Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest: An Enduring Legacy (Part 1)

Courtesy Photos

Above: This plaque memorializes author and poet Joyce Kilmer at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in western North Carolina. Below: The Mountain Sun School class of Brevard, N.C., is pictured in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

By Dr. Thomas Cloer, Jr.

Special to The Courier

Courtesy Photo Carl Cloer is pictured with a giant tree in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Courtesy Photo
Carl Cloer is pictured with a giant tree in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Grandpa, would you and Grandma like to go camping with my class and me?” my grandson Harvest Wolf asked. “We’re going to the Slickrock Wilderness and the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. We need some adults to help us with our camps.”

My grandson goes to Mountain Sun School in Brevard, N.C. Mountain Sun School is an absolute gift from heaven, with a curriculum and faculty second to none.

“When are you going, Harvest? Deer season for primitive weapons is about to start in South Carolina,” I said with a worried tone.

“When does deer season for primitive weapons start?” Harvest Wolf asked.

“The first week of October.”

“I think that’s when we’re going.”

That’s just one of the many dilemmas that a grandpa faces. But in this instance, the decision was a foregone conclusion. Harvest Wolf knew I was very familiar with the history of the Joyce Kilmer Forest, and that Harvest Wolf’s great-great grandfather, William Thad (W.T.) Cloer, was a key player in the preservation of that magnificent forest. Therefore, primitive weapon hunting just had to wait.

This would be an opportunity for grandma and me to pass along to our grandson an enduring legacy of our own. My wife and I had spent many hours in Joyce Kilmer Forest videoing and photographing my dad before his death as he walked through the enchanted forest explaining how his father, W.T. Cloer, had played such a significant role, possibly the most important role, in saving the property, and the eventual establishment of that national treasure.

Joyce Kilmer

In the 1930s, Joyce Kilmer was already a national hero. He had been a journalist, avid writer and poet whose works celebrated the natural world before his courageous death in World War I. He is remembered most for his poem titled “Trees,” which was published in “Trees and Other Poems” in 1914. At the beginning of World War I, Kilmer enlisted in the New York National Guard. He was deployed to France with the “Famous Fighting 69th” in 1917. He volunteered for the most dangerous missions and was killed in France by a sniper’s bullet in 1918.

In the 1930s, the Veterans of Foreign Wars requested that the U.S. government honor the courageous Kilmer with an appropriate memorial. After discussion about a fitting tribute, it was suggested that a virgin stand of timber in the eastern United States would be a meaningful memorial for the man who wrote the poem “Trees.” The United States Forest Service found just the right place near Robbinsville, N.C., in Graham County. In a large mountain cove, next to the Slickrock Watershed, along the Little Santeetlah Creek, thrived a virgin forested land completely intact with trees 100-150 feet tall and 15-20 feet in circumference. Now the government just needed to buy the land from Gennett Lumber Co., for whom my grandpa worked as superintendent.

Gennett Lumber Co.

Gennett Lumber Co. began in 1901. Two brothers, Andrew and Nat Gennett, began the firm. Andrew’s memories are presented in a book titled “Sound Wormy: Memoir of Andrew Gennett,” published by The University of Georgia Press. (Sound wormy is a certain grade of lumber.) I never knew the elder Andrew Gennett, because he died three years before I was born in Cherokee County, N.C. (in the nearest hospital), as my family had moved to work with Gennett Lumber Co. in Clay County, N.C., near Shooting Creek. There, my brother Nat (Nat Gennett’s namesake), and I were born as our grandpa and father served as superintendent and sawyer, respectfully. I did know the younger Andrew Gennett, a son of the elder, who was later president of Gennett Lumber Co. when the move was made to Pickens.

I did, also, know Nat Gennett quite well. I saw him frequently as he visited his sawmills. As a child, I was constantly at the mills, in the saw cab with Dad, or on the lumber yards with my brother, pulling a red wagon full of Grit newspapers, cold drinks and snacks that we sold to the workers. I also was a guest, along with my brother, numerous times at a Gennett mountain retreat on the continental divide in Jackson County, N.C. My brother and I were especially fond of the huge private lake of ice water full of thriving brook trout. I can remember my brother catching two trout there simultaneously fishing a bottom fly that sank, and a fly on a dropper that just dapped the water. My grandpa, my dad and Nat Gennett would also often fish together in Florida. I remember Nat Gennett smoked huge cigars thrust into the corner of his mouth and wore highly magnified glasses.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Gennett Lumber Co. started by first cruising timber in Pickens County for a mill on the Chattooga River. They cruised timber on Devil’s Fork Creek and “boarded at Jocassee on the Keowee River.” It is somewhat ironic that the company started here in Pickens County in the first part of the 20th century, and the Cloers’ involvement with Gennett ended in Pickens toward the end of the 20th century.

Gennett Lumber Co. at Madison County, N.C.

For almost a century, the Cloers were important players in the company as superintendents, sawyers, saw filers, lumber graders, loggers, lumber haulers, night watchmen and flunkies. My other brother, Mike, and I were two of the night watchmen and flunkies. In the summers from high school through graduate school, Mike and I did what needed doing, usually when someone was absent, such as running the debarker, resaw, chipper or stacking the green lumber. Mike was actually quite gifted with heavy equipment such as high lifts; I much preferred grading lumber. I enjoyed making quick math decisions about the different grades. Mike later went full-time into the ministry as I entered academe.

