Thursday, October 31, 2013

Making the Music

In Memphis we stayed at the Tom Sawyer RV Park which is on the Arkansas side in West Memphis and sits right on the Mississippi. I mean Right On. This is the view out our windshield. That water in front of you is the Mississippi River, about a half-mile across at this point. We were supposed to have a back-in camp site in the woods a couple of hundred yards away from the river, but when Vicki signed in she could not control herself and upgraded us to a riverfront slot for an extra five bucks a day. It was nice. Barge traffic moseys past at a leisurely pace at all hours of the day and night. Generally the barges are spaced out at about 20-30 min. intervals but occasionally we would have them pass each other going opposite directions just outside our front window. We would take our chairs down to the river bank and read and relax in the evenings with the puppies, who seemed to enjoy it though I doubt it had the same aesthetic effect on them as it did on us.
Schnoodles lazily lounging at the river's edge.
Beale Street
Our first day in town we wandered down to Beale Street, which is the Memphis equivalent of Broadway in Nashville. But in Memphis, the musical style is the southern blues. Instead of honky-tonk bars, they have blues bars, cafés and restaurants and the music doesn't usually start until about 6 PM. We wandered around the area to get a feel for the place but the truth is, neither of us is particularly enthralled with southern blues. I can appreciate Beale Street from a music history standpoint but as far as actually going in and listening, neither of us was that interested.

There was something nearby, however, that I was quite interested in. A large Gibson guitar factory sits just a block over from Beale Street. Gibson currently has five or six guitar factories scattered around the country. The big acoustic dreadnought style guitars are all made in Montana. What they make in Memphis are hollow body and semi-solid body electric guitars. The solid body electrics, like the standard Les Pauls, are made at several sites, the main one being in Nashville. But the Memphis factory is the only one you can get a tour of so I took what I could get.

No photographs are allowed inside the factory. In fact, they make you put your camera in an opaque plastic bag and if you take it out they will escort you off the premises. I couldn't really understand this given that they not only show you the entire process but explain it in great detail and will happily answer any questions you may have about how the guitars are made, so it can hardly be a proprietary information issue. Maybe it is an issue of privacy for their workers, I don't know. In any event, we saw the complete assembly line from the arrival of the wood at the factory door to the polishing and testing of the completed instruments at the far end of the line. There is no robotic equipment involved, nor a mechanized assembly-line like you would see an auto plant. The guitars are hand carried from station to station and the most interesting thing about the whole process is what a huge percentage of it is still done free hand by people who simply know what they are doing. The tour takes about an hour but making a guitar takes 2-3 weeks. The factory covers about 1.5-2 acres and looked like it had 50 or 60 people working which resulted in a production rate of about 50-60 guitars a day.

The last station in the production process is where they install the electrical pickups, string the instrument and take it for a test drive. This is the only place in the factory where you have to actually be able to play guitar in order to work there. The guy that puts the strings on plays the instrument for five or 10 min., then it goes to a second level of inspection in some quieter room where they can get a better feel for the guitar's performance. If either of these guys is not completely happy with the instrument, it gets tossed. They said this applies to about 8% of the guitars that they produce. The problem may be fairly minor but if a guitar is not up to their standards, they don't want it appearing on the street where it may damage their reputation. So they don't sell "seconds". A guitar that doesn't come up to snuff goes into the shredder.

Pretty maids all in a row
I don't know if there is anywhere else in the country you can take this kind of tour, so if you have $10 to spare, any interest at all in guitars and you are anywhere in the area then by all means go by the Gibson factory. And if you have another $3000 burning a hole in your pocket, they will happily sell you a guitar while you are there. Reservations are recommended and we had called and gotten a reservation a couple days ahead of time. But we got stuck in traffic trying to get across the Mississippi had to call and reschedule for the next tour which turned out to be a non-issue so I would say that, at least in October, signing up at the last minute is not a huge problem.

