Story by J. K. Nickell
Photography by G. Morty Ortega and Joe Clark
Danny Fletcher paces in front of his home, clutching a hand-rolled cigarette in one hand and a cheap glass of beer in the other. Smoke swirls around his head as he waves the cigarette-clad hand in rhythm with his voice – back and forth, up and down – like a symphony conductor. Every few sentences he pauses for a burst of raucous laughter followed by some version of the proclamation that he’s just a “dumbass hillbilly.” He wears cargo camo pants and a dusty red shirt. His hair is short, shaved the same length as his goatee.
Danny ushers visitors on a tour of his home. “Now, I don’t know if you know this or not, but I’ll tell you. If you look on the map and everthang, this is an historical place that you’re at right now. Did you know that?”
He pauses, building tension for the mystery he’s about to unravel, but Tricia, his “woman,” opens the front door and interrupts, “What are you doin’ now, Danny?” She wears blue jeans and a bright purple jacket, a pair of fluffy house shoes on her feet. Her dark hair is knotted indiscriminately in the back, leaving loose strands to dance across her face in the breeze.
“I’m wheelin’ and dealin’, my love,” he says.
“I heard you,” she says. “$25 for something. What is it?”
“They wantin’ pictures,” he tells her. She responds with a stone cold stare. “I ain’t kiddin’, by God,” he says.
“Hell, you gotta pay for me too,” he says, cackling. His piercing blue eyes seem like a mirage. “Now, would you like to know the history and know what you’re fixin’ to get?” he asks, dropping his voice to a dramatic whisper. “You’re in one of the oldest sites in Arthur. Right here.”
He looks to Tricia. “Am I lyin’ to ’em?”
“No,” she says, pulling a long drag from her cigarette. “No, we in the oldest.”
Behind Danny is a cinderblock ruin, the remains of a train station built in 1930 during the Great Depression. For decades, trains stopped here in Arthur, a small community in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, carrying cars full of Appalachian mountain men off to new lives in the Midwest. No more. Now Danny and Tricia squat in the station, two buckets of coal stacked by the door for winter heat, homemade flower-print drapes hung to make it cozy. Ever since a chainsaw lurched from a tree branch and diced Danny’s left wrist three years ago, no one will hire him. His landscaping job is gone. The coalmines where he once worked are closed. He and Tricia can’t even afford the trailer park across the road these days. It depresses him to contemplate the harsh reality of Cumberland Gap today: The old ways of living off the land are all but lost to him.
The road from Knoxville to Cumberland Gap winds through 61 miles of green Tennessee hills that stand like sentinels over valleys basking in sunlight. My Chilean photographer and I make a pit stop at Wal-Mart to stock up on essentials for the week: a dozen apples, oranges and bananas, a bar of soap to bathe in a fresh mountain spring, peanut butter and jelly, organic vanilla yogurt, a pound of ham and turkey, wet wipes in case we couldn’t find a stream, wheat bagels and red pepper hummus, a few bottles of fruit punch Gatorade and plenty of water. We hang a left onto U.S. Route 25E for the home stretch and brace ourselves for the plunge into Appalachian culture.
As we descend the steep road to Cumberland Gap, we’re thrust into a cutesy tourist town with refurbished historic homes and antique shops with names like the General Store and Nothins Perfect. The roads are empty, save for a few hipsters on skateboards. We circle the town over and over in silence, crestfallen by what we don’t see. There are no hillbillies here! We park and eat dinner on the picnic tables across the street from the Olde Mill Inn Bed and Breakfast, its antique water mill imported from Pennsylvania. After bathing in the frigid creek that runs through town, we crawl into the Jeep and try for sleep that never comes.
What’s happened to the mountain men of eastern Tennessee? Joe Clark, the photographer, knew them well. He was born in Cumberland Gap and is buried here. In between, he joined the massive hillbilly migration and fled during the Depression. But he always came home to shoot a way of life he knew well: river baptisms and hoedowns in the barn, blacksmiths repairing wagon wheels and families harvesting grain, church weddings and mountain funerals, whiskey stills in wooded hollows and a 10-year-old mountain boy named Jimmy Powell who Clark considered the Daniel Boone of his time.
