Why I Love Black Walnuts

First Posted June 2006

October 27, 2013 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (0)

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When I was a boy one of my father’s sisters gave him a tree, a sapling, and we planted it in the back yard in Denver. He said it was a black walnut from the mountains of western North Carolina, which are practically owned by the Scotch-Irish, his people. That gnarly stick of a tree survived from winter to Colorado winter, growing a few feet a year in the rich alluvial soil of our back yard.

 

Each summer I’d look for the black walnuts – a blossom, a green pod on a branch, a fallen clunker with a shell like a hand grenade – but the tree never bore. It needed pollination, I would learn. It needed to be back in Madison County, N.C., of which both my paternal grandparents were third- or fourth-generation natives. The little tree kept growing, and even after my father was gone it spoke to me of roots.

 

A family tree!

 

Better than the paper kind, I thought. You can’t taste a genealogy, can’t chop it up to put in ice cream or sprinkle on brownies. You can’t make fine oiled gun stocks or cabinets out of kinship charts. I didn’t care about doing the Alex Haley thing, which turned out to be fiction anyway. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to any backwoods Appalachian “holler.” I had grown up reading “Li’l Abner” and “Snuffy Smith” in the comics. I knew the stereotypes. TV brought “Ma and Pa Kettle,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee Haw,” Festus on “Gunsmoke,” and so forth. Hey, I could relate to these comedy characters, but I didn’t want to discover we were actually . . . related!

 

Then came “Deliverance” by the troubled Georgia poet James Dickey, whose inbred, demented, violent stereotypes cast a shadow on the southern mountains in general. The movie with Burt Reynolds and John Voight was a blockbuster, and “Dueling Banjos” from the sound track was a hit. It was filmed on the Chantanooga River, which runs along the Georgia-South Carolina border, but that was a little too close to home, the “home” I had never seen, and would not see until. . . 

 

Last month I flew to Atlanta and rented a car and headed for Madison County, stopping first for directions at the home of my transplanted Colorado cousin, Dick Marx, and his wife, Joanne, whom he calls a Georgia girl. They live well near Newnan, Ga., where the late Erskine Caldwell used to write his depraved but popular novels. My cousins have a beautiful house on a huge landscaped lot at the edge of a rolling golf course in a wealthy and racially integrated gated community. No Erskine Caldwell “God’s Little Acre” or “Tobacco Road” anywhere in the neighborhood. That was my first clue about the New South, Next Generation.

 

Tom Wolfe, before he became the effete novelist in white, reported on the New South, New Journalism style, in a famous 1965 Esquire essay called “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” Junior Johnson was – and is – a NASCAR legend: the no-fear good-ol’-boy stockcar driver who grew up running whiskey for his daddy down the mountain roads of Wilkes County, N.C., which is just a few counties up the Blue Ridge from Madison County. Wolfe made the Junior Johnson legend immortal, crediting him with invention of the bold bumper-to-bumper stockcar racing technique called “drafting” and another trick that involves shooting out of curves faster than you go in. “This was known as his ‘power slide,’ and – yes! of course! – every good old boy in North Carolina started saying Junior Johnson had learned that stunt doing those goddamned about faces running away from the Alcohol Tax agents,” wrote Wolfe.

 

Like this: “If the Alcohol Tax agents had a roadblock up for you or were too close behind, you threw the car up into second gear, cocked the wheel, stepped on the accelerator and made the car’s read end skid around in a complete 180-degree arc, a complete about face, and tore on back up the road exactly the way you came from. God! The Alcohol Tax agents used to burn over Junior Johnson.”

 

This game had begun a generation earlier with Prohibition, 1919-1933, but continued under an alcohol tax-collecting rationale into the Sixties. The libertarian Cato Institute makes the case that the game continues to this day as the War On Drugs and is a failure for the same reasons as was Prohibition. A New Mexico governor of my acquaintance, Gary Johnson, committed political suicide by buying the Cato line and advocating drug legalization. . . . But this is not about politics. My interest in Tom Wolfe’s little history of moonshining and bootlegging and fast cars is that my grandfather, J. R. Calloway, preceded Junior Johnson in the whiskey-running game. Except, well, my grandfather was on . . . the other side!

 

Same game, different uniform. Like Junior Johnson, my grandfather was a Scotch-Irish native of western North Carolina. The 1880 Census (there is no 1890 Census record) lists his father and grandfather and likely uncle as farmers heading separate households on the west fork of the Ivy River, which is a tributary of the French Broad, which drains a large region between Asheville, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn. J. R. and my grandmother, the former Margaret Holcombe, took their young family West to Colorado, settling in 1913 in the Boulder County town of Longmont, where he became police chief within two years. For most of the Roaring Twenties he also was an agent of the Federal Prohibition Bureau.