Officially a dive
After the tour, we went to eat at another "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" place, a BBQ joint just outside of the downtown area. It was not a diner, nor was it a drive in but it definitely qualified in the dive category. This is a place where, just driving by, you would not even consider stopping to eat. In fact, once you get inside there is still a fairly strong temptation to turn around and walk out again. But the food was pretty good. I had a half a rack of ribs and they were delicious. The side items were good too. Vicki had a Cornish game hen but complained that it was a little dry. I took her word for it.
Good ribs on paper plates

Then it was back to Tom Sawyer's to relax by the riverside and enjoy the stately progression of commerce. I ordered Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" for my Kindle since the copyright is expired and it's free. Christopher didn't particularly like it when he read it for school but I have rather enjoyed it and it's fun to read about the places that we are visiting from the vantage point of 140 years ago. So while there are no stern wheelers to be seen, we did sit out and watch the river traffic while I read my book and had a nice cold beer. Life is good.
Moonlight on the Mississippi

Friday, October 25, 2013

Music City

We packed up in Gatlinburg, David and Jamie turned in their "fun" Jeep and we all piled into the motorhome to drive to Nashville for the last part of the week. David and Jamie had booked a room at Gaylord's Grand Ole Opry Hotel while we were staying a few blocks down at the Two Rivers RV campground, which was not cheap but was way cheaper than staying at Gaylord's Grand Ole Opry Hotel. That night, we had dinner at the hotel. It was an excellent dinner but we did pay what, on normal rations, would have been enough to keep us comfortably fed for 4-5 days. Part of that cost is attributable to the consumption of "Tennessee Tea", an alcoholic beverage built around Johnny Walker whiskey that raised our spirits significantly but also left us incapable of tracking how much money we were lavashing on dinner.

Broadway at night.  We never saw this.
Now I have to admit to a somewhat distressing truth. We finished dinner shortly after nine o'clock at which time Jamie and David, as they did every night while we were in Nashville, headed downtown to Broadway to party the night away listening to music. At the same time Vicki and I, as we did every night while we were in Nashville, went back to our motorhome and sat in our chairs like slugs. It is disturbing to realize what old fuddy-duddies we have become, but no matter how good the music is we are no longer capable of barhopping and drinking and listening until the wee small hours of the morning. (To be totally honest, I would've been willing to bar hop for an hour or two. Vicki is a bigger fuddy-duddy than I am.)

Vickie and Jamie on Broadway
After closing the bars down, Jamie and David did not crawl, bleary-eyed, out of bed until about lunchtime, at which point their dearest desire for the day was to go back to Broadway and bar hop some more. With the sun directly overhead, Vicki was willing to go along and so we went off to Broadway for lunch. Broadway in Nashville is an amazing place.  The relevant section is about three blocks long and has, I don't know, maybe a dozen honky-tonk type bars, most of which also serve some form of solid calories. And they have live music. Some of them are three stories high and have a different band or performer on each floor. The music starts at 10 o'clock the morning and doesn't stop until 3 AM. There is no cover charge, all you have to do is sit there and enjoy the music and order an occasional drink or a sandwich or something. And these musicians are good.

Think about it. Nashville is the Mecca of country music. If you live in Huntsville, Kentucky, or Athens, Tennessee or Martinez, Georgia and you are the best damn musician in
Rippey's on the corner
town, you probably think you have a future in the country music business and the way you pursue that is to go to Nashville. So the place is absolutely packed full of the best damn musician in town from every town between the Rocky Mountains and the southeastern coast, all of them looking for someplace to perform and be discovered.  The publicans along Broadway have their pick of
Live entertainment
these lost souls who range from being merely really good to positively brilliant musicians and are willing to work for audience tips and no benefits, keeping down the establishment's expenditures on personnel and providing the customers with an experience difficult to replicate anywhere else on the planet. The downside, of course, is that after six months or a year the vast majority of these performers probably end up going back to Tyler, Texas or wherever to find paying jobs.

We had lunch at Rippey's and listened to about an hour or 90 min. of pretty good music. One of the performers rattled off a list of things that you must do while in Nashville and one of them was to tour the Ryman Auditorium, which we could actually see out the front window of the bar from where we were sitting. So after a while, we all got up, threw a few bucks in the tip jar and headed up the block to do the Ryman tour.
The Ryman Auditorium, photo by Aubry Haynes
Now I am a California boy and in my formative years my musical tastes ran towards folk rock and singer songwriters like James Taylor and Jackson Browne. I have never been a big fan of country western music or any of its cousins. So the term "Ryman Auditorium" meant absolutely nothing to
Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff greet visitors
me. If you are a country fan, this is probably old news to you and you should skip down and read about Andrew Jackson's house. For those who are ignorant, like me, this is the story. The Ryman Auditorium was built by steamboat captain Thomas Ryman and originally christened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. He built it in 1892 specifically as a venue for revival meetings presented by a preacher named Samuel Porter Jones, who was the Billy Graham of his era. After Capt. Ryman died, the building was renamed the Ryman Auditorium in his honor.

