Remembering times lost

We have family reunions every 5 years. The last one was in 2007 (Wow. I’ve been blogging for more than 5 years). The first was in 1922 and marked 100 years from the settlement of Nacoochee and Sautee valleys by my great-great-great-grandfather; the next was in 1972 (marking 150 years) and since then every 5 (except we had a reunion in ’76 instead of ’77 for the bicentennial).

This year’s reunion was (in my mind) overshadowed by a heat-wave. I arrived at 4am Thursday, and the temperature climbed to 99°F, Friday was 104°F, as was Saturday, Sunday was slightly cooler 102°F. The house was built by my great-grandfather to be cool with 14ft ceilings, and this works well with temperatures around 90°F, but by 3 in the afternoon on a 100° day the inside is almost as unpleasant as the outside. We hid. And waited for night.

One of the projects of the reunion was an oral history video. They interviewed my father (and many other people) and put together a very nice little sequence. Then the wife of my third cousin once removed asked me to say something. Me? But my father is both living and cogent; anything I could remember he would remember better. Besides I’m young.

Only I’m not any more am I?

So now I am having second thoughts. Perhaps there is a point in my memories. A different perspective at least, if nothing else.

So I thought I’d write them down. I guess that’s not exactly oral history, but it’s a start.

I remember…

Only I don’t. I have no memory of my first trip to the valley. It was just somewhere we always went. I was born in June, and I believe we visited later that summer. Or certainly the next. My mother says she boiled my diapers on the old wood stove we used to have in the kitchen — this, apparently unsettled my grandmother and the next year she bought a washer and dryer so my mother won’t have to do that for my brother.

We generally spent late August and early September in the valley but that was not set in stone. My grandfather and his three siblings shared the house and each got a month in the summer; the sibling with first pick rotated, so sometimes we’d end up with an unusual time.

When I was young the kitchen was dominated by an enormous iron wood-burning stove that was used for cooking. It must have been ferociously hot in the kitchen then. The wood stove was removed in 1967 to be replaced by a stove (and a fireplace opened in the kitchen). I have a vague recollection of a propane tank in the cold storage shed so perhaps it was a gas stove at first, but eventually we got electric.

There used to be a small wooden bridge over the Sautee creek on Lover’s Lane (now called Lynch Mountain Rd.) and we used to play Pooh-sticks on that bridge — dropping sticks into the water on the upstream side and running across to the downstream to see whose came out first. I guess there wasn’t much traffic.

In 1967 there was the great flood. It rained, and it rained, and it rained. The Sautee creek climbed up over its banks and into the fields and roads. Someone caught a trout in his fence. People had to rescue cows out of the flooded fields. And it kept on raining. The water rose. My father stuck sticks in the road to mark the high water line, and when each stick was flooded he would put in a new stick higher up.

We had guests staying with us, and they got excited by the flood. The lane was underwater. The river road (which no longer exists but which paralleled the creek down to highway 17) was underwater. They decided to leave by the back way, out Lynch Mountain Rd. to 255A. They made it too.

My parents also got excited but in a different way; they took out the old rowboat and dragged it down the driveway to the road and put in. They set off down the (flooded) road beside the swollen creek. I remember standing at the end of the driveway, with the cook, in the pouring rain and crying my head off as I watched my parents disappear around a bend in the road. I don’t think I’d have the courage to row down a flooded road. I’d worry the current would be too strong and pull the boat into the creek and into the Chattahoochee and off to the Gulf. But my parents survived. When the boat got to 17 they dragged it up into the woods and then bushwhacked home through the woods above the flood water.

The next day was bright and sunny — but there was no longer a bridge over the Sautee Creek. We could no longer play Pooh sticks; instead we went down to where it had been and played in the new piles of sand the flood had left, and while we were there some men drove up with a highway department truck (I guess they were checking the state of the former bridge) — and in of their truck they had our boat! We got it back, but for a long time after we joked about how the highway men had stolen our boat…

Each year when my grandmother came to the valley she brought her maid with her. This seemed very grand to me. But Sautee Manor was grand in itself as we always had a cook when we were there (we never had a cook at home). Mattie Sosbee. As I recall she lived in Spartanburg for most of the year but would come up for the summer and stay in the house with us (though sometimes she spent the night at her brother’s (John Sosbee) down the road.

John Sosbee was our caretaker; I have no clear idea of what this entailed save that he opened up the house for us in the spring and closed it down in the summer and I think he fixed things that broke. John was a farmer in his own right with his fields below the road and his house and kitchen garden above it. We would buy fresh produce from him, corn and beans and okra. One day I remember going there and finding his wife busy churning butter on the front porch.

