July 22, 2014 - 11:25
Thurman Parish is a man on a mission
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Article Author: Dorothy Foster

Although it took awhile for him to realize it, Thurman Parish is a man on a mission, one founded on recording the history of the Polk County mountains in which he grew up. No one could be more suited for the task. Born in 1941 in Reliance, Tennessee, Thurman became a child of his environment at an early age, trekking into the woods with his father on hunting and fishing trips and exploring the land surrounding the Hiwassee River. Once he was able to drive, he ventured further afield, exploring the mountains from Towee to the Ocoee River and by the time he was employed with the U.S. Forest Service, Thurman was spending time south of the Ocoee, in places like Jacks River, Sylco and the Old Dutch Settlement. He notes that, “from 1962 through 1994, I was somewhere in the backwoods of the Polk County mountains nearly every day of the year.”

During these years he met many mountain people and read everything he could find about the mountains, but all the articles seemed incomplete and rarely mentioned the people. He tried to discover more writing about the mountains, but it was in vain. “By the 1980s,” Thurman said, “I realized this history needed to be recorded, and since I had accumulated a little knowledge of the mountains and people, decided to put my thoughts into writing.”

Thus notes became pages and pages morphed into a manuscript, only to lay around for years. In 1994, however, the Polk County News published what became Thurman’s first book The Old Home Place. Even after that book, Thurman continued researching the history of the area. That additional research resulted in his second book, Mountain Memories, in 2009.

But the author still wasn’t finished. Feeling a mysterious and alluring part of the area history known as the Old Dutch Settlement hadn’t been thoroughly covered, Thurman set about doing just that. Along with the Settlement history, he also researched information about the Apalachia Project. These items were included in his latest book Back to the Mountains, published in February 2012. The information on the Old Dutch Settlement alone is more than worth the price of the book. Here are some details from his book about that time in history.

After the Cherokee removal in 1838, the state began selling the land which the Indians had previously owned. Even at pennies per acre, however, the land was difficult to sell to locals. Out of state investors began buying it up for speculation, hoping to find minerals and possibly gold, such as the large deposit which had been discovered at Coker Creek. In the 1840s, a wealthy banker from Brooklyn, New York, Edward Bayer, began buying up thousands of acres of the land, eventually gaining title to 126,000 acres (although he actually purchased 200,000). But being far away, he needed someone to watch over his purchase. Napoleon Guerin, a Frenchman, was selected for the job. Included in this task was the development of a colony to settle to the land.

Guerin recruited families from German, Italian and French origin to come to the mountains of Tennessee and manage his boss’s investment. It was really mind boggling to conceive: these were strangers in a strange land, some just having stepped off a boat to come to America, and not just America, but an isolated pocket of wilderness in the mountains of East Tennessee. These people were highly skilled and were Catholic, initially trying to stay apart from the “Americans” in order to maintain their own culture. At first, a Catholic priest made trips up from Cleveland for several years. There are theories that the settlers were attempting to establish a Catholic colony in the midst of a Protestant area, but by the second or third generation, all the colony members were Protestant. Additionally, by 1900, the Catholic Church had lost all communication with the colony and knew nothing about it.

Another theory is that they were trying to establish a commercial winemaking industry, but a commercial vineyard without viable transportation would never thrive. Perhaps the wine was sold as far as Cleveland. They may have attempted more commercial undertakings in this area, but being of European origin, these settlers probably mostly consumed the wine for personal use.

For a few years the Dutch Settlement seemed to be a semi-socialistic society, using its own laws to govern the settlers. It has been referred to as a “utopian village,” but community government ended when the Civil War began. In fact, the ways of the Old Dutch Settlement were already slipping away by then. The settlers simply could not maintain their different culture and religion, especially with intermarriage with the local population. By the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the original settlers were gone, taking with them an interesting sidenote of Polk County history, which Thurman has attempted to recover.

As he says, “ I can honestly state that I wrote my books because no one else had…I did not want to see the history, places and people forgotten. What was so satisfying was learning that so many others are also interested in the history of the Polk County mountains and that I was not alone.”

His lifetime of research has greatly benefited all those who are interested in the history of the area. Because of Thurman’s books, so many facets of this splendid Polk County landscape and mountain people that would have otherwise been lost are now recorded for posterity.


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