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Julia Nunnally Duncan Featured at High Country Writers Meeting at Watauga County Public Library

June 14, 2018 from 10am to 12pm
Julia Nunnally Duncan will be the featured presenter at the High Country Writers Meeting on June 14, 10 a.m.-12 noon at the Watauga County Public Library in Boone. She will discuss her inspirations and the process of becoming a published author. She will present readings from her latest books A Part of Me and A Place That Was Home and give a preview of her forthcoming poetry collection A Neighborhood Changes. A book signing will follow her presentation.See More
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A Slice of Life: An Evening of Stories at Black Mountain Center for the Arts

April 21, 2018 from 7:30pm to 9pm
Saturday, April 21, 2018 at 7:30 pm, join nationally celebrated storyteller, Connie Regan-Blake, as she hosts her "Taking the Stage" workshop participants, for an enchanting evening of storytelling in picturesque Black Mountain, NC. You'll enjoy a variety of stories and storytelling styles featuring tellers Jane O Cunningham from Rome, GA; Gabriele Marewski from Black Mountain, NC; Christine Phillips Westfeldt - Fairview,…See More
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Writers Circle around the Table

We are located in Hayesville, NC. In April we begin our new season with outstanding Poet Mike James. Mike will read at Writers' Night Out in Blairsville, GA on Friday evening April 13. On Saturday, April 14, he will teach a class at my studio.Formally SpeakingThis class will focus on different types of traditional poetic forms such as the sonnet, the villanelle, and the sestina, and will also include other verse forms such as erasures, found poems, prose poems, and last poems.Contact Glenda…See More
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Rachel Carson, Silent Spring Chautauqua History Alive at UNC Asheville, OLLI Reuters Center, Manheimer Room

April 15, 2018 from 3pm to 4:30pm
Step inside the revolutionary book, Silent Spring as its author Rachel Carson reveals the reckless destruction of our living world. Written more than 55 years ago Silent Spring inspired the Environmental Movement and has never been out of print. And now you have a chance to ask the author, Rachel Carson, how this came to be. But these aren’t just performances. They’re a chance to step into Living History – to ask questions and go one on one with a women whose books shaped our country and our…See More
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Mom in Her Writing Nook ...

She was working on the "About the Authors" section of "Echoes Across the Blue Ridge" when I captured this one morning. Though you can't see it, her coffee cup was within gentle reach that morning. Roxie is at her feet.
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Feb 15

Logging was us


The story of logging in WNC

Parts 1 & 2

See about Community Read 

by Rob Neufeld


During the first quarter of the past century, the harvesting of virgin forests dominated life in much of this region.  Serena, Ron Rash’s award-winning, best-selling novel about this period, has been selected as the fall 2011 Community Read book by Mountain Lit, a local region-wide organization.

The history and human stories of the logging era are the subjects of a five-part, monthly series that begins with: “Part One: Fields of Champion.”


Photo to right: Cords of chestnut in yards of Champion from The Story of Chestnut Extract.


Part One: Fields of Champion


            Peter Gibson Thomson came down from Hamilton, Ohio in 1905 to check out the fields of timber in Haywood County.  He was on his way toward establishing the Champion Fibre Company in Canton.

            For a while now, lumbermen had been calling the Great Smoky Mountains a huge prize, “the largest continuous forest cover in the eastern United States,” and it was primeval.  Steam-powered skidders and the steep-climbing Shay locomotive turned formerly inaccessible tracts from money pits to treasure troves.

            The big money men from the north came in all at once, “staking off watersheds like so many claims,” as Wilma Dykeman said in her text for the National Park Services book, “The Great Smoky Mountains.”

            W.M. Ritter set up along Hazel Creek, with headquarters at Proctor.  R.E. Woods took Eagle Creek, and built Fontana.  Twentymile and Forney Creeks were taken by Kitchin and Norwood Lumber Companies.  Thomson got his share: Deep Creek, Greenbrier Cove, and the headwaters of the Oconaluftee.


Imagining the industrialist


            Ron Rash’s novel, “Serena,” has captured worldwide as well as local attention for its fictional views of the Boston Logging Company; Pemberton, the bigger-than-life tycoon; his Lady Macbeth-like wife and partner, Serena; and its Western North Carolina setting.

            People have called the novel a “Lady Macbeth in a logging camp,” but that is not right.  “Serena” is more like “Moby Dick.”  A diverse work crew witnesses the destructive path of a monomaniac in an exploitive industry.  The fact that Rash’s Ahab is a woman should not alter our appreciation.

