Centennial Spotlight: Shepherd Monroe Dugger's reminders of fall's ‘Singers’
Michael Hardy / (firstname.lastname@example.org)
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was probably no bigger supporter and promoter of the High Country of Western North Carolina than Shepherd Monroe Dugger. The many affectionate titles for him include “The Bard of Ottaray,” “The Genius of the Blue Ridge,” “The Bard of Banner Elk,” “The Oracle of the Hills” and “The Bard of the Balsams.”
Born in Tennessee in 1854, Dugger came to North Carolina when his family moved to the Cranberry area in 1856. Dugger's father, George Washington Dugger, worked at Cranberry Mines during the Civil War. Monroe was educated locally and then attended Weaverville College near Asheville, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When he returned to the area, he was elected in 1881 as the first superintendent of Watauga County schools.
Dugger was constantly writing. His first published book was “The Balsam Groves of Grandfather Mountain,” released in 1892. Dugger had written the book as a part of a contest sponsored by Linville Improvement Company, which owned Grandfather Mountain. The book came in second place. This text was followed by “War Trails of the Blue Ridge” in 1932, and almost countless articles. Dugger died on Sept. 13, 1938, in Matney, and was laid to rest in Banner Elk Cemetery.
Much of Dugger's writing is thinly veiled fiction, meaning, that its contents are mostly true. One such story was considered “unpublished” by Leslie Banner Cottingham and Carol Lowe Timblin in their 1979 biography entitled “The Bard of Ottaray: The Life, Letters and Documents of Shepherd Monroe Dugger.” However, it had been published, appearing in the Gaston Daily Gazette on Oct. 22, 1938. The manuscript version of the short piece is entitled “Bell Tails” while the published version is labeled “Rattlesnake Lore.” Hunting rattlesnakes was a popular pastime in the mountains and the section of Dugger's account found below is not that much of a fictional piece. The entire piece can be found in “The Bard of Ottaray.”
In the pioneer days of Banner Elk, when we had no musical instruments, and wild life had not been thinned out by the weapons of death, the rattlesnakes were our greatest source of pleasure ... At that time, we called them "bell-tails" because the noise they made with their rattle was as much like little tinkling silver bells, as it was like a love song.
We used to meet in our cabin yards in the evening shadow of the mountain and tell one another how many bell-tails we had killed that day: how large they were in diameter; how long and how many rattles each had. Nearly every woman who came in from a whortleberry hunt would have an interesting story to tell of the pleasant acquaintance she had formed that day with one or more very polite bell-tails. I remember when my mother's neighbor told her of a rattlesnake that was coiled at the root of the bush she was picking berries from, and when it saw that she was not aware of its presence, it stuck up its tail and sang a love ditty to get her attention so she would not step on it.
From two to three miles apart in the Blue Ridge country were rattlesnake dens where they assembled in autumn and crawled back through holes between the rocks into the deep warm earth where they wintered. In spring they came out to sun themselves and went back at night. As hot weather advanced, they went down to streams to quench the intensified thirst of the long winter, and following this they caught and swallowed small animals to subsist on throughout the next winter's rest.
Four miles west of Banner Elk is a little mountain called Scaley, for its roughness in rock and cliff.
In 1860 the cart-way, now a highway, paralleled Elk Creek, so near the foot of the mountain that one was in touch with its rumbling falls and cascades. On the right of the cart-way the mountain rose abruptly some 500 feet and was so prolific in rattlesnakes that one could not pass through Scaley in the good snake season without encountering from one to five. The people were more hard-hearted than they are now and they would light into these poor snakes with sticks and stones and massacre them unmercifully.
On a September morning when the snakes were going after their last drink of water before returning to their dens for the winter, four men started from the lower end of Scaley to the upper end to help a farmer flail out of his crop of buckwheat. There were no thrashing machines then and each man had his flair on his shoulder.
About the middle of Scaley, they found about one hundred feet of the road corduroyed with beautiful bell-tails. Half of them going down to get water; the other half had been and were coming back ...Two of the men went around the snakes and came into the road on the farther side of the corduroy, and just as the male snakes coming down were telling the female snakes going up, how beautiful was the elfish light that fell from their sides, the four men began a murderous assault with their flails on these happy snakes ...
As one flail went up another came down, making a uniform pounding, and a uniform death rate of twelve snakes to the stroke.
The rattlers did everything to save their lives but run; and when they were out-reached with weapons they tried to save themselves by entertaining their enemies like Captain John Smith did when he saved his live by showing Pocahontas his ... compass. They wove themselves into beautiful wreaths of black and yellow spots and diamonds; looped their bodies into glittering five-pointed stars ... But nothing touched the mercy of the threshers, and the last of the snakes died bravely singing "Nearer My God to Thee."
When the threshers had piled the snakes out of the road, the passway was covered three inches deep in whole and sections of snake rattles ...
Though fictional and a bit flowery, Dugger's account is a reminder of the challenges faced by the region's earlier settlers. As we drive out to enjoy changing leaves and the cool weather, we seldom see roads covered in snakes, but there still may be a “singer” waiting to warn us with his tune. As was often Dugger's style, he also demonstrates his ability to see, even in the most threatening of creatures, the beauty of creation.