Harm Teaster Harmon Den
Actor Herbert “Cowboy” Coward portrayed Harm Teaster in “Ghost Town the Movie.”
Every day travelers by the thousands weave through the Pigeon River Gorge along Interstate 40 between Hartford, Tenn. and Maggie Valley, N.C. Seven miles from the remote state line, a lone sign points toward Harmon Den.
The origin of Harmon Den varies, but the prevailing story suggests it derives from Harmon Teaster, a hard-working logger, husband, and father of 10 children. Legend has it that Harmon ran afoul of the law and hid out in a mountain cave for several years.
Known simply as Harm, Teaster was born in Watauga County, N.C., but his birth is cloaked in mystery—a family genealogical website lists his birth date as March 7, 1846 while his tombstone reads 1850. During the Civil War, Harm’s father, Ransom Teaster, served in the 58th North Carolina Infantry’s Company D, deserted, and, after an absence of about four months, finally returned to duty only to die of typhoid fever in a Confederate field hospital while encamped in Dalton, Ga.
Around 1870, Ransom’s widow, Fanny Hicks Teaster, moved to Madison County, N.C., with some of her adult children and their families, including her son Harm, his wife, Susanna “Susie” Hicks Teaster, and their children. To provide for his growing family that grew to include five boys and five girls, Harm worked long, backbreaking hours in the logging camps throughout Madison and Haywood counties.
Though various motives have circulated, most historical reports concur that a man slapped one of Harmon’s children. Whether it was by stabbing, beating the man with a stick, or using his bare hands, Harm murdered the man and hid out in a cave near Max Patch, now a popular hiking destination along the Appalachian Trail.
Harm’s life and that of his family irreversibly was changed. Existence that always had been a day-to-day struggle was compounded. Susie cooked for the crews in the logging camps and provided for the large family as best she could. It is reasonable to assume that family members knew where to find Harm’s hideout, checked on him and provided the outlaw with supplies.
After living on the lam for years, Harm made his way across the state line to Del Rio, Tenn., and was hired at a sawmill in the Dry Fork area. Reluctant to reunite with her husband fearing it would lead authorities to apprehend him and charge him with murder, Susie stayed in N.C.
Although he was nearing 60, Harm still was working in a sawmill on Oct. 19, 1905, when a dangerous thunderstorm brought the mill to a halt. When the crew returned to work, Harm opened a valve to fill a steam engine’s boiler; however, the sudden rush of cold water into the still hot boiler caused the boiler to explode, killing Harm and two others, Joe Turner and Harve Briggs.
All three men were buried in the Big Hill Cemetery in Del Rio where their graves remained unmarked for three quarters of a century. Susie died the following spring and is buried at Mt. Sterling Cemetery in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Many generations later, Dean Teaster, son of Harm’s great-grandson, Doyle, released “Ghost Town the Movie.” Ghost Town in the Sky was a wild-west theme park high atop Buck Mountain in Maggie Valley. Doyle played the theme park’s first “Digger the Undertaker” from 1961 to 1967. He acted with Herbert “Cowboy’ Coward, who played “Grand Pappy” in the same show and later starred as the murderous, toothless hillbilly in “Deliverance,” a role he received thanks to Burt Reynolds, who remembered Coward from when the two actors worked together at Ghost Town early in Reynolds’ career. In the Ghost Town movie, Coward played Harm Teaster while Dean played his father’s role as “Digger.”
Adding to Harmon Den’s lore is another account that maintains several male members of a local family with the surname Harmon deserted from the Confederate Army and hid out on the mountain. It could well be only a coincidence that one story involves a man with the given name Harmon while the other is about a family with the surname Harmon. Whatever the origin, it’s the stuff of which legends are made.
Explore Harmon Den
Harmon Den Wildlife Management Area was logged heavily in the early 1900s. Timber companies cut away the forest in the Cold Springs drainage area and built logging roads, narrow-gauge railroads, and amenities for logging crews and their families. The destruction finally ended in 1936 when the United States Forest Service purchased the land and operated a Civilian Conservation Corps camp there. The corpsman planted many of the white pines still evident today.
Although Interstate 40 bisects much of the remote area, limited access roads and development keep it pristine and uncrowded. Twenty-one miles of the Appalachian Trail and seventeen miles of other trails afford spectacular views of the surrounding mountain peaks. The network features five horse trails and two additional trails that serve mountain bikers as well.
Max Patch Trail also is part of the Harmon Den Area. The land the trail traverses once was used for grazing sheep and cattle. Max Patch is a favorite destination for hikers of all degrees of endurance. It is a gentle climb across the AT’s southernmost bald to its grassy summit at 4,629 feet.