Our grandpa, William Thad, began working with Gennett Lumber Co. in the early part of the 20th century. He was first superintendent at “Bloody Madison” County, N.C., at Shelton Laurel on Spillcorn Creek, where his pretty daughter, my Aunt Effie Cloer, worked as bookkeeper.

My dad told me about one of the most terrifying experiences that he could remember, which occurred at Shelton Laurel in Madison County, when some ne’er-do-wells broke into the Cloers’ lodging in the sawmill camp. Dad was sleeping as a very small child with W.T. The intoxicated intruder incorrectly thought he was breaking into the room of Aunt Effie, next to W.T’s room. Aunt Effie was a beautiful young lady whom the intruder had seen in the office of Gennett Lumber Co.

My grandpa had drunk a little moonshine to help him sleep when the intruder started trying to break the wrong door to enter. Dad tried repeatedly to wake W.T. and finally succeeded as W.T. slowly lit an old kerosene lantern and retrieved his .45-caliber pearl-handled pistol from the nightstand near his bed, all without putting his feet on the floor. Dad said when the door finally broke and the intruder entered, W.T., sitting up in bed, aimed carefully, fired, “Boom!” and then immediately, without getting out of the bed, blew out the light and was snoring as the intruder fell to the floor with a loud thud. Dad said he pulled the covers over his head as a small child, and spent a terrifying night before falling asleep sometime in the morning.

The next morning when Dad awoke, the intruder was gone, and no one on Spillcorn Creek, including W.T., ever talked about what happened again. Since no one turned up dead, business resumed as usual the next day. Such was the way of mountain people who settled their own disputes, and such was the case that night on Spillcorn Creek.

Gennett Lumber Co. at Wolf Mountain, N.C.

W. T. was then superintendent at Wolf Mountain, N.C., near Toxaway near the head of the Jocassee Gorges. Here, my dad as a teenager, another pretty sister, my Aunt Zona Cloer, and my Uncle Andy Cloer, worked for Gennett Lumber Co. Dad began his sawing career there. He told me the story of how he began by first working on the log carriage.

I was always horrified by and afraid of rotating shafts and pulleys with projecting set screws, bolts, nicks or abrasions on moving parts in old sawmills. These could grab clothing, and the results could be catastrophic. Long before the Occupational, Safety, and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970, or any other regulations, millwrights in old sawmills would use set screws that were not countersunk. Many times these screws protruded outward on dangerous, rotating shafts. These set screws would often protrude for an inch or more as they turned with the shaft. If anything got in the way of the projecting set screw, it would catch clothing, feet, hands, fingers or whatever was in its path. Numerous horror stories exist about clothing wound in set screws and the ensuing tragic deaths of poor souls at old sawmills.

Dad said W.T. told him on his first day, as a teenager on the log carriage, “Now listen, Carl, if you get your foot around that set screw, it has the power to take your foot off. Listen, son, you can get crippled or even killed if you get your foot next to that set screw. Do you understand me about keeping your foot away?”

“I understand.”

“Good! Now be aware and be careful; I don’t want you getting crippled.”

Dad told me he was really watchful for a few minutes, and then got in a hurry and without thinking got his foot in the path of the screw. It tore a gaping hole in dad’s foot without tearing enough boot leather to let blood escape. Dad said he was so embarrassed after W.T. had warned him so, he never let anyone know as his boot filled and sloshed with blood; he just kept working.

My grandpa, W.T., and his clan of Cloers were working there at Wolf Mountain above the Jocassee Gorges in the mid-30s when the Gennetts asked W.T. to come to Graham County, N.C., and cruise a stand of virgin timber on the Little Santeetlah Creek. W.T. was then to make a recommendation to the Gennetts about the possibilities of manufacturing lumber from that massive stand of timber, or selling the land to the United States government.

W.T.’s Recommendation

“Tom, my daddy’s old hand probably touched this very yellow poplar tree that I’m touching now,” Dad said solemnly as he placed his hand on the giant in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Dad looked toward heaven and the canopy of such an enormous and majestic tree and said, “This is likely one of the very trees that caused him to recommend what he did.”

“Dad, how tall is that tree” I asked.

“It looks to be almost as tall as half of a football field,” Dad said as he moved around to get another perspective.

“How about this one, Dad?” I asked as I backed up to get as true a perspective as possible from the ground.

“Tom, that one tree would produce a railroad chain car of lumber. But, Mercy! Mercy! The size,” my dad said pensively as he stared upward at the giant.

“Now getting this size tree from here to the mill, and then getting it sawed into boards, stacked and dried without warping or cupping would be the trick, Tom. No wonder your grandpa said what he did to the Gennetts,” Dad said.

“What exactly did he say?” I asked.

“Tom,” Dad said. “W.T. told them there was no way under heaven to transport these massive trees, manufacture them into lumber under the existing conditions of the time, which was a terrible depression, without danger of bankruptcy. If they ever could get the logs to a mill by building a whole new rail system here to the mouth of Poplar Cove, they would have a very rough time doing anything with the logs once they got them there, without breaking the company.

“Your grandpa was afraid that it would bankrupt the company if they tried, and he strongly recommended against trying. W.T. knew that the U.S. government really wanted this virgin stand of timber, and would at least pay the Gennetts enough for the land during The Great Depression to keep Gennett Lumber Company operating, and thereby, keep your grandpa working.”

To read the second part of this story, check out next week’s issue of The Courier. About the author: Dr. Cloer was the first faculty member in Furman University’s history to receive both the Meritorious Teaching and Meritorious Advising Awards at commencement.