Month: August 2014

Black Cat Cave

Across from the VA Golf Course on Highway 231, you will see a thicket of trees on the left surrounded by signs reading “Park Closed” and “No Trespassing.” Luckily, we are all fluent in redneck, and can easily translate “no trespassing” to “y’all gotta see this shit.”

It’s not much to look at from the outside; in fact, we were having trouble locating it at first. After swatting down the world’s largest spider webs, Sleeping Beauty level vines and brambles, and crossing the treacherous boulder valley of insanity, we reached one of the three entrances to the Black Cat Cave (also sometimes locally known as Rainbow Cave, due to at one time having a rainbow painted on the bluff entering it).

Photo by Angela Schmidt

Cave Entrance

You have to climb past the fencing pictured above, then shimmy over the cinder block wall till you find a foot step and then kind of melt into the cave.  There’s water rushing in the darkness and dripping all over your head and into your eyes.  It’s pitch black and the feeling is very, very creepy.  

Armed with our iPhone flashlights, we made our way down the hallway to the first of three ‘rooms’ in the cave.  The first on the right is at outside ground level, but steadily sinking with the rest of the cave due to water erosion. The room has a fireplace, poured concrete floors, graffiti masterfully done by 12 year olds who think they’re satanists, a window, and barred gates that line the walls for reinforcement when it was a dance hall/speakeasy called the Black Cat Tavern during prohibition (20’s-30’s). 

But prohibition is just the most recent notch on the history belt for this cave.  In the mid 1800’s a farmer named Asa Jackson invented a ‘perpetual motion’ machine to harness energy and run a threshing machine, which he secretly worked on in the cave around the time of the Civil War. The threshers were destroyed in a fire, thereby rendering the perpetual motion machine useless for Asa so it sat and essentially rotted.  The remains of the Asa Jackson Perpetual Motion Machine can be viewed at the Museum of Appalachia in East Tennessee.  The museum’s curator hired people from Oak Ridge to try to figure out how the machine may have worked, but it is still a mystery to this day.

Even further back in time, the cave *may* have been used as shelter prehistorically by Native American tribes who communally hunted the surrounding area.  A group from nearby Middle Tennessee State University and members of the Native History Association “discovered a significant historical component” in the cave in June of 2014.  It appears that the “component” was simply that Native Americans may have used the cave, which is unique because for time immemorial native Americans have never lived on that land.  

It is because of this, the Black Cat Cave has been deemed ‘historically significant’ and is protected by the parks department.  The park is closed so that archaeological research can be done without further disruption and vandalism.  

 

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The Knoxville Girl

I was living in New York City a few years back and was staying the weekend at a community farm outside of New Paltz. For anarcho/hippie dinner one night, I was eating mashed potatoes loaded with nutritional yeast when a huge chunk of my tooth just fell out. When I finally got back to the City, my regular dentist was on vacation so I had to go to his fill-in guy.  I walk into the office and I see the stereotypical hunting dog pictures and UT orange that you would see in any doctor/dentist office in Tennessee.  It was so familiar, in fact, that I forgot where I was for a second.

I met the dentist and we began to talk about what happened/family history, etc. and I mentioned I was from Tennessee.  He told me that he too was from Tennessee and went to UT Knoxville before becoming a military dentist (as if the orange sea wasn’t already an indicator).  He shot me up with Novocaine and as the sweet, metallic taste of blood was still dripping from my gums he began to hum the Louvin Brother’s Murder Ballad I hadn’t heard in years:

Knoxville Girl – 

I met a little girl in Knoxville
A town we all know well
And every Sunday evening
Out in her home I’d dwell

We went to take an evening walk
About a mile from town
I picked a stick up off the ground
And knocked that fair girl down

She fell down on her bended knees
For mercy she did cry
Oh, Willie dear, don’t kill me here
I’m unprepared to die

She never spoke another word
I only beat her more
Until the ground around me
Within her blood did flow

I took her by her golden curls
And I drug her ’round and ’round
Throwing her into the river
That flows through Knoxville town

Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl
With the dark and roving eyes
Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl
You can never be my bride

I started back to Knoxville
Got there about midnight
My mother she was worried
And woke up in a fright

Saying, “Dear son, what have you done
To bloody your clothes so?”
I told my anxious mother
I was bleeding at my nose

I called for me a candle
To light myself to bed
I called for me a handkerchief
To bind my aching head

Rolled and tumbled the whole night through
As troubles was for me
Like flames of hell around my bed
And in my eyes could see

They carried me down to Knoxville
And put me in a cell
My friends all tried to get me out
But none could go my bail

I’m here to waste my life away
Down in this dirty old jail
Because I murdered that Knoxville girl
The girl I loved so well

Dark, right?  And that’s not even the most tragic in the murder ballad tradition. The song Knoxville Girl musically came from the traditional English and Irish ‘The Oxford Girl’ and ‘The Wexford Girl,’ moving the location from Europe to Tennessee.

But who was the Knoxville Girl?  Do the ballads come from real history?  In her case, yes.

Her name was Mary Lula Noel from Pineville, MO. In 1892 she was murdered by a man she had been dating named William (Oh Willie Dear don’t kill me here/I’m unprepared to die) Simmons of Joplin, MO.  She was missing for one week and then found floating in the Cowskin Creek with bruises around her neck.  She had no water in her lungs and had been thrown in after her death, like a careless afterthought.  Simmons never disclosed his motive, and was charged with murder by blunt force object and strangulation.

