History of the Grassy Balds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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James Shelton

"Uncle" Jim Shelton at his home in Maryville, Tennessee, December 12, 1975. Interviewed by Mary Lindsay; transcribed by Warren Banner and Leonard Terry

Note: This was an attempt to repeat an earlier conversation at the end of which it was found that the tape recorder was not running.

ML: How old are you now?

JS: On the 21st day of next April, I'll be 90 years old.

ML: And how old were you when you started herding cattle?

JS: Oh, I was in my teens then. I don't know just what year but I was in my early teens.

ML: And, you were working for Granville Calhoun?

JS: Yes, ma'am.

ML: And, you were taking care of his cattle?

JS: Yes. His brother-in-law, Jim Russell, and me were great friends and me and him worked together and would take care of these cattle, go out and hunt them once a week and take a bag of salt and salt them. Call them up, they would come just as far as they could hear to get that salt.

ML: Where did you stay when you were looking after them?

JS: I stayed with Granville Calhoun's wife. They lived there along the creek, but he did not stay at home much, but I stayed right there at home with his wife and children.

ML: Where was their home?

JS: It was on the creek they called Sugar Fork.

ML: How many cattle did he have?

JS: Different numbers; as I told you a while ago we had 48 head that was belled and 49 head muzzled and that . . . be around 50 head. (Muzzles were described in previous conversation as being made of wire).

ML: What were the muzzles for?

JS: To keep them from picking this ivy shrub as they went up the mountain and getting poisoned. It'd kill them.

ML: What did this shrub look like?

JS: Well, it was shrub similar to the rhododendron which we call laurel. But it had little short leaves, and growed down low. Just like that. This rhododendron would grow way up here high. Both of them evergreen, stayed green all winter.

ML: What were the flowers like on the ivy?

JS: Oh, they were just a little cone shape with different shades in the color and little red specks all in them inside. (A subsequent conversation with Arthur Stupka confirmed that by "ivy" Mr. Shelton meant Kalmia latifolia).

ML: What time of year did you take the cattle up there?

JS: Well, it would be in early spring.

ML: Did they have any other kind of animals up there?

JS: At Spence Place they did but not up at Hall Gaw Top they did not. Up at the Spence Place they had mules, horses, sheep, goats.

ML: Who took care of the cattle on the Spence Place?

JS: Man by the name of Sparks. I forgot his first name.

ML: Was it Tom Sparks?

JS: That's the name. Tom Sparks.

ML: Were you herding up on Hall Top?

JS: I didn't . . . I would stay all night up there ever once in a while with Jim Russell. That was Granville's brother-in-law, and I would go up there and help him go out and hunt these cattle up and salt 'em. I would stay all night with him up there once in a while. I didn't stay up there, make my home up there. I stayed down there at Granville Calhoun's. I was working for him. He was a-payin' me.

ML: Did Russell have a little cabin up there?

JS: No.

ML: He just slept out in the open?

JS: No, Jim Russell, he stayed down t'home.

ML: You just went up there once a week to take care of them?

JS: Yeah.

ML: What time of year would you take them up there?

JS: In the early spring.

ML: Was there a plant that came up at that time that was particularly good for them?

JS: What? How?

ML: Can you tell us about the lamb's tongue?

JS: Oh, that was a very early spring greens that come up back there in the Smokies long before anything else come up. It growed up everywhere back in there and just thick as a meadow on a farm. Them cattle they'd go up there and get fat on that lamb's tongue.

ML: Did they ever get milk sick up there?

JS: No, not up in there they didn't. Way back on another prong of the creek there was plenty of that milk sick back in there.

ML: What caused it?

JS: A mineral that was in the ground. And this mineral would come up to the top of the ground, and it tasted salty and the cattle would lick at it. Milk cows that give milk, it wouldn't kill them but it would kill the people that drank it. And the dry cattle, it would kill them right now.

ML: Was there less of this on the mountain tops than there was down in the coves?

JS: No; u-huh, it wasn't up on the mountain.

ML: Did the cattle eat rhododendron or azalea when they were up there?

JS: In the winter time, if it happen to come a snow up there in the early spring after the cattle was put out, these cattle would gather around in the low ground where this rhododendron growed, and they would pick that and eat it. And there was winter fern that growed thick down in the low grounds, and they'd pick that winter fern and eat it during the snow.

ML: Did they eat the azaleas?

JS: No, they was a flower. That azalea was a flower shrub.

ML: They didn't touch it?

JS: No, they didn't bother it.

ML: Do you remember anyone cutting any trees around where you were or on the Spence Place? Did you hear about that?

