Our son, John $, declared that we could not let John’s 75th birthday slide by without some signature celebration. Other family members were far, far away, so it was up to us. The night before the big day, $ sat with us, phone in hand, to plan it. He remembered John’s mentioning that he’d love to have a prime rib dinner with horseradish again some day. That came out several weeks ago when he was talking about working in London in the 80’s. Two steak houses went on our mental list. Because of John’s love of history, we knew something historical needed to be the focus of the day. I had already faded at that point, so the next day I got up not knowing where we were headed.
North Carolina narrows to a point on the western end, and we live in that triangular area. By driving north, we came to Tennessee. The mountainous scenery on the interstate was spectacular. A few minutes after putting gas in the van, John asked, “Did you hear that? What was that?”
I thought a noisy car had passed us, but the fellows felt the sound had come from our vehicle. Every once in a while we heard it. To me, it sounded like a few pebbles dropped down and hit the underside. The road out of our area was recently graveled. Maybe we had picked up small stones that were dropping. The noise was irritating but not worrisome at that point. As we drove through Johnson City, I asked where we were going. Our destination was Rocky Mount, one of the earliest homes in the area of the Southwest Territory, which later became Tennessee.
We saw no other cars or any sign of life at the visitor’s center. $ tested the door and found it open as another couple pulled in. A friendly receptionist explained that the tour would take about an hour and a half, so if we’d take a bathroom break, she would get the introductory film ready. What a lovely experience we had! The five of us had individual attention from the docents who had donned period costumes and assumed characters of the 18th century while guiding us through the old house. A daughter of the family showed us the great room with her mother’s desk that had a secret compartment. The one chair in the room was reserved for her father, although her mother was found napping in it once in a while. Going upstairs to her parents’ bedroom, she explained that an important visitor was with them, so he was given their room. They slept across the hall where their children and grandchildren normally stayed.
We were handed off to her daughter who showed us her grandfather’s dark study. The place was self-sufficient, since they lived far from the village of Jonesborough. They made their own ink from black walnuts. Going into the dining room across the dog trot, she explained the purpose of a two-tined fork and a knife at each place setting. The fork was for holding food steady on the plate. You used your own knife that you wore at your waist to cut the food. And the table knife? That conveyed food to your mouth! Although shaped like a knife, it had no sharp edge. The daughter said it was hard to learn how to eat without making a mess. Adults ate alone with one child in attendance to wave a fan, keeping the flies moving. There were only two meals. Breakfast was often fruit and cream, and dinner would be a simmered stew.
The daughter took us to a separate building where a black slave showed us how she cooked. Baking was done only one day a week. She showed how to prepare the brick oven. First thing on the list was bread that took the hottest fire. Loaves were put directly on the coals! After that came pies, and cakes were last because they took less heat. It was her opinion that many women died when their long skirts caught fire in the huge fireplace where all the cooking was done. Roasting a turkey or other meat in front of the fire was done only once a month. The butter was churned by hand as she sat in a chair rigged with a foot pedal. The pedal moved a cloth over her head to keep the flies away. As we left the area, she pulled various herbs from the garden, telling us how they were used. One herb worked as a laxative, so on the way to the outhouse, you grabbed leaves of lamb’s ears in case there were not enough corncobs. I giggled to myself, knowing there were more lamb’s ears in my garden than any other plant.
We spent quite a bit of time in the museum after the tour. Surprisingly, John was ready to go before I finished looking at things! He was aware of the time and knew we needed to eat a light lunch if we planned to eat dinner at a reasonable hour. We found a fast food place in Johnson City and then drove on back roads to Jonesborough. The car made funny noises again, but we weren’t going far. There seemed to be more racket when we were out on open roads. Anyway, $ had wandered around Jonesborough early this year and thought we’d enjoy it. In stark contrast to $’s other visit, the town was bustling with cars driving through and people walking on the sidewalks. This town was the first settlement in the area, becoming the center of government. It still boasts a large stone edifice for the county courthouse. I loved seeing the outside of the International Storytelling Center. That seemed to be the main attraction of the present day. There were numerous bed and breakfast places, antique shops, eateries, and two candy stores. I took a photo to show John enjoying a birthday phone call from sister Barbara and Thom.
On the way home, we got on the interstate where the car sounded like something was going to fall off. $ wondered if we had mudflaps that were doing more flapping than mud slinging. We pulled off, and he walked around the car, looking high and low. He could see nothing out of place. Back on the road, John exclaimed, “I know what it is! There is a rubber piece over the door that the wind is catching.”
We went to the nearest town, checking Walgreen, a convenience store, another large drug store, and a supermarket. Finally they found duct tape, and we were shortly on our way in peaceful silence.
We ended up at J. Arthur’s, a steakhouse in Maggie Valley. Surprisingly, the parking lot was full, having only two empty spaces. There were also about 20 motorcycles parked there. Maggie is a magnet for motorcycles, probably because bikers love mountain roads. There is also a biking museum in the town, “Wheels Through Time.” Although the dining room was almost full, we were immediately seated at a booth at the far end of the room. As the waitress came up to our table, she said, “Just want to let you know that we are out of prime rib and mashed potatoes.”
Oh, dear. The specials included fried oysters, which tempted John for a minute, but he and $ agreed to share a rib eye steak. If the birthday boy had meat on his mind, steak would be the second choice. $ asked if they had horseradish, and our waitress brought it out immediately. The day was saved! We didn’t save room for dessert and toddled off homeward, sated and happy. It’s just as well we didn’t want a sweet, because I hadn’t bought it yet. The request was for angel food cake, which was on the shopping list and not yet in the house. We brewed a pot of coffee and sipped it while chatting on the back porch. There we rehashed the day, talking about the things that we had enjoyed. I loved a gizmo in the dining room of the Rocky Mount house. It was a wrought-iron rod with a handle at one end and a curved U-shape at the other. We couldn’t guess what it was, so the docent demonstrated. Her grandfather loved hot coffee, so he would hold the rod in the fire. When it was hot, he plunged it into the coffee in his cup. Ah! Better than a microwave!