Skip Sears is teaching us how to weave. “Here’s the warp,” he explains, pointing to the taut threads stretched across the frame. “And here’s the weft.” He pushes the shuttle and the through- threads move up and down. “The heddles create the pattern.” He points to the wires that pull the threads in different directions.
Skip rescued the old loom from the abandoned White home place off of 108. It reminds me of an old-style pipe organ, so massive and intricate it is. It was in pieces, he says, but he reconstructed it and taught himself to use it.
I picture him poking around the old house, which was a stagecoach stop in the 1800s. Finding the skeleton of the loom and painstakingly gathering up whatever looked like it might belong. Putting the pieces in a cardboard box, carefully loading it all up in the back of his pick-up truck, and taking it home. Studying it until he figured out what went where and how it all worked.
Skip owned a gas company, made good money. In his spare time he hunted, a member of the Shoal Creek Hunting Club. Indeed, on the way to the upper room where the loom is kept, we passed a wall of turkey hides, if turkeys have a hide, the feathered remnants spread and preserved, turned into what I can only describe as art. At least a dozen. We also passed the furs of two bobcats he had killed.
Our expedition today began with a trip to the Shoal Creek Hunting Club property near Lake Arrowhead. The trip was part of my quest for information on the Pine Log CCC. My faithful history guides Sanford and Ray Chandler had introduced me to Skip, who grew up on Shoal Creek, at the foot of Pine Log Mountain. Retired now, he is a soft-spoken man with white hair and a gentle manner.
Skip is 67 now but still goes out to the woods where he played as a child and later hunted turkey, deer, bear, and the occasional wild hog or bobcat. He told Sanford and me that there were CCC ruins on the Shoal Creek side of the mountain, and he offered to take us out and show us.
Before I moved to Georgia, I found hunting horrifying. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where meat arrives in Styrofoam and shrink wrap, as if it never came from a living creature. But the longer I’ve lived in Georgia, the more I have come to respect the real hunters. Not the cheaters who put out feed for the deer and spotlight them and shoot them from the road, flinging their empty beer cans into ditches for someone else to pick up.
But the hunters who know the land, who go out in the woods for days, for whom the killing is almost secondary to the trekking, the time spent immersed in wilderness. These hunters know the creeks, the forest, the mountain, better than anyone, much like the Native American hunters before them.
I lived in Lake Arrowhead for many years, but I’d never been on the Shoal Creek Hunting Club property that surrounds it. Ray, Sanford and I piled into Skip’s truck, and when we passed through that gate, I entered a realm that I had never known was there. It was as much a journey back in time as a journey through place.
First we came to a long abandoned home place, the front of the house torn away and a pick-up truck parked in the living room. Hundreds of acres of what used to be corn and cotton fields lay dormant along the banks of Shoal Creek. Then we came to a brick house with a drive-through basement, each end hung with giant barn doors that opened to allow trucks to pass through.
It was a moonshine operation. A man named Greasy ran it, Skip explained. There were stills along every creek at the foot of Pine Log. It wasn’t that far from where Moonshine King John Henry Hardin had dozens of stills along Stamp Creek, closer to the river.
Skip’s grandfather and great-grandfather had been sheriffs in Cherokee County. Indeed, I’d come across his grandfather’s name many times when I was reading the newspapers of the 30s and 40s. Skip said his grandfather would visit folks and tell them it was “time to clean up their yard,” which was code for “get rid of your stills.”
I started to understand why this area was so locked down. Even though the stills were gone, it was as if it still held the secret and the forbidden.
Skip drove us over almost impassable roads, deeper into the woods skirting the southeast side of the mountain. We saw makeshift cabins and trailers where hunters from the Shoal Creek Hunting Club still stay sometimes during hunting season, and finally came to a place where Skip said the CCC guys had built a small lake.
He was right, I discovered, looking at the ruins and then later at the CCC map I’d obtained from the Archives. There was a dam, and they had dug out a small, now dry, area for a lake along one of the smaller creeks that feed into Shoal Creek. There was the trademark CCC stonework along the edge of the lake in the culverts where the road crossed.
