Editor’s Note — The following story and sidebar originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of the FNB Chronicle. They were written by Josetta Griffith, who was the Chronicle’s editor.
By Josetta Griffith
He was a tall, lanky man who quietly roamed the mountains of Brimstone, Emory and Coal Hill. Except for a stint working for Ritter Lumber Company, he never held a paying job. He was a drifter . . . a man without a home, but he wasn’t homeless.
This is the story of Jim Hamby.
Jim Hamby was born September 15, 1896 to Calfurnia Sexton Hamby and Lewis Hamby. He had one sister, Ida Hamby Shannon, and two brothers, Will and John Hamby. Calfurnia died in 1925 and Lewis died in 1933. His siblings are also deceased.
Jim’s childhood years were spent on Griffith Mountain at Brimstone. As long as anyone can remember Jim he was a drifter.
He was good at any kind of farm chore that needed to be done and most every family needed an extra work hand now and then. If it was planting time, Jim would work the family horse or mule to plow the fields. If it was time to shock up the hay, Jim pitched in. If repairs needed done on harnesses or sleds, Jim had his own tools and set about doing whatever was needed.
Families welcomed Jim with a good, warm bed, clean clothes and plenty to eat because he made himself useful. Sometimes he would stay with a family weeks on end because there were plenty of chores for him to do.
He stayed a lot with the family of his first cousin Oda Griffith. Jim’s mother, Calfurnia (Sexton) Hamby, was a sister to Oda’s mother, Katherine (Sexton) Griffith.
Jim was an expert squirrel hunter and could dress squirrels with a speed and technique all his own. It was not unusual for him to bring in 15 squirrels from one hunting trip. As a lad of seven years old, Freddie Griffith would climb the mountains of Brimstone with Jim squirrel hunting. Gyp a little, bench-legged fiest dog that belonged to Freddie’s grandmother, would tree the squirrels. Freddie carried the squirrels that Jim threaded through a tree branch by the squirrel’s leg tendon. The weight of 15 squirrels for a seven year old gets pretty heavy, but hunting with Jim was an experience treasured to this day by Freddie. If Jim had more squirrels than the family he was staying with needed, there were families down the road who would get a bucket of ready-to-cook squirrel for their supper.
Gyp, the little squirrel dog, was multi-talented. After a hunting trip, Jim would stretch out his long legs while relaxing in a porch chair. Gyp would pick Jim’s pants clean of beggar lice. She would get the beggar lice in her teeth and spit them out . . . going all over his pants until they were all gone!
Jim’s 12-gauge squirrel gun was handed down to Freddie Griffith’s father, Carl, and now belongs to Freddie’s brother, Clyde Griffith.
Jim was neighborly in a shy, soft-spoken way. When he laughed, his whole frame shook, but you wouldn’t hear a sound. He was pretty much a loner. He never married. He would visit his niece, Elsie Thompson, from time to time. According to her, one minute he would be sitting on the porch and the next thing you knew he was gone. He wouldn’t say where he was going or when he’d be back. This was troublesome to the family because back then, there was no way to know if he made it to his destination or if he might be hurt somewhere in the woods. This was before telephones so there was no quick way to check on someone.
The only “public work” that Jim did was for the Ritter Lumber Company during the big logging operation on Brimstone. If he received pay for squirrels, ginseng, or odd jobs from families other than those he was staying with, he would report those earnings quarterly to the Internal Revenue Service. This provided him with a $30 monthly Social Security check. With this he could buy clothes, chewing tobacco and pay the fare for his occasional trips on the local bus back and forth to visit relatives in Wartburg. Until Norris’s Store at Elgin, Tennessee closed, it was where Jim would cash his check each month. He was very secretive about cashing his check and would only do so when no one else was in the store. He probably didn’t want it known that he had money since he traveled the mountains on foot and alone from one destination to another.
After Zane Young’s wife Martha and her family moved from their farm on Wolf Creek in 1965 to Mountain View, Jim asked to stay at the farm house. He took care of upkeep on the farm and raised a small garden. He sold vegetables for extra money.
On November 2, 1967, Jim was visiting at Mountain View with Martha Young and her sons, Harold Gene and David. Harold remembers that Jim arose that morning, showered, shaved and dressed in clean overalls like he was going somewhere. Jim sat down in a living room chair and closed his eyes as if to nap, but never awoke.
He may not have had an earthly home, but at the age of 70, and having, by all accounts, lived a full life, Jim crossed peacefully to his eternal home . . . a drifter no more.
