NOTE: This piece was written on April 29, 2020, the day before I sold my property on the north side of the railroad tracks in Russellville. Tennessee, which included the home where I grew up.
Fall Creek cuts under the railroad and flows across the edge of a flat bottomed field until it disappears under a road I’ve known by more names than I can remember. Now it’s called Warrensburg Road, but I never knew it by that name as a kid running over the bubbling, hot tar surface, trying to avoid stepping on snakes stuck in the asphalt and squished flat by the daily passage of cars and trucks on their way to and from the highway.
I never even heard of Warrensburg back then. I can see it on the map now, but this road that passes in front of the house where I grew up doesn’t seem to actually go there. There are other Warrensburg Roads too. This particular one ends at Silver City Road, which has been its name for as long as I can remember, although I have yet to figure out where Silver City actually is. Or was, as some of these places – like the little town, or maybe village, in Georgia where my dad’s family once lived – sometimes vanish into thin air, leaving nothing but a road in its name as a memorial.
Fall Creek is Fall Creek, though, and has been since the late 18th Century, when it’s recorded in numerous land grants in the area. I have no idea what, if anything, the native tribes called it – the white settlers never recorded that, or at least I’ve never seen it recorded.
They were there. Cherokee, probably, or maybe Yuchi. There must have even been a village somewhere nearby because, as the story goes, one Revolutionary War veteran discovered a spring on his property when he saw native women going to a certain spot every morning. I’m not sure about the veracity of that story, as there are two springs near the house he built, both of them in easy view.
If I had to guess, though – and if the story is true – I’d guess it’s the one of the same side of Warrensburg Road as the house. The other one is directly across the road, and just too close to have been missed as it comes up out of the ground and then flows in a broad arc to the creek.
But that one on the same side of the road is down a gentle slope toward Fall Creek, easily missed from the house, in no small part because it forms a small pool where it surfaces and then returns underground, running in almost a straight line to the creek. Now there’s a defunct spring house and a fallen tree blocking the spring’s free flow.
That’s all on the south side of the railroad from the flat bottom that floods in heavy rain, sometimes as deep as five feet. All of this is my property now, if it can really be said that I own something as grand as a piece of the earth. Well, there’s a deed in my name, so I suppose in that sense, at least, I do. All I ever wanted was that south side, and the house built in 1785, the house that was once a tavern on the Old Kentucky Road between North Carolina and the Cumberland Gap, that was a resort of sorts, called Hayslope, in the middle of the 19th Century, before a civil war wrecked the bucolic peacefulness.
It’s tiny, really. Two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs, wide oak planks for walls. A bathroom added. White clapboard covers the logs, but they’re still there, visible inside a closet added to the front.
The Jefferson County courthouse has a document that details prices at The Tavern with the Red Door, by which the house was known before it was Hayslope. Breakfast and supper were nine cents each, and dinner was 10 cents. A traveler could spend the night for six cents and have a half pint of brandy before sleep for eight cents. Wine would cost the lodger 10 cents, and rum, whiskey or a quart of cider were six cents each, as was a gallon of corn or oats. And for the horses, hay or fodder was six cents, as was pasturage for the night.
By the late 1800s, a night’s lodging was considerably more expensive, at $12 per evening. In 1909, an advertisement in The Industrious Hen put eggs at $5 per 100 from the white Wyandotte hens at Hayslope Poultry Farm, said to be free range birds raised on bluegrass and producing brown eggs “larger than the ordinary white Wyandotte.”
Back in that miserable Civil War, Confederate Maj Gen Lafayette McLaws took over the house for the winter of 1863-4, while his commanding officer, Lt Gen James Longstreet, was nearby at the Nenney House. It was a horrid winter, with the residents of Russellville doing little to help Confederate troops living in their fields, most, Longstreet (and Union spies) wrote, without shoes or blankets.
On the north side of the railroad stand the eroded remains of the bunker built by those troops, fearing the arrival of Union troops from the west. The bunker, when I was very young, was a signal feature of the best winter sledding hill in the area, back when winter came hard and often, with heavy snow offering multiple opportunities for the village kids and their Flexible Flyers.
The hill began in the back corner of the property by the railroad. A gentle, 50 yard slope past where a sawmill once stood allowed for enough speed to catch air off the bunker, landing with a thud at the top of a steep hill and the start of the breathtaking zoom to the flat bottom.
This whole course was flattened and iced by a pair of ‘40s car hoods kept under a tree for just these occasions (at least one of them is still there), and that included the flat bottomed field all the way to Fall Creek. And that’s where the Flexible Flyers earned their keep.
