Part IV: A Brief History of Macon County, NC
by the Rev. C.D. Smith (1891)
The manner and customs of a people usually form a fair index to their leading traits of character. By this rule I propose to speak of some of the customs of the people of Macon County from sixty to seventy years ago. While the customs of society were not then so airish as now there was among the more prominent families a quiet unobtrusive dignity and sense of propriety expressive of true man and womanhood upon which the arts of fashion have not made any improvement. The matter of courting among young people was done in different style from the present, yet it had the merit of being honest and straight. And although incidents in some of the courtships of those day furnished matter for amusement and laughter, the resulting marriages were usually happy and prosperous.
A regular dude could not have got in his work of nonsense and deception amongst those people. There were no dukes or princes to delude the giddy and foolish with high sounding titles without merit, and less capacity for conjugal happiness. Merit then consisted in sound native brains, honest industry, sobriety and frugality. Whatever of goodness and usefulness there is in the present generation has come from such source. Whatever education teaches or results in idleness, deteriorates manhood and womanhood.
The old classic adage is as true of woman as it is of man: "An idle man's brain is the devil's workshop." Nor does refinement, so-called, alter or modify this verdict.
Neighbor Helping Neighbor
It was the custom in those early days not to rely for help exclusively upon hired labor. In harvesting small grain crops the sickle was mostly used. When a crop was ripe the neighbors were notified and gathered in to reap and shock up the crop. The manner was for a dozen or more men to cut through the field, then hang their sickles over their shoulders and bind back. The boys gathered the sheaves together and the old men shocked them up. The corn crops were usually gathered in and thrown in great heaps alongside of the cribs. The neighbors were invited and whole days and into the nights were often spent in husking out a single crop. I have seen as many as eighty or ninety men at a time around my father's corn heap.
If a house or barn was to be raised the neighbors were on hand and the building was soon under roof. Likewise if a man had a heavy clearing, it was no trouble to have an ample force to handle and put in heaps the heaviest logs. It was no unusual thing for a man to need one or two thousand rails for fencing. All he had to do was to proclaim that he would have a "rail mauling" on a given day, and bright and early the neighbors were on the ground and the rails were made before sun-down.
Peace and Good Will
This custom of mutual aid cultivated a feeling of mutual dependence and brotherhood, and resulted in the most friendly and neighborly intercourse. Indeed, each man seemed to be on the lookout for his neighbors' comfort and welfare as well as his own. It made a community of broad, liberal minded people who despite the tongue of gossip and an occasional fisticuff in hot blood, lived in peace and good will one toward another. There was then less selfishness and cold formality than now.
This difference is not for the want of any natural disposition or good impulses, but as a result of the force of custom and habit. Indeed our social and moral tempers are very much the result of our habits and customs. Any method which discards the habit of neighborly interchange of good deeds and mutual helpfulness, broods and fosters selfishness. This leads legitimately to the withdrawal of each family into a sort of community of its own, unconcerned for the comfort and welfare of others. This, in its turn, affects the manners of a people. it freezes out that warmth and good cheer so characteristic of our fathers of seventy years ago, and brings upon the stage a set of cavaliers in deportment whose good offices are rendered on the basis of pecuniary benefit. Such is the change from the primitive customs there referred to, to the new methods, and I leave the candid reader to judge of the result.
I am free to admit that there has been improvement along some lines, such for instance as that of education, the building of church houses, style of dress, etc., But I am sure that there has been none in the sterner traits of character, generosity, manliness, patriotism, integrity and public spirit.
Fisticuffs Settling Disputes
There was another custom in those bygone days which to the present generation seems extremely primitive and rude, but which when analyzed shows a strong sense of honor and manliness of character. To settle minor disputes and differences, whether for imaginary or real personal wrongs, there were occasional fisticuffs. Then it sometimes occurred in affairs of this kind that whole neighborhoods and communities took an interest. I have known county arrayed against county, and state against state, for the belt in championship, for manhood and skill in a hand-to-hand tussle between local bullies.
When these contests took place, the custom was for the parties to go into a ring. The crowd of spectators demanded fairness and honor. If any one was disposed to show foul play he was withheld in the attempt or promptly chastised by some bystander. Then again, if either party in the fight resorted to any weapon whatever other than his physical appendages, he was at once branded and denounced as a coward, and was avoided by his former associates. While this custom was brutal in its practice there was a bold outcropping of character in it, for such affairs were conducted upon the most punctilious points of honor.
Remember this, young man, to the day of your death.
A Bully Learns a Lesson
I remember that on one occasion, I think it was court week, a man by the name of Kean came from Tennessee to Franklin. He had quite a reputation in his state as a local bully. He paraded up and down the street making all sorts of boars and banters. The truth is he had come to carry off the belt for manhood. The very boys in the street were roused to hot blood in behalf of what they regarded as the honor of their county and state.
One of our first Board of Magistrates, Edward L. Poindexter, was known to be a man of great physical powers. He was a North Carolinian of the old type, and no doubt, partly prompted by state pride, he made up his mind to tackle the Tennessee bully. The result was that after a long and manly struggle the Tennessean went away next day all bruised and sore with his game feathers fallen and drooping all around him.
