Friday, March 6, 2015

An Epic Journey, Part 1: The Preparation

As my readers well know, Don Casada and I are good friends and research partners.  Don's late father, Commodore Andrew Casada (07 August 1909 - 29 January 2011), was born in Clay County but moved to the head of Swain County's Juneywhank Branch (in the present-day Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Deep Creek section) when he was 5 years old.  2015 marks the 100-year anniversary of his family's journey from the beautiful Tusquittee Valley to Swain County.  In order to commemorate this journey and to impart an understanding of what a tremendous undertaking this was in the early 20th century, I've asked Don to write a piece about it.  Part 1 of 'An Epic Journey' is below.  I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

A trip from Hayesville to Bryson City nowadays is one that can be made in less than an hour and a half – whether you go up Shooting Creek, across Chunky Gal Mountain, down through Cartoogechaye and on through Franklin, or take the alternate route through Peachtree, Marble, Andrews, and the Nantahala Gorge.  Other than dealing with the throngs of tourists floating the Nantahala in summer, either way makes for an enjoyable ride and view from the climate-controlled comfort of a vehicle.
It was not always so, and that’s why Wendy asked me to write this little story of what was – in my five-year old father’s eyes – an epic journey.  She knew that it occurred one hundred years ago this winter and told me it was a story that needed telling.  She was right.

But before we begin, I hope that Wendy and her readers will indulge me with some background circumstances which led to the journey.  The old adage “you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been” is just as true here as in our own personal lives.
In the beginning

My great-grandparents, Sarah Ann Ball and William Ambrose Casada, were each born in Madison County prior to the onset of the Civil War.  While both the Ball and Casada families had members involved in the war (on the side of their native southland), both families were far, far below financial circumstances that would have led them to have any sort of stake in the slavery aspect of the war.  The same was true for the majority of families in these hills that we call home, of course. 

At some point in the years after they were married (1871), Will undertook work as a tenant farmer for a couple of considerable means, Kope Elias and his wife, Timoxena Siler, granddaughter of Jesse Richardson Siler for whom Silers Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains is named.  The law office of Elias was located in Franklin – the home place of his wife and parents-in-law, but he owned property and practiced law throughout the WNC area (Wendy’s readers may recall that Elias took on a civil case on behalf of Ruffin DeHart, former slave, and forced the suit to be dropped).  Ironically, Ruffin and his wife Susan had once been the “property” of folks in my maternal line – the DeHarts from whom they took their names. 

By 1891 – the year in which she turned forty – Sarah had given birth to nine of her ten children, all the while living in the Sandymush/Turkey Creek area of south Madison and north Buncombe Counties which she and Will had always called home.  According to family tradition, it was at about that time that Kope Elias asked Will and Sarah to move to Swain County to help validate the worth of property in which he was interested and then continue their tenant farming labors on that land.  One of the larger (500 acre) tracts he acquired was in the Governors Island (Kituwah) area – some of the finest bottomland which is so scarce in Swain County. 

Southward View from Turkey Creek Cemetery, Sandy Mush area
(Don Casada)

 We know that the Casadas were in Swain County by the fall of 1892, because in that year’s fall term of Swain Superior Court, Will was convicted of affray (public brawling) which involved a cousin of his, J.F. Teague (who would later become the sheriff of Swain County) and a couple of Thomas fellows.  Teague got off with payment of his portion of court costs; Will was fined $10 plus court costs.  One of the Thomas boys was similarly fined while the other got off with a fine of only $5. 

I should note here that great-grandpa Will was a Baptist minister – or more to the point, what my father called “hard shell” Baptist.  Now it could well be that Will’s conversion and decision to go into the ministry took place after the affray, but it’s also quite possible that it was one of his sermons which initiated the aforementioned affray.  The story I’m about to relate was passed on by my father.  Based on the combination of my father’s reliability and some all-too-common traits of Will’s descendants (not including yours truly, of course), it is unfortunately altogether believable.

Will was once asked to preach the funeral service for a fellow whose life had taken him well astray from the straight and narrow way.  Will agreed to take on the job, aware that the departed as well as those left behind would generally have nothing to do with church or matters of a spiritual nature.  And so it was that after reading some scripture, Will laid down his Bible, pointed his rawboned finger toward the casket and said “Now there lies one that’s gone to Hell.”  Turning his finger’s aim to sweep across the family of the deceased, he continued “…and that’s exactly where the rest of you-un’s are headed if you don’t straighten up.” 

One could easily understand how a serious row might ensue.

