Divisive politics, tragedy and enduring love in the Cashiers Valley

There is so much history all around those of us who live in Pickens County, truly one of the most beautiful places on earth.

By Dr. Carl Thomas Cloer, Jr.
For The Courier

We have our Jocassee Gorges, the Blue Ridge Escarpment, and historic Clemson University with its magnificent forests and botanical gardens. We need no more than 30 minutes to be atop the escarpment and in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Most of my life has been spent atop the escarpment in the mountains. If one travels west in Pickens County on scenic Highway 11, the Keowee River (now lake) is crossed, and the traveler junctions with routes leading into the Jocassee Gorges. Highway 130, for example, travels north through the Jocassee Gorges and connects with Highway 107 into Jackson County (N.C.) and the historic Cashiers Valley, where the mighty Whitewater River of Jocassee Gorges fame originates. I have fished the mighty Whitewater all the way to Cashiers.

The story unfolding herein has the components of a Shakespearean tragedy, with bloody divisive politics, terrible tragedy, loyalty, and love. My father was a key actor in the tragedy, and related the story to me in vivid detail. I will have an imaginary Paul Harvey, the old iconic newscaster and storyteller, turn and address you, the audience, in the same manner Richard III does in that Shakespearean masterpiece. In Richard III, most all the bloody and violent acts are not viewed directly by the audience. Note that similarity as this story unfolds. I have always believed this story would make a marvelous novel and/or movie.


There is so much talk these days about divisive politics. We have just finished a hard-fought national election with much loud rhetoric and red and blue painted states. Of course, this is nothing new. This country was founded on revolution, and deep-seated political views have always been a part of our fabric, and probably always will. Debate is as American as apple pie and baseball. However, just as today, there have been incidents down through history where political division led to bruised egos and people became bitter toward each other. In the most recent election, one of the candidate’s sons apologized for saying he felt like going out there and throwing a punch when asked what he thought about a debate.

Jackson County, our neighboring county atop the Jocassee Gorges, was not without strong political views in the 1930s, and the rugged individualism of the mountain people probably exacerbated tensions during that era. The year had just begun in 1934. A national election in 1932 had resulted in a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Prohibition and religion were two hot topics in that 1932 election. The nation was in the tight grip of the Great Depression. Mountain people, such as my ancestors in Jackson County, traumatically felt the effects of those very hard times. It didn’t take much to start a heated political discussion. I remember my own Grandpa, W.T. Cloer, could get “het up” in a political conversation.

My paternal ancestors, the Cloers, and my maternal ancestors, the Moodys, were early pioneers of Jackson County, along with families with names such as Baumgarner, Bryson, McCall, and Zachary. My maternal grandmother was married to, and widowed by, three of the pioneers: Andrew Weaver Moody, Royal Bee Baumgarner (Bee), and Elbert Alley Baumgarner (Ebb). My paternal grandparents, William Thad and Pearl Fair Cloer, my Mom and Dad, Carl T. and Grace Moody Cloer, and my Grandmother Bonnie Moody Baumgarner were standard fixtures with homes next to the one traffic light in Cashiers Valley for many years, as W.T. operated a sawmill at nearby Wolf Mountain.

My father began working at the Wolf Mountain sawmill very soon after the events in the tragic story reported herein took place.


On January 3, 1934, W.T. and Pearl Fair Cloer were living with their large family at one end of the Lake Cashiers dam. Kay Elias Baumgarner and his wife Etrulia, with the nickname “Ja-kee,” lived at the other end of the dam. The Baumgarner family had a beautiful little toddler daughter, Mary Ellen Baumgarner, who would celebrate her third birthday when the service berries (pronounced “sarvis buries” in Appalachian speech) would bloom in April, 1934.

Another Cashiers Valley native, Robert Franklin Bryson (Frank) lived with his wife, Selma Bryson, and family. They had a handsome young son, Hoyt Conway Bryson (Hoyt), who would turn eight in March 1934, when the first daffodils would dare to open in the mountainous Cashiers Valley air.

My Mom, then Grace Moody, had moved from the famous cabin where she and the richest doctor in the world in 1934, John R. Brinkley, Jr., had been born on the Moody Farm in East LaPorte on the Tuckaseegee River above Sylva. Mom’s father, Weaver Moody, had died, and my Grandmother Bonnie had married Royal Bee Baumgarner (Bee), and moved to Fairfield. Bee Baumgarner and Kay Baumgarner (a main character) were first cousins.

Fairfield is where the Horsepasture River originates. The scenic Horsepasture River with its magnificent Rainbow Falls is one of the most scenic rivers left in the Eastern United States, and is a grand contributor to the Jocassee Gorges as one of three major rivers flowing into Lake Jocassee.