The Grand Ole Opry was and is a weekly radio show on NBC affiliate WSM in Nashville, that began in 1925 and is widely credited with putting country music on the national map. It was initially broadcast from the radio station with a small live audience but as its popularity grew they had to find a larger space for the growing local fan base. As the show continued to climb in popularity they went through a half a dozen different locations, each larger than the last, before finally landing at the Ryman in June of 1943. There the show was broadcast until 1974 when they built the current Grand Ole Opry House along with a hotel and theme park on what was then the outskirts of town. During that 30 years the show hosted all of the biggest names in country music and in turn was hosted by the likes of Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Martha Carson, Minnie Pearl, and many others. The theater witnessed the birth of bluegrass music when Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs became regulars. Elvis Presley performed there one time in 1954. The manager of the theater advised him to go back to truck driving.

The next big country duo
Those 31 years as home to the classic broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry have transformed the Ryman Auditorium into hallowed ground for country music performers and their fans. The auditorium itself holds about 3000, the seating being in the form of church pews as one might expect from the building's original purpose. We got there too late for a guided tour so we guided ourselves through the building and read about the country music artifacts on display. Vicki and I paid 10 bucks to go up and have our picture taken on the stage. Then we walked the block back down to Broadway and spent another hour drinking beer and listening to music in a
Bar and performer I don't recall the names of
little bar whose name I don't even remember. The female singer and her band of three were again really good and I would have happily stayed longer but the parking tab on my car was about to run out and I did not want to have it towed away. So Jamie and David stayed behind and closed up the town again while Vicki and I walked the three blocks back to the car and drove back to our fuddy-duddy motorhome lifestyle for the rest of the evening.

The following morning (well, afternoon actually) David wanted to go visit the battlefield at Murfreesboro but, guess what, it's run by the National Park Service and was all locked up. Instead of doing that, Vicki wanted to go see the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's antebellum plantation and we dragged David and Jamie along. Andrew Jackson's political career was built upon his status as a military hero during the war of 1812
The Hermitage
after winning the Battle of New Orleans. He was a populist and unrepentant slave owner with a large plantation on the outskirts of Nashville. He is the reason Henry Clay gave his electoral college votes to John Quincy Adams in 1824 to prevent Jackson from reaching the White House. By 1828 however Jackson had the votes cold and served as our seventh president for eight years. His home has been
Back yard and former killing field
preserved as a museum since the late 1800s and has been kept in remarkably good shape (although it was narrowly missed by a tornado in 1998). The surrounding area is all ornamental trees and grassy lanes but we were told that during Jackson's lifetime this was a working farm and this whole area would have been dedicated to crops. There is also a lovely, large fenced backyard to the house which looks like a great place for kids to play but, in fact, was where they slaughtered the hogs and was apparently a bloody mess much of the time. It was a nice house with many preserved furnishings but this is the fifth antebellum estate we have toured since we entered Kentucky and the experience is frankly losing its luster. I think we will give it a rest for the remainder of the year at least.

Current Grand Ole Opry House
That night we attended the Grand Ole Opry, another item on the lists of things you have to do when you go to Nashville. It is a two-hour show, kept rigidly on schedule by the requirements of the radio broadcast. Each performer does exactly two songs before they move on. It seems a shame to have a performer travel from Austin or Atlanta just to do two numbers, but the status of the show apparently makes it worthwhile. The new Opry House continued the tradition of pew seating. Unfortunately, our pew had a couple of occupants only slightly smaller than I am resulting in their not really being enough room for all of us, so I eventually relocated to another seat and we enjoyed the show separately. Oh well.
The old custom house in Nashville, circa 1877
We said goodbye to David and Jamie in the parking lot after the show. They weren't scheduled to fly out until the following afternoon but after the Opry they were headed downtown again. We needed to be out of our motorhome Park by 11 AM and they did not expect to be up and around any earlier than that so we left them to enjoy their last half-day in Nashville on their own and headed on towards Memphis.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Not-So-Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular national park in America, annually being visited by about twice as many people as Yellowstone. The most popular time to visit the Park is in the fall when the leaves are changing colors and so, a couple of months ago, we started making plans to visit the Smoky Mountains along with Jamie and David who are… well, it's complicated. Let's just say she is the mother of Christopher's cousins and leave it at that. Jamie and David were planning to fly in from California for their first vacation in six years. We were all set for some major-league sightseeing and then, two days before they arrived, the United States government decided to take a couple of weeks off and closed all the national parks.

