Commune Country

I have a love/hate relationship politically with Tennessee.  On one hand, it  the State sometimes goes out of its way to keep progress from happening.  On the other, I just don’t feel the same pressure to care about the news here that I did in the Northeast.

The lack of governance is a tradition in Tennessee going back to when we were still a part of North Carolina.  The terrain of Tennessee created natural borders, and the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains in what is now East Tennessee made for an incredibly difficult passage from North Carolina.  This left Tennessee mostly to its own, making it a prime location for seekers of a utopian life.

Everyone has heard of ‘The Farm,” the longest running hippie commune (since 1971) in Summertown, TN, but the first major commune was settled in 1825.  A radical Abolitionist Socialist named Fannie Wright established Nashoba, a 2,000 acre experimental commune to emancipate slaves on the banks of the Wolf River in modern day Germantown, near Memphis.    Its goal was to provide work, whereby the slaves could buy their freedom to be transported to Liberia or Hati; a full 37 years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.  It failed after three years of operation due to lack of funding as the outside community fears of interracial marriage  grew.  All remaining slaves were emancipated in Hati.

One of the more successful communes was started in 1880 by English Author Thomas Hughes for “second sons.”  In Victorian England, only the first born son stood to inherit the family estate, and often a career.  The “second sons” of the gentry class founded the doomed Rugby in search of  land ownership, freedom of expectations, and an overall cure for boredom. While Ruby lasted in very small numbers through the 1960’s, it was primed for failure as the soft hands of the second sons were not used to getting their hands dirty.  They produced crops, but disease and exhaustion caused most to leave by 1887.

Shockingly, the late 1800’s gave rise to a fierce socialist movement in the South. In 1854, Julius Augustus Wayland settled the Ruskin Colony, named after the English Author John Ruskin.  The goal of the movement was to form a network of socialist communes for a “co-operative commonwealth.” As a Socialist society, all members had to work.  They were highly successful an manufactured $3 pants, suspenders and belts,chewing gum, snake oil ‘remedies,’ a vapor cabinet, and cereal coffee (whatever that is).  They also had a newspaper, The Coming Nation, which had around 60,000 subscribers at it’s height.  In the end, all citizens were not created equal as disputes went unresolved regarding distribution of wealth or “membership rights,” as well as a growing divide between the more traditional Socialists and members with anarchic trends.  It collapsed in 1901.

Today, Tennessee plays host to a large Amish community, a commune that is a safe space for rural gay men at the Short Mountain Sanctuary, and much more but the most fascinating is the Yellow Deli Community, an offshoot of the Twelve Tribes community in Chattanooga.  Started in 1973, their mission is to recreate biblical life.  To join, you surrender your possessions to the group and regress two thousand years in the past.   Women’s rights?  Never heard of ’em.  Child Labor laws? Psssssh.

So what kind of a name is “Yellow Deli” one might ask?  It’s the name of the restaurant they run where the bottom of the menu hints at their culty-tendencies baiting their customers with these simple words, “We serve the fruit of the Spirit… Why not ask?”   All members work in the restaurant which unfortunately has amazing food.  They spout “love” as a great motivator, but have been involved in scandal after scandal for suspected child abuse and labor law infractions.  They believe that their return to communal living will trigger the beginning stages of the apocalypse.

I can’t wait to see what happens next…

The Legend of Sugar Flat Road

When I was a child, my family moved from Houston, Texas to a farm just east of Lebanon, TN.  It was culture shock in reverse; as big city gal whose family wore black clothing, and our favorite foods were unpronounceable to the new neighbors (ke-suh-dee-ya we’d say, only to be corrected that that in fact, it was ke-suh-dil-luh), I was always kind of an outcast.  It allowed me to sit back and watch things though, and I was fascinated by one of my new classmates; Sterling Buster.

In my memory, Sterling Buster was the size of a pro wrestler at the age of six.  His sheer height could block the sun, and I would watch him in reverence.  At the time, Lebanon had a quiet, high-brow antiques circuit, and the very finest of them was at Cuz’s Antiques on the Lebanon Square.  When I found out that Sterling’s family owned Cuz’s, I couldn’t have been more pleased.  Cuz’s was the kind of place where you would walk in and see a stuffed tiger lunging toward a mounted elephant head, with deep red velvet Victorian sofas and Victrolas as the audience.  It had the most distinct smell of warm dust, and when the afternoon sun would shine through the enormous storefront windows, you could see all the tiny particles dancing through the air.

