The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Sourwood Mountain

By Bob G. Tannehill © 1985

Issue: June, 1985

My great-grandfather Smith lived on the side of Barrett’s Mountain, in the south range of the Brushy Mountains. "Grandpa" lived there with a son, Jerry, who was a bachelor, and both of these men were very special to me.

As a youngster, I had lived with my grandparents, who were "Mom" and "Dad" to me, and Grandpa was often a guest in our house, or we in his.

Grandpa died while I was in basic training as a paratrooper during the Korean conflict. I was unable to get home for the funeral, but they said it was a bitter cold day with heavy snow.

He was around 95 when he died - in the outhouse, as a matter of fact. Uncle Jerry moved down from the mountain soon afterwards, and a few years later he died in a tragic house fire.

The house in which Grandpa and Jerry lived was a small, four room dwelling, perched on the side of the mountain. There was almost as much space under the house as inside.

A spring was located about 50 yards above the house, but a pipe carried the water in a continuous flow to near a small porch on the east side of the house. It was always muddy around that pipe, it seems, and that, attracted yellow jackets, wasps and honey bees.

There was no glass in what few windows the house had, and wooden doors were pulled shut during inclement weather. Grandpa and Jerry never knew the luxury of inside plumbing or electric power, there on Barrett's Mountain.

Many times, as a boy, I had carried a can of kerosene up to that old house - a potato stuck on the spout to prevent waste.

Since they had no cows, it was also my task to take milk and butter to them. This was usually after my other chores were done, which meant that I often made the trip back long after nightfall.

It was about a mile from where I lived to Grandpa's, uphill most of the way and through deep woods. It seemed much longer to me, at the time, particularly when it was dark. I think I learned to whistle my best during those dark walks, carrying a lantern or flashlight, keenly aware of screech owls and other night sounds. And I remember the ominous "lights" that popped up here and there along the path, but which always turned out to be "foxfire", as we called the luminous glow of fungi or rotten bark.

During the day, of course, it was a much different adventure. I knew just about every tree on my journey, and was well acquainted with a small mountain stream halfway along the route. If the weather was anywhere near decent, Grandpa would be waiting on that little porch, where he could most likely be found reading one of his many Western magazines, spitting tobacco juice, playing the fiddle, or just singing while soaking up nature.

Grandpa Smith was a striking fellow. He had been a large man and extremely strong in his day, working around lumber and shingle mills for many years. Both he and Uncle Jerry could play the fiddle and both often sang along with some of the tunes they played. "Sourwood Mountain" was one of Grandpa's favorites.

My reward for bringing the milk and butter, kerosene or whatever, was generally a handful of prunes. Lucky for me I liked prunes! Sometimes when I was there, Grandpa would sharpen my pocket knife. Nothing, he would say, could whet a knife better than "baccer spit."

Ever so often I would spend the night, crawling into bed with Grandpa and falling asleep listening to his endless stories about bygone times. I couldn't have separated fiction from fact even if I'd wanted to.

Uncle Jerry could fix a "mean" breakfast... cathead biscuits and gravy, eggs, fatback and mush, and molasses. You could scald a hog with his coffee!

Once in a while, Jerry would accompany me back down the mountain entertaining me much of the way. If the weather was tolerable, Grandpa would sit on the porch and watch us 'til we entered the woods. And we could usually hear him singing.

Several years ago, during a surge of nostalgia, I parked the car and made my way through the woods to where Grandpa and Jerry used to live, and where I had left so many memories.

Someone else now owns the property. The old house has been gone for many years, the pipe from the spring has been removed and there is little to remind one of what used to be. A couple of old blackheart cherry trees are still standing, but they are dead too. Ironically, some daffodils were blooming near a familiar old walnut tree, and a bright red cardinal also greeted my return.

Then, just for a moment, I almost yelled out for Jerry. Could he be in a nearby field, plowing ole Kate? Somehow I felt his presence. And Grandpa… it didn't require much imagination to still find him sitting on the porch, wiping tobacco juice off his mustache, and, yes, he was singing...."I got a gal in Sourwood Mountain, ho hum diddle um dey."