“When we growed up there in Beech Mountain didn’t have nothin on it. When we growed up in that holler up over there, it’s a different world back there than it is today. We would go back up on the porch at night and hear bobcats scream coming across the mountain – panther sometimes. Believe me, we had a quick trip to the outhouse and back at night.”*
Route 194 is a cliffhanger of a road. Heading South towards Valle Crucis, it winds like a spinning top. Very tall trees densely scatter Valley Mountain. Inch closer to the backside of Beech Mountain and the activity of the High Country recedes rather quickly. Quiet and peaceful, each drive is a Sunday morning getaway to the country. Though numerous paved roads layer the area, rocky dirt roads abound, acting as speed limit signs keeping roadsters in check. Here comes the gliding current of the Watauga River; huge boulders splatter the area like paint flung on a canvas. In this hollow of the Watauga County countryside, it’s easy envisioning the preservation of Beech Mountain’s longstanding heritage.
Beech Mountain has a rich history of Appalachian folklore: storytelling, ballads, folk songs, and handcrafts, practical and artistic. Nestled in between the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains, Beech’s traditions, oral and otherwise, are alive because of the area’s relative isolation. Around the 1960’s, gilding and opulent “tourist resorts, highways, national communications, and consolidated schools” began uprooting traditions engrained in the hearts of Beech folk since the colonial era**. Google Beech Mountain on the internet today, and information pertaining to ski resorts and vacation rentals will pop up rather than folk ballads and Jack Tales. Born
and raised off the backside of Beech, Appalachian storyteller Orville Hicks is preserving tales once told by English and German ancestors, who settled this region in the 18th century. He is the last of the native Beech Mountain storytellers.
Orville learned stories while working beside his Mama on the farm. If he wanted to hear the ending to these tales, well…Orville had to pick up the pace because she would be out of earshot before long. Mrs. Hicks would ask “Youngens, what you want for supper?” They told, and she’d head down to the stocked cellar and grabs canned beans, corn, and whatever else the kids hollered. They kept chickens, a milk cow, and a work horse. Before the blizzard of 1960, the Hickses stocked plenty of food, unbeknownst to helicopters above. A neighbor’s hungry cow met its fate from an emergency package dropped during that blizzard. Ironically, the item dropped was… a bail of hay.
His daddy was plumb strict; he didn’t want any funny (comic) books or checker boards in the house for the children. Orville seemed to get several switchins (whippings with a switch) from his daddy. One of these switchins involved Orville asking his daddy for “Mountain Dew”, which his dad thought was moonshine. While in another story, Orville hits his daddy in the head with a potato and in the process wasted food. These two stories are knee slapping funny when Orville lets in on the details, yet they also show admirable convictions Mr. Hicks lived by.
Mr. Hicks also didn’t want anybody bossing his children around. Once Richard Chase (a historian of Appalachian tales who, in 1943, published The Jack Tales, regarded has an American folktale classic) came to visit the Hicks family to record some tales. While recording Mrs. Hicks’s storytelling, Chase told her kids, who were running inside the house, to go outside and play. It is the dead of winter during this visit, and Orville’s daddy springs off the couch and says, “Nobody tells my boys to get out in the cold but me.” Chase records about three tales before making an untimely exit from the Hicks residence.
Event at Watauga Public Library
On February 16th, Orville Hicks and Julia Taylor Ebel visited the Watauga Public Library. Mrs. Ebel was on hand to introduce Mr. Hicks and promote her latest book titled Orville Hicks: Mountain Stories ~ Mountain Roots, an enjoyable and easy read. (As an elementary educator, I believe this is an excellent biography to study Appalachian culture.)
“If I could do it, I’d go back, grow up and start over again. Seems like this world is moving way too fast today.”
Minutes after making this comment, a cell phone goes off while Orville is in the middle of a Jack Tale named Hardy Hard Head. Now the crowd is feeling a bit tense and somewhat annoyed because this is the second time a cell phone has gone off during the hour and 15 minute event. Orville just pauses patiently and lets out his contagious, genuine laugh, and says, “Let it ring.” With this comment, the crowd laughs and loosens up again. The fidgety woman finds her phone, turns it off, and Orville continues. Within moments, the audience is captivated and back into Jack’s world.
Some consider Jack to be a true American hero. An Appalachian giant-killer, Jack reflects the spirit existing in folks of southern Appalachia. In Orville’s rendition of the tales, Jack is never so hard up as to not help someone in need. Jack is a modest, easygoing individual who looks out for his Mama.
