History of the Grassy Balds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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Kermit Caughron

Kermit Caughron interviewed by Mary Lindsay at his home in Cades Cove, December 16, 1975
Mrs. Caughron and Rex Caughron also present

KC: Most of the people out of here, the biggest thing they did, see they used that as grazing, and they put up their hay and run their cattle up here in the summertime, and in the wintertime and in the fall of the year the cattle went back, and they wintered them, that was. . . . There weren't many people who had any pasture for milk cows or a team of horses or something like that. They depended on the mountains for their grazing.

ML: They just grew hay down here to keep them for the winter?

KC: Hay, and Cades Cove grew corn, but it wasn't even self sufficient in cereal. They had to go out and get their. . . . There wasn't even enough corn raised then for their corn bread.

But you can't imagine how much change there's been. Now, North Carolina there was three different lumber companies. They were Kitchen Lumber Company, there was R. E. Woods, and I forgot who the other one was. Cut timber off the far side of the state line. This side over here down this end was never cleared. . . . But I mean there was no timber cut. But up here then on the Little River Lumber Company, they (unintelligible). I was never up in that valley; that was out of my territory up there.

But that land there between the balds, there between Gregory and Parson, why that was the prettiest place that I ever seen. Little short trees all over, all this grass, wasn't any brush or anything like that.

ML: Were there any azaleas up there then?

KC: Uh-huh. . . . Blueberries.

ML: Where were these growing?

KC: On the balds.

ML: Right on top?

KC: Right on top. Just like there is a few up there now.

ML: I wouldn't say there's a few now. There's more blueberries than grass up there now.

KC: Well, there used to be ten or fifteen times as much cleared stuff as there is now. It was cleared way around there, see. . . . Now the timber has come on up. Now, the old timers think that that was. . . . They didn't understand why those balds were there. They thought it was above timber line, which it's not, because this here brush wouldn't be growin' if it was above timberline.

And if you'll notice all that pine, even back to Rich Gap, we called Gant Lot, they call it Rich Gap, those young pines, there was no pine back in there forty years ago. Now this pine is comin' on up, which is something different. Notice there's no big pine . . . (unintelligible).

I don't know, now that timothy, now. It . . . you suppose the Park sowed that? Or is that due to horses being . . .

RC: Could be horse droppings.

KC: Horse droppin's. . . . It was grass that resembled cheat; it was that little old native grass there. It didn't get as high now as the timothy. (RC says something unintelligible). Well now what . . . When that Russian boar first rooted it up, they went up there and placed it back down. Did they put no seed down:

Now Russell Field was cleared, and they say Sam Sparks cleared it, and he had mowing machines and a barn up there. He put up a little hay (unintelligible). Now, it had red top or timothy. Timothy and red top are herd grasses. (unintelligible). Do you think it'll ever be grazed again?

ML: Well, if they decide to put the money and time into management, I think that will be the . . .

KC: What are you going to do about the black bear?

ML: That's going to be tough, but I think they're going to have to have somebody up there watching.

KC: Well, you're going to have to watch 'em night as well as day. (unintelligible)

ML: I don't know. Couldn't cows, most cows, cattle take care of . . .

KC: They would run 'em into where a tree, two trees went together and catch 'em and kill 'em. Now, they kill 'em at (unintelligible). But they kill those cows. They're not going for calves; they kill cows! If they can hem one, they kill it.

ML: Do you think something like donkeys could take care of themselves better?

KC: (laughing) I don't know if a bear would eat a donkey or not. I wouldn't know about it. There's very few donkeys up there. There's a lot of sheep on those balds, . . . sheep just invites a bear.

ML: Sheep are stupid. So you did have problems with bears?

KC: Uh-huh. See, they'd wipe the cattle out. Ordinarily the cattle had . . . they did kind of a circle, about every two weeks they come back around. They salted 'em in certain places, you see. They called 'em salt licks. They take a hollow tree, or they take a tree that fell down, and they chop out notches in it, you know, and put salt in it. Well, these cattle would graze around and would come back through and get their salt. Well, this old bear come in there, and he just stampeded 'em out, and they just goed from one end of the mountain to the other. You're really goin' to have a problem. I don't know what you'll do.

