The southeastern corner of White County contains a remarkably well preserved treasure trove of natural features that until recent years were virtually unknown of outside the local area. The locals refer to most of this area generically as Scottís Gulf. But while Scottís Gulf is the phrase that first leaps from a topographical map, there are other names and features in the Scottís Gulf area that are true destinations in themselves. Some of those names are Big Bottom, Bethesda, Dodson, Virgin Falls, and Big Laurel Falls, as well as others.
Scottís Gulf is what in more western parts of the country would be referred to as a canyon, which lies along the geographic border of central and eastern Tennessee. This canyon stretches along the upper portion of the Caney-Fork River as it makes the thousand foot drop from the top of the Cumberland Plateau near Crossville down to the Eastern Highland Rim southeast of Sparta. This river canyon is approximately eighteen miles in length and reaches depths of nearly nine hundred feet. Contained within this Caney-Fork water-shed are some of the most remarkable features found in the southern United States, as well as a forgotten history that must be preserved.
Big Bottom and Virgin Falls
My grandmother, Bessie Mae Davis Cole (1906-2000), as a child, lived with her family in Big Bottom, just below Virgin Falls. For years as a boy I heard my grandmother tell stories about her childhood life in Big Bottom, and her adventures at Virgin Falls. To the ears of a child those stories were as far away and inaccessible as the fairy-tails told of princesses, knights, and dragons in far away lands. But these were true stories, true history, these events took place in real life, at real places, yet they seemed so inaccessible.†
My earliest recollection of visiting my grandmotherís childhood home was an aborted attempt to walk to it with her and the rest of my family in the early seventies. We began our walk at the end of a road that disappeared in a long dead community that now exists only as a name on a topographic map. Dodson Tennessee is one of several communities in this area that have so completely disappeared that even when I was a child in the early seventies not a single building existed. Today not even a single foundation stone can be found at Dodson or the nearby town of Bethesda. What had once been a heavily traveled road between small but bustling communities when my grandmother was a child, had, in the intervening years, turned to little more than an extended ditch that was more water than road. That early attempt at a return to my grandmotherís childhood home resulted in failure. Perhaps the passage of decades of time had shortened the distance in my grandmotherís memory, or perhaps her failing health accelerated her fatigue. Whatever the reason, she became tired and we turned back to the car, arriving there long after dark, vowing to come back earlier in the day and try again. Due to her failing memories we never even knew if we reached the halfway point on our journey. Sadly, that earlier day never arrived, as it was soon after this aborted trip that my grandmother, due to illness, lost her leg at the hip, and would never walk again.
The years passed, and my grandmotherís stories continued, but were tempered by the loss of her leg and the realization that she would never again see her childhood home. I eventually married and moved away, and for several years Big Bottom was far from my mind. After my first marriage crumbled I remarried and returned to White County. After more than half a decade away, I was once again home. My grandmother continued her stories and I became acutely aware, that despite the loss of her leg, she longed to visit her childhood home place. I soon became obsessed with fulfilling her wish. At that point in my life I did not have the money to buy a Jeep or other all terrain vehicle, and as such several exploratory journeys I attempted into Scottís Gulf in my more conventional vehicle resulted in not only damage to my vehicle, but the setting of the assurance in my mind that I needed a better vehicle for the journey.
This photo shows the condition of the road to Virgin Falls a traveler would have found at almost any time in the last thirty years.
However in Early 2008 some work was done on the road and conditions are somewhat improved, still a high clearance vehicle with four wheel drive is necessary for a journey into the Big Bottom.
About two years after my return to Tennessee an amazing opportunity presented itself. A neighbor with whom I became friends purchased a classic Willys Jeep, and I saw the perfect opportunity to fulfill my grandmotherís wishes as well as give my friend an excuse to test the abilities of his new toy.
The trip began early one Saturday morning, arriving at my friends home, my father and I loaded my one legged grandmother, who at that time was eighty four years old, into a World War Two era Jeep. My wife and son joined us, and up the road we headed. We were a strange looking sight that day, a total of six people ranging in age from eight to eighty four, crammed into and on top of a forty five year old Jeep, with a wheelchair strapped to the hood. (Beverly Hillbillies move over!) After a short drive we arrived in the Dodson Community and began our bone jarring trek up the ancient road to Big Bottom.
