One of the early mountaineers you can learn about in our museum is Levi Trentham, who was called “the Prophet of the Smokies” and the “Mayor of Elkmont.” In his early days, Levi eked out an existence trapping bears and selling their hides. When tourists began invading the mountains, Levi cashed in by becoming a guide and one of the Smokies’ most popular storytellers. His renown as a racanteur got him invited to the dedication of Knoxville’s Henley Bridge. He arrived at the festivities, as the advertised representative of the “sprit of the Smokies,” in an oxcart.
According to Bill Hooks, the author of Whistle Over the Mountain, the classic book on the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company, Mr. Trentham established his own grocery store later in life. Being illiterate, he devised a unique way to run his store. He created an accounting system by hammering nails into the walls of his store for each of his customers. Each time a customer purchased an item on credit, Levi would draw a picture of the item purchased and stick it on the customer’s nail. However, this occasionally led to some humorous mix-ups.
For instance, a customer charged into the store one day accusing Levi of cheating him. He’d been in earlier to pay off his account and claimed Levi had charged him for something he never bought. Levi asked, “What be it?” The customer answered, “Well, you charged me for a wheel of cheese and I ain’t bought no wheel of cheese.” Levi then inquired, “Well, what did you buy?” “I bought a grindstone!” “Well,” Levi explained, “I just forgot to draw the hole in your grindstone, and that’s why I charged you for cheese.”
In the waning months of World War I, the people of Elkmont decided to show their patriotism by decorating their Smoky Mountain hamlet with American flags. Flags flew from cabins and stores, were draped over rock piles, and hung from trees. However, one Elkmont resident didn’t take to all the Red, White, and Blue. In fact, Levi Trentham publicly announced his disapproval in no uncertain terms, loudly proclaiming “[g-word, d-word] Old Glory!”
Trentham was arrested on the spot, financially fined, and confined to his own property for the duration of the war. He was later put in the pokey and fined again for a profane putdown of some women working for the Red Cross. Some have chalked Levi’s cursing of the Red Cross and the Red, White, and Blue up to his proneness to curse and precipitous cantankerousness. However, I feel it is far better explained by our Southern Highlanders’ coveted solitude and fierce independence.
Mountaineers, like Levi Trentham, were suspicious of outsiders, who they referred to as “furriners.” They disdained charity, resenting it, especially when peddled with an air of superiority by some patronizing and condescending stranger to the Smokies. The mountaineers’s motto was: “Do it yourself or do without.” As Horace Kephart pointed out in his classic book on Our Southern Highlanders, “I’ve never seen a mountain beggar; never heard of one.”
As suspicious as they were about philanthropic “furriners,” our Southern Highlanders were even more suspicious of our government, which they feared as an intrusive power imperiling their independent way of life. Perhaps, as we clearly see in our government’s current and continuous regulating of our lives, even to the point of dictating the kind of light bulbs we can use in our living room lamps, our Southern Highlanders were on to something that we should be equally concerned about today. Maybe Levi Trentham was a prophet of sorts, a man before his time who both discerned and disdained our government’s proclivity to intrude into our lives to the detriment of our individual liberty.
According to Thomas Pain, “The duty of a true patriot is to protect his country from its government.” I suspect that Levi Trentham, despite his damning diatribe against Old Glory, was more in line with Thomas Pain than today’s flag burners or kneeling NFL protestors. Still, it’s surprising to find a protestor of the Red, White, and Blue among our early Southern Highlanders. Who’d a thunk it?