It turns out the famous Confederate spy had relatives living at Blount Mansion during the war. Pretty neat!
Tag Archives: Appalachia
Arcadia Publishing has just published two photographic histories of the Cumberland Gap region for their popular Images of America series, and it just so happens that friends of mine wrote both of them.
Natalie Sweet’s book covers the towns of Harrogate and Cumberland Gap, TN. Harrogate has an unusual story for a small community; in the late 1800s a British industrialist founded a swanky resort there, which hosted some of the richest people in the country for just a short while before financial reverses brought down the whole enterprise. Natalie will be signing copies at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate on February 18 from 2:00 to 5:00 P.M.
Martha Wiley’s book is about Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where she serves as historian, but it includes material on the history of the area before the park was founded.
I worked with Natalie and Martha at LMU’s Lincoln museum, and they’re darn good at doing history. If you’re interested in Appalachia or the history of the National Park Service, these books should be well worth a look.
Eight Tennessee sites have joined the National Register of Historic Places, including Crockett Tavern in Morristown, just down the road from my hometown. Davy Crockett’s family moved to the site when the famous frontiersman was still a boy. The present structure is a replica built in the 1950s, during the Crockett craze whipped up by the Disney series.
I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t been there yet, but I’m going this year, as soon as they re-open for the spring. It’s not that uncommon for history buffs to spend years driving all over the country to visit sites and let the ones in their own backyards fall through the cracks, but the fact that I’ve gone this long without crossing Crockett Tavern off my bucket list is downright scandalous.
Also, the East Tennessee Historical Society is hosting a Brown Bag Lecture on Jan. 16 at noon about an interesting archaeological site in downtown Knoxville: the home of Peter Kern, a remarkable guy who turned a run of bad luck into a fortune in the food business. Kern was a German immigrant who settled in Georgia and signed up to fight for the Confederacy. Wounded in Virginia, he went back home to recover. While returning to the front by train, he ended up in Knoxville just as the city fell into Union hands. Stuck in town for the duration of the war, he made the most of his situation and established a bakery and ice cream parlor. Kern’s bread business was quite a success (you can still buy baked goods with the Kern’s label here in East Tennessee) and he stayed in Knoxville, running successfully for mayor in 1890.
So on behalf of my fellow East Tennesseans to whichever Yankee soldier managed to knock Kern out of the action—thanks for all the awesome sandwiches.
A few items worthy of note as we ring in 2014.
- This list of New Year resolutions for Kentuckians includes a few history-related things to do, including some sites that every citizen of the Bluegrass State should visit. I’ll add one more assignment for Kentuckians in 2014: If you haven’t already, read either Thomas Clark’s classic history of the state or the more recent volume by Lowell Harrison and James Klotter.
- Speaking of knowing your local history, all you folks in Winston-Salem should get acquainted with your town’s Rev War namesake.
- We’re getting a new statue of Sam Houston here in Tennessee, where he made a name for himself before heading off to Texas. There’s also a new Civil War Trails marker going up in Maynardville, just down the road from my neck of the woods.
- Zachary Keck argues that Americans’ fondness for revolutions is misplaced, and stems partly from our own revolutionary beginnings. But he also claims that the American Revolution wasn’t all that revolutionary, because it didn’t upset the status quo. Keck notes that most revolutions don’t create stable, free societies; real progress is due more to evolution than revolution. But should we consider the democratization of the nineteenth century to be an effect of the American Revolution or an example of gradual evolution? Gordon Wood took the long view of the Revolution as a process that turned America away from the hierarchical, colonial past and toward the democratic, egalitarian nineteenth century. Taken as a discrete event which ended in the 1780s, though, the Revolution seems more limited in scope. I guess it all depends on your perspective.
- By far the year’s most popular post here at Past in the Present was a 2012 item about an off-color anecdote told by Abraham Lincoln which made its way into Spielberg’s film.
- I’d like to pick a best American history book of 2013, but most of the books I read this year had already been in circulation for a while. People have been writing history books for a lot longer than I’ve been reading them, so I spend most of my reading time trying to catch up with backlisted titles. As for the best American history book I read in 2013, I’d probably go with Rachel Klein’s Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760-1808.
- High point of 2013 for me? Under any other circumstances, visiting the Freedom Trail, Lexington and Concord would be impossible to top, but…
The East Tennessee History Center has launched a new exhibit on early Knoxville television in conjunction with the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. One of the artifacts on display is the original backdrop from Cas Walker’s TV show. Doing the history of Knoxville TV without Cas Walker—self-made grocery magnate, broadcaster, populist, politician, and one-man Knoxville institution, referred to by one writer as “equal parts P.T. Barnum and Huey P. Long”—would be like doing the Jacksonian era without Old Hickory.
Born in Sevier County in 1902, Orton Caswell Walker spent his early years working jobs at mills and coal mines in North Carolina and Kentucky before opening his first Knoxville grocery store in 1924 with $850 he had managed to save. In a few decades, he turned this initial investment into a multi-million-dollar chain of establishments in three states.