The road to Big Bottom crosses the Caney Fork River twice and passes through the abandoned community of Bethesda. The river crossings are at approximately the 2 and 3.5 mile points, the community of Bethesda was as the top of a large rise approximately halfway between the river crossings. As recently as the late 1990ís it was possible to drive to within a few hundred feet of Virgin Falls. Today, Big Bottom and Virgin Falls are far less accessible by motorized vehicle. Thanks to an agreement between the previous owners of the property, Bridgestone-Firestone, and the State of Tennessee , the whole area was placed off limits to motorized vehicles in the late 1990ís. In the year 1990 though there were no such restrictions. As we continued up the remains of this once well traveled road we came to the river crossings and found the water level to be rather deep but not impassable, perhaps 12-18 inches deep, well below the critical level of a 1940ís era Jeep.
During our journey we attempted to find the community of Bethesda, where my grandmother and her siblings attended school, however not a single trace of the town itself was anywhere to be found.
This is the only Photo I am aware of that shows a structure from the town of Bethesda. It is a photo taken at the Bethesda School around 1918. My grandmother as well as my great aunt and two great uncles appear in this photo.
I do not know which one is my aunt, Rosie Davis Nash, perhaps the girl with the boyish looking haircut third from the left. However I do know my grandmother, and two uncles, #1 is my grandmother Bessie Mae Davis Cole, #2 is my great uncle Roy Davis, whom
I never met, and #3 is my great uncle Boose Davis.
Near the location of Bethesda this strange rock structure can be found.
It continues along the road for several hundred feet and then disappears into the woods.
Its purpose is unknown to me, perhaps a fence built from the most accessible materials the early settlers in this area had. Also unknown to most current residents is the fact that these woods are not old-growth. When my grandmother lived in Big Bottom this entire area was open farmland and fields. All the growth you see here is less than ninety years old. The residents of this area began leaving in the 1920ís and the area was finally for all intents and purposes abandoned during the Great Depression, although there were a few hardy soles that remained until the late 1940ís
We continued our journey finally stopping at my grandmotherís former home place a few hundred feet below Virgin Falls. The photo on the right below represents the only existing physical evidence of the farmhouse my grandmother spent her childhood in. The photo on the Left is the same location with several members of the Davis family taken about 1910.
The rock pile at my feet is the remains of her homeís fireplace and chimney. When comparing the two photos above you can see how completely nature has reclaimed what was once open farmland with well tended crops. I find it sad, yet also soothing to see for myself how fast and completely nature can recover an area once human influence is removed. I also find myself not too worried about the long term impact humans have on an area, the Earth will be here long after we are gone.
The photo below is the hearth of my grandmotherís fireplace.
Arriving at the home place my grandmother was herself shocked and dismayed the see how completely nature had erased the physicality of memories she held so dear. I remember the tears that filled her eyes that day, and the memory of her response brings a tear to mine as well. Looking at her setting in the Jeep that day caused me to question the wisdom of the trip, instead of joy at the sight of her former home, I saw sadness. But then the discussion turned to Virgin Falls itself. A few hundred feet up a steep hill above her home place was the source of their sustenance in those long ago years.
Virgin Falls is a magnificent water fall that lies in a secluded depression in the southeast face of a rise above the Caney Fork River called Wilson Ridge. Wilson Ridge is itself part of a larger geological feature known as Little Chestnut Mountain. Virgin Falls emerges from an underground stream in the face of this ridge and flows just over 150 feet before plunging 110 feet into a circular depression only to totally vanish underground once again. Although many people today are aware of the existence of Virgin Falls, what most of them
do not know is that in the years my grandmother lived there it was the primary source of drinking water for many in the area. A log used to lie across the top of the falls, mud and rock was packed into the spaces under the log forming a primitive dam that resulted in a portion of the water from the falls being diverted to the south and eventually flowing into a pool near the Davis home at the base of the hill.
††††††††††† The photo
below was taken of virgin falls in late 2006
As this was my first trip to Virgin Falls I found that my mental view of the area was sorely lacking. My grandmotherís stories had, in my mind, indicated that the falls were visible from her home place. Alas this was not the case.