             When Pemberton meets his first challenge—a knife-wielding, drunken mountain man incensed by Pemberton’s impregnation of his teenage daughter, Rachel—Serena instructs her husband, “Get your knife and settle it now.”

            Before gutting his antagonist, Pemberton reflects on his knife, “precisely calibrated as the épées he’d fenced with at Harvard.”  He was an all-round champion.


Historical champion


            Thomson was not a knife-wielder, as far as we know.  But he was a trained boxer and weight-lifter.  His father had enrolled him in a gymnasium at age nine.  As an adult, Thomson could lift 1,265 pounds, without a harness, as Corydon Bell documented in his 1963 “A History of Champion Papers.”

            By the time Thomson came to the Pigeon River, he was fifty-one years old, and had built three businesses.  He’d been a bookseller; a real estate developer; and a manufacturer of coated paper, which he took up for two reasons.  One, he wanted to create jobs and thus customers for his subdivisions; and two, there was an industrial opportunity created by the boom in books and by a new coating process.

            Champion Coated Paper Company depended on wood pulp.  The supply was restricted.  The best move was to get one’s own pulp.


Pulp non-fiction


            The world that Thomson saw in turn-of-the-century Haywood County was filtered by his focus on trees; and affected by twenty years of cutting.

            To the east, the wooded mountains had been pretty much logged out.  (See next month’s feature, “The Pisgah Lands.”)

            In Haywood and Swain Counties, things were in a different state.  Much was gone; much remained.

            The large poplar and ash trees had been cut along big creeks because the logs of those trees could be floated.  With no railroad or highway access, loggers used the river method of transport, building splash dams, waiting for the right flow, and herding logs to the Little Tennessee.

            “Splash dams were probably the most destructive logging technique ever devised, and Hazel Creek still bears the scars on its banks,” states Sam Gray in his environmental report, “Hazel Creek: Patterns of Life on an Appalachian Watershed.”  Skidding the logs down mountains to get to the dams pounded and dug up everything in their path, occasionally running over oxen.

            Floating logs down streams—with their unpredictable flows and their snags—proved to be a doomed enterprise. 

            Alexander Alan Arthur’s attempt on the Pigeon River in Newport, Tennessee had resulted in disaster in the spring of 1886, when a historic flood swept away booms that had held “a dammed-up fortune in logs,” Dykeman related in her chronicle, “The French Broad.”  Logs had scattered from Arthur’s Scottish Lumber Company operation “clean to the Gulf of Mexico,” folks reported.

            In 1890, Blue Ridge Lumber Company of Maine built a splash dam across the Tuckaseegee River at Dillsboro.  Each spring brought its own flood water calamity.  In 1894, the foreman, Joe Johnston, went out on a logjam at the confluence of Trout Creek and the Tuckaseegee. 

            “He fell into the water in front of the moving mass of logs,” Robert Andrew McCall noted in his Western Carolina University Masters thesis, “The Timber Industry in Jackson County.”  “The logs prevented (Johnston) from surfacing in time.”

            Accidents and environmental destruction took place in a horrifying variety of ways, up through the 1920s, as represented with Biblical vividness in “Serena.”  The fatality rate in the logging industry was six times that of other industries in 1913, Margaret Lynn Brown reports in “The Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains.”


The dawning and a portent


            Biblical was also how the famed author and National Park advocate, Horace Kephart, had seen the progress of logging.

            In his book, “Our Southern Highlanders,” Kephart tells about his experiences in the Great Smokies shortly before Thomson entered the picture, and shortly after Ritter, a noted clear-cutter, had arrived. 

            The splash dam era had yielded to the era of railroads, as the Southern Railway extended to Murphy and logging companies built spur lines up mountainsides.

            Once on a bear hunt, Kephart related, he “heard the snort of a locomotive.”   “All this,” he “apostrophized,” taking in his surroundings, “shall be swept away…Soot will arise, and foul gases; the streams will run murky death.”

            Kephart is a character in “Serena,” hiking and plotting with Horace Albright, National Parks director; and with Charles Webb, pro-park editor of the Asheville Citizen.  (More to follow in Part Four, “Government Protection.”)

            To Kephart, Southern Appalachia had been the “back of beyond.”   An outdoorsman, he craved the region.  “When I prepared, in 1904, for my first sojourn in the Great Smoky Mountains,” he wrote, “I could find in no library a guide to that region.”

