Monday, August 19, 2013

A Forney Creek Love Story

On a day three years ago, while attending Decoration Day at the Conner Cemetery, I plucked up my courage and told Christine Proctor (whom I had never met, yet knew of) that I wanted to write a book about the families and communities of the North Shore.  The project has expanded over time,  yet ever since that day, Christine has been a constant source of encouragement, information, and knowledge of all things related to Swain County history.  This first official post is written in her honor, and in memory of her parents:   John and Emeline Cole.
The Joseph Cole Family
John stands to the far right on the front row, beside his father.

 The story of a 69-year marriage that began on the present-day North Shore of Fontana Lake was begun by a young lady who went out calling for the family's pigs and caught a husband instead.
The two young lovers grew up in families who had lived in the greater Forney Creek area for decades.  John (1901 - 1991) lived on a small creek that the family called 'Cole Branch', which has since been re-named Brewer Branch by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  He was the son of Joseph S. and Cynthia Elvira (Hoyle) Cole, and the second youngest of a family of nine children, one of whom had died at the age of three.  Emeline (1901 - 1990) grew up on nearby Woody Branch, the daughter of Julius Lloyd 'Mack' and Theodosia (Shook) Woody.  Her family was also large, consisting of six 'full' siblings and three half-siblings.  Their lives were very similar; in addition to their large families, both had disabled older siblings whom they helped to care for, both were pupils at the Woody Branch School and both attended the Forney Creek Baptist Church.  They certainly would have known one another growing up.
The Mack Woody Family
Emeline stands in the center, behind her parents
But on one most auspicious day whilst John was out hunting with his brothers, everything changed.  He happened to spy the lovely Emeline and her sister Anne, out searching for their free-ranging pigs to bring them in for the fall fattening.  Something must have been different about Emeline on that day, for John was instantly smitten, and the rest, as they say, is history.  On Sunday, April 24, 1921, they were married by the Reverend Henry Hogue on a bridge over Forney Creek.  In the practical manner of most mountain folk of the time, they then proceeded to church and to the home of John's family, where a combined wedding and Sunday dinner was served.  They were just 19 years of age. 
John and Emeline Cole on their wedding day
John worked for the Norwood Lumber Company on Forney Creek, where his wages were between 10 and 20 cents an hour and the workweeks were long - six days a week and 10 - 12 hours a day.  After a short period of residence with his parents, he and his new bride set up housekeeping in a small home overlooking Norwood's mill.  Here they brought their first children into the world on September 10th, 1922 - twin daughters whom they named Stella and Elizabeth.  Stella was a tiny baby, so small that a teacup fit over her head and was sadly not strong enough to survive.  She died just three days later.  Elizabeth was joined by a brother, Gene, in 1924.  On a terrible day in 1925, Norwood's lumber complex erupted in an immense fire, destroying not only the mill but also the homes of their workers.
Norwood Lumber Company mill. 
John and Emeline Cole's first home is on the bank to the right.
The young Cole family instantly lost not only their home, but John's livelihood as well.  Several of his brothers subsequently chose to move to East LaPorte to work for the Blackwood Lumber Company.  John, however, chose to stay in Swain County and to move his family to the Alarka area, where he worked at the Brooks sawmill.  Here, children Robert (1926), J.C. (1928), Leonard (1931), Keith (1933) and Christine (1935) were born.  Christine and Leonard have been invaluable contributors to this article.

Shortly after Christine's birth, John and Emeline moved their family back to the home of John's childhood on Cole Branch, in order to take care of his aging mother.  With no work in the area, John picked up odd jobs as he could, and cut jack pine in order to pay for his mother's medicine.  The children attended the Bushnell School, and the family returned to the Forney Creek Church for worship.  After his mother's death, John and family remained in the home; for all the care and devotion they had given to Cynthia in her last years, she bequeathed the house and land to he and Emeline.

Life was not easy for the Cole family, despite the home they had been provided.  The 1940 census records John as making an income of $300 for the year 1939, which is the equivalent of just under
The John Cole home on Cole Branch
It was built by Joseph Cole around 1900.
$5000 in 2013 currency.  They raised and hunted for nearly all of their food, with squirrel being a frequent entrée on their long, hand-built table.  The family had no automobile and walked to church and work.  They used a sled when any hauling was required, and on rare trips to Bryson
City, paid 10 cents to ride the train.  Leonard recalls one winter's arrival that saw the family unable to afford shoes for some of the children. 
His mother had to shelve her pride and write to
Sears Roebuck to request credit, which she was denied.  The Syrian-born Bryson City merchant Solomon Maloof was kind enough to extend credit, and the children received their shoes.

Despite such economic hardship, Christine and Leonard remember always having food on the table, never being cold, and always having an open home and table for members of the community and those in need.  Simple joys.....blackberry cobbler....chicken and dumplings.....a holly tree for a Christmas tree.... were cherished.  Visiting their old homeplace almost two years ago, Christine had tears in her eyes as she recalled to me the joy of seeing her mother carried in a chair up the road to home after being hospitalized for two weeks with a serious illness. 

