National Geographic : 1962 Jul
teacher kept school open sometimes one month, sometimes four months. All the Olivers were literate. They taught themselves. There were two essential books in the Cove; one was the Bible, the other the Blue Back Speller. John W.'s father, William H. Oliver, was an outstanding speller. The Cove had a spelling bee last century that people still talk about. It was between Wil liam H. Oliver and Hannah Sparks. William H. finally "spelled her down" and challenged the teacher. Who won, I never learned. When John W. Oliver was a young man, he taught school for three years. The bully of the Cove always seemed to be from one family descendants of a Revolutionary soldier who bought land in the Cove in the 1820's. The folklore of the Cove, long before John W.'s time, was rich in tales of quarrels with the old soldier's rowdy progeny. The family would "fit [fight] a circle saw," it was said. So John W. was quite concerned on his first day as teacher, when one of the clan came with three young sons. "I feared a ruction," he told me. "But the father set thar all day with nary a word." When John W. Oliver dismissed school that first day, the man came up to him and said, "I brung ye three of my brats. I want ye to put the red on 'em. They're survigrous and deserve it. I whup 'em a lot myself." I asked John W. Oliver why he taught only three years. "By then I knowed I didn't know enough to be a teacher." THE OLIVERS are unusual people. William H. Oliver was among those who saw the need for higher education and sent his son, John W., to Maryville to school, then to Louis ville to a business school for a year. John returned to the Cove with ideas. He introduced a full-blooded black Angus bull to improve his stock, the first purebred poul try (Rhode Island Reds), Berkshire hogs, and Shropshire sheep. He studied bees and honey problems and decided that the Cove needed new queen bees. He introduced three-banded Italian queens and saw the productivity of the hives increase. There were brook trout in the creeks run ning through the Cove, but John W. and oth ers thought rainbow trout would be better. They brought in some fingerlings. "Ain't that one more sight," people said. "They'll all go over Abrams Falls and be deader'n four o'clock." But the rainbows lived and in a few years were "bigger'n people had drempt." John W. Oliver was rural mail carrier in the Cove for 35 years. A courier brought mail over the mountain six days a week, and Mr. Oliver delivered it on horseback around the Cove. He traveled 20 miles a day. "He was a mighty fine carrier," Mrs. Wayne Oliver said with a twinkle in her eye. "Some times he had to read the mail to the people who got it. He even had to kill snakes for the womenfolks." Most Cove people were literate then. "Only four couldn't read," John W. Oliver said. "They were Civil War pensioners who could only make an X." One of those was Davis Potter, whose fa vorite expression was "By founds." Uncle Davis, as they called him, built his coffin and made it real comfortable. He liked to get into it and show his neighbors how well it fit. "He also used to lay in it and drink his pop skull [whisky]," John W. Oliver told me. But Uncle Davis lost his coffin. One night his house caught fire, and the coffin burned with the rest. "We saw the fire from across the Cove," Judge Oliver said. "Someone said, 'There goes Uncle Davis's coffin.' " "He was a fine man," John W. Oliver said. "No one ever had any hardness to him." John W. Oliver told me that in his day Witt Shields had "the biggest spread" in the Cove. The Shieldses of Cades Cove were descend ants of Frederick (Fed) Shields and Henry H. Shields, who married daughters of the orig inal John Oliver. Witt was a son of Henry H. Shields, who was quite a tinkerer. Among things he built were a hay baler and a hay loader. One day we stopped on a rise of land that overlooks the old Shields place, and Mr. Oliver reminisced. "Witt was an inventor. He invented a washin' machine run by water power. His wife got caught in hit. Witt heered her holler in' and lit a rag fer the house. Hit almost pounded her to pieces before he got her out." When Uncle Davis Potter heard about the accident, he commented, "By founds, Witt's inventions will kill us all yet." THESE MOUNTAIN PEOPLE usually lived up a "holler," so as to get protection from wind and storms. That is where John Oliver's original home was built. Occasional apple trees mark old homesites. Jonquils bloom where foundations stood.