Thursday, September 25, 2003

In praise of a noble mountain man: Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins

Union County has produced some worthy citizens. One of them was Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins, an extraordinary educator.

Some men are of an age and a place; others are timeless and of inestimable station. Such a man was Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins, lowly in beginnings but propelled by his extraordinary vision and inordinate accomplishments.

Georgia knew his expertise and wisdom. His influence spread beyond the state to the nation. He served as Georgia’s Superintendent of Schools from 1933 through 1958, a quarter of a century, the longest tenure for that elected office yet on record in Georgia’s educational annals.

This noble mountain man had been a farmer, a merchant, a teacher, a banker, an evangelist, a pastor, a lecturer, a writer, an editor, and an administrator.

But what of his beginnings? From what roots did this mountain man spring?

Born in Union County, Blairsville, Georgia on July 5, 1885, M. D. Collins’ parents were Archibald Benjamin Collins and Mary Louise Jackson Collins. He was their second son and third child. His siblings were Nina Idaho, Francis Arthur, Norman Vester, Laura Lee, Callie Kate, Jean Benjamin and Dorothy Dora.

His paternal grandparents were Francis and Rutha Nix Collins and his maternal grandparents were Marion and Rebecca Goforth Jackson. His great-grandparents, Thompson and Celia Self Collins, were early settlers in Union County. They were listed in the first county census in 1834, two years after the county was founded in 1832. They were probably here before the county was formed from Old Cherokee. William and Nancy Stanley Jackson, parents of Marion, are on record as having moved to the area in 1827, five years before Union was formed. It was from these hardy pioneers that Mauney Douglas Collins descended.

Reared as a farm lad, Mauney Douglas Collins learned early to shoulder responsibilities. Choestoe District where his family lived had good farm land. Archibald Benjamin Collins, Mauney’s father, was a farmer of note and a tradesman, dealing in sheep, cattle and hogs. Ben and his brother, “Bud” Collins (Francis Jasper) had the first threshing machine in the district. They served Union County farmers by providing a mobile unit pulled by oxen to thresh barley, wheat and rye on “shares”.

Ben Collins was a country store merchant. Much of the trade at his store was in barter. He took in payment for store goods such farm and forest products as eggs, chickens, sorghum syrup, dried apples, chestnuts, chinquapins, herbs and tanned skins of animals.

These bartered goods he hauled over the mountainous Logan Turnpike to the market in Gainesville and there traded them for coffee, sugar, piece goods, nails and other hardware, and various ‘store-bought’ commodities.

Ben Collins drove livestock over this same route to market, and in Gainesville loaded cattle, sheep, hogs and turkeys on a train and shipped them to Augusta or Savannah.

When the gold mine opened in the Coosa District of Union County northwest of Choestoe, Ben Collins established his second store there.

Mauney Collins, as a very young lad, was involved in the entrepreneurships of his father and uncle, learning from them by going on trade excursions and by working in the stores.

When Mauney Collins was five years old, he started school at Old Liberty, a one-room building serving as both a school and church. His uncle, Tom Jackson, was the boy’s first teacher. The young child showed great promise as a student. He studied from well-worn textbooks passed down from his older sister Nina and cousins. The school term lasted at the most four months, conducted at periods when work on the farm was not as demanding.

In 1897 a tragedy struck the Collins family and the whole community. It was the year of the great typhoid epidemic. All in the family took the dreaded fever and struggled to survive. A hard-working housekeeper, Sallie Kimsey, helped the Collins family during that trying time. Dr. McCravey made his weary rounds by horseback from Blairsville, eight miles away, doing what he could to attend the family with the medicines available then.

On April 4, 1897 at age 34, Archibald Benjamin Collins died from typhoid fever. He was buried with Masonic Honors at Old Choestoe Cemetery. Hardly a one of his family was able to attend the funeral.

Bereft, his young widow, Mary Louise Jackson Collins, gradually regained her strength from the effects of the fever. She began evaluating ways to rear her family of seven. The second child, Francis Arthur, had died at age one in 1884. Mauney Douglas was eleven when his father died. The eldest, Nina Idaho, was fifteen, and the baby, Dorothy Dora, was only one month old, Norman was nine, Lee seven, Callie Kate five, Jean Benjamin three. The thirty-four year old widow faced the tasks of making a living and rearing and educating seven children.