 

I have no memory of him – he died in 1942 – and his only personal communication in my possession is his signature on a leaf of a gift Bible soon after I was born. A Baptist deacon, he used to give Bibles to all his grandchildren. I would have liked to hear his stories, if he told stories, because a few days ago, as part of this project, for the first time I did some close reading of some narrow old newspaper clippings that passed on to me. It seems, among other things, that on Dec. 16, 1927, my grandfather, leading a surprise raid on a farm near Littleton, busted the chief of the Colorado state police, a former state legislator named Clifford Wilder. This well connected politician had an elaborate underground whiskey distillery going, and after a notorious trial and exhaustion of appeals, Wilder went to prison in Canon City, where he stayed for a while because the Denver press exposed a plot to parole him immediately.

 

And there was this: “Boulder, Colo. Feb. 26 [year unknown] – A volley of shots, fired at auto tires by J. R. Calloway, federal dry agent of Longmont, Saturday night ended in the arrest of Gladys Robbins, girl wife of Henry Robbins of Louisville, after a chase of ten miles. Robbins also is under arrest.”

 

It seems that J. R., driving to Louisville with a warrant for the arrest of Henry for moonshining and bootlegging, encountered the pair driving the other way and gave chase across half the county, but Henry went over a hill and vanished. J. R., believing he had lost him, turned around.

 

“Suddenly he saw a red light in a field and drove toward it. It proved to be Robbins’ car, but Robbins, seeing the officers, started up his machine and sped to Louisville, with Calloway close behind. Reaching Louisville, Robbins jumped from the car and Mrs. Robbins took the wheel and turned into an alley. Calloway followed and began firing at the tires of the car as it again turned into a street. Mrs. Robbins became frightened and stopped the car. She accompanied Calloway to her home, where Robbins was arrested. A search in the field where Robbins had attempted to hide disclosed a five-gallon jug of whiskey and 100 pint bottles of liquor.”

 

You can see the game had evolved considerably by the time Junior Johnson was roaring down western North Carolina mountain roads in his supercharged Oldsmobile and learning the power slide. He would never try to hide in a field with his foot still on the brake pedal! He would never involve a woman, even a “girl wife.” I think my grandfather would have had a decent respect for Junior Johnson, for his skill and good sportsmanship if nothing else. I doubt, however, that old J. R. would have granted Junior any Scotch-Irish professional courtesy.

 

The Scotch-Irish! Wolfe’s essay celebrated these troublesome early invaders of the Appalachians, descendants of lowland Scots, Presbyterians who in the 16th Century under the sanction of King James I of England began occupying Ulster, displacing the conquered Catholic Irish. Generations of violence ensued, at the roots of the current conflict in Northern Ireland. The Irish called them “Billy Boys,” with sarcastic reference to William III, prince of Orange. But these future American “Hillbillies” in the hills of Ulster didn’t exactly get along, either, with the English and their discriminatory laws regarding the establishment of Anglican religion (See Amendment No. 1). And there was drought in the mountains of Ulster. So when the New World really began opening up in the 18th Century, the Scotch-Irish began sailing away. Between 1717 and 1770 alone, about 250,000 settled in the Appalachians, according to James H. Webb, the author of “Born Fighting.”

 

Consideration of all this by historians like Walter Prescott Webb called for an amendment to the Frontier Thesis because, it was clear, the Scotch-Irish came to North America . . . pre-adapted. And they did not make a particularly nice or civilized minority in the romantic frontier spirit of Frederick Jackson Turner. They caused the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791 in the northern Appalachians, and seventy years later, down in the heart of the Confederacy, they resisted secession, making Tennessee and North Carolina the last to secede from the Union, according to Wilma Dykeman, historian of the French Broad.

 

“The western mountains and the French Broad headwaters had a way of life widely separated from that of the eastern Piedmont and the Atlantic coastal plain. In both states the very instinct which had caused its people to settle in this scenic but poorer, varied but more isolated region led them naturally to be at economic and political odds with the other parts of their states,” she wrote in the 1950’s. Which is to say, no plantations and no slavery. “Thus,” she went on, “when secession came and war began, inborn prejudices of nature and belief flared into the open and the little-known rebellion against rebellion began. Began and did not end until the war ended, in fact has never yet come to an end. . . .”

 

So much for the homework. I was now on my way through the snarly freeways of Atlanta to find some Calloways in Madison County, population 20,000, “Jewel of the Blue Ridge,” according to a brief tourist brochure. The main attractions seemed to be a hot springs and 65 miles of the Appalachian Trail, running the length of the county. The only franchise motel appeared to be a Comfort Inn at Mars Hill, pop. 1,700, the largest town. So I stopped in Asheville.

