They say you shouldn’t submerge your bike in water. But what do they know?
Today I dragged my bike across the Big South Fork River at Station Camp Crossing and made the 16-mile round trip to the headwaters of No Business Creek. It took about six hours; the going is somewhat slow, and I took several pitstops along the way to snap photos of culturally significant points of interest.
When it comes to history and culture in the Big South Fork, there is no better place than this area. More settlers planted roots in the neighboring valleys of Station Camp, Parch Corn and No Business creeks than the rest of the gorge area combined. This was once a thriving community with churches, a school, a store, grist mill and even a post office. Now, nothing remains and nature has reclaimed most of the signs of human habitat.
Crossing at Station Camp is relatively easy this time of year. The current streamflow is only about 250 cubic feet per second as measured at the Leatherwood gauge, which translates into about knee-deep water at Station Camp. The water is surprisingly warm, given the fact that May has not been abnormally warm.
The trip in — paralleling the Big South Fork River for more than four miles — is mostly uneventful. The main point of interest is the site of the Duck Shoals skirmish that occurred in 1863.
The Big South Fork region — like all of Fentress and Scott counties — was strongly pro-union during the Civil War. In fact, Scott County voted to secede from Tennessee after Tennessee voted to secede from the Union. As a general rule, the subsistence farmers of the Big South Fork wanted nothing to do with the war; they simply wanted to be left alone. But with the civil governments far away, it proved to be something of a lawless region during the war, and was susceptible to raids by Confederate guerrillas. One such raid came on the No Business community in June 1863. After plundering part of the community, the band of guerrillas took shelter in the home of Peter Burke along the BSF River. But the settlers of the region were prepared. Led by “Tinker” Dave Beaty, they had formed the Home Guard to defend themselves from just such attacks. That night, members of the Home Guard surrounded Burke’s home and opened fire on the men inside. Of the 13 guerrillas who were holed up inside, seven were killed.
Today, only a wooden marker denotes the spot where the battle occurred. It is believed that the seven men might be buried somewhere nearby, but no one knows the location of their graves.
The river is quiet this evening. It’s a far cry from last weekend, when folks came from far and wide to take advantage of the holiday weekend on the river. I pass a man camping solo at the mouth of No Business Creek and two men docking their canoes just below the mouth of Parch Corn Creek. In both instances, I’m able to slip by on my bike without the men knowing I’m there. And that’s how I prefer it.
A bear track in the sand along No Business Road
The solitude won’t last. As I turn up No Business Road, which was once the main thoroughfare through this farming community, I notice bear tracks in the sand. That isn’t surprising; this is bear country, and I’ve had several encounters with them over the years. This one is fresh; in fact, the bear was the last critter — four-legged or two — to pass through here. I prepare myself for the possibility of running into him.
As it turns out, I don’t have to wait long. A couple of minutes later, I top a small hill and find myself face-to-face with him as he flips over rocks and eats ants. The tracks suggested he was a big brute, and he sure enough is. By the time I can stop to get my phone out of my pocket, he’s long gone, of course. I’m guessing he stopped on the hill, in the undergrowth and just out of sight, to observe my moments, so I ease ahead and hope to get close enough for a picture. But he sees me just as I see him, and he’s gone again.
I have no fear of bears; only a healthy respect. But I also know not to press my luck. If I run into a solo bear, I simply make sure I’m not invading his space enough to make him feel his only option is to defend himself. If I run into a bear with cubs — which has happened just twice — I slowly back away and give her plenty of time to clear the area. Despite our fear of bears — we’re afraid of what we don’t understand, and we don’t really understand bears — they’re among the most docile creatures in the forest. Sure, there have been cases of black bears attacking humans without provocation. But that’s rare. And the bottom line is that if we’re unlucky enough to run into a rogue bear, we’re doomed anyway. They can outrun us. So I don’t worry about continuing on my way. I’ve been attacked just twice by wild animals in the woods, and in neither instance was it a bear. Both times it was a mother protecting her young — once a whitetail deer and once a screech owl.
The first couple of miles of No Business Road from the river is a tough haul. The road — now a horse trail — is rough, rocky, muddy and eroded, as most horse trails are. But after a couple of miles it smooths out and turns into a pleasant bike ride.
