This 1897 photograph of the David Miller family

depicts life on a typical mountain farm.

After the United States gained
its independence from Great Britain the mountains of Western North Carolina and
what would become Tennessee were opened for settlement.  The majority of the early settlers were
English, Scotch-Irish and German.  They
came seeking land and independence.

The land was inexpensive and the
climate was relatively mild.  Many
settled in the fertile river valleys, while others ventured further into the

Travel in the region was
difficult though.  The first roads were
steep, rough, muddy and often impassable. 
The area was isolated and for many decades economic and political
conditions were poor.


Families survived by being self-sufficient
and hard-working.  They cleared small
areas for planting grains, vegetables and fruit.   They
raised hogs, chickens and cattle.  They hunted and fished and
gathered native plants to meet their needs. 
From their harvests they produced what was needed, including medicine, moonshine, molasses and much more.

A mountain moonshine still set-up on Diamond Creek, ca. 1940.

Turpentine, yellow root, catnip,
black snake root and many more cured all that ailed the early settlers.  Old-timers recommended wild cherry-bark juice
mixed with corn whiskey as a spring tonic or sassafras tea for those who
preferred a non-alcoholic tonic.  Golden
seal was used for stomach problems, sore eyes, kidney trouble and
tonsillitis.  Flaxseed and honey helped
with whooping cough.

In addition to the personal needs, medicinal or otherwise, distilled alcohol provided much needed cash income.  Jugs of liquor were easier to haul to market and to sell, plus it was more profitable then selling grain. 

In the early 1960s the congregation at Oak Grove Methodist Church in Brevard

raised can and made molasses to raise money for their new church,

St. Timothy United Methodist.

Another crop that was boiled
down to liquid form was sorghum.  Sorghum
is a grass with a high sugar content.  It
is relatively easy to grow, even in poor soils. 
The sorghum cane was cut, boil, squeezed and strained to produce
molasses.  For many mountain families molasses was their primary type of sweetener. 
They poured it on corn bread or hot cakes, used it to make cookies or
cakes and seasoned foods with it. 

Folkways, the traditional
practice of a particular community were passed down from generation to
generation.  While many of these have
disappeared over the years as it became easier to purchase goods and technology
advanced, others continued well into the 20th century and in various
forms survive today.

To learn more about North
Carolina folkways and folklore try one of John Parris’ books on mountain life
or North Carolina Folklore by Frank C. Brown.

Photographs and
information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina
Room, Transylvania County Library.  Visit
the NC Room during regular library hours (Monday-Friday) to learn more about
our history and see additional photographs. 
For more information, comments or suggestions contact Marcy at
[email protected] or
828-884-3151 X242.

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(828) 884-3151

212 S Gaston St, Brevard, NC 28712