Back to the Index LIFE AND CUSTOMS IN OLDEN TIMES Back to the Index

The first settlers to come to the mountains of what is now Graham County followed the trails made by buffalo, and later used by the Indians. They came on foot or on horseback, leading pack mules or horses loaded with clothing and household goods. A few tried to use sleds or wagons to carry possessions. It is reported that when John Hyde was moving his family here it took six men to hold the wagon in the trails over the mountains. These early settlers brought with them only those articles that were important for their survival in a wilderness land. These articles usually consisted of a few bedclothes and a very few pieces of clothing other than those they were wearing. They also brought some cooking utensils including a wooden tray for mixing cornbread, an iron pot, and a pair of pothooks, occasionally a few pieces of pewter. When possible, tools for cutting trees, building houses, and cultivating the new lands were included in their cargo. Fruit and vegetable seeds were among the necessities for the new life; a few brought young fruit trees.

When the Dentons arrived in the Santeetlah section from Polk County, Tennessee in 1879 they built a small lean-to with a dirt floor against a huge chestnut log. The chestnut log was carved out enabling the family to use the log for storage area. The family occupied this provisional structure until a cabin could be built. The family had arrived with a cow and 50 cents in money. They borrowed a mule and began to clear a farm from the wilderness.

A typical log cabin as used by early settlers in Graham County

The first task upon arrival was the selection of a home site. The earliest style of architecture in Graham County was, as would be expected, the log cabin made originally with wooden pins but later with nails. Once the cabin site was chosen all the men in the new community would begin cutting trees, hewing each to a flat surface on two or more sides, and proceed with the house raising. Usually the cabin was a crude structure, neither beautiful nor spacious. The cabin usually contained two rooms, a huge living room and a kitchen. The cracks in the walls were chinked and daubed with clay mortar. Each cabin also had a loft that could be used either for sleeping or storage depending upon individual family needs. The loft was entered from the living room through a scuttle hole in the ceiling by climbing a simple ladder attached to the wall. The roof was made of boards about three feet long, which the settler split from a choice log using a wooden maul and froe. The chimney was built of native stone with red clay mortar. It was not unusual for the fireplace to be six or eight feet wide. Logs as big as the man-of-the-house could carry were used with smaller wood and sticks mixed in between for kindling. The fireplace was not only the source of heat but also the means for family cooking. The floor, tables, window shutters, and door shutters were made of puncheons - trees cut open in the middle, hewn and jointed with a remarkable degree of skill in craftsmanship. All furniture was crude and simple, yet strong and durable. The early settlers knew how to improvise, being quick to use any type of crate or keg as a substitute piece of furniture as well as use of wall plates and windowsills for shelf space. A must in every household was the trusted flintlock or caplock rifle placed above the entrance door on two forked sticks. The gun offered the pioneer protection and a ready supply of meat for the family.

A spring, sometimes located several hundred yards from the cabin furnished the family water supply and served as refrigerator for milk and butter, and any other item that needed to be cooled. Often the cabin sat on higher elevation with the spring at the foot of the hill. Carrying water was a chore routinely performed by the women and children.

The structure of the early home varied considerably depending upon the remoteness of location and time. With the coming of the sawmill between the Civil War and the close of the century, most homes were constructed of lumber rather than hewn logs.

Once the settler was established in a dwelling which provided at least some degree of warmth and protection to his family, greater attention was given to the provision of food for the family by the cultivation of crops. The pioneer farmed, hunted, fished, and bartered. The woods were full of buffalo, elk, deer, bear, raccoons, squirrels, etc. Bee trees furnished honey in abundance requiring only that the pioneer find the tree and take the honey. Buffalo and deer hides were taken by wagons to Knoxville where they were traded for supplies. The pioneer farmer was largely self-sufficient and not dependent upon a commercial economy. When the pioneer went to Knoxville or other commercial center, he returned loaded with a year's supply of coffee, salt, sugar, ammunition, and other such items that were difficult to secure at home. Occasionally a bolt of silk cloth would be brought to the lady of the house for making a Sunday dress.