I know Mom and John R. Brinkley, Jr. were born in the same cabin, because I have the Jackson County court petition asking Bonnie Baumgarner to sell the cabin back to John R. Brinkley, to restore in honor of the famous “medical maverick.” He had married Mom’s cousin, Sally Wike. He became the richest doctor in the world, drove a Cadillac with 18 cylinders, became a radio sensation, and ran for Governor of Kansas after performing operations to “rejuvenate” men by inserting goat testicles. The number of books written about him is staggering. Some of Dr. Brinkley’s supporters included the Dean of the University of Chicago School of Law and the publishers of the Los Angeles Times newspaper. But I digress.

My Mom was nine years old and living in Fairfield with her family and new stepfather (the first cousin of one of the involved individuals) the day of the tragedy.


On the day the shooting occurred — Jan. 3, 1934 — my father, then a teenager of 16 years, was splitting hardwood for the old wood heater that would need to glow red that January night in high-altitude Cashiers. His splitting was interrupted by a quick succession of shots nearby from a small caliber gun in the vicinity of the Lake Cashiers dam. Then, in a matter of seconds, Dad heard three large booms from a large caliber gun — and then silence. He rested his youthful muscled arms on his large hickory ax handle, and looked toward the sounds as he heard, and then saw, someone approaching. It was his neighbor, Kay Baumgarner. Kay was breathing hard after hurrying up to Dad.
“Carl,” he said while catching his breath, “I want you to run over to my house and tell Jakee I won’t be home for supper. I’ve had some trouble down on the dam with Frank Bryson.”

Dad replied, “Kay, I’ve got to get this wood cut before dark; I’ll find Bob (Dad’s brother), and have him go.”

“Carl, I really want you to go, and I need you to go now. Go on and tell her I won’t be home.”

“O.K., Mr. Kay, I’ll go right now.”

My Dad laid down the double-bitted ax and was running across the dam in a robust teenage manner when he nearly tripped over Frank Bryson lying on his high-powered deer rifle. Dad told me that Kay had shot Frank Bryson more than once through the heart, and Frank had raised his rifle and fired three times as he followed after Kay. Dad said the rifle was cocked for a fourth shot that never happened. The two had not been friends for some time. They had both been at Charlie Fugate’s mill a short time before the shooting, and something was probably said there that fueled the violence.

Kay Baumgarner left the scene and gave himself up to the legendary local sheriff, Frank Allen. The survivor gave his account as to what happened. He alleged that Frank Bryson had accosted him while holding the rifle, and had hit him between the shoulders with a rock. Kay had fired a small caliber pistol at Bryson several times, and then quickly fled, with Bryson following, shooting, and missing three times.

At Fairfield, Mom said a friend came running that evening to announce, “Kay Baumgarner has shot and killed Frank Bryson on Cashiers Lake dam. We heard it was over politics.”

Enduring Love
It’s rare for me to pass through Cashiers Valley when I don’t go to the old Zachary Cemetery located in the Chattooga Woods subdivision just north of High Hampton Resort on Highway 107.

That old moss-covered cemetery in the densely forested area is the final resting place for most of the characters named in this story. I took my Grandson, Harvest Wolf, on the most recent visit. I normally go first to Bee Baumgarner’s grave site. Then I visit the grave of one that I remember vividly. This is Elbert Alley Baumgarner (Ebb) who married my Grandmother Bonnie Baumgarner after Bee Baumgarner had passed away. Ebb was Kay Baumgarner’s brother. Ebb and my Grandma Bonnie had a huge vineyard and apple orchard in the center of Cashiers across the road from Edward and Fannie Fowler’s famous general store. Ebb Baumgarner was the sawyer at a local sawmill nearer to his home than Wolf Mountain.

I showed and told my grandson about the six little graves where the very small children of the legendary sheriff, Frank Allen, were buried. My family always explained to me that Allen had been exposed to some dangerous gas in World War I that caused so many deaths of his tiny children.

I never leave the cemetery without going to the graves of Kay Baumgarner and Frank Bryson.

Harvest Wolf was very interested as I related the tragic story to him, just as my father had told me. I never tell the story, however, without telling “the rest of the story” as the old radio announcer Paul Harvey always said. As we stood in the coolness of a Cashiers Valley spring day, I told Harvest Wolf that even amidst loss and sadness, love will always prevail. Nothing can conquer love; love is always triumphant and love always wins.

Frank Bryson’s tombstone says it well, “Earth has no sorrows that heaven can not heal.” I told my grandson, after reading that with him, how very profound the statement was. I told him I didn’t worry about dying and being forgotten, because the love that existed between him and me will live on, even after I’m gone. That’s one way this Grandpa plans to take on immortality.

The little toddler of Kay and Etrulia Baumgarner, Mary Ellen Baumgarner, would grow to an adult as a lovely lady, as lovely as Cashiers Valley would ever see. She matured and developed a deep and enduring love for a handsome young man, a kind and respectful gentleman who invited her to spend the rest of her life with him.

Did you guess? That lucky young man was Hoyt Conway Bryson, the son of Frank and Selma Bryson.

“And now you know… the rest of the story. Good day!”

Dr. Thomas Cloer, Jr. was the first South Carolina Professor of the Year, chosen by the late Governor Carroll Campbell and the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education. He received his Masters Degree from Clemson University and his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina.