Photo courtesy of Rod Gragg
By the fireplace
Even in the late 1950s, the fireplace was the only source of heat in the parlor of many mountain farmhouses.
Few folks have parlors now. Even in the Land of the Sky, the place where families gather today is usually called the den, or maybe the great room, and the room’s central focus is likely to be a television. That’s the norm for most of us today. Until the mid-20th century, however, the gathering point in most Southern homes was called the parlor, and, instead of electronic equipment, the center of attention in the parlor was usually a fireplace. And for good reason: unlike television, a fireplace not only heated the room, it also kindled conversation.
Even in the late 1950s, the fireplace was the only source of heat in the parlor of my grandparents’ mountain farmhouse. Upstairs there was no heat. Then, as now, winter nights could be icy cold in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge country. Layers of quilts on the upstairs beds would eventually overcome the chill, but the inevitable shock of cold sheets was a sensation that deserved to be delayed as long as possible. Knowing that you soon would have to brave that cold upstairs bedroom made sitting around the parlor fire even more appealing. Many houses in the Globe, the Caldwell County farming community that was our ancestral home, were still heated solely by fireplaces in the late fifties. America was plotting a space race to the moon, but most folks in my grandparents’ isolated mountain community were still without telephones, central hear or indoor plumbing. If my grandparents felt underprivileged by the absence of such conveniences, they never complained around us grandchildren.
Like many of his generation, my father had left the mountains during the Great Depression to find a paying job. After a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corp and military service for the duration in World War II, he had pursued postwar success in a small town far away from the mountains and the family farm. Raised in town, my older brother and I eagerly seized every opportunity to visit our mountain grandparents on their farm in the Globe. Not only did we treasure time with “Granny” and “Granddaddy,” who doted on all their grandchildren, but a visit to their remote mountain community, which lay at the headwaters of John’s River, was like time travel backwards to another century. The nearest place with streetlights, supermarkets and telephones was Blowing Rock, which was almost an hour’s drive away on an unpaved winding mountain road.
A visit to that farm in the Globe offered priceless adventures that could never be found in town. In the summer we splashed in the creek or fished for trout. In the fall and winter we squirrel hunted on the mountain ridges or tracked rabbits in the snow. There were jars of fruit and canned vegetables in the smokehouse, honey fresh from the hives, and warm biscuits waiting on a cast-iron wood-stove. We romped with the squirrel dogs, rode bareback on the plow-horse, played on the hay bales in the barn loft, and cheerfully gathered eggs and firewood.
Those adventures provided an exceptional opportunity, allowing me to sample the same mountain pastimes my father had enjoyed as a farm boy in the 1920s, and likewise his father and grandfather in the 19th century. Memorable as those daytime activities were, they paled in comparison to what was engraved in my heart and mind at nighttime. Only then was I exposed to a traditional mountain routine that produced unforgettable lifetime memories and lessons—all acquired around parlor fireplace.
After the supper dishes were cleared, the grownups would pull the straightback chairs from the table and sit in a semi-circle around the parlor fireplace, where an armload of hickory and oak firewood kept a healthy blaze alive. On every visit my older brother and I would routinely prolong the climb to that oh-so-cold unheated upstairs bedroom. We were mesmerized not only by the parlor fire—but mainly by the conversation it kindled. With three generations of family often at hand, those flames sparked many an old-timer’s tale—what today is known as oral history. And for me, those stories lit a lifetime fascination with family lore, American history and the Civil War.
Why the Civil War? Perhaps because it was still such a deep wound in the Southern heart. Or because it was still so firmly imbedded in the Southern conscience. Or because the approaching centennial of the war prompted thought and talk. It wasn’t the only fireside topic. Sometimes the talk dealt with local politics. Or baseball. Or coon hunting and trout fishing. Sometimes it was about the latest doings in Blowing Rock, Lenoir or Asheville. Sometimes it repeated the news from neighboring farm families. And sometime it offered wise counsel about crops, livestock or the weather.
But often, all that was just a prelude. If I could stay awake and wait long enough, eventually, the talk would turn to “the War.” And it was always about that war: the Civil War, or—as many Southerners then called it—“the War Between the States.” Talk about World War II exploits was apparently deemed too fresh, too modern or too immodest; tales of “the War” were always about the Civil War. My wiry, craggy-faced grandfather had a fascinating repertoire of stores about mountain folks and the war. Blessed with the Southerner’s pleasant drawl, he would verbally unfold his accounts at a mountaineer’s traditional pace—slow and steady—as he methodically opened a cherry-red tin of Prince Albert smoking tobacco and constructed a roll-your-own cigarette. His captivating cadence was usually interrupted only by an appropriate chuckle or an appreciative grunt from other grownups, although my great-grandfather—in his nineties and sporting a white handlebar moustache—sometimes exercised family rank with a terse comment while leaning forward on his walking stick.
Staring trancelike into the flames, I heard tales about hard men and hard times—tales of bushwhackers and battle scars, of Southern soldiers bound to do their duty, of Unionist ancestors hiding from the Home Guard in the mountain wilds. There were also whimsical tales about scalawags and carpetbaggers, and serious stories that conveyed respect for Unionists and Confederates alike. I don’t remember hearing direct mention of the 26th North Carolina Infantry—the famous regiment that included a company of soldiers from the Globe—but there were comments aplenty about men from that community who had served in the 26th. As a boy at the turn of the 20th century, my grandfather had known many of them and their families.
