A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

No families have lived in the Cataloochee Valley for more than 80 years, and yet a church bell is ringing on a Sunday in August. The sound carries along the

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

No families have lived in the Cataloochee Valley for more than 80 years, and yet a church bell is ringing on a Sunday in August. The sound carries along the

Catching Up in Cataloochee

No families have lived in the Cataloochee Valley for more than 80 years, and yet a church bell is ringing on a Sunday in August. The sound carries along the creek and up the ridgelines. As do the voices from the pews of the little Methodist chapel, the one long ago abandoned, the one carrying the name of a family who used to make a life here before all the families vanished.

They didn’t vanish, really. They took the winding road out in the late 1930s and early ’40s, their lives packed in trunks or left behind. They slid into other tucked-away communities or edged closer to Waynesville. They moved on and started over. Yet now, on a Sunday morning in another century, they’re back.

Palmer Chapel is the reunion epicenter. photograph by Charles Harris

They’re not back, really — or not exactly. Their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are filling the pews and singing the hymns and sticking forks in the casseroles lining the long tables on the lawn. Those vanished lives have nearly all passed on by now, the ringing bell sending their names into the trees. Each toll marks a life lost this year, a life that once made a home in the green valley of Cataloochee. What’s left behind are a couple hundred souls on a summer-sunny morning, gathering in a place they’ve never lived but that’s home just the same.

• • •

“It’s a magical place,” Wayne Caldwell says of this stretch of land in Haywood County. He’s the author of the novel Cataloochee, but also a descendant who often arrives in August to sing and hear the bell with the other reunion-goers. It’s easy to see the magic. Everything is awash in and enveloped by green, as if there were no other colors in the palette. If you climb a ridgeline to find a good view, the mountains beyond are blurred and hazy as if in a dream. Behind every sound is the call of a stream.

When the government claimed this place nearly a century ago, one of the aims was to save it. Timbering practices of the late-19th and early 20th centuries had scalped large portions of the Smoky Mountains, clear-cutting them to nothing, and as those logging operations began to roll toward Cataloochee in the 1920s, a plan emerged to create a national park. For the Caldwells and Woodys and Palmers and other families who’d settled in the valley for a century, this plan to save the land meant losing theirs.

But even as they left, they were hatching plans to return. By 1936, nearly everyone had gone, but some had received special permission to stay put and see out their final days in the valley. Steve Woody was one of them. So on a Sunday in August, many of the moved-out families descended into the valley again and gathered at the Woodys’ house to break bread and plant their feet on the only land they’d known. It felt so good that they decided to do it again the next year, but this time at the church. It would be the first official Cataloochee Reunion.

Today, it’s Steve Woody’s grandson — also Steve Woody — organizing the scattered but gathered people who have unfolded camping chairs and unwrapped tinfoil from dishes outside of Palmer Chapel. Since that day in 1936, the second Sunday of August has meant a day for returning, and that’s why kids are in the creek and a group is under the trees connecting branches on family trees. That’s why someone’s in line for seconds, and someone else for thirds (which is just fine) — they’re here to be returned. Because what’s clear is that this isn’t a family reunion; it’s a reunion of place. A reconstituting, if only for an afternoon, of what a place used to be — or might have been.

• • •

You can still find plenty of evidence of what it was. That Woody house still stands. Palmer Chapel, of course, and the Palmer house. Will Messer’s barn. Hiram Caldwell’s house. The Little Cataloochee Church. Beech Grove School.

Every year, folks gather in the Cataloochee Valley to reunite — and to feast, of course. photograph by Charles Harris

If you manage the twists and turns into the valley, you’ll pass by my grandfather’s childhood home, too — or at least the spot where it used to sit. To hear him tell of it, it was something like the Swiss Family Robinson house. His daddy had rigged a primitive gravity-powered waterline off the mountain to fashion indoor plumbing. Just across the road, he’d raised up a small store — a store he started simply to put a shop owner who’d kicked his son’s dog out of business. Ninety years ago, you would have found my toddling grandfather in a giant box in the back of that store, a makeshift pack-and-play to contain him while his mama sold their wares.

That house and store sat on the edge of modern-day Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which meant that no one made my grandfather’s family leave in 1938; still, once everyone else had gone, they eventually went, too.

That means that the whole of my grandfather’s childhood waits in the valley. Back there, he’s driving cattle and fishing streams. He’s pulling a stuck cow from the mud and tumbling a jeep plumb off the side of the mountain. A mountain lion is chasing his horse, and his uncle is running moonshine.

The annual reunion is an opportunity for folks with roots in the Cataloochee Valley — like (from left) Steve Woody, Harold Hannah, and Wade Boone Caldwell — to reconnect. photograph by Charles Harris

He didn’t go back often, except in his memory. Some years ago, though, he and my grandma wound the road into Cataloochee to show a couple of friends all the left-behind places. As they rolled into the park, they heard the ringing bell and the singing voices coming from Palmer Chapel. “I’m going to see what’s going on,” my grandfather said as he parked the car.

He hadn’t made it all the way into the church before a woman had her arms around his neck and was yelling, “Baby Ray! Baby Ray!”

She’d apparently been his babysitter, once he escaped the cardboard box, and he’d apparently stumbled into the Cataloochee Reunion. Take a seat.

• • •

Not everyone who pulls up a chair on the second Sunday in August traces their lineage to Cataloochee. Some are friends. Some are strangers. Some have come with an ancestry.com print-out and questions. Some simply know magic when they see it. The tie that binds is recognition: the awareness of a place that takes you in, if only for a little while.

In 2022, no one stood from the pews when Steve Woody invited those who were born in the valley to be recognized. It was the first time since that gathering at his grandfather’s house in 1936 that there wasn’t a single former resident of Cataloochee to stand in the church. They’re passing on, moving out. My grandfather, too. Ray Harrell let go at the age of 91 that winter, the last of his family to cross over. He left us, like most everyone else at the reunion has been left, with stories of what once was. And a place to return to.

The writer’s grandfather Ray Harrell and his sister Bernice grew up in the ’30s, exploring the ridges and hollers of the Cataloochee Valley on horseback. Photography courtesy of JEREMY B. JONES

The loss of Cataloochee — and the lives who once settled it — brings many people back year after year to sing out in the church and tell tales in the grass. To remember and to imagine. But, of course, Cataloochee wasn’t lost, just like those lives ringing out from the church aren’t truly lost: This place is here so that anyone who sticks to the road past Baby Ray’s old home can be taken in. It’s everyone’s. Or no one’s. And it’s not going anywhere.

The 2023 Cataloochee Reunion will be held August 13 at Palmer Chapel in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This story was published on Jul 19, 2023

Jeremy B. Jones

Jeremy B. Jones teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University. His memoir "Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland" won the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year Award in nonfiction, a gold medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award. His essays appear in Oxford American, The Iowa Review, and Brevity, among others.