In the wilds of Morgan County, a monster nicknamed â“GREENEYESâ” is reputed to skulk. We go looking for it.
by Kevin Crowe
Lancing, Tenn., looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. Thereâ’s a small, white bell tower sticking above the trees. The homey-looking Presbyterian church itself dates back to 1884. A couple of burned-out buildings sit idly nearby, barely touched by human hands since the day they caught fire. Thereâ’s not much here, save the stuff that grandmother art is made of. Thick puffs of smoke escape from the chimney of a quaint cottage. A sign reads, â“Beware of dog.â” Another reads, â“Ron Paul for President.â” Just a small sliver of life along Tennessee 62, west of Oak Ridge and Oliver Springs. The whole county seems lost in time, and the woods are slowly creeping back over the unincorporated town of Lancing.
As I walk along Highway 62, the sun sets slowly behind the trees. A man in silhouette stands still and silent as a statue, in front of a porch light. Heâ’s watching me hike along the highway. Heâ’s probably wondering who the hell I amâ"and just why Iâ’ve come all the way out to Morgan County. Iâ’m beginning to wonder the same thing.
A friend had called me before I drove out here. â“Iâ’m driving to the middle of nowhere,â” I said.
â“Iâ’m looking for Bigfoot.â”
There were rumors, most likely the drunken daydreams of a few kids from Lancing, of a large, bipedal creature running amuck in the woods of Morgan County. â“Itâ’s a lot like Bigfoot,â” Miss W. had told me months earlier. (Names have been withheld out of respect for those parties involved.) â“Itâ’s called â‘Greeneyes,â’â” she went on, almost stoic in her conviction.
There were only two facts: 1) A few (possibly intoxicated) people have reported sightings of an ape-like creature in the Morgan County backwoods, near the tiny town of Lancing. 2) â“Greeneyes,â” as it is called, is attracted to campfire.
Mr. W., whoâ’s the boyfriend of Miss W., was the first to suggest a trip to Lancing. His words: â“We could go hunt it.â”
Now my carâ’s parked at the Lancing post office, which is about the size of a Winnebago. Two jalopies speed down the highway, followed by a rusty Thunderbird thatâ’s spewing smoke. Mr. and Miss W. were supposed to be here with me, but they dropped out at the last minute. Maybe they got spooked.
â“Can you call back?â” Mr. W. had said over the phone. â“Weâ’re kinda fighting.â”
During the drive, I tried to picture Miss W., slightly zonked out of her mind from a bad nightâ’s sleep. She was probably covered in a heavy quilt, her hair disheveled, and her work clothes strewn on the bedroom floor haphazardly. And then there was Mr. W., desperately trying to play peacemaker while he paced around the apartment.
I couldâ’ve sworn I heard her crackling voice in the background. â“We ainâ’t goinâ’ out there!â”
â“Uhh,â” he went on, hoping to shoo me off the phone. â“Sheâ’s just now waking up....â”
Later, he finally said, â“Iâ’m sorry about this. Whatâ’re you gonna do?â” So I packed an overnight bag, stuffed a sleeping bag, and got into my car and chugged a Mountain Dew. There werenâ’t any other options other than to head into the vast unknown without any local guides.
Driving through Morgan County and listening to AM radio is a singularly lonely experience. The roads sprawl out endlessly, snaking around centuries-old property lines. They twist and turn in unexpected directions, carving narrow veins of civilization deep into the countrified back lands, until suddenly, and without much ceremony, thereâ’s no more asphalt.
Thereâ’s a sign carrying a curt warning: â“Pavement Ends.â” A dog barks from a nearby rancher. This is Bigfoot country.
In the 1960s, R. D. Evans had a regular column in the Morgan County News, entitled â“It Happened in Petros.â” Evans wrote: â“Petros, like all small close-knit communities, has everyday barbershop talk between old friends. Itâ’s not always limited to politics or the present. In our town the past is always a part of today. The mountains being so much a part of us, seem to always seep into the talk.â”
And this kind of talk has never been in short supply. Out here, where even the most dilapidated house is likely to be equipped with a state-of-the-art satellite dish, imaginations tend to run wild. Itâ’s really no different from any other place on the planet. Weâ’re still stupefied by both the unexplainable and the blatantly impossible.
Back in 2003, a Sasquatch-like figure had been spotted by a few locals in the College Hill community near LaFollette. WATEâ’s Vince Lennon was on the scene with an alleged crypto-zoologist. More than 100 cats and kittens were said to have gone missing, and many were assumed to have fallen prey to a â“skunk ape.â” One resident, Donna Keathley, claimed that the smelly, ape-like creature had thrown a dead cat at her before it disappeared into the woods once again.
A few months later, in Corryton, Tenn., residents began reporting that they had seen skunk apes, too. It may be coincidental that these sightings coincided with a spike in tourism dollars in Campbell County, where the beast was first spotted.
