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White Oak Mountain Ranger: Hardwood Murder

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The devil made me do it the first time. The second time I done it on my own.” - Billy Joe Shaver’s, “The Black Rose”

 

We rendezvoused at the end of a long, dusty, dirt road before the sun oozed through the misty denseness of Waldens Ridge. We were a ragged murderous dozen, consisting of both men and youth, staged on the edge of Patten’s Horseshoe and the Hellican.

To borrow a line from Fred Chappell, “The very end of the road where the mountainside pines took possession and human habitation left off.”

 

Our proximity was likely closer to the old Anderson Pike than the Horseshoe. The ‘Pike’ was one of the few roads traversing the side of Walden’s Ridge” and it was long ago the scene of one of the more audacious calvary raids attempted since October 1863.

 

Major General “Fighting Joe” Wheeler had arrived on Walden’s Ridge that fall after crossing the Tennessee at Decatur days after he and his men devastated a garrison of Union troops with 3,000 to 4,000 mounted Confederates at Cottonport. Historians seem to account that Wheeler’s men were in such a fury to get to Signal Montain that they left their dead in the river crossing.

 

I tried to envision crossing the river at Decatur on horseback after having spent many a morning hunting ducks along the wide backwaters of the river near Decatur.

 

Wheeler’s prize and cause for haste was a huge Federal wagon train, filled with much needed supplies for the Union Army besieged in Chattanooga. The supply train stretched over a route of some sixty miles from Bridgeport to Chattanooga. Chroniclers say it took ten days to cover this lengthy and treacherous route designed to feed the starving Federal Army, a large and battered force determined to hold and survive in Chattanooga in 1863 after their defeat at Chickamauga. The wagoners and mule skinners called the road a ‘pig track’. Locals called it Old Anderson Pike.

 

Wheeler and his mounted calvary smashed into the long wagon train carrying millions of dollars worth of supplies, slaughtered hundreds of mules, devolving the long train into mayhem and chaos.

 

Some historians claim that wagons full of whisky contributed to the debauchery that unfolded and the spirits led to the hand-to-saber combat that ruled the day. Other historians claim a sizable gold shipment was plundered by the Confederate calvary. The legend of the captured gold buried in one of the many caves surrounding this area still, to this day, has valley residents searching for that one wealthy, well hidden cave.

 

Wheeler was so successful that he released hundreds of his prisoners barefooted in order to move faster on to McMinnville where he vanquished that town of another overwhelmed Federal garrison.

 

Our ‘murderer’s row’ rendezvous, at sunrise was on the West side of Walden’s Ridge, was also to commit murder. Not necessarily in the style of “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, but we did come to kill. Our victims were any and all hardwood trees.

 

The dead end dirt road belonged to Bowater’s Paper Company. In Washington State they call this sort of pine growing operation a “Tree Farm”. Around here it was simply known as “Bowater Pines.”

 

The paper company worked their pine plantation in this rough fashion; first you offered land owners obscenely low amounts of money to purchase large tracts of hardwood mountain land. At one time the Bowater paper company owned millions of acres of remote Tennessee Mountain land.

 

Then the paper company would kill all of the hardwood forest through the practice of defoliation, bulldoze the defoliated, now dead trees and attending landscape. Clear anything living with bulldozers, whereupon the company would quickly plant pine trees. After years of struggle the little pine seedlings hopefully woud rapidly grow to a harvestable size for pulpwood and ultimately, paper for the news media of the day. Hence the term “tree farm.”

 

After the land had been clear-cut and bulldozed and pine seedlings had been planted, native plants such as briar, sumac, oak, maple, sourwood and hickory would outgrow the pines and shade their otherwise rapid ascension towards life as disposable newsprint.

 

Our crew was on the edge of this mountain to murder all of the new hardwoods. A mercy killing, to save the pines and “Big Paper’s” bottom line.

