42: Names of places

An outsider from another state named our neighborhood. This is obvious, because it's a bland, vanilla, developer-type, suburban-like name that doesn't resonate with any sense of place or reflect the personality of any community with roots. It probably looks good to a city dweller or flatlander, some of them anyway, looking for a whitewashed mountain resort experience, behind a gate, far from real people, out of a magazine.

The old gentleman, Mr. R.O. Wilson, told me that our greater valley, entered only through its mouth near the Tuckaseegee River or over a steep, switch-backed, narrow pass called Gribble Gap, used to be called Hogrock. Pronounced matter-of-factly with no hem but a big ol' "haw," in his deep voice, authoritative, full of character. You can hear his voice at minute 11:40 of the soundclip at the bottom of this post. He said that folk from around there used to slaughter their hogs and hang them from a huge, prominent, overhanging rock by the creek in the bottom land, where a horse pasture sits today, near the huge cornfield and tiny dairy farm that still graces the valley.

So we could call our place Hogrock Holler, I guess.

Except another old man, from down the road in an old two-story farmhouse near Gribble Gap, one who at age 78 strapped on antique steel spikes and climbed 30 feet up in a tree to help me once, told me that our unique cove used to be called "Cabe's Cove" after the people who lived in the small 1905 farmhouse at its mouth. Of course, nobody but mica miners, loggers, hunters, or a boy chasing his dog would have climbed up into our inhospitably steep and high reaches. The old man would say something, punch me in the gut for effect, and laugh. I wanted to hear more, and that was his storytelling style, so I was sore around the middle the next day.

Supposedly, the old house stood vacant because of a brother-uncle or cousin-cousin murder, something about an axe. I don't know if the fellow's story was true, or part tall tale, or if I didn't get it all wrong, but the old house was creepy and empty, guarding the dark, deep, steep cove like an eyeless skull, a windowless sentinel. It was barely visible in the summer amidst massive magnolias, ancient dogwoods, criss-crossed young white pines, green brier, downed rotting trees, and looming head walls with an overhanging canopy of oak and tulip poplar. It had been bypassed by our gravel road, with no way to even reach it across the bridge-less creek. Until when, about three years ago, the buyers of that property paid Matthew Cole, local artisan woodworker and timber framer, to restore it. It's still empty, but with a new porch, windows, roof, and paint and with an out-of-place wrought iron gate and stone pillars, constructed to attract the buyer, maybe for the better (except for the gates), it's been robbed of this aura and brought back into time.

Cabe's Cove. Hogrock. Painter Knob. Gribble Gap. Long Branch. Names are important, and used to mean something to everybody instead of nothing to anybody. They captured the mark made by a family with the guts and commitment to settle there for generations. Some folk still live where their great grandparents, or even grandparents, made a life without electricity, good roads, or easy shopping, and planted by the signs. Sometimes, the name is all that remains. How dare we change it to suit ourselves, for glossy marketing purposes, cleansing an old place of its history, however unwashed or colloquial it may be. When applied to ethnicity, culture, history, or community, "cleansing" can be a dirty word.

Of course, names are fun, too. I kind of like living in upper Hogrock. In Ruminations from the Distant Hills, Gulahiyi speculates on some of them, and gives some amusing examples.

Outside of communicating with the UPS man, I try to learn, resurrect, and celebrate at least some of the old names. It's about preserving the habitat for collective souls in a space (they might leave a place called "Green Forest Gables"), respect for those who came before, or at least the appreciation of place.

1 comment:

  1. I received a great note from Gulahayi:

    "Place names have always intrigued me. Here are a few posts with some good links. (The 1845 article was such a find...even with some possibly questionable information it is a unique document and I am surprised it is so seldom cited.)

    Jonathan Williams poem derived from names on a topo map of Jackson County
    Not just Cherokee, but also Creek influence on local place names
    What really happened when it came time to change a local place name
    Awesome 1845 article explains western Carolina place names"


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I use this blog to chronicle certain aspects of my life near the Smokies. I'm building a cabin. I kayak. Sometimes I bike.