Some years back, I got involved in a minor controversy regarding The South.
It was an author, as an endless array of authors seemed to be doing at the time, opining about what a swell town Asheville was. The new had worn off of that topic for me, but I was game and agreed to be interviewed.
The conversation ground to an abrupt halt when he started going on about what made Asheville such a charming Southern town.
I pointed out it wasn’t a Southern town. It was a Mountain town.
There’s a difference.
I won’t go into history. I will go into simple geography.
It’s been sweltering here of late. I checked the temperature late Monday afternoon, and it stood at 90 degrees in Sylva.
Then I checked the temperature in Columbia, South Carolina; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and Raleigh, and came up with 95, 95, 94 and 95. And the heat doesn’t appear to be backing off anytime soon.
This as we’ve just started taking the wrapper off summer.
The difference between the Mountains and the South: Here you can still find a semblance of relief from the heat when it’s summer. Go to Deep Creek and you’ll be hearing the squeals of people from a hundred yards off as they jump into water coming off the heights of the Great Smokies.
I learned from an early age that wasn’t the case once you came down off the mountains in summer. You can cut the atmosphere with a knife. The water is listless and lifeless, except of course there is life, but it’s mostly in the form of cottonmouths and alligators.
Off the mountain, that’s when you’re in the South. People died down there in the days before air conditioning.
Mountain folk had their own air conditioning, but it’s become little but a yard decoration these days. I’m talking about the springhouse.
In search of a homestead, water was the foremost concern, and a mountain spring a prized find. Once located, a structure was thrown over to keep it clear of debris and critters. A lot of times this started as a small log building, but over the years, it dawned on most people wood that’s constantly wet is wood that’s going to rot, so the log buildings turned into stone structures.
Stone holds cold well, and as a result a springhouse was a place for a cool drink of water even on the hottest day. Springhouses were used to store meat and produce that would otherwise rapidly spoil. Being a sort of secretive building usually off by itself and with only one entrance, I suspect they often stored illicit substances of the day best kept away from prying eyes.
Yeah, I’m talking moonshine.
Due to their construction, springhouses were often the last structure standing after a farm had been abandoned. You can still stumble across springhouses, or the signs, in remote areas that are now federal land, the site of one-time homesteads otherwise reclaimed by nature. In some places the springhouse, the chimney and maybe a stubborn patch of forsythia are the only tell-tale signs of someone’s home.
Of course, all is not romance regarding springhouses. I vividly recall helping clean out a springhouse I’d been slaking my thirst from for years. With the cap off, my cousins, who had also been drinking from it for years, were treated to the sight of a good half-dozen salamanders swimming around in our drinking water.
The old-timer on hand put our shock in perspective: “They’re alive, ain’t they? That’s good water.’’ I’m pretty sure that’s a phrase you only hear in the Mountains.
In the South, there might have been an alligator in there. Alive would be a bad thing, I reckon.
Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.