History of the Grassy Balds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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Asa Sparks

Asa Sparks interviewed by Mary Lindsay, December 16, 1975

ML: Your father was Tom Sparks who herded up on Spence Field, right? Did you go up there very often?

AS: I was up there a whole lot (unintelligible). Sometimes I'd go up and stay a week at a time, help him some.

ML: And what years, about, was he working up there?

AS: Well, it was before '26. He got killed in '26, so it was before that on up till then. That's where he died at the top of the mountain. A boy killed him.

ML: By accident?

AS: No. He was (unintelligible). Yeah, he herded cattle there for years.

ML: Let's see. He was in charge of all the cattle from Spence Place over to Derrick? Is that right?

AS: Well, yeah. The cattle went from all around the county to Spence Place, and he'd take care of 'em for a dollar and a half a head over the season. Take 'em in about the first of May, and we'd gather the cattle the first Monday in September, I guess, and people come at 'em, and . . .

ML: About how many head did he have to take care of?

AS: Well, he'd generally run from about four to six hundred.

ML: And this was over the whole stretch of ridge top that he. . . Did he have any sheep to look after?

AS: Any sheep? Yeah, he . . . (unintelligible).

ML: A few hundred?

AS: Yeah, he'd have, I guess, maybe two, three hundred head of sheep.

ML: Were there any horses or mules?

AS: Yeah, he'd have, maybe 75 or a hundred head of horses and mules.

ML: People took them up to graze for the whole summer, too?

AS: Yeah. He got two dollars a head for horses, most of 'em. Just how much the sheep was, it wasn't much on a head, maybe twenty cents or something like that.

ML: How did they bring 'em up? On the Bote Mountain Road?

AS: Yeah, they'd drive 'em. Lot of 'em, most of 'em would go up what they called Bote Mountain Road. Some of (unintelligible). They used to try to salt 'em every week, and every two weeks. . . . They'd carry a little salt out, put about 25 pounds of salt on your back, carry it up that hill, it was pretty hard work.

ML: Did the cattle sort of wander around and come back for the salt?

AS: Yeah.

ML: So they got pretty far down in the woods?

AS: Yeah. They (unintelligible).

ML: What about the sheep?

AS: Well, the, sheep stayed along the top, pretty well stayed right along the top of the mountain. The top of the mountain was mostly naked, been cleared. No grass was growin' on 'em. I mean no timber along there, but now there's timber growin' up it all (unintelligible).

ML: Did you ever hear anybody say that that place had been cleared?

AS: Yeah, my Granddaddy Sparks had part of it cleared (unintelligible).

ML: About when was that?

AS: Well, I don't know, that was back. . . . Well, he's been, Granddaddy's been dead about 80, 84 or 85 years, something along there. . . . It was back in his day.

ML: And do you know anything about that sawmill down on Eagle Creek? Did they take timber from up there down to that place?

AS: Yeah, yeah. Eagle Creek. They come up from the North Carolina side, come up Eagle Creek, Eagle Creek heads up there (unintelligible). They come up from over there and logged that. I worked in there for the logging company myself. Then came (unintelligible).

ML: But they didn't get right up near the Spence Place?

AS: No, they didn't get on up there, but they got half a mile from the Spence Place.

ML: Did your father have a little cabin up there somewhere?

AS: Yeah, he had a (unintelligible) cabin.

ML: Whereabouts was it?

AS: Well, it was. . . . You ever been up there?

ML: Yeah, I've been up there.

AS: You know where the spring is, down where the cabin is now?

ML: It's down on the North Carolina side, but there. . . . Was that where the new cabin is now?

AS: Yeah, now there's a new cabin there now; I ain't been there since they built it. But the spring is right over to the right, I understand.

ML: It's the spring that's on the end of Spence way from Thunderhead or toward Russell Field.

AS: Yeah, the west end. The Park built a little old shelter, right along there ridge that's there now. The spring is right between it and where my Daddy's cabin was. I haven't been there in 25 years. They built that cabin (unintelligible)

ML: What were the woods around the field like? Did they have many little trees in them or any underbrush at all?