It was to be a hard road in a good land.

[Next week: More on the life of Dr. M. D. Collins]

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published September 25, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Sweet Sorghum Syrup

Time was when almost every community in Union County had a sorghum syrup mill and someone versatile in the art of turning the cane juice into sweet sorghum syrup. September and October were the months for "making syrup" and all the attendant work connected with one of the important money crops of this mountain region.

But now, those old-time syrup makers are few and far between, and except for the Annual Sorghum Festival which will mark its 34th event the second, third and fourth weekends of October, 2003, many people would not even hear of sweet sorghum or have any inkling of what it is or why we observe a festival of remembrance. Thanks to the Blairsville Jaycees, these weekends are fun and preserve a portion of the county's rich heritage.

Being the history buff that I am, and since sorghum-syrup making has been a part of my family's farm life for generations, I wanted to know more about how the process started long ago and why it became important to us.

Sorghum was grown in India before recorded history. As early as 700 B. C., the crop was cultivated in Assyria. It is known to have reached China by the thirteenth century A. D. It is native to Africa, and many of the predecessors of today's varieties originated there. It came to the United States from Africa in the early part of the seventeenth century. Many of the slaves from Africa perhaps already knew how to cultivate the cane and how to extract the juice, boil it, and make sweet sorghum syrup.

Whether our ancestors who settled the area of Union County brought cane seeds with them and the knowledge of making sorghum syrup, we do not know for sure. We do know that the fall crop and its subsequent syrup have long been a substitute for sugar, and a staple food as well as a money crop for generations here.

Emil Van Watson of Fannin County told me this true story of how sorghum syrup seeds were introduced to this mountain region. In the early 1850s a stranger driving a small one-horse wagon came into Ellijay, Georgia, Gilmer County. We don't know his name or where he came from. He had on the wagon some seed heads that he tried to sell. The hawker promised that the seeds would grow into cane and that the heads would ripen in the sun. He explained that the stalks had a sweet juice which could be extracted by crushing or grinding, and that the juice, when boiled, became an edible sweet, sugary liquid.

Furthermore, the man promised, the large seed-heads from the cane could be ground and added to animals' foods to provide supplemental nutrients.

Many of the citizens doubted the stranger's claims for his heads of golden seeds, but one citizen, a Mr. Hansell, a well-respected man, confirmed the claims. Several citizen farmers bought seeds from the stranger at ten cents per head, and in May, as the stranger had directed, they planted the seeds.

The first cane crops in this mountain region grew well, for the climate and growing season were amenable. However, if a heavy windstorm came, the tall stalks, that sometimes grew to ten or twelve feet in height, would become entangled, thus making harvesting the cane very difficult.

Over the decades since the early 1850s, farmers and crop scientists have worked to produce better varieties of cane that will withstand lodging (as the twisting and tangling are called) and resist plant diseases such as stalk red rot and maize mosaic.

At first, cane growers in the mountains had crude wooden rollers to extract the juice, and much of it remained in the cane, unused, because of inferior methods of extraction. They boiled the juice in the largest iron wash pots they had. The resulting syrup was very dark, strong and stained teeth.

Being inventive, mountain farmers developed better ways of extracting and processing the juice. By the late 1860s, iron rollers for grinding the cane had been purchased from far-away places like Cincinnati, Ohio, where Belknap Hardware made them available. Long rectangular copper boilers, placed over a long furnace, were in place for cooking the juice. Better techniques for removing the green skimmings, a waste product, were used. The finished product was tastier and did not stain the teeth.

Sorghum syrup was a better cash crop than corn. A gallon of sorghum syrup sold for fifty cents then, compared to only thirty-five cents for a gallon of corn liquor, "moonshine". The latter had long been a money crop of mountain farmers who could evade the federal revenuers or saw no moral hindrance in producing corn liquor. But sorghum syrup was "within the law," and much in demand when sugar was scarce.

When you visit the sorghum festival, or find one of the few remaining family sorghum mills still in operation, know that the processing of this farm product is indeed a southern tradition. My brother, Bluford Dyer, is one of the few remaining syrup makers, having learned the trade from our father, J. Marion Dyer, and he from his father, Bluford Elisha Dyer. On a cool fall morning nothing is better than flaky biscuits covered in sweet sorghum syrup.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Sept. 18, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

The Hunter-England House

Drive along Highway 129/19 south from Blairsville about eight miles. On the left, in a narrow field between the road and Nottely River, you can see a very old house, now neglected and leaning as if to give up even the ghosts that may sometimes inhabit its rafters. This house was built by John Hunter on Land Lot # 81 about 1832.

