The Hoopers and McGuires

From the book “Valley So Wild” by Alberta and Carson Brewer, 1975

No bald in the Southern Appalachians has a more improbable history than Hooper. In the more than 130 years of white-man history, it has been reachable only by foot, horse, wagon, or jeep. Yet it had the first bathtubs in Graham County. The first Angus cattle in Western North Carolina fattened on its wild grass. Fourteen Russian wild boars arrived there in 1912 and the problems and pleasures caused by their progeny will make Hooper Bald remembered for generations.

About a mile east of the Tennessee line, Hooper towers 5,429 feet above sea level. Robbinsville, the closest town, is about ten air miles to the east and Andrews is about twelve miles southeast. The bald is an irregular rectangle of about 15 acres. Wild strawberries ripen there in late June or early July. Blueberries follow in fabulous numbers in August.

It was on Hooper, in 1910 or '11 (memories vary) that George Gordon Moore started building an unusual game preserve. Moore lived in Michigan, New York, California, and, briefly, on Hooper. He was a "plunger," a man "rich today and poor tomorrow," say those who knew him. He represented English capitalists who invested in American enterprises. He learned about Hooper while serving an English group that was financing a logging venture in the Carolina Mountains. He conceived the idea of the game preserve and hunting lodge, where he intended to entertain and impress his wealthy associates.

He hired several mountain men to build the lodge and fence the preserve. Among them were brothers Frank and Dave Swan and an Andrews, N.C., Irishman, Garland McGuire, called "Cotton" because of his very blond hair.

They built a log lodge 90 feet long and half that wide, with 10 bedrooms, two baths, dining room, and kitchen. A 10-foot hallway ran the length of the building between two rows of bedrooms and intersected a 20-foot-wide lobby through the middle of the building. The lodge was roofed with oak shingles and floored with chestnut puncheons.

"People came far and near to see those bathtubs, commodes and lavatories," one resident recalled. These were new to Graham County.

The wild boar pigs, from the Ural Mountains, twelve sows and two males, weighing only about 50 pounds each, along with four Western bison, arrived by rail at Andrews in April 1912. Frank Swan and his helpers loaded the animals into six wagons, each pulled by four oxen.

"We headed over a rough dirt track for Hooper Bald by way of Hanging Dog and the old Jap Fain place," said Swan. "It took us three days."

Before fall, four more bison, twelve elk, 34 black and cinnamon bears, eight Western mule deer, 150 wild turkeys, and several exotic pheasants also arrived.

Nearly nothing went as Moore planned. The bears had been in captivity so long they had become somewhat dependent on man. Some climbed the fence and went down the mountains to raid gardens near Robbinsville. Farmers killed some and Frank Swan and McGuire recaptured others. "Cotton" had become manager of the preserve.

Poachers got some of the pheasants and turkeys. Swan didn't know what happened to the mule deer, but the herd dwindled. The buffalo did not thrive. They were not of the woods bison strain that earlier roamed here. The buffalo cows bore few calves and only two calves lived beyond calf-hood.

The temperature sank to 35 degrees below zero in 1917, bursting the plumbing and killing several domestic hogs.

Meanwhile, Moore was having second thoughts. His rich friends were not eager to visit. He came only a few times himself and his stays were brief. He sometimes brought enough baggage to fill a wagon. Cotton hauled it over the narrow, rocky road and got Moore ensconced for a long stay, only to learn the next day that Moore had changed his mind. Back down the mountains went the baggage.

Moore's last visit was in about 1922. At one of the down points of his up-and-down career, he failed to pay Cotton, and Cotton went to New York to see him. Moore then deeded the entire preserve to Cotton, except the land, which Moore had only leased from its owners.

But Hooper Bald history began long before Moore heard of it and lasted long after he left. Enos C. Hooper brought his wife Margaret and several strapping sons from Tennessee to Graham County's West Buffalo Creek near 1840, two years after the Indian removal opened the area to settlement. Hooper cattle were first to graze on the bald, high above the Hooper home, and thus the bald received its name.