AS: Well, there was all sizes, of course, the timber along on top of the mountain didn't grow too tall (unintelligible).

Lot of people up there. I was at a meetin' on time. There was a preacher, preacher there. Preacher McCampbell preached there from Dry Valley. He was a Methodist preacher, he wanted to hold service up there. Lot of the men on Eagle Creek, lot of people, they found out he was comin', they come from every camp (unintelligible).

ML: Did you have any problems with bears or panthers getting any of the livestock?

AS: Yeah, them bears kill the cattle and kill the sheep pretty bad. When bears get to killing sheep, why, we would get at 'em with dogs. Probably each time we'd get one killed a calf's killed, why, do the same way, get at it. Kill 'em, killed several of 'em.

ML: Did the individual owners pick out their herds before driving them down?

AS: Yeah, yeah, they had a lot, what they called the "Gant Lot," corral, you might call it, where they put the cattle in, you know, and they'd sort 'em out. Everyone get their own cattle, but they'd separate them right there before they started over the mountain with 'em.

ML: Where was this lot?

AS: Well, it was around from a cabin, just a little around. . . On the trail that goes towards the Russell Place, right in that little gap on the left there, where this kind of low gap there. It was right in there.

ML: Did you build a fence around it?

AS: Yeah.

ML: What kind of a fence? Brush fence?

AS: Rail fence. Cut timber there and made rails.

ML: Did that fence last a few years, or did you have to build it every year?

AS: Huh?

ML: Did that fence last several years?

AS: Yeah, it lasted several years.

ML: Did you cut down trees for firewood and so forth?

AS: Yeah, yeah.

ML: Did they ever burn the place to make the grass better or any reason like that?

AS: Well, some people would fire it, but Daddy always tried to keep the fire down pretty well. But it was. . . . Each time the wood burnt off, that would make the range better next summer; pasture would be better for the cattle after it was burnt off a while. Whenever it was burned off, why, wild peavine would come up, grow in there and touch-me-not beggar lice and stuff the cattle liked, and (unintelligible) . . . good for the cattle, and it kept the briars down, too.

ML: So you didn't have much briar up there?

AS: Right (unintelligible).

ML: There's a lot up there now. Were there any blueberries growing up there?

AS: Yeah.

ML: Were they right on top or around the edges more?

AS: Yeah, they was pretty well on top.

ML: Were there a lot of them?

AS: Well, there wasn't too many of 'em. They wasn't so . . . You take . . . Now, there around Spence Place, you go up on Thunderhead, them big bushes was called huckleberry bushes. Them bushes up there about the size of a small peach tree. Those have berries on 'em. I never did see any over there; I don't think I ever seen any like that. I went up there one weekend with my cousin, went up there when we was just kids. We had some calves on the mountain. We went to the mountain to stay over the weekend. We had to go on Thunderhead to see our calves. We had shepherds with us; my Daddy had one, and Uncle Dave had one. The two of 'em was with us boys. There was a bear there. That bear was up in one of them huckleberry trees, and he was gettin' berries. We saw that bear, and, boy, we headed back to that cabin, down that mountain we went when we saw that bear.

ML: Did the cows ever get milk sick up there?

AS: Yeah.

ML: About what time of year did this usually happen?

AS: Well, in the fall, 'long about the last of August, first of September. It was according to the weather. If it was dry weather, they got milk sick real easy. Why, if it rained, they didn't get it.

ML: Did you have any idea what caused it?

AS: Well, no, not much. I found a place up there the summer Daddy got killed, it come a storm, killed a bunch of sheep up there, killed, I believe, 26 head of sheep up there, in the old field. Killed some cattle along Thunderhead, couple of mules, killed some stock up and down that mountain along Gregory Bald. (unintelligible).

ML: Was this a lightning storm?

