Monday, September 3, 2018

The Kerley Sawmill Explosion

In searching randomly for Swain County news from 125 years ago, I tripped across today's tale, one that, though sad, deserves to be told in order to honor the victims of this tragedy.

Most Swain Countians are acquainted with several large-scale logging and milling operations that existed in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Ritter at Proctor, Norwood at Forney, Champion at Smokemont, and several others. However, many smaller operations using portable sawmills were also to be found in the mountains. These sawmills served a vital purpose for the community - producing usable lumber for building homes, barns, businesses, and other structures.

One such sawing business was located on Conley's Creek and was owned by Larkin Julius (L.J.) Kerlee. It appears to have begun operations by at least 1888, as an article in the Asheville Citizen-Times that year notes that 10 railcar loads of "elegant poplar lumber" from Kerlee had been shipped to New York. And according to the newspaper article below, some of his lumber appears to have been used to build the bridge across the Tuckasegee River in Whittier.

Source: Swain County Herald, 30 January 1890
The Kerlee family appears to have been prominent in the community, with members often making their way into the local papers. L.J. was one of three gentlemen tasked with the responsibility for holding the 1890 Democratic primary in Whittier. He was also a musician, as a newspaper article records Kerlee playing the guitar for a picnic for the Whittier School in 1890. (Though I have not researched it extensively, Kerlee [alternately spelled Kerley in other reports] was almost certainly a relative of Richard Manson Kerley, who was the first husband of Nancy Ann Conard - better known as "Nance Dude". Nancy's son, Will, settled on Conley's Creek in the 1920s.)

However, the Kerlee family's world was to be upended in 1893. On 22 September, the Murfreesboro Index (Murfreesboro, NC) had this sad news to report:

"The boiler of Kerley's saw mill, on Conley's Creek, near Whitter, Swain County, NC, exploded Monday (note: this would have been on 18 September) and instantly killed six men. Those killed are Richard Nichols, manager, of Asheville; James Kelley, Ben McMahan, Henry Smith, laborers; Jesse Gunter, farmer.

The accident is supposed to have resulted from too high pressure of steam. The mill was completely wrecked, the saws, carriage , being broken up and not a piece of the boiler was left near the foundation. The men were blown to pieces, and the fragments scattered. The number of deaths in this accident is greater than any that have occurred in this part of the state since 1883, when twenty-six men were drowned at the convict camps near the scene of the present trouble."

A steam-powered sawmill in Pennsylvania, circa 1895. It is likely that the Kerlee sawmill had a similar setup. Note the boiler on the right with the steam rising from it.
Who were the victims of this tragedy?
The employees:

  • Richard Nichols was born circa 1840 in Canada, and fought with the 23rd Michigan Infantry during the Civil War. He and his family relocated to Asheville, in the area known as the Tahkeeostee Farm (now the French Broad River Park) around 1890 and as of January 1893, he was working for the French Broad Lumber Company (likely the conduit to his employment in the sawmill). He left behind a wife and 7 children, 3 of whom were under the age of 18 at the time of his death. The estate he left was worth only $10 ($280 today). He is buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville.

Just 8 months prior to his death, Richard Nichols celebrated the marriage of one of his daughters.
Source: Asheville Citizen-Times, 26 January 1893

  • "James Kelley" was actually James O'Kelley, born 22 March 1864 in the Hominy area of Buncombe County. He was the son of Francis W. and Margaret Arminta (Young) O'Kelley. According to one account of the explosion, he was employed as a sawyer by Kerlee. At the time of his death, his estate was worth $200 ($5,600 today) and it appears to have been divided amongst his siblings. His brother, Walter, had a son in 1895 whom he named after his brother. He is buried in the Mount Pisgah Baptist Church Cemetery in Candler.
Probate record for James O'Kelley
  • Henry Smith was an African-American man from the community then known as "Coopers" (now Swannanoa) in Buncombe County. He was employed as the "fireman" for the mill on that fateful day. He presumably is the Henry Smith that married Matilda Patton in Asheville in 1881 and had at least one child, William, who was born in 1888. The newspaper reports that his body was returned to the Asheville area; as such, it is my presumption that he is buried in the South Asheville Cemetery, which was the primary designated cemetery for African-Americans in that area at that time.
The customers:
  • Ben (born 26 March 1871) and Lee McMahan (Lee being the unnamed 6th individual killed, born 06 February 1875) were the sons of John and Rutha (Dillard) McMahan. Tragedy stalked this family. The boys' 2 year-old brother, John, died in 1882; their father, John, died in 1885, their brother, William Love, died in 1891; and another brother, General Pinkney, had just died in May 1893. It is difficult to fathom the grief their widowed mother must have felt when she lost these boys, particularly in such close proximity to the death of Pinkney. Neither Ben nor Lee appear to have been married. They are buried near their parents and siblings in the Barkers Creek Cemetery.
  • Jessie Bowman Gunter (born 19 August 1867) was the son of George Marion and Elizabeth (Nations) Gunter. He married Tennessee "Tennie" Carringer of Graham County in 1889 and they had at least one child, Maggie, who was 3 years old at the time of his death (Tennie remarried in 1894 and stated for the 1900 census that she had 5 children, 4 of whom remained living. It is possible that the deceased child was also Jessie's.) He is buried in the Marion Gunter family cemetery in Whittier.
George Marion and Elizabeth Nations Gunter, parents of Jessie Bowman Gunter.
Source: Findagrave user "Troy", on GM Gunter findagrave memorial