Hearing such stories left me amazed at the grit of those Tarheel soldiers – what they called “gumption” in the mountains—and eventually I came to respect all Americans who had to endure that war. Those stories made me deeply aware of the proximity of “the War”—so close that my grandfather and even my father had actually seen and touched and talked to men who had lived through it. The men and women whose stories I heard while sitting before the fire were not one-dimensional figures from the page of a book or oversimplified characters dreamed up by Hollywood. They were real people who had lived history.
And what did I learn about my family history from those fireside conversations? One of my Civil War ancestors had served in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, commanded by the inept and irascible General Braxton Bragg. A pre-war family ambrotype photograph depicted a hopeful-looking youngster, dapper in his best Sunday go-to-meeting clothes. A wartime carte-de-visite photo taken midway through the war showed a bearded, weary-eyed soldier who had obviously aged much before his time. He had deserted once, I learned, apparently in order to come home and check on his family. But he soon went back to Bragg’s army, and was accepted back in the ranks—just in time to die of pneumonia in winter camp. He wound up buried in a mass grave in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
Another Civil War ancestor, I learned, left the mountains to serve in the Army of Northern Virginia, and survived the war. While walking home from the surrender at Appomattox, however, a calamity befell him that was likely worse than death from a Yankee bullet. Somewhere on the road home, in the wilds of the North Carolina mountains, he was—in my grandmother’s words—“kilt by a varmint, ” presumably meaning that he was attacked and killed by a cougar. These two sons of the South belonged to a family that did not hold with slavery, and which risked disfavor in the postwar South by openly embracing the Republican Party. Yet, according to family lore, both men wound up in unmarked graves because they thought it was their duty to defend their folks and their homeland from Northern invasion. Their common experience really wasn’t such an oddity: serious students of the Civil War know that it was a complex conflict in many ways and cannot be truthfully reduced to simple stereotypes.
Around that parlor fireplace, I also learned that some of my other mountain ancestors were slave-holders—unusual for mountain people—and yet most of them were Unionists. A few felt their first call was to their state – and one kinsman died on McPherson’s Ridge at Gettysburg in Company F of the 26th North Carolina—but most were Unionists who were more suspicious of the government in Richmond than the one in Washington. They hid out from the Home Guard atop a mountain ridge at the headwaters of John’s River in the Globe. According to family lore, federal cavalry under General George Stoneman plundered the family’s farm in the spring of 1865, despite the fact that they were Unionists. What little money the family possessed was supposedly buried under a collard patch in the garden. When a loyal family slave refused to reveal the hiding spot, he was reportedly taken out to a big rock at the convergence of John’s River and Racket Creek and executed. Shot to death. I grew up trout fishing on that rock when I visited my grandparents. I’ve often thought about that poor slave and those Southern Unionists—all trying to do what they believed was right.
Knowing about those mountain folks—slaves, Confederates, Unionists, Southerners all—made me want to understand all sides of that conflict and record Civil War history without a bias. Equally important, I also came to understand that the Civil War—all American history, in fact—was more than just national and Southern history: it was also family history. We Southerners have sometimes been jokingly accused of ancestor worship, and perhaps that’s why: because much of American history—especially Southern history—is really our family history. And family means a lot to Southerners, especially mountain people.
Those fireside stories—oral history at its best—left me forever impressed with the notion that comprehending history and writing it factually—whether it’s an era, an event, a war, a battle—requires discovering the details about the real people involved. Those long-ago stories—conversations kindled by the flames of a mountain fireplace—fostered and fueled in me a fascination with American history, especially the Civil War, which thankfully has not ebbed to this day. And that unforgettable fireside talk almost made me realize that as Americans, our national history is family history. The good, the bad, the ugly—it’s all family history. And, to me, most of it is good—because I believe that no nation has historically blessed more people than America. So, I am deeply indebted to those hours beside the fireplace in that long-gone mountain farmhouse parlor. Television has its value. I admit that. But it can never compete with a parlor fireplace.
Historic, hearty fireplaces
Built of granite boulders hewn from Sunset Mountain, and opened in 1913, The Grove Park Inn was the vision of E.W. Grove, a St. Louis entrepreneur who made millions in the 1890s selling Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic.
Visitors to the inn enter into The Great Hall, which measures 120 feet across and features 24-foot ceilings and two gigantic 14-foot stone fireplaces. Each of the fireplace’s 10-foot wide openings is spanned with a single massive natural stone. The resort’s elevators are hidden in the chimneys of the fireplaces.
Today, one of the fireplaces is no longer in use, but the fireplace closest to the bar roars with whole log fires throughout the season. Visitors angle for one of the coveted spots in a rocking chair facing the fire, and entire families pose for pictures standing on the massive hearth.
The Grove Park Inn will once again host the National Gingerbread House Competition on Nov. 17, with sugary creations on display through Jan. 2, 2013.