History of the Grassy Balds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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The Origin of the Grassy Balds

Grassy balds are treeless, grassy meadows that occur below timberline and mostly on ridgetops in the southern Appalachian Mountains. No one knows for certain how they came to be. Even their age is not known. Many people thought that they were very old because they were mentioned in Cherokee legends (Mooney 1898). However, Gersmehl (1970) argued that the Cherokee story tellers probably incorporated details of the local landscape into their stories to make them seem more real rather than inventing the stories to explain the origin of these features and that their traditions were short-lived. Therefore, grassy balds could have been incorporated into Cherokee legends by the time people started collecting them even if white men had created the balds. Wells (1937, 1946, 1956) maintained that the Cherokees cleared the balds as hunting areas and lookout posts, but his theory is not taken seriously now. It seems unlikely that the Indians would have cleared areas so far from where they lived for game lures before white men came, for there was ample game for their needs in the valleys; and the grassy balds are much larger clearings than would be needed for lookouts.

Some naturalists have proposed various natural origins for the balds. Some objection to any of these theories can be raised. Gates's (1941) theory that oak gall wasps cleared trees from the balds cannot explain balds not surrounded by oak forest. Natural fires probably did not deforest large areas because large lightning fires which burn more than two acres are very rare (Barden, 1974). Desiccating winds or harsh conditions are not preventing establishment of trees now, so it is unlikely that they killed off the original forest. It is possible that natural factors caused small openings which were later enlarged by the settlers.

Fig. 2. Map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park showing the places mentioned in the text and in the interviews. (click on image for a PDF version)

The interviews (see Preface) suggest that at least some of the balds in the Smokies were cleared by white settlers as grazing ranges. Several published sources as well as some of the people interviewed mention that Russell Field was cleared. The date is supposed to have been in the 1870's or 1880's. Russell Gregory or some person surnamed Russell is suggested as having been responsible for clearing it. Photographs taken in 1931 show large stumps on much of the field, and at the west end it is abruptly bounded by a tall hedge of some of the largest rhododendrons I have ever seen, further suggesting artificial clearing. Much of the field was fenced, and hay was grown and mowed so that stock would be kept in a barn there through the winter.

Many people mentioned the clearing of Spence Field, and only two (James Shelton and John Waters) denied that it had been cleared in the last one or two hundred years. Asa Sparks said that his grandfather Sparks had owned it and had it cleared. He mentioned no date, but if one assumes that he and his father were born when their fathers were about 25 years old and that Granddaddy Sparks was between 25 and 40 years old when he had the field cleared, it must have been done in the 1870's or 1880's. Carlos Campbell mentioned that Dan Myers said in 1935 that it had been beech forest when he was a boy of 16, in 1870. Another veteran herder mentioned that it was forest in 1880 (Campbell, 1940). Several other people mentioned that it had been cleared and planted in grass without mentioning any date. The tradition that it was cleared seems too strong to allow much doubt that Spence Field is less than 150 years old.

Less support exists for the idea that some of the other balds of the Smokies might have been cleared. Seymour Calhoun mentioned an Old Man Siler who came out of Macon County before the Civil War and cleared a large area of the mountain top for a horse ranch, and Lawrence Crisp mentioned an Old Man Andrews who cleared Andrews Bald. Gregory has been clear a long time. Gersmehl (1970) mentions that it was indicated as "Bald Spot" on an 1833 map. Gilbert (1954) quoted Mrs. John Oliver, an old former resident of Cades Cove as saying that she "had it from folks long dead" that Gregory had always been a blueberry meadow. Paul Adams mentioned that Nate Burchfield said that he and his father had cleared some of the forest around Gregory Bald and Parson Bald, and Kermit Caughron mentioned someone's cutting a lookout on Gregory towards Cades Cove. The relative lack of information on these other balds might mean that they weren't cleared by white settlers, but it could merely indicate that they were cleared in the late eighteenth century, very soon after the area was first settled by white men.