Will did become well enough accepted in the Swain County area to be asked to conduct several weddings (though likely not by the offended family).  At that time, weddings in churches were quite rare; most often they were held in private homes, as well as in such intriguing locations as “on the Galbreath Creek road” and (later, in Clay County, where he conducted several dozen) “on the Tusquittee bridge.”  One marriage ceremony which Will handled in Swain County took place in the home of John Elander Davis.  Davis built his home high above Indian Creek, along the Thomas Divide, a location which was taken for inclusion in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park some three decades later.  Park Service employees responsible for cultural preservation matters considered the Davis cabin to be particularly well built and representative of the time.  It was taken down log-by-log and stone-by-stone, then reassembled at the Visitors Center along the Oconaluftee River, just above Cherokee.
The John Elander Davis home at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, GSMNP
(Don Casada)
Moving on, once again

After the Will and Sarah Casada family had lived in Swain County for about a decade, Kope Elias called on them to move again, this time to an area near the Hiwassee River in Clay County.  It could well be that they wanted to move, but my suspicion is that now in their fifties, both Will and Sarah would have preferred to stay put.  Whatever their preferences, they picked up and traveled on.  Most of the children who had come with them from the Sandymush area, including their third-born son and my grandfather, Joseph Hillberry Casada (born in 1878), as well as the only child which Sarah had birthed in Swain County, a youngster they called Laddie, went along.

Just around the bend from the Elias property in Clay County – on Jarrett Road - there lived a pretty young woman by the name of Minnie Price.  Minnie’s mother had died when she was three years old, and she was taken in by a childless couple, Samantha Shearer and Andy Coleman.  That Coleman couple lived right beside another Coleman boy/Shearer girl couple –James and Laura, who were also childless.  James and Laura took in Minnie’s older brother, Will, so the orphaned siblings grew up alongside one another.  The homes, which are identical in design, stand on a lovely piece of land adjoining the Hiwassee.  

The James and Laura Coleman home and lands off Jarrett Road near Hayesville
(Don Casada)


We don’t know the details of the raising of siblings Will and Minnie Price, but it was likely a complex combination of hard work accompanied by at least a token of affection.  The former is indicated by the fact that in 1900, both Will and Minnie are listed not as children of the couples, but as “Bound” residents of their homes, suggesting a circumstance of indentured servitude.  On the other hand, the fact that Minnie named her first daughter, Jura Samantha, and her first son, Andrew Commodore (my father), for the Coleman-Shearer couple who had taken her in implies at the very least a sense of indebtedness, if not affection.  Similarly, two of Will’s children would be given names of James and Laura. 

It wasn’t long after the arrival of the Casada clan that Joseph Hillberry, known as Joe, took to seriously courting young Minnie Price.  The two were married in November of 1903 by a minister in the Methodist-Episcopal Church, J.S. Brooks, and set out on a new course together.  Minnie had just turned 18 and Joe was 25 when they said their vows.  The wedding took place in the home of the minister, J.S. Brooks, and there is no evidence that there were members of either family present. 

By the standards of today, both the location and lack of fanfare might seem shocking, but it was the standard of the time.  Of the thirty six weddings which Joe’s father, Will Casada conducted in Clay County, we know the specific location of thirty one.  Of those thirty one, twenty seven were in private homes, including fourteen in the Will Casada home.  It appears that the witnesses were frequently whoever happened to be handy – such as the wife of the preacher or a neighbor.  Perhaps the fact that I have a bit of a phobia about being around large crowds has a lot to do with it, but in my view, the old way of getting hitched was far superior to modern ways.
Before we change directions to follow the paths of Joe and Minnie, let’s return to close out the story of Joe’s parents, Will and Sarah.
After a few more years of working for Elias, Will, Sarah, and their oldest son Leroy – a bachelor – had accumulated sufficient funds to buy a place to call their own.  On January 2, 1907, they purchased 100 acres along Licklog Branch and Peckerwood Road for $450.  Will and Sarah turned 60- and 56-years old later that year, and both of them called that place home – the only one they ever owned – for the next twenty years.  No longer in use, the home they built with their own hands on land acquired after decades of toil, still stands, though it is unoccupied.  Ironically, it was sold after their deaths to a couple who had lived on Indian Creek in Swain County, having been forced out when the National Park was created.  Baxter and Docia Parris Laney lived out the balance of their own lives there.  Interestingly, the groom in one of the weddings which Will had conducted in Swain County was George Laney, the younger brother of Baxter, so the Laneys and Casadas would have already known each other.  The former Laney and Casada home place is now in the good hands of the Laney’s grandson, Wade Patterson, a Clay County native with a deep and abiding affection for his people and the place that he calls home.