Whenever we came to the valley we had to go visit a bunch of old cousins who lived there. I hated it. The most pleasant to visit were cousins Robbie and Roy who lived in the farm in the valley just below our house. They always knew when we had arrived in the valley because they could see our house and noticed when the lights were on at night. This was a great topic of conversation. Then they would give us raspberries. And Roy once took me out into the barn and taught me how to milk one of his cows. I’ve never milked a cow before or since, but I did it once. Roy was my second cousin twice removed I think. Then there was cousin Archy who lived down near the old Sautee store. He had a wife, and a little pug dog (who didn’t like me) and a big bell in the yard which I wasn’t allowed to ring. Next door lived two ancient maiden ladies one of whom ate a poison ivy leaf every spring to give her immunity to the plant. And since she didn’t die from a swollen throat perhaps the process worked.

Still there were some people I liked to visit. The Henry Williams house was off hwy 17. It was built by my great-great-uncle at about the time my great-grandfather built Sautee Manor and it was peopled by a changing pool of cousins, some of whom were actually my age. I never knew who’d be there in advance; the various branches of that family would come at different times on different years.

Oddly we rarely got to see our closer cousins, those who shared the house with us, because if we were in the house then they could not be. Rarely they would visit. One of my great aunts had only nine toes (one had been surgically removed) and whenever she came up we would ask to see the foot with only four toes, and she would take off her shoe and show us.

Not all of the people we visited were cousins, we made friends with the Kollock family who had children about our ages. They weren’t cousins, but the adult Kollocks did have a Charleston connection (which was almost as good). They had an extraordinary house. Every year it was different. It grew rooms, it grew wings. A second story. The rooms moved around. The kitchen sink was fixed (too hard to change the plumbing I guess) but everything else mutated. John Kollock is an artist, in those early days he did commercial art in Atlanta, and every year he had a commission to do a Christmas series called “Down Home Prints”, nostalgic black and white prints of the rural south of 1900. His family and ours and our friends became his models. Every August we would dress up and act out whatever scenes he was doing that year. I remember one very hot August day bundling up into coats and scarves and making snow angles in the grass as he did a winter scene. Another time we acted out a wedding ceremony while my father preached a sermon from “The Architecture of Antebellum Charleston” — funniest sermon I’ve ever heard.

When I was very young the Sautee store was a post office. I can remember going there to get the mail. But it turned into a Norwegian import store when I was still very young so I only have rather jumbled memories of letters mixed with sweaters.

After a bit my parents decided to get us out of the main house. My mother cleaned up the old sleeping porch (which entailed facing down wasps as well as cleaning dust) and relegated us children there. We all three (and any friends we might have visiting) slept on army cots up there. A bit later my mother cleaned up half of the old servants’ quarters (and that was probably an even bigger job, she has a lot of energy) and my brother and I were packed off there, while my sister was allowed back into the main house. There was no electricity in the servants’ quarters so we went up there with kerosene lanterns (left over from the days when there was no electricity in the main house either). Sometimes we were allowed a fire in the old fireplace and that was very exciting. The sleeping porch was returned to the wasps and we did not use it any more. Finally in 1994 we was feared it was rotting and the porch was removed and the house re-roofed.

But I still stay in the servants’ quarters…

There were other out-buildings buildings than the servants’ quarters; there were the old privies (my father dedicated one as his study for a while), the chicken house, the laundry and the barn. As children we had most fun in the barn. We played jail. One person was jailer and stayed in the open area, the others were prisoners and each was placed in a horse stall and locked in with a slide bar. The walls between the stalls weren’t high and one could climb over them into another stall, and (slowly) slide its lock open and run free into the outside. So the jailer was constantly running back and forth sliding the bars back into the locked state — it was easier to slide them from outside the cell than from inside but that was the jailer’s sole advantage.

When we grew older my parents had us clean out the old laundry and we’d use it for square dances. It was the right size for one square. I’d drag out a long extension cord and set up an overhead light, and plug in the record player (45s as I recall) and we’d invite the Kollock girls and whatever cousins might be on hand over to dance. I was very shy and refused to dance for many years, but eventually I joined in. I found I loved it.

Older still and my parents decided to fix up the laundry as a small house, adding a bathroom, porch, electricity and murphy bed, thus turning the single big room into a combination bedroom kitchen.

My great-grandfather also built two towers on Lynch mountain. One was a wooden tower on a ridgeline behind the house, when I was a child this tower still stood, though the stairs had been removed and it was unusable. As time went on it slowly collapsed getting shorter and shorter until there was just a heap of rotten beams, and now there is practically nothing there at all. I’ve often wondered what the view was like from this tower. It didn’t poke above the trees — well, it didn’t when I was a child. Of course in my great-grandfather’s day the trees had all been clear-cut so the tower did probably have a view… The other tower was made of rebar embedded into the rock at the top of Lynch. At least I assume so. Nothing was left when I was young save some rusty rebar stumps and now even they seem to have disappeared.

The view from the front porch has changed over the years. When my grand-mother first visited all the surrounding mountains had just been clear-cut (Helen was a logging camp originally) and she would complain later about how untidy the mountains looked now that they had trees on them. My father likes the trees, but thinks they should be shorter (as they used to be) so that more of the valley can be seen. I am rather glad that the trees have grown to the point where I can no longer see the lights from the post office across the valley. But it does mean that we can no longer see Robbie and Roy’s house (and can’t tell when Elizabeth is in residence).