He shot these pictures for Life and Look, Newsweek and National Geographic. His sentimental shots of smiling workers in bib overalls hovering around horses or whiskey barrels or the old pot belly stove at the Jack Daniel’s distillery fueled the company’s iconic ads for 38 years. The Yankee photogs called him the HillBilly Snap Shooter. The name stuck, and soon Clark began appearing at photo shoots and movies (he was the main character in a film about the National Park Service by Paramount Pictures) wearing a shredded hillbilly hat and toting a slingshot in his back pocket.
We returned to Cumberland Gap to see what remained of the world he documented. He chafed at outsiders coming through and telling the rest of the world what to think of the mountain people. In the 1930s, the Tennessee-born writer James Agee tramped the hills a few hundred miles south of here with photographer Walker Evans and emerged with a story of itinerant farmers in Alabama that rocked public perceptions and revolutionized nonfiction storytelling. Joe, however, was no fan of Agee and Evans. He didn’t like their depictions of grief and suffering. Agee and Evans sought social change; Clark sought only to show country folk living off the land, caring for their own, celebrating life’s passage. “What makes me happier than anything is if the guy I photograph or tell a story about likes it,” he once told TV newsman Edward R. Morrow. “I’d rather him like it than anything else.”
As the story goes, Joe Clark was 35 before he ever touched a camera. He’d fled his Appalachian home during the Depression for the promise of a steady paycheck and landed in Detroit, where, as he liked to say, “Henry Ford was paying us hillbillies five bucks a day to build that town.” Rather than labor in a factory, Joe settled in as a night watchman at J.L. Hudson department store. He befriended the advertising photographers who worked late at night, regaling them with tales from his home in Cumberland Gap. “Hillbilly,” as the photographers nicknamed him, loved to sit and watch them shoot.
The first time Joe ever touched a camera, he was leaving Hudson’s to head home for a family funeral when one of the advertising photographers handed him a $12 folding Kodak and three rolls of film. “Since you’re always telling such big lies about your kinfolk, let’s see you prove it,” the photographer taunted him. Life magazine was so impressed with his pictures of the mountain funeral in the rain that the editors pursued the clueless Clark and finally published a 14-picture spread in 1940. Locals say his hillbilly loyalty earned him passage into the private lives and traditions of a proud people who had grown wary of outsiders. His snapshots – Joe scoffed at the word photos – evoked the dignity of the mountain dwellers of Cumberland Gap, and for that, Clark became a kind of folk hero throughout the hills and hollers of Appalachia.
For all his fame, however, Joe never really let go of the mountains, and he lamented the disappearing culture he witnessed whenever he returned. “Those old days had their drawbacks but for those of us who lived them, they also have a host of fine memories,” he wrote in his photography book Back Home Again. “And as long as a body had an axe there was no need to worry about fuel or energy shortages. You just chopped yourself a big pile of wood and dared winter to do its worst.”
What happens, we wondered, when that way of life is forgotten?
Shaunna Scott apologizes to me. “My generation, we kind of dropped the ball,” she says. As a sociologist at the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center, she is steeped in the dynamics (and economics) of rural life. The arrival of coal at the turn of the 20th century offered an irresistible economic opportunity in Appalachia. Farmers left their plows in the dirt and went to work in the mines. Slowly people forgot the ways of life that sustained them for centuries. Younger generations never learned how to farm: when to plant, how to harvest and can the crops for winter, and why the land stops giving unless allowed to rest. When the mines went bust, the workers had nothing to turn to. They had no land, no skills.
Danny, a coalminer’s son, worked the mines for over a decade. “Hot, rough work, man,” he says. “It was wild, man, it was wild. But I loved it. I did, I loved it.” Today, he’s out in his workshop – a dilapidated, 15-foot-tall wooden building beside the old train depot. Boards dangle on loose nails and the whole thing leans so hard to the left a gentle breeze threatens to send it crashing. A Chevrolet van with extended roof and reclining back seat is parked inside (a “whorehouse-on-wheels,” he calls it). He’s prepping it for sale along with a newly polished, ivory bedroom furniture set. “Bargain price,” he says. The room is stacked floor to ceiling with junk: tools, ripped-up furniture, an antique sewing machine and a cash register.