As for the Kerlee family, after that sad day, L.J. stayed in the milling business for at least a time, as he's recorded as working as a sawyer for the Coffin and McDonald sawmill in 1896. By 1900 his family had returned to Buncombe County, and by 1910 they had made the permanent move to Skagit County, Washington, where he died in 1933.

What a sad day for the Whittier community.

(Postscript: The other tragedy referred to in the article above refers to the Cowee Tunnel disaster, in which 19 African-American convicts drowned while working to build the Southern Railway in Dillsboro. There is an excellent article on it located at this link.)
Asheville Citizen-Times, 17 May 1888.
Asheville Citizen-Times, 26 Jan 1893.
Asheville Weekly Citizen, 21 Sep 1893.
Bryson City Times, 03 Apr 1896. user "Troy".
Murfreesboro Index, 22 Sep 1893.
Muskogee Phoenix, 21 Sep 1893.
Pennsylvania Roots website:
Swain County Herald, 30 Jan 1890.
Swain County Herald, 05 Jun 1890.
Washington Gazette, 28 Sep 1893.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Vanishing Landscapes - Old Barns

Little by little, Swain County's history vanishes every year, both in terms of the loss of the people who once called it home, but also in the buildings that are torn down for various reasons. Lately I've been taking long drives through the county in search of old places to photograph before they, too, disappear forever. Today in lieu of a lengthy piece, I thought I'd share some photos of some of the old barns in the county - both past and present. Most of these are from the western end of the county.

If any of you, my wonderful readers,have particular memories of these barns or the folks who owned them, please do share in the comments or via email ( Additionally, if you know of any old barns that you'd like to see photographed, please reach out to me and I'll be happy to do that so long as they are easily accessed (I'd love to do another photo series on them).


Upper Brush Creek

Bryson Branch (note the antique car under it)

Cowan Wikle's barn in Lauada (just off NC 28)
Information provided by Bill Burnette

Old Deep Creek Road

Silvermine Creek

Wesser Creek

Lower Brush Creek


All photos taken by Wendy Meyers
Bill Burnette (ownership of barn in Lauada)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Swain County's World War 1 Dead - A Request

Cross at the grave of Private Fred Mathis
Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial
Lorraine, France
Photo Credit: soilsister at

Dear Readers:
The 100th anniversary of Swain County's active involvement in World War 1 overseas is upon us. Of the 22 Swain County soldiers who died during the "Great War", 14 died between September and November 1918. I think it's important to honor the enormous sacrifice made by these young men and I'd like to put together a couple of blog pieces (for fall publication) about them.

While I have most of the basic information on each of these soldiers (where they were from, date of birth, date and place of death, and cemetery), I do not have much additional information on the majority of them. That's where you and/or people you know come in. I would love to have pictures, letters, personal anecdotes, or any other additional information I can get that would bring them to life on this blog.

The names of Swain County's WW1 dead are as follows:

Barker, William Harvey
Bates, Everett
Cathey, Charles Clyde
Cochran, John Thomas
Franklin, Walter Isaac
Freeman, Caro (There is a good amount of information on Caro on his page as well as in the Swain County Heritage book, but I'd love more.)
Kalonaheskie, Joe
Kincaid, James William
Leatherwood, James L
Mashburn, Earnest Loyd
Mason, William
Mathis, Fred
Moore, Grady C
Queen, James Robert
Shuler, Finley
Shuler, William
Stephenson, William Berry
Styles, Andy
Turner, Floyd C
Wiggins, John W
Winchester, Benjamin Harrison
Youngdeer, Steve

If you or a family member/acquaintance are in possession of any material you'd like to see used to honor these brave soldiers, please get in touch with me in either the comments section (please include your email address), via email at, or via the Facebook page. You will be credited as the source of the material when the blog is published.

