Shane and I like to read up on the history of an area before visiting, and knowing that we were going to spend a few days in Blue Ridge, GA, I looked into some of the local lore and heritage. I hit a gold mine up in the North Georgia Mountains, (all puns intended). In the early days of settlement, this area native tribes the Creek and Cherokee lived alongside two prominent families: The Stanley’s and the Tilley’s. From what I read they didn’t exactly get along and were regular Hatfields and McCoy’s of the North Georgia Mountains, but that is another story. Today’s story is about one families love of heritage.
Today, along the picturesque Aska Road, on top of a hill stands a lone whitewashed church. The church has been genuinely cared for by one family who calls this place, “home“. It is part of their heritage, and you can’t escape the Stanley name up here. This is Stanley territory. Roads, creeks, gaps are all named after the family and there is a ton of history in this small valley about them. Like every family, there are stories of heartache and joy, laughter and tragedy. So many wonderful and tragic stories to be told and I would like to share just a few with you.
From what we can tell the Stanley’s came to this region from Avery County, N.C. and a few married the Cherokee tribe members that had also moved into the Creek territory. After the trail of tears, the natives that had married into white families were safe from the U.S. Army and were allowed to stay. The Stanley family built a village in a hollow (pronounced “holler“) and began to thrive: raising sheep, cows, horses, and growing crops.
Southern Slang: An -er sound is often used for long “o” at the end of a word. For example, hollow— “a small, sheltered valley betten two hills” is pronounced holler
In 1886 a church was built near the homestead and like most churches in that area, it served as the schoolhouse, a gathering place, as well as a place of worship. The church started as Baptist but when a Church of Christ minister showed up, a great debate started and the current preacher knew less scripture than the Church of Christ minister and that settled that! The preacher was sent packing and from that point on they were Church of Christ… If only all things in life were this simple.
Today this church sits vacant all except one day a year when the family meets on the last Sunday in August for Decoration Day. This big ole family reunion pays homage to those that lived in the hills, toiled the ground and raised families. Three to four hundred people pour in from all over the country who still have their roots in the little church. A long cement table has been built under an enormous pavilion to accommodate the family’s lunch after the sermon. This thing must be 50 yards long! A hymnal sits atop the stone table awaiting a family member to pick it up again and sing from it. A silk yellow daisy was gently laid atop the book. I couldn’t help but snap a photo.
Luckily, while visiting the Stanley Settlement we were surprised by a visit of two Stanley ladies, but more on that later.
First, let me tell you about Elisha Stanley who established this valley. The creek that the settlement is built on, is named after Elisha. He was a hardworking farmer with a family and community to care for. In the late stages of the Civil War, the Confederate Army was desperate for men and showed up at his front door to conscript him and his brother-in-law, Elv Evans Hughes, into the rebellion. Neither men were too keen on this idea, “they didn’t want to fight in the war, or for the Southern army.” — as historically written. The current caretaker Ralph Stanley has said, “Our People were on the Union side“. The men kept going AWOL, leaving camp, and coming home to work their fields and provide for their families. Their crops didn’t stop for war, and their women and children were not going to go hungry. Because of this, the two men were hunted down by the Confederate Army. On September 6, 1864, Elisha was on the porch repairing his 6-year-old son, Ricklas Calvin’s (R.C.), shoe when the Army came calling. Without hesitation, Elisha was shot 6 times while his son and pregnant wife watched. The Army then found Elv Evans Hughes in a field sheering his sheep. With a pleading wife, they tied him to a horse and drug him away to the camp where he was tied to a tree and shot dead.
The wives had no men left to bury the bodies and it was hard labor to dig the holes, so the two men were buried in the same plot. The women used a corn box used to feed the horses as a coffin. They placed one man in, covered him with a sheet and laid the other on top. Today a new headstone shows those buried there as “Family” and the plaque states:
The marker reminds us the men where “killed standing for the Union of our Great Nation.”
