A transcript of selected passages from an interview of Francis David Childers (1893-1983) which I taped in December, 1976, when I visited Uncle Francis in Asheville.
In transcribing the sound of his voice to words on paper, I have resorted to special spellings and punctuation in order to represent the sound of his speech as exactly as possible. I have done this because his speech sounded beautiful and graceful to me, and I wanted to convey as much of the actual quality as I could. I certainly had no intention of creating any sort of comic “hillbilly” effect. I am very proud of my own heritage as a mountain person, and trust that you will understand the spirit of this transcription.
-Dwight Childers, December 1976
FRANCIS DAVID CHILDERS
(Selection: Crossing the River)
When I was little — must ‘a’ been two years old, not over that. I remember -- how I done it I don’t know. Ma and Pa had our bay mare, and we took that mare. . . . and went across the mountain, up Luftee river, and across that mountain, through the Indian Gap, that ’as the way we went. I know right where it is. We went through there, a little low place in the mountain.
It came a terrible rain, come a great flood through there, down the Pigeon River. Logs, rocks, and everything was comin’. They crossed that river.
Put Ma and me on that mare, and there ’as a big log a comin’. He said go on out there; that mare’ll take you through. That log’ll get gone before you get there. It did. It went on through, and I remember she laid me down in a bunch of bushes. She sent the mare back. That mare went right on back, got Pa, and brought him across.
(Selection: Making Molasses)
When we started making molasses in the fall of the year the cane had to be cut and the heads cut off, and piled up and get ready to take a little ways, maybe three or four hundred yards to a mill, to the cane mill where we had it set up, and have it all tied up so it wouldn’ be no trouble to get when they started the cane mill. Didn’ want to stop it. Start makin’ molasses, had to make’em.
Had a furnace built, long furnace, ten feet or twelve feet long, and a big boiler set on that, and they grind the juice — I was brought out at four o’clock of a morning. Jack Frost I remember was that high and I’d push it down with my bare feet. Drive
that bull around the cane mill.
Then they made the molasses. They’d get the juice, pour it in the boiler, an’ cook it, an’ it’d get to a certain temperature . . . a little instrument they had they’d pour it out and watch it and see when it got thick enough. That went on for about a week. It’d take about a week to get ours done, then somebody else ’d get the same outfit. Sometimes they ’d bring their stuff to our place, down there, the same where the sawmill set.
Pa’s molassses was the best they ever made anywhere.
(Selection: France and Joe and the Cat)
We left the old John Smith place, and started across the divide that divided Luftee River and Couches Creek, up a mountain . . . about seven or eight miles to the top. Only a trail, Indian trail, what we had . . . . We went onto the top of the mountain, and then we went down a great gorge, about half a mile, right around, straight down. Over on the left was a big laurel hemlock rock cliff, a canyon. An’ you could hear all kinds of squeakin’ animals in there.
Well, we got to the creek. I started fishin’. Pa learned me how to get ’em. You had to know how, or you wouldn’ get a one. (I caught a) right pretty good bunch of ‘em. We went down to the -- on down the creek about three miles below there, to a old house a feller name of Taylor Burrough had built many years before that, and he killed a hundred bears while he lived in that house . . . We stopped there it was getting pretty dark. I got up a little wood . . . . we built a fire right by the house, by the old log house. There ’as a big log run across the creek, and the creek — it was about fifty (feet) across it I guess — pretty good creek.
I never thought nothin’ about it much. I wasn’t scared I could tell you. I knowed there ‘as animals in there of some kind, and that old dog we had, Old Tige, my old dog, boy he ’as a bad ’n’. Mean as the devil, too. He ’as so mean I had to hang him up to a bush and whip him sometimes, an’ you know what he’d do when I’d turn him loose? He ‘d jump up on me and wiggle his tail, he ’s the happiest thing in the world. He ’d run off behind a tree up there and go to barkin’. Wasn’t a thing there at all. He knowed what I wanted, but he could’n smell — nothing but a cat. Now he could smell a cat, buddy, don’t care how big it was. An’ he didn’ care how big they was, he run’em.
