Carvings on Judaculla Rock in Jackson County, N.C., may never be fully explained.
The Smoky Mountains’ urban legends—or rather rural myths—are a sure-fire way to strike up conversation. But be forewarned. One could be walking into a hornet’s nest, or opening a can of worms, or even, as some say around here, stepping into a cow pile.
Swagger up to a produce stand and ask folks if they’ve ever seen cougars in these parts, and one’s liable to unleash a round of heated speculation from anyone within earshot.
“There are no cougars here,” said Dan Gibbs with the Tennessee Wildlife Agency in Morrisville.
But those are fighting words to many, especially people who have seen cougars in the Smokies with their own eyes, clear as day, cross their heart and hope to die.
Gibbs regularly fields calls from people who’ve seen a cougar in the mountains. But there’s never been a bona fide claim. He chalks up purported cougar sightings to mistaken bobcats or coyotes.
“People see things in shadows, and your mind plays tricks on you,” Gibbs said.
Cougars were once as integral to the Smokies as lions are to the African savannah. But the early settlers weren’t exactly fans of the big cats, and they were hunted out by the late 1800s.
“Basically, people extirpated them because they were a predator,” Gibbs said.
There’s been a spike in cougar sightings in the past decade—but they turn out to be hoaxes.
“We’ll get pictures from someone who says, ‘I captured this on my trail cam the other day,’ even though you’ve seen that same photo five times over the past few years from different people who swear up and down they took it,” Gibbs said. “The internet makes it easier for stuff to be pushed around.”
Wherever one finds cougars, one might just find the local elf population.
When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park reintroduced a herd of elk to Cataloochee Valley several years ago, park rangers fielded an irate call from an irate taxpayer with creative ears who understood that monies had been used to reintroduce “elves” to the park.
The popular host of the long-running Heartland Series on WBIR Knoxville, Bill Landry, heard the story and ran with it. Landry cooked up a segment that aired on April Fool’s Day featuring elementary school children dressed as elves. With the help of an agreeable park ranger, Landry captured woodland elves by firelight and then released them from the back of a cattle truck bearing a huge sign on the side that read “elf reintroduction.”
And thus a new legend was born.
No answer in sight
For decades, ecologists have debated how the grassy balds of the Southern Appalachians came to be.
“There are a lot of theories out there. It is like a million dollar question,” said Chris Gentile, director of the WNC Nature Center in Asheville.
Maybe Native Americans burned balds routinely for hunting, keeping them free of trees. Maybe the soil is inhospitable. Or maybe mastodons, tapirs and giant sloths roamed the balds, grazing them clean.
“There’s no way to tell, but we think it is an interesting theory,” Gentile said.
Bones of Pleistocene creatures have been found on the balds. And after the big guys moved on, elk and bison picked up the torch, Gentile postulated.
At Roan Mountain, famous for its high-elevation meadows, the mega-fauna grazer theory is a leading one, touted on exhibits in the visitor center. But rangers also offer up folklore behind the balds—namely that bloodshed from great Native American battles on the balds cursed the ground so nothing could grow.
“There are tons of theories, and we really don’t know exactly,” said Jacob Young, manager of Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee.
Young favors the obvious: it’s just really cold up there.
“My theory is weather,” Young said. “You go to the top of Roan Mountain, it is like going to Canada.”
The winds are fierce, up to 100 miles an hour. And snow covers the high mountains until spring—at least it used to.
“In the last 100 years the weather has gotten milder and milder,” Young said, which might explain why balds are disappearing. Warmer winters correlate with the steady march of trees and shrubs into the once-grassy meadows over the past century.
But that theory falls short, Gentile said. Some 6,000-foot peaks are covered in trees, while some as low as 5,000 feet are treeless.
He believes the disappearance of grazing animals from the landscape equates with the loss of balds. Recently, goats have been pressed into service to help keep balds bald. Their unrelenting nibbling is a lot less laborious than mowing and slashing the mountaintops by hand, a tactic used by some public land managers.
But anyway one cuts it, the origin of balds remains shrouded in mystery, despite the million dollar views from on top.
The highly unusual colony of white squirrels in Brevard, N.C., is believed to number more than 600 today, and according to local legend can be traced to a single Adam and Eve.
The short version goes like this: in 1949, a teenager got a pair of pet white squirrels from her uncle. One got lose from its backyard cage, and the other was then set free. Within a few years, people starting spotting white squirrels around Brevard.
Barbara Mull, the teenager who started it all, tells the story in her aptly titled book The First White Squirrels of Brevard Were Mine.
But is it possible? Could the burgeoning colony of white squirrels around Brevard really have come from a single pair, more than 60 years ago?