It’s hard to believe now, but No Business was an active community as late as the 1950s. There are pictures from the 1970s of many of the wooden structures still standing. Today, those structures are all gone, the split-rail fences are gone, and the fields have been reclaimed by nature. You will occasionally see a wire fence. And, if you know what to look for, you can find foundation stones at the old home places, evidence of where the fields were once located, and other items of cultural significance. For the most part, though, this once-thriving community is now a wilderness.
It’s not hard to tell why the settlers chose this valley. Even now, it’s a rich and diverse biosphere. It’s the heat of day, and the birds are singing loudly in the forest canopy that shades the valley. Wood thrushes — the bird that inspired Henry David Thoreau and one of the most striking melodies of all songbirds found in Tennessee — sing, along with other species that I don’t recognize. A woodcock bursts from cover along the road’s edge and darts ahead of me, settling a short distance ahead only to burst forth again as I near his location.
Clover blooms along No Business Road — perfect food for whitetail deer.
There are multiple stories for how No Business got its name. One version says that the first settler in the valley wanted to stake his claim, and his wife looked over the harsh, unforgiving landscape and told him they had no business living there. Another — the most likely, in my opinion — says that the settlers of this valley, which once numbered more than 100 at its peak, regarded outsiders with suspicion and generally felt that they had no business there.
Whatever the reason, the name stuck. And No Business continued to be a thriving community until after World War II. The official version for its decline? The young men of the community were drafted into service for the war and experienced a life outside the BSF gorge area for the first time. Upon returning home after the war, they wanted to experience the world beyond that they had gotten a taste of, packed up their things, and left for good. In any case, the population of the valley slowly declined until there was no one left.
This was once a field along No Business Creek. Now, nature is doing what nature does — restaking its claim.
Eventually, the John Muir and Sheltowee Trace trails exit the valley to the right. John Muir will continue on to Pickett State Forest, while the Sheltowee — named for Daniel Boone, whose Cherokee Indian nickname was Sheltowee, meaning “big turtle” — will continue on to Morehead, Ky. The Longfield Branch horse trail exits the valley to the left, heading to Terry Cemetery on the plateau above, where many of the settlers who called this area home are buried. The road along the valley floor is not finished, though. It continues on to the headwaters of No Business Creek, where one of the most intriguing stories of the entire history of this region played out.
The entrance to the Ranse Boyatt Farm at the head of No Business Creek.
Ransom “Ranse” Boyatt made his home along those headwaters in the northwest corner of Scott County. His son, 22-year-old Jerome Boyatt, worked for the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company. On an April morning in 1933 — as the Great Depression continued to grip the region — Jerome and several of his neighbors traveled by train to nearby Rock Camp Creek in Pickett County, where the Stearns company had a camp located. An argument broke out between Jerome and his uncle, and it turned into a physical fight. The superintendent of the camp ordered Jerome and the others from No Business into a train car, where he held them captive and phoned for the sheriff, intending to have them arrested. As the sheriff of Pickett County — George Winningham — arrived on scene, shots rang out. The sheriff’s son, one of his deputies, was killed. The sheriff was wounded and was rushed to a Nashville hospital, where he died the next day. Jerome fled into the woods.
For the next month, Jerome hid out in the rugged No Business valley. He killed the lawmen; of that, there has never been doubt. But the reason why is disputed. Some always said that he opened fire, killing the men in cold blood. Others believe the lawmen opened fire, and Boyatt returned fire in self-defense.
Whatever the reason, Jerome Boyatt was a wanted man — wanted by the law, and wanted by vigilantes who were fond of Sheriff Winningham and wanted to see justice served.
As tempers flared in the weeks ahead, Jerome’s parens and younger siblings were taken captive from their home on No Business Creek and imprisoned in Byrdstown, in Pickett County. Ranse Boyatt was ultimately allowed to return home — but his decaying body was later found inside the cabin. The Scott County coroner ruled it a homicide. Evidence suggested he had been hanged. Speculation was that vigilantes had attempted to force him to give up the whereabouts of his son, then hanged him.
The tactic worked. Fearing for the rest of his family — at least that’s how legend has it — Jerome surrendered. He was taken into arrest and housed in the old Scott County Jail in Huntsville. That was May 22.
Two weeks later — June 8, 1933 — the sheriff was away tending to business when a group of masked vigilantes showed up at the jail, overpowering the sheriff’s wife and jailer. Jerome and another man — Harvey Winchester, who, ironically, was in jail for killing a lawman’s son — were taken from the jail. The next day, their bodies were discovered along Hwy. 27 in Helenwood — tortured and riddled with bullet holes. No one was ever charged with their deaths.