Well, we ’as settin’ there eatin’ — I’d skinned the fish, I’d fixed the fish, gutted’em at the spring about twenty feet away. We had an old fryin’ pan, an’ I ’d fried the fish and the meat; and the meat scent went way up in the air, buddy.
So we’d got done eatin’ and boiled some chestnuts and started eatin’ them, and that thing hollered.
Boy! Whew! That’s the first time I believe I ’as ever scared. The hair begin to raise up on my neck. He squalled three times — took a little while; he didn’t hurry right on with it. Then he growled, right at the last. Then I remembered my mother, what she said, then. He’ll holler, he’ll squeal three times harder’n a woman can scream. And he did. I never heard one that could holler that loud. It started off low and it got louder. . . . real (loud) to a point, and then he growled.
When the last one, the third one, he growled big. He was just like a bear. Well, he ‘as close enough to I could hear him growl, that must have been pretty close, wasn’t it? I guess about fifty yards, maybe. And I hauled off with that old shotgun and let it go right (in the) direction he hollered. Well, that dog was layin’ there with his head on his feet, and when I shot, he jumped, just like that, his tail stuck straight up and his bristles (stood) up.
I said, “Get ‘im, Tige.” Boy, he went across that log in a jerk of nothin’. Yes, Sir, Yeah, he knowed where that log was. In the dark. And he hit that thing over there, just a yelp, yelp, yelpin’ like he had it right there, you know. But he could see it somewhere, settin’ there. About four or five minutes it stayed there, then I heard it hit the ground. When it hit the ground, it jarred and shook, buddy. I never heard a dog squeal and scream — like he was right at it nearly, but he didn’t quite get it. It might have been a good idea.
Well, he run it for about fifty more yards, right on around the field — a little old field where the man had cleared it and tended; raised a little corn I guess -- and he treed it ag’in. It jumped up another tree, couldn’t take it. My mother always told me that they wouldn’t fight a feist, wouldn’t jump on a feist dog, but they’d get a big’n. I begin to believe what it was when he growled and hollered — it ’as a pant’er. And I wondered if it was goin’ to get my dog. Boy, he went right on after that thing.
And they bound to ‘a’ been two of ’em. Now, because, about a hundred yards up on the hill, he had one treed, at this same minute now, he had it up a tree somew’ere, and there was somethin’ — it was in the fall you understand and the weeds was high and brittle — there was something walked from that spring through them weeds, twenty feet away from me. I could hear him pushin’ the weeds down. And he was up there barkin’; I knowed it wasn’t him. Well, it was another‘n, wasn’t it?
The’s two usually go together. But they won’t come to a fire. My mother told me all of this, now. I begin to realize, and I didn’t get scared too bad. It must ‘a’ been a pant’er and he wouldn’ come to the fire. I chunked up my fire, then. Well, whatever he thought about the fire, I do not know, but she told me he wouldn’ come to the fire. He wouldn’ jump on the fire, so if you stayed by the fire, you was safe. Well, that kind o’ cooled down, then.
The dog come on in. I don’t know what went with the animals; he quit barkin’ directly. I wondered may times what went with them durned animals. I think I know where they went. They went right back to that den where they come out of. Right in that thicket where we come by. They had a hole up there some’ers. Nobody ever been able to get in there. They started in there but it ’as so rough they never... Pa never could get in there. I asked him, about it. “No . . . “ he said, “I went down there once and seen a lot of bones, and I got scared and left.”
(Selection: Learning to Fish)
Well, my daddy learned me how to catch a fish. The mountain trout, the original, the speckled trout. You have to go away back to get ‘em. Way back, and rough. You got to have the goods. You got to be able to walk and to stand the rough stuff. They’re still up there.
When he started to learn me to do that on Bryson’s Branch, on Collinses Creek, right where the pant’er got us, he said, “Before you start doin’ this you got to get your mind set and be steady, be ready before that fish bites. I was just a boy; I didn’ understand it much. But I got on to it pretty quick. “Now be ready before the fish bites.”
