The lilting refrain of a merry fiddle danced across the valley floor, as the moon peeped over the brow of the mountain, its shimmering light casting an ethereal glow on the old brick inn where it sat perched in the moonlight, at the crest of the hill.
The sounds of joyous laughter and the stamp of dancing feet echoed briefly from the opened doorway, as a wash of light spilled into the courtyard area, briefly illuminating the various horse and buggy conveyances, standing ready to carry everyone home at evening's end.
One couple — a beautiful dark-haired girl, followed closely by her tall, handsome, sandy-haired suitor — exited the building and laughingly made their way to his horse and buggy, where he carefully helped her into the buggy, making sure the blanket he had brought, was tucked snugly around her, on this cold December, New Year's Eve, of 1897 that was so cold you could see your breath in the frosty air!
His horse, recognizing its kind master, whickered a gentle welcome to him as he quickly removed the horse blanket from its back, folding it carefully and placing it in the buggy, before climbing into the buggy himself.
His horse nervously stamped its feet and the harness jingled in merry accompaniment to the romantic, moonlit night. Seated alongside his lovely lady, he took the reins into his hands and skillfully maneuvered both horse and buggy out onto the darkened roadway, lit only by the light of the silvery moon above, setting the horse's pace to a slight canter up the shadowed road toward her home.
They chatted gaily as the horse wound its way along the old stage road under the canopy of trees overshadowing them when, suddenly, the horse began to pick up its pace. It gradually quickened even more, until it was running at a full gallop, with the buggy careening dangerously around the winding curves, with its shadowy ravines that bordered the old roadbed, lurking just out of sight in the darkened woods!
The accomplished horseman quickly realized that his horse had grown so cold while standing in the frigid night air that it was running to try to get warm again and was basically running away with them in wild abandon!
Thus, their quiet ride home turned into a nightmarish ride of careening fright as all attempts at conversation were halted, his precious cargo holding on for dear life(!), as he employed every ounce of strength and horsemanship he possessed, to bring the wild-eyed steed back into control again!
Finally, his horse responded to his determined handling of the reins and his firm voice calling out loudly to it, with his commanding tone, and gradually slowed its pace again to a gentle trot. His lady sighed in relief and was so grateful to her handsome beau for saving her life this night!
The rest of their ride continued on uneventfully, the horse's harness jingling merrily as they wended their way along the canopied roadway until they finally reached the little log cabin that was her parents home, nestled snugly in the field beside the creek, under the bright moonshine; and this night that could have ended so tragically, instead became the happiest night of her life(!), for this was the night her strong, handsome beau asked her to marry him … and she said YES!
And so happy that she did! For this happy couple was none other than my grandparents, Charley and Bertha Sherrill!
Grandma related this story to me many years later when she was in her 80s and I was just a very little girl, and I have treasured it ever since!
It truly happened, and the old inn that I've described here, was none other than the old Crab Orchard Inn, built in 1828, and located at the top of Crusher Hill (which is above the present-day ball diamond next to Liberty Market in Crab Orchard) and the occasion was a New Year's Eve party that was held there on Dec. 31, 1897.
They married shortly after this on March 6, 1898, and went on to live a long and fruitful life, raising seven children, with their youngest daughter, Helen, becoming my wonderful mother, Helen Lane.
Helen went on to immortalize her Dad when she learned his nature-wise, weather predicting methods, that basically put her and Crab Orchard on the map when the world came knocking at her door, after she hit the nail on the head, in predicting the awful winter of 1959-’60!
Mama was a community correspondent, writing Crab Orchard News for the Crossville Chronicle, and just happened to casually mention in her article that we had all better be ready for a bad winter for she had counted 12 early morning fogs in August and, according to her Dad, every early morning fog in August, counts for a snow during winter.
Well, it was a record-breaking winter that year with over 60 inches of total snow accumulation that fell over the duration of the winter!
The editor of the Crossville Chronicle at the time, Donald Brookhart, remembered her prediction and put it on the front page of his newspaper, reminding his readers of her prediction and that they had been warned! The Nashville Tennessean got wind of it and they did an article about her, too, on the front page of their paper. And the rest, as they say, is history!