The Casada/Laney home place on Licklog Branch in Clay County
(Don Casada)

A different side of Will

There is a family story about their youngest son, Laddie, which is as touching as Will’s funeral sermon was harsh.  Laddie was, to use an old term which rightly reflects specialness, “touched.” Grandma Minnie said that Laddie, though weak-minded, was possessed of limitless patience and kindness.  Aunt Emma told the story – no doubt passed on from her forebears – that animals sensed the special nature in Laddie, and that birds would even come light on his shoulder.  Laddie died at the age of thirteen (cause unknown) exactly two weeks after Will and Sarah acquired the home on Licklog, and was buried in nearby Union Hill Cemetery.  According to Laddie’s older brother, Tom, the family dog so loved Laddie that each day he would go from the house to the cemetery and lie on Laddie’s grave until someone came to retrieve him in the evening.  A half year later, that faithful companion crossed over to join Laddie. 

The simple words on Laddie’s tombstone, which no doubt came from his father, reveal a softer and considerably more insightful side to that hard-shell Baptist preacher:

Of such is the kingdom of heaven

Well, here we are with a lot of words spent and I don’t even have Joe and Minnie anywhere close to starting on their journey which Wendy asked me to write about.  Please come back and see us; the tale of their going is a-coming.
Gravestone of young William L. "Laddie" Casada, a boy who was truly touched
(Don Casada)


  1. Very interesting. I believe I have visited your family homestead above the falls. Did you write an article about it in the Smoky Mountain Times a few years ago? I read that article and decided to visit the site. I followed the branch up past the falls to wear the land flattened out. There was an old stone wall that appeared to be the entrance to the property. You could still see some rocks that appeared to be the foundation of a barn, part of an old vehicle and part of a road. It was very peaceful, however, I felt like an intruder into someone's lives and memories. I am glad that the park is there for everyone to enjoy but to me it is always a little sad to see the old homesteads and no that at one time these places teemed with life and activity. When I see the perennial flowers that mark some of the old homesteads I always think of the farm woman who took the time to plant them almost 100 years ago. Also, you have to marvel at how tough and self reliant these people were. That home site is a long way out of town to walk or ride in a wagon.

    Great story. Thanks for sharing, and I am looking forward to the next one.

  2. I suspect that, from your description, you didn't quite make it up to the Casada home place. The location where you found the vehicle parts was the home site of Ben Lollis, who bought the property from my grandparents. I completely agree with your thought that the rocks just above there were for a barn foundation. There is a completely fallen chimney pile sort of in between the vehicle parts and the barn. Ben's home was a box structure, according to NC Park Commission records. It's my conjecture that he actually moved the original chimney, which was from the place where the Casada family lived, down to where he built the new home.

    Should you go back up, I'd encourage you to go around into the hollow just west of the Lollis home site. There's a bit of a footpath that will mark the way. About 100 yards around that way, look down below the path and you'll see some metal which was used to keep leaves, etc. out of the spring.

    The Casada home was about another 0.2 miles above the Lollis place. It was definitely a log cabin (per my father), and of course had a chimney. But there's no chimney pile - which is why I think Ben hauled the rocks down to use at the new place. There is a rocked-in spring, a rock wall which extends across the hollow immediately above the Casada home site, and a thicket of japonica (flowering quince), mock orange, and some daylilies where the home stood. About 30 yards southeast of the home site is a second-growth yellow poplar which is around 3 ft in diameter. There are several other sizable trees in the area, including walnut, ash, and oak. Most of those have grown from seed since the park was created (definitely the poplar, since it is in the middle of what was the garden area).

    There's also a rock wall close to the branch down below the home. But there’s a particularly impressive rock wall starting about 150 or 200 yards above the homesite. That wall runs alongside a wet weather branch which, in times of heavy rain, really gets rolling. That rock wall is roughly 150 yards long.

    I don't talk about the home site on Juneywhank as a part of the follow-up article (it's about the journey), but if there is interest, maybe Wendy will ask me to do another piece sometime about the home place itself.

    I have a bit different take on visiting these places which I'd encourage you to consider. Instead of feeling like an intruder, consider yourself as a guest whose visit is paying tribute to the folks that once called the place a home. It is important, in my view, to - just as you clearly do – recall that these were once places of hard work, places of joys and sorrows. As you note, those were tough people who had to be both smart and hard-working just to make do.