Monday, August 26, 2013

A Goldmine Branch Childhood (A Story of the Cole Hyatt Family - Part I)

For those who are receiving this twice, I offer my apologies.  I appear to be having 'new blogger issues' and was having difficulty getting the feed to go through to subscribers.  I have taken out the troublesome issues, and will hope that this one will come through to you.

Lawrence Hyatt, a cousin to Christine Cole Proctor and Leonard Cole of last week's article, is another of those individuals who has contributed immeasurably to my study of the former families and communities of the North Shore of Fontana Lake.  I have spent countless hours with him, in-person, on the phone and through email, learning something new every time we speak.  When I originally set out to write about Lawrence and his family, I had intended to do it as a single article.  However, he has plied me with far too many good stories to limit his family to a single entry.  Therefore, I am publishing the story of the Cole Hyatt family's life until around 1940 in today's entry, and will finish Lawrence's tale next week.
The Zach Beasley home place, modern-day.  Note the front
porch steps within the fence.

For me, there is something truly sacred about the area surrounding the Old NC 288 Boat Ramp just west of Bryson City.  I love to sit in the pavilion built on the foundation of the former Zach Beasley home place, look down at its stone steps, and drink from the spring just beyond it.  I enjoy sitting in quiet contemplation of the lives lived at this place, and of the lives of all the people who once called the land to the west of here, 'Home'.  I look down on 'Old 288' below and think of all the travelers who once hastened along this byway....tow town, to home, to work, to church and to other pastimes.  I also think of of the last trips people made along this road....some filled with eager anticipation of a new life ahead, and others filled with sadness and longing for the homes they would never see again.

Nathan Columbus and Effie Brendle
(Photo provided by Lawrence Hyatt)
Nathan Columbus Brendle built this home in the early 1900's on land which had been in his family for decades.  Together, he and his wife, Harriet Effie Sitton, raised 12 children here.

The former Nathan Brendle home, bought by Zach Beasley in
the 1920's.  (Photo placed by David Monteith)

One of these children was a daughter by the name of Fannie Olive, who was born in 1895.  She was a striking young woman, with olive skin and dark hair reflective of her family's Cherokee ancestry.  On a day sometime around 1911 or thereabouts, a tall, dark and handsome young man from Goldmine Branch happened to pass by on his way to town and spied the raven-locked beauty.  Thereafter, he decided that walking or riding his horse to town was far preferable to taking the train, and he began to make frequent trips to Bryson City to court the comely Fannie.  Abraham Cole Hyatt and Fannie Olive Brendle were married at the Brendle home place on September 16, 1912.

Cole and Fannie Hyatt Family, circa 1917/18
Photo provided by Lawrence Hyatt

They moved to Goldmine Branch, where they resided near Cole's parents, Elias David Brendle and Polly (Buchanan) Hyatt.  Their first home there was a tiny cabin, but as soon as he could, Cole set to building a new home for his wife and the children they began welcoming to the family in 1914.  Hand-planing  every board, and hand-riving every shingle while working full-time for the Norwood Lumber Company, he steadily built a four-room home for his growing family....a true labor of love.  On a visit to his old home place in 2011, I must admit to having a tear in my eye as I watched Lawrence holding one of those boards left behind when the house was torn down for its lumber in the late 1940's.  The board had been preserved in the water of the branch near the home, almost as if waiting for his return.  In this home, Cole and Fannie raised 7 children:  Walter (1913), Dillard (1916), Wade (1919), Gertrude (1923), Oliver (1925), Lawrence (1934), and Lucille (1936).

Left:  Cole Hyatt home on Goldmine  Branch (NARA);
Right: Lawrence Hyatt holding a board from the home.
(Photo by Don Casada)
During the week, Cole went to work and the children went to school once they were old enough.  They attended the Forney Creek School until it was closed in 1940; subsequently, the children attended school at Bushnell.  On Sundays, the family went to the Forney Creek Baptist Church, where Cole was a deacon and a trustee.  Afterward, they would frequently join the family of John and Emeline Cole for Sunday dinner.  John and Cole were second cousins and their families were (and remain) exceptionally close.

Life during that time was one of hard work for all members of the family, children included.  It was very much a subsistence lifestyle, with very little money to pay for even the most basic of necessities.  This became even more pronounced after Norwood burned in 1925 and Cole's occupation became primarily that of a farmer.  He hewed oak crossties off the property and sold them to the Southern Railway, worked as a local man with the CCC, and picked up odd jobs with local businesses and individuals to supplement the family's income when he could.  Lawrence recalls that even during these times, there was never any shortage of his mother's excellent food but does point out with a laugh that, even with little money to go around, Fannie still had her scruples about what would and would not be served at her table.  Possum was strictly forbidden, and she only cooked a raccoon once.  Frog legs were similarly verboten, as she claimed that on the one occasion she'd tried to fry them, the legs had started jumping around in the hot grease!

More than economic privation, the one shadow that loomed over the family for many years began in 1940, when 3 year-old Lucille began to stumble about the house and was subsequently diagnosed with infantile paralysis:  polio, as we now call it.  Fortunately for the Hyatt family, the local doctor sent Lucille to a polio specialist in Asheville who was able to bring the progression of her disease to a rapid halt.  Compared to other children afflicted with the condition who often died or became paralyzed, Lucille was fortunate.  Her disease created weakness in the left arm and leg and a left foot that turned inward, forcing her to limp.  Despite a series of corrective surgeries, Lucille never experienced a full recovery and today, at the age of 76, continues to experience sequelae from her disease.

 A poster from the 40's / 50's, spreading
awareness of polio.