“What would Jack do?” During his life, Orville has asked himself this question many times. Like the storytellers themselves, Jack is witty and clever. Watch out for Jack – Orville too; they might pull a fast one over you. The Liar’s Bench at the Aho Recycling Center, where Orville works, is where people come to swap tells. The name did not emerge from dust.
Would you know he sings too? He’s a fine singer, and I’m not blowing smoke either. He ended the evening at the Watauga Public Library with the tune, Six Nights Drunk, though his title was somewhat different. It is a funny tune. While singing, Orville laughed just as much as the crowd. Imagine how sweet it would have sounded with a banjo and fiddle accompaniment - perhaps a mountain dulcimer too. Golly, the audience would have had a case of the flatfoot (the folk dance, not the foot condition!).
Beech Mountain’s Inhabitants: Legends of Folklore
Stories and folk songs have been in the family for at least eight generations. It’s likely these tales came over seas from England (Hicks - daddy’s lineage) and/or Germany (Harmon - mother’s ancestry) ***. Orville is a descendent of Council Harmon, a legendary Beech Mountain storyteller from the 19th century. Orville’s uncle, Ray Hicks, was a world-renowned story teller. In fact, Ray encouraged Orville to tell his first story publicly. The late Mr. Ray Hicks left his home about once a year to travel to Jonesboro, TN and perform at the National Storytelling Festival. It was there that Ray delighted audiences for a quarter of a century.
Keeping with Appalachian tradition, Ray and his wife, Rosa, were as self sustaining as any family in the 21st century. In 2000, Ray and Rosa still lived an old way of life on Beech with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Each morning, Rosa carried – maybe still does - buckets of spring water into the kitchen and fired up the wooden stove for her family. They grew their own food and gathered herbs for natural remedies.
The Appalachian Collection, located on the fourth floor of the Appalachian State University library, has plenty of resources concerning Beech Mountain folklore:
videos, CDs, books, journals, tapes, and other materials. While researching folklore, the same surnames kept showing up: Hicks, Ward, Presnell, and Proffitt. These surnames combined have shared hundreds of folk songs. (A list of every individual’s contribution of folklore is more fitting for a book than this article.) When Orville
Hicks went to Washington D.C to tell stories, Frank Proffitt Jr. joined him and sang old ballads. Though of Reese, NC, Proffitt Jr.’s father married into the native community. He is credited with the classic ballad “Tom Dooley.” Many instruments have been handcrafted by the community; Nathan and Stanley Hicks made mountain dulcimers and banjos. In March, the Jones House on King Street in Boone, NC will highlight hand crafted instruments. Instruments made by the Ward family will be on showcase. An abundance of folk songs, ballads, and stories have emanated from the back side of Beech. Many a folk song and story collector have made their way to Beech Mountain to hear and preserve traditional music and stories for next generations.
Keeping Tradition Alive
Even when Orville is not telling tall tales, he makes folks smile with his take on the world. The images his words stir up allow the audience to travel to a world that once was – that can never be again. With an institution like the Appalachian Cultural Museum closed and homeless, it is nice to know that folks like Orville Hicks are preserving the heritage of Appalachia. He is the last of the native Beech Mountain storytellers. Is someone going to follow in his footsteps and continue a tradition that goes back eight generations?
Though informative and entertaining, neither a CD nor a book can capture the spirit a live storytelling performance evokes. It is special. To have seen the late, great Ray Hicks, amidst a tale, hold out his long, slender arms as if to hug a big ole’ black bear… To have heard him say “God” in that soft, authentic, Appalachian drawl has if amazed or perplexed…
Orville offers a sound reason to keep these stories going:
“ I think the old tales – ought to keep em going, so this younger generation can learn and know what some of us went through growing up in the mountains – how life really changed.”
Orville’s official website is at https://www.geocities.com/orvillehickssite/
* All quotes – unless otherwise noted - are from Orville Hicks’ performance at Watauga Public Library on February 16, 2006.
** Burton, Thomas G., and Manning, Ambrose N., eds. Folksongs II. Johnson City, TN: Research Advisory Council of ETSU, 1969.
*** McCarthy, William B., ed. Jack in Two Worlds. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1994.
**** Ray and Rosa Hicks: The Last of the Old-Time Storytellers. Written by Jim Kelton. Charlotte, NC: Charles and Jane Hadley Presentation., 2000.
***** Orville Hicks: Mule Egg Seller and Appalachian Storyteller. Boone, NC: Hicks, 1998.
****** Ebel, Julia T. Orville Hicks: Mountain Stories ~ Mountain Roots. Boone, NC: Parkway Publishers, 2005.