* CAL’S COLUMN *
We promised in our last article to continue our story. So here it goes again. Brother Oldham and I had three of four days to spend in Middlesboro and we put in good time. We will not try to give a full account of all that we saw about his city in the very heart of the mountains and in the midst of one of the greatest coal-mining area of Kentucky. We went to church each night and tried to preach three or four sermons, during our stay in Middlesboro. We made Brother Cole’s home our headquarters. Readers of other articles will recall that Mrs. Cole was the lady who furnished the fine yellow butter that Oldham ate with such abandon and which cost 45 cents per pound.
One morning we informed the Cole family that we planned to climb to the Pinnacle(1) that day. This was the highest point in the vicinity of Cumberland Gap, being about 4,000 feet above sea level. We had no car and had to travel on foot over such portions of the highway as we could travel in getting to the Pinnacle (1). But we were much younger 25 years ago than we are today and did not mind the long climb of about four or five miles from the Cole home to the top of the mountain. We left early, taking our time and slowly climbing first to Cumberland Gap. After a pause there, we turned north and took a mountain road which was not fit for cars and which could hardly be traveled in any way except on foot or horseback. Nothing out of the ordinary took place until we had climbed high upon the mountain. Then we heard an axe ringing almost constantly much higher up on the mountain side. We were still in a state of indecision as to what path or road to take when we met a mountaineer who had about the worst crossed eyes we ever saw. He said, “Where are you going, boys?” Our answer was that we were on our way to the Pinnacle. He then informed us not to take the pathway that led in the direction from which the swinging axe could be distinctly heard, but to go by his home, and then his barn and then his orchard. But we had no knowledge whatsoever of where his house was, nor of his barn nor of his orchard. We told him that we were from Tennessee and that we didn’t know where he lived. He then tried to tell us how to get to the top of the mountain, being particular again to warn us not to go up the path that led in the direction form which the chopping axe could be heard very clearly and perhaps not more than 300 yards(2) away. With one more admonition not to take this particular path, this cross-eyed mountaineer left us. Going up the path that he had forbidden us to take.
We admit we did not like his kind of talk, but he was one of the roughest-looking customers we have ever seen. We did not cross him up in any way, but talked to him as nicely as we could. As soon as he had left, the two Tennessee ministers, hundreds of miles from home and with no weapons of any kind at all, had a sort of conference, which we held in subdued voices, as to what course we should take, whether to return to Cole’s home or to “go out by my house, and then by my barn and then my orchard, and then on to the Pinnacle.” We finally decided to take the cross-eyed man’s advice. But we had not gone very far until we felt the need of a walking stick. We were then only 32 years of age and our need of a walking stick was not to help us walk with more ease, but to protect us in some manner. So the writer stepped into a sassafras thicket and cut a walking stick as large as this arm and about four feet long. It was a whale of a walking stick, too large by far for such “an implement.” But we confess that it gave us some measure of protection, for we felt that we might have to use it on some mountaineer who might resent our intrusion into his mountain domain. Brother Oldham was braver than the editor, and he did not cut any walking stick for himself.
We soon came to the home of the mountaineer and found there a rather nice dwelling, painted white and located high above the surrounding valleys and countryside. Far below was the little city of Middlesboro, and in the distance was the upper part of Cumberland River. To the north and south were mountain ranges as far as the eye could reach. East of us and at the rear of the highland home, the mountains rose perhaps a thousand feet higher. As we neared the home, a tall, finely proportioned girl darted across the road in front of us. She did not speak and did not seem to even notice the two strangers. She was quite beautiful and was perhaps the most attractive young woman we saw on the entire trip of hundreds of miles. We are not blind to feminine beauty even if we are a minister of the gospel. Perhaps some of our readers will think we should not say these things, but we give them as a part of this narrative and to show that the daughter of a cross-eyed mountaineer may be possessed of great beauty. When we had passed this home and barn, we came in sight of the orchard. It was made up mostly of apple trees and they were loaded with fine, red fruit. There were perhaps 500 trees in the orchard which was on a wide mountain slope that faced the northwest. This mountain farmer had quite a lot of property around him and seemed to be quite prosperous.
