Friday, January 27, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past: Gatlinburg #16

Davy Crockett Shop in Gatlinburg next to the Sky Lift

In the 1950s, Tennessee was cool. 

Patty Page welcomed in the decade with the number one song, "Tennessee Waltz," while Pete Seeger and the Weavers version of "On Top of Old Smokey" reached the charts that same year. Later in the decade, Tennessee Ernie Ford added "Sixteen Tons" a Billboard number one about how hard it was to work in a coal mine. Born in Bristol, Ernest even got his own TV variety show on NBC beginning in 1956 called The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. 

And at the movies, Robert Mitchum spawned a film noir tale called Thunder Road based on a factual event about an East Tennessee moonshine runner killed in a roadblock on Bearden Hill in Knoxville about eight miles from where I currently live. Mitchum's Luke Doolin drove a '57 Ford Fairlane just like my Dad and "thunder was his engine, white lightning was his load." We knew every line of "The Ballad of Thunder Road." The movie became a cult classic playing a drive-in theaters every summer for years. We thought the raffish moonshiner was our kin, our story, although none of us knew a lick about making shine but it was in our DNA, but of course we were kids. What did we know about our bloodline?

But, none of these had the pop culture POW of the state's number one favorite son, Davy Crockett or at least the Walt Disney version played by coonskin cap wearing Fess Parker. First it was a TV miniseries that aired in five installments on Disney's anthology series called "Disneyland" on ABC from December 1954 to December 1955. It was so hugely popular, the TV chapters were edited together and released as a wide screen feature film for the theater: Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Wow. Davy in Technicolor! We had only seen him on a small Sylvania black & white set.

March 24, 1952
And speaking of color, back then, Tennessee was not a "Red State" but rather "the greenest state in the land of the free." 

Everyone knew by heart "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." And even our beloved U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver who was running for vice president at the time, was pictured on the cover of Time magazine wearing a coonskin cap. Although Kefauver's Time cover presided Disney's Davy by two years, it set the mark. Cool Tennesseans wore coonskin. I still have one, albeit a bit too small for my adult noggin. Kefauver was a senator in the days when people were elected to go to Washington to actually find solutions to the people's problems.

The country went crazy over Disney's Davy, "born on a mountain top in Tennessee." The original episodes were filmed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina side, and even though the real David Crockett was born in 1786 near the Nolichucky River in Limestone, Tennessee in Greene County, i.e. bottomland, to the world Davy was born on a mountain top and that summit had to be on top of old Smoky and what a better invitation to go visit a mountain top in Tennessee and come to Gatlinburg along the way. No modern day national ad agency could have created such a buzz. 

We kids were energized, captivated, enthralled. We all wanted to be Crockett. But how could Davy have "killed him a bear when he was only three"? Being only four-years-old at the time, I felt markedly lacking, mystified. All I had was a rubber knife.

Gatlinburg had a Davy Crockett Theatre next to the bus station and a Davy Crockett Shop specializing in all things Davy next to the Sky Lift, both on the Parkway.     

Brother & sister in Davy Crockett t-shirts, 1956
Davy was the first mass marketed merchandising phenomena much like Star Wars is today with items that included t-shirts, glasses, cups, puzzles, games, lunch boxes, clothing, trading cards, plastic weaponry, even lamps. (Darlene and I are wearing Davy Crockett t-shirts in the photo to the right.) And I still have a kid-sized Davy Crockett "TV chair" to sit on after a long day looking for bears on the wild frontier. 

Davy Crockett TV chair
Davy was everywhere in all the stores nationwide. By the end of 1955, Americans had purchased over $300 million worth of Davy Crockett merchandise and a lot of that was bought in Gatlinburg while on vacation. 

We were proud to be from "the greenest state in the land of the free" because that is where our Davy was from.

My Gatlinburg friend Emily reminded me of a Tennessee Ernie 1949 hit. To hear the "Ol' Pea-Picker" click: Smokey Mountain Boogie. 

