The lower Appalachian mountains of Alabama scream with thousands of years of history. Recipes of heritages resulting in a variety skin tones as vibrant as the forest leaves in Autumn. For now I am going to share a story of an era that for me seems relevant. If my writing ability lacks, please be kind and know that I honestly feel this story is telling me to tell it.
The late summer air was thick as we drove through the Bankhead Forest. Our Sunday afternoon adventure searching for Aunt Jennie’s grave. No cell service and most roads lacked any sort of identification. “If you’d stuck to our plan and came through the other side, I bet we’d be there by now!” John said with a fake smile. “Ok, let’s just stop and get our bearings. There’s the Pine Torch church. Let’s get some pictures and figure out which way to go.” I said though never admitting he was right.
Built in the early 1800’s, pine torches lit up the church for night services and were used to light the way home for it’s members, hence it’s name. The first church in Alabama, its graveyard is filled with rock markers both new and old. Settlers and soldiers from every war now lay in rest there. The cemetery is covered in snow-white sand that makes the colorful plastic flowers, U.S. and confederate flags almost fluorescent. In the far left corner stands a small cherub, paint flaked and weather worn but still beautiful. With my camera in hand, I snapped pictures that only I would consider symbolic. A rebel flag half covered in white sand on top of a confederate casualty’s grave. Personally that flag causes as much turmoil in this modern time as it did when it flew in battle. What it represents to each person is complicated in this part of the world. With my own ancestors paying with their lives on the losing side of the war, I understand the importance of remembering. If we are to remember let’s pray we remember the whole truth.
“If we can just find the right road surely we can find her cemetery. The old home place is supposed to be on the same road. From what I seen on that you-tube video there’s a chimney still standing and the old rock foundation.” I said with certainty. With the map on the hood of my jeep, John tapped our destination and said “I found it, I think!”
I had been reading about this legendary lady for years. “Aunt Jennie the witch of the forest and her skull soap dish.” And as all legends goes there are many versions of her story. Supposedly ghosts roam her home place and if you visit her grave you have to leave a coin at her tombstone, in respect or else….. or else what? I wasn’t sure but it was none the less intriguing. Beyond the story of her vengeance on those who took the lives of her husband and oldest son, she was a mid-wife, herbalists and a woman with an independent soul. If by chance I take a picture and find something there, well it’s nothing less than a great conversation starter. The gravel roads were bumpy and dusty. I could just imagine horse-drawn buggies, soldiers marching and native Americans roaming these exact woods.
Some think of the antebellum deep south simply Southern Belles sitting on plantation porches. Truth is like now, for the majority it was hard work to simply survive. Aunt Jennie and her husband bought land in the early 1850’s that connected to Byler Road the first road commissioned by the state of Alabama. They owned an Inn and by the time the war had started, she also had a house full of kids.
“Turn there!” I shouted a little louder than necessary. Slowly we curved around the muddy road, then the rock headstones peaked through the weeds and wildflowers. “I can’t believe we found it! I think she led us here!” I laughed. John smiled and nodded but reminded me that he was the one who had driven. The tombstone is a flat marble stone, length and width of the grave. “Well, they can’t steal this stone. I read that it’s been stolen over 15 times and this one would take a fork lift to move! I mean, if she was a witch wouldn’t that be bad luck? Who would want to tick off a dead witch?” Walking back to my jeep I kept picking up change obviously washed off her stone during one of the infamous pop up storms in the forest. After grabbing two quarters from my purse, one for me and one for John. (I’m not superstitious but why tempt fate.) I put those I had found and ours back on her stone. “Are you about ready?” asked John “Yap, I wish I could remember which direction her house had been. Surely, we’ll see it. Old home places always have old cedar trees and giant oak trees plus the chimney.” First we took a left and stopped where someone had pushed dirt up to block the path. Just as we pulled up a giant buzzard flew up from the back side of the pile of dirt flying directly straight over the jeep. optimistically I said “Let me get out and see if the house is up the trail that could have been a sign to look here.” After a few hundred yards I knew that it wasn’t the place and headed back to John. I have a habit of picking up rocks for souvenirs. I picked up a beautiful smooth white rock and a piece of old clay pottery. It wasn’t any bigger than a dime but I knew it had been around when Aunt Jennie had lived.
As we drove slowly up and down that road I held that tiny piece of pottery silently saying to myself, “Aunt Jennie, show us. Show us where your house was.” After a while like all woman do, I had to pee. If by chance you aren’t country you must understand that sometimes there just isn’t a toilet. With a second reminder of my bladder he finally pulled over. Squatting in front of my jeep in a most unladylike position and trying not to pee on my shoes, I noticed some rocks. Not just any kind of rocks but foundation rocks! Pulling up my shorts, I yelled in excitement, “Oh my God! We are here! Look, there’s the chimney. It has fallen. No wonder we couldn’t see it. Wait, if this is the right place there has to be a root cellar somewhere around here. Look!! There it is!” I began to video the grounds and told Aunt Jennie thanks for getting us there.
My adventure has only just begun. I want to learn more about her life. Most writers have created this backwoods crazy woman with blood on her hands. The more stories I read and the more I have this need to filter the hype into the most likely truth.
My friend Vickie’s home is near the “High Town Path” which is one of the many trails that Native Americans used for thousand of years for traveling and land division between the tribes. On 60 acres of privately owned land in Bankhead Forest, she has a little piece of heaven. Horses, chickens, goats and flowers add to the already natural beauty.
“We are gonna have to see if the trails are clear enough to hike. I mean, they ain’t nothing to play around with. I was forking out some hay for my horses and found a momma rattler with over ten babies!! Not to mention the Copperheads that are bigger around than my arm. We’ll try to go down to Kinlock Falls and to the shelter (cave). Do you think you could get back to that “Aunt Jennie’s” place? I’ve heard about her for years but never knew exactly where it was.” She asked. “Yap, I am pretty sure I can. Heck, I didn’t even think about the snakes. I was so excited to have found it. I didn’t even look for snakes!” I said with a serious afterthought. “It’s not just the snakes these days. We’ve got wild boars. And they’ve bred with the domesticated pigs. For some reason that makes them even more aggressive. I came across one, it was heading straight for me! I shot 3 times. Missed him but he took off. I’m telling you, we just gotta be alert.” She said as she strapped on a very large hand gun.
Our first stop was Kinlock Falls. A summer hang out where locals ride their floats and tubes down its three-tier waterfall. It ends by dropping you into a large round pool which is surrounded by rock cliffs. Maybe 20 years ago when I was braver or dumber, I would have loved to have tried it but now it wasn’t on my agenda. Walking back to the road, we met a family. As soon as they said hello with their Massachusetts accents we knew they weren’t from this part of the world. They had just sold everything and bought an RV to travel the country. “Good luck on your cool adventure! And ya’ll watch out for snakes!” we said as we turned to go. “Snakes? Is there snakes out here?” She said in a startled voice. “Honestly lady you’re in the woods!” is what I wanted to say. But in full Southern form I said, “Bless your heart! Of course there’s snakes here.” After a few minutes of a forest tutorial, we bid farewell.
Next we read the historical marker about the “Kinlock” area. Kinlock was the name of a summer home for the political leader, David Hubbard (1792 -1874). There’s a spring that they believed had medicinal properties, a mill, and of course the shelter. This site provided early travelers of the of the Warrior Mountains reliable water and the shelter was perfect during severe weather. The Kinlock Shelter is also premier petroglyph site in the State of Alabama. It was absolutely breathtaking as we reached the opening just when a summer thunderstorm had rolled in. Standing there and soaking in the history, I imagined how many souls had stayed dry below this ancient rock.
“Okay, do you think you can get me to “Aunt Jennie’s?” Vickie asked. “Hopefully, Aunt Jennie got me there once maybe she’ll get me there again! I keep learning more and more about her. Supposedly she used the skull of the first man who was killed in revenge as a soap dish. Also her walking cane had a notch for each payback death. Did you know she donated land for the church at Macedonia? And at this church wasn’t segregated. In the 1800’s, that seems so progressive. I think I would have liked her.” I excitedly told Vickie. We drove up to the old home place. I pointed to the tall trees and said, “In one of the versions they hung her husband “Willis” and shot her son right here in this very yard. And this is where she made her kids take the blood oath to avenge their deaths!” “Who is it that killed em’?” Vickie asked. “Some say it was Union men, some say it was Confederates and others say it was the Confederate Home Guard. They ran a roadhouse, so I assume they came in contact with both sides. But I do remember reading that Willis had fought in the Mexican War but where his loyalties lay during the Civil War, well I’m just not sure, yet.” I said sounding like Nancy Drew.
Hunger began to intrude on both our stomachs and we decided to call it a day. Instead of going back into the forest we decided to meet her husband and have a well deserved steak in Moulton. With only one bar on my cell phone I told my navigation to take us to Moulton. Following the directions we went up, down and twisted around until we were atop of a big mountain. Of course, I had to take a picture of the patchwork quilt-like valley. At the bottom the landscape flattened out and we seen a graveyard. Rocks stacked over the graves and only a few whose words weren’t worn away with time. “Let’s stop, I see a historical marker.” Vickie said. I whipped my jeep around to take a quick look. “I’ve been living in these parts for years and I have no idea where we are at!” Said Vickie as she tried to read a tombstone. “Maj. William Russell the founder of Russellville is buried here. This is called Benton Hollow.” I told Vickie as I read the marker. With our curiosity eased we got back in my Jeep. I turned the key and nothing. “Oh this is no the place to get stranded!!” I said almost in a panic. I took a deep breath, waited a minute and with a “Thank Jesus!” it cranked. Time to head home, we enjoyed a great meal as we shared our adventure with her husband.
The next day during my quest for more information about “Aunt Jennie” a little detail caught my attention. Reading one of the more popular versions, it states that it was the home guard that did the murdering but my jaw dropped when I read the next line. “Their bodies were dumped in Benton Hollow.” Realizing that was exactly where I had been the day before simply sent a chill through me.
Most stories about “Aunt Jennie” begin with her marriage at 14 and the birth of her son. Some genealogical sites fail to mention her first-born. A girl, Emaline who died around two years of age in 1844. The same year her son John was born. John, was the son that was murdered with her husband Willis. Personally, that could be an important aspect of who she was or how she became this strong lady with an apparent attitude.
A mid-wife and herbalists, she was needed and held in high esteem in the mountains. She would have more than likely been the closest doctor figure for many miles. Living nearly 100 years on this crazy earth, she delivered many ancestors of the souls that still call that area home. Somewhere in her Mother’s family tree she had Native American ancestry. Hence a common description of her as a “beautiful blue-eyed Cherokee”. According to the 1850 census, she could neither read nor write, which really wasn’t that uncommon.
During the civil war there were skirmishes all through out the mountains. Also this area was filled with so-called half breeds and Black-Irish. Judging people for their skin color would have been a difficult process. From the information that I’ve read about Aunt Jennie I want to believe that if someone was hurt, she didn’t ask their political standing. She would have done what would have came natural and that’s to help a fellow human being. Sadly, that alone would have been considered treason. She even was known to have given some union soldiers Christian burials in the black cemetery. In my opinion all of these actions contributed to the murders of Willis and John. In one popular explanation offered is that a confrontation between Aunt Jennie and the “home-guard” erupted while Willis was gone serving in the Confederacy. When he arrived at home, he was outraged by their treatment of his wife. As any good Southern man he fought for his wife’s honor and the rest became legend. After Willis and John’s deaths in 1864, her resilience was remarkable. It is said that many a bullets were used to train her boys to shoot. The “Brooks Boys” were strong and like their Mother, fear wasn’t part their personalities. After many gun fights, moonshine steels, and robberies, she out lived all of her boys. Once she said concerning them, “At least they died with their boots on!”
She remarried in 1871 to Jacob Johnston who was widowed that same year by his wife of 44 years. A father of 14 (though most were grown by this time) he and Aunt Jennie were married which resulted into a nice chunk of property together. I can imagine that in the environment of the forest, romance wasn’t a priority but survival was easier with a partner.
Quoted from someone who knew her, it was said that “If she liked you she do anything for you but if she didn’t then she’d just assume shoot you!” Is there notches on that cane she’s holding? Do any of her relatives still have that murder’s skull? The complete truth would be impossible unless I had a time machine but I do feel a kindred spirit in her. Maybe it’s that she was great at holding a grudge but I’m going to go with it’s because she was a survivor!
I want to go back. Go back with an October moon overhead and see if maybe she’ll say hello……