Thank you for your consideration!


Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Lambs of the Tabor Cemetery

Today I was enjoying my last day of vacation and chose to take a drive out to an area of the county I don't get out to nearly as frequently as I should - the Highway 28 corridor going from Lauada to Franklin. I had no particular destination in mind but while on Brush Creek, I noted a tiny sign for the Tabor Cemetery on the left and decided to follow it. Upon topping out on a hill above the creek, I found one of the most beautiful and well-tended cemeteries I've ever had the pleasure of visiting. 

Photo credit: Wendy Meyers

I love looking at old tombstones - not only because of the curiosity I have about the lives of the people they commemorate, but also for the artistry of the stones themselves. Whilst wandering through the stones at this cemetery, I noted something 'different' here amongst the ones marking the graves of children. In older cemeteries, lambs are often seen on the headstones of children - most of the cemeteries in Swain County have them. However, the Tabor Cemetery has a very interesting array of lamb stones - at least 7 different types - such that I felt them to be worthy of their own blog article. Some of these are below.

I would encourage all who are interested to visit this peaceful cemetery and view the beautiful stones that, while unique, are a bittersweet reminder of the very tenuous existence of children in days not so long past in these mountains.

Frank West was born on September 10, 1905, died on October 5, 1905 of unknown causes. He was the son of Henry and Minnie (nee' Marr) West. His parents are buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Macon County.

Photo credit: Wendy Meyers

Everett Bates Jr., was born on February 27, 1919, and died on January 1, 1921 of meningitis. He was the son of Everett Robert and Lillie (nee' Marr) Bates. Everett Sr. was shipped to the World War 1 front in 1918, leaving behind Lillie, who was pregnant. He died in combat in France in November of that year before his son was even born. His remains appear to have been repatriated, and are interred near those of Everett Jr.. Lillie was remarried (to Floyd Cunningham) in March 1921 and is buried in Swain Memorial Park.

Photo credit: Wendy Meyers

Troy Tabor was born on October 3, 1928, and died on December 22, 1928 of unknown causes. His parents are unknown (no death certificate was filed), however, he may have been the son of the Reverend John and Amanda (nee' Cookston) Tabor, who he is buried next to.

Photo credit: Wendy Meyers

John H. Watkins was born and died on March 17, 1929 of unknown causes.  He was the son of Emlis Floyd and Delsia Angeline (nee' Anderson) Watkins. His parents are buried in the Derreberry Cemetery in Cherokee County.

Photo credit: Wendy Meyers

Kathleen Tabor was born on October 9, 1942 and died on January 13, 1946 of diphtheria.  (Note: her death certificate states that she was born in 1941). She was the daughter of Verlin and Louise (nee' Welch) Tabor, who are buried next to her.

Photo credit: Wendy Meyers

Melvon Ray Burnette was born on January 11, 1945, and died on February 6, 1945 of pneumonia. He was the son of Don Melvin and Jessie (nee' Howard) Burnette, who are buried next to him. (Note: His tombstone may contain a misspelling, as Macon County birth records spell his name as 'Melvin'.)

Photo credit: Wendy Meyers

Robert Zane Nelson was born and died April 12th, 1962 of unknown causes. He was the son of John E. and Wanda (nee' Tabor) Nelson, who are buried in the cemetery with him.

Photo credit: Wendy Meyers


Note to the reader: to reach the Tabor Cemetery, take US 19-74 west from Bryson City and turn left on NC 28 South at the old 'King's Grocery' (Texaco gas station). Drive approximately 5.5 miles and take a left on Brush Creek Road. Approximately 1 mile up the road, it will split, with Marr Creek going straight ahead and Brush Creek going off to the right - stay on Brush Creek. In about 0.3 miles, you'll see a sign for Dan Springs Baptist Church on the right. About 0.1 miles past that, you'll see a low sign for the Tabor Cemetery on the left. Take the left and follow the gravel road about 0.1 mile to the cemetery at the top of a hill.

As always, please reach out with any corrections you might have or other information/pictures you feel could add substance to this article.


