Friday, August 7, 2009


When I was a child, I awoke each morning to the mournful wail of our tannery whistle. It was a long WOOOOOOOOO that lingered in the coves and hollers of Jackson County for several moments. I would hear my grandmother’s feet hit the floor and shortly afterwards, the kitchen would be filled with the sounds and smells of breakfast.

The whistle was our clock and it regulated our lives throughout the day. When it blew at noon, my grandmother would drop her hoe out in the garden and come in to put our dinner on the table; my grandfather, who drove an Esso truck, would hear the summons in Cullowhee or Barker’s Creek, and he would come home to find his dinner waiting for him. At 7:00 each evening, he would walk home, often passing members of the tannery’s nightshift on their way to work.

Over the years, the town of Sylva became accustomed to waking, working, eating and sleeping in accordance to the dictates of our tannery. We didn’t all work there, but we moved in harmony to its tune.

There is an old story that the mayor of Sylva became an ardent fan of the whistle and repeatedly asked the tannery’s manager to blow the whistle to celebrate civic events: sports football games, July 4th celebrations and New Years Day. The manager steadfastly refused, sensibly observing that if the whistle blew at unspecified times, the workers would not know if they should come to work or go home. The mayor persisted. Finally, the manager agreed to blow the whistle, provided that “some noteworthy event” had occurred. He was the sole judge of the event’s significance, of course.

I’m afraid there weren’t many significant moments. The whistle blew for December 7, 1941. It blew again on V-J Day; and finally, to everyone’s embarrassment, it blew one October evening in 1947 to announce the “End of the World.” (In actual fact, there was an “aurora borealis,” a northern lights display that badly frightened the people of western North Carolina.) The tannery manager, convinced that Judgment Day was at hand, told the workers to go home “to be with their loved ones at this dread hour,” and he blew the whistle.

No one seems to remember this event. Perhaps it was embarrassing to admit that we had all been hoodwinked by an eerie spectacle that had been nothing more that the reflection of light from the polar caps. Regardless, this series of events gave rise to an expression that is unique to Jackson County – an expression that only makes sense if you live here, or if you know the history of our whistle.
The expression, “Blow the Tannery Whistle” became a means of (a) expressing amazement or astonishment; and (b) acknowledging the significance that is both rare and remarkable. In other words, something that would justify “blowing our tannery whistle.”

I remember my grandfather saying “Blow the tannery whistle,” when his old-maid sister married an eighteen-year-old boy; my neighbors said it when my worthless uncle Ardell vanished and then returned several years later driving a Cadillac. My Uncle Albert said it when I tied myself up, locked myself in our outhouse and burned it down. (I was attempting to simulate Gene Autry’s escape from a burning miner’s shack in a Saturday Western.) It was an expression that was always uttered with reverence and awe.

The whistle is gone, of course, as are most of the people who used to rise, eat, work and sleep when it called them. Sometimes, I wake in the night thinking I hear that mournful WOOOOOOOOOO echoing through my holler. For a moment, I am back in a world filled with laughter childish innocence and hope.


  1. Great stories, Gary! Particularly the part about the Aurora Realists -- had no idea it ever showed up this far south.

  2. Good grief -- look what spell check did to Borealis! Aurora Realists sounds like some little known art movement.

  3. Love that story, and would recommend the tape to everyone, if it's still available. I treasure mine.

  4. Vicki,
    I don't know where the "boralists" came from. I've always said "aurora boralis." I been telling a one-hour versin of this story for 30 years, and have several recordings of it as Sherry mentioned.
    It is part of "Blow the Tannery Whistle" and "An Evening With Gary Carden." I recently sold this drastically shortened treatment to Smoky Mountain Living and it will be in their Winter issue. For what it is worth, there is a Jesse Stuart novel, "A Foretaste of Glory," based on this night. I think it occurred much earlier than my account (yeah, I changed the date!) I'll give additional details if anyone is interested.

  5. I've heard you tell this story I don't know how many times and I still look forward to hearing it. It's a great story and you're my idol when it comes to telling stories.

    We went up to Waterock Knob a few years ago and watched the Aurora Borealis from there so there are times when you can see them in the south.