Next we came in sight of a forest of pine trees, about two or three acres in extent, which stood on a huge chunk or rock which had in time slipped out of the mountain side and had come to a standstill on the side of the mountain. It might be remarked here that the west side of the Cumberland Mountains in that section are made up largely of huge layers of stone which are tilted to an angle of about 45 degrees. The same thing has also happened in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was an unusual sight to see such a huge rock lying there on the side of the mountain at a rather steep angle, and the whole surface of the rock covered with a whole forest of tall, straight pines. How long they had stood there could not be ascertained, but perhaps this rock slipped “from its moorings” thousands of years ago.
We finally reached the top of the mountain. I had a fairly good idea of what we would find, but Brother Oldham had evidently not thought about how very precipitous the east side of the Cumberlands is. The reader perhaps does not know that the Cumberland Mountains slope off to the west and northwest in a very gradual manner. But on the east or southeast side, they drop away for about three thousand feet almost straight down. Oldham was in front as we gained the summit. He walked almost to the “jumping off place” before he saw what was ahead of him. When he looked into a yawning valley that dropped away almost from under his feet, he pulled back with “Whooee. I had thought for some time I would like to go up in a plane, but I am cured of that kind of desire. This looks too bad for me to want to go up in a plane and be so high above the earth.” We looked as far as the eye would let us gaze, seeing mountains, one after the other for miles and miles. Away to the east lay the Clinch Mountains and still further on the Smokies. To the north and south the Cumberland chain extended as far as one could see. If one had the ability to see from one end of the Cumberland chain to the other, he would be able to see these rugged mountains extending all the way from Northern Pennsylvania to central Alabama.
The rocks at the very top are largely sandstone. Cumberland Gap is a historic place as we have already written in these articles. During the Civil War the Gap was fortified and soldiers were kept stationed there for many months. If our memory serves us right, General Lloyd Tilghman fortified the Gap, although it has been perhaps 40 years since we read this. Anyway the names of soldiers of the Civil War are cut into the sandstone at the top of the Gap in many, many places. We do not recall just how many names we saw, but we are sure that there must have been at least a hundred with many of them giving the date when cut. These dates were during the early part of the war. We do not suppose that even one of these men of that day and time is now living. We scrambled about over the rocky summit of the mountain for perhaps an hour, when finally Brother Oldham tore his pants beyond repair, or “recovery.” He had done some sewing in Virginia and now his trousers were too far gone for him to fix. We asked him what he was going to do and he replied that he did not know. We asked if he had an extra pair of pants in the Cole home where we had left our limited baggage and he replied in the negative. We suggested that he buy another pair and he stated that he did not have enough money to purchase a pair of pants and to buy a ticket for our return trip. We “kept him in hot water” for perhaps an hour, refusing to tell him that we would let him have enough money to buy the needed pair of pants. Perhaps we even insinuated that we did not have that much money with us. Anyway, we worried him until we began to feel sorry for him. Finally we “broke down” and confessed that we had been merely trying to worry him and to “get his goat.” So we decided to come down from the mountain top and to move through the Gap to the Tennessee village of Cumberland Gap. On our way down we met our good friend Cole, who had his rifle with him. He was on the lookout for his guests and said as soon as he saw us: “Boys, I have done you wrong. I should have told you that here in the mountain strangers are sometime taken to be revenue men and there are many moonshiners. You might have been shot at or even killed. When I thought about what I had done, I got my rifle and set out to find you.” We thanked him for his care for two men who a week before were complete stranger to him and we also informed him of the “orders” we had not to take the shorter path to the Pinnacle. He said that the axe we had heard ringing was being used to cut wood for a wildcat still. We learned that human life was pretty cheap in those mountains, that a man named Gregory had been shot and killed a few days earlier as he walked along the railroad track, his assistant shooting Gregory in the back from beneath a trestle, and other thing that made us feel glad that we had gotten out as nicely as we did. When we descended to the gap from the Pinnacle, Cole returned to his home and Brother Oldham and the writer went on down to Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, to purchase that pair of pants. We will never forget the way that our dear preacher friend of other days “sidled “ into that store, he bought the new pants and put them on, “saving the day.” Brother Oldham has been gone into eternity for a few years and we miss him so much. We recall many, many happy experiences with him in those years when both of us were young and life was sweet and glorious. We saw Brother Cole four years age, and he did not recognize us until we told him who we were. He was growing old then and many have already gone on to try the things of another world. We will never forget his loyalty toward the two strangers whom he fed and to whom he gave the best bed in his home and whom he sought to protect in what was perhaps a time of danger.
(1) Spelled Penacle in the original text.
(2) Original text used the word years, however, the word years does not fit in the context of the sentance. It appears that yards is appropriate.