Friday, June 30, 2006

Three Things Worth Reading

Okay kids.

Right now I'm stewing up a few different big entries - be patient, they're coming. In the meantime, I have some tidbits for you, especially ya'll outside of the region, because dammit, we all need a little Appalachia. Here's your fix.

First, as bordertown, Mother-of-Country-Music (that is to say good country music, not whiney, mass-produced, bubble gum country) Bristol, VA/TN turns 150 this year, the Bristol Herald-Courier is, it would seem, running retrospectives on the city's history - consider this article by Tom Netherland in which resident Bill Taft reminiscences about Bristol's downtown and its declining role in the city's life:

Meet Bill Taft.

That’s exactly what generations of Bristolians did during his career as a pharmacist at Massengill’s, a large drug manufacturing company in downtown Bristol.

Now 89 and long since retired, Taft recalled years past, as Bristol turns 150 this year. As one of but five living members of Bristol’s centennial celebration executive committee of 1956, Taft said he looks upon Bristol’s sesquicentennial with a mixture of pride and love of place.

“Everybody’s friendly here,” Taft said. “Whenever I’ve gone away on vacation for a week or so, I always loved coming back here, home, to the hills.”

Taft isn’t originally from Bristol. Born and schooled in Michigan, Taft found his place in life when he found Bristol about 68 years ago.

“Since 1938. That’s a few years ago,” he said, his voice loud and clear. “When I graduated from college at the University of Michigan, I went to work at Massengill’s, which was in the King building.”

And as indicated by his accent, Taft was born in Michigan, but the state wasn’t for him.
“It was too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer,” he said. “I like four climates, and that’s what Bristol has. It’s not too cold and it’s not too hot.”

But Taft had no intention of staying here.

“When I came here, I was only going to stay a year. It doesn’t hurt that I married a girl from here.”

In those days, Taft said that downtown was the center of the hive. Excitement buzzed along State Street as folks filled sidewalks and stores alike. Department, grocery, drug – all sorts of stores called State Street home then.

“State Street is different now,” Taft said. “Back then, you could walk down there and see people you knew well.”

Taft became a prominent leader in the community. He was one of 21 members of Bristol’s centennial executive committee who formed to organize, recognize and celebrate Bristol’s 100th anniversary in 1956. Only five members remain: Taft, Carl Moore, Bob Nicar, Pete Gravely and Tom Morrell.

“It was a big thing at that time. Television didn’t keep people in their home, and so they were looking for things to do,” Taft said. “We had a pageant out at old Shaw Stadium, which was near where Bristol Mall is now. My job was to sell tickets to that pageant.”

Taft said State Street was closed for about a week to better accommodate a carnival. Then, there was a thing about men recognizing the past by growing chin whiskers. Men of the 1950s were mostly clean-shaven, but past generations were known for their hairy-faced men.

“We had brothers of the brush, and any man who went downtown had to have a beard,” Taft said. “It was all in good fun.”

Taft said Bristol bought into the celebration.

“The whole town got into it,” he said. “We had the two railroads meet downtown, and there was a golden spike driven on the spot.”

Governors Thomas B. Stanley of Virginia and Frank G. Clement of Tennessee also participated.

“We had the two governors riding in the same car,” Taft said, “but they rode in their own state, right down the middle of State Street. It was fun.”

Taft said he laments some changes that, for one reason or another, have lessened downtown’s role in Bristol.

“On weekends, (State Street) was full, and that’s no longer the way it is. We were closer then because we didn’t stay home watching TV. You knew your neighbors. Nowadays, you might know your neighbors. Television changed all that.”

Yet despite that, he said there’s just no other place for him than Bristol.
“It’s God’s country,” Taft said.

Sure, that was pretty good you're thinking, but why did you put it on the blog? Dude, beards. There was peer-pressure to wear beards. Peer-pressure to wear beards. BEARD PEER-PRESSURE!?!?!?! So awesome.

The Lexington Herald-Leader, an East Kentucky publication, published this article on the slippery elm by Andy Mead - it details how the herbal, um, movement (?) is leading to declining stocks of slippery elm en masse in throughout the region - I am reminded of the disappearing pawpaw from the woods of Bland County, Virginia myself, in large part due to overharvesting by people who simply don't understand the delicate plant's reproductive cycle or who, frankly, don't care.

People who believe in herbal medicines say slippery elm bark is good for what ails you -- especially problems associated with the skin, stomach and bowels. But stripping all the bark from slippery elm trees isn't good for the trees. It kills them.

Thefts of slippery elm bark -- like ginseng and other plants valued as herbal cures -- are on the rise on public lands in Kentucky and elsewhere.

In the last couple of weeks, several people have been charged in connection with stripped elm trees in Leslie and Jackson counties in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

In Leslie County, three people were charged twice in one week. The second time, they told officers they were trying to make money to pay fines for the first offense, Forest Service spokeswoman Kim Feltner said yesterday.

Slippery elms, also known as Ulmus rubra or red elms, are found in southern Canada and across the eastern United States. In Kentucky, they grow along creeks, where they are an important part of the ecosystem.