Those not on that particular run warmed their hands and faces by a fire burning in a 50 gallon drum at the top of the steep slope, watching keenly as some reckless teen or another careened down the hill and over the bottom, aiming directly for the freezing waters of the creek. Would that last second bend of the Flyer be enough to veer away in time? Or would a final flight over the creek bank put the sled and sledder into the icy current? Either way, more warming by the fire was sure to follow, and laughter, and more runs down the hill, until finally, all the weary kids made their separate ways back home.
I spent plenty of time out in those fields when they weren’t covered in snow, especially since that happened less and less as the years went on. There were hours in the creek under the railroad bridge, dancing over rocks from one side to another, hugging the big concrete wall close while sliding along the ledge to the other side of the tracks, pretending it was a steep and long drop, like off the Inca Trail to the Urubamba River below Machu Picchu instead of little old Fall Creek a foot below. Once on the other side came the treacherous walk back by the same way we came, ever watchful for cattle that might want to make their way from one side of the tracks to the other.
We waded in the creek there too, where it was shallow and ran fast after coming out of a slow and deeper spot just beyond the tracks. Over that deeper spot was a foot log, and we’d cross it if we were feeling daring, balancing carefully so as not to fall into the muddy waters.
The wading was somewhat archaeological, when we weren’t trying not to step on the tiny crawdads that lived there. We’d dig up spikes and tie plates buried in the muck, dozens of them, dropped from the bridge above, I suppose, or maybe not. I’ve heard that there was once a trestle over this part of the creek, and that later they built up on either side of the little waterway and left only a bridge, but I don’t know if that’s true. But for whatever reason, old tie plates and spikes were aplenty in the water, and one odd gear.
Closer to the house, beneath a towering old maple and a growth of cedar trees, the sled slope steepened to what my young mind fancified as a cliff. Water seeped out at the bottom, more prevalent in rain, what we called a “wet-weather spring.” And at the top was a rock so special that even now, just writing about it, I feel a chill. I called it Africa. Its shape was reminiscent of that continent, but more than that, it represented a place that fascinated me, from the great desert of the north, along the Nile, to rainforests, magnificent waterfalls, plains, savannas, oceans, and animals the likes of which roamed nowhere near East Tennessee. Languages that sounded nothing like what I heard around me, people vastly different. More than just the continent, though, Africa was my portal to everywhere I wasn’t. When a confusing and sometimes stressful childhood got the better of me, I’d be right there, sitting on Africa, dreaming, wondering, wandering in the mind’s eye of a child.
And just 50 feet away, a barbed wire fence separates the fields of fancy and real life nature from the sloping and manicured yard of the house where I grew up. Well, after I turned 7. I started life in a trailer – what we’d now call a mobile home – sitting on my grandparents’ property not far away. By the time my sister was born, though, the trailer just wasn’t big enough, so my grandfather gave my dad a corner of land on which to build a house.
And that’s what he did. A brick ranch, three bedrooms, full basement (half for him and his cars and the other half for mom and her canning). Oh, and huge family potluck gatherings along with the annual card game on New Year’s Eve. They played Rook, which is a bit like Bridge but less complicated and with its own unique set of cards.
Summers were games on the lawn, a swing set, wiffle ball, croquet (on the most unflat playing area imaginable), tending the garden, homemade ice cream, maybe a trip to the mountains or the beach.
And plenty of time in the fields.
A year ago I sold my dad’s garage to the state of Tennessee so they could finally widen the highway it sits on. That hasn’t happened yet, because they found several old underground gasoline tanks that nobody remembered and that weren’t decommissioned properly. Gonna take a little longer for that highway.
Phase 2 of the highway widening will take that brick ranch, Africa, and a big part of the flat bottom along Fall Creek. Who knows when that’ll ever happen, but when it does, the new owners will be the ones to talk with the Department of Transportation, because tomorrow I’m signing the paperwork to close on the sale of the house and land north of the railroad.
I could fill the entire internet with stories about having to go through the house and all the Stuff my parents collected, most of which was collected long after I left. Or the photographs I’m still going through. I won’t though, because most of those memories are quiet and a little foggy, if I’m being honest.
What remains sharp and clear, if not loud, are the hills, the trees, the cattle paths. Africa. The brick house, the garden, a tar-surfaced road and a bridge with no rails. Fall Creek, the railroad bridge. Tie plates, spikes, crawdads, and a foot log. A hidden spring, a log cabin covered in weatherboards. The history and the spirit of the land, of my life.
I had wanted to leave the new owners a note at the house, but the coronavirus came along and I wasn’t able to do that. This is it.
Relax by a crackling fire in winter, make a freezer of homemade ice cream in the summer. Don’t let the freight trains keep you up at night. Dip your toes in the icy creek, sled down the hill if it snows enough, and, if you don’t mind, have a sit on Africa and see where that old rock takes you.