The trip through Hog Jaw Valley, Alabama continues:
One of the major landmarks on my tour was the Hembree home place. This two-story white frame building looks much as it did 80 years ago. Don grew up with several of the Hembree brothers, one of whom—John Hembree–wrote the history described earlier. The Hembrees had come to the valley as early as the 1840s, and this house was built in the very early 1900s.
Don’s family, as were many families in the valley, were sharecroppers. They lived in houses and farmed land owned by the Hembrees. In return, at harvest time, each sharecropper gave two-fifths of the crop to the Hembrees. In the early 1900s, there were no calculators, and many people had little or no schooling. Don’s father, who was also a carpenter, was good with figures, and he was assigned the task of “reckoning” the number of bushels of corn each sharecropper owed.
Just across the road in front of the house, water flows through the “spout,” a cast iron pipe buried in a spring some 800 feet up on the mountainside. Since the 1930s—or earlier—the spout has supplied water to a large wooden trough—a watering post for passing teams of horses and mules and thirsty people. This was also the site for routine laundry washing and hog killing.
In a mobile home up behind the Hembree house we met Dr. William L. (Bill) Hembree, one of the brothers that Don knew. We sat outside on a deck in the deep, cool shade of the oak and maple forest. Bill, 85, is a veteran of World War II and the Korean Conflict. He had been a Navy pilot, flying WWII and post-war fighters. I listened as he and Don swapped stories of their experiences. Reluctantly, we said our goodbyes and drove farther up the valley.
From the Hembree house, we drove along the Tennessee River until the road turned left, up over a bridge that crossed Island Creek that empties into the river. Don pointed out what appeared to be a landing. This is where the Island Creek ferry transported wagons and passengers across the creek. During the late 1800s, as many as 13 different ferries regularly crossed Island Creek or the Tennessee River. The ferries figured heavily in the daily lives of Hog Jaw Valley residents, providing access to schools and to markets for their crops. Once bridges were built across the river and creek, the ferries ceased to operate.
Each location or landmark kindled memories that became stories had to tell me. Don told of the time he “played hooky” from school—he was probably 11 or 12 years old. He just decided he did not want to go to school that day. He was walking along the main road in the valley when he met his father’s sister, Aunt Helen. She asked him why he was not in school and he said something like he did not think he needed to go to school that day. Aunt Helen escorted him go back to his house. Neither his mother or father was home, but, he says, “My older brother was there and he beat the tar out of me.” He never skipped school again.
Next, Don directed me down a rough, lonely dirt road. “I think,” he said, “this is the road to the railroad drawbridge.” The road seemed to go on forever. The gravel, occasionally just dirt, road was narrow and sharply winding up and down steep grades; it was remote and isolated (did you ever see Deliverance?). There were spots where heavy rains had gouged deep ruts in the now brick-hard orange clay, but we were able to navigate the hazards. Finally, at the bottom of the ridge, we crossed the railroad tracks and followed the road along the tracks to a small parking area at the base of a tall, steel railroad bridge.
The draw bridge is visually interesting, and I found a set of steps that took me up to the railroad bed so I could get photos looking down the tracks into the bridge. As I snapped a few photos, the attendant in the cab high atop of the bridge instructed me to get off of the tracks. A couple of more quick shots and I complied.
Once back down in the parking lot, Don was laughing, “Guess we got thrown out of another place today.” He continued to chuckle.
The elevator-style lift bridge carries rail traffic over Long Island Creek, which is the narrower, deeper channel of the Tennessee River along the eastern side of Long Island.
Don recalled that when he was a boy still living in the valley, the bridge had been a pivoting bridge, that would turn parallel to the river to let boats pass. He had gotten to know one of the bridge operators. “Back then” life was simpler with fewer rules, and Don would sit on the bridge and “ride” it as it turned and hop off once the bridge was closed. This is clearly a pleasant memory for him.
On the trip back it was clear that Don had enjoyed the cruise down memory lane—and mentioned several times that we had only gotten thrown out of two places.
As I have grown older, I have become more interested in history. Although I appreciate major historical parks, e.g., Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Yorktown, etc., I equally enjoy the history of small remote communities. Here, the history is personal. These are places where earlier generations encountered and overcame daily challenges without having to buy equipment or hire experts. To see and touch historic structures or to just stand on a shallow depression where someone’s home once stood makes the history more real and meaningful. Visiting Hog Jaw Valley with someone who had lived there, knew the people, and had real experiences there made this a very special experience for me.
And now, when Don comes in the café he asks, “Have you been thrown out of anywhere lately?”
Oh, and how did it get the name “Hog Jaw Valley.” Don tells me that, as seen on a map, the shape of area reminded someone of a hog’s jaw. I still don’t see it, but I love the name!
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Resource: “My Valley, My Home, The History of Hog Jaw Valley” by John Hembree, published by Starkey Printing, Chattanooga, Tenn. (ISBN 978-0-615-47199-0) (c. 2009) is a well-researched and informative history of the area, illustrated with maps, documents, and historic photos. (It may be hard to find!)