The ashtray on his workbench smolders next to a glass of warming beer, but Danny is oblivious as he sifts through pages of the Joe Clark photography book Tennessee Hill Folk. The pictures remind Danny of his family back in Kentucky. His great-grandmother, 109 years old, still gets dressed up everyday and puts on her bonnet and apron to work her garden. His 82-year-old grandfather still attends his horses, mules and chickens.
He launches into a story and puts the book down. Tricia grabs it and squeals, “Look, Daniel! They’re doin’ the hoedown. Ain’t that cute!”
“Let’s see. They sure are! Check that out! That is cool! That is cool! That brings back some sweet memories,” he says. “That is wonderful. That picture there is very, very special to me,” Danny says. “Now, my grandparents raised me. They’d be out talking and everythin’, singin’ and have some jiggin’ goin’ on.” Now Danny’s jigging, bounding around with his hands on his hips, high-kicking left and right. “And I loved it! Because you’re talking about 70-, 80-year-old guys out here bouncing around like 15-, 16-year-olds. It was wonderful to me. I’ll never forget that.”
Danny flips a few more pages and stops at a picture of two men contemplating a plot of gravestones with a log cabin church in the background. “That one’s cool. I like that one,” he says. Appalachian cemeteries are small affairs maintained on family land, and the picture reminds Danny of his own visits to the family plot – only he’s not mourning past generations.
He reaches for his wallet and takes out a picture of a teenage boy with blond curls, Danny’s blue eyes and rambunctious smile. Danny’s voice goes soft and gravelly. “That’s my oldest boy right there. He burnt to death. Well, there’s four of ’em that burnt to death: him, his girlfriend, his best friend Wesley and his girlfriend. Car slammed into a tree and exploded and they all burnt to death. I try to be happy and cut up and be stupid, I guess you could say ’cause I had so much stress on me. My family thinks I’m a little bit suicidal and stuff, especially my woman and Dad. I guess they think I’m a little bit nuts, which maybe I am. Maybe I am a little bit nuts.”
For the first few months after the accident, he instigated so many fights he became a regular at the jail, but he’s since calmed down. He’s still prone to binge drinking on the weekends; losing his job has amplified the stress. “Don’t make money, hell, the world don’t turn,” he says. “Nope, wrong words. World’s gonna turn but my life ain’t gonna change.”
He snuffs out his cigarette, digs for his lighter and strides outside for a portrait. On the way he grabs his most closely guarded possession – the soiled denim jacket his son was wearing in the crash. Danny’s elbow pokes through the gaping hole singed by the car’s flames. Tricia objects, but Danny won’t take the picture without it. As they stand outside their home – in front of the white sheet that forms a makeshift screened-in porch – their tan-speckled kitten creeps into the frame. Tricia grins and Danny puffs his chest. Snap.
It’s a picture that Joe Clark never would have taken, this portrait of poverty and struggle. It’s the kind of picture that fills Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee and Evans’ classic book about the poor farmers of Alabama. Evans went straight to the heart of grief, suffering and poverty, hoping to pierce the bleeding heart of the nation’s conscience. Evans was known to use a periscope on his camera so his subjects wouldn’t know they were being photographed; he was driven to capture them in a completely natural state. You can touch their sorrow and smell their unkempt, ragged clothes.
Joe wasn’t a fan. “Unfortunately, it is easier to make negative pictures than positive pictures; it’s easier to make dramatic pictures of someone being neglected or abused than it is to make great pictures of people doing simple, everyday things,” he once said. “There is still something to be said for old-fashioned apple-peelings, corn-huskins, and lasses making partys,” he wrote in Back Home Again. “They all entailed a heap of hard work. But the work seemed to make the fun and the girls seem sweeter.”
What if it’s all gone and Danny Fletcher is all that remains?
Long before humans came, elk, deer and bison trampled a path through the Cumberland Gap in search of food. It was prized hunting ground for the Cherokee and Shawnee traveling the Warrior Path across what is now Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. White men finally found it in 1750. But the popular history of Cumberland Gap begins with Daniel Boone, when he and his band of 30 whiskey-drinking, rifle-toting frontiersmen carved the Wilderness Road through the gap in 1775. The road through the Appalachian Mountains unlocked the vast lands stretching out west for 300,000 land-hungry pioneers over the next quarter-century. Boone’s Wilderness Road became Thunder Road in the 1920s thanks to the booming echoes of piston-firing getaway cars souped up by moonshiners running from the law. A mountain tunnel built in 1996 delivered the last blow: bypassing Cumberland Gap completely. The town today is a tourist haven of antique stores filled with trinkets made in China. The old Dal Gulley’s general store, once the gravitational center of life in Cumberland Gap, has long ago closed. For the few merchants still in business, there’s profit to be made off the Appalachian nostalgia.
Johnny Adams is having none of it. “They say they’re preserving this area for future generations,” he says of the local state park. “Not for us. For future generations.” He points to the dirt road that leads to his shop, Adams Machine Fabrication, Inc., and swears that Boone and his men traveled this very path on their way to forging the Wilderness Road. He’s an imposing 6-foot-3, known mostly as “the big guy” and has a habit of resting his crossed arms on his gut. He’s leading efforts to make the town’s history more accessible, whether it’s the authentic covered wagon in his front yard or the stash of historical treasures locked away in the Town Hall attic.
Johnny’s machine shop, where he and his sidekick Billy repair farming, logging and coal equipment, is the closest descendant of the blacksmith shop where Joe Clark shot his iconic photographs of men at work. Workbenches cover the concrete floor, air tanks and welding torches in one area, heavy-duty lathes and spindles in another. The lunch table, the beating heart of the operation, is smack in the middle. The G&C Supply Co. calendar hanging nearby is turned to Miss March, a brunette who boasts a lacy purple bra and a nice pair of big round aluminum pipes. Writ large on the back wall is the shop’s only directive to customers: “Labor Rate: $50.00 hr. NO EXCEPTIONS.”
A beat-up white Chevrolet pickup rumbles down the road and a tall lean man in jeans and work boots steps out and moseys inside. “How much I owe you?” he asks Johnny.
Johnny thinks it over. “Oh, I dunno. Whatever you thank,” he says.
The man shrugs.
“How ’bout a hunerd dollars?” Johnny suggests. “Shit, why not give you a discount? You probly owe me fifteen-hunerd bucks by now.”
As the man loads his repaired livestock feed drill into his truckbed, logger Bobby Harmon pulls in. With a saddle-sore swagger, he saunters toward Billy with a damaged steel tractor part. Billy, sporting a camouflage hat and a single-toothed grin, lights up the welding torch and sparks fly as he shaves a few millimeters off.
Johnny whispers that Bobby’s major buyer pulled their logging contract a few days ago. “Gonna get their lumber from China or some shit,” Johnny says. “Damn near broke his heart.”
The flurry of activity – two customers in 30 minutes – provides Billy with a gripping tale for the weekly Cumberland Gap Volunteer Fire Department meeting that night. “It was like Grand Central Station up thar today,” he tells them.
Johnny’s machine shop is the truest barometer of economic activity in the Cumberland Gap. Business is slow. “Yeah, there’s still things to do, there just ain’t near enough,” Johnny says. No one’s making enough money to pay for repairs on their equipment. “Everybody that usually comes in the spring is still tryin’ to pay for Christmas and is broke. Soon as they get Christmas paid for, they’ll be wantin’ to fix their plows and tractors and hay balers. They’ll wait until it’s time to bale hay, then they’ll come in with this broke stuff.”
For the Fire Department meeting, Johnny changes into his navy blue polo with “Chief John Adams” stitched on the chest. Billy drives over in his white van, which also serves as the town ambulance. While a crewmember takes the fire engine for a test drive – it breaks down twice – Johnny plops down on the wooden bench outside the station and delights the crew with tales they might’ve heard once or twice before.
He was born in Cumberland Gap in 1957, when townsfolk would buy their groceries from Clyde Follet out of a “rolling store” – an old school bus filled with necessities like milk, sliced bread and nails. He attended the one-room schoolhouse across the street that now serves as Town Hall. “I’m one of the only kids that can say they got paddled in school for shootin’ dynamite,” he says.
Johnny’s still telling stories in the shop the next day. There’s just not much to do. “That bent plate out there, I was kinda hoping they’d wait a few weeks but now I’m gonna have to get on the ball and fix that damn thing,” he says. He decides to spend the afternoon welding the lid back on a barbecue smoker.
