Monday, June 18, 2012

Reminders from long ago

I don't remember a lot from Geology 31 about a century ago down at Chapel Hill, but when I saw a roundish rock that looked like a petrified hamburger bun sitting in the Patrick County clay right after they excavated the foundation for a log home we built in 2007, I thought: There's a story in this.

Didn't know what it was, of course -- either the stone or the story behind it. But it seemed to be so perfect in shape -- slightly domed on one side, gently concave on the other -- that it was probably a good candidate for an artifact of some long-ago culture, perhaps from an Indian tribe that once occupied the area.

I know. Speculation, pure and simple. Always meant to find an expert on these things to ask. But busy as we were, I put it on a table in the new house and showed it as a mild curiosity to visitors. A few were mildly interested.

What we did know is that native Americans once lived here, hunted here, then moved on. My father in law once had a handful of arrowheads -- projectile points, in technical terms, I'm told -- and over the years gave most of them away to his grandchildren. He had picked them up down by the creek where he had his garden. That was a couple of hundred feet below a natural spring that has fed the creek for years, and every now and then he'd till or spade up another point and add it to the collection.

Then a fire burned our house down, and I picked through the ashes for weeks before finally finding it beneath a timber, right below where the table it lay on had been.  This time, though, the stone had a couple of cracks in it and scorched place or two:

Not long ago a friend came by with his tractor and re-tilled the spring garden for my mother-in-law. He had a big heavy tiller on the back of his tractor, and made short work of the garden my family has worked for at least 25 years.  And as usual, the spring tilling turned up stones of various size. At one end of the garden there's a sizable pile of mostly quartz and pink rock of some variety. We pick the stones out of the furrow and throw them to one side as we go.

A couple weeks ago I was using the weed whip to pare down the wiry weeds along the fence bordering the garden. I looked down at a stone I remember throwing out of the garden some weeks back and noted once again a curious groove. Picked it up, turned it over and had another one of those impressions, like the petrified hamburger bun back in '07, that this wasn't an accidental stone. I was, I thought, just the kind of thing I'd imagine a stone ax looking like, if one part were to be broken off:

Here's another view:

So I roamed around on the Web and found some pictures that made me think these things are what I thought they might be:
Scroll down to the section on "Nutting Stone Pestle and Anvil set" for comparison to the round stone, and to "Full grooved Archaic Axe head" for comparison to what looks like the stone I picked up in the garden. Sure looks like a stone ax to me. 

Some folks think we live way up in an isolated area of the South, on a dirt road far from the cities, so far from civilization that even Garmin can't exactly figure out where the roads are or how they are surfaced.

Rural and isolated is fine with me, though that's hardly the case anymore, given cell phones and internet connections and cars that will put you in as big a city as you'd ever need in less time that it takes to watch a movie.

Finding these artifacts drives home the point: these hills have been occupied for a long time. It's not just the century-old farmhouse down the hill, a few score feet from the springs that feed our creek. And it's not just the old stone foundation of a long-gone log cabin about 20 minutes walk down the other hill, on the banks of the next creek west.  I'm guessing that cabin stood in the 19th century, but maybe earlier. Ain't nobody knows, as the song goes.

This would for sure have been a good hunting ground for native Americans or for New World settlers. The springs and the creeks draw bears and deer and all manner of smaller animals.  Big flocks of wild turkeys strut and juke through these woods in a fascinating parade. And less than a mile away are a couple of mountain streams that make for good trout fishing, I'm told.  

Whoever lived here long ago, I expect, found the same things we have found: It's a paradise, a fine place to see the mountains reshape themselves all day long as the son moves over the hills and valleys, watch the seasons change and observe the passing of life and time.  

As Chub Seawell used to write at the bottom of his letters to the editor, Call your next case.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Finding the old Gordonton Store

That store might have been anywhere.  Tidewater Virginia.  South Carolina Lowlands.  A Georgia swamp. Florida Panhandle, or maybe, most likely, somewhere in Louisiana.  Might even have been in Alabama, as a well-known New York gallery print once noted on the back. Friends of mine bought a copy, believing it was taken down there.  It wasn't.

The photo was taken by Dorothea Lange in 1939, when she was doing work for the Farm Security Administration, photographing examples of poverty and the plight of migrants as well as American farmers during the Depression.  Here's a photo of Lange when she was taking pictures in California:

The print will be familiar to many.  I think I first saw it back in college days, and H.G. Jones, the longtime curator of the North Carolina Collection at UNC Chapel Hill, included it in his "North Carolina Illustrated 1524-1984." It's an icon for many of what life might have been like, in one small place on one day, in the Depression-era South.

I remember when it appeared on the cover of one of the early issues, maybe the first, of "Southern Cultures" magazine pubished by historians at UNC.  I told Harry Watson, a boyhood friend who had become a professor of history at Chapel Hill, how much I liked it, and he told me it had been taken barely an hour's drive north of Chapel Hill. Here's a copy of that photo.

Not long ago a friend who grew up in Person County mentioned the photo, and told me the store was still standing. I was amazed to hear that, because the photo of the old store made it look as though it might cave in. It seemed to be held up by the metal drink and cigarette signs nailed to the wall, some old cedar or cypress posts, some stacks of rock holding up the porch, and habit.

Just the other day I was coming back from Raleigh a little earlier than I had expected. Driving up Highway 86 near the old Warren place in Prospect Hill, I eased onto N.C. 49 headed toward Roxboro, hoping to run across Gordonton some ways up the road.  Gordonton, it turns out, is little more than a crossroads, but out of the corner of my eye I spotted the store as I came around a curve. It's a little different now -- a big tree grown up and overgrown at one corner, some different siding hiding two of the three second-story windows, but those porch posts are a dead giveaway. Here's a snap I took:

 The metal drink signs and fuel pumps are gone. I don't know about Raney Baynes, the white man leaning in the doorway of the original (and said to be either the owner, or brother of the owner), but there's no question (and never was, judging by how many people have posted something on the Web about the store and its location) where it is.  And those stones holding up the porch sure look familiar, too.

Coulda been anywhere. But there it was.