ML: There are a lot more bears than there were.

KC: Oh my goodness, yes. Used to, when one got in, why we come down here, and we'd get up a crew of hunters, you know, and dogs and go back up there and kill it. There wasn't any open season or closed season. Why, one killed a cow, why, a calf, why, we killed a bear, then had a feast.

ML: About how many animals did they have up there?

KC: Well, they would have from two to five hundred head, each herder, plus the sheep. That year I was up there I had only 220 head. But that was a whole lot of money then 'cause I couldn't get in the CCC for a dollar a day, and I got a dollar and a half a head. And I got a little over three hundred dollars there. (unintelligible)

ML: How many sheep did they have up there?

KC: I imagine, 850 'cause there was Sam Sparks and George Nairn and (unintelligible), he's from down round Maryville.

ML: And you just relied on having the salt up there to keep them from wandering?

KC: Well, I had to, you know, watch it, and if they went too far down in North Carolina, or back down towards (route) 129, I had to drive 'em and there was always some of 'em that would drop off into the Cove, and I'd have to bring 'em back up.

ML: Did you have bells; on them so you could tell . . .

KC: Yes, there was a bunch of bells. Most of them did. Now our personal herd here we had a bell on all of 'em. But most of 'em that brought 'em in from the outside, out near Maryville, why, they'd just have two or three bells in whatever it was they brought, twelve, fifteen. Now, there was, really there was no big herds of cattle because you didn't have the hay baler, and you didn't have the ensilage, and so on. It was small. Now, they cut tops with a knife, you know, and off the corn and put up a little hay, and everything was done by horses, and you didn't have the capacity that we've got now. One man can do now what fifty did back then.

ML: What road did you follow to take them up to Gregory? Which trail did you use?

KC: We went up Fork Ridge most of the time. That depends on where you wanted to go. Now if you was to go up toward Ekaneetlee or Russell Field, why, you'd go up Forge Creek, believe that's what they call it, to the big poplar, then to the left and out up that way, Ekaneetlee Gap.

ML: And what about if you were going to Parson Bald?

KC: Parson's, you'd go up Fork Ridge. It's not the way the trail goes now. It went up the ridge; now it goes up the creek to where the big poplar is, then it makes a switchback, then goes out on the ridge there. But it used to go all the way up this ridge in a zig-zag, and Spence Field up here, they either went up Bote Mountain or went (unintelligible) to Russell Field where there was a switchback left went to Spence Field. There was two ways of going to Spence Field.

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

KC: Well, it depended on the spring, now; it was somewhere from the fifteenth of March to the tenth of April. Now, my dad was always went a week into April on account of late snows. Now, back before I was born, in 1910, they had cattle up there in April, and there was a four-foot snow came, and they starved to death all over that mountain.

ML: That was in April?

KC: That was in April.

ML: Someone else told me about a really late snow on May 19th.

KC: I can't remember that. I could. . . . The trees was jus now gone in Rich Gap there. There was a drift, and it was up ten feet high where the old herder, he come out, and he chopped it with an axe on snow level, and that's where they said it was, and there was a hack place there on the tree. That was two years before I was born. I always heard it was about the tenth, twelfth of April. I never heard of one in May.

ML: When were you born?

KC: 1912. There was an old man Davis, a part of that lawsuit. There was a lot of friction along in here, and there was a lawsuit over some hogs, and different ones was claiming them, and he swore to these hogs and said their tails froze off, and I asked him when, and he said the fourth of July. (laughs) But he was one again. Have you read the National Geographic, that issue in 1962?

ML: No.

KC: He was the one who had his casket made before he died and only kept his whiskey in it. He was a character. I don't know if he was native here. . . . His sister married old Nate Sparks, I believe, and he was a Civil War veteran. He was up here (unintelligible) Oliver Cabin. He shared with Shields. He was a kind of inventive mind. He invented the little horse power threshing machine, built a little dam there and fixed him a power wheel, a water wheel. His wife could churn on it and grind his corn and so on, and he said (unintelligible).

