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TALES FROM THE DARK CORNER

October 4, 2015

Dean Stuart Campbell is known as the Squire of the Dark Corner. An author, lecturer, photographer, storyteller, and tour guide, Dean Campbell has the perspective of a native son whose maternal and paternal ancestors were early settlers in the Upstate. Campbell was the first to delineate the Dark Corner, the infamous mountain region in northwestern South Carolina, in his book, His Eyes to the Hills—A Photographic Odyssey of the Dark Corner.

Last Friday I attended an event at the Chapman Cultural Center. Dean Campbell was there to share his stories. Those gathered also saw clips of a movie featuring interviews with Dark Corner residents. I was able to connect with some of my own family history.

The first European settlers in the Southern Appalachian Mountains were primarily Scots-Irish, granted their lands from the King of England before the Revolutionary War. When these people immigrated to the American colonies, they already had an axe to grind with Great Britain.

Originally from Scotland, they had been transplanted to Northern Ireland in what was known as known as the Irish Plantation or the Plantation of Ulster. Land owned by Irish chieftains was confiscated by King James I of England and used to settle the Scottish colonists in Ireland beginning in 1609. The British required that these transplanted colonists be English-speaking and Protestant. The Scottish colonists of Ulster were mostly Presbyterian.

The British colonists along the coastal plain in North America encouraged the king to grant to the Scots-Irish the land along the mountains and rivers of the frontier. This was to use the Scots-Irish as a buffer against the Indians.

The plan worked. The Scots-Irish learned to fight the way the Indians fought. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, the mountain people were prepared to fight. When these families, the Neelys among them, came to America, they brought with them a fierce independence. They hated British taxation. Some historians contend that the American Revolutionary War was won in the South. At the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 and The Battle of Cowpens in 1781 these volunteers, known as over-the-mountain men, carried the day.

The Upstate of South Carolina was inhabited by these Scots-Irish families. Descendants of many of those early pioneers still reside in the area, living on the original tracts of land. Many of them retain to this day a strong stubborn independent streak.  That is especially true in the region known as the Dark Corner.

For years the Dark Corner was difficult to pinpoint. When local folks were asked the location of the Dark Corner, the usual answer was, “Just a little piece further down the road.”

Over time, the entire northwest corner of South Carolina became known as the Dark Corner.

Dean Campbell’s Dark Corner is much more specific, confined to an area that includes portions of Spartanburg, Greenville, and Pickens Counties.  It includes rolling foothills and the rugged Blue Ridge escarpment called by the Cherokees the Blue Wall.

The Dark Corner was so named because there were few roads in and out. The land was densely forested. Farmsteads were away from the roads, hidden by the trees. The people who lived in the Dark Corner were good, hard-working people. Making and selling liquor was a legal way of earning money. Many residents of the Dark Corner have made their own alcoholic beverages for generations, turning their grain crops into whiskey. They reasoned that they could get a better price for their corn and rye if they distilled it into white lightning and sold it to flatlanders. Besides, they reasoned, it was by their own sweat and toil that the crops were grown. It was nobody’s business what they did with the harvest. They certainly did not expect their brew to be taxed!

President George Washington was the first to appoint High Sheriffs to collect taxes on homemade liquor. These officers were called revenuers. The first sheriff dispatched to the Dark Corner was shot and killed.

The people of the Dark Corner felt that the government was unreasonable for imposing such laws. Government agents charged with enforcement of taxes and, later, prohibition, were looked on as enemies. Strangers who entered the Dark Corner were regarded with suspicion.

An intruder in the Dark Corner literally took his life into his own hands. Folks who operated the stills, hidden in the laurel thickets, hollows, and coves along mountain streams, looked on revenuers as fair game.

Sometime after the turn of the century, in the early 1900s, Troy Alverson lived on Von’s Creek near the old road that went from Tryon through Dark Corner. One day a wagon and seven men stopped at the Alverson cabin. The wagon was loaded with axes, picks, and guns. They asked Mr. Alverson if this was the road to Dark Corner.

“Do you fellers know anyone there?” he asked.

“No,” they answered.

