By Melinda Lane Hedgecoth
Lofty mountains tower in regal, russet splendor bathed in a panoply of color that only autumn can bestow. Forested slopes aglow in their tapestried cloak of scarlet, amber, and gold, unabashedly blaze a trail of color, in merry chase to the valley floor.
These proud old sentinels, with the noble visage of honored and revered grandfathers, encircle the sheltered coves below in sweet embrace where wild flowers blanket the fields and the butterflies dance, as the honeybees zip, while songbirds trill in nature’s sweet refrain.
Fat pumpkins nestle snugly in their orange pantaloons while plump, juicy apples sport their own bright waistcoats of swashbuckling red, gold and green!
Scarecrows, gourds, straw bales, and Indian corn round out the scene of a fulsome country autumn and if you’re lucky enough to venture upon a cornshock-laden field, as in days of old, then you’re truly a lucky spectator, for those are indeed few and far between anymore. Other rarities that are not as common as in days of old are the persimmon, paw paw, and hedge apple trees, which were once all familiar sights to the early pioneers of this area, but now mostly forgotten except by a few old-timers and locals familiar with their locales.
Winding country roads that loop and twine through a canopy of interlacing treetops are another anomaly in today’s society, yet are such a treat to find, for they serve as quiet reminders of a bygone era and speak to us in the hushed tones of yesteryear where longhunters, trailblazers, painted warriors, settlers, circuit riders, drummers, drovers, militia, bushwhackers, wild animals and, yes, even marauding highwaymen once roamed and presided.
One of these old roads played a significant role in the history and settlement of our own neck of the woods in Cumberland County and particularly in the Crab Orchard community. That road is none other than the old Walton Rd.
The Walton Rd was opened in 1801 but had its origins as an old Indian trail named after a Cherokee chief named Tallonteeskee (also spelled Tollunteeskee in other publications) whose village was located on the site of present-day Rockwood.
Tallonteeskee’s Trail, or the Cherokee Path, as it was also called, left the main road at what is now Rockwood and ascended the Plateau through Kimbrough’s Gap just west of town and is believed to have followed the present tracks of the Tennessee Central Railroad to Standing Stone in Monterey.
In 1787, the North Carolina legislature commissioned a contingent of men from the Washington District (Jonesborough) to blaze a trace through the Wilderness, as the Plateau was then called, to the Mero District (Nashville), and appointed Peter Avery, a hunter who was skilled in woodcraft, as their guide. Thus, the Avery Trace was born. Beginning at the foot of the Clinch Mountains near present-day Rogersville, Avery led his men across the Clinch River near Lowe’s Ferry, crossing the Cumberland Plateau, using Tallonteeskee’s Trail as their route of passage. The trail was cleared to a width of ten feet in order to accommodate families more easily.
The Indians were not satisfied, however, with this arrangement, as they did not feel that this was the agreed upon federal road that they had requested, thus many battles took place as a result with several taking place right in the heart of Crab Orchard.
One of those battles was led by a Cherokee chief named Middlestriker, who captured Captain Samuel Handley and took him to his village at Willstown, where he was made to run the gauntlet and suffered many hardships before finally gaining his release.
The second incident in “the Crab Orchard” was when Longhunter Thomas “Bigfoot” Spencer was shot from ambush at the gap in the mountains near the bluff that still bears his name by the notorious Cherokee/Chickamauga Chief Doublehead and his party of warriors. This "gentle giant" (Spencer) was as noted for his kindness and gallantry as he was for his herculean strength and valor, thus his loss was felt keenly by all who had known him.
It’s probably pretty safe to say that he is buried somewhere nearby the huge boulder that still bears his name. This boulder is more visible in winter when the trees are bare and can be easily spotted sitting perched atop the bluff on the left side of I-40 just as you begin to enter the gap of the mountains traveling eastbound.
“The hill which was the site of this violence became the second-named place in Cumberland County — the first was the Crab Orchard — and the first honoring an individual.” (Krechniak, H.B. & J.M. 1856. Cumberland County’s First Hundred Years, p. 13.)