©2017 — From the upcoming book, 
"Vintage Gatlinburg: 
The Transformation of a Small Timber Town to Mountain Resort
 Family Remembrances 1899-1969
by University of Tennessee Press author and native son
Stephen Lyn Bales 

Davy Crockett Theatre next to the bus station

For links to other Gatlinburg history posts click:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Owl-ology, merci

In nature, form follows function. I have two arms because it makes t-shirts fit better. Owls have the most splendor faces, actually designed for sensory input, round like satellite dishes with huge eyes. They have excellent hearing and eyesight. If you are a mouse moving in the forest detritus in the dark, it's hard to go undetected. Just sayin'

Thank you to all who attended my Owl-ology 101 class at Ijams last Sunday afternoon. We learned all about the local species of owls, enjoyed some owl-licious snacks and dissected owl pellets provided by StayPuff our adopted barred owl. And yes, some mouse skulls were found!

The photo at the top and to the right is of a red phase eastern screech-owl, the first bird I worked with at Ijams in 1998. We did hundreds of programs together, she was a real show-stopper.

And the photo to the right is an elderly great horned owl. As a group, they all seem to be born mad and stay mad. They're intense enough to even kill and eat a skunk. But not this one, his advanced years made him gentle. And the bottom photo is a barred owl with those large black Muscle Shoals bluesman eyes. I handled the flightless wonder for a number of years. All of these three have since passed away. Heartbreak!

There is a chapter in my upcoming University of Tennessee Press book, Ephemeral by Nature, about owls and my relationship with them at the nature center. 

Young naturalists have been coming to Ijams to learn about birds since the 1920s and they love owls. I am but a link in the chain. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Coop or sharpie?

These photos poise one of the hardest bird IDs in our area. Patricia Mayhugh sent them to me. She knew what it was, but do you? The fact that the raptor is hanging out near a birdfeeder indicates it's an Accipiter, since they eat other birds, but which one? Is it a Cooper's hawk or a sharp-shinned hawk

Cooper's hawks are roughly crow-sized and sharp-shinned hawks are blue-jay size but size is hard to judge in a photo or in the field unless you have something to compare it to.

So what field marking do you look for?

My friend Dr. Cheryl Greenacre at the UT Veterinary Teaching Hospital sees a lot of injured birds up close. She looks in the mouth. Inside a Cooper's is black, a sharp-shinned is pink. But we never see one that closely or that disabled.

Well, for us, we look at the end of the tail. Cooper's have a rounded tail that ends in a noticeable band of white. Sharpies have a blunt or squared-off tail with so little white it is hard to see. 

Therefore: these photos are of a Cooper's hawk!

Thanks, Patricia.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past: Gatlinburg #15

The Gatlinburg firestorm of last November took out so much of my hometown, but so much was already gone. 

During the 1940s, especially after War World II ended in 1945, Gatlinburg become a boom town. 

Parkway of Gatlinburg, circa late 1940s
The average cost of land jumped from $50 to $8,000 per acre during that decade. The mountain families who sold their farms to become part of the national park, then moved to town and bought cheap property in the early 1930s experienced a windfall. Family-owned businesses began to appear all over the Smoky's new gateway resort to accommodate the influx of visitors. 

There were two full service gas stations in the center of town: Texaco on the right and Esso on the left just up the street from Denton's Drug Store and Dr. Ralph Shilling's office, the town's resident doctor who treated us original Gatlinburgians. The Texaco was were we kids took our bikes to inflate the tires because "you can trust the man who wears the star."

And folks have to eat, generally three meals per day.

The dictionary defines café as a "restaurant usually small and unpretentious." The origin is from 1780 to '90 and the French word for coffee, so the original French cafés were coffeehouses, tearooms, bistros and lunchrooms or small informal places to get a cup of coffee and a quick meal. You didn't have to dress up, dining was casual.

