Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Birthing Tree

2014-04-25 18.19.40It was alive and probably over forty-feet tall the day that America was born. By the time the country had divided and Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, it was over a century old. What began as a single acorn in a forest became shelter along the Old Kentucky Road, one of oldest roads in Tennessee. It earned the moniker “Birthing Tree”, because its location lent itself as a stopping point along a wagon road, and more than one pioneer woman gave birth under its branches.

Timber companies cleared most of its ancestors and progeny to make way for farmland and the growing community of McMinnville. Trails and roads passed sooooo close, but for whatever reason; this tree was always spared. Today it is over a quarter-millennium old; has a crown of one-hundred-twenty-five feet, and is listed in the Tennessee Historic Tree Register as one of the oldest, if not the oldest, tree in Tennessee.

It is certainly the grandest white oak that I have ever seen. I have been known to travel 200 miles out of the way to see a good tree; this one is only a half-hour away. Pack a lunch, and set your GPS to 1559 Sparta Street, McMinnville TN. Though in human terms, it already has been – – it won’t be there forever.

PS     Right before I put my camera away, a sign on the hospital across the highway caught my              eye. Coincidence? 2014-04-25 18.20.04


Altitude Record Set

At one time a world altitude record was attained somewhere between Scott Field in Illinois and Sparta, TN. The experimental craft was state of the art, lightweight and massive. The solo pilot was considered one of our country’s top airmen. The craft took off at 2:23 in the afternoon, then crashed into trees just outside of Doyle at 5:20 PM the same day. Having traveled three-hundred miles in three hours and three minutes indicates an above-ground speed that sometimes exceeded 100 mph. The curiosity here is Hawthorne C. Gray’s cockpit was made of wicker – – yes, like lawn furniture; Captain Gray was piloting a balloon, the year was 1927.

Captain Gray's balloon was found outside of Sparta, near Doyle TN.

Captain Gray’s balloon was found outside of Sparta, near Doyle TN.

Internet searches on Captain Gray reveal tomes of data. Both Popular Science and Popular Mechanics wrote of his demise. Some accounts say his body was discovered the following morning by a young man who climbed a tree to investigate a downed balloon. Others state that Captain Gray had thrown his oxygen container overboard to try and gain a little more altitude. But one, arcane publication credits Captain Grays death to a milestone. The conclusion was drawn, that at very high altitudes, the human body can’t process oxygen and his death led to the creation of pressurized air suits. Analog gauges on board recorded altitudes at specific times, from those records, it can be concluded that his touchdown was in fact at 5:20 PM and that the temperature in the basket dipped to seventy below during the flight. And he had flown over eight miles high, and averaged almost 100 miles per hour – – in a balloon!

Kudos to Captain Gray, a different kind of pioneer, who lost his life for his country and albeit sad, added more history to CragrockUSA.


The Devil’s Racetrack

On the far side of the plateau from Cragrock, lies what has been described as the single-most prominent geologic feature along Interstate 75 between Sault Ste Marie, Michigan and Miami Devils RacetrackFlorida. Scientists say that this feature was created when the North American and African continents collided. Current estimates place continental drift at a whopping 8/10 inches per year – – which indicates a very long time ago.

The collision caused the plates to split and in the case of “The Devils Racetrack”, they were turned vertically. Over time, the softer rocks dissolved leaving these giant stone slabs protruding vertically above the surrounding hardwoods. It is absolutely astonishing to see and can be viewed from I-75, just north of Caryville.

The lake at Tennessee’s oldest state park, Cove Lake, was constructed to act as a reflecting pool for this mountain. When viewed from the park, there is a serene beauty. Standing on top lends a whole new meaning to the word panorama.

Cove Lake Was built as a reflecting pool for this mountain.

Looking down, you can see Cove Lake State Park.

The Cumberland Trail runs with I-75 and then along the ridge through the Devil’s Racetrack feature. Round-trip from Cove Lake is a moderate day’s hike and one of my favorites. The intense mix of forest vegetation, wildlife, and gradual slope overcomes the noise from the interstate; nature and infrastructure collide – – but the scenery wins. I’ve stood on top and looked down on clouds, birds, and even aircraft.

This is just one more example of why when you live on the Cumberland Plateau, you don’t have to leave home to take a vacation.

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Straddling one of the stone spines at Devil’s Racetrack.

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The property is recovering nicely from a forest fire only five months ago.

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This beautiful double-drop waterfall is quite unique in that it was man-made when the stream had to be re-routed to build I-75. Note the vertical boring marks on the right cliff face.



