Nobody on the way, none of the frowzy women or unintelligent men, knew anything of the route, or could give us any information of the country beyond. But as we descended in Tennessee the country and the farms decidedly improved,—apple-trees and a grapevine now and then.
A ride of eight miles brought us to Waddle's, hungry and disposed to receive hospitality. We passed by an old farm building to a new two-storied, gayly painted house on a hill. We were deceived by appearances. The new house, with a new couple in it, had nothing to offer us except some buttermilk. Why should anybody be obliged to feed roving strangers? As to our horses, the young woman with a baby in her arms declared,
"We've got nothing for stock but roughness; perhaps you can get something at the other house."
"Roughness," we found out at the other house, meant hay in this region. We procured for the horses a light meal of green oats, and for our own dinner we drank at the brook and the Professor produced a few sonnets. On this sustaining repast we fared on nearly twelve miles farther, through a rolling, good farming country, offering little for comment, in search of a night's lodging with one of the brothers Snap. But one brother declined our company on the plea that his wife was sick, and the other because his wife lived in Greenville, and we found ourselves as dusk came on without shelter in a tavernless land. Between the two refusals we enjoyed the most picturesque bit of scenery of the day, at the crossing of Camp Creek, a swift little stream, that swirled round under the ledge of bold rocks before the ford. This we learned was a favorite camp-meeting ground. Mary was calling the cattle home at the farm of the second Snap. It was a very peaceful scene of rural life, and we were inclined to tarry, but Mary, instead of calling us home with the cattle, advised us to ride on to Alexander's before it got dark.
It is proper to say that at Alexander's we began to see what this pleasant and fruitful country might be, and will be, with thrift and intelligent farming. Mr. Alexander is a well-to-do farmer, with plenty of cattle and good barns (always an evidence of prosperity), who owes his success to industry and an open mind to new ideas. He was a Unionist during the war, and is a Democrat now, though his county (Greene) has been Republican. We had been riding all the afternoon through good land, and encountering a better class of farmers. Peach-trees abounded (though this was an off year for fruit), and apples and grapes throve. It is a land of honey and of milk. The persimmon flourishes; and, sign of abundance generally, we believe, great flocks of turkey-buzzards—majestic floaters in the high air—hovered about. This country was ravaged during the war by Unionists and Confederates alternately, the impartial patriots as they passed scooping in corn, bacon, and good horses, leaving the farmers little to live on. Mr. Alexander's farm cost him forty dollars an acre, and yields good crops of wheat and maize. This was the first house on our journey where at breakfast we had grace before meat, though there had been many tables that needed it more. From the door the noble range of the Big Bald is in sight and not distant; and our host said he had a shanty on it, to which he was accustomed to go with his family for a month or six weeks in the summer and enjoy a real primitive woods life.
Refreshed by this little touch of civilization, and with horses well fed, we rode on next morning towards Jonesboro, over a rolling, rather unpicturesque country, but ennobled by the Big Bald and Butt ranges, which we had on our right all day. At noon we crossed the Nollechucky River at a ford where the water was up to the saddle girth, broad, rapid, muddy, and with a treacherous stony bottom, and came to the little hamlet of Boylesville, with a flour-mill, and a hospitable old-fashioned house, where we found shelter from the heat of the hot day, and where the daughters of the house, especially one pretty girl in a short skirt and jaunty cap, contradicted the currently received notion that this world is a weary pilgrimage. The big parlor, with its photographs and stereoscope, and bits of shell and mineral, a piano and a melodeon, and a coveted old sideboard of mahogany, recalled rural New England. Perhaps these refinements are due to the Washington College (a school for both sexes), which is near. We noted at the tables in this region a singular use of the word fruit. When we were asked, Will you have some of the fruit? and said Yes, we always got applesauce.
Ten miles more in the late afternoon brought us to Jonesboro, the oldest town in the State, a pretty place, with a flavor of antiquity, set picturesquely on hills, with the great mountains in sight. People from further South find this an agreeable summering place, and a fair hotel, with odd galleries in front and rear, did not want company. The Warren Institute for negroes has been flourishing here ever since the war.
A ride of twenty miles next day carried us to Union. Before noon we forded the Watauga, a stream not so large as the Nollechucky, and were entertained at the big brick house of Mr. Devault, a prosperous and hospitable farmer. This is a rich country. We had met in the morning wagon-loads of watermelons and muskmelons, on the way to Jonesboro, and Mr. Devault set abundance of these refreshing fruits before us as we lounged on the porch before dinner.
It was here that we made the acquaintance of a colored woman, a withered, bent old pensioner of the house, whose industry (she excelled any modern patent apple-parer) was unabated, although she was by her own confession (a woman, we believe, never owns her age till she has passed this point) and the testimony of others a hundred years old. But age had not impaired the brightness of her eyes, nor the limberness of her tongue, nor her shrewd good sense. She talked freely about the want of decency and morality in the young colored folks of the present day. It was n't so when she was a girl. Long, long time ago, she and her husband had been sold at sheriff's sale and separated, and she never had another husband. Not that she blamed her master so much he could n't help it; he got in debt. And she expounded her philosophy about the rich, and the danger they are in. The great trouble is that when a person is rich, he can borrow money so easy, and he keeps drawin' it out of the bank and pilin' up the debt, like rails on top of one another, till it needs a ladder to get on to the pile, and then it all comes down in a heap, and the man has to begin on the bottom rail again. If she'd to live her life over again, she'd lay up money; never cared much about it till now. The thrifty, shrewd old woman still walked about a good deal, and kept her eye on the neighborhood. Going out that morning she had seen some fence up the road that needed mending, and she told Mr. Devault that she didn't like such shiftlessness; she didn't know as white folks was much better than colored folks. Slavery? Yes, slavery was pretty bad—she had seen five hundred niggers in handcuffs, all together in a field, sold to be sent South.
About six miles from here is a beech grove of historical interest, worth a visit if we could have spared the time. In it is the large beech (six and a half feet around six feet from the ground) on which Daniel Boone shot a bear, when he was a rover in this region. He himself cut an inscription on the tree recording his prowess, and it is still distinctly legible:
D. BOONE CILT A BAR ON THIS TREE, 1760.
This tree is a place of pilgrimage, and names of people from all parts of the country are cut on it, until there is scarcely room for any more records of such devotion. The grove is ancient looking, the trees are gnarled and moss-grown. Hundreds of people go there, and the trees are carved all over with their immortal names.
A pleasant ride over a rich rolling country, with an occasional strip of forest, brought us to Union in the evening, with no other adventure than the meeting of a steam threshing-machine in the road, with steam up, clattering along. The devil himself could not invent any machine calculated to act on the nerves of a horse like this. Jack took one look and then dashed into the woods, scraping off his rider's hat but did not succeed in getting rid of his burden or knocking down any trees.
Union, on the railway, is the forlornest of little villages, with some three hundred inhabitants and a forlorn hotel, kept by an ex-stage-driver. The village, which lies on the Holston, has no drinking-water in it nor enterprise enough to bring it in; not a well nor a spring in its limits; and for drinking-water everybody crosses the river to a spring on the other side. A considerable part of the labor of the town is fetching water over the bridge. On a hill overlooking the village is a big, pretentious brick house, with a tower, the furniture of which is an object of wonder to those who have seen it. It belonged to the late Mrs. Stover, daughter of Andrew Johnson. The whole family of the ex-President have departed this world, but his memory is still green in this region, where he was almost worshiped—so the people say in speaking of him.
Forlorn as was the hotel at Union, the landlord's daughters were beginning to draw the lines in rural refinement. One of them had been at school in Abingdon. Another, a mature young lady of fifteen, who waited on the table, in the leisure after supper asked the Friend for a light for her cigarette, which she had deftly rolled.
"Why do you smoke?"
"So as I shan't get into the habit of dipping. Do you think dipping is nice?"
The traveler was compelled to say that he did not, though he had seen a good deal of it wherever he had been.
"All the girls dips round here. But me and my sisters rather smoke than get in a habit of dipping."
To the observation that Union seemed to be a dull place:
"Well, there's gay times here in the winter—dancing. Like to dance? Well, I should say! Last winter I went over to Blountsville to a dance in the court-house; there was a trial between Union and Blountsville for the best dancing. You bet I brought back the cake and the blue ribbon."
The country was becoming too sophisticated, and the travelers hastened to the end of their journey. The next morning Bristol, at first over a hilly country with magnificent oak-trees,—happily not girdled, as these stately monarchs were often seen along the roads in North Carolina,—and then up Beaver Creek, a turbid stream, turning some mills. When a closed woolen factory was pointed out to the Professor (who was still traveling for Reform), as the result of the agitation in Congress, he said, Yes, the effect of agitation was evident in all the decayed dams and ancient abandoned mills we had seen in the past month.
Bristol is mainly one long street, with some good stores, but generally shabby, and on this hot morning sleepy. One side of the street is in Tennessee, the other in Virginia. How handy for fighting this would have been in the war, if Tennessee had gone out and Virginia stayed in. At the hotel—may a kind Providence wake it up to its responsibilities—we had the pleasure of reading one of those facetious handbills which the great railway companies of the West scatter about, the serious humor of which is so pleasing to our English friends. This one was issued by the accredited agents of the Ohio and Mississippi Railway, and dated April 1, 1984. One sentence will suffice:
"Allow us to thank our old traveling friends for the many favors in our line, and if you are going on your bridal trip, or to see your girl out West, drop in at the general office of the Ohio and Mississippi Railway and we will fix you up in Queen Anne style. Passengers for Dakota, Montana, or the Northwest will have an overcoat and sealskin cap thrown in with all tickets sold on or after the above date."
The great republic cannot yet take itself seriously. Let us hope the humors of it will last another generation. Meditating on this, we hailed at sundown the spires of Abingdon, and regretted the end of a journey that seems to have been undertaken for no purpose.