Seeing her disappointment placed in my mind, as well as my friendís, the determination to make the trip worth while. We found that although the falls were not visible from her home place, they were only about nine hundred to a thousand feet away. However most of this distance was up a twenty five to thirty degree slope with a total rise of close to 200 feet. After some discussion, the conclusion was reached that we could not have come this far with my ageing grandmother to only return home without allowing her to see the falls one last time. Removing the wheelchair from the hood of the Jeep, we transferred my grandmother to it, and began the exhausting journey up the hill. My grandmother endured the uncomfortable and undignified ride with the fortitude of someone much younger.
Arriving at the clearing just south of the falls we were presented with a spectacular view of the water fall itself, the sadness seemed to disappear from my grandmotherís face, and we all marveled at the beauty. We spent some time there, and listened to the stories once again. This time though the telling seemed even more real and close, brought to life by the sensation of standing where she worked and played as a child. As the sun continued its inexorable craw to the west, we decided that we did not wish to retrace our former steps in darkness. Once again my grandmother endured the indignity of her bouncy ride back down the hill. At the bottom we transferred her back into the Jeep, strapped her wheelchair once again to the hood and began the kidney busting journey home.
This was my grandmotherís last trip to her home place. Soon after this her health began a long, slow deterioration, and in the fall of 2000, after being bedridden for some time, she passed way, aged ninety four years. Of all the regrets I have in my life, there is one thing I can point to and say I have no regrets for. I do not regret the effort and time expended that summer day in 1990. On the contrary, if I had not completed that task, that day that would have been my greatest regret. As it is, it is one of the high points in my life, one of the things I am most grateful that I had a part in doing.
The Davis Family
I am fortunate that I have been able to trace my family back many generations on two sides. On my motherís side of the family, who was born in Michigan , I am able to trace my family back eighteen generations, all the way to the fifteenth century in Rendenhall England. On my fatherís side the trail of my ancestors grows cold after only eight generations, but thanks to my grandmotherís prolific story telling I have a better understanding and feel closer to that side of my family.
The Davis family that lived in the Big Bottom area of White County moved there early in the countyís history. Although John White is remembered by the locals as one of the founding residents of White County and is recorded as moving into the area in 1789, the Davis
family lived in the area at least as early as 1783. My great-great-great-great-grandfather Ephraim Davis is recorded as being born in White County in 1783. The earliest official record for him I can find is a listing in the 1830 federal census that lists him as a resident of White County.
Below are the graves of my ancestors, Ephraim, and Catharine Davis.
More photos of the Davis cemetery can be seen here
As you can see from the enlargements of the head stones here,
my great grandfatherís date of birth clearly places the Davis family in White County
at least six years before John White.
The earliest ancestor I have been able to trace on the Davis side of the family is John Davis, who was Ephraim Davisí grandfather, born in Goochland County Virginia in approximately 1732. John Davis had only two children that I can find record of, James Davis, and Robert Davis. James Davis was born approximately 1763 in Augusta County Tennessee. He married three times and fathered at least fifteen children. I have records of the names of all but two of the children; James, Cornelius, Westley, Tom, Bill, Ephraim, Absalom, Robin, Polly, Ambers, Isaac, Mat and Nancy. At some point in his life he moved to White County Tennessee where my next ancestor in the chain, Ephraim Davis,
was born. Once he reached manhood Ephraim Davis settled permanently in the area now known as Big Bottom, and perhaps because of early settlers tendency to be self sufficient, lived a quiet life with little influence outside the Scottís Gulf area. Ephraim Davis married only once in his life and I have uncovered records of a total of six children; Absalom, Elizabeth (Betsy), Robert, Mary Polly, James, and David.
The picture to the left is the earliest known photo of a Davis family member; James, son of Ephraim, born February 10th 1831
Absalom Davis is the next link in my ancestral chain. Absalom married at least twice and gave birth to at least nine Children; Cumberlin, Baleum, Columbus, Bob, Frances, Tom, Kate, Lewis, and Bill. Cumberlin Davis continues my linage. Cumberlin married only once, to Hester Elizabeth Welch, and that union produced three children that I know of, Robert C Davis, Estella May Davis, and James Absalom Davis.
