Wednesday, 01 August 2012 12:23
So about 15 years ago I started doing research on the internet and the facts that I found have brought me to the conclusion that the story was true. Here is what I found out, not in my words but in the words of people who knew about George (or James) Burkhart.
The first story I found was from Dr. John J. Dickey’s Diary. Dr. Dickey spent a lot of time in Eastern Kentucky and particularly Clay County as he tried to spread God’s word in the mountains. Here is the story as it appears in the Dickey Diary as it was told to him by John E. Roberts:
John E. Roberts, November 10, 1898, Manchester, Kentucky
My grandfather, Joseph Roberts, came to Clay County from Powell's Valley, Virginia.
My father said that when my grandfather came to Clay County, there were only three families on Red Bird, viz, Dillon Asher, John Gilbert, and Edward Callahan. Mr. Roberts settled near the mouth of Big
Creek on main Red Bird. He had children as follows: Farris (probably named for John Farris of Laurel who settled first on Red Bird); Jesse; Thomas; George Washington (father of deponent), born about the time of the Battle of New Orleans and was named in honor of that victory; Betsey (Begley); Rachel Wilson (Sturgeon people); Sookey (Bowling), mother of Elisha and Delaney Bowling of Laurel and Jackson Counties; Chana (Hacker), wife of Samuel Hacker, the largest man ever in Clay County, being a great bully; Action (Hacker), wife of Claiborne Hacker, mother of Ulus and Logan Hacker of Terrill's Creek, Jackson County, also "Long" John Hacker.
Mr. Roberts says further: "Eli Vanover and his wife, Nancy Bailey, of Harlan live now on Buffalo Creek, Owsley County. He is 95, and his wife is about 85, both active. He visited my house last spring. She told me that James Burkhart, the man who lived in the sycamore tree in Harlan, lived to be 130 years old. When he was over 80 or 90 he planted a walnut tree and said he wanted his coffin made from the wood of that tree, and it was done. The body of the tree was split and hewed into boards from which the coffin was made.
When he was about 110 years old his gray hairs came out like one who was afflicted with fever and there came in its stead a growth of black hair just like that of a child. About the same time he cut a full set of teeth which were very white and strong and continued so to the day of his death. After this he would dance like a youth and claimed he was a boy again. Mrs. Vanover was a girl at that time and saw this with her own eyes. She was raised near Burkhart. Ad. White, son of James White, married Davis Irvine's daughter. He lived at Richmond, Kentucky. He represented his district in Congress. His brother was mayor of Huntsville, Alabama, died about eight or ten years ago.
Here is another account of George (or James) Burkhart that I found on the internet:
Field Notes from Harlan County, Kentucky by Alessandro Portelli
History is another idea I had to redefine. On our first interview, Becky Simpson told me the following story, about a man who "Actually he was the first one that was known to live on Cranks Creek. That was down here at the mouth of the holler—[at the crossing of routes] 421 and 68. The sycamore tree was there, that he lived in the trunk of. And he had his stove, he had his table, he had his bed in that tree. That's a good-sized tree, ain't it."
George Burkhart, an Indian fighter and scout from Virginia, of Dutch (i.e., German) descent, came to Cranks Creek probably around 1806. He was apparently born in 1725, and is first documented as owning two tracts of land on Cranks Creek in 1806, was remarried in 1833 and died in 1850. This is how his story was recapitulated by the local newspaper, drawing from oral sources: "They had two beds and a fire place with a flu. One of the beds was in one of the roots of the tree where a man could roll up in blankets and sleep comfortably for the night. Burkhart was from Virginia. Isaac Burkhart was born in the sycamore tree house. Isaac told that they had a brush fence around the sycamore tree to keep the bears out.
This is one I found on George Burkhart Family Genealogy search:
George Burkhart was born in Germany in the year 1725. Soon thereafter he proceeded to Virginia, where he married. The Union produced five children, and his wife died. He married again, and in the year 1800 removed to Kentucky. He settled on Crank's Fork of Cumberland River, fourteen miles south of Harlan Court-house, and with his family took shelter in an enormous hollow sycamore tree. By the way, Harlan County is not wholly unlike the big-tree district of California. This tree was forty-five feet in circumference, and necessarily fifteen feet in diameter.