Burnette family members (information on Melvon Burnette cause of death)
Ed Ammons (information on Robert Zane Nelson's parents)
Kathy and Ryan Bennett (information on Robert Zane Nelson's parents)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Flu and a Murder

Note to the reader: some of the text is appearing in different fonts and sizes. I did not wish to hold up publication for this issue, but am trying to rectify the issue. Hopefully it will not be too distracting.

Flu season is in full swing now, and it seems to be a particularly deadly one. Swain County had its fair share of flu deaths over the years, particularly during the 'Spanish flu' epidemic of 1918.

According to death certificates filed with the state of North Carolina, influenza claimed the lives of 14 people (7 adults and 7 children) in Swain County during the 1919 - 1920 flu season (which I have arbitrarily defined as November 1919 through May 1920). This represents possibly one third to one half of the actual deaths due to the flu, as many deaths were not registered on actual death certificates in those early days. The most remarkable death associated with this flu season, however, was that of a nurse taking care of a flu-afflicted family.

Columbus Lafayette Wiggins (October 1880 - February 25, 1920) was the son of Abraham and Clara (nee' Whiteside) Wiggins and grew up in Swain County. In 1906, he married Laura Alice Weeks (June 28, 1885 - Dec 31, 1964) and settled in the Qualla area (later moving to Deep Creek) to raise his family. On January 19, 1920, the census taker visited and recorded Columbus as being employed as a carpenter, married to Laura, and the father of 5 children (Ralph, Ila, Glen, Grady, and Millard).

Abraham and Clara Wiggins Family (Columbus is in the back row in the middle)
Source: user maryberrong
That year, the Needmore area was said to have been especially hard-hit with the flu. One of the afflicted families was that of James William 'Willie' Wikle (1878 - 1923), consisting of Willie, his wife Pearl (nee' Potts) (1885 - 1971), and their children Everett, Nancy, Earl, Mae, and Maude. They lived on Hightower Road in a home close to where Wikle Branch crosses under the road. Their  children attended the Hightower School.

Family of Thomas and Louisa (nee' Breedlove) Wikle, circa 1885.
Willie is on the far left.
Photo provided by Fran Rogers.

Willie Wikle with son Everett in his lap, circa 1907
Photo provided by Fran Rogers
Such was the apparent need in the Needmore area that it seems volunteers were recruited from around the county by the Red Cross to help provide care to those families affected by the flu. One of these volunteers was Columbus, who was paired with a girl whose name was only given as "Dehart", to provide care for the Wikles. It is unclear how many days he had been helping to care for the family, but newspaper accounts state that he had helped them "day and night". 

On February 25th, Columbus took a brief walk outside the Wikle home. Just prior to his return to the home, Willie asked Pearl, who was one of the family members afflicted with the flu, to turn her head to the wall. Newspaper accounts vary as to whether Columbus went to tend to Pearl or to two of the children upon his return, but all accounts agree that when he did, Willie attacked him with a knife and inflicted between eight and ten ghastly wounds, including four to the throat - killing him.
Probable site of the Wiggins murder, on Hightower Road past Wikle Branch
Photo taken by Wendy Meyers

The other possible location of the murder - in a home just across the road.
Pearl Wikle is recalled as having lived here after Will Wikle's death.
Photo taken by Wendy Meyers

Wikle was arrested within hours of the murder by Sheriff Rollins Thomasson and two deputies, and held at the Swain County jail pending a grand jury hearing. Two days later, he attempted suicide by slashing his own throat but failed to inflict enough damage to kill himself. What we would today likely term an "emergency hearing" was then convened at which Judge Thaddeus Dillard Bryson II rendered an insanity determination and remanded Will to the insane ward for criminals at the state prison in Raleigh.

Various theories were advanced for the murder, including:
  • Jealousy or anger on Willie's part over a supposed romantic relationship between Columbus and the "DeHart girl" (note: according to the 1920 census, the nearest DeHart girls living in proximity to the Wikles were Will's nieces Mary Jane and Delsie);
  • Religious differences, in that Columbus was a member of the Pilgrim Holiness Church (what we now know today as the Wesleyan Church) and the Wikles were not. Willie was infuriated when Columbus prayed over his family in the manner of his church; and
  • Willie had become ill with flu and was so febrile that he had 'gone mad'. This is certainly what his brother believed, as shown in the brief letter below.
Letter to the editor of the Union Republican (Winston-Salem) newspaper, written
by Willie Wikle's brother John Riece Wikle from Duvall, NC
 (a small community in rural Macon County).
Published March 18, 1920.