To the right is a photo of Cumberlin and his wife Hester taken at their home in Eastland Tennessee shortly before
Robert C Davis was my great-grandfather. Robert C. married Avo Louellen Smith, (Wedding photo, left above,) and that union produced a total of seven children; Bessie Mae (my grandmother), Rosie, Ruth, Lois, Lola, Roy, and Boose. My grandmother Married Joe Clinton Cole of Van-Buren County Tennessee and had only one son, my father Charles Clinton Cole. He married Diane Kay Vincent who hailed from Adrian Michigan. The result of that union is I, Charles Vincent Cole, although I am more popularly known now as Dave.
To the left is a photo of my grandmother and grandfather, Joe and Bessie, taken about the time of their wedding.
To their right are my mother and father Diane and Charles
End of an Era
Looking for a better life, my great-grandfather Robert C. saw opportunity in the Great American West, and at some time around 1919-1920 uprooted his entire family and headed for the perceived greener pastures to be found out west, eventually settling in Ogden Utah.
The picture at right is of the three oldest Davis children, taken while the Davis family lived in Ogden, from left to right, Rosie Boose Bessie.
For reasons that are unclear to me even until this day, they were not satisfied with Utah, and were back in Tennessee by 1922. Instead of returning to Big Bottom my great-grandfather settled his family near Quebeck Tennessee, which while still in southern White County was about eleven miles west of Big Bottom. It was while living here that my grandmother, Bessie, met and married my grandfather, Joe Clinton Cole, in 1922 near Quebeck Tennessee. Over the following years the remaining Davis family members, as well as the other families living in the Scottís Gulf area grew to adulthood married and moved out of the area, perhaps in search of those same greener pastures that my own great grandfather was. The names of many of these families are lost to history, but a few are known. Some names of resident families that I know of are; Davis, Welch, Scarbough, Nichols, Cruse, Cunningham, Dodson, and Scott. The coming of the Great Depression was the final nail in the coffin for these small communities so far removed from the rest of civilization. By the end of the depression the Scottís Gulf area was reduced to a few hardy souls that simply refused to give up. And even those hardy souls were gone soon after the close of World War II.
My grandmother remained in White County until her death in late 2000. As for the rest of her family the story is a little sad. †Although the daughters stayed in the White County area, the brothers did not. Roy headed south eventually settling in Florida. He married and gave birth to a daughter, and died rather young in the 1960ís.
Boose however headed north and spent many years working for Ford Motors. He retired just outside of Detroit, and remained there until he died in the late 1990ís, leaving one son with whom I have lost Contact. Although all of the Davis daughters remained in White County, they married and the Davis name was lost. Sadly the last living White County bearer of the Davis name from the Scottís Gulf area was my great-grandfather Robert C. Davis who died December 6th 1969 bringing to a close the Davis name in White County. Although there are many people today living in White County who carry the name Davis, I know of none who can trace their lineage to the first Davis family that settled in Scottís Gulf over two hundred years ago.
Life in Big Bottom
Life in those early years of the twentieth century was tough, and people lived by a different code than would be acceptable today. Children rose before dawn to feed and milk the cows. After completing the morning chores the children were then required to return home and change into their school clothes before walking nearly two miles to school. The Davis family lived on the north side of the Caney Fork River but my grandmother and her siblings attended school at the Bethesda School (See the preceding photo.) which was on the south side of the river. To reach school the children were required to cross the river at Davis ford, about a mile south of the Davis home. The river at this crossing point could range in depth from 0 inches (Dry.) in late fall and early winter, to a raging torrent more than twenty feet deep after extended spring rains. Although the days of raging torrents were few and far between, the river can flow at an elevated level for extended times in the spring and early summer, it could be weeks at a time that the water was too deep to cross. During these periods, not only was reaching school impossible, it was also impossible to leave the valley to reach town for supplies. Today people would panic, starve and even begin to fight and kill each other if isolated from the rest of the world for that long. In those days it was just a part of life, and taken in stride, for they knew that sooner or later the water would subside and access to the outside world would return. My grandmother told me many stories over the years about life on Big Bottom, and sadly the memory of many of these have faded, I so dearly regret not putting some of these stories to pen and paper sooner while my grandmother was still alive to fill in the empty spaces. That time is past and now I must be content with only what I can remember. Even so, several stories come to mind about life in Big Bottom.
