Always Carry a Tomato in Your Pocket Book

Road tripping southern style- Southern Appalachian style, actually. Back in the 1970s, families traveled together- generally crammed into one huge car. In the days before minivans and SUVs, we kids even sat on each others’ laps at times.  A seatbelt was an object that served no purpose other than to absorb summer heat and then burn your thigh as you slowly melted into those bumpy plastic seat covers. I remember a few times I rode in back of a station wagon, rolling side to side on hairpin curves as we made our way down some long-forgotten two-lane road to visit distant relatives or on some other glorious adventure that got us off the mountain for a while.

Fast food might as well have not existed back in those days. McDonald’s was a very rare treat. I still remember the few times I ate there with my mama, sitting outside at a round concrete table, shaded by a huge, round metal umbrella-thing that appeared to be the yellow and red cap of some psychedelic mushroom. We sat in the Georgia sun among the other mushroom tables, our paper-wrapped cheeseburgers a delicacy to be savored.These trips were rare. Not because of the money spent– we really weren’t hurting financially. It was because eating lunch at a fast food place was disdained among Appalachian culture as a pure waste. Decent people did not blow their money on a road stand hamburger. This was pure foolishness. Good people ate at home or, if necessity demanded, at one of the many roadside picnic areas that dotted the landscape at that time.

You remember those places. They sat back under the pines just around every curve on every highway and backroad across the American south. Round or rectangular concrete tables and benches heavy enough to withstand tornado winds. No kidding- watch any tornado footage you can find. You see trees, transfer trucks, houses all being tossed around like children’s toys in a trailer bedroom. But do you ever see any of those old-school picnic tables flying in that footage? Nope. I rest my case. Those tables sat there in the shade, surrounded by kudzu. If we were lucky, there would be a small creek to play in. Sometimes there was a look-off or maybe a small walking trail. We often met other families that had also stopped off for lunch on their way to or from small towns and communities scattered about the south.

Mama had this old, straw picnic basket. It was oval with a hinged lid, deep enough to carry enough food for a trip to the Smokies or that holy grail of southern road trips- Panama City Beach. It held an entire loaf of bread, paper plates, plastic cutlery, chips, peanut butter, homemade jelly (we didn’t know you could even buy that stuff in a store back then), homemade pickles, tiny cardboard containers of salt and pepper…and anything else she and MawMaw thought we might need. Cold items were kept in an old cooler waiting by the picnic basket in a trunk large enough to store three dead bodies (not that we did).

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 1969

Sure enough, as we all pulled in and began unpacking, MawMaw would reach into her pocketbook and say, “I brought a tomato!”  (That word is pronounced “Tuh- MAY-tuh”, by the way. There is no long o sound anywhere in the word. If you put an “o” in tomato, you automatically brand yourself as an outsider, unworthy of consideration. Folks will listen to you politely then cast sidelong glances at each other when you aren’t watching. Nothing you say will be taken seriously. Watch those long o’s.) Mawmaw grew her own tomatoes in the family garden. (Don’t get me started on that subject). The tomatoes she carried held no resemblance whatsoever to the mealy pinkish objects found on grocery store shelves today. These tomatoes were bright red, meaty and round- and I detested them on sight. The grown-ups slathered loads of JFG mayonnaise onto slices of light bread, added a slice or two of the aforementioned tomato, and topped it off with copious amounts of salt and pepper. This sandwich, by the way, is one of the signature delicacies of American South.

I pulled the crusts off my cheese sandwich and bargained for more chips while MawMaw shook her head at my pitiful lunch. A kid that didn’t eat tomatoes- it just wasn’t normal. In all likelihood, this was an early symptom of some abnormal defect that would one day lead to my drooling in public while I peddled crafts made from yarn and bottle caps. No telling where it might lead.

Looking back, these impromptu picnics were such a common part of my childhood that I gave them little consideration. They were simply a part of daily life. We carried these same picnic lunches on trips to Canyonland Park and Lake Winnie as well as on day-long shopping trips. Mama and MawMaw would no more have considered buying food at these places than they would have considered wearing pants to church.

When my Mama called to make a vacation reservation, the first thing she asked about the room as, “Does it have a kitchenette?”. We stayed at small, family-run motels and motor courts- another rapidly disappearing remnant of the southern way of life. The aforementioned picnic basket held court upon a table in some time roadside room, holding whatever food and snacks we might need. Local restaurants and snack bars were studiously ignored as the frivolous things they were. If we kids ever questioned it, I don’t remember. We were too busy jumping in the waves of the Gulf of Mexico or running about the family campsite in the Great Smokies having fun. We were surrounded by family- Mawmaw, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Life was good and we were loved. We didn’t know life could be any other way back then.