In using the balds as stock ranges, people gradually enlarged them. The herders and the hunters who came up in the winter cut many of the smaller trees for firewood. More trees were cut near the balds to make pens to hold livestock when they were rounded up and sorted in the fall. The trampling and browsing of the stock prevented trees from reproducing themselves, and the forest around the balds had very widely spaced trees with no undergrowth except grass. If grazing had continued until the youngest of the trees originally present around the balds died, the whole state line ridge west of Newfound Gap would probably have become bald.

Both written sources (e.g. Lambert, 1957; Gersmehl, 1970) and the people interviewed give reasons why the settlers would have found it worthwhile to clear large areas for grazing. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the population of the southern Appalachians had become large enough that level land was too valuable to be used for pasture. Removing livestock from the low farms during the summer allowed corn, hay, or other crops to be grown on land that otherwise would have been needed for pasture. Cattle that were up in the mountains did not have to be fenced out of crops. The cooler climate and lack of insects were thought to make the stock healthier. The grass was thought to be better than that growing at lower elevations. Milk sickness, which could kill stock and people who drank their milk, was thought to be less common at higher altitudes.

Development and Maintenance of the Grassiness of the Balds

When an opening is made in the high elevation hardwood or spruce-fir forest, it is usually filled in with fire cherry (Prunus pensylvanica), briars (Rubus sp.), and coarse weeds. These successional species would eventually give way to a mature forest (Ramseur, 1960). The mountain oat grass (Danthonia compressa) that is typical of grassy balds occurs on burned over and logged areas only in small patches right next to a trail. For some reason the normal course of succession has not occurred on the grassy balds.

Since many balds lie in the elevation where hardwood forest and spruce-fir intergrade, Billings and Mark (1957) and Mark (1958), suggested that the balds failed to become forested because neither forest type could invade on opening successfully in this ecotonal zone. This theory does not explain why the balds became grassy rather than shrubby. Furthermore, in the absence of competition, tree species of either forest type could grow beyond the zone in which they usually occur. The present invasion of the balds by potential forest dominant species would seem to refute this theory.

The effect of grazing and browsing animals in keeping back woody plants and weeds is well know. The rapid invasion of abandoned lowland pastures by junipers and weeds like goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is a familiar sight. Livestock were grazed in the Smokies in sufficient numbers not only to keep woody plants and weeds from invading cleared areas but also to remove gradually all shrubs and seedlings from the understory of the surrounding forests. Most of the high ridges in the western half of what is now GSMNP were covered by a forest that many people described as resembling a forested city park or a tropical savannah. (See Fig. 3, p. 11).

Fig. 3. A view of the oak forest between Spence Field and Russell Field as it looked in 1931. Note the lack of shrubs and saplings.

Burning does not seem to have been a major factor in maintaining the balds, although the surrounding forest may have been affected. Some herders are supposed to have believed in fire as a means of improving the range and to have burned in the spring to get rid of the old grass stems and encourage new growth, but most of them evidently did not burn their ranges. The grass on the balds was kept so short by the grazing animals that there was not enough fuel to maintain a fire hot enough to kill shrubs and seedlings. The surrounding forests were sometimes burned lightly in the fall to remove the leaf litter so that chestnuts could be gathered more easily. The fires that burned through logging slash in 1925 cleared many acres, but none of these burned over areas has grown into anything resembling a grassy bald.

How the Settlers Grazed Their Cattle

The western half of what is now the Park was divided into several herding ranges. Some of these areas were leased from the lumber companies, and others were evidently owned by the herders or their families. Each herder would look after two to five hundred head of cattle, a few hundred sheep, and a few horses, goats, and mules. Hogs were turned loose lower down, but a few evidently found their way onto the top of the ridge; a 1908 photograph shows some on Thunderhead. In the early twentieth century the ranges, each under a single herder or group of herders were Gregory Bald and Parson Bald and the main ridge over to Ekaneetlee Gap, Ekaneetlee Gap to somewhere east of Russell Field (which was owned by the Lawson family), Russell Field, Little Bald to the Hall cabin (located near Derrick Knob), and Hall Cabin to Clingman's Dome. The boundaries were not firmly fixed and may have changed as herders quit or got helpers.

