History of the Grassy Balds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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Shan Davis

Shan Davis interviewed at his home in Townsend, Tennessee by Mary Lindsay, December 9, 1975

(Mr. Davis was slightly deaf and therefore failed to understand some of the questions)

ML: Can you say who you are and when you were born and where you were born?

SD: Just speak it out?

ML: Yes.

SD: I was born right back up here three miles at what they call Dry Valley. I'm ninety years old; I was born in 1885, twenty-second day in May.

ML: Did you herd cattle up on the ridge?

SD: Oh, they used herd cattle, hogs, sheep, horses, mules— they kept a lot of cattle and horses up there.

ML: Where did you herd, up on Gregory or on Spence?

SD: Spence.

ML: And about how many cows did they keep up there?

SD: Oh, some years they would have a thousand head.

ML: And sheep at the same time?

SD: Well, I don't know how many sheep. . . . The mountain was covered up with sheep, and hogs, too. Horses, mules . . .

ML: A real mixture.

SD: Yeah, that's the way people used to make their living, keeping cattle and sheep on the mountain.

ML: Did any of the old people ever say they started taking their cattle up there instead of keeping them down . . .?

SD: Well, they didn't have no pasture for them. You see, back then they didn't have no pasture, so they would take them to the mountain to herd 'em.

ML: How far away would people take them up there?

SD: Oh, they would come from Knox County, Sevier County, all around.

ML: Were they mostly young cattle brought up to gain weight, or were they older ones?

SD: Yeah, they would take them up in the spring. Then all together at the fifteenth of September, the people would go back in there and herders would gather them up, and they had a gant lot to put them in.

ML: Where was the gant lot on Spence?

SD: Well, Tom Sparks. . . . There's different ones. Old Tom Sparks stayed there twenty-five of thirty years, him and Fonze Cable. Made a little liquor up there once in a while.

ML: How much did Tom Sparks charge to look after people's cattle?

SD: Well, he charged a dollar a head. He would herd them all summer for a dollar a head.

ML: What about the sheep?

SD: I don't remember just what he charged for sheep. Of course I've had sheep up there, but I don't remember now what he charged for sheep or hogs. He charged so much, but not like he did for cattle.

ML: How did they keep the animals from wandering off into the woods?

SD: Well, they wouldn't come out of there; they'd stay there. There's good pasture there, you know.

ML: So you never had the problem of chasing the cattle out of a cove lower down or anything like that?

SD: No, only in the snow. As you know, when it came a big snow, I had some up there and drove them into Cade's Cove and kept them until the snow went off. Did you know there was this bunch that died up there? One time when it came a big snow and they couldn't get them off, there was about two hundred head of cattle died up there.

ML: Was this in the spring?

SD: Yes

ML: Did they get milk sick up there?

SD: Yeah, they got milk sick, but they did (unintelligible) get as many at the Russell Place as there is on down the mountain. As there is at Gregory's Bald. I had some die up there that was milk sick.

ML: What did people think caused the milk sick?

SD: Well, sir, they never did know. People would have it if they drunk the milk. You could catch it off that milk. But, now, the people knowed where it was at. At the fall of the year, it would just come at the fall of the year. And they would get them cattle out of there. People, where it was at, they would get fenced where cattle couldn't get into it.

ML: Where were these places that they fenced?

SD: Well, there was one at what they call Fodderstack; there was milk sick in there. A big cove off from Russell place.

ML: Did they ever cut down any trees for firewood?

SD: Yes, they had a cabin. They go (unintelligible) a chimney to it. They kept a fire in it.

ML: Where did they cut these trees, just from out of the woods?

SD: Just out of the woods from around that cabin.

ML: Did anyone ever cut down trees to make the field larger? Can you remember that?

SD: Yeah, you see, it was all cleared. All that land along top of the mountain was cleared and sowed in grass. There was people who used to live up there. Old Bob Spence used to own that and live there at the Spence Place. That's why they give it that name.

ML: About when did they cut all the trees down?

SD: Well, there was a guy who took a sawmill up there one time and sawed it, John Martin. And hauled it off the river up there and shipped it, when the company shipped that way.

ML: Where exactly was this mill? Do you know?

SD: I don't remember.

ML: And when was this, about 1860, 1890 . . .?

SD: . . . 1910 when it come down that big snow. What makes me remember was I was married then, 1910. You can see how how long I've been married. I was married third day of April 1910.

ML: Did they ever set any fires up there?

SD: Oh yeah, that mountain burned off many a time. Get a fire in the fall of the year when it was dry, it just burned up everything.

ML: Did people set it on fire on purpose?

SD: Well, I guess they did. They'd always get out in the spring of the year and maybe throw down a cigarette or something. But people made a living up there off cattle, hogs, and sheep through the summertime. They could take them up there and bring them off and sell them that fall.

ML: How much weight would a young heifer or steer gain up there in a summer?

SD: Well, some of them gained two hundred pounds. Some didn't gain that much, you know.

ML: What was the price of beef then?