Aubrey Dick, the former co-president of the University of Tennesseeâ’s wildlife society, decided to take part in the debate surrounding these most recent sightings. â“In my professional opinion,â” Dick said online, â“I think that skunk apes [slang term for a Sasquatch in the southeastern U.S.] are warm and fuzzy. I have a few at my farm in Mascot, Tenn., and they talk to me when Iâ’m scarred or confused.â”
Others treated the Bigfoot sightings with even less sincerity. â“The only way you can get one of those skunk apes to come out and play is if you run through the woods naked,â” according to an anonymous post on an Internet message board in 2003. â“I have done this once or twice, but I still havenâ’t seen anything. I donâ’t understand what Iâ’m doing wrong.â” The ruckus continued for 13 full pages on www.shotsacrossthebow.com , a right-leaning blog that describes itself as â“reality based.â” To wit:
â"I tried to buy a skunk ape with UT money. I thought its head would look good on the wall over my kidsâ’ $25,000 entertainment center that I also bought with UT money.
â"I went hunting in LaFollette last weekend and had been sitting about an hour when I saw that skunk ape. I have to admit the thing was damn sexy.
â"In regards to eating skunk ape... I am a regular at Cool Beans [1817 Lake Ave.] where they have a great menu with many skunk ape dishes. My favorite is the jalapeÃ±o skunk ape burger. I donâ’t know how it is seasoned, but I believe the same spices would be great on fried turkey. I could eat skunk ape at Cool Beans at least once a day.
But, as the saying goes, any crop that can be made into hay can also be made into silage. Thereâ’s plenty of spurious folklore to fill several volumes, or at the very least, a few more Metro Pulse stories.
â“Mother Nature was at her best in the creation of our hills,â” Evansâ’ article continued. â“[We] owe it all to the mountains that corral the town.
â“Now most of the mines are gone, the timber exhausted, yet we have the memory of those busy, happy days of long ago.â”
The legend of Bigfoot, even as a symbol for a kind of unkempt redneck naturalism, can remind us of a simpler time, back when fantasy and reality had more of a symbiotic relationship. Back when tall tales had a tinge of morality woven into the yarn.
Iâ’m walking into Edna Maeâ’s Bar and Grill, a dive that sits on a boring stretch of road between Lancing and Wartburg. A roughneck with a transparent mustache shifts uneasily when I sidle up to the bar.
I have yet to find anything on my own, driving down random roads and shining my flashlight into dense forests. So, like any reporter who needs to find Bigfoot, I retreat to the bar. Itâ’s really the only place to find a willing guide. Itâ’s dark outside. The beer is flowing. In a few hours, Edna Maeâ’s should be filled with beer-chugging madmen, each raring to head into the woods for a chance to bag a Bigfoot.
Thereâ’s a jar of pickled eggs just to my left. All the bartenders appear to be drinking heavily. And they know each of their customers by name, except me, of course. Fifteen minutes pass, and Iâ’ve been able to discern that there are, in fact, nine pickled eggs in the jar. I have yet to be acknowledged by a server. The men to my left are barely audible, as their conversation gets lost in the background noise.
â“Heâ’s gonna get kicked outta hereâ",â” I think I overhear.
Maybe I shouldnâ’t push my luck, because I know that I got a purdy mouth. The stage is being set up for a night of karaoke. A well-endowed woman shoots pool with her beau. Thereâ’s an awkward silence when I slip by, heading towards the exit.
A ragtag group of mountain men, guys with leather hats and huge ZZ Top beards, are out on the porch. Theyâ’re seated next to a couple of preppy-looking twentysomethings, all of whom appear to be sporting Vol ball caps. This crowd also takes a break from a conversation when I breeze by. The welcome mat was never intended to be taken seriously.
If thereâ’s an expert on skunk apes here, I nevertheless think Iâ’ll be better off going it alone.
Edward A. Guest, a very minor Morgan County poet, captured a flash of inspiration in a single, enjambed stanza back in February of 1963. His words yearn for the East Tennessee hills, this vast and untamed country filled with good, country people. The kind of folk who can pass muster and drink pig-swill at Edna Maeâ’s:
We were speakinâ’ of folks, jes common folks. We come to this conclusion, That wherever they be, on land or sea That something of home is showinâ’.
I live in a very remote area,â” says Dave Shealy, who runs the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters in Ochopee, Fla. â“Up until 30 years ago, there wasnâ’t much here other than Indians and drug smugglers.... I estimate that we have between seven and nine skunk apes here, which is possibly a breeding population.