AS: Lightning. Yeah, lightning killed 'em. And after that storm was over, day or two, I was in there on the head of Eagle Creek. I went right down, pretty well straight down from Spence Place, nearly straight down the mountain from Spence Place, maybe a little east just a little, where cattle would go and get milk sick. I had to go up there and finish up the herd, me and my brother-in-law after my Daddy got killed. I found some dirt round where it looked like they just fell, fresh dirt on the leaves, you know. That was in August, it might have been July, I don't know. I begin to wonder where that dirt come from. I got to lookin' around, and I found where the lightning struck a big sugar tree, run down that tree, run off. I guess it run in the roots down in the ground, the lightning had, and hit something that exploded in there. All around was a hole knee deep or deeper in where it blowed out, throwed dirt out. That's where that dirt was comin' from. Like dynamite bein' buried in there, something was explosive there, and there was dirt scattered all around there. I told my brother-in-law about it. Told him first time he was in there to go by where to find that tree where the lightning had struck. He said, he had a byword (unintelligible) "You told that tale. I thought it was big enough 'bout the lightnin' gettin' that tree and blowin' the dirt around, blowin' out them holes." Said, "You didn't told it by half, did you, now?"

We didn't know what caused it. We kind of thought maybe that was where the milk sickness was a-comin' from was right in that section there where we got milk sickness.

ML: Were there any rhododendrons or laurels growing around there?

AS: Any what?

ML: Rhododendrons? Laurels?

AS: No, not that I knowed of.

ML: They've all come in since then. What about service berries"

AS: Sarvises?

ML: Yeah.

AS: Oh, yeah, there was sarvises scattered about. (unintelligible)

ML: Were there a lot around Spence Place?

AS: No, there wasn't too many right close around, but you could find them. You didn't have to go too far off. They tell me now there's sarvise bushes all over that whole field.

ML: Yeah, ther's oaks and ashes and birches, everything.

AS: Back then the grass was kept close. The sheep kept it clipped down just as pretty and smooth, green through the summer. It was . . .

ML: Like a big lawn?

AS: Like a big lawn, yeah. They kept it real short. Now it's briars and birches and everything. Wild hogs is tearing it up.

ML: Did the cattle eat any particular plants more than others, or did they just eat whatever they came to?

AS: Well, yeah, they, I don't know. They eat (unintelligible). Sheep fed on the top, mostly and wouldn't get off too far. The cattle would take off (unintelligible). I've got some pictures that was made back when they was loggin'. (unintelligible)

ML: Did your father ever stay up there for the winter?

AS: No, we come off in the winter. Keep hogs, though. We'd keep hogs in there in the winter. They did pretty well. (unintelligible) Back then there used to be a lot of chestnuts.

ML: Did you gather a lot of those in the fall?

AS: Yeah. Let me go in there and get those pictures to show you.


ML: Did people bring up young cattle to gain weight over the summer or older ones?

AS: Well, they used. . . . Any age, they bring all ages, bring all ages up.

ML: And would a young cow gain a lot of weight up there?

AS: Yeah. They'd gain pretty good up there. They grow good; they grew better than they do here on pastures.

ML: Was that grass up there really good for 'em?

AS: Yeah, they got, they got everything, I reckon, that they needed, maybe, more than they get from off the pasture. But they'd get fat up there on the ridge.

ML: Did the animals get water by just walking down to the spring?

AS: Yeah, well, I don't know, about gettin' down, waterin' down to the spring?

ML: Well, where did they get water?

AS: Oh, the water. Well, there's branches in the hollers, water would be in off from the top a little ways, and they'd go down there and get water. And they (unintelligible).

ML: Even the sheep would go down?

AS: Yeah, they'd go downhill till they found water. They didn't have to go too far to find water.

ML: Did your father have a little vegetable garden up there or anything?

AS: Yeah, he had a little garden, had taters and tomaters. Taters grew awful well up there, grew real fine taters. Tomaters done well there, cucumbers and cabbage. A little bit cool for corn. (unintelligible)

ML: Did you ever hear any stories about any really late spring snowstorms that killed a lot of cattle?

