothing and scooped out the dirt as she was fainting to the ground. This and retrieving books she sent sailing as she slid in the snow became a way of life. Some of the sweetest and dearest friends I ever knew were those who shared that dirt-filled boot box with me!
    I must get back to my now world. But, thanks so very much this touching story; sending prayers Pearl’s way.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    February 20, 2015 at 10:34 am

    A wonderful story–I enjoyed it so much. Saying a prayer for this special lady & her family.

  • Reply
    eva nell wike, PhD
    February 20, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Mr. Casada & Tipper:
    You have brought us a meaningful story which we should hold to as we move down the ROAD of LIFE! My father knew such a way of life,the hard times which made him a stronger person – to provide for a family of ELEVEN children. He got a DOLLAR a foot as he dug wells – with a pick and short shovel.
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD

  • Reply
    Shirley B
    February 20, 2015 at 10:10 am

    I loved what Miss Cindy said .I really enjoyed this story.Thanks to you and Don for sharing this with everyone.It reminded me of Philippians 4:8,to think of things that are lovely,pure,honest…

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    February 20, 2015 at 10:07 am

    Prayers for sweet Pearl.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    February 20, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Thanks all of you for your kind thoughts sent Pearl’s way and prayers sent toward her Father in heaven. Both her daughter Velma and son Marvin have been close by attending to her needs.
    Here’s a link to the little ditty I sang for sweetheart Pearl:

  • Reply
    Celia Miles
    February 20, 2015 at 9:49 am

    Your descriptions of family and place are wonderfully evocative–I could relate to that time but not the displacement by the TVA. And,now, we think we are having a terrible winter! I heard chimley growing up (and said it) and then heard it in the British Isles (though not from the royal family and the ilk).

  • Reply
    Joy Newer
    February 20, 2015 at 9:43 am

    Sending love and peace to Pearl, she is an inspiration to me and to many i am sure.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    February 20, 2015 at 9:08 am

    Great story and pictures.
    Thank you.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    February 20, 2015 at 9:08 am

    Great story and pictures.
    Thank you.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    February 20, 2015 at 9:08 am

    Great story and pictures.
    Thank you.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    February 20, 2015 at 9:08 am

    Great story and pictures.
    Thank you.

  • Reply
    February 20, 2015 at 9:07 am

    They just don’t make many women like Pearl anymore, do they? She sounds so much like some of the women in my family. I wish I had listened closer to the stories they had to tell.
    Get well soon Pearl – and keep smiling! That’s what I asked for in the prayer I said for you.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    February 20, 2015 at 9:04 am

    What a beautiful story. We had the same thing happen in Pennsylvania.
    They flooded an entire town to make Raystown Lake.
    Folks love to dive there and look for the various buildings.
    It is quite a tourist destination now.
    The story is sad.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    February 20, 2015 at 8:56 am

    Thanks to Don (and Tipper) for sharing this beautiful and touching story! I followed those woodland trails and the changing lifestyle with great interest! Don
    Waxed poetic in his telling and reminded us of the many changes our mountain folks have experienced in a lifetime!

  • Reply
    February 20, 2015 at 8:51 am

    This is such a beautiful story of love, family, and hardship. I am sending prayers for Pearl’s peace. Thanks, Don!

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    February 20, 2015 at 8:17 am

    and Don…What a wonderful story.
    The doctor said that if my Mother had lived the last portion of her years in the hills of NC…and with all that uphill walking she did…she probably would have lived past 93…
    Mountain women are a strong lot, strong with stamina and determination and most with a sweet and kind personality.
    Thanks Tipper,
    and Don

  • Reply
    Darlene Debty Kimsey
    February 20, 2015 at 7:48 am

    Thank you so much for this, Tipper. Some of my Dad’s family married into the Crisp family in that area. This little lady is a diamond – tough but beautiful.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    February 20, 2015 at 7:44 am

    Don–I was deeply saddened to hear of Pearl’s decline even as I was gladdened to read, once again, of some episodes, incidents, and memories in her fascinating life. She’s a wonderful example of the toughness, tenacity, and plain-out gumption of a truly special generation. Pearl (and Velma) will certainly be in my thoughts and prayers.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    February 20, 2015 at 7:41 am

    beautiful story. I will certainly hold a good thought for Pearl.
    There are lots of amazing people in these mountains. There is Don, who spends all his spare time tramping through the woods documenting a people mostly gone now. There is you, who spends all her spare time documenting the daily lives of these same people. The rich beauty of the Appalachians!

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