In addition to the ranges to which families brought their herds from as far as sixty miles away to leave with the herder, there were places off the main ridge where individual families ran their own herds. The Myers family raised large herds for the market on Defeat Ridge. Places such as Hyatt Bald and Newton Bald are probably places where these families ran their stock. Hemphill Bald and other clear areas along the Cataloochee Divide were probably used by families in that area. Cattle were probably also herded on Mount Sterling.

Most families had a herd of ten to twenty cattle and maybe fifteen to twenty sheep for their own use. Families who raised stock for market would run larger herds, up to 100. At least one lumber company, the Norwood Lumber Company, kept a herd to provide meat for its workers. Horses and mules were brought up after they were no longer needed for ploughing or other work, after the crops had been laid by. Stock would be taken up the mountain between the first of April and the first of May, depending on the weather.

In an exceptional year, a late snow might kill stock in May. If the cattle were still hot from being driven up the mountain, they would die very quickly when caught in the snow. If they went off the grassy ridge top to escape the cold, they might still die, because they would eat poisonous plants such as laurel (Kalmia latifolia) or rhododendron when they could not find grass. Bone Valley Creek, a branch of Hazel Creek, is named for the bones of the cattle that died there in the spring of 1902. The. appearance of "lamb's tongue" (Erythronium americanum) was one sign that the range was ready for stock. This plant was a favored food of cattle.

After word somehow got out that the herder was ready to receive stock on his range on a certain day, the drive to the mountains would begin. For cattle going to Spence Field, the drive started in Sevierville and Maryville. Alerted by the lowing of cows and the clank of their bells, each family along the way would add its herd to the drove. Men, usually on horseback went along with the herd, and dogs helped keep the herd in line. Some people put wire muzzles on their cattle to keep them from eating laurel. The families coming from farther away would have to stop overnight in a field. The herd would finally get on the Bote Mountain Road and onto Spence Field. The herds on Gregory and Parson probably came mostly from Cades Cove and those on the range east of the Hall Cabin from North Carolina.

When the herds reached the top the owners paid the herder for looking after the cattle. The herders charged one or two dollars a head for looking after cattle, somewhat less for sheep, and a little more for horses and mules. Their responsibilities were to put out salt and round up animals that strayed too far off during a storm. They would also get together a group of hunters to kill any bears that became a nuisance.

The sheep tended to stay together on the top of the bald, out in the open grass. They were therefore easy to care for but they could be killed in large numbers by bears or lightning. Cattle tended to wander off in the woods, and stayed within a reasonable distance of the bald only because that was where salt was put out for them. At least one cow in each family's herd would have a bell on it so that the herd could be found more easily if it strayed.

Mid-September was the time for taking the stock off the mountains. The owners would come up, pick their animals out of the herd, and take them down. The rounding up and sorting took three or four days. This gathering in was evidently almost as much fun as it was work. Even people who had no cattle on the range would come up to help and join in the evening meal of a donated steer roasted by a designated cook and the drinking of moonshine in the evenings. The owners of the stock would often take bushels of chestnuts down to their families.

The cattle were herded into pens that enclosed from one to four acres. These pens were called "gant lots" because during the two or three days they might be confined in it, the cattle became gaunt. This gaunting was partially intentional. The settlers believed that eating lush grass all summer made the cattle somewhat bloated and that they would do better on the way down if they were underfed for a few days before.