The Log Dam
I have already mentioned the Log Dam across Virgin Falls once but would like to elaborate on it a bit. Despite the variations in flow observed over the years the residents of Big Bottom considered Virgin Falls to be a source of pure water from deep within the earth. As such this water was used for every aspect of daily life by the people who lived there. They washed their clothes in it, they took baths in it, they watered their gardens and animals with it, and of course they cooked with, and drank it. Today, thanks to dye tests done by geologist Nicholas C. Crawford in the 1980ís, the source of the water at Virgin Falls is now known. Mr. Crawfordís dye testing proved conclusively that at least a portion of the water that forms Virgin Falls is not from a deep source at all, but from a sink in Lost Creek Cove just three miles to the north. Despite this, the drinkers of this water apparently suffered no major ill-effects through the years. The rocky soil of the Big Bottom area precluded the digging of any wells in the area, at least with the hand tools available more than a century ago, but a well would not have been considered a necessary item with a resource like Virgin Falls close by. Even being so close, making daily trips to the falls to carry water would have been an onerous task for even the most dedicated settler. The falls lie a thousand feet horizontally and more than 200 feet above the valley floor below, and the top of the falls is a least another fifty feet above the level of small plateau adjacent to it. The bottom of the falls lies in a steep sided depression more than fifty feet deep. However, one should never underestimate the ingenuity of our forefathers. At some point, well before my grandmotherís birth, a large tree was hewn down so as to fall across the top of the falls. The picture below is a view from the top of the falls during a recent time of low flow. I can only imagine what this picture would look like if that ancient tree was still in place.
The gap between the tree trunk and the streambed was filled with large stones, and the spaces between the large stones were filled with smaller stones. This process continued until finally the whole structure was sealed with mud formed by carrying dirt and grass to the falls from the surrounding hillsides. Despite the crudeness of the materials used, the structure proved quite useful for its intended purpose, and with some care, it formed a well functioning dam that succeeded in raising the level of the water enough so that a portion of the flow was diverted into an artificial streambed leading south from the falls.
The picture above shows that very streambed. Today that former streambed is part of a hiking trail that leads from a primitive campground to the top of the falls. This diverted flow of water continued south across the ridgeline until it met a thirty foot drop some 200 feet south of the falls. Here a wooden trough was used to once again divert the water east a few yards until it flowed into a natural channel formed by the meeting of two hillsides. The water once again flowed south in this natural channel until it emptied into a man made pool at the base of the hills some seven hundred odd feet south of the falls. It was from this improvised cistern that my family as well as other locals in the area drew their every-day supply of water.
As you might imagine the improvised dam was far short of a permanent structure, it required ongoing maintenance in order to remain useful. Part of the Davis childrenís chores was to maintain the dam in working order. Several times a week the children would climb to the top of the falls, gather dirt, rocks, and grass to reinforce the ever eroding structure. Today the very thought of children as young as six even approaching the top of a 110 foot cliff-face would send most parents into spasms. In those days it was just a part of everyday life. My grandmother has often mentioned that as children she and her siblings maintained the dam mostly without adult supervision of any kind, often they would spend hours working on the dam to make sure it continued to function reliably. From time to time though, a period of heavy rain would increase the flow at Virgin Falls to an uncontrollable torrent. This happened quite often in the spring months, resulting in the complete erasure of all the hard work done in the months before. The carefully placed rocks and mud would be swept away to increase the size of the pile at the bottom of the falls. The log, however was securely anchored at each side of the streambed and as far as my grandmother could remember was never dislodged by even the heaviest flood during her life there. When the dam was damaged in this manner the whole family would pitch in, working from sunup until sundown, carrying rocks and materials from the surrounding hillsides to rebuild the structure. One shudders to think what type of reaction most modern Americans, who are used to having hot and cold running water at their fingertips, would react if suddenly they were thrust into a life such as this.
The open Corn Crib
As I mentioned before, this was a different time, life was hard, obedience was demanded, discipline was absolute, and punishment was unthinkable. I hesitated some on the inclusion of this story, feeling that perhaps people would view my great-grandfather as some kind of monster, he was not. My grandmother loved, respected, and cared for him until the day he died. But you must remember, he was from a time far removed from todayís sensibilities. He was raised in an environment where the man of the house was an absolute monarch. The manís word was law, his father demanded absolute obedience, and as such also did he. There was little room in the Davis household for errors, and even less for negligence.