My mom collected old compacts so each week after church we made the antiques rounds on the square.  My life changed on one Sunday in 1996 when I first saw The Head at Cuz’s, and heard about the Legend of Sugar Flat Road.



According to Legend, in 1989 two guys were out driving on Sugar Flat Road off Trousdale Ferry, a place that is to this day dominated by farms and nothingness, when they hit something.  To their surprise, they had run over what appeared to be a yeti.  They had the head taxidermied and Cuz’s ended up with it a few years after.  It was on display in the format that you see above with the handwritten sign saying, “Is this an alien,” that invites you to draw your own conclusion on what the fur covered head could be.

Sadly, Cuz’s closed it’s doors last year, but the mysterious Legend of Sugar Flat Road lives on.  The Head was auctioned and moved to Chattanooga, where it was displayed in a small place called the Curiosity Shoppe until last year.  It’s not clear where the head is now, but it has been replaced by a hologram at the Curiosity Shoppe!


What’s Lies Beneath – Percy Priest Lake

While never more than 30 minutes from a river, lake, waterfall, abandoned quarry or swimming hole; the only (sizable) natural lake in Tennessee is Reelfoot Lake, formed by the 1812 New Madrid earthquake.   To create the other lakes, the property was seized by the State and flooded, leaving behind underwater ghost-towns and the secrets of the people who once lived there…

Tennessee is well known for it’s Body Farm in the outskirts of Knoxville, where students and forensic experts study bodies in various stages of composition to enhance their knowledge of estimating situational time of death.  But before this world-famous Body Farm was another – now mostly buried at the bottom of the Percy Priest Lake just outside of Nashville.

Since the mid 1800’s, Uriah Moreland and his family owned a large farm that lie in the path to be flooded to create part of the Percy Priest Lake.  Rumors around town were that Uriah and his wife Abby practiced black magic rituals in the woods of their property.  Uriah was also famous for his temper and his disappearing farm hands, who had dubbed the place, “the body farm.”

When, in the 1960’s, the Civil Corp of Engineers came to remove Uriah and his family from the property, they found Abby and the children brutally murdered, but no sign of Uriah.

The family graves were moved, and the land flooded but Uriah was never found.  Many people claim to feel a “darkness” on the land at the edge of the lake where the Moreland farm once was, but maybe old Uriah himself is the one still haunting those woods.





The White Bluff Screamer

All around the world, visions of “white ladies,” or “ladies in white” can be found haunting old homes, cemeteries, forests, mountains, etc.

The universal thread is that they are always women dressed in white, and usually have had some form of tragedy surrounding their own legendary death.  The old folks say that they are bad omens and when they appear it is a sign that someone will die.  Some draw parallels from the Woman in White to the Banshee in Irish oral tradition; a wailing woman who was a harbinger of death. Many of the settlers in Appalachia and the Southeast in general share roots with the Scotch/Irish people and have kept with them many of the same traditions and stories that their families migrated with long ago.  This is not the first story with probable roots in the Old Country.

Tennessee has it’s own White Lady, named the White Bluff Screamer.  In rural White Bluff, Tennessee down Trace Creek Road lies a hollow where stood an old country house.  The owner of the house is now lost in time, but the story goes that he was being kept up each night by howling and screams from somewhere in the woods.  One night, he couldn’t take it anymore and he headed out with his gun to hunt whatever was making such a racket.  He searched and searched but then heard screams from back inside his house.  When he ran back to his house he found his children and wife ripped to shreds and saw a woman in a white mist.

It is said that she still haunts that area, and burns the grass anywhere she appears from the white mist.

Buffalo Road

Yesterday I described the more recent history of Nashville’s Dickerson Road, but it did not begin with Andrew Jackson’s pride.  The natural history is much more sad to imagine, because it is no longer even comprehensible.

There is a reason that if you get off Interstate 24 at Spring Street and hang a right over to Dickerson Road that you soon come upon statues of several buffalo.  The road was a natural trail that the buffalo used to come from the North of Nashville over to the Cumberland River to get to the salt licks there.

ImageTo me they serve as an homage to the time before the pimps and pavement, and hint at all we have lost under development.