 

Our ‘murders row’ consisted of Smith’s, father and son, Billy a recent survivor of Vietnam. There were Harvey brothers and multiple Harvey cousins. Two Sim’s from Soddy, an uncle and a nephew that happened to be a year apart in age, an Easterly, a Daniels and scattered others. Some came from Sequatchie Valley, Lewis Chapel and Soddy Daisy. The rest of us were scattered from families all over three adjoining counties.

 

The murder weapon was simple; it was a hollow, five foot long aluminum tube, fitted with a pump handle and a three inch wide chisel blade on the business end. The pump was designed to inject Agent Orange into the base of the tree with the use of the chisel blade as the injector ringed each tree to be eliminated.

 

Dead hardwoods saved the life of the pines.

 

Mr. Smith was the ramrod of this crew and after he had painstakingly filed and sharpened every chisel blade. We fell to the task of filling our tubes from surplus US Army Chemical Corp, OD green, five gallon drums of Agent Orange.

 

None of us had any idea what we were dealing with as we sloshed this vile smelling toxin all over each other, preparing for our first, long sweeping loop through the dense understory of the hardwoods, that in many cases, were ten to twenty feet higher than the pines. We were never equipped with, what today is referred to as, personal protective equipment. No splash proof eye protection, no hazmat suits, no rubber gloves, no snake proof anything. No warning, or health advisory came from ‘Big Paper.’

 

We hung our lunches in flour sacks in the trees to keep the ants, chiggers, ticks or yellow jackets out of our Beanie Weenies, Vienna sausages, apples and Little Debbies. Everyone filled two canteens with water; as we slowly commenced the slaughter in a wide, grueling arch designed to bring us back to the hanging bags of lunch and fresh water, four hours later.

 

I never tried to calculate the acreage of hardwoods dispatched for the sake of newspapers. But, it’s relatively easy to vividly recall every big velvet tailed timber rattler or copperhead and how hostile they became after we squirted Agent Orange in their eyes. Snakes were about our only diversion from the grind of injecting and murdering trees. And to this very day, I’m not particularly proud of their demise, even if it was in some sense, a clear cut case of self defense.

 

Odd how some remorse lingers longer than others.

 

We never had to worry with chiggers, ticks or yellow jackets. By lunch were drenched from the knees to the elbows with Army surplus killing juice. As we ate our Beanie Weenies we continued our education. My first question was how can an uncle and a nephew be only one year apart in age? Everybody thought that was about the dumbest question that they had ever heard. I guess that was the point where Joe D took me under his wing, deciding that I seriously needed some continuing education about local culture.

 

Joe D liked to brag. He bragged that he could build a 500 gallon still blindfolded. Everyone on the crew that had done some serious hard time in various state prisons for making liquor spoke of being run to complete exhaustion by a famous ATF agent who happened to be a full blooded Cherokee from North Carolina.

 

They all said he would just run you until you dropped. Dogs around the still were useless as early warning devices. Even the best watch dogs tended to sleep on the job. A mule was the best at tipping you off when the Law was sneaking up on your still. But, by then you were more than likely so drunk on your own product that you couldn’t run in a straight line if you had to.

 

Joe D told amazing stories of his days mining deep veins of coal in the mines at Brushy Mountain State Penetentiary. How when things weren’t going the way the inmates thought they ought to go, they would go into the mines and just go on strike. The disgruntled inmates would just turn off their lights and sleep in the cool darkness for twelve hours at a time. The guards were helpless to end this effective style of protest.

 

He said he had worked hard all of his life and was proud of it. When I foolishly asked about his education, he told of the time his elementary school principal tried to hold him back from the sixth grade. After he “whooped that fool’s sorry @#$,” Joe D began his career as a hard worker. He used to brag; “Pupwood! You cut it. I’ll load it, by Gawd!” He said he was born to work hard. We knew it was the truth.

 

He was the crew motivator. After every break he would stand and wave his arm forward and let out a lusty, “Head ‘em up and moob ‘em out!” Joe D lived in a house covered with aged tar paper, no running water, a pretty good outhouse, but he never missed an issue of Raw Hide, or Harry Thornton’s “Live Wrastlin.” He was making up time for missing so many episodes while he was in Brushy Mountain. Striking coal miners apparently lost a sizable amount of TV privileges in those days.

