Project Canterbury

William West Skiles

A Sketch of Missionary Life at Valle Crucis in Western North Carolina 1842-1862

Edited by Susan Fenimore Cooper

New York: James Pott & Co., 1890.

Chapter IV.

THE singular beauty of the scenery in that secluded mountain basin gave great delight to the young divinity students, and to the lads of the school also. The waterfall in the narrow gorge at the head of the valley toward Hanging Rock was a favourite stroll; the flow of water was always sufficient to form a beautiful cascade, but after heavy rains in the spring and autumn, the foaming sheet became grand in character. It fell eighty feet, in three separate leaps. The banks on either side were very rugged and thickly set with laurel, like the banks of many streams in that region. At the foot of the fall the waters gathered in a little pool before winding farther down the valley. In this pool dead and mangled deer were occasionally found. When pursued by the hunters on the heights above, these timid creatures would, in their terror, leap headlong over the precipice into the basin below. It was [40/41] remarked that while many deer had thus perished, not a single hound, of those engaged in the chase, was ever known to take that fatal leap. Deer were common on the mountains, and occasionally one would be seen from the school-room windows, in full flight, pursued across the valley by the hunters. The eager boys were generally dismissed on such occasions and allowed to follow the chase awhile. Fishing was a common recreation of the young men, angling in the pure mountain brooks, which were full of fine trout. And the larger lads were occasionally allowed to take their guns into the woods in quest of game; if they failed to return with the spoils of the bear or wolf or panther, all to be found in the depths of the forest at that date, they not infrequently shot deer or wild turkey or grouse. Indeed, it was commonly noticed that the pupils of Valle Crucis were wont to recount, in after life, with the greatest zest and fondness, their happy days spent at Valle Crucis.

Excursions for recreation were occasionally made to the more distant mountains by bands [41/42] of teachers and pupils. When not too much occupied by his duties as steward, Mr. Sidles made one of the party. He was always in kindly sympathy with the young, genial and patient with them.

Two of these holiday excursions are especially recorded, one to the Roan Mountain, of the Alleghany chain, and another to the Grandfather, the highest point of the Blue Ridge. The mountains of the Blue Ridge are marked more or less clearly with distinctive characteristics of their own. While a few show bold, rocky summits, or grand masses of rock and abrupt precipices on their flanks, others are clothed with a rich vegetation to their highest point; yonder, a dense mass of varied forest, nearer, often broad reaches of beautiful, natural meadows. The heights, which are bare, are called "Old Balds" by the country people.

The excursion to the Roan was a distant one, that mountain touching the borders of Tennessee; the ascent of three miles was abrupt. There was the usual rich and varied forest, lighted up by the luxuriant bloom of tangled shrubbery. The beautiful carpet of [42/43] mosses on the lower reaches of the mountain was frequently nearly a foot in depth. Gentian and ginseng were observed. Occasionally the party came to what the country people called a "deadening," a spot where fire had blighted the wood, leaving gray spectres of trees in the midst of the living forest. Here and there a fine "orchard" of sugar-maples was passed, as luxuriant as any in the northern Alleghanies; one such "orchard" was said to cover fifty acres of ground. The mountaineers made their own sugar. Here and there, but at long intervals, a rude log cabin might be seen, standing awkwardly by the mountain track, its small windows perhaps unglazed.

While resting near a spring, one of the young men went to a cabin near at hand in quest of buttermilk; a bountiful supply was cheerfully provided, but when the pail was returned, and payment offered, the money was refused; the good woman could not be persuaded to accept the small silver coin offered: "Keep it, man; you may want it yourself some day." There were many kind hearts among [43/44] the mountaineers, though often under a rough and undemonstrative exterior. Brother Sidles was known in most of these log-cabins, where he had nursed the sick, prayed with the people, and catechized the children in his simple, kindly way. On one rude farm a man was seen ploughing, guiding a steer, and carrying a little baby girl on his shoulder, her arms about his neck; this ploughman was known to Mr. Skiles; the father was devotedly fond of his child; he was seldom seen without her, either in his arms or on his shoulder, sitting close beside him whatever his work might be. At home, in the log cabin, where she had a good mother, the rude father was the chief nurse of his little daughter, petting her, feeding her, rocking her to sleep, and greatly enjoying her baby company. Some months later the little girl sickened and died. The father was heart-broken, with a tenderness of grief which would scarcely have been expected in one so rude in aspect.

As the travellers moved onward over higher ground they found the rhododendron growing luxuriantly four thousand feet above the sea. [44/45] At a still greater height, five thousand feet, the grasses and weeds of the low country were observed. Occasional glimpses of wild creatures, feathered or furred, added interest to the tramp. The summit, when reached, was peculiar in character, a broad, grassy prairie, several miles in extent, broken by scattered groves, and here and there by huge isolated masses of rock, or patches of dark balsam. Many cattle were feeding on this Alpine pasture, raising their heads in astonishment, as the merry young group passed onward, laughing, shouting, and leaping. It is this broad, open summit, which at certain seasons assumes a faint dun colour, that has given to the mountain the name of the Roan. It gives to the height a softer and more attractive character than the wild, shaggy forests on other neighbouring summits. The views are very beautiful, the most extensive in that region looking far away westward, over the rich Tennessee valleys. There is a huge mass of rock called the Bluff near the highest point. Here the party stood on the brink of a precipice, looking down into a wild forest [45/46] gorge below, whence a strong current of wind was rising with great force, sweeping over the summit, driving flitting clouds before it. Some of the lads threw their hats down the precipice, but they were met by the wind and whirled back again over the heads of the boys on to the prairie beyond, whence they were only recovered by a hard chase, enlivened by the wild gambols of the amazed cattle, thrown into confusion by these unusual proceedings. The highest point of the Roan is estimated by Guyot to be 6,306 feet above the sea.

On another pleasant summer day a party of twenty, under the leadership of the Missionary, the Rev. Mr. Prout, left the valley for the summit of the Grandfather, about ten miles distant. The grand old mountain, with its five rugged peaks, is the highest in the Blue Ridge, being 5,897 feet. The Watauga flows from springs on its western face. The party from Valle Crucis made their arrangements for passing the night on the summit of the mountain. The young men were armed with an axe or two for cutting firewood, and also [46/47] for clearing a path through the dense thickets. Two or three shot-guns were also provided, for killing any game that might cross their path, and also for protection against wild beasts prowling about at night. The provisions were coffee, bacon, and pones of corn bread. Two coffee-pots and a dozen tin cups dangled from the shoulder of one of the party. Each was provided with an overcoat or blanket for warmth at night. The young men enjoyed with zest the spirited delights of the ascent, accompanied almost constantly by the murmur of limpid brooks and cascades. There was no road at that date; a mere rude trail to the base of the mountain, and beyond that point the Watauga was their only guide. The woods were rich and varied on the lower reaches of the mountain, including maple, ash, hickory, walnut, oak, chestnut, chincapin, and sycamore. The linden also abounded in some places. With the usual reckless wastefulness of American forestry, the farmers of that region cut down the young linden trees in the spring that their cattle might feed on the fresh shoots, which the animals greatly enjoy. [47/48] The writer of this sketch has seen a noble white pine, perhaps four hundred years old, felled on the shore of Lake Otsego to obtain a few pounds of honey stored in one of its branches; and on another occasion a grand chestnut was found cut down in September for the nuts just ripening! Our country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Gulf of Mexico to the most northern forest, must assuredly suffer some day from this worse than barbarous wastefulness of its woods. The people in the Blue Ridge call the linden the linn; and the stream flowing southward, neighbour of the Watauga, and noted for its beautiful falls, is called the Linnville, from the same tree. The undergrowth on the lower reaches of the Grandfather was composed of the usual close thickets of laurel, blended with rhododendron, entwined with creeping vines and carpetted with rich mosses. Higher on the mountain side there were dense evergreen woods of dark balsam. At length, after a hard ascent, the summit of the mountain was reached. Here, from beneath a huge rock, in the heart of a balsam wood, a noble [48/49] spring burst forth, ample in volume, bright and cheery, as if enjoying the prospect of its leaping, laughing course down the mountain side. The volume of water in these Alpine springs of North Carolina, even at a great elevation, is remarkable when it is remembered that there are no glaciers, or heights covered with perpetual snow, in the Blue Ridge. These springs flow from the heart of the mountains. They are sparkling and cold. Mr. Buxton, having a thermometer, found the temperature of this noble spring, the actual source of the Watauga, to be forty-two degrees. He named it the "Bishop Spring." The springs at Valle Crucis had been found to be fifty-two degrees.

A grand fire of dead balsam wood was soon blazing. A frugal supper of bacon, cooked Indian fashion on sticks hung over the coals, coffee and corn pones, was eaten with appetites sharpened by the keen air. Beds were made of twigs of laurel and balsam, on which the young men stretched themselves, wrapped in blanket or overcoat, with feet toward the fire. The night was very cold [49/50] at that height, even at midsummer, and the fire was frequently replenished, not only for warmth, but as a protection against any bear or panther that might be prowling about.