In this romantic abide he and his wife and the five children had beds, tables, chests and such other furniture and things as a wild mountain house usually contains. Although the frosts of seventy-five winters rested on his ample brow, he did not neglect that part of the divine in junction which says: "Be ye fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth," for when the requisite years had flown he was found to possess by the second wife eight children.
His second wife died, and after a short period of mourning he went to Virginia, that generous old State that had already furnished him two wives, where he married a third time. Her name was Elizabeth Grabill, and they had two children. This third "better half" of the old man died at the good age of seventy. Mr. Burkhart was now a centenarian. The grief-stricken husband bewailed her loss even more bitterly than those who had gone before her. But his days of sorrow were not many. He soon turned out to the "log-rolling" and quilting, which fashionable pastimes were frequent in their occurrence, and danced with the girls, entertained them with his comic songs, and was a regular gay old deceiver, as giddy as a girl of fifteen. In the year 1835, at the great age of 110 years, he married a fourth time. The name of this last wife was Lavenia Morris, and her age was thirty-five. The immense disparity of age, seventy-five years, worked harm. Dissensions arose, and separation followed. No children blessed this union, and as all his others had become grown or died, the patriarch was left alone in the cold, cold world. The wonderful old man died in the year 1850 at the great age of 125 years.
Newspaper account: Hamilton Telegraph, Butler County, Ohio Thursday, June 28, 1849
The Oldest Man in America - GEORGE BURKHART, living in Harlan County, Ky., is one hundred and fourteen years old; was born in Germantown, Pa., and has lived for several years in a hollow sycamore tree, of such dimensions as to contain his family, consisting of a wife and five or six children, bed and bedding, cooking utensils, etc. He professes to hold to the Lutheran faith.
There’s even an exhibit at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee on George Burkhart, the man from Harlan County, Kentucky who raised his family in a hollow tree.
Momma was right all along.
Wednesday, 25 July 2012 03:25
Momma’s Little Indians…a boy’s memories
By: Rodney Miller
After the most recent string of 100˚ days, I thought, thank God for the air conditioner. That got me thinking back to when I was a young boy and the hot days of summer. I wonderd, how did we ever survive without one?
It’s something that some of my younger readers couldn’t even imagine today. So let me tell those that don’t know just how it was.
I know that you’ve heard it over and over again from us older folks but it really did seem like summer heat would never end. And, it got worse at night.
The only thing we had at our to cool the house was couple of electric window fans. In the hot part of summer our windows and doors were never closed, morning or night. And even if we did shut the doors there were no locks on them to keep anyone out. We didn’t worry about someone breaking in because people were more honest and didn’t steal as much back then.
We usually had one window fan in the living room pulling in fresh air and the other one in the back bedroom in the rear of the house pulling the hot air out. That way it kept a slight breeze flowing throughout most of the house. It didn’t seem to help much in the daytime when the air was 90-100˚ but after the sun went down it helped a lot as the night air cooled down.
One of the things that made the summer’s heat more torturous was the fact that Momma cooked three hot meals every day. I can almost see her right now standing over a hot stove cooking with a handkerchief tied around her head to catch the flow of sweat as she labored. And I never once heard her complain.
She used a small hand fan a lot back then when it got hot. She kept it handy to stir a little cool air upon her face as she did her daily chores. When it got too hot in the house she would go to the front porch and sit and fan until she cooled off. Her little paper fan was always close by.
Because of the heat we didn’t wear a whole lot of clothes in the summer. Most of the time for me it was just a pair of shorts or cut-off pants. I never wore a shirt and for most of my early years, I never had any underwear. Our skin would get so tanned that Momma called us her little Indians. I loved it when she called us that.
Momma had always reminded us that we had Indian ancestors and I still believe it.
She often spoke about her great-grandmother on the Curry side of her family, “Muh” she called her, and the fact that she was half-Cherokee.
My Pap Paw Burkhart’s family came from Harlan County where his ancestors were of Indian descent also. According to history books George (or James) Burkhart lived in a large sycamore tree on Crummies (or Crank’s) Creek. ( Read more on George Burkhart next week)
Most folks around here called my Pap Paw “Red Meat”. Indians in the old days were known as “redskins” because of the color of their skin and I was told that’s where his nickname came from.
