Tag Archives: Appalachia

Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #23: Smoky Mountain Tales, True and Tall, Volume II

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Baldwin, Juanitta. Smoky Mountain Tales, True and Tall, Volume II. Suntop Press, October 1, 2008.

It wasn’t until I got to the end of this one that I realized had probably read the wrong book. Yes, they’re called “true” tales as well as “tall,” but just as often in this genre, such tales are more tall than true.

The author’s book of Appalachian ghost stories is called Smoky Mountain Ghostlore (and the number on this one indicates there’s a first volume I likely should have begun with). Though the book does have some legends, the only “ghost” story is about a woman who spots a light over a grave in a cemetery at night – only to discover it was a solar lantern left on a child’s grave. According to the mother, her son had been afraid of the dark and she didn’t want him to be uneasy in his grave.

Most of the stories are historical and even from the author’s own family, but there are some legends. Admittedly, the author spends as much time in Tennessee as North Carolina, but the folklore doesn’t exactly recognize that boundary, anyway. Yeah, I probably should have dropped this one early on, but it was short and I found the stories charmingly told. So, sue me.

There’s an amusing tale (unsourced) about the Devil and kudzu. The legend goes that the Devil stirred up his rebellion while God was away planting the Garden of Eden (the Devil was jealous because God wouldn’t allow the angels to visit His new creation – Earth).

When God returned, he kicked the Devil out and the Devil promptly went to the South because it was one of the nicest places in God’s new creation. God reassured the rest of his angels that He had everything taken care of. He’d altered the kudzu just a little bit so that the Devil would exasperate himself trying to manage it. You could say kudzu can bedevil the Devil himself.

The author also includes several stories about gold/silver mines and lost treasures. One John Smith became wealthy from mining silver in the Appalachians during the Colonial period. But he ran afoul of Royal sentiments when visiting Britain during the Revolution. By the time he returned 15 years later, he was old and nearly blind, and his friends and colleagues had all died or scattered to points unknown. So, he was no longer able to find his mines. A whole mess of people have been looking for them since he died in 1800, leaving behind his maps.

From the same time period is Sequoyah. He created a different kind of treasure by inventing the Cherokee alphabet, and teaching his people how to read and write in it.

Another lost mine is the Perry Shults Mine. It’s said you can find it by following a big black bird.

My favorite stories by far, though, are of the tough and pioneering women of the Appalachians. Most notable is Malinda Blalock, a Civil War combat veteran from Watauga County. Her husband Keith was pro-Union and anti-slavery when the Civil War started, in a region where that sentiment was brutally suppressed. When Keith was drafted anyway by the Confederate Army, Malinda disguised herself as his younger brother and marched off with him to war.

After she was shot in battle, her secret was eventually discovered and she was kicked out. Keith rolled in poison ivy to get a temporary discharge and join her. Then the two of them lit out for Grandfather Mountain (in Avery County). They were eventually able to join up with the Union Army and become guerrilla fighters for the rest of the War. And by “fighters,” I mean that Malinda was right there in the thick of it with her husband.

One baby and several war wounds later between them, they settled down after the War and started a country store. Despite vicious opposition from some of their family and neighbors, they prospered, had more kids, and outlived most of their enemies.

Then there is Evelyn Brian Johnson (1909-2012), a famous aviator from Morristown, TN. Still alive at the age of 98 when the book came out in 2008, she gave the author an interview in which she talked about how she got into flying. At the time of her death, she had more flight hours than any woman and more than any living person (57,635.4), and held the record in number of people trained (about 9000). Starting in 1944, she flew planes until a car accident and glaucoma grounded her in 2006, after 62 years. She also outlived two husbands.

These two women are the epitome of “Slid into home, beat to hell, yelling, ‘Wow! What a ride that was!'” I hope I’m able to do the same when I go.

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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #9: Haunted Hills (2007)

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Williams, Stephanie Burt. Haunted Hills: Ghosts and Legends of Highlands and Cashiers, North Carolina. Haunted America. The History Press, 2007.

I have to admit that I didn’t initially have many expectations about this one. It’s smaller than the average paperback ghost book (5X6.5 inches rather than the more standard 6X9) and only about 126 pages, including the bibliography (I like bibliographies; too many ghost story collections don’t have one), with a fairly nondescript cover. And it’s about a relatively small part of Western North Carolina, which usually means the book will get into folksy storytelling without a whole lot of solid content.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find quite a bit more meat on the bones with this one than I’d first thought. Williams does a good job of explaining the rather eccentric history of Highlands and Cashiers, starting off with the legend of their creation. According to this story, Highlands’ founders did some geographic calculations that it would eventually become a trade crossroads of the U.S. It didn’t, but it’s done nicely in the centuries since then becoming a big resort area in the hills. There are a few legends about the origin of Cashiers (pronounced “Cash-ers”). The most popular one involves a white stallion named Cash who escaped captivity during the 18th century and thrived in the area.

Williams balances the history and the legends rather better than some other authors I’ve already reviewed. I also like how she breaks up the reading with photos that are historical, informational and interesting. One particularly quirky tale recounts when the circus came to town, complete with elephants, and visited Highlands Inn in 1923. This story is confirmed by a photo taken at the time.

Williams also tells a pretty decent ghost story. There are outdoor hauntings like the Hooper-Watson feud at Cold Springs near Cashiers, which resulted in at least one senseless massacre, an eternally bloody rock, and a chilling tale passed down of heads on stakes. There are indoor hauntings like the dark shadow figure at the Log Cabin Restaurant in Highlands and rocking chairs on the porch at Kalalanta. And, of course (this being Appalachia), Highlands history is intimately tied up with bootlegging and law enforcement, since the cops were also moonshiners for a time.

This was the first book where I encountered the Cherokee legend of Spearfinger, who lived near the cliff-face now known as the Devil’s Courthouse. Spearfinger was an inhuman, shapeshifting witch that often took the form of an elderly matron of the tribe. She’d snatch any victim she could, but she preferred little kids. She’d sidle up to you and then use her sharp stone finger to remove your liver. You’d never even feel it at the time, but you’d then waste away over the course of the next few days or weeks.

Williams talks about how Spearfinger was used as a scapegoat for the mysterious illnesses (and disappearances) that plagued Cherokee children. Like most Pre-Modern people, the Cherokee suffered from a high infant mortality rate. For them, all the stories were real.

Did you enjoy this review? You can help keep the project going by contributing monthly via Patreon (which includes perks), making a one-time donation through Paypal, or buying us a coffee. And don’t forget to check out my ghostly folklore notes all month on Patreon!