Chester Martin Remember Stories And Story Tellers

Monday, May 15, 2017 - by Chester Martin
Chester Martin
Chester Martin

When I was growing up the world was very different from today. My parents, their friends and families had all grown up well before even radio came into daily commercial use. They got most of their news at least one day old, and entirely from newspapers or word of mouth. People of that day were far more gifted than now in telling great personal stories - or of happenings from years past. The ancient tradition of nursery rhymes - memorized and repeated to all children for hundreds of years, literally - was standard throughout the culture, and a boy or girl who did not "know their rhymes" was almost an outcast of society!

Thanks to my friend, Ted Hoge, who moved from Chattanooga to the Sequatchie Valley as WW2 was beginning, I was able to get in on one or two of those stories thatTed heard on a more or less regular basis, The tellers of those tales really did not like to either talk or tell their stories to strangers. They would simply"clam up", and I never heard them in their potential fullness the way Ted did. Those stories were generally of a very rural nature - themes that appealed to hunters and fishermen, and which old men now repeated, of occurences from the days of their boyhood and youth. Women doubtless also had some great stories and could tell them better than men, but in those days men dominated.

Most of the fragmentary stories I heard were of bob-cats and mountain-lions 'way out in the mountains - how one breed of whichever type only came so far south, and another breed never crossed an unseen line going north. The two types might be distinguished by their ferocious howl, which could be heard for miles in those days before 20th Century noises pervaded the rural landscape. But those two distinct breeds of wild cats forever kept apart from one another. The men knew all this by their personal observations, and they described their discoveries by oil lamplight and fireplaces on many a Saturday night. These were still the days that folk-song collectors were carrying their battery operated recording equipment far back in the Appalachian hills to record authentic folk-songs - the SUNG STORIES of the people - for the Library of Congress; too bad the stories told by someone's Uncle Billy Renfro on Walden's Ridge or Cumberland Mountain never found their way onto a recording. What a treasure you would have if you had such a recording!

Sometimes I wonder if the story-telling tradition is yet alive in America. I no longer have the social contacts to get that information. Occasionally I hear of a "storyteller's society", but have only actually heard one or two of their examples. One member of such a society was a Methodist minister I heard several years ago on the radio - and it was nothing short of howlingly funny! However, at Church Camp (at Ocoee) back in 1947 or '48', one of the counselors led us one evening along a darkening wooded trail - without flashlights or other lighting. Far into the woods, he suddenly stopped our march and had us all sit down on some barely visible boulders. We thought we were heading off to some distant destination, and had no idea we would be stopping. Freshly returned from military duty in the war, he said he wanted to relate one of his wartime experiences...about a sergeant everyone called, "Rip". He began the story in a normal tone - confiding in us what we all believed was a true story. The story got longer and longer, but riveted our interest so that there was total silence out in those woods. No motor-boat sound from the lake, or any other thing to distract us. The story grew and grew in slow crescendo until suddenly - and unexpectedly, "Rip" (the counselor himself) let go with a blood-curdling scream. THAT was the end of the story! We were all too frightened to make any noise; we simply slowly got up in the (by now) pitch-black darkness, and let our good story-teller, and counselor, Mr. Francis Bishop, lead us back to camp. There was very little conversation on our return to civilization, as we were still lingering under the impact of that story, trying to separate truth from fiction. When we finally "got it", we realized we had just heard the best ghost story we might ever hear in our entire lifetimes.

(That example is the kind of "real" story-telling I am talking about throughout this writing).

Old time story-telling was usually done by a much-respected older member of society, as in the old Biblical, and Native American traditions. When he or she spoke it was always credible, for there was more respect for older people in those days than today. I can still hear the admonition ringing in my ears, "Children, respect your elders". All my grade-school teachers commanded such respect, and they had the backing from the school principal to maintain it. My teachers, however, were not so good at story TELLING, as at story READING. Mrs. Izar W. Bales (4th grade at Anna B. Lacey) read us a Bible story every morning; not from the Bible itself, but from an adaptation, while Mrs. Nelson Krepps (5th grade at Sunnyside) read us a chapter every morning from an historical novel about the Jamestown settlement, and when that longish book was completed, she read - always very animatedly - from the then famous "Augustus" series of childrens' book which appeared at the end of WW2. Mrs. Krepps was a gifted reader, and, when asked how she could put so much expression into her voice, she explained that her eyes were always at least one or two lines ahead of her mouth. Mrs. Josephine Hill Collett (6th grade at Sunnyside) was also a good reader. We got our stories every morning, immediately following the prayer and flag salute.

Many years ago while in Philadelphia I lived five blocks from Independence Mall, where many colorful events were held, very near Independence Hall. One year they arranged an "International Village Fair" with folkloric acts from all over the world. I went, of course, and on the first day I noticed a Rock City birdhouse in one of the stalls. It was there to help attract attention to one Hamper (Henry) McBee, of MONTEAGLE MOUNTAIN! He was a reformed moonshiner - had actually overseen the "Moonshine" exhibition at the Knoxville World's Fair of 1982, and built the current one at Oliver's Smoke House at Monteagle. By then he was a thoroughly "tame", law-abiding citizen - with a few rough edges that made him a fine representative for the backwoods of Tennessee. (His folk-singer's voice is recorded for posterity on Rounder Records). In his act at the Philadelphia event he told some great stories about our region, and he had an excellent video on moonshining - now available for free on YouTube. Hamper certainly advanced the cause of modern storytelling during his lifetime. He was the genuinely "authentic" story teller.

Although my dad liked to sit around and talk with my uncles in ancient farm houses on cold winter nights, they never told stories, as such. Fragments of interesting stuff might drift my way - just enough to whet my eagerness to discover for myself what all the new tidbits might mean. One of the more dramatic events of my dad's early life was construction of the TA&G Railroad (about 1890) which I have already described. I keep remembering small details from those stories I heard back 75 years ago! That railroad actually crossed a corner of my great-grandfather's (Enos Martin's) property, and near it stood perhaps the very last stand of virgin forest in Walker County! I was in it ONE time - and I may write about it someday, lumped together with some other early details of that area. My dad, as executor of his parents' estate, sadly had to sell it to help pay the taxes owed before he could sell the farm. That would have been about 1950.

How wonderful it would be to have heard the stories that such people as Mr. Glenn Ellis heard (and told) around the campfires of Camp Ocoee! He was in charge of the entire camp back in the 1940's and '50's, before radio could even be heard in that area - and TV did not even exist.

Radio and Television have definitely eroded all the old traditional story-telling which sprang from the hearts and minds of the earlier settlers - of which some were brought over from the older countries like the British Isles, Germany, Holland, etc. Story telling indeed has a very rich and powerful history! Let us all try and help to keep it alive!

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Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.


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