aside Hollows and Hills: SEAC’s recent trip to BLRI

While hiking to prehistoric lithics scatters and lonely historic cemeteries in the hollows and hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains I couldn’t help but with profound respect consider the Cherokee, Monacan, and other Native Americans who called these mountains home and were forced to travel the Trail of Tears west; Abraham Wood and the early American explorers; the Scots-Irish and German settlers that funneled down the Great Wagon Road and up the western slopes; the Overmountain Men of the Revolutionary War; and the Appalachian families of more recent history that lived and worked in the Blue Ridge before the establishment of the Blue Ridge Parkway (BLRI). It’s exhausting!

It was a relief to hear that my more experienced co-worker at the Southeast Archeological Center, Robert Hellmann – a man who falls somewhere between Jean Luc Picard and Daniel Boone – was “running out of steam” at the end of our 4th day hiking up and down the precipitous slopes. Sore as we were, we still had sites and cemeteries to to evaluate which meant more trailblazing and creek crossing.

A warning to be heeded at the top of the Bluff Ridge Primitive Trail.
The Caudill Cabin at the north end of Basic Creek Trail was once part of a larger community destroyed by a massive flood in 1916.

But truth be told, the isolated chimneys and solitary headstones hidden among the oaks, pines, and rhododendron were once not so secluded.
These homesteads and cemeteries were part of cultural landscapes and built environments, communities with so many of the trappings of village life. Forest roads and paths connected communities of cabins with their churches, schools, cemeteries, farms, and the highways to towns.

Grassy Gap Road winds it way down around the ridges through Doughton Park
mabry mill
The construction of Mabry Mill at mile post 176.1 began in 1903.

For much of the Parkway’s history, development and interpretation focused on preserving and making accessible the breathtaking natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the rugged and romantic mountain lifestyle manifest in remote log cabins and rustic mountain industries like water-powered mills. While not entirely a fantasy, the pastoral narrative of Appalachia was promoted at the expense of some historical particulars.


Audrey Horning has written more than most to correct the stereotypical image of Appalachia perpetuated, with few exceptions, for more than a century not only by entertainment media but through academic discourse and government-funded research programs. Horning’s archeological

Nicholson ward corbin farm and slave quarter
Nicholson-Ward-Corbin farm and slave quarter (SHEN Archives).

investigations in three different hollows in what is now Shenandoah National Park (SHEN) have highlighted economic diversity within late-eighteenth and early-twentieth century mountain communities and access to patent medicines, factory made toys and clothing, and other manufactured goods that demonstrate Appalachian mountain communities’ interaction with more populated areas and mainstream American culture.


Read Audrey Horning’s 2002 Article Myth, Migration, and Material Culture: Archaeology and the Ulster Influence on Appalachia Here


Along with isolation and poverty, and beards and banjos, homemade distilled spirits are another iconic, if stereotypical and misinterpreted aspect of Appalachia. Recent cable television shows have capitalized on moonshine as symbol of outlaw romance and American individualism. Less well known is that alcohol was big business in Appalachia. According to the Internal Revenue Service, between 1868 and 1913, 90% of the Federal government’s revenue was derived from taxes on liquor, beer, wine, and tobacco.
Still worm from Weakly Hollow in SHEN (Horning 2002).

Methods for distilling spirits were brought to the region by the early European settlers in the mid-18th century and were carried on by their descendants. Millions of gallons of mountain-made whiskey and brandy were sold by small-scale producers to ordinary houses, hotels, and resorts in the Blue Ridge Mountains and well-beyond the region. The amount of exported liquor is staggering. “As early as 1819, New Orleans was already receiving more than two million gallons of Appalachian whiskey…by 1860, more than four million gallons were exported annually, as American adults annually consumed three gallons of mountain whiskey apiece,” (Horning 2002:142).

Distilling operation in Patrick County, NC circa 1912.

