history art frank allison

In the winter of 1934, four Jackson County men embarked on a hunt in the rugged area of The Pinnacle and Plott Balsams. Three came back; the fate of the fourth, Frank Allison, remains unknown to this day.

By Jim Buchanan

Most articles in this history series follow a linear line, with a beginning and an end, a conclusion.

On occasion, there is no real conclusion. Such is the case with the tale of Frank Allison.

The tale begins with a story in the Jackson County Journal of Dec. 20, 1934, headlined “Search for Allison goes on in Balsam Mountains.”

The Journal reported “Parties of men familiar with the rough mountain region north of the Plott Balsams continue to search for Frank Allison, son of Mr. and Mrs. Cary Allison, who disappeared from a party of ’coon hunters early Tuesday morning. But no trace of him had been found up to noon today (a Thursday).”

The Journal detailed that Allison was accompanied by Roy Dills, Charlie Knox and Canary Shepherd to Shut-in Ridge. The group built a campfire and when they heard their dogs tree around 6 a.m., three members of the party followed the dogs while Allison stayed at the fire. When the three returned around 9 a.m., they found Allison’s shoes and socks at the fire. A frying pan was missing.

So was Allison.

The three began searching for Allison. Unable to find him, they “came to the settlement to see if he had returned home, and if not, to get assistance. The search continued throughout Wednesday, and was renewed this morning.

“The weather was very rough in the Balsams during the entire period and the cold is said to have been intense. The range is covered today with a blanket of snow, which hindered the progress of the searchers. Allison, who is in his early 30s, is unmarried. He is a member of one of Jackson County’s oldest and most prominent families. In the party searching for him yesterday and today is his father, Cary Allison, one of the best citizens of Sylva township.”

There was hope that Allison had made his way to Cherokee homes of residents living nearby on the Qualla Boundary, but searchers who went to the home of Sherman Taylor, the nearest home, and to other homes found that Allison had not called on any of them for assistance.

On Jan. 3, the Journal followed up with a story titled “No Trace Found of Frank Allison; Missing 3 Weeks.”

The story detailed how the search had grown, and how the mystery had grown. “Although large numbers of men from Sylva, from the CCC camps in the Smokies, and Indians from the Soco section of the Cherokee Reservation combed the Plott Balsam mountains for days in search of Frank Allison, who disappeared on the morning of Dec. 18 from a hunting camp, no trace of him has been found and members of his family and the people generally are at as great a loss over the mystery as they were in the beginning.”

The story said the men who had accompanied Allison were held for questioning “but they were discharged when no evidence developed that would implicate them in any way in the disappearance of Allison.”

The story noted “The country in which he disappeared is exceptionally rough, and the Shut-in laurel covering many acres with a well-nigh impenetrable wilderness of rhododendron, is near by the place where the camp was pitched.”

As with any such mystery, the episode saw any number of theories and in some cases some loose talk.

Bill Crawford, renowned local historian and genealogist and winner of Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Day Award, said the incident “was the talk of the town. Everybody knew the Allison family.”

One detail Crawford recalls was that there were rumors of Allison showing up in the state of Washington, “but (if that had been the case) we would have found him.”

Drew Hooper of Sylva – Frank Allison was his grandmother’s brother – said “I heard them talk about (the incident) at times when I was little, heard them talking about how he went camping and never did come back.”

Hooper noted, “I didn’t come along ’til 1947,” and the family had perhaps talked all they wanted about the disappearance.

He said one theory some people held involved “suspecting foul play, but they never did find the body.”

After time passed Allison was declared dead, and a marker for him was placed in Keener Cemetery.

As to his fate, the questions asked as 1934 turned into 1935 remain the same.

So do the answers.

Crawford simply put it:

“Nobody knows.”