Wolves, panthers, and deer roamed this wilderness then. Hooper descendants pass down the word that the woods bison also was still there then, though most authorities say this animal was gone from east of the Mississippi by then. If any did remain, there is no likelier place for them than this wilderness of the Snowbirds and the Unicoi.

A Hooper family story involves sons of old Enos who were herding or hunting near the bald. They butchered a steer, lodged it in a tree crotch and camped some distance from it that night. Savage sounds from the direction of the carcass disturbed their sleep. Having no lantern, they feared to investigate. The steer was gone the next morning. The wolves didn't leave so much as a hair.

Rial Hooper, a son of Enos, begat among others, Sim Hooper. Sim brought the first Angus cattle to the region about 1900, and they grew round and fat on mountain grass. Sim also taught school, and his pupils were Cherokee children.

Among Sim's children is a daughter Mabel. When Mabel Hooper was eleven and Cotton McGuire was 21, they traveled the same road up West Buffalo Creek, she driving cows up the creek to graze after the morning milking, and Cotton carrying supplies to the lodge. His constant companion on these trips was an old Airedale dog.

"Some of these days this 0l' dog is goin' to die," he told Mabel jokingly. "And when he does, I'm gonna take you up to the bald in place of him."

When Mabel was 18 and Cotton was 28, he considered the idea much more seriously. When she was 21 and he was 31, they were married, on December 19, 1925.

"Cotton took me to his father's house in Andrews to show me off," Mabel remembers. They went to the bald on the 22nd and lived there the next 15 years.

"It was a good place for a honeymoon," she said. "Snow started falling on us before we reached the bald. It snowed on us the rest of the way. There was six or eight inches on top, but the snow stopped during the night and everything was bright and clear the next day." They saw only each other until Cotton went to Robbinsville for supplies ten days later.

Spring comes a month later on Hooper than in the lowlands and fall about that much earlier. Cotton and Mabel never planted their garden and corn patch till May. Corn never had time to mature to the hard stage necessary for grinding into meal. Mabel cut it from the cob and canned it while it was still juicy and tender.

They grew lots of corn and beans, and the bald was a wonderful place for Irish potatoes and snap beans. Beans did particularly well without insecticides, for the bald was too cold for Mexican bean beetles. Wild foods thrived there, too.

"Poke sallet grew down on the hillsides and that's something I like," Mabel said. "You get the shoots when they're young and tender. Parboil them three or four minutes and then cook them just like you would any other greens."

Both liked ramps, but Mabel rarely ate them because of the "ramp perfume" that lingers on the breath. They made the milk taste bad when the cows ate them.

Strawberry shortcake made from wild berries and topped with whipped cream from their own cows was a traditional July Fourth McGuire dessert. Their most bountiful wild fruit was the blueberry. High-bush blueberries grow on nearly all grassy balds, but they are especially numerous on Hooper. Mabel picked and canned 200 quarts one summer in the 1930's, when the berries were so thickly clustered on the bushes that she "just raked them off."

Squirrels, rabbits, wild turkeys, bears, and 'coons were regular parts of the family diet. Cotton was especially fond of 'coon. Mabel parboiled the meat with hot red pepper for about 30 minutes, poured off the water, salted and peppered the meat, covered it with bacon strips, and baked it slowly until it was brown and tender.

The McGuires frequently ate elk and the wild Russian boars. Of all the animals stocked, these did best. The elk lasted until about 1935. Cotton sold some of them and hunters got the rest.

The boars still thrive. After they were stocked, they immediately went over, under, and through the fences and scattered widely into adjacent Tennessee and Carolina mountains. Some swam the Little Tennessee years later and invaded the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, much to the distress of the National Park Service, which does not want exotic animals in its parks. Outside the park, hunters value them as big game animals. Many are killed nearly every year.