The yoke of the Liberty Bell is made of slippery elm wood, but it is not considered a valuable timber tree. It is said that George Washington and his men survived at Valley Forge by boiling and eating slippery elm bark.

Deborah Hill, a University of Kentucky extension forestry professor, said she knows little about the slippery elm bark trade in Kentucky, but in other states, she has seen "generic brokers" who might deal in ginseng, slippery elm and scrap metal.

Long vertical strips of bark can be taken without killing the trees, she said. But Forest Service officials say people stealing bark in the Daniel Boone often strip as much bark as they can.

"They will often girdle the tree and then pull the bark as far up as they can until it breaks," said John Strojan, the ranger in charge of the Daniel Boone district office in London.

Strojan said he has seen an increase in stripped elm trees in the last two or three years. "I guess these people just drive the roads, looking for these trees," he said.

The people caught recently in Leslie County were charged with first-degree criminal mischief, a state offense. Feltner didn't have details on theJackson County cases. But people who remove "any timber, tree or other forest product" from a national forest can face federal charges, she said.

Ahem. Quit. Stealing. Our. Trees. For. Your. Hippie. New-Age. Cures.

Note: The above statement is not intended to either infer that all hippies are stealing trees (e.g. are "posers") or that herbal treatments are all hoo-joo-blither-blather. Its merely a dramatic and awesome expression of my emotional disconcertion. And stuff. I'm sorry. I'm just bitter.

There aren't many things that make me happier than paleontology. I love fossils and I yearn for the technology that (probably) will (never) allow us to bring back all the species our species has made extinct - mammoths and giant ground sloths and such have you. Regardless, this article from the Valley Beautiful Beacon (from Erwin, Flag Pond, Unicoi, and the Tri-Cities in Tennessee) and by Joshua Blades details one of the greatest digs in the region's history - one with pandas. That's right. Appalachian pandas.

With the cost of gasoline fluctuating between very expensive and ridiculously expensive, the need to find alternative recreation locally has become increasingly important.

With that said, the Gray Fossil Site visitor/interpretive center – located less than 25 miles from downtown Erwin – is nearing completion. According to lead researcher Dr. Steven Wallace, the mild winter helped construction stay ahead of schedule. The building, located about one mile off of the Gray exit, should be completed by late fall. The museum should be ready a few months after the building is finished – probably sometime early next spring.

While construction is underway at the building site, researchers and volunteers are working furiously to dig up history. “We haven’t even scratched the surface,” said Wallace, “I don’t think it will ever be completely excavated…at least not in my lifetime.”

The actual site is located behind the visitor center and roughly comprises 4-5 acres. TDOT originally found the site while working on Fulkerson Road, and has since canceled all plans to continue work in the area. The site, which was originally owned by the state, has been deeded to ETSU and is now considered part of the campus.

The site, Wallace believes, was created when a cave lying too close to the surface became plugged with water. The cave eventually became a collapsing sinkhole and over time that sinkhole ultimately became a pond.

All of the evidence points to the pond theory. Researchers have found fish, turtle, alligator, frog, rhinoceros, tapir, camel, and saber-tooth remains. These fossils help to draw a picture for researchers of the biological diversity found in the area between 4 ½ to 7 million years ago.

“We have all the indications of a marine habitat,” said Wallace, “because we have the predators and the prey all in one place.”

“Usually, as an archaeologist, they expect you to go and find your own sites,” said Wallace, “but this has been great because they just threw it in my lap.” In the short time that researchers have been excavating the site, two new species have been discovered: the red panda and the Eurasian badger.

The red panda (Pristinailurus bristoli) is technically related to the greater panda, but while the greater panda is more like a bear, the red panda is essentially a raccoon. An interesting side note: the smaller, modern red panda subsists on bamboo, but the Gray site does not contain any fossilized evidence of bamboo, leading researchers to believe that the discovered red panda must have survived on something else.

The Eurasian badger (Arctomeles dimolodontus) is basically a weasel. Wallace believes that the badger teeth found at the site suggest a vegetarian diet – probably of acorns.

Another unique animal to the site is a dwarf form of a tapir (Tapirus polkensis) which is closely related to the horse and rhinoceros. The tapirs found at the Gray site are the smallest on record, weighing less than the woolly mountain tapir found in Ecuador (previously believed to be the smallest).

The one fossil that kids want to see is the articulated (archaeologist talk for “put together”) rhinoceros skeleton which will be displayed at the museum’s opening. Since the initial discovery of the rhinoceros remains, several pieces of other rhinoceroses have been found in the area. Researchers discovered fetal remains near one of the newer rhino finds and had hoped that it would be a female, but the newer skeleton has a larger bone structure consistent with male rhinoceros fossils, meaning that there are possibly several other skeletons waiting to be unearthed.

Once it is completed, the museum will provide both history and fun for children and adults alike. Children will marvel at the size of the rhinoceros skeleton, the crushing power of the alligator’s jaw, the sharp pointed tooth of a saber-tooth cat, and the spikes on a turtle’s shell. Adults will love the fossils, but also marvel at the incredible diversity that our region once held.

Summer volunteers are needed and researchers at the site welcome local help – no experience is necessary. Contact information and general information about the dig can be found at

Like Saltville. In Tennessee. And with less "salt."

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