Slightly Right

Big South Fork’s No Business is a neat place … but there’s no abandoned town there

Every few weeks, an article pops up on social media — “There’s a hike in Nashville that leads you straight to an abandoned village.” And nearly every time it surfaces, it’s because it’s being shared by hikers and adventurers who want to find this abandoned village of No Business in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

So, let’s set the record straight: No Business is an enchanting place, a beautiful hike, but you won’t find an abandoned village there. That’s a necessary disclaimer because many of those who are planning to make the trip to BSF to hike into No Business are doing so with the expectation of finding a true ghost town. And they will be sorely disappointed. But that doesn’t mean No Business is without a rich history, nor does it mean that No Business isn’t a place well worth hiking to. Let’s get to that in a moment.

The story’s origins

Only In Your State, a travel website that features local points of interest throughout the country but is in reality little more than a clickbait website, published the No Business story on April 1, 2019. That was fitting, because it reads like an April Fools Day joke, even though Only In Your State apparently didn’t intend it as such.

Only In Your State’s authors are compensated based on how many people click on their stories. So, they’re under pressure to constantly come up with new content. Often, the places they feature are places they’ve never visited. Photos are lifted from various online sources — usually, it seems, Flickr — and may or may not directly relate to the subject matter.

In this case, the inspiration for Only In Your State’s article on the No Business settlement seems to have originated from a 2015 story in Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine about “Southern ghost towns.” In it, the magazine briefly profiled No Business:

Eventually that isolation began to take a toll and drove No Business, well, out of business. The remains of No Business—just piles of stone ruins, mainly—are quite hard to find, which goes to show just how removed this town really was. With a good bit of effort and some solid walking shoes, you can reach No Business by the Big South Fork River near Station Camp.

Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine

WBIR TV in Knoxville had mentioned No Business in a story — “Tennessee full of abandoned ghost towns to ‘discover'” — several months earlier. The purpose of WBIR’s article was to debunk the ridiculous story from the Daily Mail in the UK a year earlier, which claimed a hiker had discovered an abandoned town in the Great Smoky Mountains that had been untouched for over 100 years. The Daily Mail’s story on Elkmont was essentially the same as Only In Your State’s story on No Business — although there is at least something physical remaining of Elkmont for first-time visitors to “discover.” WBIR’s headline was somewhat misleading, because No Business is not a ghost town. Within the text of the article, WBIR says that within the BSF, “you’ll find an abandoned town called No Business.” But WBIR correctly points out in the next sentence that, “All that is left of the town are a few stone chimneys and No Business Creek.”

The National Park Service also includes a brief history of the No Business settlement on its website.

From all of that, Only In Your State managed to put together a story that is full of fantasy. As WBIR correctly stated in its story about the Daily Mail’s claims of Elkmont, “[T]alk of secret hidden lands in the most visited national park in the country are obviously too sensational to be true.” The same is true of Big South Fork. I bushwhack in the BSF on an almost weekly basis. I do it because I enjoy finding relics of years past that have largely been forgotten. Sometimes, you can even find things that few — if anyone — alive today knows about. But these are small-scale items, like moonshine still sites and an outlaw’s hideout that I wrote about this week. But a full-scale abandoned town hiding in these woods? No way.

That didn’t stop Only In Your State. The article declares that there is an abandoned town in Tennessee that is “difficult to find, but the dedicated explorer can find it with a little research.” The author adds, “The town is nearly gone, as it’s been abandoned for nearly 60 years, but it’s well worth the trek to find it.” That’s the first indication that she’s never been to No Business and is writing a story based on things she’s read online. Later in the article, the author states, even more fanatically, “The National Park Service states that the town has all but disappeared now, but there are some who claim to have found it along the banks of No Business Creek.” Also, “The spot isn’t marked on any official maps of the park, but legend is that the site is near the John Muir overlook at the end of a small horse trail that follows No Business Creek.”

The Only In Your State story has accompanying illustrations that have nothing to do with No Business, except for a single photo pulled from the NPS’s website. The remaining photos are from Honey Creek Loop Trail on the opposite end of the national park, from Honey Creek Overlook (also along the loop trail of the same name), and East Rim Overlook, nearly an hour’s drive from No Business.

This photo of a home at No Business was taken by Sam Perry in the 1970s and is featured on the National Park Service’s website. Today, nothing remains of the former No Business community.

So, with all that said, let’s examine exactly what No Business is … and isn’t.

BSF’s first settlement

At one point, No Business was home to nearly 300 people. There were grist mills, swinging bridges, a school and church, a store — even a hotel. The community even had its own baseball team.