Our early pioneer ancestors were largely dependant upon their own skill in making clothes, tools, and furniture. They spun, wove, knitted, built mills, tanned hides, made rope, dyes, candles, soap, shoes, bee gums, plows, wagons, sleds, cradles, ladles, chairs, and many other practical things.

Gradually each farm family, as it prospered, became a small independent village of its own. Many buildings comprised the family complex: farm house, barns, smoke house, spring house, wood shed, crib, and various sundry other buildings in keeping with any specific talent or skills possessed. Often the oldest son simply moved up a nearby hollow and repeated the same process.

Josh, Nan, and Delmas Crisp on a buggy ride.

The old water gristmill has played its day in this country. One hundred years ago, the gristmill was as necessary to the settlers as the oven, skillets, farm tools, and spinning wheels. A good mill site was as important in establishing a new community as the land. Most of these mills were made to last. Millwrights could be hired to supervise the construction of the mill. The miller was usually a highly respected member of the community. While the men waited for the corn to be ground, they whittled, told jokes, and talked politics and religion. There at the old mill they fought the Civil War again. Sometimes tempers flared and fights broke out. The history of the old mill gives us fascinating clues to the lives of our ancestors.

Burt Wiggins Grist Mill on Tallulah

Many of the early methods of farming used by the early settlers were acquired from the Indians. The practice of killing trees by girdling or deadening was copied from the Indians. Girdling was the process of cutting a ring completely around the tree trunk. Trees deadened at the right time of the year would die immediately and the farmer was not bothered with the new sprouts, which often grew up around a tree stump in cutting. These dead trees were a source of dry wood for kindling in fireplaces. Rails for fences, boards for roofing, and palings to enclose the garden plot were also split from these dead trees as well as various types of handles for tools. If the dead trees were not removed corn could still be grown among the standing trees, as the dead trees did not shade enough to do serious damage to the crop.

The girdling process of clearing land was slow, therefore, many pioneers preferred to cut down the trees immediately. The trees were then trimmed and cut into convenient lengths for handling. When time for piling of the logs arrived, the farmer announced a "log rolling." All the neighbors would arrive early with handspikes to help pile the logs in great heaps for burning. The "log rolling" was a cooperative enterprise in which everyone participated ungrudgingly without charge. The occasion was not only helpful as a source of a labor supply but also a time of great merriment for the entire community. With the first stages of early clearing, the farmer did "patch" farming near the cabin. Many farmers today still speak of a "patch" of corn or other crops. The farmer gradually and systematically extended the patches into wider fields by each year, extending his farming into a new area known as a "new ground."

The pioneer farmer likewise copied the Indian in such practices as planting corn three feet between rows, and three feet between hills, with several grains in each hill. Practically all early settlers adopted the practice of digging up hills about corn and other crops. Many of the older farmers still resist level cultivation and insisted upon practicing the Indian method in the county today.

Many of the common foods we take for granted today were inherited from the Cherokee. Among those foods for which we are indebted to the Indians are corn, pumpkin, squash, peppers, strawberries, and grapes. Lastly we were given the tobacco plant the production of which has long been vital to the economy of the state.

Hogs thrived in large numbers in olden times occupying the woodland or the open range. Crops were fenced for protection while the range remained open. Hogs roamed at will over these mountains growing into good porkers by hog killing time. These ridge runners were of little expense to the pioneer farmer as they fattened on chestnuts, acorns, etc. which were in abundance in the forestlands. Seldom did the farmer see his hogs from early spring until killing time.

It was a few years before the settlers began to raise sheep for food and clothing. They built their own looms, spinning wheels, reels, winding blades, and warping bars. The women wove the cloth; the men sheared the sheep by hand. Our ancestors proved themselves proficient in this process as in all other challenges presented by early life.