We had driven down from Knoxville, staying in a campground called Smokey Bear RV Park about eight miles east of Gatlinburg. It is a pleasant enough campground, we had no complaints. That first evening we went into town to see what was going on. Gatlinburg is a strange place, kind of a tourist town on steroids. Driving through town reminded me of Waikiki. The sidewalks were packed full of tourists and the cars trickled down the main drag at about 2 mph, significantly slower than the pedestrians on the sidewalks. Instead of tourist shops filled with plastic flower leis and shell necklaces there were tourist shops filled with Appalachian pseudo-crafts, probably mass-produced in Taiwan. And I asked myself the same question I was constantly asking myself when we lived on Oahu.  Who actually buys any of this junk?  There were also dozens of what I guess passes in Eastern Tennessee for tourist attractions like "Ripley's Believe It or Not" museums, mirror mazes, dark rides, spinning machines designed to make you throw up and miniature golf… lots and lots of miniature golf.

We did not go to any of these. Even the ones that might have been fun, I would've been embarrassed to be seen walking into. What we did go to was the Smoky Mountain Brewery restaurant where they make some quite excellent beers and burgers. And they validate your parking, which is important since a parking spot in Gatlinburg runs about 10 bucks per half day.

David, Jamie and the "fun vehicle"
Jamie and David flew into Knoxville that evening and took a shuttle down to Gatlinburg. What with one stopover and the three-hour time difference, they did not get in until late, 12 or 13 hours after their departure time.. They stayed in a very nice hotel up in the hills behind town and finally had dinner there at about 9 PM and we drove over and joined them for dessert. Their hotel room was probably about a mile from downtown Gatlinburg as the crow flies. We, unfortunately, are not crows so we had to take the 10 mile twisty, winding road to get there. We sat under a tarp covering on the hotel balcony eating cream Brulé as a rainstorm rolled through. It was actually rather nice.

The next day we got together to go see what we could see of the Smoky Mountains. We had mis-timed our visit by a week or two. The
Hwy 441
leaves were just starting to turn but most of the mountain sides were still pretty green. Never having spent much time in this part of the country, I expected fall to be well underway by early October but it appears that late October/early November would have been better. Although the national Park was officially closed, they couldn't very well close the main highway over the mountains, so we could at least drive through. Jamie and David had decided to rent a "fun vehicle", a jeep with a removable roof. This was high enough off the ground that I needed mountaineering equipment to climb into the backseat. That's fun, I suppose. Temperatures were in the low to mid 50s but with the top-down, rolling along at 30-40 mph the wind chill factor brought the perceived temperature down to a pleasant -10°.