The history of the settlement, along the banks of No Business Creek, which flows into the Big South Fork River just south of the TN-KY border, dates back to 1796. Richard Harve Slaven, a 19-year-old veteran of the American Revolutionary War, received a land grant in the No Business Valley and built a home near the mouth of Tackett Creek, which empties into No Business Creek a couple of miles west of the river. The Big South Fork and its tributaries, like No Business Creek, are carved deep into the Cumberland Plateau, encased by a 500-ft.-tall gorge that is in most places lined with bluffs and cliffs.

It has been written that Slaven’s home in the remote valley, which is believed to have been the first permanent residence in what is now the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, was essentially a fortress, with rifle slits instead of windows.

One can only speculate whether Richard Slaven was afraid of Indians or the return of war, or if he was merely being cautious. But the Indian hunting parties had essentially disappeared from the region by that time (the Treaty of Tellico, in which the Cherokee ceded their lands in what is now the Big South Fork NRRA to the United States, was signed two years later). In any event, Slaven lived in No Business for the next 44 years. He and his wife, Susanna Mabel Mounts, had at least 10 children. Some genealogy sources cite four more. They had 65 grandchildren and many more great-grandchildren.

No one is sure exactly how No Business got its name, or when. There are numerous stories that have been handed down through the years by word of mouth. One popular tale claims that Indians killed a white man who stumbled into the valley, saying that he had “no business” there. It would be interesting to hear one of the Doublehead Cherokee tribe speak the white man’s language. The more likely source of the settlement’s name came from one of its first residents. As told by retired Big South Fork NRRA Ranger Howard Duncan, a woman who had moved to the valley with her husband told him that they had “no business” being there.

That sentiment is spelled out in the names of the other streams that empty into Big South Fork as you head further north. There is Troublesome Creek, and Difficulty Creek (which was then and is now pronounced “Diffick-ulty” by the locals).

Indeed, life was tough in No Business. There were no hospitals to doctor the sick, no funeral homes to care for the dead. When someone died, their husband, father, brother or neighbor would prepare the body for burial and dig the grave. Sometimes, there were small family cemeteries. Sometimes, bodies were buried in stand-alone graves on the family’s plot of land.

In his book, Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past, historian H. Clay Smith related the story of Reason Slaven — Richard Slaven’s great-grandson who lived in No Business in the early 20th century. Slaven visited a general store in Oneida, the closest town on top of the plateau, and the shop’s owner — Bill Smith — noticed Slaven picking through an assortment of lace. When the shopkeeper asked Slaven if he needed help, Slaven told him he needed to purchase some lace, black satin and tacks.

“By now Bill knew what the hurry was,” Smith wrote. “Reason was buying necessary material for a coffin.”

It turned out that Slaven’s wife had died. He had made the day-long trip from No Business to Oneida to purchase materials to make her a coffin.

“Bill tells how the two large tears that rolled down Reason’s face were enough to break the heart of any man,” Smith wrote.

That story spells out the difficulty of life at No Business. The settlers chose the fertile valley because — unlike the surrounding tabletop lands on the plateau, the bottomland soil was rich and good for growing. Unlike the main gorge carved by the Big South Fork valley, which often flooded, and many of the river’s primary tributaries, No Business Creek — much like Station Camp Creek further upstream, which became home to another thriving community — was wide enough for cropland to be cleared on either side of the creek.

As for why settlers chose this remote, rugged valley rather than the fertile and much gentler New River valley to the west, that’s anyone’s guess. The very first white men who visited the land were hunters — much like the Indians who came before them. Chances are, they liked it enough to stay. Also, many of the earliest settlers had land grants, like Slaven. In addition to grants for wartime service, state governments issued grants for those who were interested in mining for saltpeter. Salt was in great demand in the early 19th century, and there was a supply of it in the Big South Fork area. So for those willing to extract it from the earth, land was made cheaply available after the Tellico Treaty was signed.

As the farms grew, the valley was cleared and a community was formed — complete with the church and school and the other necessary components of a community. The families — nearly all of whom were subsistence farmers — grew their crops in the bottomland, while their livestock grazed the hillsides further up the gorge, near the bases of the bluffs that cap it on either side of the valley.

The end of a community

No Business was a community for almost 200 years. In the beginning, there was no industry; families were subsistence farmers. And while there was a one-room school, there wasn’t much education to speak of. As former Big South Fork archaeologist Tom Des Jean has noted, the gravestones that can be found throughout the national park illustrate a decline in education over the years. The families who came here were relatively educated. But education wasn’t essential in the valley, where the only occupation was working the family farm; there was simply no need for it. As decades past, words that were engraved on the stones — in many cases the only remaining written records of the families who lived there — were misspelled.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industry came to the Big South Fork region. For the first time, there were jobs to be had, both cutting timber and mining coal. Because of this, a new value was placed on education. And literacy rates began to improve — again, as denoted by the headstones that can be found in the region.