The boar is a large, strong animal, fierce when cornered, wounded, or protecting its young. It has high muscular shoulders overlaid with thick shielding cartilage. It is covered with dense curly fur and strong bristles. It kills snakes with its sharp hooves, and it can rip open a dog with razor-sharp “tushes” that thrust up six inches from its lower jaw.

Some hunters fear the big tuskers, but they held no terror for Mabel McGuire. The wild boars sometimes fraternized with the McGuire domestic hogs. Mabel helped a hired man kill one such visitor and she got another unassisted.

"I saw it coming up among our hogs," she said. "It was out back of the barn. I could tell it wasn't one of ours. I had a twelve-gauge shotgun. I loaded it with buckshot and went out to the barn. I looked at that hog and it looked at me and I let him have it."

The McGuires kept about 40 hogs near the bald, plus 30 cattle and about that many sheep. They milked several cows and stored milk and butter in a springhouse where 48-degree water kept them fresh and cool. Brook trout, caught in small streams that flow down Hooper slopes, stayed fresh for days in airtight jars in the cold spring water.

Cotton operated Moore's old lodge as a commercial hunting lodge. He sold beans and other vegetables to logging camps down the mountain, and he received other income from sale of his livestock.

They lived in an old caretaker house where Cotton batched before he and Mabel married. Like the lodge, it had indoor plumbing. The nearest neighbors were three miles away.

Mabel left the bald late in her first pregnancy and had the baby, Helen Louise, in 1928, in the old family home on West Buffalo Creek, where she herself was born. She wanted to be close to a doctor. She followed the same routine with other babies in 1932, '36, and '38.

One April night in 1939 they were awakened by the frightened calling of Will Lunsford, their dependable hired man who lived in the same house.

"Cotton, get up! The house is on fire. I don't think we can make it!" But they did make it. With flames raging everywhere about them, Mabel and the children went out a bedroom window in their nightclothes. Cotton snatched up a pair of pants and a few quilts and bolted out a door. Lunsford got out too. They lost nearly everything, including some silver money, which melted and ran together in a sewing machine drawer. Ironically, rain started as the flaming timbers fell.

After they spent the rest of the night at the lodge, Cotton, shirtless, drove the wagon down the mountain the next morning. Someone at a logging camp gave him a shirt. He went into Robbinsville and bought beds, furniture, clothing, food - nearly everything they needed - on credit.

By this time, the lodge plumbing - which had been repaired before - was ruined again. The McGuires carried water from a spring 200 yards away.

About two weeks after that fire, Cotton was away and Mabel was taking a nap. She woke and saw "the roof was burning right over my head, where the stovepipe went through the roof." "There was an enormous pole ladder in the yard," she said. "I got it off the ground and put it up to the roof."

The children rushed water from the spring to Mabel on the roof. Amazingly, Mabel was able to put out the fire with buckets of water carried 200 yards, before it burned more than about two square yards of the old dry shingles. It was quite a feat. But Mabel McGuire was - and remains - quite a pioneer woman.

In addition to extinguishing fires, she could walk through two feet of snow to the barn to milk cows in sub-zero cold. She killed the few rattlesnakes she encountered near the bald, and she hunted and fished with more skill and success than most men.

She and Cotton loved living on the bald, up a little closer to the stars than people down in the valley. Cotton spent 30 years there. No one else has lived so long so high, season after season, in the Southern Appalachians. Mabel was with him there 15 years.

In the end, it was not hardship that brought them back to the lowlands. They had to come down in order for the children to be near school.

Cotton died in 1957. Mabel lives alone in a neat house far up West Buffalo Creek. She still goes to Hooper Bald to pick blueberries in August, and she still walks high up the creeks to fish for brook trout. She still has - and occasionally still uses - the shotgun she used to kill the wild boar so long ago on the bald.

Her sons and daughters live nearby, and grandchildren pop into the house at nearly any hour. She is a happy grandmother. But she keeps memories of "the happiest years of my life" on Hooper Bald with Cotton.

Note:  Mabel Hooper McGuire passed away in 1978



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