Mama went on to appear in everything from Life Magazine, to Time Magazine, Stars and Stripes, Chicago Sun Times, Southern Living and was even on the Today Show back in 1979 and was invited to be on The Johnny Carson Show back in the 1960s and also the David Letterman Show and Regis & Kathie Lee's show in the 1990s, which she wasn't able to do, due to sickness, but what an honor!
She was also interviewed on television many times over the years, from TV stations in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville, and countless other radio stations and newspapers, nationwide, contacted her consistently for the next 40 years, until her death in 2000.
And to think it all started with this beautiful young couple and a moonlit proposal one starry, cold night in 1897! So thankful for them all!
Many years ago Mama wrote a beautiful poem in tribute to her folks and the wonderful home they had provided for them, and I'd like to share it with you, for Mama can tell it much better than I ever could, and I believe her beautiful words of prose will cheer and comfort you just as they have me over the years since her death.
Memories of the Old Homeplace
By Helen Lane
An old house stands alone an old
Beside the country road
The winter winds blow icy cold
And heap their wintry load
No more the rooms with laughter ring
Nor strikes the clock at night
No more the china cupboard gleams
Nor glows the pot-bellied stove's light
The old home beside the road
Through empty hours you see
The trees are bare and dead the flowers
You are not dead to me
For Mama walks the backyard path
And her dahlias blossom there
While dew sparkles on the garden plants
With morning freshness rare
From out the open kitchen door
Drifts forth the coffee's smell
The pot still sits beside her plate
I know its aroma well
Her lilacs still bloom beside the gate
I hear the churn make thumping sounds
With flocks of thickening cream
Her butter's artful mounds
Dad's hearty voice comes echoing back
From among the shocks of hay
As he leaned on the old pitchfork to take
A drink of water from his jug
Or a sandwich from his sack
And at night when the moon is pale
It lightens up the barren flue
I can see the mantel's shining plate
Where the Bible was read so true
Ah, old house where my parents lived
And romance had a part
You are not gone beyond recall
Your memories still linger and live in my heart
And now in the self-same tradition of my mother, and her dad, and our other Sherrill forebears before them, I'd like to share my nature observations with you regarding the upcoming winter weather prediction.
Folks, it looks like it's stacking up to be a hard winter! All the signs sure seem to be pointing to it, for we counted seven early-morning fogs in August, with five of those being heavy!
And still others in different parts of the county and state have counted even more, so it's looking like it could be a snowy winter!
Also, I have had numerous reports from folks all over the region who have stated that many hornets nests have been spotted built close to the ground, which is also a sign of a hard winter. I myself had a hornets nest in my field that was built only about 4 feet from the ground.
Additionally, we have a heavy mast crop this year, too, of hickory nuts with the hulls on the hickory nuts being very thick, too, which is also a bad winter indicator.
There's also been a bountiful harvest of fruits such as apples, pears, pumpkins and berries this year, which is also a hard winter indicator.
Too, the cornhusks are thick on corn this year, as well, which is another sign of a bad winter to come.
The woolly worms have also been crawling and, while I haven't seen a lot of them, still the majority of ones being spotted are solid black, which means the winter is to be harsh from beginning to end. Others have also spotted ones that were black on both ends and brown in the middle, which indicates a hard beginning and ending to winter with a lull, or mild spell, in between. Either way, looks like we are in for it!
Too, one of Mama's other signs she watched for in August was the myriad of spider webs that the dew will reveal during early morning walks when she would be outside checking the morning fogs, and I sure noticed that there were many of those this past August that my husband and I spotted in our yard. I told him then that “for sure, this is one of Mama's harsh winter signs.”
The holly and dogwood berries are really heavy this year, too, which along with the mast crop is another hard winter sign, and the persimmon seeds are revealing spoons this year which mean shoveling snow! Forks mean a mild winter, and knives mean cutting winds, or cold, in other words. But my weather watchers have reported spoons for this year, so better watch out for snow!