 

He fervently, almost religiously, believed that every ‘wrastler’ on TV was a real ‘by Gawd wrastler.’ There was no room for fakery or theatrics in Joe D’s way of thinking when it came to this sport. Jackie Fargo was the King and Joe D could, and often did, a very fine imitation of the ‘Fargo Strut'. If Joe D ever met ‘Old Togo’ out where he could go at it with him, “Why, I’d whoop that Jap @#$ so bad, he’d be round eyed if he ever came to!”

 

Pay days were not the day to disagree with Joe D on any cultural or educational subject. When he could demonstrate an impending pay check, he could count on old man Barker to advance him a pint of Lord Calvert on credit before work started on Friday. Barker’s opened early just for Joe D and by lunch, Joe D had nursed that pint to the point that he was liquored up to the point  that we were all fearful for our lives.

 

Mr. Smith held our checks until lunch and when Joe D grabbed his check, he would yell at the top of his lungs, “I hear the Lord a callin!” He would then wobble out of the woods and somehow make his way back to Barker’s store for a weekends worth of Lord Calvert.

 

After four and a half days of murdering hardwoods, his idea of good weekend entertainment was to walk to the nearest dance in Bledsoe or Sequatchie County and “whoop some sissies.”

He preferred a good square dance, but he wasn’t all that particular where he found valley sissies to exterminate.

 

That reminds me of a Molly Ivins story that goes something like this; “Patriotism is always a good smell in East Texas. The night El Presidente started bombing some mid-east potentate the deejay at Benny B’s, a honky-tonk in East Texas, made all the patrons stand on their chairs and sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. He said if you anybody refused to do it, “We'll know you’re a commie f@^*%%.” Of course, they do the same thing at Benny B’s for David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me by My Name.” Living in East Texas can be a real challenge.”

 

Dunlap had a near equivalent to Benny B’s. It was known as the Blue Note. The Boyd Brothers reigned supreme with their brand of live music in the Blue Note, but Joe D preferred a slower, less loud music venue for hunting valley sissies.

 

He claimed the closer you got to Pikeville, the tougher the ‘sissy whoopin' seemed to get. Joe D preferred the morning after bologna and coffee in the Sequatchie County jail over the slammer in Bledsoe County. He claimed that when the sheriff ‘up that way’ got bored, or crime fighting stalled and the sheriff had some extra time on his hands, or the crowded clientele in the Bledsoe County slammer got too rowdy, the sheriff was prone to “Whoop a little @#$” in his spare time. Just for the pure sport of it.

 

One fateful day the big boss showed up at daylight. His first name was Story. He wanted volunteers for a spray crew on Bakewell Mountain. Six paid days a week, daylight to dark. Volunteers would be paid even when the wind blew. Joe D raised my hand and his and we were transported immediately to that mountain.

 

A D-10 cat had slashed blade wide paths through a huge stand of mature hardwoods slated for death from above. We were issued a hardhat, an eight foot helium filled ballon, tethered to a kite reel holding hundreds of feet of small rope. Then we were instructed to run as fast as we could possibly go down that rough slash in the timber and let our ballon ascend to the tops of the forest. A helicopter pilot would line up on the series of eight to ten two man balloon crews and bomb us all with Agent Orange.  Before the prop wash could tangle the balloon in the high branches, we would frantically crank the balloon back down and run like deer to the next spot, forty to fifty yards down the rutted trail, and repeat the ballon launch for another bathing of Agent Orange.

 

This went on until either the wind started blowing poison onto the neighboring property, or until lunch, as the wind dictated. At lunch we would search for a creek that potentially hadn’t been sprayed and we considered ourselves lucky when we washed ourselves, clothes, boots and all.

 

When I asked Story why this hardwood wasn’t being salvaged for lumber all he could offer was , “There ain’t no money in hardwoods. It’s too slow and them pines is big money boy.”