ML: Is that Randolph Shields's father?

KC: No, Jack was Randolph's, Andrew Jackson. It's a different set of Shieldses; Randolph's is old Frederick Shields, it's his great granddad, and Randolph's granddad was Will Shields. Will died in, I don't know. He had something, I don't know what it was, but we had some old doctors here from Turkey, and they called it white swelling. In other words, they split his leg and scraped the bone for some reason. He had an infection of the bone, and he survived, which is amazing, or he would have died. But Randolph's Dad and my mother were first cousins. Randolph, I don't know whether you call it second or third cousin. I don't know how you count, you folks. Seems to me it ought to be second cousin because it's second generation. I don't know what you call it.

ML: It's probably first cousin once removed or something like that. Where did the herders stay on Gregory?

KC: They had a little one room cabin.

ML: Where was this, near Moore Spring?

KC: At one time I guess it was. The first that I used, what they called Burnt Cabin Branch. That was right down from Rich Gap, down there on that branch, and that one got burned, and then the other one was just over on this side, about a half mile down on this side, down in there on the right of the ridge there. You should go up just before it topped out there. It was about then, just under Moore on this side.

ML: Was there any herder's cabin at Sheep Pen Gap that you know of?

KC: I think that Sheep Pen Gap was . . . Yep. Nate Burchfield had one there. Old man Nate tried to gain possession of 5000 acres there, the old Burchfield grant. And there was a spring up there and there was a cabin up there. But they arrested him, and took him out. The Aluminum Company of America bought that from Morton Butler Lumber Company. Of course Nate had no money; he lost the lawsuit. He went back in there and cut some curly cherry and took 'em out to town and (unintelligible).

ML: Did you ever hear any stories about people having cut down a lot of trees around Gregory to make it bigger?

KC: No. Nothing. Only Jim (unintelligible) cut a lookout where you could see out this way was all that. . . . In other words, other than that, I think that's all that was cut. The old timers didn't know if there was. Like I said a minute ago, you know, they thought it was above timberline.

ML: Did you herders cut occasional little trees for firewood?

KC: Yeah, we cut beech down there. We used to use beech for firewood, but we didn't go up on top to get it. We cut just right around the cabin. And there was one herder tried to grow a vegetable garden up there, but all he could grow there was cabbage and potatoes.

ML: How did you make the fence for the gant lot?

KC: We just cut down trees, call it brush fence from fallen trees. If there wasn't enough trees, why, then they cut poles, made 'em a rail fence.

ML: Did they use the same trees as fences as long as they lasted?

KC: A lot of them, if one went to get holes in it, why, they'd get out here and cut another green tree and fill a hole in there. There were brush fences down in the cove there (unintelligible) start out hacking these pines down, you know. (unintelligible).

ML: So you only had to cut trees for that gant lot every few years?

KC: Uh-huh. I don't know what they had on the. . . . They called it cattle gathering. There was a roundup on the first Monday in September.

(end of first side of tape)

KC: . . . the Park got established, and our herd got built up to around 150 head of cattle here. Why we would take ours back. That still belonged to Morton Butler Timber Company, and after this cattle roundup, why, we'd take ours back and stay with them for six weeks and let them graze, save a lot of hay down here. We'd pick up chestnuts and squirrel hunt and so on. We had a ball while taking of ours.

ML: That would be in late September?

KC: Uh-huh. Late September and first of October, till we got a hard freeze.

ML: Did you have any cattle get milk sick up there?

KC: We did, and that's something we don't understand. Now that didn't happen until some time late in August. The spring of the year, why, you didn't have any trouble with that. Them cattle got into some of them coves in North Carolina over there, why, they'd get this, they call it, milk sick. If you got up to drive one, why, they'd just start runnin', and he'd just run till he fell, and he'd never get up. I don't know what it was. Some old timers here thought it was probably poison off that copper. There is copper veins over there, and now what it was, I don't know. There is some guy at UT who calls it staggerweed, but I don't go along with him, and my grandmother had an uncle who went to North Georgia, and they have it down there, and there were places down there that they would just grow corn, and it didn't bother the kernel of the corn, but if they cut those tops or pulled those blades off that corn, it would get a cow a milk sick in the winter, and still there's copper, you know, around Copper Hill and Ducktown and so on down there. So I don't know whether it's any . . .