Another sign of a bad winter is if ant hills are built high, and I've noticed that the ant hills in and around our driveway and yard have been particularly high and have commented on it several times to my husband this summer when we would be out strolling in the yard and/or driveway.
Additionally, the old traditional dog day that my mother and her parents always observed, was on July 25. The observation was that if it rains, even if it's only just a sprinkle, on the first day of dog days, then it will rain every day (even if it is only a sprinkle) every day thereafter for the next 40 days. And if it doesn't rain on the first day of dog days, then it won't rain at all for the next 40 days, signifying a hot, dry ending to summer.
Well, this year it did rain on July 25, and we had rain every day until the end of dog days!
Another old saying of Mama's and her parents was to be watchful for snakes during dog days, for they are shedding their skin then, and they can't see good, so they'll strike at anything that moves, or “they'll strike blind” is the way Mama put it, so you have to be watchful for them!
And regarding the rainy end to summer this year, I heard on the news the other day where they said that there has been 58 inches of rain since Jan. 1 this year, and that if it keeps going we're liable to beat the record of 60-plus inches, which would make it the rainiest year on record since they began keeping weather records 130 years ago!
So it will be interesting to see what kind of winter we get as a follow-up to that kind of weather-breaking anomaly!
And finally, we heard our first katydid on July 15, so look for frost on or near Oct. 15 this year.
Also, I was looking back through some of my mother's old articles from years past and came across a couple of interesting tidbits of things that she shared, and she mentions the Queen of the Meadow that blooms in August and how beautiful it is. It's the tall plumy mauvish-pink bloom that towers over everything else in the meadow, thus the reason for its name.
She always said that her dad said “it was a good kidney medicine” and that it was used by the Indians. She also mentioned mullein that has “a soft, velvet green leaf and a bloom stalk that sometimes reaches a height of 4 to 6 feet and is good for asthma and colds. Mix Life Everlasting (we called it rabbit tobacco when I was a kid) with it. Dad would boil this up together in the winter and put a little rock candy in it so it wouldn't taste so bad.”
Back then, there was no hospital here, and doctors were few and far between, so the mountain people had to learn to doctor themselves using mountain herbs to treat everything from snake bite to colic.
She also mentioned in reference to the Blizzard of ’93 that “we had a lot of snow in 1960, but nothing compared to this past one. My mother was 6 years old in the Blizzard of 1888, but she could remember how the fence posts were all covered up.”
She said too that “March is always a wild weather month. On March 29, 1929, we had a terrible flood that almost washed our new bridge away on Daddy's Creek on Hwy. 70 E. (it was built in 1928). It washed away what is known as Center's bridge (which is in Chestnut Hill community). We have always had crazy weather here on the Plateau.”
Additionally, she mentioned that "when I was about 2 or 3 years old (early 1920s) my parents went to a square dance at the Easterly Bridge (which also washed away in the flood of 1929). They danced all day with their overcoats on the Fourth of July and it spit snow all day!”
(Note: Easterly Bridge was located where the present-day I-40 bridges span Daddy's Creek next to the westbound rest area near Crab Orchard and was also close to the area where Grandma's little log cabin childhood home was located, in a field, just east of Daddy's Creek.)
So, folks, although we don't always have the rough winters of yesteryear, the weather can still get pretty crazy here on the Plateau as evidenced by the ice storm that we had a few years back! That one was one for the record books, and I think even my mother would've been shocked by it! The wind roared through our trees like I have never heard before and every twig was coated in ice almost 1/2-inch thick and a crackle-type ice coated the ground and would crunch under your feet when you attempted to walk on it, yet never completely break through.
Plus, the trees, being coated in such ice, would make a clacking sound, as the branches rubbed together, such as I had never heard before! And the temperature was so cold that we about froze, for our electricity went out, and was off for a week, and we had to go stay with our daughter during that time. Strangest weather occurrence I have ever experienced and I sure don't care to repeat it!
So better load up on supplies and get ready, for old man winter is right around the corner and it's stacking up to be a hard one, according to the signs of nature!
Happy Fall, Y’all!