While Mary was from Missouri, the song Knoxville Girl was unquestionably about her. And though her life was cut short in beautiful youth, her memory still haunts the hills and hollers from Appalachia all the way to dentist offices in NYC.

The World’s Most Famous Melungeon?

EAP

The Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves went into effect in 1865 in America, but it was already well-known in the South that there had been a groups of free “people of color” for a few hundred years. Under the holdover British doctrine defining who is/isn’t a slave, the partus sequitur venrem, it was common practice that children were given the social status of their mother at birth.  Meaning, if the father was black or Indian but the mother was white, the child was considered ‘white’ socially.

As you can imagine, there were many groups of people with mixed origin, but none more fabled and romanticized than the dark skinned, blue eyed Melungeons of the Appalachian region.  Legends were that they were survivors from the lost colony of Roanoke, or one of the lost Tribes of Israel. They were also speculated to be of Cherokee, gypsy, Turkish, Spanish, Phoenecian, etc. decent. The legend also is that Elvis Presley descended from the melungeons.

The following is taken from “The Melungeons: The Resurrection of A Proud People; An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America,”by Dr. N. Brent Kennedy (p. 140)

Yes, Elvis Presley had North Carolina roots; his mother’s family left western North Carolina in the early 1800s, taking with them their legend of a Cherokee and Jewish heritage. His maternal great-great-great grandmother was supposedly “a full blooded Cherokee” from Tennessee named Morning Dove White. However, White is a far more common Lumbee, Melungeon, and Powhatan than Cherokee surname, and Morning Dove is an uncommon Cherokee given name. Also, the man she married, William Mansell, had been something of a renowned Indian fighter, making his choice of a “full-bloodied Cherokee” questionable. Mansell’s family was also native South Carolinian since the 1700s, placing them more in Lumbee than Cherokee territory. In any event, William Mansell and Morning Dove White settled in Alabama around 1820, and had several children, including John Mansell, Elvis’s great-great grandfather. John later abandoned his family to run off with a younger woman named Mandy Bennett (another Lumbee surname).

In 1870, John’s son White Mansell married a woman named Martha Tackett from Tennessee. Martha also possessed a common Melungeon surname and, even more appropriately, claimed to be Jewish. Elaine Dundy’s excellent biography of Elvis provides fascinating genealogical background and unintentionally paints a rather convincing Melungeon heritage for the “King of Rock and Roll.

There is really almost too much to say about the myth of the melungeons; however, in 1969 Eloy Gallegos conducted a study where 177 DNA samples were taken from people in the Newman’s ridge area of East Tennessee (The Melungeons: The Pioneers of the Interior Southeastern United States, 1526-1997). He discovered that the closest matches came from Libya, Cyrpus, Malta, Spain, Italy and Portugal, with very little occurrence of Cherokee DNA (p. 80).

In 2012, melungeon DNA was collected again to settle the origin dispute once and for all. In an article published in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy, scientists proved that melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin.

No gypsy or Indian magic, no lost tribes or civilizations; just people with DNA pretty common to everyone else in the Tennessee/North Carolina/Virginia area.

The Curse of Davis Market

I do a lot of things half-assed; this adventure was no exception.  On a steamy, late July day, my former college roommates and I left Nashville to return to the town of Murfreesboro (20 whole minutes away) where we had all attended Middle Tennessee State University. Our mission: to break the curse of Davis Market.

Davis Market, situated at the crossroads of Main Street and Tennessee Boulevard, is best known as being one of the many veritable “Center(s) of the Universe.”  They sell Boone’s Farm and other fine malt liquors, incense, alien pipes and other terrible shit college kids (and me) love.

davis

Legend has it that once you purchase something from Davis Market, in the Center of the Universe, that Earth’s gravitational pull snares you in to returning to Murfreesboro.  Another variation is that Murfreesboro will “follow” you forever.  Soldiers go away and think they have died in Iraq only to wake up at the VA hospital in Murfreesboro. Expecting mothers with weeks left in pregnancy who are just passing through will spontaneously give birth and have to go to a Murfreesboro Hospital. New construction forces a town to move their cemetery and all the bones end up in Murfreesboro because of one asshole who didn’t break the curse. And the higher you get, the sillier the stories become.

We definitely did not want this to happen to us so we grabbed a shoe, a hammer and some nails.  There are two parts to breaking the curse of Davis Market, neither of which we fully executed.  One is to nail one shoe to a particular tree in “Peck Forest” (the trees between the Admissions Building and Peck Hall), and the other is to pee on the geographical center of Tennessee.  We all brought symbolic shoes but when we got to the tree, one of the boys whined that it would hurt the tree to nail our shoes into it.  We ended up stuffing our shoes into holes in the tree because we are weenies who feel bad for trees.

shoe

We had stopped off at Davis Market on the way to Peck Forest and got some Boone’s Farm so we would be ready to pee when we got to the geographical center of Tennessee. Unfortunately, as soon as we rolled up to the stone marker, some kid comes out of nowhere and just sits down next to us. I’m pretty sure the City just pays her to hang around and act creepy so we asked her to take our picture and left.

center

Keeping in mind that we have come nowhere near breaking the curse of Davis Market, the same four of us were sitting in a bar in Nashville a week later and the notorious MTSU Philosophy professor Principe waltzes through the door.

The curse continues to haunt us and must be overcome.