My dark colored skin was a plus in the hot summers. Seldom did I ever get sunburn. And because of never wearing shoes in the summer, my bottoms of my feet were as tough as leather. So tough that I could “scratch” off in gravel barefooted. Now I can step on a pea-sized gravel and almost cry.
We never spent a lot of time indoors in the hot summers because the house heated up quick and again, no air conditioner. We spent lots of time in the small branch by the house or in the swimming hole at Sibert. Later on, when I was a better swimmer, I swam in an old coal pit that was over 50-feet deep. It was known as Gib Thompson’s swimming hole.
Looking back it was sooooo dangerous for us to swim there. The edges of the pond were almost straight up and down. There was only one place on the opposite side near the gravel road (which was over 20 feet straight up a steep embankment) where a person could get out of the water. And on the near side, slate ledges in a couple of places at the water’s edge made it awfully tricky to get out of the water safely also.
Some days the pond was full of kids trying to escape the hot weather. Some even brave enough to dive from the Paw Paw road, clearing the rocky banks by inches. I have to say I was smarter than that. I never did it buy I did see my brother Ronnie do it more than once. Now I think of how lucky we were that someone didn’t drown.
If we weren’t swimming we would hit the hills to play in the shade of the forest’s canopy. We swung on grapevines a lot. And sometimes an acorn fight broke out amongst the troops. Back then when the hot summer sun was beating down, the shade was mighty inviting.
When it rained, we loved it. We were out in it chasing each other, splashing through the puddles, catching raindrops with our mouths or sliding on the grass or in the mud. When it thundered all of us would scream and run for the porch, that is everyone except Jackie. She wasn’t scared on anything. Sometimes we even got a bar of soap and showered in the warm rain. It sure beat cramming ourselves into the #3 washtub.
Today, most of us have been spoiled with all the modern conveniences we have now. I know my wife just couldn’t make it through the summer without an air conditioner.
But for Momma’s Little Indian, I kinda’ like the hot weather. It keeps reminding me of a time gone by. A time I will never forget.
Wednesday, 18 July 2012 12:34
My Dad couldn’t afford to take us on a “real” vacation because he wasn’t making lots of money and had 9 to 15 mouths to feed most of the time. He was working for Dobson’s Supermarket here in Manchester and had been with them for 10 years. Orie Dobson, the owner, had given my Dad a weekend off and a new crisp $100 bill for his loyal service. Dad hadn’t ever gotten a weekend off before that year. We were tickled to death when he gave us the news.
I didn’t even know the government made a $100 bill, let alone seen one in real life or hold one in my hand. I thought Dad was the richest person in the whole world and worried about where we would get the bill cashed.
I told Dad, “Nobody is going to have enough money to cash a $100 bill!” Dad just laughed. I also thought, what would I do if I had that much money? I would probably spend part on my family and myself and save the rest for a rainy day.
After a long family meeting and taking a vote on where we would go, the Smokies were where we would take our first family vacation. I had never been out of Kentucky and only out of Clay County to the neighboring county of Laurel just a few times. This trip was a really big step for a bunch of kids from Paw Paw.
The night before we were to leave Mom carefully packed bologna sandwiches, peanut butter and crackers, a big bag of potato chips, a gallon of pickled bologna, and a couple gallons of Kool-Aid. Our vacation was only going to be for one day but remember we had seven, always hungry, kids to feed.
The car we owned at the time was a 1957 Chevrolet station wagon. That was the only car you could get with enough room for nine people and even then, it was still pretty crowded. Dad went to the bank and cashed his $100 bill after giving all of us just one last look at something none of us would look upon again for quite a few years. On the way back home he stopped and filled up the Chevy for the trip to Tennessee the next morning.
Before bed that night, I carefully sneaked into the bedroom, looking around the room carefully for anyone. Then I tip toed to my secret hiding place, where I kept my personal things that no one but me knew. I slowly pulled out an old pair of my shoes and stuck my hand deep inside to pull out a rolled up sock with all my life’s savings.