Walker owed his success to a knack for self-promotion. No advertising gimmick was too outrageous, whether it involved dropping coupons from airplanes, tossing chickens off the roof of his store, or burying a volunteer stuntman alive. His image as an unpolished, uncultivated hick who enjoyed a good raccoon hunt served him well with working-class customers.
Walker leveraged his popularity into a role in local politics, winning a seat on the Knoxville City Council in 1941 and a short term (ending in a recall election) as the city’s mayor in 1946. In office and in his self-published newspaper he railed against higher taxes, the consolidation of Knoxville’s city and county governments, flouridation of the municipal water supply, and the local elites who considered him a backwards embarrassment. Reveling in his persona as a rough-and-tumble champion of the little guy, he denounced his opponents in what he called the “silk-stocking crowd.” A demagogue he may have been, but he endeared himself to the same working-class voters who had patronized his grocery stores.
The highlight of Walker’s political career came in 1956, when a dispute with J.S. Cooper during a city council meeting erupted into a full-fledged fistfight. I consider this the most delightful moment in Knoxville’s political history since the Sevier-Jackson showdown of 1803, and thankfully a newspaper photographer was on hand to preserve it for the ages. The image appeared in Life magazine, putting Knoxville’s contentious local politics in the national consciousness.
The centerpiece of Walker’s promotional efforts was his self-hosted TV program, the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour, which ran for three decades and offered him a platform to plug his stores, showcase regional musicians, and pontificate. From a purely historical standpoint, the show is most notable for giving a young Dolly Parton one of her first breaks in the entertainment business. But for sheer entertainment value, none of the musical acts could top Cas himself, holding forth in his own rambling and occasionally profane style.
Here’s Cas discussing the subject of store security (mildly NSFW language):
And in this clip, he shares some advice on professionalism with his musical guests:
Here’s a story about a woman whose investigations into her family’s history uncovered the true story behind a 1926 shootout in southwestern Virginia. Newspapers dismissed the incident as just another violent hillbilly squabble; turns out they were wrong.
This bit of genealogical research is sort of a microcosm of Appalachian history in general. The more you study it, the more the stereotypes and assumptions start to give way to fascinating and complex realities.
I finished reading Sharyn McCrumb’s novel King’s Mountain night before last, and I’ve got to say that I’m pretty impressed at how much Overmountain Men lore she managed to pack into it. The gang’s all there, even fairly obscure characters like Enoch Gilmer. McCrumb is obviously passionate about the subject, and she’s done her homework.
The book’s not totally free of historical slip-ups. McCrumb indicates that Ferguson’s posting to the Carolinas was essentially a banishment to a backwater of the war, but the South had become the seat of Britain’s major offensive efforts by the time Ferguson arrived with Clinton’s Charleston expedition. At one point she says in passing that Light-Horse Harry Lee was an Overmountain Man, which is an error I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. Finally, her characterization of James Williams as a first-rate scoundrel traces back to questionable statements found in Col. William Hill’s 1815 memoir. Hill’s account is like Super Glue—it’s handy to have around, but you’ve got to be extremely careful when using it. It’s the work of an old veteran nursing a grudge, and some of his charges against Williams just don’t hold up in light of other sources. (For a detailed discussion of the whole Williams/Hill kerfuffle, I recommend William T. Graves’s new book. I’m not as inclined to exonerate Williams as fully as Graves does, but he makes an excellent case for taking Hill’s memoir with a generous dose of salt.)
When it comes to matters open to novelistic license, my only complaint is that McCrumb’s Ferguson is a pretty humorless, embittered guy. Although Ferguson endured repeated disappointments during his military career, his letters also indicate an endearing charm and wit, and they don’t really come across in the novel.
These caveats aside, I enjoyed the book and I hope it sparks widespread interest in the battle. If you like the Southern Campaign and early Tennessee history as much as I do, you’ll get a kick out of it. McCrumb employs John Sevier and Virginia Sal as dual narrators, and as much as I’m drawn to Sevier as a historical figure, I found the Virginia Sal chapters the most compelling. We know so little about Ferguson’s purported lover and the other women who followed the armies that they’re among the voiceless participants in the Revolution; McCrumb effectively lends them a voice of their own. Reading the story in fictional form as told by the people who lived it reminds you that they didn’t have our benefit of knowing how things would turn out, and they endured the pivotal autumn of 1780 with all the hopes and fears of flesh-and-blood human beings.
It’s worth noting that the novel is a distinctly Appalachian story, written by an author who specializes in the region. This is an interesting modern example of Appalachians claiming King’s Mountain as their own American Revolutionary moment, a process that began with regional historians and antiquarians of the nineteenth century. If you’re interested in how this regionalized memory of the battle emerged, you might enjoy my article on that subject in the Fall 2009 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly.