Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series: DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH
Helen Hayes Wykle
When the European settlers came to America in the late 16th Century they were leaving countries that had already waged wars against trees surrounding their populated areas. The Native Americans, on the other hand, had a well-established respect for their surrounding forests. William Cronan, in his informative discussion of the changes that occurred when the colonists arrived, tells it this way
“… the edge habitats once maintained by Indian fires tended to return to forest as Indian populations declined. but edge environments were also modified or reduced — and on a much larger scale — by clearing, an activity to which English settlers, with their fixed property boundaries, devoted far more concentrated attention than had the Indians. Whether edges became forests or fields, the eventual consequences were the same: to reduce — or sometimes, as with European livestock, to replace — the animal populations that had once inhabited them. The disappearance of deer, turkey, and other animals thus betokened not merely a new hunting economy but a new forest ecology as well. “Cronon, William. Changes to the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983, 2003, p. 108.
Katherine Pettit, one of the founders of Pine Mountain Settlement School, and a re-born colonist and a die-hard Colonial Dame, aspired to or imagined herself to be following in the footsteps — somewhat — of her ancestors. “Somewhat” because she both aspired to the idea of a local rural economy while warily practicing activity that can only be described as mercantile and economically pushed.
When Pettit arrived at Pine Mountain and saw the surrounding forest, she was enchanted and apalled. Giant chestnut trees were still in abundance and the mighty oaks were not yet being harvested in great number for the barrel staves of Blue Grass liquor, but timber for mine roofing supports was picking up and timber was being negotiated away along with any sale or transfer of land. On the other hand, maples were being regularly tapped for maple syrup and poplars were being brought down to build modest cabins in the hollows and along stream banks on the Northside of the long Pine Mountain. Hickory bark was being pulled to provide bottoms for chairs and other furniture, and white oak shakes (shingles) were still being reeved with hand tools.
One of the earliest inventories of the timber tracts at Pine Mountain was completed c. 1921 by Leon Deschamps, a native Belgian and the forester hired by Pettit and her staff to oversee both the forest and the farm at the School. What the Deschamp inventory shows is a healthy forest on the 119.48 acres inventoried tract. It was a forest comprised of the standard timber resources of the day: maple, basswood, chestnut, white oak, red oak, poplar, beech, cucumber, hemlock, hickory, buckeye, ash, black walnut, and black gum, in the amounts indicated below
Deschamps advised Pettit that not more than 200 Board Foot Measurement (BFM) were to be removed per acre per year and further advised that if there were large trees on the acre (what he described as “over mature”) that up to 400 BFM “could be removed without injury.”
Deschamps then provided a ten-year plan for management that included the lot to be cut and the Block (I, II, III) . He adds
In 1921 lot 2 Block II was clear cut, this operation was necessary owing to the bad shape the forest had been left in after the previous logging operations conducted a few years ago. (A few more trees will be removed from this lot but not before 1926).Land Use Timber and Logging Record 1921, Pine Mountain Settlement School Collections, p. 2
During his years as the forester at Pine Mountain, Deschamps went on to create what has been known for years as the “ Perfect Acre.” It is was a small demonstration plot just behind the Chapel. Today it bears little resemblance to the original plot as many of the big trees have been removed when they created complex moisture issues for the backside of the Chapel and the potential for roof damage due to falling limbs. Just three years after its creation and without the watchful eye of Deschamps the little plot was causing concern. Miss Pettit with great concern wrote to Leon Deschamps who by 1923 had married May Ritchie, one of the famous Singing Family of the Cumberlands Ritchies, and had moved to John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. She laments
July 2, 1928
Dear Mr. Deschamps:
You remember you told me never to go into the Perfect Acre, and do one single thing, unless you told me to. There is so much underbrush now, especially ironweed, that I believe something ought to be done about it. We have done a pretty good job getting rid of the ironweed on this place, and are at work now on dock and ragweed.
When I asked Mr. Browning if he could give a day’s work to getting the ironweed out of the perfect acre, he reminded me again of your orders. Now, if you have any further directions, please tell me. …
We don’t have Leon Deschamp’s answer to Pettit.