With the morning light all hurried to the top of the Spring Rock, which commanded a noble view eastward. A letter of the Rev. Dr. Buxton speaks with the greatest admiration of the grand sunrise seen from the top of the Grandfather Rock:

"I have seen the glorious sun-rise at sea; but nothing of sky at sea ever filled my vision with such deep impressions of glory as came from those gorgeous skies--brilliant hues ever shifting, dissolving, and re-combining, ever growing in brightness as the morning advanced, till the vast heavens seemed filled with the glory and flame of colour; while below, stretching far away into the azure, the hills still slept their lowly sleep of silence, with the heavens all aglow above them."

Later began the descent through the forest. It was the intention to strike the Watauga at a lower point, and follow its course homeward. After plunging downward some distance, the party reached a stream supposed to be the Watauga. But they were mistaken; these were the head-waters of the Linnville River, [50/51] which flows in an entirely different direction. It was only after descending some distance that the mistake was discovered. It was too late to return, or to make fresh ventures in the trackless forest. After a consultation it was decided that the safest course would be to follow the Linnville, in the hope of reaching some cabin where they could find shelter for the night. But the task of following the stream was no easy one. The banks were bordered everywhere, down to the water's edge, with an impenetrable thicket of laurel, through which, as one of the party remarked, "only a lank wolf or lithe panther or sleek rattlesnake" could make his way. They were actually forced to take to the water, in the bed of the stream, and wade down the river, often at a depth of three or four feet, at times leaping from rock to rock, occasionally slipping on the smooth, wet stones, and falling headlong into the water. The mountain trout, of which the stream was full, were much disturbed by this extraordinary invasion of their domain, and darted about in great agitation. The lads enjoyed with great glee the [51/52] adventure, including its mishaps, and made the wilderness ring with their merry shouts; but the elder members of the party felt no little anxiety, and scarcely enjoyed the idea of passing the night in the bed of the river, like so many Tritons. They looked wistfully about in the hope of discovering some log cabin, where they might find shelter, before the darkness of night fell upon them--a darkness always peculiarly dense among the close laurel undergrowth. So compact, indeed, was the thicket of laurel on the banks that it was actually impenetrable, the bushes, often small trees, overhanging the stream in many places. These dense evergreen belts of laurel, growing immediately on the river banks, are characteristic of that region, forming at all seasons a fine evergreen shrubbery. When the plants are in bloom the effect is very beautiful, as the clusters of delicate flowers are very numerous, and the garlands seem to hang lovingly over the clear, sparkling waters, as they speed rapidly on their downward course over a bed of golden-coloured pebbles. After a high wind, or a heavy shower, the delicate blossoms are [52/53] strewn over the water in lavish profusion. The party from Valle Crucis was compelled by this impenetrable hedge to wade long miles through the channel of the stream. They pushed bravely on, however, and at nightfall came to a small clearing in which stood the solitary cabin of a hunter. It was built of unhewn logs; the chimney consisted of sticks, crossing one another, well daubed inside and out with clay. The roof was shingled with oak boards three or four feet long, kept in place by logs laid lengthwise, well pinned down, with here and there a heavy stone to give additional strength against winds. The floor was of hewn lumber, three or four inches thick. There was but one room in the cabin, with a rude bed or two in one corner, three or four rough chairs of home make, a bench or two, a table to match in the centre, and a huge fireplace where logs of six or seven feet could be piled together. Over the door, on wooden pegs, lay the rifle, always within reach, and always loaded. Against the outer wall of the cabin were hung antlers of deer, while skins of wolf, bear, and panther [53/54] were hung up there to dry. Here, in the heart of the forest, lived Larchin Calloway, a famous hunter, and here the party from Valle Crucis were made heartily welcome. They were hungry, and dripping wet from head to foot; but the latch-string of a mountain cabin door always hangs outside, in token of welcome, and cheerfully did the rugged hunter and his womankind set before their guests the best in their larder; abundance of rich buttermilk; freshly churned butter; potatoes, red, long, large, and mealy; with pones of corn bread, and coffee of parched rye. The hospitable board was replenished again and again.

The floor of the cabin was the only bed; the young men stretched themselves out in their wet clothes before the blazing fire of huge logs, slept soundly, and not one of the party took cold. It was a common saying at Valle Crucis that if a man tried to take cold, after a thorough wetting, he could not bring it about in that high mountain region, so bracing and healthful was the air!

The next morning, after an early breakfast, the few shillings to be found in missionary [54/55] pockets were, with some difficulty, forced upon the hunter, who was unwilling to receive any payment for providing for twenty hungry men and boys. In a few hours the party were at home again.

In cabins like this Mr. Skiles and his brother missionaries were often sheltered and always hospitably received.

Project Canterbury