He takes a break to drag out an antique whiskey still from the storage room in the back. He’s petitioned the city to let him run the still with water so visitors can see it in action, but to no avail. Moore County, home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery where Joe Clark spent much of his career, used to be one of only three counties in Tennessee that allowed whiskey production.
Moonshine is nearly a lost art in Tennessee. Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, a Tennessee legend and the self-proclaimed last real moonshiner, committed suicide in 2009, just days before he was to report to jail for offering to sell nearly 1,000 gallons to an undercover agent. Months later, the state legalized whiskey production, and 44 counties agreed to allow microdistilleries. But, with startup costs in the millions, the old-timers aren’t likely to benefit. Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey is on sale in Nashville, but whiskey and moonshine are not the same thing at all.
Just ask Jim Powell.
Jim Powell is on the road to hunt hickory chickens – the prize mushroom of Appalachia – when he pulls his .357 revolver on me and cocks the trigger. One eye on the road, he points to the .44 Magnum beneath his seat, then motions to the rear of his beat-up silver Nissan truck. “If you try to run, I’ll pull out the heavy artillery from the back,” he says. Then he grins. ... I think.
A pack of Doral Silver cigarettes bulges from the chest pocket of his gray T-shirt, his jeans are mud-stained and he sports a flattop haircut. He’s hard of hearing and too stubborn to get a hearing aid. Even at 67, he’s what Southern mothers affectionately describe as “all boy.” As they say around Cumberland Gap, Men hate ’em, women love ’em and kids wannabe ’em.
Jim’s greatest rival as a legendary Cumberland Gap mountain man may be Daniel Boone himself. Once while trucking coal across Kentucky in the 1970s, Jim fired off every round from his revolvers in a gunfight, only to return to his freight and continue as if nothing happened. While hanging with the baddest, meanest gang of troublemakers in West Virginia, he claims to have stared down what many believe to be a mythical mountain beast – a sort of Appalachian Big Foot – while the others fled in sheer terror. He quit school in fourth grade – marched out and never returned – over a glass of milk that his teacher demanded he drink.
The legend began in the mid-1950s when Jim was a boy of about 10. He led a three-day expedition into the mountains behind his family’s homestead with Joe Clark in tow. For Jim, it was an average weekend of living off the land, sleeping in the open with his dog curled beside him, catching snapping turtles and catfish with his bare hands, shooting quail with his shotgun, and chopping down trees infested with beehives to score a chunk of savory honeycomb.
Jim was a real mountain boy, the last of a generation with the knowledge to live off the land. In 2004, when Clark’s pictures were hung in a downtown Cumberland Gap exhibit in celebration of the HillBilly Snap Shooter, a hush swept over the room when Jim entered. For many, it was their first glimpse of the mountain boy they’d seen in pictures.
The mountain man makes a haul on the hickory chicken hunt. He returns to his three-story hunting lodge home with a sack full of the delicacy and hands them over to his wife, Marcella. She pauses her game of Farmville on Facebook to wash and dice the mushrooms before tossing them into a hissing frying pan. The first year they were married, they survived the entire winter in their log cabin on a buck that Jim killed that fall.
Jim and Marcella met at Dal Gulley’s general store when they were kids. They were typical of the locals. They had never tasted a hamburger until Joe Clark took them to a restaurant for the first time: Jim was 8 and Marcella 14.
While lunch is cooking, Jim discusses the art of snagging a snapping turtle: Reach under a river rock, grab it from behind and hold on tight so it can’t get its jaws on you. If it clamps down, when will it turn loose? “When it thunders,” he says with a grin. “One bites you, by God, you jerk loose before you thank.” Of the thousands he’s caught, he’s only been bit twice. “Just a flesh wound,” he says. Once he caught five on a trip with his dad and uncle, though one was saved from becoming dinner. While his dad was bent over searching beneath a rock for another, his uncle snuck up behind him with a “big one” in hand. “It bit him right on the cheek of the ass,” Jim says with a rolling chuckle. “The damn fight was on. I don’t know whatever happened to that turtle.”
As Marcella stirs the frying pan, her eyes well up from a grease allergy. Jim looks on unsympathetically.