Then, two months after Spencer’s death, a third incident took place there when a Lt. McClelland was attacked “on the Cumberland Path” by a party of 100 Creek warriors.
Lt. McClelland mounted a brave defense, but had four men killed and suffered other material losses before he was finally compelled to retreat. Finally, in 1791 the Treaty of the Holston was passed and the Indians were satisfied with the terms. The Territorial Legislature then passed an act in 1794 for the cutting and clearing of a wagon road from Southwest Point (Kingston) to the settlements on Cumberland River in the Mero District (Nashville).
“William Walton, William Martin and Robert Coyle went to work laying out the road. Beginning at the fort near Southwest Point, the road passed along the valley east of Walden’s Ridge and ascended the mountain southwest of Emory Gap at a place called Kimbrough Gap (near Mount Roosevelt). It passed a few miles north of the present town of Crossville, took off in a northwesterly direction to Dripping Springs (Mayland) and the Officer Stand, thence to the Cumberland River and along its northern bank to a spot close to Nashville.
Much of the Walton Rd. followed roughly the Avery Trace.” (Krechniak, p.14.)
And quoting another source, “[it]shall be known by the title and style of The Cumberland Turnpike Company…the company shall measure and mile-mark the road, erect bridges and causeways, dig and level the sides of hills and mountains over which the said roadway may pass, to the breadth of fifteen feet, except where it may be necessary to build bridges, causeways, or dig the road as aforesaid in which cases the same shall be twelve feet in breadth;” (Wirt, Alvin B. 1954. The Upper Cumberland of Pioneer Times, p. 21.)
Thus, was ushered in the new era of the stagecoach, stands, taverns, inns, and ordinaries.
“In 1804 the Cherokees permitted white people to build four guest houses along the Cumberland Turnpike in the wilderness. They were Haley’s, at Crab Orchard; Kimbrough’s at Daddy’s Creek; Terrel’s at Drowning Creek; and Alexander’s near the White Plains.” (Wirt p. 25) The Haley’s at Crab Orchard mentioned above is probably referring to an earlier Haley Stand at Crab Orchard in 1804 that was operated by a David Haley, who was either the father (David II-Revolutionary War Veteran), or the uncle (David III) of young Elijah Graves Haley Jr., whose father, Elijah Sr., died shortly before his birth (August 1810) of what was known as “cramp colic” then (believed to be a heart attack) while camped in Renfro Holler (near the foot of Renegade Mtn.).
Elijah Sr. and his pregnant wife, Mary Alexander-Haley, were enroute to the community of Alexander (named for her brother Albert Alexander) when this tragedy occurred, leaving her all alone and close to full-term in her pregnancy in a wilderness rife with wild animals and other dangers, with only two young slave boys to protect her and help her get back to her family in Roane County.
They were able to make it, however, and just in time, too, for she was delivered of a fine baby boy only ten days later.
You can imagine the harrowing experience this must have been for this young mother, but she persevered and eventually took the young son that she named for his father, Elijah Graves Haley Jr., and went back to the Fall Creek area near Ozone Falls where she established a tavern and tailored clothing to provide for her and young Elijah’s material needs.
Several years later (1817) she met and married Mr. Robert Burke of North Carolina, who took both the young widow and her son under wing, so-to-speak, and the young family eventually prospered to the point where they were able to buy land in Crab Orchard from Pleasant Dawson and build the fine, brick, two-story structure that became famous both near and far as the prestigious Crab Orchard Inn, the stopping-place of both presidents Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk in their travels from Nashville to Washington City (as it was sometimes called then.)
This beautiful, two-story inn had bricks that were hand-molded by slaves from the Haley plantation and a curving stairway that an artisan from Knoxville was commissioned to build. Mr. Burke and his young stepson, Elijah, also eventually came to own the toll road from Sparta to the Kimbrough place (which was 2 miles south of Rockwood) that came to be known as the Burke Rd. It was called the Walton Rd., too, until it branched off the main Walton Rd. just past Kimbrough’s stand, west of Daddy’s Creek, traveling southwest thereafter to Sparta and on to Nashville, via Lebanon, while the original Walton Rd. continued northwest to Forks of the Road (Brotherton Mtn.) and on to William Walton’s ferry on the north side of the Cumberland River (near the confluence with the Caney Fork River), and on to present-day Carthage.