What remains of the old Hunter-England house is a reminder of the sturdy ways of the early settlers. The house may very well be the oldest dwelling still remaining from the 1830s in all of Union County. It was built of poplar logs and once had a roof of riven boards. Over the years, weather-boarding was added over the logs and a corrugted tin roof replaced the roof shingles. But the old chimney still remains, a statement of the workmanship with creek and fieldstone rocks that has stood the test of time.

John Hunter (born about 1775), father of William Johnson Hunter (and other children), migrated to Union County from Buncombe County, NC. He came about 1830. He was one of the citizens living in the county when Union was formed out of the Cherokee lands in 1832. He cut trees, hewed logs and built the first Hunter cabin on the site. Stories passed down in the family hold that the Hunter family had to ward off Indian attacks as best they could while they cut, hewed and erected logs for the cabin.

The Hunter cabin was typical of those built when white settlers first came into the mountains. Over the window openings then were wooden shutters, not windowpanes. Glass windows were added later. The house was built of poplar logs. A root cellar was dug beneath the floor, with a trap-door access from within the cabin. The Hunter family stored root crops such as potatoes and turnips for winter use. Cabbage, too, could be kept in the root cellar, as could apples. The side room, a sort of lean-to, was added later and used as a kitchen.

Two of John Hunter’s sons, Andrew and Jason, were in the Georgia Militia in 1836. They probably participated in the Trail of Tears to move the Cherokees west. Andrew M. went farther abroad with his military service and was killed in the Mexican-American War in February, 1848, at Perote, Mexico.

By 1848, the only child at home with elder John Hunter was his 37-year old single daughter, Martha. John deeded the house and lot to Martha, glad to turn it to someone who would appreciate her ancestral roots and take care of the house. John Hunter died in August, 1848. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Old Salem Cemetery, up the mountain and west about one-fourth mile from the cabin. John had given an acre of land to establish Old Salem Methodist Church. On that acre the church building was erected and a cemetery was started.

John’s daughter, Harriet Hunter, married Daniel England, a brother to Margaret “Peggy” England who had married Harriet’s brother, William Johnson Hunter. Harriet and Daniel had moved back to North Carolina from Choestoe where they lived until 1849. Then they moved back to Choestoe to live with Harriet’s sister, Martha, who was alone in the cabin after her father’s death. This is how the cabin got the name Hunter-England cabin.

Daniel and Harriet England either purchased the cabin and land from Martha, or they inherited it. Four of this couple’s children, John, Martha, Mary and Harriet, were born in North Carolina. The remaining six children were born in Georgia in the Hunter-England cabin. These were Andrew England (1853) who married Nellie Hunter; Thomas England (1855) who married Nancy Jane Townsend; Exton England (1856) who married Eliza Akins; Margaret England (1859) who married Noah Stephens; Polk England (1862) who married Mary Akins; and Emma England (1866?) who married LaFayette Ballew.

As you drive by and see the old house on the east side of Georgia Highway 129, know that a lot of living took place there. The late Charles Roscoe Collins, writing about the house in 1987, said of it: “The old house is truly an ancestral treasure. For more than one hundred and fifty years it has been the focus of the lives and fortunes of many families.”

If its sagging walls and overarching roof could speak, we could hear accounts of many people who made it their home.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Sept. 11, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 4, 2003

Track Rock Gap – “Datsu’nalsagun’ylu” – Cherokee for “Where there are tracks”

I first saw the rocks with etched figures at Track Rock Gap when I was a child. My father took my younger brother and me there one Sunday afternoon. It was a long trip from our home at Choestoe, some five or more miles away. That adventure of exploration began a sense of curiosity about things prehistoric that has not waned. Since then, I’ve read whatever I could find about the tracks in rocks, and still the answers as to their origins are buried in antiquity.

The Georgia Historical marker placed at the site in 1998 gives ideas about the petroglyph on the large soapstone rocks. Dr. Matthew F. Stephenson who was an assayer of the U.S. Government and served as Director of the Branch Mint in Dahlonega, Georgia. visited the site and wrote about it in 1834. This was before all the Cherokee had been moved out of the area. He admitted to his own vandalism of chiseling off some of the soapstone petroglyph to take with him. In his journal, he tells the experience of visiting Track Rock Gap.