In time, the coal played out and the timber supply was exhausted. That, more than anything else, spelled the end of the No Business community. The automobile had come along, helping to connect the remote towns of the northern Cumberland Plateau, though the road into No Business Valley was so rough that those who had automobiles usually left them parked atop the plateau during the winter months, even towards the end.

As America found itself in World War II, the population of No Business was in decline. When the young men from the community went off to war and discovered the outside world for themselves, they returned with little desire to stay in the remote, disconnected community. One by one, the families began to pack up and leave.

By the end of the 1950s, just a little more than 100 years after Richard Harve Slaven died at Tackett Creek, only one man remained at No Business: Dewey Slaven, Richard’s great-grandson. Slaven lived with his “old maid” sister at No Business; neither of them ever married. Slaven went to town twice a year to pick up supplies, like tobacco, and to learn what news there was to be told.

As Smith wrote in his book, “They had no radio, television or any form of communication with the outside other than those who might go there on fishing or hunting business; and, at that, they would never see Mr. Slaven or his sister, as they did not ‘star’ (as they called it) before the fog cleared from the river, and that was usually around 9 a.m. If you should have drifted by their house, you would have found no people more friendly or hospitable than these two; whether you were a relative, friend or stranger, you were welcome to their well-rounded meal, as it is called, and to as many meals and nights’ lodging as you desired, and without charge.”

In 1960, Slaven had fallen ill and was convinced to leave No Business to seek medical help. He would not return. He would die in a physician’s care in Stearns, Ky. Upon his death, Scott County Court closed the polling place at No Business, which it had mainly left open out of respect for Slaven. And, 164 years after Dewey Slaven’s great-grandfather, Richard Harve Slaven, built the first home in the valley, No Business was abandoned.

No Business today

If you had ventured into the No Business valley in the 1960s or 1970s, you could truly have found the remnants of a ghost town. But, one by one, the homes and barns and other buildings there burned, were torn down, or simply collapsed.

Today, visitors to the No Business valley can still find the crumbling stone foundations of homes, metal washtubs that were used at the homesteads, and an old fence made of stone or wire here and there, along with evidence of the stone walls that were built along the creek to prevent it from flooding the fields. Until just a few years ago, there was an old Ford car along the road that the residents of the valley used to travel. It has since been removed.

As Smith succinctly put it in Dusty Bits, the passing or departure of the final residents of the valley “has turned No Business and Parch Corn, together with Williams Creek and Station Camp, over to the fishers and hunters.”

A homestead along No Business Creek is marked by non-native plants and, in the background, a crumbling chimney.
Metal washtubs were an essential part of life in the pioneer era all the way into the 20th century, and one can be found at nearly every old homesite.

The Jerome Boyatt saga

There could be an entire book written about the No Business valley’s most colorful story, the lynching of Ranse Boyatt and the murder of his son, Jerome. In fact, a book is being written by a California author with local ties, Lisa Coffman.

The Boyatt saga still runs raw among local residents who are descendants. It dates back to the Great Depression era in the Big South Fork region. Like many residents of No Business and surrounding communities, Jerome Boyatt worked in the coal mines. He was employed at a coal camp operated by the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. at nearby Rock Creek — just across the ridge from the head of No Business Creek, where his family lived.

All that remains of the Ranse Boyatt homestead at the head of No Business Creek is the home’s chimney. The National Park Service keeps the field cleared.

In April 1933, Jerome and his uncle, Albert Boyatt, argued at the coal camp. A fight ensued and the superintendent phoned for the police. Pickett County Sheriff George Winningham and two of his deputies — one being his son, Floyd — arrived at the camp near dark that night. What happened next is speculation; some say Jerome fired first with the .45 caliber semiautomatic pistol he was carrying; others say it was Winningham or his son who opened fire. Either way, both Winninghams were shot. Floyd died immediately. His father died the following day at a Nashville hospital. Boyatt’s cousin, Ted Boyatt, was wounded.

Now wanted for murder, Jerome Boyatt fled into the woods and spent the next month as a fugitive near his home in No Business valley. Many of the residents of the area — both family and friends — secretly supplied Jerome to help him stay on the lam. A large posse was formed but was unable to locate him. In an effort to extract information from Jerome’s family, Pickett County law enforcement rounded up his parents and siblings from their farm on No Business and held them in captivity in the county seat of Byrdstown.

After some time, Ranse Boyatt was allowed to return to the family farm to take care of chores. He was later found dead, having been hanged. Perhaps fearing for the rest of his family, Jerome Boyatt finally turned himself in to authorities on May 22. He was taken to the Scott County Jail in the county seat of Huntsville. Two weeks later, on the night of June 8, he and another prisoner — Harvey Winchester, who was also accused of killing a lawman’s son — were taken from the jail by two dozen masked vigilantes. The next day, their bullet-riddled, tortured bodies were discovered near U.S. Hwy. 27 in nearby Helenwood.