The story of Mitchell Griffith
It’s one of the most beautiful spots in Scott County . . . a narrow ridge near Hamby Gap on Brimstone. You can stand in one spot and see miles of mountain vistas in three directions. Mitchel Griffith was very familiar with all the roads and trails that criss-crossed the Brimstone and Emory mountains . . . Hamby Gap, in particular. In the 1940s, he commented to his sister and niece at the supper table, with a view of Hamby Gap out the window behind him, “If I knowed when it was my time to die, I’d go to that gap in the mountain and lay down and die.”
After serving in World War I, Mitchel was living with his brother-in-law and sister, Lewis and Marlena Landrum, at Emory in Morgan County on property they shared. Mitchel had built a two-room house for himself but never lived in it. Instead, he stayed with his sister and her family. He pretty much single-handedly cleared the property into farmland and fenced it with wooden rails. His brother-in-law, Lewis Landrum, worked for Emory River Lumber Company, but Mitchel, being an unmarried man, was passed over for hiring in favor of men with families. This never set well with Mitchel. He even accused Lewis of preventing him from being hired by the lumber company so he would have to stay at home and work on the farm.
In early January 1947, after a particularly tiresome autumn, coupled with his mule named Jack dying, Mitchel announced that he was going “on vacation” for a couple of months. He was going to visit his mother’s brothers, Fred, Isam and Dock Webb, in Scott County and while there he would probably buy a mule.
He caught the local bus just north of Wartburg and rode to Scott County. After a few days visit with his Uncle Fred, Mitchel came to Robbins to stay a day or two with his Uncle Dock and he bought a mule.
On January 17, 1947, Mitchel set out from Robbins riding the mule up the Brimstone Road so he could cross the Brimstone Mountains at Hamby Gap to get to Emory. Nightfall would come early on this overcast, winter day and as he passed houses up the Brimstone Road, he didn’t tarry. He stopped at Odie and Kansas Griffith’s house near the head of Brimstone and they strongly urged him to spend the night because it was 5:00 p.m. and already sleeting. Mitchel seemed pressed to get to Emory and continued on his way.
No one knows for sure what caused Mitchel to become disoriented. It could have been because timber cutting had changed the way the mountain trails looked or it could have been due to a white out of snow and fog that so often engulfs the mountain tops in winter. If this was the case, Mitchel could have easily taken a wrong turn causing him to miss Hamby Gap.
He may have decided to huddle on the ground to get warm and await a clearing of the weather.
Mitchel’s family at Emory didn’t know when to expect him home because when he left he said he might be gone two months. They didn’t know he was on his way home. Several days passed before word spread up and down Emory and Brimstone that Mitchel was missing. Search parties formed and climbed the mountains from both sides. The ground was icy and snow covered when they found Mitchel’s body, 17 days after he left Odie Griffith’s. It was determined that there was no foul play because Mitchel had $800 in his pocket.
The mule was alive and was with the body of Mitchel who had died of hypothermia. To the old timers, he froze to death. The mule had endured a horrible 17 days. Hoof prints in the patchy snow and dirt indicated that the mule had paced several yards back and forth to Mitchel’s body sometimes in the direction of the road off the mountain to Emory. This pacing had gone on for 17 days and all the mule ate was bark it was able to gnaw from the trees and shrubs. The only harm evident on the mule was mutilation to an ear presumed to have been inflicted by wild animals that it had to fight to protect itself and as if it might have tried to protect Mitchel.
Mitchel and his sister Marlena Landrum were the only children of Rufus and Phoebe Griffith. Marlena’s children are Anderson, Henderson, Lewis, Lucy, Sarah, Betty, Noria, Noah, Lillie, Marie, Genevie and Love.
Mitchel is buried in the Lone Mountain Church Cemetery.
A concrete marker was placed in his memory at the site of his death by a family member. Mitchel’s body was laying with arms crossed on a narrow ridge a little east of the Hamby Gap almost exactly where he had years earlier told his sister and niece that he would like to “lay down and die”.
FOOTNOTE — Clear cutting of timber on the former Brimstone Land Company property has left a worse condition than Mitchel Griffith encountered on his fateful trip. Tree tops, limbs and brush now make a tangle of most of the trails and old home places. It has dreadfully changed the once grand mountain vista toward the Brimstone side looking from the Hamby Gap.
Mitchel Griffith went on “vacation” in 1947 and never came back.