Pearl Bales & grumpy author
Like the century itself, in the late 1940s, Grandmother Pearl Ogle Bales was in her late forties and had already raised two families; first her younger brothers and sisters after her mother died in childbirth in 1919 and the second was her own three children. Her oldest daughter Edith was grown and away from home and her two sons: Rubin and Russell had been away serving their country in the Pacific. Consequently, Grandma Pearl had time on her hands and she knew how to cook. She had also worked for a time in the kitchen in Andy Huff's Mountain View Hotel, but like so many of the original Gatlinburg families, she saw opportunity. Remember, mountaineers were good at making something out of nothing, improvising. And being strikingly different, my former upland grandparents from Baskins Creek opened separate businesses. 

Homer Bales at cafe
The larger hotels in the new resort town had their own dining rooms, but there were only a few smaller eateries for tourists and locals alike. The Riverview Cafe was in the "upper end" of town and the popular lunch counter at the Trailways Bus Station and Howard's Cafe in the middle, so grandma Pearl opened Bales Cafe in the lower end, across from the Sinclair station and near the Pioneer Inn. The stone building with hardwood floors and pine walls and ceiling was on the Parkway and the bank of Little Pigeon River. To find out the evening special all you had to do was phone the Gatlinburg operator and ask for number 167.

Uncle Alvin Latham
And it was truly a family business. Pearl was a mama to many. And if you were born into the Bales family, you had a job. Everyone who was old enough worked there one time or another. If I had been older, I would have too but that would come later. For awhile, both my mother and father worked either in her kitchen or out in the serving hall and even Uncle Alvin Latham bussed tables and washed dishes for Grandma Pearl.  

She served "homemade meals in mountain fashion." The menu included traditional favorites like hot biscuits with mountain honey, eggs, bacon, gravy, green beans, mashed potatoes, cornbread, fried chicken, fresh trout, chicken 'n dumplings, country ham, creamed corn, apple pie à la Mode and the best blackberry dumplings I've ever tasted. Five decades later the memory lingers. The cafe only had about a dozen tables, all covered with white tablecloths, and could serve roughly 40 people at capacity. The tables at the back looked down on to the Little Pigeon River. 

Pearl & Homer Bales with grand-kids, 1956
Some of my most ingrained childhood memories go back to spending time at the cafe. Grandma was friendly and gregarious, quick with a hardy chuckle, but she was also a mountain woman who could chop her own firewood or put you in your place if she had to. She was ahead of her time. She spoke her mind. Years ago grandma Pearl confessed to me that she once got into an argument with another woman that was settled with a fist fight in the middle of the road in front of her cafe. Pearl won the disagreement. 

Ma & Pa Kettle
Pearl and Homer always reminded me of Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride's Ma and Pa Kettle, popular characters in ten movie comedies made between 1947 and '57, roughly the exact same time frame of the cafe itself. Grandma Pearl never missed one of their "picture shows" at the Cherokee theater. She loved to laugh. According to Wiki, the Kettles were "a hillbilly couple with fifteen children whose lives turn upside-down when they win a model-home-of-the-future in a slogan-writing contest. At the verge of getting their farm condemned, the Kettles move into the prize home that is different from their country lifestyle. After that, they are subjected to more unusual situations." I think Grandma Pearl identified with Ma Kettle. Growing up in a log cabin at the headwaters of Baskins Creek after the turn of the century, who would have ever guessed that someday she would own her own cafe in downtown Gatlinburg.

It's a long and winding road.

But Pearl did own a café and folks just liked stopping by for a cup of coffee and chat. It was that kind of place...where everybody knows your name. 

And today, all these years later, all that I have left of Bales Cafe is a single chair that was once in her dining room. Every now and then, I like to sit in the red bottomed, ladder back and eat a cornbread muffin in remembrance of things past. And is that a bowl of mountain honey sitting on every table? Sweet!  

©2017—From the upcoming book, 
"Vintage Gatlinburg: 
The Transformation of a Small Timber Town to Mountain Resort
 Family Remembrances 1899-1969
by University of Tennessee Press author and native son  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Birding & Brunch: raptors

They are intense, watchful, ever-ready to strike, with eyes like opera glasses and grappling hooks for feet. An active red-tailed hawk needs to find and kill three to four mice a day. Don't fret, death comes quick. And it's necessary to maintain balance in nature.