In 1941, the Cole family began to be aware of the imminent loss of their home and lands for the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) construction of Fontana Dam.  Their only access to the outside world, NC 288, would now lie under the waters of Fontana Lake.  In 1943, they moved out, one of the last families to leave the greater Forney area.  They moved their belongings by sled to NC 288, where they were transported away in a truck owned by cousin Walter Hyatt.  The home and its 125 acres were purchased by TVA for $4225, and the proceeds were split equally between Joseph Cole's six surviving children, as Cynthia Cole's will had never been notarized.  This provided John and Emeline just over $700 with which to start their new life. Being unable to buy a home or farm with such a small amount of money, they found a home to rent on Shoal Creek Road in Whittier.  John found a job with Carolina Woodturning in Bryson City, and the family purchased their first vehicle so that he could drive to work.  The children attended the old Qualla School, which once stood near the current intersection of Shoal Creek Road and US-441.

The Old Qualla School, Jackson County (Sylva Herald)

 In 1945, the Coles were able to purchase a small log cabin and barn on land in the Franklin Grove area of Swain County.  Here they raised their children to adulthood, moving only once more - to a home just up the road, which now belongs to Christine.  John and Emeline grew old as they proudly watched four of their sons join the military, and as their children married and raised families of their own.  They suffered heartache as well, losing two of their sons, Keith and Robert at the ages of 22 and 35.  Throughout good and bad, they maintained the love, hospitality, and generosity of spirit that they were so well-known for during their time on Cole Branch.
John Cole Family
Front Row, L - R:  Christine, John, Emeline, Keith
Back Row, L - R:  J.C., Gene, Elizabeth, Robert, Leonard

Christine recalls them being especially devoted to one another in their last years, often sitting together for hours simply holding hands.  Their marriage endured for 69 years, broken only by Emeline's death in 1990 at the age of 89.  After nearly seven decades together, John had difficulty comprehending her passing, and daily reminded the children that he needed to get up to the hospital to check on their mother.  He followed her in death less than 3 months later.

Today, the Coles lie buried at the Lauada Cemetery, on a windy hilltop with a beautiful view of the mountains.  Christine, Leonard and J.C. are faithful visitors there both on Decoration Day and throughout the year.  It seems fitting that in their final resting place, John and Emeline are once again surrounded by the family members and old friends who once gathered around their table on the North Shore of Fontana Lake.

Acknowledgements and Sources:
Interviews with Christine Proctor, Leonard Cole, and Lawrence Hyatt
The Bone Rattler, Volume 11, No. 3
The Swain County Heritage Book
The Sylva Herald online  Census data and Death records
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) - Atlanta
Carol Cochran
Don Casada


  1. Huh - if you think that John Cole just accidentally happened to be out there that day, that's because you don't know how boys go about this sort of thing. I bet John had been out there hunting squirrels for days, biding the time until Miss Emeline would come along ;-)

    A great story, and there's not a finer family that you could've written your premier episode about.

  2. What a wonderful story, one that touches the sole.

    I look forward to many more heart warming stories reflecting the happiness and hardships experienced by our mountain ancestors.

    Carol Cochran

    1. Thank you, Carol. I'm so excited about telling the many stories the people of the county have shared with me!

  3. Congratulations on your new blog. Looks like a perfect launch. We have a common history in studying the history of Swain and surrounding counties. If there is anything I can do to help you, you just let me know.

    Ed Ammons

    1. Hi Ed - I do a lot of genealogy work in Ancestry associated with this project, and your tree pops up everywhere I turn. It is amazing, and an unbelievable amount of work. I will most definitely take you up on your offer of assistance - you can count on it!

  4. I look forward to getting to know the folks of Swain County. Well written, makes it easy to feel the story as well as read it.

    1. I appreciate your kindness, Susan. I plan to have one entry per week, usually published on Saturday or Sunday. Hope you will enjoy them.

  5. Wendy,
    What a nice love story! I enjoyed all the pictures and your devotion to keeping these
    stories alive. Right after my dad and mama were married, they lived in the town of
    Bushnell. This was way before my time, but the Fontana Dam Project got their home as
    well as all the others. Daddy pulled up his boots, and went to work for the TVA and also
    helped in the Nantahala Dam Project too. Thank you for doing this and hope you have
    much success on your new blog...Ken Roper

    1. I remember you well, Ken, and am so glad you popped over here. I'll send you a private email - would love to interview you about your parents sometime this fall.

  6. Have just swung over from Tipper's. I just happen to love the stories and music of the Appalachian, thus my love of Tipper's blog. She introduced her readers to your blog. Congratulations! And what a beautiful beginning. Continued inspiration and success!

    Petra Michelle

  7. Congratulations on this lovely blog. Such a sweet story about this family. We must keep telling the stories of our ancestors because they are the threads that hold us all together.
    Thanks to our mutual friend, Tipper, I visited here today and I plan to come back.

    1. Thank you, Glenda. I think these stories are very important as well. I do hope you will come back. I plan to have a post once weekly (trying to pace myself!).

  8. Great blog. I look forward to more of your interesting stories.

  9. Do you know anything about the landscreek area up top, near the park?