AS: Yeah, I've been up there when it had been a snow. I helped get 'em out of the snow a few times. Way back when I was a kid, there come a snow up there, I think first of May, killed a lot of cattle. I was just a kid, I think, when that happened.

ML: When was that? About 1910 or so?

AS: Well, that was maybe 19 and 4, maybe 5 (unintelligible). Now, I've got a cousin out here in Maryville, Howard Sparks, I guess he might tell you what year that was, but he was a little older than I am. He's about seven years older than me.

ML: How old are you?

AS: How old am I?

ML: Yeah.

AS: I'm 77. Just a boy. No, I'm getting a little agey.

ML: Was Howard a logger?

AS: Yeah, he was a logger. Hauled lumber, everything sawmills. When I got big enough to do much, they had that country pretty well logged out when I got big enough. But still they went to work in on Eagle Creek, North Carolina side, and I was (unintelligible) loggin' camp.

ML: Do you know anything about the people who grazed their cattle farther east, like at Andrews and Silers?

AS: No, not much.

ML: They were from the North Carolina side as far as you know?

AS: Well, yeah, most of 'em. (unintelligible) But now they did log in there on the Tennessee side. Townsend logged in there as well as the Shay Brothers way back before my day. I remember the Shays logged in there when I was just a kid and (unintelligible).

I wish the Park would not let that mountain grow up. I wish they'd keep it grazed off or something, keep it pretty.

ML: I think they're going to try to do that to a couple of places, but it's going to be difficult and expensive. My job is to give them some idea of what might be the best way to do it, but you've got to cut a lot of stuff down, and then-you've got to keep it from sprouting, and you'll have to have animals to chew up the sprouts.

AS: Yeah, they'll have to start grazing it again to keep it down.

ML: They'll probably do Gregory and Andrews. Spence Place is just too big.

AS: Now, I understand Granddaddy Sparks kept a man up there (unintelligible) and Granny Sparks's brother, I think he stayed there for 16 years straight, a-herdin' for my Grand-daddy Sparks at Spence Place.

ML: How many herders were there up there? One person at a time?

AS: Yeah.

ML: How many years did one particular person stay up there?

AS: Well, I don't know. My Daddy stayed there nearly, for several years. I don't know how many years he did stay there. Now Gregory Bald, they herded down there for. . . . That was about nine miles from Spence Place, they'd herd down there. And there'd be somebody down at the Russell Place. Used to be there'd be somebody out on above the Spence Place at what they call the Hall Cabin. But for the last several years then, when my Daddy herded up there, wouldn't be nobody herdin' up there. He'd have that range in his.

ML: Whereabouts was that cabin? Above Hazel Creek?

AS: The Hall Cabin was right up the mountain from the Spence Place, right on past Thunderhead, six or seven miles from Spence Place. (unintelligible)

ML: Did anybody in particular own that land, or was it just there for whoever . . .?

AS: Well, they. . . . Now, my Daddy used to own Spence Place. He sold it to John Martin, before the Park bought it. He owned that there. I don't know how much he did own that Spence Place and a little down Eagle Creek, down on head of Eagle Creek. Montvale Lumber Company owned that and a lot of that in there. I don't know whether they owned it, whether they held it for sale, but they logged it.

ML: How did your father get to own it?

AS: Well, I don't know hardly how Granddaddy Sparks owned it, and I don't know whether he bought it or (unintelligible).

ML: I heard that they grew hay on the Russell Place. Is that true?

AS: They, well, there wasn't ever much hay put up there. They put up a little hay down there at the Russell Place. That other kind of grass was the wrong kind, wasn't much good for hay. Wasn't much good. Just that wild grass that grew along the top. Wasn't no good hay.

ML: Were there many weeds growing up there besides the grass?

AS: No, not many weeds. I reckon the stock kept the weeds eat out.

Transcribed by Timothy Hyatt and Mary Lindsay.

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Last Updated: 07-Mar-2008