The gant lots were built at one end of the range. They would be surrounded by a brush fence made of untrimmed trees piled together, or by a rail fence. The gant lot on Russell Field was supposedly made of barbed wire. The lot would have a division running almost all the way across through the middle. Where one end of this partition joined the outside fence, there would be a gateway of removable rails to the other side of the partition and another to the outside of the lot. The cattle would be driven around the lot and past the gate. If an owner claimed them, they were let out of the lot. Otherwise they were driven back through the other gate to the other side of the lot (Kara Gregory in Brewer 1976).

The animals were marked with various cuts in their ears, tattoos on the ear, or, in the case of the Myers family, with rings in their ears. Branding with hot irons was not used because the brands tended to become inflamed. These markings enabled the owners to pick out their own cows and aided in settling disputes.

The herds were not taken down in September because of any shortage of forage. There was adequate grass to feed the cattle through October. The Caughrons of Cades Cove drove their herd up for another month to save hay. One reason for taking the cattle down early was fear that they would develop milk sickness. This disease would kill stock and anyone who drank the milk of an affected animal. The settlers didn't know the cause, although some suspected that it was due to cattle's licking up a salty poisonous mineral or eating grass on places that had been struck by lightning. It was supposed to be most prevalent in certain dark, low, moist coves, and some of these areas were fenced to keep out cattle. According to Kingsbury (1964) milk sickness is caused by Eupatorium rugosum, white snakeroot, which seems to be as common around the balds as it is anywhere else. However, it is more resistant to frost kill than the grasses, and if the cattle were left up too long, they might be more likely to eat it because it would be the only green thing left. When milk sickness did occur, it was late in the season. Eupatorium may have been much less common at high altitudes than it is now. Old photographs show no Eupatorium in habitats where it is now abundant.

Cattle would also get sick from eating laurel (Kalmia) and rhododendron. The usual treatment was to feed the animal a piece of fat meat and wait for it to vomit, but this treatment would fail if it was applied too late.

Lightning would occasionally claim several sheep at one time. Cattle would get off the top during a storm, but sheep would huddle together in the open and get struck. About all the owners could do would be to go up and salvage some wool by pulling it off the dead sheep. Bears would occasionally get even full-grown cattle by cornering them and were evidently a serious threat to sheep. Probably only their low numbers and fear of man kept them from causing so much trouble as to make herding in the mountains uneconomical. Before the twentieth century cougars (known locally as panthers or "painters") would occasionally kill a few animals, but the one herder Tom Sparks stabbed after it jumped onto his back in about 1902 was probably the last one seen.

The Herder's Life

The chronology and geography of who herded where and when are not very clear. Tom Sparks evidently had charge of the Spence Field range which extended from Little Bald to the Hall Cabin, from the late 1890's to 1926. His son-in-law, Fonze Cable, was herding at Russell Field in 1931 and may have taken over the Spence Field range after Tom Sparks was shot. (Evidently, Sparks had a somewhat simple-minded boy helping him make whiskey whom he was teasing. Jokingly encouraged by an onlooker, this boy picked up a gun and shot Sparks.) Long-haired, long-bearded Nate Burchfield had the Gregory range in the 1920's. The range from the Hall Cabin to Clingman's Dome was leased from a lumber company by Granville Calhoun until about 1910. In the last years before the Park was established various people from Cades Cove such as Kermit Caughron or the Oliver family ran herds near Gregory Bald. The herders herded only in the summer. The rest of the year they had other occupations, including hunting, moonshining, or working for the logging companies.

The herder's daily routine would include putting out salt and checking to see if animals of a particular herd were missing. (This last job was possible because an individual owner's herd would tend to stay together). Besides being necessary for the well-being of the animals, salt kept the cattle from wandering too far off the mountain. Loose salt was placed on flat rocks or in hollows cut in a fallen tree. If cows were grazing or moving around, their bells would enable the herder to tell that they were nearby, and he would call them to the salt by yelling something like, "Hoooooo-cow!" or "Sue-coooooow!" If they came up, he could check on the condition of that particular herd. If cattle scattered during a storm or were stampeded by a bear, the herder would have to look for them, even if they had gone five miles down the mountain. He would notify people at the bottom of the mountain when a bear caused trouble. by killing stock, and a hunting party would come up to get it.