Finally, he unearthed “in the dustiest of rooms…where ‘pub. docs’ are stored,” a 1902 report on southern forests by the Department of Agriculture.  Though it observed that the “good timber” was all gone, much remained of chestnut, oak, spruce and other valuable species.

            A noteworthy copy of this volume resides in Special Collections in Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.  George Frizzell, head of Special Collections, and grandson of a local logging employee, points out how certain photos cut out from the library copy match ones pasted in Kephart’s scrapbook, which WCU also owns.

            What had inspired the wood cutters had also inspired the tree hugger.


Come hither


            In 1905, the newly formed National Forest Service issued a survey of Southern Appalachian forests that was as poetic as a balance sheet, and as appealing as a king’s dream.

            “The stand of merchantable timber is about 3,000 (board feet) per acre, largely oak,” it noted about a 65 square mile swath that touched Cullowhee.   “Mills have been cutting here continually for the past ten years,” feeding locust pin factories and tanneries in Jackson and Haywood Counties.

            Regarding the “occupancy,” the text continued, the hills were thickly settled, and the valleys well cleared.  Some of the occupants were Cherokee in the Alarka Mountains.

            Residents of areas targeted by lumber companies first noticed “timber cruisers”—advance men, who could size up a hillside or a hillside owner.  Once the companies got started, locals had a wide variety of reactions to the revolution that took place in their lives. 

            Jobs increased exponentially.  People felt pushed off their land.  Ecologies were damaged.  Villages emerged full-blown to provide residents lives they’d fondly remember, though the companies and their towns would only last about twenty years in any one place.




            What was life like in the company towns and in the camps of workers spread out through the woods? 

            The towns had schools, churches, and movie theaters; and also places for hardworking men to party on Saturday night.  The camps had work schedules and war stories.

            “If you could gather up all the severed body parts and sew them together,” Doc Cheney sardonically jokes about camps in “Serena,” “you’d gain an extra worker every month.”

            Rash describes a typical work crew setting out in the morning.

“Most of the loggers were still exhausted from last week’s six eleven-hour shifts.  Some were hung over and some were injured.  As they made their way up the mountain, the men had already drunk four or five cups of coffee…Some used cocaine to keep going and stay alert.”

            Andrew Gennett, describing his experience as a pioneer logger in Clay County, wrote in his memoir, “Sound Wormy” that “of the two hundred men who worked for me during the years 1903 and 1904, all but half a dozen either were dodging the law or had just finished serving a sentence.  Most of them were guilty only of bootlegging.”

            In the villages, there was a settled prosperity.  Professionals got jobs.  Farmers found new markets.  Companies, such as Champion under the leadership of Thomson’s son-in-law, Reuben Robertson, paid other companies for pulp wood they harvested or trashed.

            For a span, the economy fed itself like a growing sun.  So, it isn’t surprising that Champion would have a relationship with Suncrest Lumber Company and its logging town, Sunburst, located where Lake Logan is now.

            Bertie Battles Wilde, 103-year-old child-of-Sunburst, recalls a lively life. 

“            My daddy (Charlie Battles) told me and my sister (Inez) that he’d give us two little calves, and we could sell them and get us some money,” she relates.  Somebody had told Bertie and Inez to feed the calves baking soda so they’d get bigger faster, which the calves did, near to death. 

            “Mama would say,” Bertie recalls, “Well, I don’t know what in the world is happening to my soda.  It just goes and goes.”




            After Suncrest Lumber left, Bertie and her husband, “Shorty,” ran a lodge; and Bertie started a branch of the Salvation Army to help locals suffering during the Depression.

            (See more stories about Bertie on “The Read on WNC.”  Also, look forward to Part Five, “What We Remember.”)

            Ron Rash also looks to the locals. The drunk with the knife in “Serena”—Abe Harmon—is redeemed as a caring single parent and expert farm manager in his daughter Rachel’s memories of him.

            Rachel, even while working in the company kitchen, presents the mind of a country girl, and stands as a spiritual equal alongside her opposite, the superwoman, Serena.

            Characters in “Serena,” as in “Moby Dick,” and as in Western North Carolina communities of old, find themselves carried and crashed by waves of good and bad fortune.   The companies come, take, and go.