 

I can’t remember what exactly this kind of running in the woods with a balloons paid, but I’m sure it was far less that $2.20 and hour. The hardhat was ours to keep. Two weeks of this and a fat pay check was some kind of big deal.

 

The spray crew was out of Texas; probably East Texas. They probably had actually been to Benny B’s a time or two. They were professional hardwood killers of the highest order in my estimation.

 

Joe D never made it back to the spray crew on a Friday, or a Saturday. And, when we returned to our old crew on Signal Mountain he was out of money again. He was chain smoking Prince Albert like a man with a date for a firing squad. He couldn’t afford what he called ‘ready rolls’ and the can kept his rolling papers dry.

 

One day we stumbled a little bit off property and found a rock house complete with a stacked stone wall and remnants of some rusty tin cans. It looked like an Indian dwelling, but the cans tipped the locals off that this was once a hideout used by the ‘Hermit of the Horseshoe’.

 

The story of the hermit was well known to the crew that lived on the mountain. Back in the thirties a guy down in the Valley had a falling out with the Law and he was threatened with hard jail time. Nobody seems to know exactly what his actual transgression was, but he immediately left his family and went off grid before there was ever a grid to go off of. For years, he existed off of the mountain land in one cave or rock house after another, moving constantly to avoid the high sheriff’s posse.

 

Years went by and family members would leave notes in the trees and on caves telling him to come  back home and that it was now safe as someone had killed the sheriff. These attempts to get the man to come home were always unsuccessful. The old man had gone contentedly feral, or maybe crazy, and no-one knows exactly what ever happened to him.

 

Patten’s caretaker, a man known to carry two ivory handled 45s on his side, claimed to have actually captured the old ragged man one time back in the sixties. The caretaker had his picture taken with him and it’s in a book by a Patten that I can no longer locate.

 

The story was that the caretaker had given the hermit his boots and socks off of his feet because the old hermit was barefoot. He often left the hermit supplies of food and clothing during the winter. No one really seems to know what became of the hermit.

 

I wish I knew more about this man. If you have any information I would much appreciate it if you could pass any other facts along.

 

I attempted half heartedly to keep up with some of the crew over the years. Billy, like Steve Earl’s “Copperhead Road,” came home from ‘Nam with a new plan. He became a successful planter as we discovered during early season deer hunts on Bakewell Mountain. His dad was a well respected Deacon in a local mountain church after retiring from years of supporting his family through the business of moonshining. They say Joe D’s brother inexplicably worked his way up to become a deputy sheriff. I heard a story of Joe D getting upset with a distant relative one night around a still, and how he planted a rather large flat rock in his relative’s skull because the relative wouldn’t loan him five dollars to go to Barker’s store.

 

I never did hear what prison he went to but I’m pretty sure Brushy Mountain was closed when that happened. Uncle Sims went on to become a star quarterback at Sewanee and they say Daniel’s wrecked his1964 Mustang and messed up his legs pretty bad.

 

What about our lengthy exposure to Army surplus agent orange? Who knows? Entire mountain tops all over the South were defoliated with the stuff. Maybe being drenched in the this crap made us all a little crazy. We were murders though. Who knows? I’m often amazed at the things I did in my youth for money.

 

---

 

WOMR note: The last couple of renderings sparked a great many comments from loyal readers. One reader actually worked at the same gas station and said I described Chester to a T. He even knew Chester’s real name. I avoided using Chester’s real name out of fear he would somehow find me and try to borrow money again. One reader commented that it reminded him of his days pumping gas and talking local law enforcement in Gurley Alabama out of DUI’s. One reader remembered long family battles with every piece of equipment ever required to gather and store hay. And another knew the evils of ‘bob war’ from wrestling miles of the devilish stuff. Many comments I get say that these posts brings back memories and with those memories comes a big smile. That’s pretty high praise enough for me and it is beyond encouraging. One particularly cherished reader said I described exactly how she felt about July and I’m sincerely thankful for hitting that note with her. Thanks to all of you for taking time out of your day to send these kind words.


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