I sat quietly in the floor of the bedroom and counted $4.27. I then got my shorts for the trip and put the money down in my pocket. I was going on vacation and I was taking all my cash. I envisioned all sorts of things I might get with my savings, maybe a t-shirt, a cap gun, or a coon-skin cap, the possibilities were endless with that much loot.
That night it was really hard for me to go to sleep. I guess the excitement of the vacation was just too much. I had only been asleep for a few hours when I heard Mom’s whistle that breakfast was ready.
We all were up faster than normal, putting on the clothes Mom had picked out the night before. We hurriedly sat around the table eating as fast as we could. “Don’t worry,” Mom said smiling, “the mountains will still be there after you eat.”
When we had finished eating, we loaded the car with a couple blankets, food for the day, and seven of the happiest kids in the world.
The trip to Tennessee seemed to us like a trip across the USA. We fought over whom got to sit next to the window, so Dad made us all rotate every 30 minutes. We hadn’t reached the state line and already we were in the snacks Mom had packed so carefully.
After hitting the food and Kool-Aid, most were ready for a stop at the closest bathroom. Then we were back in the car and back to the snacks and Kool-Aid again. It seems when you are traveling you are more hungry and your bladder is more active. So after four hours and about five stops (because not every one gets ready to “go“ at the same time), Dad said, “Look kids, straight ahead, those are the Smoky Mountains!”
My mouth dropped open and my eyes got as big as they did on Christmas morning. The mountains were above the clouds. It was a site I can still remember today. All of us started yelling and clapping. We had finally made it.
Back then, there wasn’t much at Pigeon Forge or Sevierville, but Gatlinburg was like a dream town. So much to do and so much to take in, it was unbelievable. We even saw real Indians. But, we didn’t get to stop. Dad made the statement, “We didn’t come to shop, we came to look at the mountains and maybe see a bear!” and then he let out his best bear growl, “Grrrrrrrrral!”
At the entrance to the park, we stopped for information and got to go inside the Welcome Center and see all the things a bear was capable of doing. There was a picture of where a bear had swiped at a car door with his paw and ripped it apart like it was made of aluminum foil. There were warnings of “Do Not Feed The Bears!” everywhere. We were also warned to never approach a mother bear with cubs.
The long winding trip up the mountain was slow. We strained our eyes everywhere, but no bears. We went all the way to the top where it was really cold that day, but still no bears. After about 30 minutes at the top of the Smokies we were all cold, disappointed and ready to get back down the mountain.
About halfway down, we pulled into a parking area with picnic tables. Dad told us it would be a real good place to catch a bear eating out of a trashcan or trying to steal someone’s lunch. We got out what was left of our food Mom had packed for the trip, staying really close to the car for a quick exit in case a big bear did show up, but again, no bear. After eating, we were all real mad that we had come all the way from Kentucky and we hadn’t seen a bear.
Later our madness was met with overwhelming joy after Dad pulled over in Gatlinburg and we all got to get out. It was like going to the circus. People were everywhere and there was so much to see.
The money I had saved was burning a hole in my pocket. I couldn’t afford too much, most things cost more than I had. My brothers and sisters were mad that I had money and they didn’t, but I always saved the money I earned for a rainy day and today, it looked like a downpour.
After about an hour of looking, I decided to buy a toy bear that would walk and turn its head when wound up. I was so proud of my little souvenir. In all the pictures taken that day after I had bought ‘Little Smokey’, he was right there with me.
After returning home late that night, we were all worn out. The day had been one of the best days of my young life. I slept with my bear that night all hugged up close to me. The next day I had Dad put ‘Little Smokey’ in a safe place where I could get him out from time to time and play with him. Smokey was so special.
Smokey lived in Dad’s cedar chest at the foot of his bed for many years. He always kept it locked with a key only he and Mom had for over 35 years. Occasionally I would have Dad get him out to play with. I would wind him up to keep him working. Then after Dad died in 1997, Smokey just disappeared, never to be seen again.
I asked my Mom and all my brothers and sisters but no one knows what happened to my little bear that I loved so much.
I’m still waiting for you ‘Little Smokey’. I know you’re out there somewhere and maybe someday you will find your way back to me. Until then, I will keep looking.