We drove through the Park admiring the scenery. Of course, all of the campgrounds and picnic areas were blocked off but prior to leaving the area, the Rangers had also gone to the trouble to block off about half of the highway pullouts, leaving relatively little space to stop and look around. We did find a half-dozen places we could pull over and get out of the Jeep (and then struggle back into it). It was a nice drive overall and if you frame your pictures just right you can almost make it look like autumn. When you exit the park on the south side you find yourself in the Cherokee Indian Reservation. We were hoping to get a late lunch and found ourselves with a choice of half a dozen fairly terrible looking places to eat. We got some advice from one of the locals on which was the least terrible of the lot. I had an Indian taco which was okay. I think David was significantly less than impressed with his hamburger. We sat on the front patio where the dogs could join us and bark at the other diners. We then drove back over the same road to return to Gatlinburg. That was our tremendous visit to the most popular national park in America.
Judiciously framed fall foliage
One of the things I never got an explanation for is what the deal is with Gatlinburg and pancakes. There are pancake restaurants everywhere. I did not keep an exact tally but there were at least eight and possibly as many as 12 pancake places. The Flapjack Emporium, the Little Pancake House, the Big Pancake House, The Log Cabin Pancake House, the list goes on and on. Vicki and I actually got up and went to one of these establishments for breakfast the next morning. Neither of us had pancakes. Vicki had crepes with fried apples. I had a waffle which, I guess, is kind of a pancake with ridges. As breakfasts go, it was okay but nothing special. The syrup seemed to me to be actually watered down. Kind of disappointing. We then drove the 10 miles of switchbacks back up to the hotel only to discover that Jamie and David had decided to spend the day sleeping off their jetlag. I assume they were sleeping. What else would you do in a hotel room on your first vacation in six years?  As we were leaving the parking lot we saw this guy amble through with three of his friends. Unfortunately, his buddies had shuffled off down the hill by the time I ran to the back of the car and got my camera out. This is for you Ruth.

Vicki and I drove out to the nearby neighboring village of Townsend. There was a shop there that manufactures dulcimers on site and Vicki thought I would be interested in seeing it. Yeah, right. Only later did I discover that on learning that the dulcimer is the easiest stringed instrument to learn how to play, she had decided she needed one. Here you can see her having her first dulcimer lesson. We left the shop with a dulcimer, a dulcimer bag, a teach yourself dulcimer book and a dulcimer CD for Vicki. And for me… well, nothing really. I did not even get to see them make a dulcimer since the luthier was out of town doing other business that day. Now Vicki is practicing diligently on a daily basis so she will be ready to lead the group singing of Christmas carols when we get back to California in December. Be afraid... be very afraid.

Friday, October 18, 2013


From Jonesborough we moved on to Knoxville, Tennessee where we stayed at another Escapees campground called the Raccoon Valley RV Park. This was a nice campground and because we are members of Escapees, it was cheap. Some online reviewers have complained about the sites being too close together but we did not find it particularly worse than many other campgrounds we have stayed in.

Escapees parks try to promote some sort of social life for the long-term and/or permanent campers. At this particular park they hold weekly music jam sessions, electric instruments on Wednesdays and acoustic on Thursdays. I hauled my guitar out for the Thursday night session which ran for a couple
of hours. They had a fair number of what seemed to be regulars including a pretty good mandolin player, a standup bass, a banjo picker and a dobro guitar. It made for a pretty impressive sounding group. There was also an audience of about 20 non-musicians. Overall, it was a fun evening and I wish every campground had something like this organized.

Our few days in Knoxville were mostly down time.  I did some shopping and ran some errands. But we did take one afternoon and go to the Museum of Appalachia. This is a privately owned Museum
started by a local teacher and historian in the 1960s to try and preserve Appalachian history and culture which is gradually being lost as they finally catch up with the 21st century. The impression we have is that the Appalachian area has in many ways consistently lagged about 50 years behind the more urban areas of the country. Certainly during the depression but even into the 1950s and 60s they were still hand making many common items using whatever materials they had available and many examples are on display. The museum not only collects artifacts but records when each piece was made and by whom and how it came to the museum collection.  It is a celebration of  Appalachian crafts and folk art. There were three floors of displays including thousands of individual objects but I'm just going to show you a few of the items that caught my interest going through.

This small shack was the office of a doctor practicing in Western Virginia prior to World War II. He did not go to medical school but learned his trade by apprenticing with his uncle whose medical credentials are unclear at best. You can see that inside the office space was a little cramped, but at least he had phone service. It appears that he doubled as a pharmacist and possibly a mail carrier. Thankfully, I did not see any signs that he dabbled in surgery.

The most interesting part of the Museum to me was down in the basement where they had a large collection of musical instruments. Most of these were made locally for the personal use of the builder and might be made out of whatever was available. There were a fairly large number of gourd instruments like the banjo we saw played in Kentucky, but there were also a few more unusual items like a mandolin made out of a tobacco box and banjos made out of a hospital bed pan and an old cookie tin. I particularly liked the banjo made out of a canned ham container though I think it is just for show since the frets are not spaced properly.