The toll gate for the Burke Rd. was located at Crab Orchard where the entrepreneurial stepfather and stepson also owned a store with a post office in it and ran a large plantation too. (This information provided in part from a family letter belonging to Elijah Jr.’s son, George A. Haley, that was written by him in 1938 and graciously shared by George’s grandson, L.T. Thurman, thank you so much L.T.)
As we capture a glimpse of the lifestyles of our ancestors, both their hardships and prosperity, we should value their sacrifices a little more with the depth of such knowledge. Hope you’ve enjoyed this mini history lesson concerning the rich history that is ours in this beautiful land that we all call home!
Now, let’s get down to weather predicting using the signs of nature as gleaned at the knees of our forefathers in this area.
As you know, I always watch for the woolly worms before making my prediction and I’ve not been disappointed, for they finally made their appearance, although not in the abundant quantities, as in some years past, which is a pretty good indicator that this winter will be a relatively mild one, from just that sign alone.
However, I have had a few folks in outlying areas of the region who said that they had seen solid black ones, too. So, that makes me just a little nervous! But here, locally, the only ones that I have seen are ones that are brown in the middle with black tips on either end, signifying a harsh beginning and end to winter, with a mild spell in between.
So, it’s looking like the beginning and ending of winter will be our main troublemakers! The signs are kind of a mixed bag this year, though, for while I’ve found a hornet’s nest that was perhaps 15-20 feet off the ground — indicating a mild winter — I’ve also seen that the mast crop (acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, etc...) is abundant, which means a hard winter!
Too, wild berries such as the dogwood are prolific which goes hand in hand with the mast sign as well. I’ve counted only 1 heavy early morning fog in August, yet, counted four light fogs and three very patchy fogs, for a total of eight fogs, or eight snows for the winter!
For those of you who might not be familiar with this type of weather forecasting, each early morning fog that you see in the month of August denotes how many snows you should expect for the upcoming winter.
That sounds like a lot of snows, but some of these could come in the form of ice, or even the blue darter snows that you’ve heard me mention so much in the past. Blue darters are the type of snow that just blows across the top of the ground, meaning the ground has to be pretty frozen for this to occur, thus, look out for cold temperatures for sure! But in view of some of the other signs that seem to point to a milder winter, too, I don’t believe that the others will amount to very much accumulation.
Thus, based on these signs, expect a cold winter for sure with one heavy snow and the possibility of four light snows and three blue darter snows and/or ice.
Keep an eye out for Oct. 29, when the moon fulls and on the 13th (new moon) and 28th (full moon) in November, and the 13th (new moon) and 28th (full moon) of December, as you’ll usually get a change in the weather on the changing of the moon phase.
Remember, if you get a snow on a full moon it will usually melt off quickly, but if it snows on a new moon it’ll usually linger on the ground for a few days, giving credence to the old saying “it’s hangin’ around waitin’ on another one!”
Also, expect frost soon for Mama always said that the cockleburs have to be mature and the Spanish needles ripe for a frost to occur. Well, the cockleburs are definitely ripe as evidenced by my walk in the field the other day. So, get your firewood stacked, and your autumn chores caught up, for old man winter’s gonna be knockin’ real soon! Take care and happy fall y'all!
Melinda Lane Hedgecoth's mother, Helen Lane, was a Chronicle correspondent from the Crab Orchard community for decades starting in the 1940s until her passing in 2000. Lane became famous nationwide for predicting the winter based on the signs of nature. During the last two years of her life, Lane's daughter, Melinda, began writing the annual weather prediction based on her family's ancestor's techniques based on the signs of nature. Melinda has carried on the tradition of writing the annual winter weather forecast since her mother's death.