Distilling as a cottage industry suffered to greater or lesser degrees from variably enforced taxation and licensing laws as early as 1791. The violent encounters of the 1870s between the military and Bureau of Internal Revenue agents, and mountain distillers resistant to the liquor tax have been called “The Moonshine Wars.” These Reconstruction-era conflicts served to further entrench the caricature of mountain residents as unskilled and dangerous. These stereotypes, in concert with increasingly popular secular Victorian values that included sobriety, and the efforts of the American Missionary Association, local option laws prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol were passed in many western North Carolina communities during the 1880s and 1890s. Despite suffering even more serious blows with the ratification of the 18th amendment in 1919 and the regulatory laws and fees on the production and sale of alcohol that accompanied the 21st amendment that repealed Prohibition in 1933, moonshine is making a comeback with the growing market for craft spirits.

In 2013, Penn State professor Kirk French began exploring the potential
Iron drum possibly part of a still.

of Moonshine Archaeology in the Pisgah National Forest. In comparing their findings with some of the images in French’s blog, SEAC archeologists may have also identified evidence of a whiskey still while recording historic homesteads and cemeteries in the Doughton Park Recreation Area of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Possible stone foundation for a still furnace.

A bullet-riddled drum half-buried in an erosional gully, and what may have been the foundation for a stone furnace will be investigated further at a later date.

Whether for making moonshine or not, the drum is still part of a historic site that is part of a cultural landscape that at once expresses the relative isolation of historic Appalachian families and the integration of the hollows and the valleys.
Cabin chimney below a ridge topped with a small cemetery.

A cabin chimney with two fireboxes was built at the toe of a steep finger ridge. Near the top of the ridge, overlooking the ruins of the cabin was a small cemetery reportedly called the Richardson Cemetery. At the head and foot of each of the five graves was an unmarked flagstone set on end – monuments to a family’s lives and deaths.

Documenting the Richardson Cemetery.
There were two other kinds stoneworks: two stone walls that may have functioned in a system of water catchment or redirection, and downstream from this core area of the homestead, and slightly up-slope on the east side of the creek stood stacks of stockpiled flat stone.
Example of stockpiled stone.

The confluence of creeks in this part of the valley brought plenty of cool, sweet water down the mountain for drinking, cooking, bathing, laundry, distilling, and irrigation. The flat terraces between the creeks at the ridge look amenable to planting crops – Robert pondered the idea of a soil survey for chemical and phytolith analyses to test that hypothesis; corn, beans, sorghum, and cotton in this valley wouldn’t have arrived by accident.

Though we had made our way to the site by skirting a steep ridge along a fast flowing creek, we found ourselves at points on narrow paths that could have been trampled into existence by people just as likely as generations of deer. As we began the hike back to the Grassy Gap Trail by a different route than the one we blazed in, it seemed as though we were following a veritable road mountain, albeit a bit overgrown and obscured by leaf duff. There was a road somewhere if this wasn’t it; among the elements we noted at the site were two fenders from an early-mid twentieth automobile.
A partial view of the flat terrace below the ridge and above the creek.
The preservation of so many elements of a built environment in the historic cultural landscape associated with the so-called Richardson Cemetery shows that it avoided destruction not only by the ravages of nature and time but the often more dramatic impacts of human industry.
Modern, small-scale logging along Longbottom Road near Doughton Park.

Prior to the Weeks Act of 1911 that expanded the role of the U.S. Forest Service,  logging in particular drastically altered the landscape of the mountains by clear cutting trees millions of acres. The more dramatic consequences of such unchecked exploitation included massive erosion, landslides, forest fires, and flooding. Logging camps, logging roads, and logging railroads were also

logging rr
Logging railroad near Yankee Horse Ridge Parking Area BLRI (photo: Steve Markos/

constructed, adding and erasing elements of the landscape. Naturally, all of these processes have destroyed some archeological sites and roads and paths that once integrated prehistoric and historic communities and resources…said roads and paths that may have made our site condition assessments a bit less exhausting!


The artifacts and infrastructure of early-twentieth century logging the Appalachians are now part of the historic archeological record – one of the most recent chapters in the millennia-long history of resource extraction, movement and transportation, and settlement in the mountains. Perhaps we’ll explore this subject in a later post…

Learn a bit about our trip to the North Carolina State Archives, part of our preparation for this field work here.
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