Dan Pittillo

This is part of a series on Panthertown Valley

It was 1970 when I was searching maps for potential sites to study mountain rock outcrop vegetation. I had spent part of my Ph.D. research working on Piedmont rock outcrops in Georgia and wanted to compare the two regions’ outcrop vegetation.

So I pulled out several U.S. topographic maps, looked for treeless features (white areas within green forested areas). Little Green Mountain was what I needed. W.H. Wagner of the University of Michigan had recently visited Panthertown Valley, and my first visit was with the pteridophyte conference that Wagner organized. Later G.W. “Mac” McDowell and I arranged a reconnaissance trip with the caretaker, Herbert Nicholson.

Immediately, I knew this was a unique area. The two of us checked some of the wetlands, finding a rare spinulose woodfern. It is rare in our region, derived from more northern climates. And then there was Schoolhouse Falls. (Does anyone know the location of “schoolhouse” named for this falls?) What a great refugium it represents! There are both northern beech fern and tropical fern gametophytes – a gametophyte is the alternate living and tiny plant, about the size of your fingernail or less and produced when the spore germinates in a good habitat— of Appalachian shoestring, grotto filmy and grotto felt ferns. These tropical species botanists have classified only in the past couple of decades.

But what intrigued me more in the grotto is a living mycorrhizal mass that had survived there at least half a century! It was about a foot tall, had double humps covered with moss, and initially had roots exposed in a drip.

Do you enjoy mushrooms for your meals? Have you noticed how rubbery fresh ones are? When I’ve visited the site, for more than four decades, I’ve entered a sheltered, damp grotto and patted the side of the mycorrhiza to get a “thuumb, thuumb” sound effect. I’ve never seen such a mix of roots with a fungus, a mycorrhiza, in any other situation.

So how did settlement come about in this valley? I’m presuming it was first either settled or used as hunting grounds by American Indians. But if there has been any significant finds of these early people, I don’t have any knowledge of it.

Probably Panthertown Valley was settled in the 1800s. R.G. Jennings owned the area, including Toxaway to the east.

In 1916, Jerome Moltz and sons began making land purchases in the region. Moltz Lumber Company had an advertisement in the Asheville Citizen in 1917 seeking bids for railroad grading. Moltz then built a 16-mile railroad in the valley and a sawmill in the Lake Toxaway area. Hundreds of workers were hired to peel tanbark from the hemlocks, and others were hired to carry out the logging. During the logging operations, perhaps 100 people had moved into the valley, most probably living in Moltz’s houses.

Rowell Bosse wrote that 50,000 board feet of hemlock and another 30,000 board feet of hardwoods were processed daily at the Moltz sawmill. Moltz’s logging operations continued until 1929. Then in 1942, logging rights were sold by Moltz to Carr Lumber Company.

After the slash dried, one droughty year the area burned in a wildfire. Early on, I noticed charred cedar trees on Little Green Mountain. And Herbert Nicholson told me it burned hot, during his youth.

In the next issue, we’ll see what developed after lumber companies sold out.

Dan Pittillo is a botanical consultant and retired Western Carolina University professor of biology.