All hawks were once shot on sight, considered vermin. In the early 1900s, Pennsylvania set a bounty of 50 cents on every dead hawk turned in to authorities. It is reported that in a two year period 180,000 hawks were killed and the bounty collected. (Do the math.) The state's small rodent population consequently soared. If each of the 180,000 hawks had lived and each had eaten three mice a day, in the two year time frame, 393 million mice, moles, voles and shrews would have been removed from the environment. Pennsylvania did the math, and ended the bounty program quickly. So, hawks and other birds-of prey are our watch dogs. 

Love 'em. Love 'em. Love 'em.  

Thanks to all who attended my Birding & Brunch Saturday morning at Ijams. Our topic was local birds-of-prey, their life histories and how to identify these raptors with minimal clues. Ijams offers one Birding & Brunch a month. In February we'll be talking about bird nesting and building bluebird boxes.

Thanks to Christie and Kim for preparing the brunch and thank you to Ijams' friends Jason Dykes, Jim McCormick and Chuck Cooper for providing these photos.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

dove love

Are they starting to look at each other a little too soon? Dove love can start early and we have another week of warm weather forecast for the valley. The doves may be singing a different tune.

 "I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes, The love that's all around me, And so the feeling grows," originally sang by the Troggs in the 1960s. 

And, it's nice that we are having a reprieve from cold weather for a couple of weeks but I am a bit worried about the amorous mourning doves.

How so?

Oddly, I have encountered several people over the years that do not like these birds. Some folks even shoot them in the fall during dove season. But I just love the chunky, puffy ground-feeders. I provide food for them on my back deck and they will eat the cheapest seeds. They are about the only bird that touches milo and they are fun to watch waddling about. Pigeons and doves are like stuffed animals, you just want to pick them up and cuddle them.

But, you see, mourning doves are the most family-oriented birds that live in the valley. They can have six broods a year, but only two per clutch and both Mom and Dad are supportive parents. The papa dove even handles the tutorial after the nestlings fledge.

And because they can raise six families per year they like to get an early start on the production line and I'm a bit worried that the warmer weather may lure them into clutch number one too soon, in January, and that seems a bit early especially when cold weather returns. 

I may have caught a pair of doves looking longingly at each other on my deck with loving on their minds. Dare I discourage them? Speak to them about climate change and how it is affecting all kinds of natural patterns and rhythms.

But then again, mourning doves just love making babies. Maybe I should just let nature take its course.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Birds-of-prey brunch

Red-tailed hawk. Photo by Jason Dykes

Saturday, January 14, 10:30 a.m.

Birding and Brunch at Ijams

(All Ages) Join me at Ijams as we take a closer look at the aerial hunters of East Tennessee: birds-of-prey. We’ll talk about adaptations and hunting strategies and how to identify them with minimal clues. We're talking falcons, hawks, harriers, ospreys and eagles, oh my. You might even get to meet one or two of our resident raptors. A light brunch will be provided. The fee for this program is $5 for Ijams members and $8 for non-members. Please call (865) 577-4717, ext. 110 to register. 

Photo by Chuck Cooper

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past: Gatlinburg #14

"The first 18 years really shape you forever. It's like a glass of water filled with mud. You can pour clear water in until it appears clear, but there's still mud there," said Bruce Springsteen recently. And the mud that's in my blood washed down the north slope of Mt. LeConte. Once known as Bearskins Creek because Ursus americanus blood was also spilled into its waters, Baskins Creek was the center of our kid world. We walked it, waded it, fished it, swam it and watched it flood its banks, muddy and mad.

Homer Daniel Bales 

In the late 1940s, granddad Homer Daniel Bales witnessed small tourist courts open along the creek. He even helped Everett Trentham build his and got the idea he could do the same although he didn't have much flat land to work with. He was in the "holler" just the side of a mountain with the creek at the bottom. But true opportunity only presents itself every so often in your life, once or twice, who knows. As the old timers were apt to say, "you strike while the iron is hot."