This mandolin is particularly interesting. It was made by a man who was convicted of murder and sentenced to 300 years in prison. He clearly had a lot of time on his hands and so he made this instrument entirely out of wooden matchsticks. The dark color on the neck and pick guard was produced by staining the matchsticks with coffee. The sign on the display did not say, but I don't think it is a playable instrument. I think if you actually tightened up the strings, they would snap that neck like, well, a matchstick.

 This horn is from a long horn steer. A prospector from Texas hollowed it out and brought it with him in the 1930s to use for dipping water out of streams for drinking. I liked the look of the carving on the surface. He left it to his daughter when he died and she donated it to the museum.

We always tend to gravitate to the medically related stuff. I particularly liked these wheelchairs. If you look closely you can see that they are made by putting wheels on regular dining room chairs. Wheelchairs and other medical equipment are so grotesquely overpriced that I think they should sell wheel kits so people can do this today.

Like several other places we have been, the museum also had about 25 or 30 old buildings spread out over the property's 60 some odd acres... shacks and log cabins that they have transported onto thegrounds from the backwoods within a 200 mile radius. The museum's grounds mimic a working pioneer Appalachian farm, with gardens growing typical crops and animals such as goats, chickens, turkeys, and peacocks roaming the grounds freely.  Here you can see Vicki sitting on the porch of a tiny shack that was not vacated by its owner until the 1960s. Inside was just big enough for a bed, a chair and a Franklin style stove for heat and cooking. It makes our 37 foot motor home seem downright roomy by comparison. I assume there was an accompanying outhouse but they did not bring it along.

This cabin is labeled as belonging to "The Mark Twain Family". Well of course, there was no Mark Twain family since Mark Twain was a pen name but the cabin apparently did belong to the Clemens family in the early 1800s. Mark Twain never lived here though, by the time he was born the family had moved to Missouri.

I found the Museum pretty fascinating with a fair amount of entertainment value. Vicki was somewhat less impressed, I'm not sure why. Anyway, if you're in the Knoxville area and have some time to kill I would definitely drive out and have a look around. They also have a small dining room in the Museum store that serves homestyle lunches made out of whatever is available from the local farmers markets and were pretty good, however if you want to get lunch make sure you get there early enough. The kitchen closes at two o'clock.

Monday, October 14, 2013


When we left the Cumberland Gap, we headed southeast into Tennessee, to the small town of Jonesborough. This is the oldest town in the state however the rest of Tennessee has pretty much passed it by, leaving the area mostly rural and peaceful. We camped in Davy Crockett Birthplace
The view out our windshield
State Park, just east of town, with the Nolichucky River flowing past, literally right in front of our windshield. But we were not there to learn about Davy Crockett nor to admire the Nolichucky. My former office manager/receptionist, Kelly, went to Jonesborough after I closed the office down because her son and, more importantly, her granddaughter lives there. She is actually currently staying with her sister in Rhode Island but returned to Jonesborough for her granddaughter's third birthday.

The birthday party was on a Saturday and we were invited. After acquiring a suitable gift (a junior doctor kit), we arrived at the party only slightly late. There were about 6-8 other children there along with various assorted parents,
Joey meets a schnoodle
grandparents, ex-spouses, friends and other relatives. Kelly's son, Christopher, grilled hamburgers and bratwurst and passed out samples of his homemade peach moonshine which we tried, risking God only knows what sort of bodily damage. (It was actually quite tasty). It took a while for the guest of honor, Joey, to finish opening all of her 500 birthday presents but eventually they were all unwrapped and ready to be crammed into her room. Christopher dealt with the mountain of wrapping paper by piling it up in the back of his yard and setting it on fire. You couldn't get away with that in Southern California. In short, a good time was had by all.