 

It’s a lovely, hilly, artsy tourist town where southern planters used to spend their summers and George Vanderbilt assembled an art-filled chateau with 250 rooms on 120,00 acres and Thomas Wolfe grew up in a boarding house and lived long enough to become a raging success as a novelist in the 1930’s. Amidst the high new franchise hotels was an oldtimey motel, as out of place as a clay “XXX” jug in a wine rack. It had an imposing sign that pictured, in primary neon, a ragged man with a floppy hat and a corncob pipe and a shotgun leaning against the words “Mountaineer Inn” with half the letters turned backwards. In my part of the country, mountaineer is a positive description of people who climb mountains, but in the Appalachians it’s a nice way of saying hillbilly. The sign is pictured on the cover of a book by Richard Starnes, a professor writing on the clash of tourism and culture, who says, “Although portrayed as backward, ignorant and prone to violence, mountaineers conversely enjoyed a reputation for hospitality, quaintness, and traditional values.” Anyway, I was drawn to this old motel by my Appalachian gene.

 

“Madison County?” said the owner, a Greek named Chris Moutous. His wife and lovely Southern daughter-in-law behind the counter looked up. “They do a lot of fighting up there.” In the way that people in the tourist business in Santa Fe, the Asheville of the Southwest, tell Rio Arriba County stories, he liked to tell Madison County stories. And, given my experiences, I was a good listener. He told how after one election they got to fighting so hard in Madison County that the governor had to call out the National Guard. He told how he once served on a housing authority board that came up with $6 million in federal funds to replace the hovels in Marshall, the county seat, a decaying little railroad town on the French Broad where the domed courthouse seems to be the only occupied building. “We wanted to civilize them. They kicked us out,” he said.

 

He told how he once hired a reliable employee from Madison County, but one morning the young man failed to show up for work and never came back. “The sheriff put him in jail so he could play with his wife. He would send letters and the sheriff would just put them in the dumpster. He was in jail six months,” Moutous said. “I went up there with the priest, and the sheriff said, ‘Get out of here, you goddamned Greek.’ I got all the Greek boys here together and got $20 from each of them and paid $150 to the Democrat lawyer and $150 to the Republican lawyer, and got him out.”

 

By now I had seen Mars Hill and loved it – a pretty little town with a modern, well-endowed Baptist college. Even the hilltop cemetery, which I checked for Calloways (none) and Holcombes (many) was pretty. So I thought these stories might be a little out of date. “In recent years,” Moutous conceded, “people who don’t know the history of Madison County have been buying land. It used to be you could buy it for 20 cents an acre. Now it’s $20,000.”

 

I returned to explore more of the back roads, remembering that the day before I was nearly blown off the road by a kid doing about 80 in a F-150 with muffler cutouts — GRRREEEEOOOOWW!! as Tom Wolfe would say. The roads are narrow and snaky, but they’re all paved now. And they access an Interstate-quality highway (the future I-26) that splits the county north and south. I kept passing an exit called “Fork of Ivy” until I realized this was what I was looking for, in plain sight. The “west fork” of the Ivy in the 1880 Census is now called Ivy Creek and the east fork is called Big Ivy River. I found their confluence under a tall I-26 bridge. A family with a 10-year-old station wagon was fishing. The old Fork of Ivy Baptist Church had a cemetery on the hill. No Calloways, No Holcombes.

 

Up Ivy Creek a couple of miles by a covered bridge I saw a mailbox with letters that might have once said “The Calloways.” Or was I just getting tired and prone to fiction? Then, trotting along the other way, came this apparition: a wagon of the kind that’s called a buckboard in the West, pulled by a beautiful matched team of chestnut horses. Mindful that the killer F-150 was out there, I found a place to do a safe U-turn – call me Senior Johnson – and caught up with the wagon. The congenial driver reigned in the horses and talked, but he didn’t know any Calloways and he had been living there on his horse farm only a couple of years. His sightseeing passengers didn’t know anything either, but they were fascinated that I was getting touch with my ancestral home and encouraged me to buy property, quick.

 

Another few miles up the road I saw the meaning of their advice: old farms were becoming new subdivisions with soothing country names carved in stone and big, big view homes dominating the coves with multiple gables and dormers and triple garages. Some were on hills cut by near vertical SUV driveways, inaccessible, I thought, to any team and wagon. And preserved perversely at the edges of the fertile lowlands: empty old paint-flaked barns and sheds and boarded up family homes. No still-houses, no outhouses, no violent but quaint and hospitable mountaineers tilling the empty fields. I decided to look for Calloways elsewhere.

 

On Saturday, along the roads around Mars Hill people were buying and selling. At a residential junk yard a retiree in a straw hat said there were some Calloways over the line in Buncome County. I headed that way and, at a yard sale, a woman said, yes, her tax accountant was married to a Calloway brother up there. She gave me directions. Within an hour in a sweet mountain cove at the head of Upper Flat Creek just past a vine-covered barn I saw a fresh green and white county road sign: “Calloway Road.” The country lane was no more than half a mile long, with no more than eight well maintained modular homes spaced along it. Children followed me asking questions. At last I found the tax accountant’s place and parked and got out and breathed.