            Champion Fibre Company—later Champion International Paper; then the worker-owned Blue Ridge Paper; and now Evergreen Packaging in Canton—is the long-staying and adaptive example.

            Part of the adaptation has been to environmental concerns, not just water pollution, but also the effects of clear-cutting. 

            Though there had been advocates of sustainable forests since Gifford Pinchot and Biltmore Estate forester Carl Schenk had proposed it in the 1890s, conservation lost out to supply-and-demand almost everywhere.

            Kathy Newfont, history professor at Mars Hill College, reveals that even the virgin forests bought by the National Forest Service to protect watersheds and wood, got the axe.  She tells about her findings in her forthcoming book, “Blue Ridge Common: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina” (University of Georgia Press, Feb. 2012).

            “A third of the land that came into its (National Forest) ownership,” she says, “had never been cut…By the end of World War II, very little of that virgin timber was left….They really didn’t believe in virgin timber.  They thought that it would go bad, like over-ripe fruit.”


PHOTO ABOVE: Sunburst, c. 1910s, showing part of the village that surrounded the pond where logs were stored before being fed into the sawmill.  Photo courtesy Special Collections, Hunter Library, Western Carolina University.


NEXT PHOTO UP: Workers building railroad bed at Spruce Mountain (Photo courtesy Ila Pace)


TOP PHOTO: The 70-acre woodyard at Champion Fibre Co. held 15,000 cords of chestnut wood—two months supply for the pulp mill.  From “The Story of Chestnut Extract” by the Champion Paper and Fibre Co., 1937.


Part Two: The Pisgah Lands


            Generations before industrialists with machines had consumed Western North Carolina’s forests, pioneers with hand tools had taken good bites.

            When Carl Alwin Schenck, a German forester, came to the Biltmore Estate in 1898 to manage George Washington Vanderbilt’s woodlands, he noted that “except in a few inaccessible spots, there was not a tree left…that was fit for the lumber required by the Asheville market.”

            Many activities—from making charcoal for furnaces to sawing floorboards—had depleted local timber by the time of Reconstruction.  Even during the Revolutionary War, the timber race had been on, as soldiers coming through on campaigns took note of huge stands of trees for future profit.

            A saw mill was often the start of a town.

            “(We’re) going to have to make a planted landscape out of whole cloth,” the famed landscaper, Frederick Law Olmsted, informed architect Richard Morris Hunt after surveying  Biltmore’s degraded acreage.

            Beyond the estate’s used land lay a larger, wilder realm, which Vanderbilt named Pisgah Forest.  It included what is now Bent Creek Experimental Forest and the Cradle of Forestry in the Pink Beds area.

            In his memoir, “Cradle of Forestry in America,” Schenck tells about his first foray into this territory in 1895.  His guide had been the person he’d replace as Biltmore forester, Gifford Pinchot, the future first U.S. Forest Service chief.

            Descending into the valley of Big Creek, Schenck writes, “Pinchot had told me, logging operations on a large scale were to begin.”

            “In the valley,” Schenck noted, “were the most beautiful trees I had ever seen—towering tulip trees, with gigantic chestnuts, red oaks, basswoods, and ash trees at their feet…The Big Creek Valley was a huge cove, and…the survival of its glorious primeval forest had been due to its inaccessibility.”


Board feet


            Schenck’s “aha!” moment sounds like William Bartram’s on his journey into the mountains in 1775.

            Bartram, a young Philadelphia naturalist, recorded every natural wonder he encountered on a four-year southern tour, and published his account as “Travels” in 1791.  Along with scenes of mountain majesty were ones of Cherokee cultivation: “parterres, vistas and verdant swelling knolls, profusely productive of flowers and fragrant strawberries, their rich juice dying (sic) my horses feet and ancles (sic),” to give one example. 

            The woodlands of the Cherokee were seemingly endless, but they were not uncivilized.  Paths were extensive,  uses were multiple, the planted landscape was inventively managed, and life was full of leisure..

            Bartram’s encounter with bashful Cherokee women frolicking in a strawberry field under the care of a matron has become a local heritage classic.

            Schenck was not so distracted.  His focus was on profit.  The difference between his and Pinchot’s approach and that of most lumber companies was that he and Pinchot knew that forests got ruined if not selectively cut.

            They knew this because Germany, the birth place of silviculture, had cut their forests “so destructively,” writes Chris Bolgiano in her book, The Appalachian Forest, that “they turned into heaths.  Lacking wood even to keep warm, Germans were forced into rehabilitating their landscapes.”