The next morning we went to breakfast at IHOP with Kelly's family, then packed Kelly and the schnoodles into our car to tour around the local area. Jonesborough has a fairly well preserved
County courthouse
historic downtown area including a number of colonial period buildings. There is a log cabin built in 1777 and an inn built in 1797 which is actually still in use. The biggest building in town is the Washington County Courthouse which was decorated for autumn/Halloween and as courthouses go was suitably impressive. Jonesborough is also the home of the International Storytelling Center which is an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Appalachian storytelling traditions. They have an annual National Storytelling Festival which was to be held the weekend after we were there. This is unfortunate because we had prior commitments to be elsewhere but fortunate because tickets were $150 a day and it would have severely impacted our budget. They also have resident storytellers who do evening "concerts" intermittently but none were scheduled during the time we were there. A smaller (and cheaper) event like that we would have liked to go to.
Storytelling center
The Chester Inn, circa 1797

After wandering around downtown Jonesborough for a while, we packed everyone back in the car and drove to Greensville, the next town down the highway. It's claim to fame is that it was the hometown of Andrew Johnson, the unfortunate vice president of Abraham Lincoln who took over
Kelly and Vicki walking the dogs
after the assassination. As president, he was in pretty much constant conflict with Congress over legislation to punish the South after the Civil War. Johnson tried to follow Lincoln's plan of reconciliation but with all of the southern Democrats gone the Republican Congress could do pretty much whatever it wanted. He vetoed a number of their laws but to no avail since they had the votes to override him. Finally the Congress got tired of dealing with president Johnson and tried to get rid of him by impeaching him, making him the only president afforded that particular honor. In the end, they came up one vote short of conviction so he got to serve out his remaining term, then he happily went back to Greensville. After he got home, he actually got reelected as a congressman making him also the only president to serve in Congress after his presidency.

Andrew Johnson was, by trade, a tailor and they have built a small museum at the site of his original tailor shop. To preserve the shop, they actually built the Museum building around it. They then moved his family home next door from its original site a few blocks down. I was fairly impressed that a tailor with no legal or military experience could actually rise to the office of president. I don't think it would happen today.

Davey Crockett's birthpace (his grandparents' cabin)
After that we spent the afternoon driving around rural Tennessee and enjoying the countryside. It is really a beautiful area. It is hard to get used to how much water there is in this half of the country. There are streams and rivers everywhere and the fields and yards are lush and green despite the fact that these people have no idea what a sprinkler system is. Finally, we went back to our campground and hunted around until we located the cabin where Davy Crockett was born. It looked remarkably like the other 40 or 50 log cabins we have seen in the last few weeks except the signs around it talked about Davy Crockett instead of Daniel Boone or Joseph Martin or whoever. In case you can't tell, we're getting a little blasé.

Kelly had heard of a German restaurant in Johnson City and we took her there for dinner and had schnizels and kraut. It reminded us of our time in Germany although we didn't think it was as good as our local gasthaus in Schweinfurt. They did have imported German beer and 1 liter steins to serve it in but we are too old and feeble for that kind of activity so we judiciously stuck to pints.  We dropped Kelly off at her son's house and said goodbye. Hopefully we will see her again next year when we return to the East Coast.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Wilderness Road

Wooden stockade at Martin's Station
The Wilderness Road, which took 300,000 immigrants into Tennessee and Kentucky in the late 18th century, did not start at the Cumberland gap. It started at Fort Chiswell, which sits on modern-day I-77 in western Virginia near Wyethville. When Daniel Boone and his 30 axmen blazed the wilderness trail, that is where they started as well. From there it was 180 miles to the Cumberland gap and when they got there they discovered that someone had beaten them to it. Joseph Martin, a hunter and soldier, had also been hired by Richard Henderson (the man that sent Boone on his trail blazing adventure) to bouy up his questionable land claims by establishing a settlement in Powell Valley, just at the south entrance to the Cumberland gap. When Boone arrived, they were in the process of building a stockade with a half-dozen log structures inside, the better to withstand the recurring threat of Indians trying to evict them. Martin's Station, as the fort was called, was an important way point for travelers along the Wilderness Road for a couple of decades. It was eventually abandoned and gradually rejoined the natural environment but now has risen, Phoenix like, from the ashes for the education and edification of the American tourist.

The reconstructed fort is located in Wilderness Road State Park in Virginia, just a few miles from our campground at Cumberland Gap. It is another historic reconstruction with costumed interpreters who dress up in 18th century pioneer garb and explain life on the frontier, similar to colonial Williamsburg and Shakerville. Here, however, they do things a little bit differently. All of the buildings and
Do not sleep in one of these
structures are built by the staff using local materials and 18th century techniques and hardware. At Boonesborough, the gaps between the logs in the cabins are filled with cement. At Martin's Station, they are filled in with mud and straw. They have made all of the tools and furniture and wooden dinnerware and whatnot. They also make wood framed beds with rope lattice foundations covered by mattresses that are just sacks stuffed with straw. And they sleep on them! They actually lie down and sleep on them at night. I tried one. They're horrible. But it proves that these people take their reenactment duties slightly more seriously than the musket jockeys at Boonesborough.