At the time of his death, Columbus left behind his wife Laura, his 5 living children (the oldest of whom was 12 at the time of the murder), his unborn child, Ruby (born in June 1920), and his father. He was buried in the Deep Creek Cemetery.

In July of that year, Willie was reported to have returned from Raleigh to Swain County to stand trial. What happened after that time is unclear, as he does not appear to have gone to prison and presumably was sent home. Regrettably, no newspapers from the 1920's in Swain County are available to tell us the rest of his story. One of Columbus's grandchildren with whom I spoke said that Laura's attitude toward Willie Wikle's prosecution was, "If Columbus were here, he would say, 'Let the Lord deal with him'." 
NC Central Prison (year unknown)
Willie and Pearl Wikle had no other children after the murder, and Willie died not too many years afterward, on April 26th, 1923. His presumed cause of death was a stroke (his death certificate records that his right side was paralyzed). He is buried in the Grave Gap (also known as Windy Gap) Cemetery along with many of his kin. Shortly thereafter, Pearl Wikle married Charlie Dehart (a neighbor in the community) and bore daughters Edna (1924-2014) and Pauline (1926-2007) and life continued on.

Ninety-eight years have now passed, but such was the impact of the murder on the isolated community that Columbus Wiggins' tragic demise is still spoken of today amongst the old Needmore families. With the tale's players long-dead, we will never truly know what drove one well-respected man to kill another on that cold winter day in February 1920.

Whatever the case, may they both rest in peace. 


Sources: user maryberrong (photo)
Asheville Citizen-Times, February 29, 1920
Edwin Ammons (location of the murder and of Duvall, NC)
Fran Rogers (photos)
Glenna Wiggins Trull, granddaughter of Columbus Wiggins (family's perspective on the murder) (photo)
The Fayetteville Observer, March 12, 1920
The Union Republican, March 18, 1920 and July 15, 1920
The Winston-Salem Journal, February 26, 1920 and March 2, 1920

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Icy Winter of 1876-1877

It has been bitterly cold here in Swain County for the past 7-10 days, so much so that many small streams in the area are completely frozen over in places, and the rivers appear to be on their way. I have been watching ice floes float down the Tuckasegee River for several days now. During this week, I was reminded of an account I had read in a family history book that pertained to a particularly cold winter in Swain County, and wanted to share it with my readers. I hope that you will enjoy this little sojourn into the past.

Ice on the Tuckasegee River at Governor's Island, 1/5/2018
Wendy Meyers

The late John Reid Ashe (1908 - 1988) and his wife Wilma McHan Ashe (1914 - 2004) were prolific researchers, writers, and promoters of family and county history. In fact, one of the original driving forces for the Swain County Heritage Museum was Wilma Ashe, and it is very unfortunate that she did not live to see her dream come to fruition. The paternal side of John Ashe's family ran deep in the Judson area, and he wrote about his family and the history of the area in a very comprehensive book entitled "Ash-Ashe-Stillwell, A Genealogy and History". In the book, he records the story of the winter during which his grandparents, David (1856 - 1926) and Candace ([nee' Stillwell] 1862 - 1939) Ashe were married (they married on December 28, 1876).

David Reed and Candace (nee' Stillwell) Ashe
Source: Ash-Ashe-Stillwell

"Dave Ashe married Candace Stillwell in 1876. In those times the newlyweds usually lived with the parents of the groom until a 'Log Rolling' could be planned and a cabin of their own built. This winter turned out to be one of the coldest on record. All streams were frozen over solidly. Holes had to be cut in the ice daily to obtain water for survival."

Amos Ashe (note: father of David Ashe) had a roller mill powered by water. On sunny days all men pitched in and chipped ice from the millrace and the overshot wheel. Only a small amount of grain could be ground before it refroze and this was divided among those who needed it most. 
Amos Ashe Millrace, 1909
Source: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Archives and
Western Carolina University Special Collections
Amos Ashe Mill, 1909
Source: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Archives and 
Western Carolina University Special Collections

On their first trip home to visit her parents after they were married, they rode horses. They crossed the Little Tennessee River twice and 'Never a hoof broke through the ice'. Spring came early. Gardens and field crops were planted when the spring thaw came. Huge ice jams formed and backed water and ice floes into the fields and gardens. At that time, the streams were lined with virgin timber. This ice chipped the bark and wood from them and many of the huge trees were completely destroyed."

Ash-Ashe-Stillwell: A Genealogy and History by John Reid Ashe (Note: this book is available for viewing at the Marianna Black Library in Bryson City)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Archives
Swain County Marriage Register
Western Carolina University Special Collections