One of the most famous characters to live in the Smoky Mountains was Levi Trentham. Born on Feb. 22, 1852, Levi was one of 10 children. In his younger days, Levi Trentham scratched out a living trapping bears and selling hides. When outsiders started traveling to the Smokies as tourists, he worked as a guide, storyteller, and ran a grocery store.
Levi became something of an icon and was given titles like “Prophet of the Smokies.” His photos were featured on postcards. He led an interesting life, one that could justify a full-length documentary.
I recently ran across several of Levi’s stories, recorded by people who had heard him tell them, and I thought I’d share them with you for this week’s episode of The Weekly Holler.
One story Levi liked to tell was the cautionary tale of a blacksmith named Huskey who decided to hike over Blanket Mountain in the middle of a blizzard:
“We warned the old man not to go, but go he would in spite of hell and high water! He got up there top of Smoky, a skiff of snow was fallin’ when he left here, and got bedevilled in the snowstorm a-comin’ up, and the frozen fog got down on him, and drivin’ cold like hell a hootin’ for sideways, an’ got into a bear trail a-thinkin’ it was a path. He got his foot cotched fast in a big bear trap and drug it around there in the snow and fog a-right smart. And they found him next spring under a pile of brush where he’d crawled, and he was as dead as a doorpost. He’d been there no tellin’ how long. These fellers as sets bear traps with out markin’ ’em is just doin’ the general public an injury. Them traps can be marked with a sourwood switch just as easy as not, but the matter with a plenty of ’em is they’re just too lazy and triflin’ to take the trouble! They’re just too triflin’ to live!”
Another of Levi’s favorite stories was a tale about a time he killed a bear with nothing more than a pine knot:
“[A] bear was a-pesterin’ me a good deal, a-killin’ my shotes up there at the edge of the pasture. I just allowed I’d get rid of him. I set a big bear trap up there where the stock couldn’t get to it, and where nobody’d get cotched, and I waited. One cold mornin’ I went up there to look after my hogs. A little skiff of snow had fell, and I wasn’t lookin’ for my ole bear so soon. But there he was; in the trap, a-snarlin’ and a-snappin’ and layin’ back his tusks at me.
“I didn’t have no gun, but the thoughts of them pigs I was losin’ just went all over me, and I flew into a temper. There was a heavy pine knot layin’ there, and afore I thought, I had snatched it up and was belaborin’ that bear, and he was boxin’ ‘with me, tryin’ to slap that weapon out of my hand. We fought up and down for a spell. After a while I give him a crack that seemed to daze him and seein’ my chance, I run in and let him have a good’un on the ear and down he went. I had finished him. The hook of the trap was cotched on a little root no bigger than my little finger and if he’d made a lunge, I wouldn’t have been here to tell this tale!”
In his book “Whistle over the Mountain,” Bill Hooks says that Levi was illiterate, but had devised a unique way to run his grocery store. Levi’s accounting system consisted of a series of nails hammered into the walls of his store; each nail signified a customer. When a customer purchased an item on credit, Levi would sketch a picture of the item they’d bought and put it on that customer’s nail. This occasionally led to some humorous mix-ups. One day a man walked into the store and accused Levi of cheating him. He’d been in earlier to pay off his account and said that Levi had charged him for something he hadn’t bought. Uncle Levi said, “What be it?” The customer said, “Well, you charged me for a wheel of cheese and I ain’t bought no wheel of cheese.” Levi said, “Well, what did you buy, then?” “I bought a grindstone!” Levi told him that he’d just forgotten to draw the hole in the picture and that’s why he got the cheese instead of the grindstone!