“God, I hope you don’t get old on me. It’d be awful for me to have a 21-year-old maid, a 21-year-old gardener, a 21-year-old housekeeper …”
“Oh yeah! It really would,” she says.
She serves up a plate full of trout, cornbread, fried taters and a mess of pinto beans to go with the hickory chicken. Their 1-year-old baby, a black lab named Casey, gets a seat at the table next to Jim and a plate of his own. Lunch is topped off with a bowl of banana pudding, and when coffee is served (with moonshine rather than cream), talk turns to the economy.
“It’s hard times for working people, and that’s all we all are … is just working people,” Marcella says. “I would hate to be startin’ out right now because, brother, it’s hard. It’s hard to maintain, much less startin’ out. A lot of the people here went to Ohio or Michigan or somethin,’ you know. Well, a lot of ’em did get to retire and come back, but a lot of ’em is still tryin’ to work and the jobs are gone, and it’s just hard on everybody right now.”
Twice a day, Jim grabs his fishing tackle and gets away from it all. The road to Powell Valley snakes south of Jim’s house, climbing and cascading over lush green hills splattered with the pinks and purples of redbud trees. Pavement turns to gravel and gravel turns to 12-inch ruts in the red dirt road. The houses dotting the hillside fade away until the only man-made structures are abandoned barns where drying tobacco leaves once hung in the lofts. Along the way, he points out landmarks from his famous adventure with Joe Clark. He still knows the exact location of the tree they chopped down to reach honeycomb, the vine where he swung like Tarzan and the rock above the stream where he cut off a snapping turtle’s head.
He parks his truck at the base of the valley where Olde Towne Creek meets Powell River. He walked here as a boy and used to pluck arrowheads out of the mud. His mother grew up and lived near here, until the Tennessee Valley Authority bought her family out. He rigs his line with a minnow and, standing on the bank, casts into the river. Fishing here requires a permit, but that doesn’t faze Jim. “It ain’t no big deal. Just 30 days in jail.”
While his bait drifts downstream, Jimmy wraps his arm around a tree branch to steady himself and lights another cigarette. He isn’t a man of patience. “Dammit fish, if you wanna ride in my truck you got to bite,” he says. A few casts later: “Hell, they’re like a woman out here. They may hit for 15 minutes, then quit. Doesn’t matter what you feed ’em.” He spots something in the shallows. “Hell, even the crappie won’t bite.” And finally, “Well, boys, let’s get outta here. Be like a horse turd and hit the trail.”
On the drive back, Jim asks if I’d be interested in coming back to visit. He contrives the idea to relive his boyhood adventure with Joe Clark. He’s suddenly determined that I’m the man to document it, to learn the tricks he’s never passed on, the rugged craft that everyone’s forgotten. “If you catch it, you eat. If you don’t catch it, you don’t eat. But I ain’t sharing mine with you.”
Just come back soon, he says.
When Jim couldn’t find work in Cumberland Gap at the end of the ’60s, he moved to Kentucky and worked 36-hour shifts as a coal trucker. The coal had taken its toll on him. A few years ago he checked into the hospital with pneumonia. “Boy, I coulda died,” he says.
Another doctor told him he had black lung and emphysema. ’Bout all you need to do is just sit around the house and look out the window, the doctor told him.
That same morning Jim had carried a 35-pound pole, two gallons of gas and a gallon of oil to the top of Cumberland Mountain. The doctor didn’t believe him. “I just can’t get it in my head that I’m old,” Jim says. “If I did, I’d shoot myself.”
As we scale the gravel driveway to his home, Jim asks again about my return, recalling his doctor’s orders from a few years ago. “That’s why I said, you wantin’ to catch a turtle, you better come back quick.”
Frederick Jackson Turner, who argued passionately that westward expansion was a necessity of the American triumph, wrote in 1893, “Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file — the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattleraiser, the pioneer farmer — and the frontier has passed by.”
The only remaining bison are kept in fences. There’s no trace of the Cherokee or Shawnee. Daniel Boone went West, but the West is no more. The coalmines shuttered. The old tobacco farms are nothing but grassy fields. And in the rearview mirror, as I descend Jim’s driveway, he looks awfully lonely standing atop the hill.
I promised him I’d return. Soon.