After the war, The Stanley Settlement took in a lost boy, named Moses, who was found crying along the roadside and raised him amongst their own. The Stanley’s were farmers who worked their own land and did not own slaves. When they saw a young black child alone they assumed he was the child of runaway slaves, but no, he was born free and was lost or abandoned. Moses was raised by Mr. Johnson until he died and then R.C. Stanley took him in. He was the first black child to attend school in Fannin County. He was educated on Stanley Creek and lived his life in the valley. Moses is buried in the cemetery, along with the other Stanley family members. He wasn’t blood, but he was buried alongside the only family he ever knew, the ones who cared for him. They were his family. His gravestone doesn’t have his year of birth because it was unknown. It only has his name, “Moses Johnson” and “Colored“. Some may think to have the word “colored” as disrespectful, but I think it is paying honor to the man that lived and flourished amongst a white family during a time when race was a dividing factor. I think the family wanted people of the future to know that he was different but equal. I would have loved to meet old Moses. I bet he was full of stories.
Life in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s wasn’t easy. It was made especially difficult in the rural north Georgia mountains. In times of need, high on the hill, the church bell would ring. You could hear it 2.5 miles away and when the parishioners heard it, they knew they were needed. As we drove through the heavily wooded mountains, I imagined just how difficult life must have been up there for the Stanley’s. They built a community, were hardworking, and God fearing. They raised babies, took care of their elderly and died here. In the cemetery, all but four, are all kinfolk of the Stanley’s. Here we saw the headstones of Ada and Harrison Stanley and their 7 young children, who perished in the early 1900’s. Many children were lost in the GA Mountains at the turn of the century. (there’s a creepy legend about that. The mortality rate of infants was high in this region and an eerily weird local legend spawned from out of that.) As the church plaque states: “These small graves attest to the risks that came with childhood and the need for a tight-knit community.“
Then there was Buell Stanley who was the crazy hillbilly who blew his arm off trying to fish with a stick of dynamite in the Toccoa River! Now that in itself is a story but this is where it gets really good… Buell blew his “good” arm off fishin’ — who throws a stick of dynamite with their “bad” arm right? –After they got him bandaged up they held a funeral for the arm… in the family cemetery. Not ALL of Buell lies here, mind you, just his arm, may it rest in peace.
Remember at the top of this article when I said while we were visiting the church we met two Stanley ladies?
Meet Evelyn and Beverly
I don’t believe in “chance”. I do believe in destiny. And it was our destiny to meet these two ladies. Shane, Julia and I were about to leave the settlement that is only really visited every once in awhile by family. It isn’t like someone is up there every day, these days, you know. As we were piling into our car, another vehicle slowly made it’s way up the drive. They stopped a short distance away, sat there for a moment and then came on up to greet us. It was almost like they stopped and discussed, “why are strangers up here?” (They did, in fact, discuss this. Beverly said, she said, “mama, go on up and see what they are doin’” and they did and we are so glad!) They were coming to check on the family church and their loved ones buried here. We stood and spoke to them for about 45 minutes and they told us the stories that I just told you. Evelyn is the great great granddaughter of Elisha. She told us, “My Great Granddaddy was shot by Confederate Soldiers. We Stanley’s didn’t own slaves and didn’t want to fight for the Confederates and they shot him“. This made me sad to think, that back then if you thought differently than someone else, you could lose your life in an instant. Unfortunately, we haven’t learned much from history since then. I wish Elisha could come talk to our society. I am proud of Elisha. He stood up for what he believed in and was there for his family until the end. We discussed Ada and Uncle Ralph. We discussed Buell and his missing arm and then they told us where Moses was buried and we bid them goodbye as we sauntered off to find his grave on the edge of the yard by a tree. As I walked away, I turned back and jokingly said, “I am gonna come crash your families decoration day” and without hesitation, both ladies invited us to join them in 2018. I think we will take them up on it. I want more stories!
Thank you to Evelyn and Beverly who more than graciously told us stories of their family. I dedicate this entry to the both of them and their heritage.
Thank you to http://www.gcgsi.org/Research/ChurchHistory/StanleyChurchofChrist.pdf