As part of the daily chores when milking the cows, fresh corn would be retrieved from the corn-crib to feed the various animals around the farm. For those of you who have never heard of a corn-crib, it is a room, sometimes in a barn, and sometimes separate that is constructed in such a way as to allow for easy air flow. In the fall of the year corn would be gathered from the fields and stored in this room where it was allowed to dry for use through the cold winter. The door to the Davis family corn crib was latched by way of a simple rotating piece of wood known as a button. Even in my childhood our corn-crib used the same mechanism to seal the door.
The above picture shows a typical corn crib door with a button latch.
As you might imagine such an arrangement is not foolproof, and one day the failure of just such a latch resulted in the most severe punishment my grandmother could ever remember receiving.
The day dawned as any other in the life on Big Bottom, my grandmother and her siblings rose at dawn and completed the morning chores. After the chores were done they changed into their school clothes and walked the mile to school. After school they returned home and found their father waiting for them on the porch. It was immediately clear to all that something was amiss. Their father informed them in no uncertain terms that they were in deep trouble. At some point in the afternoon he had discovered that the door to the corn crib was open, and the animals had made a mess. Not only had much of the winter supply of corn been eaten at a single setting, the confusion resulting from the impromptu feast had resulted much of the supply being scattered outside the crib and trampled into the ground. Also there had been a significant amount of damage done to the door on the crib. In addition, there was a real possibility of the cattle getting sick from such a sudden feast of corn. This condition is known as foundering and can be fatal to the animal. He summarily marched all but the youngest of the children to the scene of the crime, lined them all along of the wall of the barn and disappeared inside. When he returned he was carrying a bull-whip, yes thatís right, a whip just like the one made so famous by Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones series of films, he then proceeded to whip them one at a time beginning with the oldest and proceeding down the line to the youngest. As for how many lashes they each received, no one will ever know. My grandmother said she lost count after the third lick, and before the thrashing ceased she was on the verge of passing out. She vividly remembered the stripes that the leather whip left across the back of her legs until the day she died.
After the beating they were still required to finish their daily chores before returning home to complete their homework for school the next day. Such a beating today would no doubt result in a lengthy prison sentence for a parent. Even if no one saw the beating occur, a return to school with such marks on a childís body would result in law enforcement and human services being notified immediately. But, in my grandmothers case, when the children returned to school the next day they were
informed by the teacher that they were lucky to have not gotten worse.
It is also interesting to note that not only was this the worst beating my grandmother was ever on the receiving end of, she also went to her grave believing it was unjustified. For the rest of her life, even in her waning years, she would often replay the events of that day over in her head, and she was absolutely sure that not only was the button properly latched when they left for school that morning, she was also sure that she was the one who had latched it. It was her belief that one of the cows while moving around near the button had brushed up against it, and since there was nothing to prevent it from turning, the force of the cowís body had inadvertently turned the latch releasing the door. The door itself was hinged in such a way that if the button was not turned properly the door would swing open of its own accord. It was this fact more than any that made it sure in her mind that the door was closed when she left it that long ago morning.
The Invisible Bird
On the right, is a picture of the grave of my great-aunt, Ruth.
As you can see, she only lived to the age of three months. The death of a child at such an early age was a common occurrence until only recently, and it is not unusual to find markers from this era bearing the names of children almost anywhere in the country. While this grave marker is unique in the name and dates, there is an even more unique story behind the marker, a story, that as far as I know, has never been written down.