Yes, says retired Brevard College biology professor, Bob Glesener. And here’s why this improbable sounding story is, in fact, genetically sound.
“People will brake for white squirrels, but they won’t brake for grey squirrels. They shoo the grey squirrels away from their feeders but let the white squirrels feed. So it is little things like that,” Glesener said of the animal’s unusual advantage.
The town fathers even passed a local law in the 1980s, declaring Brevard a squirrel sanctuary, making it illegal to hunt, trap or kill squirrels in the town limits. While it seems the squirrel’s white color would make camouflage a challenge, Glesener postulated that hawks, fox and owls may not recognize white squirrels as meal potential.
“It could be that predators don’t have a white rodent in their search engine,” Glesener said.
Glesener has conducted scientific annual population counts of Brevard’s white squirrels for 15 years. The population has increased steadily year over year. They now account for 40 percent squirrels overall.
If Glesener takes the squirrel’s population trajectory and traces it backwards, the growth rate perfectly matches the proposed 1950s origin.
Brevard is king when it comes to white squirrels, despite a few other places in the country trying to horn in on the fame.
“There are hotspots where they are common, but most places they are very rare. They never become abundant enough to become a colony,” Glesener said. So why Brevard?
“Bingo,” Glesener said. To him, that’s still an unexplained mystery.
“It could be the Adam and Eve brought to Brevard and released in 1951 had with them not only genes for a white coat but other genes that made them very vigorous,” Glesener said. And that gene is being passed down as well.
Squirrels have can have two litters a year, with well-fed squirrels producing up to four or five pups in a litter. So a fat and happy momma could have eight to 10 baby squirrels a year.
Glesener hasn’t bought the squirrel’s tale wholesale, however.
“I have problems with parts of the folklore,” Glesener said.
Glesener questions the mythology of how the original pair came into Barbara Mull’s uncle’s possession. The story goes that a circus caravan traveling through Florida wrecked, and white squirrels on board got loose. The squirrels took up residence in a pecan orchard where Mull’s uncle worked. He helped the orchard owner trap them, then brought them back to Brevard and gave them to his niece.
Glesener doesn’t buy that story. He believes Mull’s uncle indeed brought them back from Florida, one of the few other regions in the country with white squirrels of its own.
But Glesener has found documentation of a pecan orchard owner selling white squirrels during that era, and thinks the exotic story of a derailed circus caravan was a cooked-up marketing gimmick.
Brevard has seized on its white squirrel stardom. It has the two-day White Squirrel Festival, a White Squirrel Institute, a town law protecting the squirrels, and even an AM radio station with the call letters WSQL.
Donna Stout, owner of the White Squirrel Shoppe in Brevard, likes to point out she chose the name of her shop 25 years ago before Brevard was gripped with the white squirrel obsession.
“You better betcha,” Stout said. “Everybody is trying to get on the bandwagon with the squirrels now.”
In to the depths of a long, lost mine
Glenn Cardwell has seen a passel of people disappear into Greenbrier Cove over the years to hunt for the fabled lost silver mine of the Smokies, only to come out empty handed with nothing but scrapes and scratches to show for their trouble.
“Nobody has ever found it but they keep trying. I am not going to say it doesn’t exist…but I think it is more fiction than fact,” said Cardwell, a ranger in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 35 years, now retired.
If any place could hide a secret silver mine though, it would be Greenbrier Cove, ensconced with thick, gnarled, tangled rhododendron groves known as “hells” to old-timers.
“I wouldn’t send my worst enemy in there, it is so boogered in,” said Cardwell. “I gave up on it. I just didn’t want to fight it.”
The Schultz family of Sevier County, Tenn., handed down the tale of the silver mine. Legend claims Perry Schultz discovered a silver mine in the mid-1800s but died without telling anyone its location.
There have been various embellishments, involving Cherokee Indians, secret markers carved into trees, or tales of Schultz’s wife serving as a look-out while he mined.
Perhaps the best story traces the mine’s demise to counterfeit coins Schultz made with the help of a mold by Schultz’s nephew allegedly smuggled out of the U.S. Mint in Washington, D.C. where he worked. According to that tale, Schultz went on the lam when the government began tracing the fake coins, taking the location of the mine to his grave.
“It is a well accepted truth in the Schultz family, but my question to them is why hasn’t somebody in the family retained an artifact?” Cardwell said. “If there was a silver mine, you would think the family would have some artifact.”
The only hard evidence pointing to the mine’s existence are articles of incorporation for a Sevier County Silver, Copper, Lead and Zinc Mining Company in the 1860s—but that doesn’t mean there was a mine, or that it produced anything of value.