Sheep and hogs were often victims of the neighbor's dogs, a fact that was disruptive of harmonious community living. As the wilderness decreased and cultivated areas expanded, the hog lost his freedom and was confined to the farmer's sty. However, the open range for cattle continued for many years. Not until the 1940's was a no fence law enacted in the county.

The early settlers believed that all work and no play did indeed make Jack a dull boy. The recreational and social life as alluded to earlier was often connected with work and served as motivation or celebration of work completed. The women had their quilting bees mixed with small talk and pleasantries. The corn huskings served as the motivational means for getting the youth to shuck the year's corn crop. If a mixed group was unmixed, a red ear simply signified good luck to the finder. A feast in celebration of the new ground that had been gained followed the log rolling. Likewise the house raising was a time to rejoice in the acquiring of a new home. Children played with the yarn ball or "ant'ny over." Children improvised and created their own games usually involving much running and physical activities.

Recreation for genteel women

Pioneer women at a quilting party

Among the favorite socials was the old traditional folk dances or square dances as referred to in this region. The dance might climax the log rolling or corn husking. Other times the finale might be picking and singing.

Noted for excitement and thrills in early days were the cockfights. Despite difficulty in travel, the early settler would travel for miles to witness or engage in cock fighting. The practice of cock fighting no doubt was brought over from England. However, the cock-fighting scene was not always the proper place to be, as much betting and drinking often accompanied the event resulting in fights. Champion cocks were bred for the occasion and might be entered in the contest in their natural state or equipped with metal spurs. Cock fighting has long been outlawed in North Carolina but sometimes is disguised as the less harmful "rooster fighting." Various stories are told also of a crowd gathering to witness a fistfight at the local store or Courthouse Square. If a person earned a name as a good fighter, someone would challenge him. John Denton was supposedly very proficient in the art of fighting. The early settlers lived a rugged life that was often reflected in their recreational and social activities. Actions that appear crude and even violent today were acceptable to the hard working pioneer.

Taffy pulling was popular among the boys and girls of years past, often serving as the prelude to courtship. The girl who had invited guests would put large kettles of the sugar mixture on the fire to boil. While the taffy was boiling, boys and girls played games such as spin the plate, fruit basket, thimble, or post office. When the sugar had boiled down, it was poured into the plate to cool. When it had cooled sufficiently sweethearts paired off and began pulling the mixture out of saucers. They pulled the taffy into ropes. Sometimes they pulled and patted the taffy into many different shapes. Old timers say that it was all great fun and that many lasting friendships were built in this manner.

Boiling sugar for taffy candy

Youths at a taffy pull

Although we might like to portray early life in our county as a life genteel and puritan in character, this has not always been the case. We are told that Graham County had its share of moonshiners, bootleggers, blockaders, or whatever one chooses to label them. The origin of the term moonshiner is that the early practitioners restricted their working hours to nighttime, using the light of the moon, for security reasons. Bootlegger described the method of concealment used by peddlers of the contraband bottles in their boot tops. Blockader supposedly was derived from the old English practice of running the blockade to avoid payment of tax on whiskey. The battle of the moonshiner and revenuer or sheriff is legendary. Some of our old-timers are well versed in the habits, techniques, and processes of the moonshiner; however, this writer lacks time and knowledge to include an in-depth study of it.

Sam Birchfield, veteran moonshiner of Graham County, 1910

An outing at Hooper Bald

Vital to life in the early days of our county was the village blacksmith. The blacksmith was a skilled craftsman with multiple talents. He put shoes on the horse, built and repaired wagons, and designed and created most of the tools for farm and home use. As we are dependent upon the auto mechanic and various machinists today, early settlers were dependent upon the blacksmith. Many of his services were without remuneration and often little gratitude. One of the most memorable blacksmiths of our county was John B. Brooks, father of Minnie Dula. His shops in Robbinsville served a wide area for many years. Our hats off to blacksmiths of yesteryear, another part of our heritage that is fading into the past.