SD: Oh, they was cheap. Cattle was three or four cents a pound, and sheep was about five or six cents. They was cheap. I used to drive them from North Carolina. I would go over there and buy a bunch of cattle and drive them into Knoxville.

ML: Somebody suggested that maybe people from North Carolina would come up on the ridge top and stop at each bald for a couple of days and let the cattle graze when they were driving them a long ways. Did they do that?

SD: Yeah, and a lot of cattle was stole. People would go up there and drive them off and sell them.

ML: Hard to catch (them), I suppose.

SD: Yes, people had a hard way of making a living back then.

ML: Yeah.

SD: It wasn't like it is now. Everybody got money, but back then you didn't have it.

ML: Were there any blackberries or blueberries up on Spence Field?

SD: No, there was sarvis; sarvis grew up there, but blackberries and blueberries didn't grow up there. It was too cold up there.

ML: It's not too cold for them now. Where was the service growing, out in the open or around the edges?

SD: Now on the Spence place, there was different place and then you know where the Russell place is.

ML: Yeah.

SD: I guess you been there. Well, they herded on all them places.

ML: Yeah, I know.

SD: There was a guy used to have there at the Russell place a barn there, and he had a mowing machine and rake there.

ML: He actually grew hay there and mowed it?

SD: He would keep his cattle up there through the winter time. He raised turnips to feed his sheep.

ML: I guess that place was almost as big as the Spence Place.

SD: They didn't keep them at the Spence Place through the winter.

ML: Yeah, I know.

SD: But they raised cabbage at the Spence Place, and potatoes.

ML: Did they grow pretty well?

SD: Yeah, they grew good. Irish potatoes and cabbage made good up there. But they wouldn't put them out until May.

ML: Was Tom Sparks in charge of the cattle on Thunderhead too, or did somebody else take care of them?

SD: Oh, they brought them from everywhere. Sparks just herded them.

ML: Yes, but did he herd the ones on Thunderhead, too?

SD: Yes, yeah, he had all that back to the Derrick. Derrick cabin; I guess you've been up there.

ML: Yeah, I've been up there.

SD: They may have changed the name of all the cabins now. . . . They have pretty near everywhere else.

ML: Was the Derrick area all open? Did you graze cattle around there, too?

SD: Yes

ML: That's really grown up. Were there any rhododendron or laurels?

SD: No, just anybody in that cabin; most of the time it would be full of people of the night.

ML: Were there any azaleas growin' up there?

SD: Yeah, there used to be. But I think they've grown up now I've not been up there in thirty years.

ML: It doesn't look like any of the old photos now.

SD: You know, it used to be no trees there or nothing on that bald.

ML: No shrubs or little bushes either?

SD: Naw (unintelligible) . . . there were sarvis berries.

That was about all that growed there.

ML: Some trees around the edges, but no other trees or shrubs around there, right?

SD: Yes. Now it comes from thunderstorms up there too.

ML: Did you ever have any animals killed by lightning?

SD: Oh yeah, lightning killed horses and cattle every once in a while. . . . I've been there when I got caught in the rain, and it rained so hard I couldn't face to it. . . . We used to go up there and camp. My wife has been up there. We used to go up there and stay a week at a time. I guess now they do too.

ML: They're not allowed to stay there a week any more—you have to move on after a day.

SD: It's been thirty years since I was up there, maybe longer.

ML: Did the cattle eat any particular plants more than others, as far as you know?

SD: They just grazed on that grass.

ML: There wasn't much else up there, no goldenrods . . .? (Someone, SD's son, I think, enters and sits down.)

SD: He's been up there when he was just a boy. I've had six boys and four girls.

ML: That's a big family.

SD: It takes a lot of corn bread and potatoes to feed them. . . .

Did you talk to Bonehead? (Roy Myers)

ML: Yeah, we've talked to Boney.

SD: He's been up that mountain before.

ML: He has a lot of interesting stories.

SD: They used to herd cattle on the Defeat.

ML: That was all woods, wasn't it?

SD: On Defeat Ridge, when they got to building that road there, they aimed to build it up that ridge, and they got to see they couldn't do it. They came back and run it up Bote Mountain. That's what gave it that name.

ML: That's not the story they usually tell. You mean they just couldn't get through that way?

SD: They couldn't go up the Defeat. It was too rough.

ML: There weren't any fences except for the gant lot and around the cabbage patch?

SD: Yeah, you see, when they gathered them cattle in, they would build a big lot, and they would drive them into that lot. People could go over there and get them.

ML: Did they have water for the cattle in the gant lots?

SD: No, they didn't get no water. They would like put them in today and take them out tomorrow.

ML: So it didn't take long to sort them out, them?

SD: You know, people had it hard back then.

ML: Yes, it wasn't an easy place to make a living.

SD: There weren't no money, much.

ML: Of course, there weren't as many things to spend it on, either.

SD: No, but you didn't spend none because you didn't make none . . . .

End of tape

Transcribed by Warren Banner, December 10, 1975

Corrected and edited by Mary Lindsay

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Last Updated: 07-Mar-2008