Hopkins County Folk Lore
By Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland
There's a place on the Trade Water River, right on the border, between Hopkins County and Caldwell County known as far back as anyone can remember as the Cut Off. Now there may be some dispute and some may lay claim that it's in this county or that county, but "give a yard or two" either way and most everyone would be right. Don't ask me why it was called that; no one seems to remember how it got the name.
There are a couple of ways to get there but the easiest is from Dawson Springs. Begin your trip heading west on Hwy. 62. About a mile down the road you would want to watch for the sign that lets folks know they can get to Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church if they take a right. This road begins your tour of the community known as Whitey, so named for the one room white schoolhouse that used to stand further down this road. You willll pass mailboxes pasted with little gold squares neatly spelling out the names of BUNTIN, DAVIS, BOARDS, MCGREGOR and more. Neat frame houses and brick ranch homes are nestled among manicured lawns with open pastures sprawling out behind them. In older times, most of the people were farmers who raised food for their families, and sold cattle, hogs and tobacco at the market. If you knew just where to look fifty or so years ago, a person could have stolen upon a copper "whiskey still" hidden in the deep woods. Creeping upon stills hidden in the woods was not a good idea! Not if you wanted your pants to stay free of buckshot and your backside in relatively good enough condition to sit down for Sunday dinner.
A couple of miles down the road you'll find the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church. The site of the old one room schoolhouse is across the way but no sign of it is visible from the road. Stay straight, you'll be there in just a couple more miles. Along the way the houses begin to thin out as you near the river. In the springtime Wild Tiger Lilies stand in tall regiments gently bobbing back and forth on long slender stems. Profusely dressed in bright orange finery, the traveler seems to be saluted by them as one drives past. The woods become thicker now, crowding the edges of the road and somehow in their density the countryside belongs to them once more. Assuming the color of dark, smoky green, the trees have shadowed the roadway in dappled patterns of shade and light. If you become still you can detect a subtle change in the air itself. Stretching bladed arms skyward in hopes of finding that one patch of speckled sunlight blinking through the foliage, bushes and grasses compete for space along the sides of the road. All is quiet.
Descending around a gentle curve and hill you can see the flat "bottoms" begin almost immediately. There, on your right! You've almost missed the Cut Off! It's hard to see where the slanted descent to the bottom of the riverbank begins these days. Those same trees and underbrush are at last reclaiming the wide path that used to be here. Standing by the river now, it hardly seems fair to call this wide stream a river. The bank flattens out at the base and extends a little ways into the water creating a perfect picnic area.
In the days when I was a youngster, the road above would be lined with cars and bicycles. Down below the murky green water would be crowded with bodies young and old. There was a perfect place for the toddlers just off the flattened out bank. The water was ankle to knee deep and many a child spent long lazy hours digging for mussel shells on the bottom. Just around the bend, heading towards the bottoms, the river became deeper for awhile before assuming it's guise once more as a wide creek.
In these deep places, huge trees bent over the water loaning their overhanging branches for the express purpose of hosting rope swings. A rope swing was just one rope, looped and tied over the branch with the length left hanging down. Mastering the rope was great fun. One would simply grab the rope and backstep up the riverbank as far as the rope would let you go. Then you had to run forward as fast as you could until your feet left the ground and the rope propelled you high over the water. Boys competed against each other and accomplished many a fine somersault from the rope ending in a perfect dive into deep water. What was more fun, however, was to watch as a trick went "backwards" sending the would be Olympian into a huge belly flop that broke the surface with a gigantic splash.
Housewives and older women waded and even swam in dresses. I still recall the flowered prints floating around their waists while hurried hands pushed and stuffed the offending garment below the water to be held in place between the legs. Men in overall's watched from the shade and traded crop stories while smoking cigarettes and spitting tobacco at the nearest log.