(Selection: The Runaway Flat-Car)
This is true, not fiction. I’ll commence just like it was. I don’t remember the date it happened, but — I’d say (I was) twenty-five or -six years old, about that time. I commenced when I was about thirteen years old, workin’. I went from Canton to Smokemont to work on the log train for the Champion Fiber Company, the same company that I had been workin’ for. They bought out the Smoky Mountains, and they was goin’ to log it, cut the timber and take it all out. They brought in a big mill, built the railroad from Ravens Ford up to Smokemont. I went in there about that time to get the job. I left Canton. The war was on. They placed me in Class 4. The reason I do not know. I had married three months before that. I decided by some means to go to get a job on the log train, help get out balsam timber, to make airplanes with. That’s what they was makin’ ‘em out of then.
Well, I got a job workin’ on the track with a feller Chambers, track foreman, a little while, then I saw this feller Bill Craig was the trainmaster under Jack Smith, Superintendent. And he liked me and he gave me a job a — firing a little ol’ engine. That wud’n much work.
So we follered the track up, where it was a-buildin’ and helped get the ties and haul ‘em in where they wanted ‘em. And me and the engineer ‘as all they was. Ol’ Guthrie, Tom Guthrie. I was firin’, ‘n’ ol’ Tom Guthrie, we got along fine. Went up to the first camp, Camp One, I think the number of it was, right above the Jim Dowdle place . . . .
And we was settin’ there, waitin’ on somethin’, an’ this feller come out. Oh, boy, he was a muscle-lookin’ man. Great big fellow. Good-lookin’ man. Just dark-skinned enough to look good. What women liked. (God almighty, I wonder where he come from, Buddy), He looked at me and says, “You don’t have to stay up here no longer. We’ll go back. You can get with your wife, the rest of the day.” He had a car right behind that engine. He’d brought it up o’ purpose to go back on. Flat car. Turn it loose and it’d run all the way down. Trick, huh? Well, I studied a minute and I seen he ‘as drunk. I knowed enough about ’im not to fool with ‘im much.
Somehow — I guess it happened o’ purpose. I don’t know nothin’ else, but I decided to go. Got up on the flat car — now I’d been railroadin’: I knowed what the thing was all about pretty much -- and I didn’t know if he was goin’ to make it or not. He set down by the wheel; he wouldn’ let me there. He was goin’ to handle the brake. Well, I kept lookin’ out. We ’as goin’ down, down about a five-per-cent grade, pretty steep, all the way that way. Curves hittin’ [Uncle Francis was clapping his hands as he told this part] (got right in the middle of the thing. I knowed if it wrecked I could slide over that thing and wouldn’ get killed. I saw the track man. Charlie Harkin, had her up, way down below us. I said, “Bill, you better tighten up a little on the brake.” That scared him. He ’as about half asleep and drunk, you know. And he grabbed that wheel and broke the chain.
Boy if you ever done some thinkin’, then you got to do it. I started. Harkin saw us, heard the racket comin’. and he jerked the jacks out from under the tracks, and it went back, just like normal. Had about a half mile run, all the’ was to it. The’as one place I remember, a mud hole, where we could have got off without breakin’ ever bone we had, an’ I knowed if it went on, we left the track line for the steam shovel. It ain’t nothin’ to laugh about, wasn’t then. I didn’ have time to laugh then.
Well, I said, Before we got to that — now it didn’t take me this long, as I’m tellin’ this story, to think what to do — I thought right then what to do, before that track let us by, a straight shoot to that mud hole. I said, “You get on that side, Bill, over there, hang your legs off. I’ll get on this side. When I holler, you jump!” Now he was a big important man, but he jumped when I hollered that time. Saved his life, too. Went up in the mud that deep, but it didn’ hurt. The rest of it was rock and cliffs and canyons and everything else. When it hit the steam shovel, the car went all into pieces and flew all up in the air, steam shovel too.
www.childers-shepherd.org, 24 Dec 2006