            Selective cutting in difficult locations cannot not be made profitable without good transportation, unfortunately. 

            On Schenck’s first project, in the Big Creek area, the lack of roads forced him to rely on water transport.  Restricted to harvesting tulip trees—which could float—he spared none to make up for the overall shortfall. 

            His crews straightened and smoothed Big Creek to create a sluice, thus ruining it for fishing.  Still, they had to wait for enough rain to keep the logs moving down Mills River.  When the rains finally came, they came heavy, and thrust many logs onto adjoining farms, whose owners often kept the booty or pressed legal suits for damages done to their property.


Brotherhood of foresters


            In 1898, Schenck established the country’s first school of forestry, the Biltmore Forest School.  Surviving and restored structures now comprise the teaching museum, Cradle of Forestry, near Brevard.   

            It cost a lot to attend Schenck’s school, which attracted lusty young men from moneyed families.  The loss of redwoods in California and an enormous forest fire in Wisconsin had signaled a need for national defense of a resource.

            Schenck, a hatchet-faced man with a Kaiser Wilhelm moustache and boots that had screwed-in spurs could practice as well as preach, affirmed Schenck’s 1904 student “Cap” Eldredge in a 1959 interview.

            “He rode two horses…nearly to death—full speed all the time,” Eldredge said. 

            “He had something over 112,000 acres under his charge for Vanderbilt, and that kept him busy…He just lectured to us three or four hours a day, and the rest of the time we were strung out behind him, traveling full speed while he tended to his duties, which he explained as he went along.”

            There was a solid banker’s backbone to this romance.  Land was something to be obtained, and trees were seen in board feet.


Rapacious force


            Board feet is the first challenge that Serena, a woman industrialist, encounters in Rash’s novel.  Rash makes her legendary by giving her the destructive ethos of the logging industry.

            When Bilded, a foreman, spits upon hearing that she’s equal with the boss—her husband, Pemberton—Serena points to a shade tree and makes a wager with Bilded.  “We both estimate total board feet of that cane ash…and see who’s closest.”

            Bilded loses, and, through Serena’s pragmatic decisions, loses bad.

            Industrialists varied in their personalities and even in their attitudes about forestry, but the total effect was Serena-like.

            “Any place that could be logged, was logged,” says Zoë Hoyle, Science Writer/Editor for “Compass,” the publication of the Southern Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service.

            Despite the entrance of the Forest Service as land purchaser after the Weeks Act of 1911, little virgin timber has survived.  There’s Joyce Kilmer Forest.  Also, a spruce forest Champion Paper had sold to the National Park.

            “This near disaster,” Hoyle wrote in an issue of “Compass,” “prompted the formation of the Forest Service and began a century of research that has resulted in the restoration of the Nation's forest ecosystems.”

            The activities that are taking place now at Bent Creek Experimental Forest—on land that Edith Vanderbilt had sold to the Forest Service in 1914—represent Schenck’s science at an advanced and evolved level.


Legacy and future


            Since its establishment in 1925, the station has “adapted to national needs,” says Henry McNab, veteran research forester for the Upland Hardwood Unit of the Southern Research Station.

            Early on, McNab says, the mission had been stopping erosion, planting pines, and eliminating fires.  “After World War II, research took a different turn.”  It became strictly scientific rather than dependent on case studies.

            The new methods looked “at methods of thinning and restoration, and they were statistically designed.”  Yellow poplar and northern red oak, because of their value, were the darlings of nurtured species.

            In the 1980s, the station turned to ecological studies.  “Instead of looking at a handful of commercial species, we started looking at everything,” McNab related.  “The value of dogwood and sourwood as components of ecosystems,” for example.

            “Now, with a new research forester at Bent Creek—Dr. Tara Keyser,” McNab adds, there’s a focus on “storing carbon as a way to mitigate additional CO2 in the atmosphere for climate change.”

            “How much carbon can a yellow poplar store?” he puzzles.

            Pinchot’s dream of managed forests is alive in Western North Carolina.  Will a Serena raise its ruthless head again?  And what effect do such historical events have upon village people?


The Pisgah Lands: Personal Stories


            While loggers and foresters battled over control of the rapidly disappearing virgin woods of this region in the early 1900s, locals adapted to the new wave.

            In Transylvania County, while forest rangers managed the sale of timber from the Pisgah National Forest to Carr Lumber Company—as stipulated by the donor of the land, Edith Vanderbilt—boys and girls played and went to school.