Lynch mountain has always been important to us. Climbing to the summit is something of a rite of passage. When I was a child the only way up was the path that starts across from the Higginses’ and one day each visit we (and probably some random cousins) would assemble at the Higgins house and head up. As a child it seemed to take forever. One year at Thanksgiving my father decided to seek an alternate route and went up the old logging road behind the house until we reached its end, and then tried to continue up. Unfortunately we almost immediately ran into a laurel hell and made essentially no progress and had to give up. A decade or two later Arthur Jones set out to make a trail for his motorbike, and somehow he managed it. He went up from the swimming pool and simply skirted the hells until he reached the top. Now I go up and down that trail all the time and almost never use the old trail. The view from the top has not changed much though.

One year we decided to visit the valley at Thanksgiving. It’s hard to guess what lunacy possessed us. The house is built to be cool, not to stay warm. It has no insulation. The walls are a single layer of wood (in extreme cases it is possible to see the ground through the floorboards). There is no central heat, just old fireplaces. But there are lots of blankets, and a spot on the front porch where the sun beats down which can almost get warm, even on the coldest days. We had such fun that first year, that we tried again — oh, maybe five years later. And again. It became a tradition. We were not simply masochists we were sadists too and would invite friends to stay with us, and had all the family over for a big post-thanksgiving dinner. I can remember one year it got down to 17°F. The pipes all froze, many burst. We left water running in the kitchen sink all night in hopes that would keep the pipes unfrozen (I don’t think it did) and we woke to an ice sheet on the kitchen floor. We realized the inside of the refrigerator was the warmest place in the house. One year my maternal-grandfather visited. He found the warm spot on the porch and slowly moved his chair to stay in the sun as the shadows changed. My great-great-grandfather’s biographer came to visit for mid-day dinner one year — and we had to ask him to wait because the pipes were still frozen and we couldn’t cook. One year it snowed. The only time I’ve been snowed on in the valley.

When I was very young the water used in the bathrooms of the house (there was (and is) a well for drinking water) came down the hill from a spring in an open terra-cotta trough. Every facet in the house had a little paper sign pasted beside it warning that we should not drink the water as there were wild pigs on the mountain. Because it was open, things would fall in it (perhaps pigs), and sometimes the flow of water would drop and we would have to go up the trough to clear it out. This was especially an issue in autumn and we’d have to go up daily to clear out fallen leaves. Because the trough was terra-cotta it was not perfectly watertight and there was a constant, slight seepage from the trough into the surrounding area. This meant there were some marshy areas, but also meant a lot of ferns and wildflowers. Walking up the trough was beautiful. Unfortunately other things fell in the trough than just leaves. Trees would occasionally fall across it, and sometimes break it. Hauling replacement bits of terra-cotta up the hillside was hard. Eventually, in about 1967, my cousin Louis ran plastic piping down through the old trough. Much easier to maintain, but less sightly. Now there is little left of the old trough, and the plastic pipe has mostly been covered up with leaves and isn’t so obtrusive. But it no longer oozes water and the lush growth of ferns along the path has vanished.

The water we don’t take from the spring forms a small stream that I grew up calling John’s Branch (because it was on John Sosbee’s land) and my father calls Cason’s Branch (I’ve no idea who Cason was, I presume he owned the land before John). Just up from where the stream crossed the Lynch Mountain Road there was a little flat area where we would picnic. As a child it seemed a long walk on the road in the hot sun, and the woods around the branch provided a lovely cool shelter. Now it doesn’t seem far at all. My brother and sister and I would build our little water kingdoms on the branch. We would try to dam it up with dams made of rocks an sand — not, you will note, things that actually hold water very well, but we were happy in our failures. Until the adults would call us back to eat.

We used to take out our old rowboat and glide down the river. Lewis, of course, used to go by canoe and the old canoe from Deliverance was stored under the house for many years. But we preferred a flat bottomed craft that would seat the whole family. We would put in just below the lane bridge on the Sautee Creek and go down the Chattahoochee and beyond. There was an epinonimous place called “Big Rock” where we could remove the boat from the river and portage it back to 17. One time we started at the Nacoochee station and traveled down the Chattahoochee. In later years we discovered inner tubes and some of us would travel along in our own craft (much easier to portage). The water in the Sautee Creek, cold as it always seemed at first, was much warmer than that of the river, and entering the Chattahoochee was always a shock. So sometimes the inner tubers would get out of the creek at the hwy 17 bridge and walk back on the old road.

Now the river has been colonized with houses, and the old access points are gone. The old road along the creek has been blocked off too. And somehow we don’t use the river as we used…

My parents would also drive us around the mountains for picnic suppers. We’d go to places with wonderful names like Warwoman Dell, or Panther Creek, or Rice Cabin Falls. I don’t even know if the old dirt roads are there any more. Perhaps they still are, but we have changed and don’t visit them any more.


One Response to “Remembering times lost”

  1. Ralph Says:

    George, your two recollections of the Nacoochee Valley are priceless.

    I can relate your stories to my own growing up in rural California.

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