ML: You know, one thing they think causes milk sickness is white snakeroot, which grows up there a lot now.

KC: Well, they grow in north Georgia, too.

Mrs. KC: Would it be the seed off it?

ML: No, the whole plant.

Mrs. KC: Seems like they'd get it in the spring instead of the fall.

ML: Well, it doesn't get really big till late July.

KC: Why, in August, July or August, last of July and first of August.

ML: Did you think if a person drank from milk of a cow . . . that they would die?

KC: Most of the cows that did get it died themselves. Now they would feed them apples or they was constipated and the'd give 'em apples or somethin' or other, tried to get a laxative in 'em. I do know that they were stiff, and they got started running and limbered up, why, they generally went downhill. They didn't go uphill; they'd go downhill and go into a laurel thicket or ivy thicket, so when it went down, that was it. You'd go back the next day, and you couldn't get them up. They stayed raght there. They wouldn't move.

ML: So were the woods around Gregory just those big, widely spaced trees and grass underneath them? How far down the mountain did that sort of forest extend?

KC: Well, now, the Tennessee side you didn't go over very far before you got into the beech and there wasn't much grass there. Now, we had the lamb's tongue and ramps and some fern. But the North Carolina side it was all grassy all down all the ridges, down Twenty Mile Ridge, Long Hungry, and Wolf Ridge, and all them. They were grassy right down the tops.

ML: Did the cattle eat the lamb's tongue and the ramps.

KC: Uh-huh. They'd eat the lamb's tongue. They didn't eat the ramps. The old turkey eats the ramp, but the cattle didn't eat the ramps. Lamb's tongue is almost tasteless. I tasted it; it looked like a ramp, only smaller, but there's no taste to it. They'd pull that stuff and eat it. That was your first grazing there in the spring. (unintelligible)

ML: Did the animals ever eat the azaleas? I guess they didn't have much rhododendron or laurel up there.

KC: Not as much as we've got now because the herders all believed in fire, and those mountains burned about every year, and that's awfully hard on the rhododendron and . . .

ML: Did they burn the actual grassy balds or just the woods?

KC: They didn't know. They didn't care if they burned them.

ML: They set these fires in the spring?

KC: They were set in the fall of the year. They didn't want it in the spring of the year. It would kill their trees and everything when it had the growth on it, but when the trees was dormant, why, the more vegetation there was on the ground, it didn't kill no trees. It'd kill a few sprouts and kill an awful lot of bugs. (unintelligible) . . . you didn't see no dead trees. You didn't know nothin' about your southern Pine beetle and so on back then when they were burning the woods.

ML: Did they burn. . . . Where did they burn? Up on top or just the pine slopes?

KC: They just burn it all.

ML: They just set fire . . .

KC: They just set fire, and then along in the '30's, during the Depression they, the state, started appropriating money, and they got these I don't know what, the foresters, I guess it was, but they would have somebody in here, and he would round up a bunch of men and go fight these fires. They would try and surround them and put them out. We had even more fires then than we did before because that gave the guys somethin' to do, so they'd get out and set those woods on fire so they could go back up there and help put them out, and it burned all the time until the Park got established in (unintelligible). . . . Three or four fires (unintelligible). In fact, I don't believe there's been any in the Cove here now they've been down here now—some guy—some drunk set the Calderwood across to Twenty Mile and they've been some fires over here in Townsend, but there haven't been any fires over here since the Park was established.

Mrs. K.C.: (unintelligible).

KC: Now, they set fire (unintelligible) here one time, but we went up here and told Lampey, was ranger then (unintelligible).

ML: Why did the herders believe in fire?

KC: Well, same thing people do in Florida today. They burn those swamps down there, probably right now settin' those swamps to get a dry day, to get that dead grass really good, you know, and after you've got young grass come soon, you haven't got all that dead stuff mixed in with it and then . . .