Wednesday, 11 July 2012 00:38
Bearded Beggarticks…a boy’s memories
By: Rodney Miller
I didn’t know what to make of the funny little Volkswagen Beetle the day it pulled into the parking lot at Jamup’s Market. It was one of the first ones I had ever seen up close and things got a little more strange as the doors flew open and out stepped three long-haired hippies.
I figured these guys have to be lost. Why else would they be here at Sibert.
When they walked in our store all eyes were upon them. We stared at them like they were from another planet. And to us they very well could have been. They sure didn’t dress like us. These guys were barefoot wearing bell-bottom pants with no shirts and they had necklaces on, for crying out loud.
The trio walked over to the pop cooler, slid open the top and pulled out three cold drinks from the icy water. I could tell they weren’t there visiting relatives or friends. These boys were up to something and I was about to find out what it was.
They paid for their drinks and walked out to the parking lot and huddled up beside their Beetle’s opened side door. One of them sat on the door sill of the bug and the other two just seemed to be looking around Sibert taking in the view of our little small town. Then, one of them rolled a cigarette and lit it up and passed it around.
Business was slow that day so my brothers and me walked out and began small talk with the three strangers. “Where are you boys from,” Gary asked.
“Ohio,” one of them answered and the conversation and the cigarette flipped back and forth for a few minutes until one of them said, “We’re down here looking for weed.” The other two laughed at the boldness of the statement their friend had just thrown out to total strangers.
I thought, boy these guys were awful friendly and then I asked, “What kind of weed,” not knowing right off that they were talking about marijuana.
“Pot, Mary Jane, marijuana or what ever you call it down here. We heard that it grows wild here in Kentucky and we’ve come down to get a load.”
You’ve got to remember that this was in the late ‘60’s and I had never seen or heard of a pot plant. Oh, I had watched news stories on TV about how every young kid in California was smoking it but to hear that it grew wild here in Clay County well, that was a shocker.
We assured them that we didn’t know anything about what weed or pot looked liked and again they just laughed.
We talked for a few more minutes and found out that they boys were from up around Dayton. We told them we had relatives that lived close to there and told them their names as if wondering if they might know them. Of course they didn’t.
After the “joint” was gone the three of them told us they were going to a spot up Horse Creek and cut a field that they had seen earlier to take back to Ohio. We asked them if they would stop and show us just what exactly did the marijuana looked like after they got it and they said they would.
I didn’t know until later after they were gone that the Ohio boys were probably high from smoking a “joint” of pot. Gary told us, “….they were a little too happy to be just smoking tobacco.”
“I thought that thang smelled a little funny,” Ronnie said.
“Real funny,” I said agreeing with Ronnie and all three of us began laughing hard. Maybe it was because of the “second-hand” smoke from the Ohio boy’s “joint” but at the time, it seemed really funny to us.
We didn’t see them for about two hours but finally they pulled the little VW back into the parking lot loaded full to the top with their booty. They bought them another round each of pop and led us to their cache of “weed”.
“So that’s pot!” I asked them wondering if they really knew what they had or if I just didn’t know what I was looking at.
“Yes,” one of them said proudly “We found a field full. You guys are lucky to live where this stuff just grows wild.”
Neither of my brothers or me said much else. We wished them good luck and a safe trip home and they disappeared down the highway.
After a little while we busted out laughing. The boy’s from Ohio weren’t as smart as we thought. The weeds they had in the Beetle were actually just that, weeds. We call them “bearded beggarticks”.
It’s the little burrs that stick to anything that gets close to them in the fall after the flower dries out. But now I have to admit, the leaves do “somewhat” resemble marijuana plant leaves but I don’t think you could ever get high on smoking them.
Maybe that’s the reason we never saw the guys again. All of us still laugh at the little incident every time it’s brought up in conversation and we still wonder just what happened when those three boy’s got back to Ohio and began to share their weed. I’ll bet they were laughed out of Ohio.
I’m including a photo of the beggarticks here just so my readers know exactly what plant I’m talking about.
Wednesday, 04 July 2012 00:36
We did have molasses made from sugar cane and that was almost as good but it too was sometimes hard to come by. And honey, well it was even harder to come by.