            Vera Jones Stinson of Cedar Mountain recalls her walk to school in the 1910s.  “I carried my lunch in a big dinner bucket,” she says in the video, “Women of These Hills,” produced by Tammy Hopkins in 2000.

            “Mama would have, in the bottom of the bucket” Stinson recalls, “fried potatoes, corn on the cob, and on top she’d have moon pies…We’d gather around a stump and eat our lunch.”

            “Our underwear was all made from flour sacks,” she says about their adaptive ways.  “Mama would get the letters out with lye soap.” 

“One time, my brother was playing at the school, and this girl was running in front of him, and she fell and her dress blew over her head, and it said, ‘Kansas-made.  Pride of Kansas.’  They hadn’t got the letters out.”

The world came to the residents of the Pisgah lands, sometimes stamped in ink, sometimes stomping through the woods.


Moonshiners and land cruisers


            Barbara Miller of Canton, another speaker in “Woman of These Hills,” told how she’d encountered moonshiners when she was a girl.       “I’d be with my grandfather in the woods,” she recalled, “and he’d say, ‘We’re not going in that direction.  In a few minutes, somebody would walk out of the laurel thicket,” coming from his still.  “We’d just pass the time of day with him, and let sleeping dogs lie.”

            Carl Schenck, forester for George Washington Vanderbilt, encountered moonshiners, too, while stomping through woods that locals still considered open for their use, despite Vanderbilt’s deeds.

            In the chapter in his memoirs titled, “The Pinkbeds and the Mountaineers,” he talks about the religion-thirsty Rucker boys; Hiram King, “the rich man of the settlement”; and strongman Ulysses Reeves, who didn’t need a mule.  And he writes about “the other group,” the moonshiners who “went about armed.”

            Schenck’s business appraisal stands out.

            If he were to improve the villagers’ living conditions by giving them roads and supporting a school, he contemplated, “I could never hope to get control of the interior holdings, the acquisition of which was essential, I thought, for my forestry plans.”

            If the farmers stayed put, Schenck knew he couldn’t get the moonshiners to sell their land.  Their business depended on remoteness and pure mountain springs.

            Schenck had to look out for poachers, too, since Vanderbilt had added the creation of a game reserve to Schenck’s responsibilities.

            One time, Schenck saw a man fishing in the Davidson River, and told him to stop.  The man swore at him, and Schenck drove off in the man’s buggy to tell the sheriff.  The man ran and caught up to the buggy with his revolver drawn, shouting, “Pull out your gun!  Pull out your gun!”


Desperate and implacable


            A drunken, wild-eyed mountain man wielding a Bowie knife—Abe Harmon—is the first person to confront George Pemberton, president of the Boston Lumber Company, in Ron Rash’s novel, “Serena.”

            Harmon has a reason to be driven mad by the logging tycoon’s entrance into his community.  On a previous visit, Pemberton had impregnated Harmon’s teenage daughter, Rachel, who had helped in Pemberton’s office.

            Pemberton kills Harmon with his own big knife.  It’s on page nine.

            The sheriff in the novel, though friends with the historical characters, newspaper editor Charles Webb and author Horace Kephart, has little power in Pemberton’s camp village.

            Historically, in Bent Creek, the rapaciousness of the lumber interests took the form of persistent land acquisitions, sometimes involving farmers happy to sell depleted plots.

            William A. Nesbitt’s 1941 history of Bent Creek land use details 73 sales to Vanderbilt.

            In one, the heirs of Colonel Hatch sold their 125 acres, originally granted by the state to Abraham Reynolds in 1809, to Vanderbilt in 1900.  More than half of it had been cleared for cultivation between 1810 and 1840; another 50 acres had been cleared by Hatch just after the Civil War.

            “Practically all the ridge land still shows signs of severe erosion,” the report states.  “One gully…is still of sufficient size for an ordinary house to be buried in it.”

            Nesbitt interviewed the three surviving “Old Settlers” of Bent Creek, who avowed that “many owners were tricked into selling by Dr. C.A. Schenck, who was acting as Vanderbilt’s representative”; and that he forced residents out of their homes after the contracts had been signed, despite grandfathering promises.

            Schenck had a different perspective.  A job had to be done, and he was used to having people take orders.