The Bon Air Spring

The Top of Bon Air Mountain, near Sparta TN, was once home2014-08-13 09.29.55 to a wonderful lodge. Only verbal descriptions of that lodge exists today, but apparently it was grand. Porches lined the perimeter of the lodge and it was positioned on the western-most point of the Cumberland Escarpment. Built close to the bluff’s edge, the lodge afforded fantastic views of the Tennessee Valley below. The popularity of the lodge wasn’t solely for the traveler’s of the Old Stage Road, the waters from the Bon Air Spring allegedly had healing properties. People literally came from adjoining states to bathe and drink the cool water from the spring. All that is left of the lodge are a few cornerstones; it fell victim to the Civil War; both sides claiming that it was a haven for spies – – it was burned to the ground and never rebuilt.

The county has created a pull-off to keep people from blocking traffic on the road while retrieving water from the spring.  In 2004, Junior Forsyth and Carmon Hamby poured a concrete pad with culvert and concrete tables to rest the water jugs as they fill. A local reports having had the water tested; he was told that municipalities would be proud to have water that pure coming OUT of their filtration system. Regardless of rain or season, it takes about two minutes to fill a gallon jug.

2014-03-11 08.59.59It is not unusual to find people waiting in line to capture Bon Air water. Perhaps, at one time, one of those people was Shell Roberts Nyleptha Matilda Bryant. When she died, Shell was the 20th oldest person on a planet of seven billion people.  She grew up on Bon Air mountain, worked and played in the farm fields; now she rests about a half-mile from the spring in the Old Bon Air Cemetery.

No one can say for sure that drinking the water at Bon Air resulted in Shell’s longevity; but I will confide, while I’m writing this post, I am sipping on a glass of that water – – just in case.


The Cragrock Geyser

2014-01-26 14.49.13Along the edge of the Old Stage Road, just a few hundred feet from the Rock House Historic Shrine, near Sparta TN, a pipe erupts through an old metal bucket filled with concrete. Even during the driest of droughts, copious amounts of pure water pour from that pipe. For many years people have claimed that the force in the pipe was artesian. The fact is, farther up the mountain the water is cordoned and funneled through a hodge-podge of pipe miraculously laid through the rocks to a point just above the Rock House. Allegedly this was a refueling point for early trains to take on water for for their steam engines. Later a cistern was erected and the water was used to supply a number of homes in Bear Cove.

Curators at the “Rock House” and many others have drank from the spring. The water is so clear, one might think that a municipal water line had burst. The pipe doesn’t freeze in the winter. The flow doesn’t seem to diminish in the summer. There is no telling how long that spring has flowed and doesn’t seem to tire. The pipe and bucket make a crude fountain, a joy to see and hear.



The Old Stage Road

One of the original east-west routes in the United States took advantage of a natural “low gap” in the Cumberland Plateau escarpment. A few of the original inns along that route still stand, one is located just outside of Sparta TN and is known as the Rock House Historic Shrine. The seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, purportedly used this inn for lodging as he made trips to and from Washington. The Rock House would have been four days from Nashville along that trail, Pleasant Hill, would be yet another day’s travel from here.

The Rock House Historic Shrine. To lend credence to the cliche "They don't build them like they used to" 90% of the roof on this structure is original.

The Rock House Historic Shrine. To lend credence to the cliche “They don’t build them like they used to” 90% of the roof on this structure is original.

Signature of a passing pioneer.

Signature of a passing pioneer.

It is said that the wealthy took refuge in the Rock House, the poor sought shelter under the bluffs along the old road. If you look closely, you will still find hand-scrawled names and dates along these cliffs, some legible, some faded – – all tell part of a pioneer’s life story.

Eventually, the first paved road from the east to west coast carved it’s way through the same low gap as the Old Stage Road. This highway has been deemed the “Broadway of America”, and is still labeled as such on many maps. Spanning eight states and over 3,000 miles US 70 resulted in several cities being built along its path; they flourished until Interstate 40 was completed in the 1960’s. Sparta Tennessee was one of those sizeable towns with many mills, stores and the intersections of major east-west and north-south corridors. Sparta was nominated as the first capital of Tennessee, in fact, it lost by only one vote.  Perhaps it is mere coincidence that the winner of that ballot, Nashville Tennessee, was later dubbed “The Athens of the South” – – and it lies about 90 miles from Sparta.

Cut stone for the largest ruts.

Cut stone for the largest ruts.

Rock House Sign

Rock House Sign

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Look carefully for the scrawling in the center of the photo. Notice the use of “Script”. The date appears to be 1880.


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