Mrs. K.C.: Killed them shrubs.

KC: Kills some of them shrubs. They'll come out you know, and your cattle will eat that too.

ML: And they always burned in the fall?

KC: Uh-huh (unintelligible). The only fire that you would have in the summertime would be lightning strikes somethin' big trees . . .

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

KC: Uh-huh. Had five killed at one time (unintelligible). The main state line top of that mountain was awful bad for them to get killed. (unintelligible). This old guy at Cable Mill down here, he had fifteen head of cattle and killed nine of 'em at one time. He was settin' in there grindin', it was right this side of the waterwheel there was a big spruce pine tree—busted it all to pieces, and he was sittin' there fifteen to twenty feet out of it. (unintelligible)

ML: Were there any trees right on top of the bald?

KC: We had another cleared spot going down, it's called the Wolf Creek that runs down into Twenty Mile, Rye Patch down there. It's about thirty or forty acres cleared there, I think. It's some Gregory, probably Russell Gregory who was killed by, I don't really know who the North Carolina rebel was he was buried up here at the Primitive Baptist Church. Murdered by the North Carolina rebel, now I don't know who the North Carolina rebel was, but it happened during the Civil War.

ML: What did they do at Rye Patch? Did they grow rye?

KC: Most of them growed some rye. There's a little cabin back over there, about a mile from this Rye Patch. There was about three or four apple trees set out down there, a spring there, big enough for a small garden, whether he had a garden I don't know, but when I knew it, it was just a grassy spot there, a meadow.

ML: Was it the same kind of grass that you had on Gregory?

KC: Uh-huh. It's native.

ML: Were there any serviceberry trees around the edge of Gregory?

KC: Oh, yes, they was all over there. (unintelligible)

ML: But there weren't any growing on top of Gregory?

KC: Not that I know.

ML: Were there any hawthorns?

KC: Now, that's that little old haw that's at Moore Spring with the red berry?

ML: Yes.

KC: The fact is there was just nothin', there was just a grassy meadow. That was all up there. There was no shrubs or anything.

Mrs. KC: There was just your azaleas.

KC: They were right around the treeline. They wasn't no azaleas up on top 'cause it was that grass (unintelligible).

ML: Were there any blackberries growing up there?

KC: There were a few that were there, but they didn't have no briar, no stickers on them. Now why is that, do you know the answer to that?

ML: I think it's just a variety that doesn't have them.

KC: In fact, I never seen berries on them. I saw the briar and there were wild strawberries up there, and someone claimed that they were either white or yellow, not red like them down here. (unintelligible) And there was another old berry up there; it kind of resembled a raspberry, only it grows at an angle, looked like a raspberry.

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

KC: The cattle that went year after year would eat most all those weeds, whereas these cattle go first season up there, they'd more just like to eat the grass. But the ones that grazed there year after year would eat most all those weeds. (unintelligible) And there was a vine, they called the peavine, wild peavine, that was a good fall grazing. (unintelligible) Then there was the wild (unintelligible).

ML: Did they just wander down to Moore Spring or the spring at Sheep Pen Gap when they wanted water?

KC: Even go for a mile or two beyond those springs (unintelligible) 'cause they wasn't afraid to come down from on top (unintelligible). The sheep mostly. . . . That was one reason for puttin' more shrubs on the (unintelligible) Parson's. (unintelligible) They're like the deer; they browse them small shrubs.

ML: Did the sheep wander around in the woods as much as the cows?

KC: No, they stayed more on the top. Up there where those elevation markers are, why, I always took a bunch of salt and those old sheep would just gather around there and fight flies. Of course there wasn't many flies up there.

The last herder's cabin was up there was at Deerlick Gap, that was (unintelligible). John W. Oliver was the last herder up there. And he moved out 'cause there was so many people movin' in there, eat up all the food at the herder cabin at Deerlick Gap there. After two or three years his boys, two of them, was Clay and Winston, and Frank Oliver . . .

End of tape.

Transcribed by Timothy Hyatt and Jennifer Adams.

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Last Updated: 07-Mar-2008