Spending his boyhood at the Jim Bales homesite on Roaring Fork, he hopped the ridge and moved down Baskins. As a former logger, he was used to uneven terrain, granddad Homer was a mountain man. He made the most of what he had. He could be rather stoic and taciturn but what he understood was what he could build with his own two hands. That was real. Like the trucks he always drove, he was built Ford tough living just shy of 100 years (5 Jan 1899 to 3 Jan 1998).

Bales Cabins "on the banks of beautiful Baskins Creek" was in continuous operation from 1949 to 1996, just little cottages on the creek, knotty-pine paneled walls and chairs on porches, nothing fancy. But they were solid and serviceable like himself built for working class tourists who needed to stay for a week for less than $100. On a slow night you could rent a cabin for six dollars and buy a RC Cola or Nehi orange for a nickel sold from an outdoor fridge. Open every April through October, all you had to do was phone the Gatlinburg operator and ask for number 167. The first three decades granddad Homer ran the business with the help of Mom and Flora Williams who cleaned all the cabins and washed the linens. We kids: sister Darlene, Gordon Williams, plus neighbors Ben and Larry grew up "en plein air" on the mountainside around the cabins and in the creek with the crawdads.

We were one big extended family. Guests came every year from all over the southeast listening to Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney on the Motorola car radios. See Rock City signs were everywhere including birdhouses. Men wore slacks, narrow brimmed straw hats called pork-pies or caps and short-sleeved shirts of scratchy rayon or maybe simply plain white teesThey came to the creek to relax. The women wore Bermuda shorts and flip-flop sandals in the latest bright colors: chartreuse, turquoise and saffron. America had found a bright palette once again after the drabness of war. And everyone smoked, everyone except granddad Homer, either Lucky Strike, Camels or Pall Mall, the Marlboro Man came later. All the rentals had multiple ashtrays, they had to.

Initially, the cars had rounded butts like bugs but as the decade wore on, they stretched longer, grew brighter and sprouted finsDad bought a coral and white 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner that made him the coolest Dad in the history of Dads. It was my dream car and still is. Mom was mad at the extravagance and I swear we ate beans, beans, beans for months to pay for the financial setback, but jeez it was worth it, even a dorky kid looked like a cool cat in that backseat, daddy-o. The car was cranked, it was a Skyliner. I'd eat 75 cases of pintos to have it in the driveway today. 

The Smiths and Maxeys and Foxes, all good folks, returned to the cabins every year to sit by the creek sipping colas from returnable bottles worth two cents. They brought their Kodak Brownie Hawkeyes and took photos of each other smiling, hugging. They were happy. They were on vacation in the Smokies. The park boundary was only a half mile upstream. For entertainment? They'd buy another Nehi and watched the kids play in the creek some more trying to catch minnows in a cup. They were there to relax and watching the mountain stream was entertainment enough. 

Granddad Homer even built a concert dam to hold back the water creating a manmade swimming hole, a kid haven. Who needs a heated pool when you could swim in creek water like Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan? It was an atypical childhood growing up in Gatlinburg.

Sister Darlene standing in
flooded road. 1966. © Bales family archive

After a heavy rain Baskins rushed muddy brown down from LeConte. Sometimes it would bolt out onto the road, wild like a stallion. Heavy rain wore down the mountain and it bled sand and silt and clay mud.
For many, many years, Baskins Creek and those cloistered little cottages were my cosmos, my all and everything. But on Monday, November 28, the cabins built by Homer Bales depicted in these photos burned to the ground in less than an hour. It was Old Testament wrath or as close as I ever hope to come near itEverything is gone—My Wonder Years—only ashes remain and the fire muddied the creek that flows through my veins yet again.

I'm a child of the creek. I'm a child of that creek, the same creek of Baskins Falls located three miles upstream where Grandmom Pearl once took her showers.

At some point you realize that everything you knew and loved is gone. And you're all alone.   

© 2017 From the upcoming book, 
"Vintage Gatlinburg: 
The Transformation of a Small Timber Town to Mountain Resort
 Family Remembrances 1899-1969
by University of Tennessee Press author and native son  
Stephen Lyn Bales