In spite of difficult times, life was one of happy and oft-amusing memories for a young Lawrence.  He recalls panning for gold with his father on Hyatt Branch after the fields had been tended.  He is also reminded of taking corn for grinding at the mill of his neighbor and local schoolteacher Evion Hall, and seeing what new invention or plaything the inventive Evion had created.  However, many of his stories tend to center around memorable interactions with animals.  He can remember many a day that a truck would pass by the home on the way to Will Jenkins's home, loaded with some new form of livestock.  Due to Will's extensive livestock hobby, this was a constant and entertaining show.  Lawrence also had his own share of entertainment with the family's animals. 

Push the "Play" button on the link below to listen to Lawrence describe a particularly interesting encounter with a member of the family's cattle herd.  This was recorded during the previously-mentioned trip to Lawrence's home site.


Aside from battles with domestic animals, the Hyatt family often encountered problems with wild animals, bears being one of the most difficult to deal with.  Near the present-day tunnel at the end of the Road to Nowhere, Cole Hyatt had a large apple orchard in which he also planted corn.  Despite the presence of a nine-rail fence about 5 feet in height, a particularly troublesome bear was laying waste to the apple trees.  Cole was forced to set a large bear trap there, which he hid in some bramble to catch the unsuspecting beast.  Every morning, he would walk a mile and a half from home to cover the trap with a large chestnut board so that passers-by would not be seriously injured by inadvertent springing of the trap.  Every evening, he would walk back to uncover it.  This continued on for quite some time, with the bear continually evading the trap.  On a July morning in 1940, Cole and Fannie had to take young Lucille to Asheville for the first of several corrective surgeries on her foot.  As Oliver was not the oldest boy in the home, care of the trap fell to him for the day while Cole was gone.  Feeling certain that this day would be as equally uneventful as recent ones had been, an unarmed and unsuspecting Oliver came through the gate into the orchard and headed toward the trap.  Suddenly the bramble in which the trap lay began to shake violently and something large began to put up a terrible commotion. 
Black bear in an apple tree
Photo at httyp://
Strongly motivated by fear and a desire for self-preservation, Oliver made it back to the house in record time to get his father's shotgun and pistol. The level-headed Gertie directed Oliver to go and fetch Will Jenkins so that he would not be alone in dealing with the bruin.  Oliver did, and passed the pistol to Will.  Upon reaching the orchard and hearing the ruckus the bear was putting up, a nervous and excited Will began shooting wildly into the air, creating quite a commotion but not managing to land a single shot where it counted.  Despite some weakness in his knees, 15 year-old Oliver dispatched the bear, and he and Will managed to bring it back to the Hyatt barn.  That evening, when Cole returned home and heard the news, he asked Oliver, "Son, how did you make it over the fence?"  Oliver's reply?  "Dad, he said, "I jumped it!"  The next morning, Cole went up to the orchard to assess the prior day's events and found that Oliver's footprints could only be found in every other corn row - seven feet apart!
1940 would be marked not only by Lucille's polio and Oliver's adventures with bears, but would prove to be a turning point in the life of the Hyatt family.  A wealthy Delaware businessman, an estate on Noland Creek, a World War, and a dam named Fontana would converge during the following six years to create a period in their lives punctuated by intense happiness and economic prosperity, but which would end in an agonizing loss that they would carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Their story will conclude next week.
Acknowledgements and Sources: (
David Monteith
Interviews with Lawrence Hyatt, Christine Proctor, and Leonard Cole
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) - Atlanta
Photos courtesy of Lawrence Hyatt, Don Casada, and above-noted websites
Swain County Marriage Records
Swain County Register of Deeds office (
The Swain County Heritage Book

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 entrĂ©e 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

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

If a shoe could talk.....

I remember finding my first old home site when I was around the age of 10.  It was down in a hollow and about a mile from my home.  Not much was left of it.....a few rocks remained stacked where the chimney had been, and daylilies and mock orange grew around it.  There were some depressions in the ground that had been dug by the folks who had built that cabin long ago.  There was even some detritus left; the only thing I can specifically remember finding, though, was a child's shoe.  It had been well-preserved for decades, lying under the litter of oak leaves. 

An old shoe found at a home site in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I found myself wondering about the child or children who had worn that shoe, and what stories the shoe could share with me if only it could talk.  Could it tell me of walking to school and church? How many rows of corn had its wearer hoed?  How much work had to be done by the child's father and/or mother to earn the money to obtain it and its mate?  Could it tell me of the cold winters it protected its owner(s)' feet from?  Could it tell me about visiting the local cemetery to bury brothers, sisters, parents, or other relatives?

I so badly wanted to know.

Land acquisitions beginning in the late 1800's and continuing through the early1940's for logging, and for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Fontana Dam, National Forest lands, and what is now the Needmore Tract have left hundreds of such sites scattered throughout Swain County on public lands.  Many old sites also remain on Cherokee Tribal lands, and the lands of private owners.   To most of us, these are places of recreation and relaxation, yet for the descendants of the brave pioneers who forged a living on these lands, these places are hallowed grounds.  These sites, and the cemeteries in which their inhabitants are buried, have much to say to us about our ancestors and others whose lives have shaped these county lands for hundreds of years.

For within and without the walls of the homes and buildings once (and in some cases, still) present on these sites, real lives were lived.  Lovers married, children were birthed and raised and schooled, Christians were converted, the necessities of life were purchased, families toiled for their existence, and loved ones died.  Through site remains, cemeteries, historical records, books, old photographs, and the stories told by their former inhabitants, it is possible to know these people and their communities once again, and to leave a lasting record of their existence for posterity.  For every homesite and every tombstone has something to tell us of the lives they stand in memory of.

My goal, through this blog, and the book I am writing, is to resurrect them.

These are their stories.