The way the old timers got honey was the old fashion way. A honey tree was located and the sweet nectar was robbed from it. But finding a honey tree wasn’t an easy task.
Momma and Daddy told us that we could sprinkle flour on a honeybee’s tail and pay close attention to the direction that he flew. Dad taught us that a bee, after filling his belly with nectar from flowers would fly straight to the bee hive to unload his booty. The flour made the bee more visible in the sky to track his flight.
I’m sure all of you have heard the old sayin’ “He made a bee line out of here”. What that meant was, he took the shortest and fastest way home. That’s the way a bee flew home, in a straight line, the fastest way.
Getting the right amount on a bee’s tail was a little tricky. You have to get enough to see the white flour as he flew to the hive but too much and the bee couldn’t fly at all. You also have to be lucky enough that you choose a bee that is full enough from the nectar that he’s ready to fly home.
Well, we were constantly trying to find the right bee and trying to get the right amount of flour on the bee where we could track his flight. Sometimes the bee would try to fly and all he could do was stir up the flour to where it looked like he was on fire. Other times we picked a bee that didn’t or couldn’t fly straight. But one time it worked.
We dusted the bee’s tail with flour and off he flew into the sky. We all got our eyes fixed on him and somehow we could see his flight for a long, long way. When he disappeared from sight we had a pretty good idea as to where in the woods the beehive was to be found. That turned out to be even harder than the tracking of his flight.
Dad told us to just hit the woods and spread out. He said listen for the “humming” of the swarming bees as they flew in and out of their hive bringing in the nectar to be stored in the honeycomb. He also told us to keep our eyes fixed on the canopy of the trees. A beehive would be found in a hole in the tree trunk.
Like I said before, that day we got lucky. Not long after walking to the woods where we last saw the “floured” bee fly the day before we started noticing more bees in the air flying in the same direction. We gathered and started following the bee’s flight. When we lost sight of one bee another one would fly in soon and lead us a little closer to the hive.
It didn’t take long before we started hearing a humming noise of more and more bees entering and exiting the hive. It was in a big oak tree about twenty feet off the forest floor.
“Now what do we do,” I asked.
None of us had ever robbed a beehive so we marked the spot with some broken bushes and headed home to tell of our find.
Daddy was a little surprised, I think, that we had actually found a bee tree. He told us it had been a long time since he had robbed a hive and he didn’t know for sure if he could still do it. My uncle Lloyd was there and told us him some of our cousin could get that honey.
I followed them into the woods the next day to watch the robbing of the tree. It was a hot summer day I remember. The hole in the tree was about fifteen to twenty feet up. Bees started flying franticly as the young men surveyed the situation. I saw them pass around a bottle of something and I asked what it was. “This is a bottle of courage,” one of them said. The liquid was certainly alcohol of some sort, I thought.
The bees began to get a little agitated and one of them got stung. “Ouch”, he screamed. More “courage” was ingested. I back off about 20 yards. Then, another got stung and more “courage” was drank. I back off 10 more yards. I had heard lots of tales about how the whole hive would fight to keep the honey and I wasn’t about to challenge them.
I was watching closely as the guys fought the bees and tried to scale the tree with a lit smoking rag to keep them off. I was feeling a little nervous when I felt something on me ear. With quick reflexes I smacked and almost tore my ear off. It was Ronnie with a weed. We both laughed but I made sure I was behind him from then on.
It took a little while them to reach the hole waving the smoking rag at the bees as they began to appear in more numbers now. Those boys were a lot braver than me or maybe it was the bottle of “courage” that now was empty after passing another round in the crowd.
Finally after a about 15 minutes one of them reached the hole but the bees weren’t budging a bit. After a few more screams of pain down the tree he came with everyone laughing aloud. The courage wasn’t working to good, I thought. After hitting the ground he took off in a hard run and the others of us followed with the bees in hot pursuit.
No honey was found that day but they came back another day with more bee protection and I’m sure more liquid courage and robbed the tree. Me, well I never got any. But I did get a good laugh or two and I learned a lot about robbing a bee tree.
Always bring along a face net and a hat, wear lots of clothes, take plenty of smoking rags and leave the “courage” at home. That stuff will make you see doubles.
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