Editor’s note: This resumes a series on Haywood County centenarians and their remarkable lives.
There must be something about Cataloochee – or the genetics of those who settled and intermarried in that high mountain region.
At least three of its natives have lived past the century mark in recent decades, among them a man who spent his early childhood at the Haywood County jail, another who owned and operated his own service station and bus service, and a woman who was still pushing other folks’ wheelchairs well into her 100th year.
At the age of 100, Ethel McCracken could be found getting her fellow residents at the Brian Center out of their rooms, taking them up and down the hallways in their wheelchairs, encouraging them to get out, socialize and stay active.
McCracken, who died in 1998 at age 104, said there were two things she would not do — she never learned to drive, after her first attempt ended with her boyfriend’s car in a bank; and she once refused to walk out on a fishing pier during a visit to the coast, fearing the swirling water would make her dizzy.
McCracken was born in Cataloochee, the daughter of “Creek” George and Martha Palmer, attending the one-room schoolhouse there, then staying with relatives to attend school in Jonathan Creek.
She then went to Clyde High School and Asheville Industrial school before returning to Cataloochee to help on the family farm and raise her own flock of sheep. When the family moved to Ratcliffe Cove in 1920, Ethel and her sister Myrtle went to work as nurses at the old Haywood County Hospital, at a time when nursing was learned on the job.
She later did private nursing. In 1928, she married Claymer McCracken and moved to the Big Branch section of Crabtree. The McCrackens boarded teachers for the Big Branch school, and Ethel played music for Crabtree Baptist Church.
Though she never had formal lessons, she could play the organ, violin, banjo, dulcimer and harmonica. She also cut the hair of neighborhood children. Though she did not teach school, her influence in the Big Branch community was so strong that the former students honored her with a special tribute during a school reunion in 1993.
Later, when her husband got a job at Dayton Rubber, he and Ethel moved to East Street in Waynesville, and she went to work in the lunch room at East Waynesville School.
After her husband’s death, Ethel moved in with her sister, then later moved to the Brian Center Nursing Home to room with her cousin. She later said she made decision before someone else had to make it for her. And at the Brian Center, on occasion, she would continue to cut her fellow residents’ hair.
One of the appeals of those who have lived long and well is their stories, and Gudger Palmer was a master storyteller, given his remarkable mind and memory, and his mellow sense of humor.
Palmer was born in Cataloochee in 1909, but when his father, William was elected Haywood County sheriff the next year, the family moved to living quarters attached to the Haywood County Jail. There Gudger would spend four years of his life, while his father served a term as sheriff and his mother served as cook for the inmates.
The sheriff’s quarters, then on Montgomery Street below the old brick courthouse, were in the front section of the building, while inmates were housed in the back. As Palmer said in a 1992 interview, it wasn’t such a bad time to grow up at the jail.
Montgomery Street was still a dirt road, edged by a plank sidewalk. Across from the jail was a grass lot pasture, were the sheriff kept a milk cow and the big black horse he was known to ride.
Each day, Gudger recalled, after milking, the family would drive the cow out Montgomery Street, up Main Street by the courthouse, ad out to east Waynesville to a pasture. Late in the day, they would drive her back and milk her again.
Once, Gudger’s father got word of a lynch mob that was after a Cherokee man accused of attacking a woman. William Palmer enlisted the help of a local doctor who had a car, and the two headed out to pick the accused man up.
On the return from Balsam, the three encountered the mob, which had blocked the road. They drove around or through the blockade, but the crowd pursued them. During the chase, the Cherokee man’s hat blew off, and he asked the driver to stop and let him retrieve it. They didn’t. The sheriff lost his inmate’s hat, but saved his life.
Gudger also told how his mother once saw a prisoner slip out the side door of the hail. She followed him up Main Street, cornered the prisoner, and talked him into returning to jail.
After his time as sheriff, William and family returned to Cataloochee, where Gudger lived until attending college, graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1936. Palmer served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and worked for Champion International as an accountant for 35 years.
He and his wife spent their years in service, to Central United Methodist Church where he was treasurer, to the Canton Library Board, as well as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. A gracious and gentle man, Palmer loved to tell stories — and his tales inspired many of the stories written and told by nationally renowned storyteller Donald Davis, who was his nephew by marriage.
Gudger Palmer attended his last Cataloochee Reunion in 2010, at the age of 101, dying at home the following January.
Vaughn Palmer, a distant cousin to Gudger, was born in Cataloochee in 1902. And like his cousin, he attended the annual Cataloochee Reunion faithfully, attending his last one at the age of 102. When he was 26, he married childhood friend Magola Caldwell.
For eight years, Palmer served as a mail carrier, delivering mail by horse and buddy from Cove Creek Mountain to Cataloochee. He and his wife moved to Waynesville, building a house on Dayton Road, where Vaughn lived until his death. There they reared three children.
After a short stint at the A.C. Lawrence tannery in Hazelwood, Vaughn decided to open his own gasoline station. He also purchased a fleet of buses and began operating a bus line, transporting workers to the American Enka plant in Candler and to the Champion paper mill in Canton, a business he operated for 40 years with the help of his brother, Kimsey.
As Peggy Gosselin wrote of Vaughan in a 2002 feature, “Palmer’s faith in God and mankind was evident when he and Magola used their home as collateral to help build the Church of God in Hazelwood.” When a new church building was constructed in Mauney Cove, a room was named for the couple.
Vaughan died in January 2005 at the age of 102, five months after attending the Cataloochee Reunion.