The herder hunted to supplement his diet of corn meal, beans, and fat pork with squirrels and turkeys—he seldom went out for the day without his rifle. Some herders fenced small plots near their cabins to grow cabbage and potatoes, which grew well despite the cool climate. They usually went down to their homes every week to pick up more supplies.

Herders stayed in small one- or two-room wooden cabins near the top of the mountain and a good spring. The cabin had a fireplace and chimney made of rocks daubed with mud usually a puncheon floor, a built-in bed and table, and a few chairs. The cabins seldom lasted many years because hunters using them in the late fall and winter would build larger fires than the fireplaces could take and burn down the cabin.

Hikers and other people coming up the mountain could usually count on the herder's hospitality. The beds were built to hold up to ten people. Some of the herders evidently became somewhat upset when people took too much of their food, but they enjoyed company.

Moonshining was another activity that several herders engaged in. The stills were located down the mountain on a branch with good water. Tom Sparks at Spence Field, Fonze Cable at Russell Field, and Nate Burchfield near Gregory were among those who made whiskey.

Families that cared for their own herds did not have a family member living on the mountain. Instead, they used to send someone up once a week or so to put out some salt.

Historical Appearance of the Balds

Even forty years after the cessation of grazing, the grassy balds present a striking contrast to the forests surrounding them. Long grass covers much of their area, and only a few small trees block the view. Only someone. who knew their appearance before the Park was established could be aware how rapidly succession to a forest community has proceeded on most of them.

Photographs taken before the Park was established show that trees and shrubs were almost completely absent from the center of the balds, and the very few shrubs present were heavily browsed by sheep and cattle. The edges of the balds were a lot farther from the center. The northeast edge of Gregory Bald was so much farther downhill that Cades Cove could be seen clearly over the tops of the trees. This view is now completely blocked by the trees that have grown up since.

The open parts of the balds were covered almost entirely with grass. Tall weeds such as goldenrods, Angelica, and asters and low creeping weeds like cinquefoil (Potentilla sp.) and sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) were very uncommon. The blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) that are now so common on most of the balds were present only around the edges. A few serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) trees grew around the edges of some of the balds, but they were far less abundant than they are today. Hawthorns (Crataequs sp.) were present on Andrews Bald but absent from Gregory Bald where they are now the most aggressive invaders of the grassy area.

Around the balds (except possibly for Andrews) the forest consisted of a few large, widely spaced old trees, usually oak (Quercus sp.), beech (Fagus grandifolia) or yellow birch (Betula lutea). Chestnut was also very important in the high-elevation forests before the blight killed it all. Years of trampling and browsing by stock kept the understory clear. Since trees that died were not replaced, the forest became more and more open and the balds larger. The woods all along the main ridge and the tops of the side ridges had this park-like aspect except, perhaps, where the understory was laurel or rhododendron. Places such as Newton Bald which now do not seem to deserve the name "Bald" at all were probably also covered by this sort of forest.

The wide spaces between the old trees have now been filled in with small pole trees about 10 to 20 cm (4 to 8 inches) in diameter. Shrubs and tree seedlings are abundant. The under canopy is too dense to allow grass to grow, and typical forest herbs now carpet the ground.