JS: Sheep?

ML: Trees. Did they ever cut them down?

JS: Trees, oh! (Pause) No. They didn't have no business a-cuttin' trees, only to build cabins and fence in their little farms up there.

ML: What did they grow up there?

JS: They growed corn, Irish potatoes, beans. They had to have early corn and beans because the season was so short they didn't have much time to grow 'em. But the Irish potatoes growed in the ground and they would have to dig them before the freeze come. They'd dig big holes in the ground and gather grass and stuff and put in there and they'd put them Irish potatoes down in there and build a big mound up over them; cover them up with bark and stuff like that and pile dirt upon them to keep them from freezing. They would keep potatoes all winter that way.

ML: Did they stay up there all winter?

JS: Did people live up there?

ML: Yes.

JS: Yes, those Sparkses did at Spence.

ML: What did they do in the winter? A lot of hunting?

JS: They just hunted. There was lots of game, you know. They hunted a lot and they had plenty of wild meat to eat all the time.

ML: Did you ever hear any stories about any people or animals being bothered by panther or bears?

JS: What? I didn't understand you sister. I'm sorry.

ML: Can you tell me about the story of Tom Sparks and the panther.

JS: Tom Sparks, oh, yes! You know back at that time they didn't have nothin' but the old muzzle loading rifle to shoot with. And he had a big long barrel muzzle loading rifle and he'd come in off his hunt, and he was very thirsty and just got down on his hands and knees to drink out of the spring. That panther was a-followin' him all the time around above the road. It climbed up in a tree right over that spring and he didn't take time to pull his shot pouch off and he had that big dagger (hunting knife) in a scabbard, and that thing landed on his back and he was very quick. He knowed it was up there, and he knowed when it hit him that it was that panther. He just jerked that knife and struck backward like that and he hit him a dead blow; killed that panther right off of his back.

ML: Were there any huckleberries or blackberries growing up on the mountain top?

JS: Yes, there was plenty of blackberries and huckleberries, too. Those blackberries that growed back in the mountain were not like the berries we had down around the farm. Great long, great big berries and just as sweet and the best things you ever eat.

ML: Were these actually on the grassy balds or were they down on the lower ridges?

JS: Yes, the blackberries they growed up everywhere up there on the ridges, and the huckleberries they growed out on the dry ridges. . . .

End of first side of tape

ML: Were there any big trees growing out on the middle of Spence Field?

JS: No. Lightning killed all the big trees, but the little rocky patches there were saplings and bushes that growed up.

ML: Did the cattle browse on those at all?

JS: The shrubs?

ML: Yes.

JS: No, they had plenty of grass. Shucks, the grass was up knee high. They ate that grass and lots of turkeys up there and grasshoppers and them turkeys just got fat on them grasshoppers!

ML: What kept the cattle from wandering off?

JS: They didn't keep them from wandering off. Once in a while. Of course the herder kept looking after them, and if one was missing, he knowed how many there was. He got to hunting after 'em. People up there in Cades Cove and Dry Valley if they'd come down in there would just capture them and keep them till they come back next spring and they would just pay 'em for the feed bill, and take their cattle right back up in there again.

ML: How many people that you know of would take cattle up to the Spence Place?

JS: Well, a number of different people. There was some people by the names of Loves. They call them the Love Brothers way back down here in Blount County. They would take a whole big drove of cattle up there. They would go right along with them. They had a shepherd dog that they put 'em on that Bote Mountain Road and if one of the cattle bolted on the gang and run off above or below the road that man would just call in that shepherd dog and point at it and "Bring 'em back in there." That dog would just get around them and bring right back into the gang. Save them men from running aroun' trying to keep 'em in line.

ML: Were there ever any fires up on the mountain?

JS: I never knowed of any fires up in there, right then. Never heard of them 'till after the Smoky Mts. Park bought all this and took over. When they took over they didn't allow a dog in the Park unless it was tied and a collar on it. These rangers was mean! They catch a dog back in there and they'd just shoot him and kill him and drag him off somewhere and they threw him over. When they got to killing their dogs like that, they burnt that park up! They had to quit killing those dogs. They'd catch the dogs and find the name on the collar and then notify 'em and they'd come in and get 'em and pay them a board bill and give 'em their dogs back again. They quit killin' them dogs.

ML: No one ever set fires up on the fields to keep the grass green or anything like that?