“As we approached it (the mountain), the heavens, which for several days and nights had worn a brightened countenance, began to scowl and threaten…We advanced with quickened pace to the foot of the rock…then commenced the lifting out of one of the tracks. Notwithstanding, I believe I possess as little superstition as anyone. Yet I could not suppress a strange sensation that pervaded me…The first strokes of the hammer were responded to by a large peal of thunder…and the most vivid lightning…soon a deluge of rain was precipitated upon our offending heads.

“I continued, however, to labor until I succeeded in disintegrating the impression of a youth’s foot, which I carefully wrapped up, and prepared to leave…looking backward in momentary expectation to take vengeance…As I passed the confines of the mountains, the rain ceased, the sun broke out, and all nature resumed her cheerful aspect.” [Reprinted in Souther Family History by Watson B. Dyer, 1988, p. 419).

In 1867, John Muir, conservationist and naturalist, took an unprecedented journey by foot which he called his “1,000-Mile Walk to the Gulf.” On that trip, he was told by a sort of self-appointed guide, a mountaineer in the area, of the petroglyph on rocks in a Gap in the North Georgia mountains.

Muir wrote this in his diary: “September 19. Received another solemn warning of dangers on my way through the mountains. Was told by my worthy entertainer of a wondrous gap in the mountains which he advised me to see. ‘It is called Track Gap,’ said he, ‘from the great number of tracks in the rocks. Bird tracks, bar tracks, hoss tracks, men tracks, all in solid rock as it it had been mud.’ “

Archaeologists disagree about the dating of the stones. The historical marker placed by the Georgia Department of natural Resources states that speculation as to the origin of the carved figures is anywhere from 8,000 to 1,000 B. C., the Archaic Period, or even younger, the Woodland Period, (1,000 B. C. to 900 A. D.), or the Mississippian Period (900 – 1500 A. D.) or even the Cherokee who were the last Native Americans to inhabit the Gap.

James Mooney in his history and legends of the Cherokee, gives several explanations relative to the Cherokee period. One is that the rocks were etched by Cherokee hunters as they rested in the gap, leaving behind etchings that are a sort of graffiti.

Other myths about the soapstone markings are that the tracks were made by animals as they were driven through the gap. And even farther back, when the earth was young, that the great canoe that carried two of everything during the earth’s destructive flood came to rest on the rocks while they were soft, and the animals alighted, thus to leave the imprints.

If, indeed, the etchings are a part of Native Americans’ belief systems, those symbols can be found. Their meanings are given:

Human Figure – etched in a trance-like position – worship, submission

Tracks of animals and birds- spiritual helpers of mankind, indication of spiritual flight

Circle and Cross- four directions (N, S, E, W) on earth, or the winds

Dual cup and oval – fertility

Oval and bar – fertility

Feet-travel – travel to the spirit world

Cup holes – place where corn, other hard food, medicine or paint were ground; fertility rituals

Concentric circles – Sun Symbols, entrance to the spirit world.

Time, the elements and vandals to the site have all combined to remove portions of six large boulders on which were once prominently displayed these mysterious petroglyph. But a visit along the old Cherokee Indian Trail at Track rock Gap should still excite the curiosity of anyone who sees the markings.

An old tradition holds that it always rains when anyone visits the spot. The Cherokee believe that the Great Spirit dwelt in the hills above Track Rock Gap, and when anyone intending harm to the sacred grounds intruded, his displeasure was demonstrated by a violent and frightful storm.

According to Matthew F. Stephenson, that indeed did happen in 1834 when he removed a portion of the stone.

Another myth recounts how the Great Canoe came to rest on the soapstone rocks following earth’s great flood. It says, too, that on moonlit nights, ghosts of those who were not saved from the flood can be seen dancing on the rocks, forever lamenting their failure to take safety when warned that a flood would destroy them.

As a young child, I was fascinated by the Track Rock and the stories Dad told me of the place. Today, as I revisit it and take friends to see the petroglyph, I am still awed at the “Datsu’nalsagun’ylu”—where there are tracks; and “Degayeelun’ha” (printed, branded place).

Walk carefully there. It is sacred ground.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Sept. 4, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.