History of the Grassy Balds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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John B. Waters, Sr

Mr. J. B. Waters, Sr. interviewed at his home in Sevierville, Tennessee by Mary Lindsay, January 15, 1976

JW: I was born over near Maryville in Blount County, six miles east of Maryville at the mouth of Ellejoy Creek where it flows into the Little River.

ML: And that was about 90 years ago?

JM: I was born the fourteenth day of February, eighteen hundred and eighty-four. Be 92 years old the fourteenth day of next month if I make it.

ML: Doesn't look as if there's any reason why you shouldn't.

JM: Well, I feel well, I just don't get around as fast as I used to.

ML: Let's see . . . your knowledge about this area comes from reading about it, hearing about it, or . . .

JM: Both. My father was a schoolteacher and the youngest graduate of the University of Tennessee when it was located at Knoxville. He was born on April 15, 1850 . . .

(Note: I was unable to explain to Mr. Waters exactly what I was interested in, and he did not start talking about grassy balds and grazing until 1-3/4 hours after we started. The material up to this point has not been transcribed because of its great length and limited relevance to grassy balds.

Mr. Waters told how his father John Mullendorf Waters, was born in very poor conditions, was raised by slaves and relatives, educated himself, beginning when he was three years old, until he could go to school, and became an outstanding student at Maryville College and a successful teacher who wrote many textbooks.

Mr. Waters also mentioned the explorations of his ancestor, Col. Samuel Wear, DuPont Springs, and the setting of the old Indian Boundary.

He said his father helped build the Spence Cabin in 1859, but wasn't precise about whether the area had been cleared by then. He implied that the Indians dried hides there and spent much time there. M.L.)

(Transcript resumes about half way through the fourth side of the tape).

ML: Do you know when they started running cattle up on Spence Field?

JM: I've been there with cattle when I was just a boy. That was the range up there; that's what it was for, where you herded cattle. And when I . . . The Indians that's where they divided the buffalo and big game and stuff, and that's why they called it the Spence Field. They had a big field there, and they built a corral around it, a big fifteen or twenty acre corral around it. And they gathered their cattle in there and put it in a lot over here and a lot over there and they'd go south. Our cattle all went to Smoky Mountains on this side the fifteenth day of April and then they went back to get 'em on the fifteenth day of September. And my father took his cattle up there often.

ML: Did Tom Sparks look after them for you?

JM: The Sparkses looked after them . . . Now we had the Sparkses were herders, and the Burchfields were herders, and John Jeffers was ours from down here, that lived down here. But they all stayed up there and camped up there. When my father would go, up there to take his cattle in the spring, he had to go up there and help his herdman locate 'em in certain territories, and they stayed at Spence's cabin. They come back to there and they took their meat and their food, and they took supplies. Then it took him about ten days to go back to get 'em and bring 'em off the mountain, and they corraled them in Spence's cabin campground. So it was called Spence's cabin campground for cattle. Now all this fool stuff about Spence's Field is a field is that it was never natural. But as far back as we know how and the early history of it, 200 years ago it was a great place for chestnuts and food, and it's a natural and big chestnut trees there, and to get the chestnuts they'd burn the leaves, and my father, when he went back to bring the cattle, he always brought back a bushel or two bushels of chestnuts, and fruits and apples that he had picked up up there. So they claimed they burned it off but what—the leaves that fell off of the chestnut trees on the ground, and they couldn't see the chestnuts, so if they'd burn it they'd have to rake around and be careful that it didn't get out on the mountain, and that would kill the . . . and the cattle left their manure and offal and made it rich, and they come up there because it was free of flies, and a good level place, and they'd come from both sides of the mountain and get on top, and it was quite a level spot up over on there, and it had natural food for cattle. It had mountain—what's it called?—bluegrass, pea vines, and they'd get fat. So the cattle would come to the mountains in the summer time to get away from the flies and the heat and get free food. So that's good shepherds, they knowed how to take care of theirselves. And the cattle knowed how to take care of theirselves. So they'd come to the mountains and the bears went to the top of the mountain to get (inaudible). In the winter time when it was cold, they'd go back down in the valleys. You take my cattle that I've got on some fields over here, and they're down now in the low places in the hollers. In the summertime though, they sleep right on top of the hills; in the wintertime they go down where the wind don't get 'em, and they don't freeze to death there. That's when they herded cattle, that's what they called taking . . .