Martin's Cabin
We went to the park the first day we were at Cumberland Gap, which was a Tuesday. It turns out Tuesday is the day that they set aside to do maintenance (like filling in the chinks where the mud has run out from between the logs), so we had to come back Thursday morning before we left the area. You cannot see the fort from the parking area so we took a short walk across the crick and through the woods to reach the horse stables and a small open pasture in front of the stockade. The first building is a reproduction of Martin's cabin which they are adding a porch to, so it was closed up. The fort itself from the outside will look familiar to anyone who has been to Boonesborough (or used to watch Rin Tin Tin). There are a few interesting things we learned about the building techniques however.
Some of the buildings inside the stockade
Notice that some of the chimneys are made out of logs. This was efficient since logs were easier to put up than stone. So they would make the firebox out of stacked shale rocks and then put a wooden chimney on top. It was rare for the chimneys to catch fire but in case they did, they were not actually attached to the buildings, so they could put a prybar between the chimney and the cabin and just knock it over and let it burn itself out. They are gradually in the process of replacing the wooden chimneys with stone as a safety issue. Take note that the roofs are shingled but they are also covered with logs. Keep that in mind, we will get back to it.

The wood grain on the new one was a lot nicer.
Outside of the stockade was the gunsmith's cabin. They spent all summer making a single rifle which you can see in the picture. The one on the bottom is an authentic "Brown Bess" from the 18th century that they used as a model. The upper rifle is the one that they manufactured on-site. They even made the firing mechanism including hand making the screws to hold it in place. Each screw took several days, having to be made by hand with nothing but a metal file. They assure me that the weapon works although we did not get to see a demonstration.
Every pump of the bellows sent a shower of sparks to the ceiling.

Next door was the blacksmith's shop. The young fellow you see tending the bellows here is an apprentice blacksmith, just learning his trade. He wanted to show me his stuff so he took a square metal rod and heated up the end until it was a lovely glowing red. Then he took it over to the anvil and started pounding on it, thinning the end out. Then it was back to the fire because it was cooling and getting too hard to work with, followed by more pounding. After a couple of more cycles of this, he cut off the end of the rod and then heated up the fat, unpounded end of his work piece. He put it into special holding hole in a different anvil and beat the red hot end of it severely with a hammer. After sticking it into a bucket of cold water to cool it off, here is the result:

A single one penny nail. Time expended- about 4 or 5 minutes.  Now, think back to those shingled roofs. There is no Home Depot down the block.  There isn't even a real blacksmith within a hundred miles.  If you want to nail down your shingles, you have to build a forge and go through this five-minute nail manufacturing process at least twice for each shingle. Getting your roof finished would take you a month if you did nothing else. So they did not nail the shingles onto the cross beams. Instead they laid them in place and weighted the whole mess down with logs. An additional advantage was that if the roof caught fire (say the natives were firing burning arrows at your fort) you could just pull down the logs and let the whole mess fall onto the ground again and you only have to replace the roof, not the whole cabin and contents.

They had a few head of livestock and the remains of a cornfield and a couple of gardens, all of which had been harvested by the time we arrived. At the entrance to the park, they also had a small herd of buffalo which were apparently quite numerous in the area before the Wilderness Road was installed. The last buffalo in Kentucky was shot in 1791. Before Daniel Boone left Kentucky and moved to Missouri he was heard to complain that game had gotten so scarce in Kentucky that he could barely hunt enough meat to feed his family. Whoa there fella, you're a professional hunter. How do you suppose that happened?

Farewell to Martin's Station
From Martin's station it was another 170 miles to Boonesborough, so this was basically the halfway point on the wilderness trail. It allowed weary settlers to rest and resupply prior to going through the gap. This was one of the more interesting and educational stops we have made this year. If you are in this area, be sure not to miss it. They have big gatherings called "encampments" in May and October with amateur reenactors if you want to be there while guns are going off.