Ruth was to be the sixth child in the Davis household, at the time of her birth my grandmother was nine years old, and the other children varied in age from four (Rosie), to my grandmother, who was the oldest. The house that the Davis family lived in consisted of, as many of the time did, only two rooms. The main room was the general use room, used as a combination kitchen, dining, living, and work room. The second room was the bedroom; this bedroom was shared by all the members of the household. A curtain that could be pulled to provide privacy divided the adult section from the childrenís section. Often, especially in colder months, this curtain remained open so the room could be evenly heated. It was on such a late fall night that the whole household was awakened by the laughs and giggles of four year old Rosie. When a lamp was lit to see what the commotion was all about, my grandmother was also able to clearly see what was going on. Ruth, who was just about ready to turn three months old, was asleep in a home-made bassinette between the parentís bed and the sleeping area of the older children. Rosie had at some point in the night gotten out of her bed and was standing beside the bassinette that held the sleeping baby. As my grandmother watched in amazement Rosie jumped and giggled, struggling to reach something unseen at the top of the babyís bassinette. When scolded by her mother Rosie said ďI want the bird.Ē When asked what bird, she replied in her toddler voice ďThat pretty white bird sitting on the baby.Ē Chastising her for disturbing the whole house Rosie was returned to bed, my grandmother later recounted that at the time everyone thought Rosie had just had a dream. However the room had hardly been quiet for moments, when Rosie was once again back at the side of the bassinette, and was again reaching for the unseen bird. Once again Rosie was scolded and returned to bed. However, throughout the rest of that night Rosie was up several more times chasing the, ďpretty white bird,Ē as she called it, the bird that only she could see. Finally, sunrise brought peace as Rosie could apparently no longer see the bird. The events of that night would have soon been forgotten, had it not been for the fact that by the next evening Ruth was showing signs of being sick. The baby started to run a high fever, and soon quit eating. Within a few days of the events of that night Ruth was dead.
Much of life on Big Bottom revolved around the yearly crops; today we go the supermarket and bring home our food sealed under plastic wrap. During my grandmotherís childhood it was rare to purchase actual food from the store. Food purchases were usually reserved for items such as salt, sugar, coffee, and other items that could not be grown on the farm. Most of the food supply for the Davis family was self provided, from the hogs raised for winter slaughter to the vegetables grown in the garden for canning. Not only was food for human consumption grown in the garden, but large crops of corn and hay were grown to provide food for the farm animals.
As anyone who has ever been to the Big Bottom area can attest, the ground is very rocky, in fact the entire valley floor is part of a canyon flood plain. It is nearly impossible to take more than a few steps in any direction without stepping on a large stone. However, from time to time as you walk through the forest that has today grown up in Big Bottom, you will find stretches of the forest floor that are apparently devoid of rocks. Also around the area you will from time to time find large piles of rocks that appear to have been randomly stacked throughout the forest. In fact these piles are not random at all, but represent the corners and sides of former cultivated fields. All of the cultivating in Big Bottom was done by muscle power in my grandmotherís day. Mules and oxen were used to pull the farm implements, and the rocky ground proved to be quite a challenge for this form of agriculture. A large portion of the effort extended in farming was to remove these stone obstacles. As it was the duty of the children to assist in every day life as much as possible, and although my grandmother and her siblings were too small to manage an animal drawn farm implement, there were many ways they could contribute, they planted seeds they hoed and pulled weeds, and did anything else a child of their age could accomplish. One of the jobs that fell to the children was stone removal. As my great-grandfather would cultivate the ground, stones would be uncovered by his movements through the fields. These stones were not only an inconvenience that would interfere with the cultivation of the crops, they could also represent a loss of money and time if they damaged the farm equipment. The children of the Davis household were required to follow behind their father, and as the stones were unearthed they would carry them from the field and pile them around the perimeter, often as large piles in the corners of the fields. Today these seemingly random piles of rock attest to the determination of those early settlers, as well as give us a glimpse of what the valley looked like in its heyday. Those once carefully tended fields are now woodland, so completely reclaimed by nature that most of the visitors to the area have no clue that this was once productive cropland.
The Hanging Chicken
Not only was life hard for people in those days the life of a farm animal was often hard and short with a violent end. Pigs were raised and carefully cared for, only to be slaughtered for food in the early winter. Cattle were raised, not only to provide milk and muscle for work, but they were also killed and tuned to food. Chickens had a multifold purpose not only did they provide eggs for sustenance, and meat for the table they also provided a vital function in keeping the tick and insect population under control. To many fowls a nice plump tick is a treat likened unto candy for a child, and chickens are no exception to this rule. At some point during her life on big bottom my grandmother was given a freshly hatched pullet (baby female chicken) by her mother to be her very own. If she would raise it and care for it, keeping it separate from all the other chickens, she could, when it reached adulthood, have the money from selling any eggs that the hen laid. My grandmother was ecstatic, before this she never owned anything, and now this was her very own. Also even though eggs in those days would only bring about 25 cents a dozen on the farm, the prospect of having a source of income, even if it was pennies a week, was exciting to her.