 

“They’re gone camping,” said a gruff voice. I don’t know where he came from. He just materialized, standing there under some fruit trees – a lean, strong man in a plain white T-shirt and cotton pants. He had thinning hair and a broad forehead. Part of his nose was gone. I introduced myself and stated my business and he looked me over and gave his name: James. A Calloway like me. There was a James five generations back in the North Caroline genealogy passed on to me. We recognized some other synchronicities, common names recurring in both lineages. Then I tried out the name Lou Artie, an uncommon one, my great-grandmother, and he nodded.

 

“Yeah. Hard to mistake that name. She was a old lady. She lived all alone in a old house down there by the church. Us kids used to aggravate her. We’d climb up and put a bucket on her stove pipe. I felt bad when she died, the way we treated her. I was sorry we did it. They said she was part Cherokee.” James, eldest of his family there on Calloway Road, was 63. My great grandmother was listed as 38 in the 1880 Census. So she would have been over a hundred years old when James was a kid. It didn’t really compute, but I think I was on to something, and some day, maybe, I’ll figure it out. It was a Kunta Kinte moment.

 

My possible third cousin there under the fruit trees had been fond of his grandfather, Gilbert, who owned 400 acres here at the head of the creek. “My grandfather would have lived to be a hundred except his eyesight went bad. At 90 he could still work his team,” he said, and he described the 1700-pound draft horses that plowed the fields. He described his grandfather as a sort of conservationist, who “would skin us alive if we killed a wild animal, even a song bird.” And James seemed to have the same attitude toward nature. He had served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps and had worked as a construction superintendent in Texas and Florida, but he always returned to the mountains.

 

“I’m going to die here,” he said. “It might be tomorrow. It might be 20 years from now.” He knew the uncertainties. He had been wounded twice in Vietnam. He had recently lost part of his nose to skin cancer. “Nobody every told me to wear a hat,” he said. His ex wife had long gone down the road, and his two daughters, whom he had raised, were grown. He was staying put now. He wasn’t afraid of the hard work, and he could keep up with men half his age. “This is the only place to be,” he said.

 

The way the land was divided among heirs of his grandfather, James got a lot of thick forest up higher in the cove, but he didn’t seem interested in logging it. “Bears still come down,” he said. “But I keep that a secret because the hunters will come and get ’em.” On private land? “This is private property, but they sneak in. They come over the ridge,” he said. And new neighbors in the expensive house on the hill up there don’t seal their garbage, which tames the bears, fatally. There are deer, of course, and wild turkey and raccoons. “We still have copperheads. I haven’t seen a rattlesnake in three or four years,” he said with, it seemed to me, some sense of loss.

 

In his childhood after the war but before the 1960’s road building program, the extended family was self sustaining. They grew all their own vegetables and stored what they could – potatoes, for example, in straw-lined pits. They milked cows, butchered their own beef and pork. They didn’t have money, but didn’t need it. His mother used to trade eggs in town for coffee or sugar. And they raised corn. They would take it to the old stone mill and for grinding or trade some of it for wheat flour.

 

And corn fed the mash barrels that fed the still, if there was a still, although I wasn’t exactly asking about that. Instead I mentioned that my grandfather had been a prohibition agent in Colorado, probably because he had an unusual knowledge of whiskey making. “Not more than my grandfather,” said James. He recalled the trouble when he got into his grandfather’s “sipping whiskey” in a jug under the porch. Yes, his grandfather ran a still, but he gave it up because, James said, “The federal agents started giving him too much trouble.”

 

When roads made the area more accessible, there was income from farm products, particularly the fruit. Apples, black berries, peaches and cherries. “People would pick cherries and stop at my grandfather’s house with their buckets and pay him,” he said. We were standing under a particularly fine tree, heavy with clusters of healthy sweet cherries. They were beginning to show red. “They’re getting ready,” he said. Since there were no nets, I wondered, wouldn’t the birds get them? “Yeah, they’ll get some,” he said, “but there’s plenty left.” Would the bears get them? Naww, but the bears liked the peaches. He recalled when he was a kid picking peaches up in a tree a bear came along to eat the fallen peaches. “He looked up and saw me, but he just kept right on eating.”

 

Then I asked if they had black walnut trees. He looked at me incredulously and just gestured over his shoulder. There along the road was a line of straight gnarly trunks risins like telephone poles before branching out, pale green. Do they bear? Are there both sexes? I asked. “Uhh. Yeah,” he said.

 

I shot a picture of James Calloway and wrote out some family names, including the mysterious Lou Artie, on a yellow legal tablet and gave it to him for his sister in law the tax accountant who was interested in genealogy and said goodbye.

 

“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” he said. I probably had.