While the charm of the view out the back windows of the Chapel continues to be beautiful, and we don’t have the privilege of knowing what Deschamps replied to Pettit, nor have we photographs of the early “Perfect Acre”, the remenant of the perfect plot are still there. The anxious question from Pettit signals how rapidly the forest and the field can over-take the land and the vigilance needed to maintain the acreage at Pine Mountain School. An image of the plot today can be seen below.
THE SCRAMBLE FOR APPALACHIA
During the first two decades of Pine Mountain Settlement School, there were other forces damaging the forests at Pine Mountain. These forces had started their push against nature much earlier. Many of the depredations are still at work. Author, Steven Stoll, in his landmark study of the ecological dispossession of the Southern Appalachian mountains, traced several paths that he and others believe led to forest depletion across the region. In his book, Ramp Hollow: the ordeal of Appalachia, Stoll is focused on western Pennsylvania and on West Virginia, but his observations encompass the Central Appalachians and call attention to threats that continue to emerge.
By tracing the history of the Appalachian region from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, and by exploring the idea of the history of enclosure as a part of the history of capitalism in the region, Stoll leads his readers on a worrisome journey. It’s a journey that takes the reader through the early Colonial exploitation of forests to the later destruction of the Appalachian forests. He highlights the ravages of clear-cutting. Specfically, he explores the eventual dependency of many mountain households on the ecological base of the surrounding forests and ties the cultural and ecological threads of timber together. It is the interwoven practices of poor timber stewardship and no timber stewardship that he contends contributes to the ongoing saga of destructive dispossession.
This mercenary scramble for Appalachia as described by Stoll is compelling.
… An army could invade [Appalachia] but never dominate the mountains. Capital moved differently. It acted through individuals and institutions. It employed impersonal laws and the language of progress. Mountain people knew how to soldier and hunt, to track an animal or an enemy through the woods. But few of them could organize against an act of the legislature or to stop a clear-cut. The scramble built upon these vulnerabilities, but it did not happen all at once. The first thing it required was a conversion in the ownership and uses of the land.Stoll, Steven. Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, New York: Farrer and Strause, 2017, p.130-131.
That conversion came early in the form of land grants and very early purchases by wealthy speculators. These early mountain real estate “deals” are still being fought over and litigated. While much of the race to own land as a form of capital was quite early, the sale and re-sale and poor record tracking resulted in decades of litigation. A classic example of the practice of land speculation can be found in the so-called Speculation Lands tracts owned by Tench Coxe, his partners and successors. The Coxe empire that spread throughout Western North Carolina and eventually encompassed over 144,000 acres sheds considerable light on the questionable race to “dispossess.” Records from the large Speculation Lands Company are held by the University of North Carolina at Asheville and represent an instructive example of the “dispossession” process.
Tench Coxe (May 22, 1755 – July 17, 1824) was an American political economist and a delegate for Pennsylvania to the Continental Congress in 1788–1789. His skills at dispossession were well known during his lifetime. It is telling that he was known to his political opponents as “Mr. Facing Bothways.” As assistant to Alexander Hamilton the Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, Coxe was an “insider.” Coxe was no new-comer to the monetizing of land-holdings. The cycle of his speculation centered on timber and minerals and strategies to dispossess as many landholders as possible in the far reaches of western North Carolina. One of his partners was Robert Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who unlike, Coxe and his successors, pushed his “speculation” beyond his means and ended up in debtor’ prison. Speculators such as Coxe, Morris, Blount, in Tennessee, and Even George Washington, in Kentucky, set the bar for land speculation. Coxe and partners began their empire by borrowing money (some $9,000) in order to purchase land at .09 cents and acre. The land held in Western North Carolina was over the years passed along to other investors who continued the process of dispossession and a long cycle of litigation that was not completed until the late 1920’s and involved investors in England and in France. The dispossession is still going on. In Kentucky, the land and timber saga has much the same narrative.