Back in our student days, my friend Dona and I often rode our bicycles out Speedwell Road and then up Cullowhee Mountain.
When we told our landlord, the late Lester Adams, where we’d been, he told us we’d ridden out Wilson Creek. Even though the state road sign said “Cullowhee Mountain Road,” Lester called it Wilson Creek, and that was good enough for me.
Coincidentally, when my husband and I were looking for land to buy several years later, the property we found was on Wilson Creek; we’ve now lived there for more than 36 years.
Those of us who live out that way don’t get our electricity from Duke Energy; we buy power from Western Carolina University, which once generated power for both the college and the nearby community by means of dam and power plant on the Tuckaseigee River. While WCU no longer generates power, it still sells electricity that it purchases from Duke. When the power goes off on Wilson Creek, we call WCU to report it. For years, we’d say the power’s out on Wilson Creek, and someone would say they were working on it, or they would check on it.
At least that’s how it was until a cold morning in January 2010 when I called to report a power outage on Wilson Creek. The person I was talking to was obviously confused. “We’ve heard it’s out on Tilley Creek, Pressley Creek and Cullowhee Mountain, but no one’s said anything about Wilson Creek.”
Finding out that “Wilson Creek” was fading into history as a place name made me want to know more about how it came to be called that, especially since all the maps indicate the creek through the area is Cullowhee Creek. Fortunately, at that time, the right person was available for me to call: R.O. Wilson, who lived on Wilson Creek from the time he was born until his death this past November.
R.O. told me then that our section is called Wilson Creek after Henry Wilson, his ancestor who settled there in the early 1800s. Henry, who died around 1856, was R.O.’s great-grandfather. According to R.O., “Old Man Henry” came from the eastern part of North Carolina as part of the western migration and at one time owned some 600-700 acres. Henry Wilson’s land grants date from the 1830s, which means he was one of the first to move into the area after it was opened to white settlers.
R.O. lived on a portion of his great-grandfather Henry’s land, and he told me in 2010 that Wilson Creek is what it’s always been called.
“Wilson Creek is the left-hand prong of Cullowhee Creek,” he said. “There’s Tilley Creek, Pressley Creek and Wilson Creek.”
R.O. said Henry had three or four brothers who came west at about the same time but settled in different parts of the county. One of Henry’s sons, R.O.’s Uncle Tom, went to Big Ridge, but two other sons, William and Enos, who was R.O.’s grandfather, stayed on Wilson Creek. Enos died in 1916, and his son, R.O.’s father Thomas Cleveland Wilson, died in 1958.
There’s a beech tree in the woods above our house that R.O. carved his name in more than 60 years ago. Beech trees have smooth bark for a very long time, a quality that makes them perfect for carving. Nicknamed initial trees because of this feature, beeches are common throughout the Appalachians. Our tree has a collection of names, dates and inscriptions, including those of all three of our children. It even has a large “Go Rebels,” no doubt carved by a 1960s Cullowhee High loyalist. When our daughter Elizabeth was 3 or 4, she dubbed it the “name tree.”
One particular name and date always stood out. “R.O. Wilson, March 13, 1933.” When I met R.O. during the 1980s at the old Speedwell General Store, I asked him about the inscription and when he carved it.
After some consideration he allowed as how he contributed his mark to the tree sometime in the late 1950s. The date below his name is his birthday.
“I was by myself,” he said. “I must have been off in there ginseng hunting.” It didn’t take long to add his biographical sketch to the tree’s index, he said, only a half hour – or maybe 45 minutes.
R.O. knew even more about the tree’s past; when he carved his name, he could still read an inscription from 1929 that has long since grown up and out of view.
“Remember well and don’t forget the summer of ’29 – C.C. Hooper” it read.
The directive was carved by C.C. Hooper, who was a boy back in 1929 when the Great Depression hit. Hooper was hoeing corn with fellow Wilson Creek resident Fred Bryson the day he decided to preserve a little history on the beech tree, R.O. said.
The field where Hooper and Bryson hoed corn was a thick stand of pines when I first encountered the name tree, and R.O. remembered when those pines were set out back in the 1940s. Many of the pines were cleared around 2000 to make way for a house.
As far as our name tree is concerned, it’s not unusual. “People have carved on beech trees for years,” R.O. told me a few years ago. “It was kind of a custom in those days for people to carve their names like that. There’s a lot of old beech trees throughout the land with carvings and markings.”
Our tree was about 24 inches thick when he carved his name, R.O. said. It’s closer to 3 feet these days.
R.O., who built a traditional log cabin for the Mountain Heritage Center and demonstrated cross-cut saw techniques many September Saturdays at Mountain Heritage Day, will be remembered by many. I’ll think of him whenever I pass our name tree and wish I’d asked him more questions while I had the chance.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.