The Smokies once were home to iron, copper and gem mines, and gold panners even spurred an Appalachian gold rush in the 1830s. Perhaps Schultz filed a claim, hoping to get in on the boon and planned to worry about the pesky details later—like the actual existence of a mine.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Cardwell said.
Cardwell points out the family certainly didn’t have any wealth to show for the alleged mine.
“They were true mountaineers like everyone else, living off the land, making do or do without,” Cardwell said.
Carroll McMahan, the Sevier County Historian, said the legendary mine is forever trapped in the annals of Smoky Mountain history.
“Whether there was actually a mine or there wasn’t is in question,” McMahan said. “I’ve heard about it, it’s been written, but it’s one of those mysteries that can’t be settled.”
What’s in a name?
The Smokies are famous for colorful names: Possum Holler, Hurricane Creek, Chunky Gal Mountain.
Some are self-explanatory like Flat Laurel Creek—a flat creek with lots of laurels growing along it—or Wagon Road Gap—a gap in the mountains where a wagon road passed. Many pay homage to Cherokee words, like the Nantahala, Tucakseegee and Oconaluftee rivers.
But the origin of some place names remain in dispute, like Boogertown in Sevier County, Tenn.
“There are three or four different tales of how it got its name and there is no way to really know,” said Vida King, an archivist at the library in Pigeon Forge.
King has collected reams of oral histories from old-timers on how places got their names, but her sleuthing into Boogertown was a quest into the tale of her own childhood.
“When I was younger I was embarrassed to say I was from Boogertown,” King said. “But now it is fun to say.”
King has ended up with a whole handful of stories of how Boogertown got its name.
One version claims an early settler was riding through the dense, steep holler and “spotted something white that he thought it was haint or a booger, an old-timey word for kind of like a ghost,” King said. “He told people about the booger he saw in this community and when it was retold, they kept saying the place where the booger was seen.”
Another version traces the name to riders hearing an unexplained sound in the woods, at night, through the thick, low-hanging limbs that formed a tunnel overhead. The source of the sound was chalked up to a booger.
According to one tale, a booger was blamed for unexplained killings of calves and lambs. Boogertown’s origin will never be known.
Judacalla Rock: a hard case to crack
The cryptic carvings on the giant soapstone boulder known as Judacalla Rock have puzzled archaeologists for decades. Who inscribed it? When? What do the markings mean?
Cherokee legend claims the elaborate petroglyph in Cullowhee, N.C., is the handiwork of a mythological giant who could leap from mountaintop to mountaintop. Judacalla Rock was a map, marking his territorial domain. Judacalla wasn’t bad, but he was powerful—he made lightening and thunder, after all—and thus should be respected, said Russ Townsend, archaeologist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“He was a caretaker of that part of the world. If you play by the rules Juducalla will take care of you, so don’t break the rules,” Townsend said.
It’s probably safe to say that ancient people, not Judacalla, made the markings—the soapstone boulder was easy to carve. Perhaps the rock was inscribed during spirtual ceremonies. Maybe the markings honor important people, or maybe they mean nothing at all, little more than an ancient version of graffiti.
Those who believe in paranormal activity have even seized on the mythical rock, asserting that Judacalla has some kind of supernatural origin.
But in recent years, researchers have solved many of the unknowns surrounding Judacalla. There once was dispute over how old the markings were. Some thought they could be 10,000 years old, others thought may be only a few hundred.
It’s now known the markings were made over a period of many centuries, somewhere between 1,000 B.C. to 1,000 A.D.
Archaeology of prehistoric villages nearby have pinpointed the inscriptions to that period, Townsend said.
“There are stylistic and cultural differences that go along with artifact types that help us narrow in on a time frame,” Townsend said. For example, automobiles from the 1930s look a whole lot different than cars today.
“I think what was going on was they were marking that rock at certain times for certain events. What events they were recording we’ll never know,” Townsend said. “Personally, I feel we are not going to be able to understand exactly what these things meant.”
The legend of star-crossed lovers behind The Blowing Rock is an appealing one no doubt. The towering cliff rises 3,000 feet above a river gorge, and when the wind blows through steep flume-like walls far below, it creates a powerful updraft. But could those winds blow a love-struck Cherokee brave who leapt from the rock back up into the arms of his maiden?
“I don’t know if the Native American brave blew back up, but absolutely if the wind is blowing strong enough you can throw a leaf or flower petal off and it blows back up,” said Ruth Bullock, who works at The Blowing Rock. “I can see the leaves stirring right now as I am looking out the window, and it would be enough to work.”
Bullock said The Blowing Rock has the unique claim to fame as the only place on earth where it snows upside down. One day, when it started snowing while she was at work, she ran from the visitor’s center down the trail and out to the edge of the rock.
“I thought I was in a snow globe. I looked over the wall—it truly looked like the snow was coming up from the bottom of the gorge,” Bullock said.