MawMaw holding a Coca Cola and a (most likely) tomato sandwich, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 1969

Today, a picnic is as much a novelty to my child as those McDonalds trips of long ago were to me. We buckle into our SUV and purchase our road trip meals from the window of some Taco Bell that we pass along the way. However, at least once on each trip into the Great Smokies National Park, we pull over into some picnic area. I unload that same picnic basket my Mama carried back in the day. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.) My daughter pulls the crust from her sandwich as I, more likely than not, pull out a tomato.

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The Sad Disappearance of Ottie Cline Powell


November 9, 1891 dawned dreary and cold, with a promise of rain. Dark clouds gathered over the community of Dancing Creek in Amherst County, Virginia. The children of Rev. Ed and Emma Belle Powell set out for school, including the youngest, Ottie Cline. Ottie, who was a few days away from his 5th birthday, said good-bye to his mom then stopped where his father was husking corn and asked if he might skip school that day and stay with his father. Being a responsible parent, Reverend Powell told Ottie he should go on to school. It would be the last time her ever saw Ottie alive.

Miss Nannie Gilbert, the teacher in the one -room log school house then known as Bluff Mountain, was running short on kindling. A three- inch snow and ensuing cold snap the week before had depleted her sources. At recess that day, she instructed her students to each bring back one arm load of wood to use in the school’s wood stove. The girls took their five-minute recess first. After they returned, the boys set out. Young Ottie trailed behind, struggling to gather wood behind the older boys. The path the boys took behind the school lead through a dense forest of chestnut, oak, and pine. By the time Ottie has gathered his wood, the older boys had returned to the school. Little Ottie set out alone, thinking he was following the boys back to the school. Unfortunately, he had gone the wrong way.

About 20 minutes passed before Miss Nannie Gilbert realized Ottie had not returned. In those days, it was the job of older students to watch over the younger. She had assumed he returned with the older boys. When she realized he was missing, all the children set out to find him.

When they could not find Ottie, they were sent to gather parents and neighbors to help search. In spite of their efforts, Ottie could not be found.  An evening rain began to fall. An ice storm was brewing over the community of Dancing Creek.  Searchers found the place where Ottie had dropped his load of kindling, but still could not find the little boy. As they searched and called, a Mr. Henry Wood set his dog out on Ottie’s trail. The dog and Ottie were fond of one another and the dog set out readily after the little boy’s scent. The dog headed up the ridge and was gone for a very long time. (Mr. Wood wondered later if the dog had not actually gone to the little boy.) Around 10 pm that night, the search ended.

Newspapers all over the area carried stories of the little boy’s disappearance. Around 1500 volunteers came to help in the search. They walked in circles surrounding the school in an area that got wider and wider. Still. Ottie was never found. No one searched the old Indian trails leading up Bluff Mountain. The trail was so steep, it was thought no child could ever climb that high.

Reverend Powell hired a detective. After two weeks, the detective returned, saying he could find no trace of Ottie. Undaunted, Reverend Powell offered a reward for his son to be returned alive. Throughout that long snowy winter, Reverend Powell never gave up hope of his son’s return.

On April 3, 1892, a party of hunters on Bluff Mountain followed their barking dog along an old trail through the forest. They found the dog beside the body of a young boy. They knew immediately that they had found Ottie Cline Powell. He lay curled as if asleep, still wearing his brown hat. His pants were full of holes, torn by the briars and brambles as the little boy struggled along the trail trying to return to school. His feet were missing, evidently taken by wild animals.

Two hunters set off down the mountain with the news, while the others remained behind with the body. The Reverend stopped his sermon as the hunters entered the church house that day, informing him that his boy had been found. Reverend Powell threw up his arms and began thanking and praising God for answering his prayers that his boy be found.

Ottie was brought down the mountain at last. It was determined, after examining the contents of Ottie,s stomach (three chestnuts, undigested, eaten at recess that day) that Ottie had died that first evening of his disappearance. He had collapsed from exhaustion and fallen asleep beneath a large tree as the rain began, and had never awakened. At long last, Little Ottie was laid to rest in a local cemetery.

Emma Belle Powell became depressed at the loss of her youngest child. He grief began to threaten her health, so her husband had Ottie’s casket exhumed and reburied near their home. He thought that, since Emma Belle could now look out the window and see Ottie’s grave, she might find comfort. However, she only became worse.

Finally, the family moved to a new home near an intersection where Reverend Powell opened up a general store. Emma Belle never recovered, and eventually succumbed to her grief in 1897. She never got over losing her Ottie.

In 1925, a teacher from Buena Vista, J.B. Huffman interviewed Ottie’s family members and older members of the community in order to write a book about Ottie’s death. He was so touched by the tale that he built a wooden cross form, filled it with concrete and , when it was set, hauled it up Bluff Mountain to the site of Ottie’s death. Here it remained for 43 years.