ML: Were they herding cattle up there when your father helped build the first Spence cabin up there?

JM: They was doing that over 200 years ago. And he went back there a-hunting when he was nine years old with the Indians, deer hunting and bear hunting and wild turkey hunting and they had coyotes and bobcats and panthers back there. He saw a panther himself back in there and shot it once. And they was there first. And they was there when the good Lord fixed it.

ML: Was Spence Field always a field or did someone clear it out of the woods?

JM: (heatedly) Spence Field was a hunting happy ground for the Indians! They hunted wildlife and wild animals, and wild snakes and beasts. (Several minutes omitted)

ML: About how many cattle did your father take up to Spence Field?

JM: Well, some folks would take a hundred. We had about . . . I remember one time we took ten horses and thirty head of cattle.

ML: Do you know about how many people would take their herds up there?

JM: Well, if you start down here at the lower end of the county, I could name 'em. Dr. Sharp took a hundred (inaudible) Davis took about thirty, John Jeffers had about fifty, and John Sharp had about thirty, and the Davises and MacHughs would start at the lower end, just below Sevierville down here, and it took a day if you started early in the morning, and they'd pass our house about nine o'clock, and we'd turn our 25 or 30 into the drove. And I saw 300 at one time come down to my home. And they got down to the Little River, they had so many then it would take four days or they'd (inaudible) five miles long, you'd have the little ones in one herd, the big ones in another, and you didn't drive them all together. They had to stop of a night and feed them. They'd stop at our house for a while because we had a creek there and let 'em drink water for about. . . . They'd be giving out for water. They just had certain places they'd let 'em have water, and then they'd camp there that night and feed the cattle and rest and let their horses rest, and the cattle lay down to rest. They took three days to get to the top of the mountain with cattle. They'd come down to our place and about five miles from there then they stopped for dinner and fed the cattle hay and gave them a little rest to give 'em water. Then they drove. . . . You could drive about sixteen miles a day. Like going west, when the settlers went west, well, they always had their covered wagons and two or three mules, and they had their provisions. They had ham, meat, sugar and coffee that they took with them, and they had their kettles and cans to cook. They had to stop for dinner and supper and breakfast. Well, we had to help our daddy. Us boys, we'd go with him for about ten or twelve miles, and then he took his saddle horse and his driving dog, and we went back home because we got into what was called the narrow (?) road and we went down from the field where it turned off and (unintelligible) mules and cattle, shipped 'em south. And I've had as high as 250 and 30 horses over my farms, herd them, put 'em on grass and clover, grazed them. You never took many horses to the mountains because they'd get wild. But you took goats, sheep, cattle, horses and mules. All livestock, work stock and beef stock, they'd go up there because we didn't have the pasture down here. In the wintertime we took hay and we'd go back, have to go up and get 'em in the wintertime, and we'd have to put up corn and hay to feed for them and keep them down here. We bought 'em down here end of September and tried to carry 'em through the winter and raise them young calves and then send them back in the summertime. That's what made the . . .

(end of tape)

Continuing the conversation after the tape ran out. Mr. Waters made the following points:

Many cattle and horses died on the mountain. Bears ate young calves, and his father always carried a gun to kill bears and snakes. Lightning also killed a few animals, although large numbers were most often killed when they were standing along a wire fence that was struck by lightning.

At Spence Field was a cooking place where they had big wash kettles. At roundup time fifteen or twenty people would go up there. One of them would contribute an animal which would be barbecued and eaten by the whole party. The herder who stayed up there to look after the animals would have bacon, ham, and lard which he took up with him. He would milk his own cows and make corn bread. Every two weeks or so, he would go down for supplies.

Fewer cattle were ranged around Little Bald than around Spence Field. Spence Field had the best range. It was also a hunting and camping ground for herdsmen. Mr. Waters' father helped build the original Spence Cabin up there as a boy in about 1850. The very first cabin was built up there in 1775.

Transcribed by Mary Lindsay

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Last Updated: 07-Mar-2008