All that remains of the Boyatt home is a stone chimney.
The exact facts of the Jerome Boyatt saga will never be known. It is a fact that Sheriff George Winningham and his son were killed, as were Ranse and Jerome Boyatt. It is a story that gripped the small community until it disbanded, and the stories have been passed down in the generations that followed.
This was Ranse Boyatt’s view from his cabin.
Ranse Boyatt is buried in a small family cemetery in the woods near the home. His grave, in 1933, is the last grave in the plot.
Another view of Ranse Boyatt’s double chimney.
Today, the Ranse Boyatt Farm is preserved by the National Park Service as an area of cultural significance. The field is periodically mowed in order to keep it from being reclaimed by nature.
Looking up the chimney at the Ranse Boyatt Farm.
It’s possible to continue up the narrowing valley to Divide Road, which separates the Big South Fork NRRA from Pickett State Forest, but it’s time for me to head for home. The sun is starting to sink and the sky appears threatening as decaying thunderstorms approach from the southwest.
A large cliff towers over No Business Valley. At the left (east) end of that cliff is Maude’s Crack — which is another neat story for another day.
Back along No Business Road, there’s no sign of the bear. It’s easy to get lost on this road — not physically, but mentally; transported back to an earlier era, when folks carved out a way of life here. It’s a shame the remnants of their farms weren’t better preserved when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers purchased this land for the Big South Fork NRRA in the 1970s. Today, we have only a few signs of civilization here and there — enough to whet one’s imagination but not enough to tell the complete story of the lives that were made here.
Cumberland Azalea or flame azalea? I’m not enough of a botanist to know…but either one is pretty unique in this region.
As I near Station Camp, I decide to take a 30-minute pitstop at Parch Corn Creek. Near where the creek empties into the Big South Fork River is the farm of Armstead Blevins. His cabin, originally built in 1881, was one of the last remaining original structures in the Big South Fork when it burned in 1998. Today, only the chimney — now collapsing — remains. A small outhouse, also collapsing, is also nearby.
This chimney is all that remains of Armstead Blevins’ cabin along Parch Corn Creek.
The Blevins cabin was built by John Litton, who was known as an expert cabin-builder. If you’re familiar with BSF and you’re wondering, yes, that’s the same John Litton whose namesake is attached to the Litton Farm northeast of Bandy Creek. Litton died in 1935. For building the cabin, Litton was paid $5.
Another view of the chimney where the Blevins cabin once stood.
Armstead Blevins was the son of Jonathan Blevins — the first white settler in this region, who built the farm that is now Charit Creek Lodge along the headwaters of Station Camp Creek, the next valley upstream. He died in 1897, 16 years after moving to Parch Corn Creek.
A collapsing outhouse at the Armstead Blevins cabin.
Armstead Blevins’ second wife was Helen Terry Blevins. She is buried near the site of the cabin, in what is today known as the Helen Blevins Cemetery. It is unmaintained and is hidden by undergrowth.
Just west of where the cabin stood, there is a natural spring. At some point, fieldstone were used to wall up the spring. In later years, a plastic pipe was used to route water into a large steel drum. The old drum, now rusting away, still lies nearby.
The cabin was lived in until the 1940s, when it was abandoned.
The entrance to the Blevins farm on Parch Corn Creek.
To give an idea of how interconnected the people of this region was, Jonathan Blevins’ first wife was Katy Troxell — allegedly the daughter of “Big Jake” Troxell, a renowned Indian. Katy Troxell (who was not Armstead’s mother; Jonathan Blevins remarried after her death) was known as Princess Cornblossom. Legend — which is disputed — says that Princess Cornblossom’s Cherokee people, most of them women and children, were massacred by white settlers as they hid out under Yahoo Falls in McCreary County, Ky., which is also now part of the Big South Fork NRRA.
The second of the two fields at Parch Corn Creek.
Wild boar have been rooting in the fields at the Blevins Farm.
Looking up into walnut trees in the fields at the Blevins Farm.
Eventually, it’s time to saddle up and make the final leg of the journey back to Station Camp Creek. The river is getting busier as I arrive back at the river access point. It’s Friday evening, and folks are rolling in to camp for the weekend. They give me weird looks as I push my bike across the river. Probably they think I’m an idiot. Probably they’re right. But I saw some pretty cool places.