The local boys whose bicycles could always be seen lying in the bushes always brought the family pooch. High pitched squeals of laughter from the tots; men smiling under straw hats and women craning forward with huge grins heralded the "throwing in of the dog." Some dogs stepped up to the plate and did what was expected of them. They swam after sticks thrown by their young towheaded masters and bailed off the bank as if their tails were on fire. Other dogs just came along to visit. Lounging beneath the ample shade, panting with tongue lolling out, they just came to get scratched behind the ears while enjoying the company of humans. Those mutts never seemed to learn that their leisure time in the shade was limited. A dog like this never got to snooze on the damp cool bank for long. He would be bodily snatched up, taken to the water' s edge and unceremoniously thrown into the drink. A non-water-loving dog couldn't wait to climb out of the river. Some poor unsuspecting person, sitting in dry clothing minding his/her own business and who, by the way, hadn't even laughed when the dog got dunked, suddenly became the enemy. The shaggy wet mass would take himself to this person and shake his whole body furiously sending sprays of water into the hair, eyes and clothing of the innocent person. This brought about unabashed laughter from the children and heated words from the recipient of the canine shower.
I know deep down inside that one dog in particular chose his victims on purpose. He was lazy to a fault and I remember him well. Matted gray hair with large spots of black, he was old and ugly. This critter followed no one to the river. I think he deliberately came alone. His height was about knee high to a jackrabbit and I could tell by the way that he eyeballed the crowd that he was up to something. I have no doubt he was cunning and sly. Just think about it. It was as if the dog, now drenched and shivering, just couldn't stand it knowing that the one dry person on that whole riverbank wasn't as cold and wet as he was. I stand by my claim with further evidence that the dog knew exactly what he was doing when he beat a trail back up the bank. He always ran through dry blankets spread upon the ground waking sleeping babies, scattering towels and clothing, and leaving a path of muddy prints and dripping water in his wake. Don't tell me that dog didn't know what he was doing and he enjoyed every bit of it. Just maybe the dog had it all planned before he ever came to lay in the shade in the first place. Maybe he had already chosen his victim as he nosed his way down the bank. Pretending to be dozing, he was actually perfecting his strategy of crime.
The Cut Off was the unofficial-bathing place for the farmers and miners of the time. In warm weather, the men took soap, towels and clean clothing to wash away the sweat and grime from long hot days in the fields. Coal Miners, looking for all the world like raccoons with coal dust covering faces, hands and necks, stepped out of clothes stiff and black and assumed their favorite places in the cool emerald water.
Back as far as anyone can remember and even up to the 1940's, women used the Cut Off as a place to do the family wash. An iron kettle would be brought and a fire built from sticks and deadwood along the river. The clothes were first washed in hot soapy water and then rinsed in the river. Great care was administered by the ladies not to "stir up the bottom" thereby tinting the freshly washed clothes with silt from the riverbed.
The Cut Off was also a place for young lovers to park and smooch. In the dark night parents could drive slowly by and gaze upon the cars parked in succession up and down the road. Shaking his head in the telling of it, one old gentleman, (forgetting that he had "sparked" his wife in this same place over 60 years ago) related that he had seen as many cars at the Cut Off on a Saturday night, as there was at the last drive-in he had attended. I heard years ago that a rough set of teens was hanging out there and the place was being patrolled. For whatever reason the kids don't park there much any more and that's a good thing. I was through there on a Saturday night several years ago and the place was dead quiet. I remembered when all the cars would be keeping company with the roadside ditches and youngsters were seen sitting on the hoods of those long, heavy automobiles. Suddenly I was somehow gratified when I saw a lone, black car sitting on the side of the road. My husband and I looked at each other silently, a smile; almost indiscernible began to tug at the corners of my mouth. Then without any words at all, he leaned heavily on the horn as we flew by the parked black car seemingly vacant of passengers.
The little river becomes a monster when the floods cover the bottoms and the current turns vicious with rushing brown water. Many people have lost their lives in this place. It's a humbling experience to see this friendly little stream climb her banks and overflow into the road and fields beside it. River backwater is quite something different than creek backwater. Huge logs, limbs and debris careen wildly through the swift water and the Cut Off is under water then. The current of the river flows through the backwater as well. When trying to negotiate vehicles through the backwater, people sometimes find their cars lose power and the engine dies. Without the driving force the cars can be pulled right towards the river. Panic has been known to set in and these people leave the cars and try to walk to dry land. The current sucks and pulls at one's legs drawing them under the water or into the main current of the river. Deserted cars and trucks have been found in the middle of the flooded bottoms. On quite a few occasions the owner's bodies were found down stream.