It was not possible in those days to go down to the local hardware store to pick up a roll of chicken wire, so my grandmother set about constructing an enclosure for her new investment with the materials available to her. Using all her spare time, she roamed the hillside looking for just the right items, finally between nails she scavenged from the barn and small poles gathered from the hillsides she constructed an enclosure for her chicken. The pen she built was a few feet square consisting of the small poles she had gathered, placed with the larger ends in the ground close together so that the small chick could not squeeze between them. The smaller ends rose about three to four feet in the air, and were held in place by small horizontal slats of wood placed around the whole assembly a few inches from the top. Although the bottoms of the poles were touching their diminishing size resulted in a small gap between them near the top. This was not an issue, as the small chicken could not fly, and by the time she grew feathers she would be too large to fit through the cracks. For the next few months my grandmother carefully watered and fed her chicken. As the chicken grew larger my grandmother constructed a small hen-house for her. It was late in the year and my grandmother was eagerly awaiting the first batch of eggs to be sold. On a morning as typical as any other, she watered and fed the small fowl as part of her morning chores. Returning home from school the following evening she quickly changed her clothes in preparation for her evening chores. Rushing out to feed her chicken she was greeted with a sight that would break her heart, and remain vividly in her mind even in her waning years. Her prized hen, perhaps from seeing the other chickens moving around so freely outside, had tried to escape. Although not capable of extended flight, chickens have an amazing ability to lift themselves from the ground. As a child it was not unusual for me to see our chickens roosting in the highest limbs of the trees around our house. My grandmotherís chicken had, over the summer months, developed a full set of feathers, and as such was able to make flying leaps much higher than my young grandmother had anticipated. Apparently trying to escape her prison, the hen had leaped for the top of the fence, and as chickens are not the most sure-footed animals in the world, she missed her target. The young hen fell short and her body slipped back into the pen, but her head was over the top of the stick fence. Sliding downward her neck slipped into one of the spaces between the sticks. The ever decreasing space had acted as a death trap, pinning the hapless bird in place. And there she hung, her head outside the fence achieving the freedom she so intently desired, yet her body was still behind the barrier. Nobody knows how long she hung there struggling, but pinned in such a manner the outcome was inevitable. My grandmotherís prize hen had slowly choked to death, eventually being found by my grandmother when she returned home from school. I believe this event left a lasting mark on my grandmother, as she spoke often of it, even in her old age.
The Black Sheep
One of my more colorful ancestors who lived in Scottís Gulf, was Ambers Davis (also known as Ambrose). Ambers was my grandmotherís great, or possibly great-great-uncle who was born in the early to mid 1800ís. He lived for a time in the Scottís Gulf area, a short way up the river from what eventually became my grandmotherís home place. He survived earlier in life by plying his trade as a carpenter. After marrying, he, as many members of the Davis family did, left to seek his fortune out west. A few years later he returned alone and moved into a small cave near Welch Hole. Here he took up the life of a cave hermit. Most people of the day considered him a harmless eccentric, and he earned a meager living by selling small items that he carved; wooden spoons, biscuit boards, rolling pins, and other handmade wooden items. Even though he was considered harmless by the locals, at times he hinted that he had killed his wife and a man he caught her with. In the later years of his life he became more and more deranged even to the point that he would often jump from the door of his cave into the river and swim away, even in the coldest weather when approached by visitors. He survived by collecting a small amount of corn from the fields of the locals, as well as killing and eating whatever small animals he could catch. He often claimed that his favorite food was black snake soup. He also often stated that a carefully skinned skunk made a fine dish. In his later years the locals decided that it would be in his best interest if he was placed in the local insane asylum for his own protection. He was captured with some difficulty and removed to the county farm, where he promptly escaped. Returning to his cave he lived there for a time until he was once again captured, and this time removed to Tennessee Asylum for the Insane in Nashville. The federal census of 1880 shows him as a resident there. He remained there until his death a few years later.