One of the outstanding attractions of the Smokies is the display of azaleas on Gregory Bald. Before the Park was established, Harlan Kelsey, a horticulturist who was on the committee to choose possible sites for a National Park in the east, thought that the flame azalea display on and around Gregory Bald was the best in the country. Even in 1899 the azalea display was impressive (Eakin, 1949). While Gregory was still being grazed, the azaleas were confined to a rim around the edge, mostly on the southwest side. They have since spread out onto the open part of the bald. Stock probably did not eat azaleas since they are distasteful and poisonous (Kingsbury, 1964), but their trampling would probably have prevented the establishment of new plants except very close to a parent plant. The azaleas evidently reached the peak of the showiness in the 1950's. Even though their numbers may have increased since then, the filling in of the edges of the bald with saplings and shrubs has almost hidden them from view.

The balds responded rapidly to the cessation of grazing. The grass, which had been kept clipped down to a few inches, grew knee high the first year after grazing was stopped. In 1936, five years after grazing on Andrews Bald was stopped, the Chief Ranger of GSMNP noticed invasion by blueberries and predicted that the bald would eventually revert to forest (Eakin, 1956). Andrew is being invaded more slowly by trees and shrubs than any other bald, so shrubs may have appeared even sooner on other balds. In a letter written in 1938, George Stephens complained that Silers Bald and Thunderhead where grazing was stopped before 1918 and in 1933 respectively (although Granville Calhoun may have stopped herding other people's cattle before 1918, it is quite likely that cattle belonging to other people in North Carolina who just let their herds out lower down might have found their way up there) were matted with wild strawberry (Potentilla?), weeds and briars, and that beech and other small trees were filling in. The grass cover under the open forest was evidently persisting at that time. Changes in the vegetation of the balds were noticeable only five years after grazing was stopped.

Invasion of the grassy balds by trees is continuing. Less than half of the original area of Gregory Bald is still grassy—blueberries have grown over most of its area, and the blueberry patches seen to provide shelter from severe conditions, for many trees seem to start in blueberry patches. Balds that are surrounded by beech forests, such as Thunderhead or Silers, are rapidly being taken over by beech sprouts which grow so densely that one can hardly walk between them. If no action is taken to set back and hold back their invasion by woody plants, the balds will almost certainly be no more than a memory by the end of this century.


Theses and published papers

Barden, Lawrence Samuel, 1974. Lightning fires in southern Appalachian forests. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Tennessee, 65 pp.

Billings, W. D. and A. F. Mark, 1957. Factors involved in the persistence of montane treeless balds. Ecology 38: 140-142 .

Brewer, Carson, 1976. "Stock grazed in Smokies." Knoxville News-Sentinel, March 14, p. G1.

Gates, William H., 1941. Observations on the possible origin of the balds of the southern Appalachians. Contrib. Dept. of Zoology, Louisiana State. Univ., No. 53. La. St. Univ. Press, Baton Rouge.

Gersmehl, Phil, 1970. A geographic approach to a vegetation problem: The case of the southern Appalachian grassy balds. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Georgia, Athens, 463 pp.

Gilbert, Vernon C., 1954. Vegetation of the grassy balds of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. M. S. Thesis, University of Tennessee, 73 pp.

Kingsbury, John M., 1964. Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 626 pp.

Mark, A. F., 1958. The ecology of the southern Appalachian grass balds. Ecol. Monogr. 28: 293-336.

Mooney, James, 1898. Myths of the Cherokees. Bureau of American Ethnology, 19th annual report. G.P.O. Washington, D. C.

Ramseur, George, 1960. Vascular flora of high mountain communities of the southern Appalachians. Jour. Elisha Mitchell Sci. Soc. 76: 82-112.

Unpublished material in the GSMNP Library

Campbell, Carlos C., Sept. 17, 1940. Letter to Arthur Stupka, GSMNP Naturalist.

Eakin, Agnes, June 30, 1949. Letter to Arthur Stupka.

Eakin, J. R., August 1936. Letter to the Director of the NPS.

Lambert, Robert S., 1957. The pioneer history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A report to the Superintendent based on documentary sources. 76 pp.

Stephens, George M., July 12, 1938. Letter to GSMNP Superintendent Eakin.

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Last Updated: 07-Mar-2008