            Walter Damtoft, a Forest Service ranger, and later Champion Paper Company’s forester, related, in a 1959 interview, how a local had once stomped on Schenck’s hat.  Schenck then told the assembled mountaineers, “For poor people, you are the damnedest independent people I’ve ever seen!”


People to match the mountains


            Damtoft’s contact with residents was often with people he hired.  He appreciated their skills. 

            “The best woodsman that I ever encountered,” Damtoft said, was “Roy Jolley, from North Georgia.  He didn’t have the benefit of more than a fourth grade education.  He’d be out on a survey looking for a corner tree, and half a dozen other men would pass by a tree, and Roy would say, ‘Where are you going?  Here’s the tree.”

            Spotting a tree in an overgrown woods is an uncanny ability.

            Exie Henson, author of “Beyond This Mountain,” a novel based on her family’s logging experience in Transylvania County, talks about the skills of her father, Joe Wilde.

            “He had the ability,” she says, “to look at a stand of timber and estimate the number of board feet.”  He also had the ability to gain people’s trust, a must not only in supervising crews, as he did, but also in taking portrait photographs.  

Once, a group of bootleggers stopped the Wildes’ car on the family’s way home from town.  The men blindfolded Wilde and led him to their still. 

            “You have your camera with you?” a man with a kerchief covering his face asked.

            “What would you do with a camera?” asked Wilde.

            “We wouldn’t do nothin’ with it, but you would.”

            The bootleggers’ dad had grown old, and his sons wanted to give him things for remembrance.  They arranged to have Joe Wilde take photos and send them to their P.O. Box, and meet them at a later date to receive payment.

            The work crews in “Serena” account for a third of the novel.  The locals comment on dire happenings; brave lethal dangers; and make themselves known as colorful individuals.  Abe Harmon, too, is found to be a person of strong character and practical intelligence.

            Mountain people made lives within the scourge of deforestation by logging, which, in any case, brought jobs and community for a period of time.


Can’t go home


            Pauline Ruff Allen, in a 1999 interview, recalled how her father, Hampton Ruff, had taken a job in a logging camp in the Pink Beds in 1917.  He built a lean-to residence for his young family.

            Pauline’s mother, on her part, shot and dressed squirrels, made dolls out of flour sacks, and kept track of young’uns in an environment not unfrequented by bears.  One time, going out to hunt, she placed a bed leg on her little son Pete’s dress-tail so he wouldn’t wander.

            Decades later, Pauline, age 86, was going for a ride with her daughter Janis, who had moved to Brevard.

“I used to live there,” said Pauline, passing the Pink Beds area.

Janis escorted her mother to the old site.  The two found no sign of the lean-to that the Ruffs had called home during the summers of 1917 and 1918.  After all, it had been a provisional structure.

The Nesbitt report on Bent Creek states that there had been 104 homes, built between 1795 and 1900, in the settlement.  None have survived, all but seven torn down before the Forest Service took over.

“There’s only one old chimney on one of the trails around Lake Powhatan, I’ve heard tell,” says Henry McNab, veteran research forester for the Upland Hardwood Unit of the Southern Research Station.  Other than that that, “there’s nothing to indicate that at one time people lived here.”

Schenck, whose goal was to mitigate and improve industry, balancing it with nature, confessed in his memoirs that he was taken by surprise by industry.

“Verily,” he wrote, “a good forester, working for the future as all foresters do, must look ahead,” but, “developments by leaps and bounds, such as have taken place in the United States since 1895, are unique not only in the history of forestry but in the history of the world.”




Visit the Cradle of Forestry at; call 877-3130.  The museum includes, on its grounds, buildings and equipment associated with the Biltmore Forest School.  It also owns the video, “Women of These Hills: Stories of Growing Up in Appalachia.”

See the Cradle of Forestry archive in Special Collections, Ramsey Library, UNCA.

Visit the Bent Creek Experimental Forest at

“Compass,” the publication of the Southern Research Station, edited by Zoë Hoyle, is available online at

The 1959 Elwood Maunder interview with Inman F. “Cap” Eldredge is held by the Forest History Society at Duke University (

The 1959 Elwood Maunder interview with Walter J. Damtoft is held by the Forest History Society at Duke University (

Exie Wilde Henson’s novel, “Beyond This Mountain,” was published by PublishAmerica in 2004.

William A. Nesbitt published “History of Early Settlement and Land Use on the Bent Creek Experimental Forest” for the Asheville Forest Experiment Station in 1941.


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