But precipitation and a person are two different things. Thus Appalachian State University’s physics department was put to task, as physicist Leah Sherman volunteered to put the legend through the paces of modern physics.
“I have been running some calculations here, and essentially, the force pushing up has to counter your weight. The forces have to be balanced,” Sherman said.
An object with a low mass and large surface area—such as a leaf—can surely blow back up. But assume the legend’s Cherokee male was 150 pounds and six feet tall. The wind would have to be blowing 80 miles per hour to keep him from falling—at least teetering in place; however, the actual equation includes variables such as cross-sectional area, drag co-efficient, air density, and for good measure, relative velocity squared (in other words an actual leap off the rock and gravity’s pull).
“It’s not working,” Sherman said.
“People always laugh and ask, ‘Can I throw my wife off?’” Bullock said.
Based on Sherman’s calculations, the answer is a definitive “no.”
Much ado about a vowel
Smoky versus Smokey? The raging spelling war has been brewing for decades in the (ahem) Smoky Mountains, but there’s no end in sight.
Both sides claim they are right, and both have their own poster child. The Smokey-with-an-e contingent has Smokey the Bear in their corner. The Smoky-sans-e camp stands in solidarity with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Slowly, in past decades, the e-less variety has been edging out its rival, likely due to the national park namesake.
But Ron Crivellone threw caution to the wind when bandying names around for his DJ business in the Pigeon Forge area. He hitched his wagon to the “e,” despite warnings he’d regret it, and settled on Smokey Mountain Sounds.
“People told me I didn’t need the ‘e’ but some part of me was like, ‘No, sorry, I need that ‘e.’ It will bug me if I don’t,’” Crivellone said. “To me, Smokey with an ‘e’ is how it should be spelled. It didn’t look right without the ‘e.’”
Four years later, he still gets hassled about that fateful decision, eliciting raised eyebrows when handing out business cards at networking meetings.
“I’m like, ‘It belongs in there,’ and they say, ‘No it doesn’t,’ and I say, ‘Yes it does,’” Crivellone said.
The no “e” Smoky’s can be irritatingly smug in their position, pointing no further than the entrance sign to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as proof positive. How’s that for home-field advantage?
But the “Smokeys” are quick to cry foul when their opponents rest on those laurels.
“I think it is like gray and grey,” said Jenniffer Dall, a teacher at Smokey Mountain Elementary School near Sylva, N.C. “They’re both right.”
Shades of gray aside, they might both be right, but one is “more” right, according to Richard Weisser, an outdoor photographer under the banner Smoky Photos.
“The ‘e’ is an acceptable spelling—but it is more correct not to have the ‘e,’” Weisser said.
His softened stance is an about-face from his early years as a “Smoky” purist, however.
“The park did not have an ‘e,’ so I was very careful about that,” Weisser said.
But he was foiled by all the deviants out there who tried in vain to locate his online database of Smokies photos, running afoul by typing in his web address with the wrong spelling.
“I would say no ‘e’ in Smoky, but invariably they would put the ‘e’ in it,” Weisser said. “They would always say, ‘The site isn’t up. The site isn’t working.’”
So he hedged his bets. You can now find him under both smokyphotos.com and smokeyphotos.com. The extra $15 a year for both names is well worth it, he said.
In Asheville, the smoky-versus-smokey mystery hangs like a dark cloud over Smoky Park Highway—or is it Smokey Park Highway? Road signs declare it both ways, making for a smashing “whodunit.”
The N.C. Department of Transportation dodged the bullet—it has nothing to do with street signs and, further, it uses numbers internally to catalog roads.
“We don’t get all knotted up about names. We don’t get into the naming battle,” said Marshall Williams, traffic engineer with the DOT in Asheville.
For the definitive spelling, Buncombe County Emergency Management was called in—whatever is on their maps, the ones used for dispatching fire, police and rescue, is, by default, the official spelling.
“The county database has it officially spelled as Smokey with an ‘e,’” said Carolyn Scarberry with the county mapping department. “How it came to be though, I can’t answer that question.”
As for the spelling discrepancy on some Smokey Park Highway road signs?
“If there are some spelled ‘Smoky,’ it is possible there could have been a mistake. It wouldn’t be out of the question,” said Becky Sensabaug, with the Buncombe Fire Marshall’s Office, who places orders for road signs when they come in.
Merriam-Webster also provided little clarification A footnote listed “smokey” as an allegedly acceptable variant for “smoky.” The three-pronged definition of smoky was nonetheless eye-opening: “filled with smoke; having a flavor, taste, or appearance of smoke; and very attractive or sexy,” which begs the question of “Smoky” Mountain Living’s true meaning.