(As an aside, another of George Winningham’s sons, Willie Winningham, was the sheriff of Clinton County, Ky., not far from Big South Fork. Just one month after Boyatt’s murder, he was also killed when he was shot by a wanted man who he was trying to take into custody.)

The story of Maude’s Crack

One of the passageways into No Business valley can be found at Maude’s Crack.

At the end of the ridge that divides No Business valley from Parch Corn Creek valley, there’s a narrow passageway through the cap rock along the rim of the gorge. The rock fissure, created by time and erosion, is just wide enough for people and animals to pass through to get from the top of the cliff to the bottom, making it one of the few places along this stretch of the gorge where entry and exit are possible. Today, there’s a rope in place to help adventurers up and down the steep and slippery passageway.

Maude’s Crack is named for Minnie “Maude” Roysden, who is buried in Terry Cemetery nearby, alongside her preacher husband. As the story goes, Roysden discovered the fissure in the cliff line when taking lunch to her husband and his fellow timber cutters, who were logging in the river gorge. The men couldn’t understand how Roysden could get the food from her home atop the plateau to the gorge while it was still warm, until she told them about the shortcut she had discovered — the natural passageway through the cliff line.

Exploring it for yourself

The Only In Your State story makes it sound like No Business is carefully hidden and can only be found with lots of exploring. Nonsense. It’s easily found by anyone who has a day to spend hiking in the remote Big South Fork backcountry.

To fully explore No Business, plan on enough time for a 6.0-mile hike with around 600 ft. of elevation gain. You’ll have to ford the creek on a couple of occasions, and plan on allowing yourself some extra time to explore and admire the scenery.

Getting there: The hike begins at Terry Cemetery, off Divide Road in the northwestern part of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. From Jamestown, Tenn., take S.R. 297 north to S.R. 154, and S.R. 154 north to Divide Road. Take Divide Road northeast and follow the signs for Terry Cemetery Road, which is the third gravel road to the right off Divide Road (so named because it separates Big South Fork NRRA from Pickett State Forest and Daniel Boone National Forest). From the time you leave the main highway (S.R. 154), Terry Cemetery is about 10 miles and a 30-minute drive. Directions can easily be obtained by inputting Terry Cemetery, Oneida, TN on Google Maps.

The hike: Parking for the trailhead is available at the rear of Terry Cemetery. From the vehicle, head east along the ridge top. The gravel road that cuts left is Longbranch Trail, an equestrian trail that is the way back out. Instead of taking that option, continue straight through the wooden barricade that prevents horses from continuing along the ridge top, and follow the narrow footpath along the ridge as it narrows.

After about a mile, you’ll come to an unprotected overlook. Step over to the left of the ridge top (be careful; it’s a long way down and there are no safety railings) and admire the gorgeous, panoramic view of the valley before you. That’s No Business valley, once the home of more than 300 people. Once you’ve admired the view, look for the entrance to Maude’s Crack to your right. The passage way is very narrow, very steep, and very slippery. There will be a rope to assist you down.

At the base of the crack, follow the unofficial (but plainly visible) footpath to the John Muir Trail a few hundred feet to the east. When you reach the John Muir Trail, go left, following the trail down the hill towards No Business Creek.

When you come to the creek, there is a wooden footbridge across it. Immediately on the other side, you’ll notice the first signs of the former settlement: a stone foundation. This was the site of the last house on No Business Creek. Just beyond that, the hiking trail intersects with the old road that once ran through the settlement — now an equestrian trail. Go left and follow the road up the valley (it’ll be muddy and rocky in spots).

Along the way, you’ll notice more signs of the former settlement, most of them off-trail if you venture a short distance from the trail. The most noticeable sign of the former settlement are the fields which are now reforested by early growth.

Eventually, the road through the valley will cross a stream. This is Tackett Creek. It was near here that Revolutionary War veteran Richard Harve Slaven built the first house at No Business. There is no bridge; you’ll have to ford the creek.

Eventually, the John Muir Trail departs the equestrian trail to the right. Do not take the footpath; continue along the horse trail.

When you come to Longfield Branch, you’ve reached the point where you’ll want to climb back to the top of the plateau. However, before you do, continue up the valley to the Ranse Boyatt farmstead. All that remains is the stone chimney and a small family cemetery.

Back at the Longfield Branch Trail, you’ll again have to ford the creek, then begin the climb back to the top of the ridge and Terry Cemetery.

In the meantime, if you want to visit a truly abandoned structure in the Big South Fork NRRA, check out the John Litton Farm.

An equestrian trail follows the route of the original road through No Business valley (this is near the head of the valley, near Longfield Branch Trail).

Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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