The Cut Off was the scene for baptizing until the nearby churches installed baptizing pools in their sanctuaries. Preachers always wore long sleeved white shirts for some reason. They also carried a white handkerchief for covering the mouths of those about to be laid backwards into the water. Usually the preacher had a helper who stood in the water as well. This was always a man and most commonly a deacon or elder of the church. He wore a white shirt too. I still wonder why. Wading out about waist deep, the preacher always delivered a little sermon reciting from the Bible of Jesus' own baptizing. These events usually took place after the church had its revival and there were many lost souls who "had got saved" and now needed to be "washed clean of his sins."
Women wore dresses back in those days. There were no white baptizing gowns sewn with weights in the bottom to keep them from floating up. The women were usually escorted a few steps into the water by a man posted there just for that duty. The reformed sinner stood between the preacher and his helper. Raising one hand over his/her head, the minister announced to the heavens above, "In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ." Now days, Baptist preachers use the words Holy Spirit instead of Holy Ghost. I don't know when it changed or why but I figure it's all the same anyway.
Placing the handkerchief over the nose and mouth, and with the aid of the helper, that person was lowered backward into the water until complete submersion had taken place. Most people came up just fine but there have been many that didn't make the transition in a state of bliss. Some came up coughing and sputtering water and gripping the preacher for dear life. Twice I saw a person panic and came up swinging and fighting. Both times it was a woman. Of course this afforded we children with great entertainment if something of this sort happened. Naturally, being children we didn't take into consideration the absolute fear of drowning these poor women must have been experiencing.
One man however provided all the entertainment we kids needed for a whole season of baptizing. He went into the water "shouting" and in his loudest voice, singing hymns. It was all the minister and his helper could do to contain him long enough to dunk him good. Upon his immersion he broke free of the minister and stomped around in the water. Suddenly, with lowered head and arms forming a teepee over his head, he dove headfirst under the water. He came up in a few seconds, flipped onto his back and began to backstroke up the river at a tremendous clip. His hearty "Hallelujahs" began to dim as he swam out of sight around the bend. I still remember that through his baptizing and his famous swim up the river, his black, horn-rimmed glasses remained on his face. He wore a white, long sleeved shirt too.
We didn't dare laugh out loud or even giggle. We had been instantly warned as to what would happen to us if we did by long level looks shot our way by tight lipped parents. For some reason their faces were all screwed up as if they were chewing on something sour. Now I don't mean to say that these baptizings were anything less than sacred for they were. As we grew older and learned the true meaning of the ritual, we came to exhibit the proper respect and decorum these serious occasions called for. As children though, we gleaned a certain amount of satisfaction however in the fact that our parents could talk about nothing else as we drove away. As usual I had all kinds of questions about the event. I wanted to know then and there how come the man went backstroking up the river. I got into trouble for asking as usual, but was told that this man was just worshipping in his own way. I vowed, as I'd like to do my worshipping in the river instead of always having to do it in the church. That, as you might expect, brought on another lecture. I still wanted to know why grownups could talk about the man who was "maybe swimming away from sin" and even smile about it, while we kids couldn't get by with even a whisper. Not even a gapped tooth grin was allowed, although it would have been squeezed out from behind hands ready to catch a sneeze! Needless to say, I just didn't know when to leave well enough alone.
One of these fine days, when the sun is hanging at twelve noon and the heat of the day invades my body like a fever, and the dead air lays heavy upon my skin, sticky, like melting cotton candy, I'll take myself on down to the Cut-Off. I'll stretch myself out in the clear, green water and become revived. Water, lazily kissing the riverbank is the only sound I will permit myself to hear. If I'm very still, if I don't open my eyes, if I become saturated with silence, is it possible that I could be carried back in time? Having witnessed events of yesteryear, could those gnarly old trees above me and slippery mottled rocks beneath me, somehow call up silent memories that live here still? If my body and mind become filled up with the timelessness that is here, surely the spirit of this place could somehow take me back to those long ago times. Then, perhaps, and I know not how, but in some mystical fashion, those people of days gone by would once more crowd the riverbank, their laughter fanning out far and wide, drifting across the bottoms of the Cut Off.
Additional photos taken but not used for this story will be found here. Info about the location of the 'Cut-Off' will be found here.
Copyright © 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
All Rights Reserved
All photos © 2000 by Nancy Trice
All Rights Reserved
Nancy Trice, © 2000