JS: No, not till after the Park took over and got to killing them dogs, then they just tried to burn the Park up. I remember one man that was sort of a smart-aleck ranger, Jim Liden(?), he went back there in Cades Cove, he heard a dog a barkin' and he went to that dog and there was a boy there with that dog; had a ground hog treed in a hole and he just went up to this boy and told him that he'd have to arrest him, he wasn't allowed to hunt in the Park. That boy had a shot gun setting there and he just raised up and got that shotgun and throwed on him and told him to get out of there. Some asked him what he done and he said, "You can't fool a boy like that, he'll kill you!" He made him leave him alone. I heard this park ranger tell that.

ML: Did people have any stories about how the balds became balds? Why there weren't any trees?

JS: It was very plain. That Smoky Mountain was so very high that thunder and lightning just played down on the ground. I've been up there myself when the lightning, you could see it in the green grass flashing all along in there. That lightning killed all that high timber, that's the reason there's a bald.

ML: Did lightning ever kill any animals?

JS: I never knowed of it killing any up on the mountain, but down in the farms where they had wire fences, them cattle would, come up a quick storm they would run for shelter under trees along that fence and that lightning would run that fence and them cattle standing all around there against it it kill a whole row of cattle sometimes right on our wire.

ML: Did bears or panthers ever get any animals?

JS: Every once in a while they would, yes. There's a place way back in there in the foot of the Smokies where that Newfound Gap Road went across the Smokies that they called the Sugarlands and black bears would come in there every once in a while and kill some of their cattle.

ML: When did you bring the cattle down off the mountain?

JS: In early fall when that cold weather began to kill the range back up there they would get them down right quick and take them home and feed them.

ML: Did they usually keep them through the winter or did some people take them off to Knoxville and sell them?

JS: No, they sometimes sold part of them, young cattle, and they'd keep a herd to take back next spring.

ML: Why did they graze them up on the mountain top instead of low down?

JS: Because that grass growed growed up there, that grass, it growed knee high, tender; cattle'd get fat on that grass.

ML: Was it better than the grass that could grow lower down?

JS: It didn't grow lower down, it growed more up on the top of the mountain 'cause it was bald and made shade trees to shade it. That's the reason it growed so big and tender up there.

ML: Were there any serviceberries growing up on the Spence Place?

JS: We local people, we call them sarvises, there was plenty of them and there's big trees that grow up there and them bears they'd climb them trees and reach and get a limb and break them trees all to pieces. And the chestnut trees the same way, they killed all of the chestnut trees and what they didn't kill the blight later killed.

ML: Did you eat a lot of chestnuts when you were up there?

JS: Oh yes! We'd go out and pick 'em up and take them to market and sell them, get good price fer 'em. There was a market square, they call it, over there in Knoxville and it was free parking there around that square, big market house. We'd go in there and if we find a parking place we just back up in and sit there until we sold out.

ML: What did you do after you stopped herding cattle for Granville Calhoun?

JS: Well, I growed by that time and made a young man, and I got acquainted with my father-in-law and hired to him to work by the month fer him and he was a paying me $10 a month and my board and washing. That was old man John Walker, had long gray whiskers way down a here and there was two or three John Walkers and they had to give 'em nicknames and they just called him "Hairy John." While I was working with him, I fell in love with one of his daughters and married her and raised my family right in there; and he had two farms and I rented one of the houses and move out in it and I raised my family right in there, and there was seven of those sisters, and they just called them the seven Walker sisters. I was a photographer at that time too; that was before Kodaks was make. I would go out over the country and take that big camera on my back making pictures and Eastern Kodak Company come in and went to making Kodaks, filled Sears Roebuck Stores full with Kodaks and put me out of business. I quit making pictures.

ML: Did you take pictures of people? Portraits?

JS: I took pictures of anything. That camera, it was one of the best cameras made, had the best set of shutter on it, that squeezed the bulb to make an exposure and it had three track bellows, run that there out and focused it on a group of people or one, or scenery, anything I wanted to make a picture of, and I got pictures here that would take you a half a day to look at all of them that I made over the Smoky Mts. I had old glass plate negatives and I sold Smoky Mountains National Park $100.00 worth of those negatives. I made those pictures before the Smoky Mts. Park was even thought of, I guess, and they wanted to see what it look like before the park took over, and I furnished them pictures there and they give $100.00 for a certain bunch of them negatives. I've got a lot more now they are wanting but they can't locate me I reckon.

End of Tape

After the tape ran out Mr. Shelton mentioned some other things including:

A snowstorm in May of one year that killed many cattle. One man down in a cove was able to keep his cattle alive by cutting basswood limbs to feed them.

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Last Updated: 07-Mar-2008