July 1, 2014

Mark Millican: A side trip to Ellijay, N.C.

We were just pulling into town on a “secret trip” a couple of Saturdays ago when my wife — who had no idea where we were going — happened to be on the phone with her mother. I asked her to let me speak.

“Charlotte, I just thought you’d like to know we’re pulling into Franklin, N.C., and I’m taking Teresa to jail,” I revealed.

“Well, tell her I’m not bailing her out,” she replied with a laugh approaching a cackle. “She’ll just have to spend the night!”

Teresa held a tight smile but a quizzical look too. There’s quite a lot of joking and laughing when we get together with her side of the family, so this was par for the course — sorta. Our undisclosed destination took a couple of minutes to find on a side street, but soon we pulled up outside the Franklin “Old Jail.” Except now it’s called the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum. My beloved lightened up when she realized our objective.

As soon as we walked in, we were hailed by the on-duty curator. He inquired of our starting point and was pleased to learn we were from Georgia, where his wife has relatives. He appeared to be in his 70s and walked with a cane, and possessed the wizened look of one who has much knowledge to share about gems, minerals and funny rocks.

“There ain’t a door or window in here that ain’t got bars on it!” he exclaimed. “See that wall? Those bricks are 30 inches thick!”

He opened the door and whipped his cane up to measure the thickness for us. We found he had an eccentric habit of leaning to one side so his upper body was a near 45 degree angle to his waist, and he asked questions from that position. It was like he was checking to see if his query got through, or maybe to discern if this peculiar stance would keep us honest in our answers. He seemed to take a shine to Teresa — as I’ve observed many males do — so she fended his questions about our surrounding subject matter gracefully so he could actually give us all the answers.

You could say I became entranced with the collections of gems, minerals, glow-in-the-dark rocks, ancient writing materials, fossils and American Indian relics, all packed into eight upstairs and downstairs rooms of this steel-guarded slammer of yore. After about an hour, we wandered away from this captivating bastille looking for the Scots-Irish museum I once visited in years past. But alas, it was gone. However, a Scottish Tartan Museum beckoned from just across Main Street.

When we walked inside and I saw it was all Scotland-oriented — that they had, in fact, done away with the Irish influence displayed in the old museum across the street and capitalized on their own — the ancient blood of Erin coursing through my veins cursed inwardly, “Bowfing (smelly) Scots, they’ve pilfered from us again (pronounced a-gane)!”

Still, we purchased a pair of $2 tickets and ventured from the retail section to the basement museum. Wonder of wonders! It was like going back in time hundreds of years and learning about where your people came from. Bully for them, they did have a section explaining the Scots-Irish relationship and how we all ended up together in the Southern Appalachians.

Aside from learning about famous Highlanders like Rob Roy MacGregor and John Stuart, there were also allusions to American Indians here (Stuart became possibly the best white friend the Cherokee ever had). In fact, there was an Ellijay connection. One panel spoke of Oo-no-dutu, or Bushyhead (Stuart’s red-headed son by a woman with Cherokee lineage), whom late regional historian Lawrence L. Stanley mentioned quite often when speaking of Native American influence in our area.

Ready for some outdoor adventure, we left and drove up into the Cullasaja Gorge in search of waterfalls. But wait, what did that street sign we just passed say? “Ellijay Road.” We determined to explore it on our way back, but not before we walked under Dry Falls and drove under Bridal Veil Falls in the cooler climes near the top of the mountain.

Back in the valley, we headed up the aforementioned road with Ellijay Creek tumbling along beside us. We rolled and rolled on through lushly hued woods, verdant pastures and fields full of adolescent fruits and vegetables, ringed by mountains large and small — much like our own Ellijay. I checked a map and saw that if we continued through the mountains on this serpentine thoroughfare we would eventually arrive at Cullowhee, home to Western Carolina University. Well, we didn’t have that much time, even if it was the longest day of the year.

Finally we saw a sign that said “Ellijay Missionary Baptist Church” and noted the congregation was “Independent and Premillennial.” I can guess the former, but the latter identifier I’m not quite sure of. My sketchy understanding, however, is that if the end times happen in a “post-millennial” fashion, those of us still here are in big trouble.

I suppose if Ellijay up there means the same thing as Ellijay down here — roughly, “green place where the waters flow” — then they have a pretty good claim as well on the name in this towering realm of The Tarheel State. The first official day of summer appeared to be portentous of a good season ahead for us, but after all that driving I was just glad to get back to Ellijay G-A before nightfall.

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