We drove even further into the woods and came to what I later confirmed, looking at the map, was the road the CCC built down this side of the mountain. We walked to one of those pristine, laurel-enshrouded creeks that come off of Pine Log, and Skip showed me the beautiful, still completely intact, stonework on the culverts beneath the road.
“How did you even know this is here?” I asked him.
“I was out here every day as a kid,” he said. “I know every twist and turn of this place.”
But none of us, not Skip or me or Sanford or Ray, could figure out why the CCC had built the road or the lake. What were they doing out here? Sanford and I have both vowed to solve that mystery.
On our way out, Skip said, “Y’all want to see some old cabins?”
We said “Sure,” thinking it was going to be a trek to another forgotten site. Instead, it turned out to be a museum Skip had constructed, the loom just one of the exhibits.
On the drive there, Skip explained to me that he had found four original log cabins as well as an original log barn, moved them to his own property, and reconstructed them. He was so humble in the way he explained it, I was picturing something very rough and rustic.
When we pulled up, Sanford and Ray and I were floored, and our awe increased as we walked around the living history museum Skip has created. He had used four of the cabins to create three gorgeously crafted homes, all of them decorated with his collections of pioneer and Native American artefacts.
Each house integrated the original cabin boards into part of a modern house. Some of the log slabs were easily a foot and a half wide, old growth timber. The planks formed parts of both the exterior and interior walls and had been reassembled meticulously. He also incorporated the old doors and the old flooring wherever possible, even the steep-pitched stairs of one of the cabins.
On the walls hung original plats from the Georgia lottery of 1832, with the original seals made from honeycomb. The plats are hand drawings showing the improvements and features of each of the 40-acre lots the state of Georgia took from the Cherokee and gave away to settlers who spent $8 to enter the lottery.
The heads of a little bobcat and a huge wild boar bared their teeth at us from plaques on the wall. A heavy iron bear trap hung from the old planks.
I touched the rough grain of the first growth timber that held the house together. “Did you do all this yourself?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he said. “I had help.”
The collections were all his, though. In the second house he had used the huge timbers from the old barn for the exposed beams in the ceiling. He had built shelves that housed a collection of the folk pottery of E.L. Stork, an early 20th century potter in Cherokee County. In the center of the rows of gleaming, earthy pots grinned a face pot, still lively and seeming to look back at us after a hundred years.
We walked across the wide lawn and crossed a bridge over Polecat Creek to reach the third house, which was made of two cabins, more primitive ones. Here we found the display of turkeys and the pelt of a wolverine, which he said came from somewhere up north.
We also saw Skip’s collection of Native American arrowheads and potsherds, all of them found by him along the creeks of Cherokee County. He had arranged the artefacts, all of different sizes, colors, and designs, in framed cases, ever the curator and artist.
When we climbed the stairs, I thought I had seen everything, until I saw the loom. It was a kind of Sleeping Beauty moment, climbing to the place where the spinning wheel was hidden, and indeed there was a spinning wheel as well. But the loom dominated the room like a living thing.
As he showed us how to weave on a smaller, practice loom he had purchased, he asked me if I knew what the rug on the floor was made from. I studied the blue fibers, each one a bit different in color and texture.
“No,” I said. “I have no idea.”
“Blue jeans!” he said triumphantly. I pictured him sitting in a chair, painstakingly cutting old jeans into the long, thin strips for weaving. Perhaps his own jeans, perhaps his wife’s or children’s or grandchildren’s.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
And I meant not only the rug, but all the things his hands had made. The hunter, the artist, the weaver. I loved that one human being could be all these things. Defying all categories and labels. In each pursuit, the patient search, the careful eye, the deft hands. The tactile life of woods and fibers, planks and stones. The reverence for ancestors of all kinds, finding beauty even in the creatures that he killed, turning them to art. Nothing thrown away, not even blue jeans. Weaving all the strands together, the lost, the forgotten. Showing us how.