This custom illustrates the times, and I have introduced it more for the sake of contrast than a desire to parade it before the public.
The Unfortunate Reign of the Pistol
How marked the difference between then and now. The custom now is to fight with all kinds of deadly weapons, knives, razors, pistols, and in fact any and every kind of weapons that come to hand. From the mere stripling who is a novice in crime to the old offender who has grown gray in iniquity, a large number of men now carry pistols. In defense of this habit, it is usual to plead personal protection and changed conditions.
Analysis of the real cause for this habit, together with a long series of observations, shows that it grows out of about three conditions, viz: cowardice, a thirst for blood, or a consciousness of guilt for some offense and consequent fear of arrest and punishment for it. The most common of these three specifications is, no doubt, cowardice.
The young man, especially, who stuffs a pistol into his pocket betrays a sinister purpose not to observe the proprieties of a gentleman, and not to confine himself to good company, and his cowardice prompts him to arm himself with a pistol. As a rule it is the coward who first uses his pistol and is almost uniformly first to shoot. Conscious of having violated the proprieties of a gentleman, or of having wronged a fellow being, with the first intimation that he will be required to account for it, and prompted by a craven spirit he whips out his pistol and commence shooting.
It would perhaps be a great mercy to a certain class of young men, were they sent to the penitentiary for the act of carrying a pistol before their cowardly souls are stained with innocent blood.
There is another class - a sort of nondescript - who carry pistols. They can give no valid reason why they carry them other than a mere desire to do so. This class is mostly of small mental caliber. They possess a strange sort of vanity - are deluded with the idea that they are real objects of both fear and admiration among timid people.
An Illustrative Incident
I can best illustrate this senseless vanity by relating an incident in the life of an old East Tennessean, who in the olden times used to carry boat loads of flour, bacon and iron down to Gunter's Landing in Alabama. He would anchor his boat and spend a month or two in selling out his cargo to the newly settled people. It happened, that one night he went out to a country frolic. Being a lively old buck he took a full hand with them.
There was one girl in the crowd who was a little better dressed than the others, having a big flounce or ruffle around the skirt of her dress. She had not taken any part in the dance. So my friend B. concluded to bring her out. She ha a very large roasted potato in her hand at the time, and stepping in front of her with a very low and courteous bow, he said: "Miss, won't you be so very kind as to take a reel with me?" She whirled about and said: "Here, mammy, hold my 'tater till I dance with this fellow."
Dashing into the center of the room with arms swinging right and left and tossing her head into the air with a gyration of the neck, she shouted: "Clear the way here you common sort and let border-tail come out!" And my friend B. said he found the most ample test for his powers for endurance.
Now, here is a portraiture of the young man of this class with a pistol in his pocket, and when I meet one of them I always think of my old friend B. and his Alabama girl; and as for that matter, I find a great many places for this application.
Before dismissing this class let me tell you a secret upon them. The very presence of a pistol in the pocket of one of them creates a desire to use it. The more he thinks about it the stronger the desire becomes, until it deadens the moral sensibilities and as a final result develops a new fledged criminal.
Young man, if you should ever have a lucid moment of reason, I beg of you to throw your pistol into the mill pond and be a man among men.
There is also the blood-thirsty villain who by nature or habit is insensible to all the nobler impulses of our common humanity, and to whom nothing is sweeter than human gore. When he is armed with a pistol he becomes a very scourge to society. He seeks every possible pretext to satiate his cormorant appetite for blood, and that too without regard to age or condition. And as to the old hardened criminal from whose soul and heart crime has obliterated all sympathy for the good elements of human society and deadened every tie that binds man to his fellow man it is not o strange that he carries a revolver, because he expects to meet at every turn either the stern hand of justice or retribution, and consequently he prepares to sell his life at the dearest possible price.
What think you of the contrast between the past and present?
Pistols Bring a Scourge of Crime & Suicide
It is, dear reader, an open question as to whether Colt, Wesson and others with their patented inventions and manufacture of pistols have not been the greatest national scourge of the age. With the pistol has come an avalanche - an inundation of robbers. They bear the ear-marks of pistol paternity. It is the revolver that arrests the railway train, goes through the express and mail cars, appropriating their contents, and rifles the pockets of innocent passengers without regard to age, sex, or condition. It is the chief reliance of the assassin. It steals into the apartments of decrepitude and old age at the still hour of midnight and leaves them stripped of their valuables and occupied by death.
The imprints of Colt and Wesson figure in most cases of suicide. by the way, the pistol age is the age of suicides. Singularly enough, the presence of the pistol begets in the human mind all manner of evil thoughts and intent. Indeed, it seems to be a fruitful source of the mania for self-destruction. Nor does it regard age or sex.
Now cast up in your mind the immense destruction of human life in which the pistol has been the most potent instrument - the woe and anguish that have settled down upon the innocent and helpless on this account - the sad weeds of widowhood and orphanage, with which the once happy domestic altar has been shrouded, and the many schoolhouse doors which have been thereby closed against helpless orphans, and tell me what this infant industry has done for the nation. It seems to me that a little prohibition along this line might do the nation some good.