They were advised that it was dangerous to go prowling around if they didn’t know anyone in the area.

One of the men spoke up, “We’ll take our chances. We’re Revenue Officers.”

Mr. Alverson shook his head. “Good luck, fellows.”

The seven men were never heard of again.

Ed Martin was my dad’s college roommate and a life-long friend. In the late 1930s they attended North Greenville Junior College in Tigerville, South Carolina. Just off campus was an old country store. The store owner, Perlow Wood, was also a deputy sheriff. On the wall of his establishment he had a map of the Dark Corner. He hired students from the college to scout the surrounding area at night looking for the telltale smoke of moonshine stills. If a student found a still that lead to a successful raid, the storekeeper paid the student spy five dollars for the information.

The proprietor of the store had a pretty daughter. Ed was not interested in finding stills, but he was always interested in a pretty girl. He made arrangements to date the storekeeper’s daughter. After the date, Ed was walking back to campus. On that moonless night a grizzled mountaineer stepped from behind an old barn pointing a double barrel shotgun at Ed.

“Where ‘you’ns been?” he demanded.

Shaking in his shoes, Ed blurted, “I have been dating a girl over yonder!”

“What’s her name?”

For the life of him, Ed couldn’t remember. “She’s too ugly to remember.”

“I ought’er shoot you’ns. You go up to that college and tell them others the snooping around is over. If I catch any of you’ns out after nightfall, there’ll be no talk’n, just shoot’n.”

That ended the spying days for North Greenville students, and Ed never dated the storekeeper’s daughter again.

In his book Smokin’ Shootin’ Irons in Dark Corner, James Walton Lawrence gives a detailed account of a raid on an illicit whiskey still. The episode occurred beside the headwaters of the South Pacolet River at the base of Hogback Mountain on January 31, 1924.

Reuben Gosnell, a Governor’s Constable with nineteen years experience, led a team of officers. The group included Constable Holland Howard, a life-long resident of the Dark Corner.

The raiding party approached the suspected site following a stream up through a mountain cove. They met brothers W. P. and Alexander Plumley coming from the direction of the still. The experienced officers could tell by the condition of the brothers’ clothing they had been working at a still. They searched the two and found a pistol. The Plumleys were placed under arrest and incarcerated in a small log corncrib about a half-mile below the still.

Gosnell and Howard left officers guarding the corncrib. The guards soon came under rifle fire coming from a cave 100 yards away across the South Pacolet River, a lookout post protecting the approach to the still.

Gosnell crept around to the head of the cove to cut off escape.  Howard ran upstream toward the still to flush the moonshiners.  Gosnell heard cursing. Several shots rang out. He saw two men run from the still, one going west and one going east. He went after the man going west. After a 400-yard chase, he caught the culprit. Holland Pittman tried to draw a pistol on Gosnell, but the constable got the drop on him.

Gosnell returned to the distillery and found Howard dead. Gosnell was fired upon from ambush as he tried to leave the scene.  Pittman was placed in Greenville County jail.  His father, Alexander Pittman, later surrendered in Greenville. Both father and son were charged with murder. The folk song, “The Ballad of Holland Howard,” memorialized the event.

The Dark Corner is among the most intriguing venues in Upstate South Carolina.  The Dark Corner’s reputation has improved. Once viewed as an area of outlaws that rivaled the Old West for its gunfights and knife fights, the area of rugged mountain country surrounding Glassy Mountain is now known as a beautiful place to visit. Now, tourism has replaced bootlegging as the strongest economic influence. Visitors and retirees flock to the Dark Corner to play golf on some of the finest courses in the southeast. From Pretty Place at Camp Greenville to the Greenville Watershed, from Campbell’s Covered Bridge to the Poinsett Bridge, the Dark Corner is rich in wonders to behold.

Dean Campbell says there are still moonshiners in the area. He added, “Back in the old days even the preachers made ‘shine, for medicinal purposes, of course.”

I know for a fact that Reuben Gosnell was kin to some of my family. If you go to the Dark Corner, be careful! If you meet a Neely, he, or she, may be packing heat!/MD

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