Hemlock, North Carolina
Hemlock is what is now Macon County, North Carolina.
In about 1820 they made a new county from the eastern tip and named the county for North Carolina’s native son, and 7th president of the United State of America. and renamed Psyke, for a local land owner, Macon.
A couple of decades later they broke off the tip and named it Cherokee County. We are not concerned with Macon and Cherokee, or even the Cherokee Indians for whom its named.
In the mid 1700’s, the eastern end of North Carolina was wild, “Indian Country”. As Europeans pushed in, it was disorganized clumps of farmers in no particular grouping or sense of formal society.
In 1786 a Greek professor, named Alexandros, possibly disgraced, but in any case a recently retired from a small college in New England. Sometimes it was rumored to be an ivy league school, but in the late 1700s most of the North Eastern colleges were possibly more ivy league than the eight we know today as The Ivy League.
Hemlock College stands where one would expect to find the courthouse, in the center square. Three stories and two wings of red Georgia clay bricks. The floors are made of thick oak beams, planed on three sides with the rough debarked tree for the ceilings There twenty windows on each side on each floor with drafty hand-made glass panes strung together sixteen to a sash. Two hundred and thirty years have eroded and discolored the bricks to a fuzzy burnt orange.
Only the Square is not a square. It is nearly a perfect circle, surrounded by other rings of streets.
The four compass points are streets that cut clear through 10 blocks in each direction. All the other streets are no longer than one or two blocks, creating a labyrinth effect. When Hemlock was at its peak as the cultural center of the new white communities of western Carolina, the population and the business district temporarily overflowed this careful pattern and beyond the 21 block circular core ran dogcart paths helter-skelter with shacks and shanties.
Today the town has shrunk back to within these neat circles, though sections are in disrepair. The college is gone, though the building remains a hulking shadow in the heart of the dying town. Most of those of an age to attend college have also fled. There will soon be no one left to tell the legends and to sort the myth from the truth.
The old man built the college. He was no older than I am today, but then, a 56-year-old man with a massive white beard, well down his chest and a crumpled black dress hat, was old.
Hemlock College was the first free university in the south. Every white male in the surrounding hills and valleys of 16 years or more who could read and write was eligible to attend. By 1801, Alexandros controlled the entire western end of the state. The region was broken into three counties, the westernmost, (today’s Cherokee, Graham and Clay) was called Chaos. The main town was established by students of the old man. They named in Pathos.
To the North was a third county, Dismal, and its county seat, named by other students and devotees. The county seat was called Alítheia or Greek for “Truth”. Hemlock’s own county was named Psyke. A slight misspelling of the original, but as it was the first of the counties to be named, the professor felt he needed a word with the meaning he wanted but not too far in appearance from a common name (Syke).
Today, Dismal is Swain County, and little remains of Dismal, Chaos, Pathos, Alítheia, or Psyke, except a granite stone set in the orange brick well with this saying,
”From Chaos to Dismal’s Alítheia, one must past through Hemlock.”
The professor was taken with the fact that both the rare and native tree, the Carolina Hemlock grew in close proximity to the transplanted and deadly hemlock bush. There was a great scandal in the 1820s, with the professor and some of his young students involved in the rape and murder of either a native American girl, a slave girl or possibly even one of his own male students. The details have been lost.
The legend has it that he and about a dozen young students who were suspected in the incident, upon hearing that lawmen were riding out from New Bern to arrest the lot of them, chose to sit on the grand steps leading into the main hall of Hemlock college and drank a cup each of freshly crushed hemlock, the bush. The professor had insisted on a hedge along the western order of the grounds be planted in poisonous hemlock. The old man, and the young students relaxed into their deaths.
The college died with those men. There were attempts to reopen, but the longest run was as a negro school in the 1870s, but in 1885, that school moved to a less troubled locale.
Today, you can trace you fingers over the interesting lines etched in the granite stone, you can sit on the weathered steps or peek through the windows of the first floor and see what 200 years of disuse can bring. What you will not find, other than a few circular streets, any reference to the professor, to the victim of the group nor to the men who took their lives on the front steps.
Great Salt Ridge
The Great Salt Ridge runs roughly from Memphis Tennessee to Mobile Alabama. European settlers learned from the Native Americans of various salt outcroppings as they moved into the region. Salt is a was a key component to human life.
Today we hardly give the salt shaker a second glance unless it is either empty or, as in my case, our doctors have told us not to touch it. The it sits on the table like the hole from a recently missing tooth, with our minds metaphorically flicking out to the shaker again and again. But it was not always this way. There are legends of a man in Frankfort Kentucky buying up all the salt and making a fortune by jacking the price up to more than double its normal cost.
The point is these salt outcroppings or flats or pits or ridges were of great value, and well-marked. Towns were built around them. Morton, yes, really, Morton, Mississippi, Laurel, Carthage, in fact, Carthage was named for the salt, or at least the legend of the ground of old Carthage being salted in defeat. Around the town square, chunks of salt lay on the ground, and it reminded some local scholar of the tale of the destruction of Carthage.
Morton, on the other hand was named for the salt Company. The village predated the salt company, but as was common in Mississippi around 1900, many villages sprung up without any real names. Some, like my family’s home village of Soso, Mississippi were intentionally named by a quirk of fate, others were called by various titles until one stuck. Morton was named by a wholesale foods dealer who opened a store there and painted a large Morton sign on the side of the building, probably as a co-op with the young Chicago salt company.
Again, as salt was common around the town, folks started calling the town Morton. It is unclear whether the wholesaler actually sold much salt, as it would have been equivalent to “selling ice to the Eskimos”. The wholesale company has long been out of business, and the building burnt down from a hobo’s fire in about 1968.
In 1963, a team of geologists noticed the more or less straight line of outcropping and did a little research to determine they were connected. This was of interest to the geologists as salt is sometimes a precursor to oil deposits. Oil was found, and is pumped from the ground to this day in south Mississippi.
In 2008, a team of scientists working at the University of Mississippi realized the salt ridge was an ancient river bed, probably the river that drained the Midwest until a series of earthquakes changed the topography of the region south of Memphis and creating the valley that cradles the Mississippi today. The great ancient river stopped flowing and the waters evaporated and then over a long period of time as hurricanes and storms would flood the coast, the ocean water would flow back into the valley of the closed off river, again, over time evaporating, until after thousands or possibly millions of years, the bed of salt built up. Then the earth broke and shifted again, pushing ridges of the old river bed up above the ground.