The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Narrow Escape On White Top Mountain

By Boyd S. Ray © 1992

Issue: July-August-September, 1992

White Top Mountain is located in Virginia just a few miles northeast of the corner where North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia join. It is 5,344 feet high and is in an isolated part of the rugged mountain area. It was accessible by the roads and railroads built into the area when the timber was cut and the lumber hauled out sometimes before World War I.

During the 1920s they started having a big music festival of mountain and bluegrass music on top of White Top every year during the warm summer months. It was a big event and people and musicians came from miles around. In the summer of 1933, it was especially big because Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the newly elected President of the United States, was a special invited guest.

Mac Wright and I were in high school at the time, both rising juniors. We decided we wanted to see Mrs. Roosevelt. Mac lived on a big farm in the Laurel Bloomery section and had riding horses. To ride up there on horses and stay for a day and ride back home required that we spend two nights on the mountain. We made our plans, packing sleeping gear, some food and feed for the horses, and took off.

The trip up was uneventful. We rode across Pond Mountain and through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. We arrived in late afternoon and started looking out a camp site. A great area of the very top of White Top was cleared and used for grazing cattle. That is where the pavilion was built and other structures used for selling hot dogs and drinks. It is also where the multitude of cars were parked.

We went down one side of the mountain to the edge of the cleared land and made camp at the foot of a huge chestnut tree. It was really a huge stump. The tree was dead and about all the limbs were gone and the trunk extended up in the air about forty or fifty feet. It was very sturdy, about four feet in diameter, and had a level spot at its base for our fire and bedrolls. To the left about sixty feet we tied the horses to the lower branches of a huge oak tree so they could browse the native grass. We then went up to the pavilion to enjoy the entertainment a while before going to bed. When we came back to camp we were joined by another boy from home, William Joe Muse. We had been friends for years and we were glad to have him join us.

It gets cool at night up on the mountain, even in the summertime, so we built a fire and arranged our bedrolls around it. We sat and talked till after dark and the moon came out.

Up on the mountain, where they parked the cars, it was about two or three hundred feet up from where we were and somewhat steep. People were sleeping in cars, trucks and around their vehicles. While tending to the fire I happened to look up and saw the headlights of a car coming straight down the mountainside directly toward our camp. I screamed at the other boys and they jumped up to see. This car was coming faster and faster and making more and more noise as it rolled directly at us. We had to move fast. Mac ran out to the left beyond where the horses were tied. Joe ran the opposite direction into the trees on the other side. I jumped behind that big chestnut snag. As I looked around one side of the tree it appeared the car was coming in that direction. As I looked around the other side of the tree it appeared the car was coming that direction. In just a few seconds it became apparent to me that the car was going to hit the tree stump smack in the middle. It was too late for me to try to run in either direction.

Just a split second before that car hit the tree stump I jumped to the left about five or six feet. That car hit the tree with such force it split it off at the ground and the jagged end jabbed up in the ground right where Joe had been lying. The tree then fell to the left, right over my head, and the top of its limbs drug down through the limbs of the tree where the horses were tied. I was left standing, unhurt, in the small triangle between where the car hit the tree, where the stump jabbed in the ground, and where the trunk finally fell to the ground about four or five feet beyond me. That was a close call.

Immediately I jumped to the edge of the car and looked in to see if anybody was in it. Fortunately it was empty. The motor was smashed back through the seat as it destroyed the car. We learned later that an old fellow, who lived away off someplace, and who was there to get copies of the music and ballads, had been trying to sleep in the car. He did not know how to drive, and in twisting around, let off the emergency brake. That started the car rolling off the mountain. Fortunately, he got out and was safe.

Other than that little episode we had a great time and enjoyed seeing Mrs. Roosevelt, as she sat on the stage and when she spoke to the crowd.