As more travelers and tourists began to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail, a new interest was generated in Ottie’s story. In 1968, Huffman used the proceeds from the sales of his book to purchase a new memorial for Ottie. This monument still stands today. There are a couple of errors on the plaque, however. It reads:







For many years, hikers on Bluff Mountain have told tales of encountering the ghost of Ottie Cline Powell. A Journal at nearby Punchbowl Shelter holds many tales of a “brat” child ghost that poked them with sticks in their sleep.

One 2009 hiker left a tale of his encounter with Ottie. The hiker heard crying around 10 pm, but assumed it was a wild animal. Later, he was awaked by a loud thunderstorm. In two consecutive flashes of lightning, he saw a young boy crouched in the corner of the shelter. When he grabbed his flashlight and shined it in the corner, the boy was gone.  The next day, he found all his clothes removed from his backpack and folded into neat little squares. On top of the clothes was a small pile of chestnuts.

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Smoky Mountain Ghosts Part 1


I’ve been doing some research on ghosts of the great Smoky Mountains National Park. I know there are some so-called “haunted tours” in the surrounding towns. I’ve made it pretty plain in earlier posts where I stand on these. However, as old and mysterious as these mountains are, you just know there have to be some great hauntings here.

I’ve been coming here all my life. These mountains are like a second home (although I’m not lost on the fact that thousands of people lost their very homes in order to make this place possible). These mountains are old… they exist in a space and time all their own. They have an unsurpassed beauty that defies mere words. I have no patience for the mindless morons who never venture outside the towns of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge and yet insist they have visited the smokies. Indeed, they have not. They may have seen them in the distance, but that is all.

If someone tells you they have been to Gatlinburg, but then say they don’t know anything about Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail..well, dear, they haven’t been to the Smokies. Speaking of Roaring Fork…I’ve been reading up on a ghost here named Lucy. Supposedly, she died in a fire around 1909. They say she tries to get a ride with unsuspecting visitors. She is barefoot and gives off an unusual warmth.

Ther road through Roaring Fork where Lucy is said to ask for rides from usnsupecting tavelers.
Scene near the mill on Roaring Fork

I hear there is a little girl ghost on Mt LeConte that is seen standing at the foot of visitor’s beds at exactly 3:33am. Why 3:33? I’ve read that 3:15 is the most powerful time of night- the time when the veil betewen our world and the spirit world is thinnest. But 3:33? Maybe this is the time she died?

What about Cades Cove? I love to come here on “off” days of “off” seasons- otherwise it is so crowded one can scarcely breathe, much less get a feel and appreciation for the place. I want to camp here, but the waiting list is long, and I’m the spontaneous sort on those matters…I’ve read about a man named Basil Estep that was struck by lightning in his own bed at night. This wasn’t a freak accident- it was the revenge of his former wife’s ghost. You see, she was born during a thunderstorm and feared both storms and sleeping in iron beds. When Basil remarried, the wife’s ghost couldn’t bear him sleeping with the new wife under one of her quilts- and on an iron bed at that! So when poor Basil met his end in such a way, well, it was thought to be fitting I suppose.

There are some interesting paranormal photos taken in Cades Code that are circulating on the internet. Whether or not they ar authentic, I can’t say. I take these things with a healthy dose of speculation. I’d love to hear more about the hauntings of Cades Cove, if anyone has some stories they’d like to share.

Church in Cataloochee

If Cataloochee isn’t haunted, well, I’d be greatly disappointed. The very road from Cosby to Cataloochee takes you back at least 150 years. Honestly…you’re rolling along on a narrow road seeing nothing but mountains and forests for, oh, about 28 miles or so..This is an awesome way to let your kids see the wonder and beauty of this place. (Just be sure they potty before you leave and pack snacks…) I can just imagine traveling this road at night. No telling who (or what) you might meet.

The road through Cataloochee

I remember walking a few miles out to a beautiful white church in Little Catalochee once. We passed old home places, crossed some creeks, saw a few old apple trees here and there- reminders of the pioneers that once called this place home.Being me, I had to wonder if any spirits remain. In the dead of night does a lone horseman walk soundlessly down this old road? Do children from another time play in the creek?

The road to Cataloochee helps emphasize to the casual visitor how remote the mountains actually are. Their rugged isolation is what preserved so much of the culture here long after it was obliterated in the rest of the country. The people who settled here brought their beliefs and practices from their homelands- Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and these were mingled with the Cherokee who had been here for years before the white man. The Cherokee revered these mountains as a magical place. Their legends of the Little People and the spirits that roamed these mountains were here before the first white man ventured here.

hillside cemetery in Cataloochee

I hope to gather stories from this area- both of the public paces (like Lydia of the Greenbrier Restaurant) and personal stories. Have you ever experienced anything you can’t explain while you were visiting the Smokies?

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