CATALOOCHEE — When pneumonia sidelined Sean Noland of Arlington, Washington, the young father and husband began researching his family history.
Eighteen months later, a project borne of involuntary rest carried Noland across the country to Cataloochee, where he has been immersed in family and culture he didn’t know he had.
“I didn’t realize what a huge history I had here,” he said this past Sunday, after a worship service at Palmer’s Chapel and dinner on the grounds marked the 82nd birthday of the Cataloochee Reunion. “My mind is exploding with facts and figures and stories about the Civil War and its atrocities.”
Beside him, Marshall Caldwell, 89, smiled, the way a father might look with quiet pleasure on an enthusiastic child. Caldwell was born in the high mountain valley seven years before creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park forced his family to move away.
Cataloochee natives love it when a descendent of the community discovers the past, especially during the reunion. For on the second Sunday each August, Cataloochee history is vibrant, still recalled by some as if it happened yesterday.
It’s not just a matter of telling the old stories to fresh ears, like the way flames destroyed the old Beech Grove School when county officials had refused to build a new one, or how the Yankee raider Col. Kirk rode through Cataloochee, in the waning days of the Civil War.
No, natives and those in the first generation born outside Cataloochee also welcome new blood in their passionate commitment to keep alive memories of the people who once worked out a living on this valley.
It’s something the older generation has been thinking about a lot lately. Perhaps it was the deaths this year of some memorable Cataloochee natives, among them Hattie Caldwell Davis, who wrote several books on the region’s history, and Raymond Caldwell.
Two years ago, Raymond Caldwell had fallen and failed to attend the reunion, promising though, that he would be back. Last year, at age 95, he did return. But it was his last time.
It’s been on the mind of Cataloochee Reunion president Steve Woody, who has directed the event for 44 years. This past Sunday, he invited anyone interested to a meeting to discuss improvements to the Palmer House museum and the long-term future of the reunion.
Woody said he and others want to ensure that after all those born in the valley have passed on, and their children in turn are gone, that the generations to follow will continue to gather and remember this place.
And that is why Marshall Caldwell smiled so warmly at Sean Noland as he told of discovering a book on the Noland family written by local lawyer J. Lynn Noland.
After several conversations with Lynn Noland, Sean found himself spending several days at the lawyer’s Iron Duff home, and coming to the reunion. His journey to Western North Carolina had not been planned to coincide with the gathering, but when he realized how close it was, Sean changed his return flight in order to attend.
“Now, why don’t you just call your wife and tell her you won’t be back for another week or two,” Marshall Caldwell suggested. Each man, the reunion veteran and the newcomer, seemed to be energized by the other’s enthusiasm.
“I can’t even describe my thoughts about Cataloochee and the wonder of being raised here,” Caldwell said.
Though only 7 when his family left, Caldwell remembers their 151-acre farm on which they produced almost everything they needed. He remembers walking a mile and a half to school where students sat side by side in double desks.
Leaving was not as painful for him at the time as for his parents, he said, “me, being 7 years old, I didn’t think about it as much as you do when you grow up.”
Caldwell was one of two people in the packed church who raised their hands when asked if there was anyone present who had been born in the valley. The other was Harley Caldwell, the last person born in Cataloochee, and the man who for decades has tolled the bell in memory of each Cataloochee native or descendent who has died the past year.
This year, the bell tolled 24 times. As the number of natives diminishes, Harley is called to pull that bell rope more and more.
Those attending the reunion service received another gift of Cataloochee legacy. Last year, songwriter and performer Richard Hurley attended the reunion. In a flash of genius, Steve Woody told Hurley he was welcome to return — if he wrote a song about Cataloochee. Hurley performed that song Sunday.
“One day the bell will toll for you when your kinfolk call you home,” he sang. Hurley received an emotional and prolonged standing ovation.
While many such gatherings have dwindled, the Cataloochee gathering has held steady with at least 400 attendants each year.
This time, an unusually large number came, with cars filling the grass field behind the church, then lining both sides of the road with a few ending up parked in another field nearby. The last time that field was used that way, said John Palmer, a retired forestry instructor from Haywood Community College, he was 6 years old.
Lots of babies and toddlers seemed to promise a good future for the reunion. Families four and five generations away from their Cataloochee ancestors attended the gathering, some to discover their history, others to celebrate and maintain the tradition.
First reunion recalled
Sarah Queen Brown, 97, sat with the Palmer family at this reunion. She attended the first gathering, she said, when she was 10 years old, because her father, Sam Queen, had roomed with Cataloochee native Glenn Palmer in college, and Glenn wanted his friend to come.
Little has changed, she said, except that in those days, dinner on the grounds meant that literally — everyone sat on the ground, with the food on quilts. Now the food weighs down tables, and attendees weigh down camp chairs, often under canopies.
“I am glad to come in my latter years and see the young people taking part,” Queen said.
This year’s guest preacher, retired Methodist minister Terry Bevill, told the congregation, “though the physical inheritance of this piece of land is gone, the spiritual inheritance continues generation after generation after generation as we continue to meet in this place.”
As their ancestors once traveled to Cataloochee in search of a better life, he added, the descendants must always keep in mind that God has a special concern for those who live in the margins of life, whether poverty or persecution.
“How we treat them determines who we are in the eyes of God,” he added.