â“This is a wild country. There is a lot that still needs to be explored. I can assure you that it is filled with mysteries.â” He adds, â“No, I donâ’t think that skunk apes are just here in the Everglades.â”
Shealy says that the Southern Sasquatch is a smaller subspecies of what youâ’ll find in the Pacific Northwest. Our missing link, the skunk ape, is smaller, possibly weighing a mere 400 pounds. And it also stinks, because itâ’s rumored to spend most of the day inside small caves, where the earthy odors percolate for hours at a time, giving the beast a fierce perfume. Perhaps itâ’s a warning to anyone who comes near.
The remote towns of East Tennessee have had a long history of conflict with modernity. For residents of Morgan County, the 1960s were one of the many times when the rustic vistas would come face-to-face with the forces of modernization.
Up on the South Fork of the Cumberland River in McCreary County, Ky., the Army Corps of Engineers had proposed the $164 million Devilâ’s Jump Dam project. It had been approved by the state Senate three times, but was finally quashed in the House Public Works Committee in 1968.
â“Everyone must recognize the tremendous potential for good the construction of this dam could have on this area,â” the Morgan County News editorialized. â“[I]tâ’s approval is of vital importance to every man and every family in this area.â”
That same year, there were fierce debates over whether or not to incorporate the town of Wartburg, which is the seat of Morgan Countyâ’s government.
Again, the Morgan County News championed progress. â“A town or village is just that until it is incorporated, then it becomes a small city. It is part of growing up. It is like a young boy putting on long pants and becoming a man. No town ever amounted to anything until it grew up and incorporated.â”
Charles Turner, mayor of Sneedville, which was incorporated in 1951, also weighed in. He was reported to have said, â“Sneedville has a sewage disposal system, police protection, street maintenance and...â” Not a single skunk ape sighting.
Maybe it is all a part of growing up, as folklore slowly fades into distant memory. And the unexplainable is quick to be interpreted as the ramblings of a fool.
No rangers at the Obed Wild and Scenic River had heard of the legend of Greeneyes, even those who had been on-site for more than 20 years. Neither the Cumberland Trail Office nor the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency had any records of suspicious skunk ape activity.
â“Iâ’ve never heard of any reports like that,â” says a deputy at the Morgan County Sheriffâ’s Department. â“And Iâ’ve been out here seven years.â”
Night brings the first signs of Fall, and itâ’s teeth-chattering weather. Iâ’m somewhere near the Lily Bluff Overlook, all alone above the Obed River. This has always been wild country, too steep for any permanent settlements to take hold. Itâ’s the perfect spot for an encounter with the unknown.
I come upon a rock outcropping, where an old fire ring is barely discernible. No one has camped here in months. I unroll my sleeping bag. I left the tent in the car, because if Greeneyes is somewhere out here, I want the luxury of making a quick getaway should I be lucky enough to see the beast.
And all night, I can hear it, the slight rustling of night life. With every twig that breaks, it awakens a long-dormant sense of self-preservation. I want to run away, or to curl up in the tightest crack I can find among the giant boulders that dot the forest. I can hear dogs barking all around, their howls traveling for miles, a warning against an unseen foe.
That last hour of darkness, just before you can really call it morning, is always the coldest.
I wake up in the back seat of my car. I donâ’t know what time it was, but it mustâ’ve been late when I darted through the woods, freaked out by my own footsteps.
It all seems so silly now that the sun has come out. But for one sweet moment, I was lost in primeval Tennessee. All auspices of civilization were forgotten, and I wanted to believe in monsters.
Goosefoot, and a few other ecto-zoological beasts in Knoxville's past
Knoxville is full of ghost stories, and the older the story, the more likely it is to involve bizarre zoological creatures. A century or more ago, Knoxville was a noisy menagerie of them, fairly howling with overlarge dogs and cats, often with the prefix Devil or Wampus, some of which stood on hind legs or took semi-human form. Most of the stories, which come to us through spooky books, are pretty vague. An interesting number of them are centered around UTâ’s Hill, perhaps reflecting the fact that the Hill was once a graveyard, as the excavators of the foundation for the original building discovered in 1826. Or it may just be evidence that college boys found scary stories useful on dates. Some believed the evil ghost of a white circus mule caused a series of ruinous fires on Gay Street as late as 1904. The mayor reportedly called on a folk exorcist.
A couple of the ecto-zoological stories are startlingly specific, reported matter-of-factly as news in contemporary papers.
In 1894, the booming city of Knoxville was heavily concentrated downtown. The area thatâ’s now where Middlebrook Pike passes over I-640 was a dense woods broken up with small cattle farms. It was just beyond the lights of the city and the last western streetcar stop. At night, it got dark quick.
Word came through front-page accounts in the Knoxville Tribune of a peculiar beast that prowled the vicinity, stealing scraps of flesh from slaughterhouses; it seemed especially fond of cow heads, which, if youâ’ve never held one, are pretty heavy. The creature was said to be at least eight feet long, twice as big as the biggest dog, but with a strange sort of a head no one was ever quite able to describe, except that it was distinctly undoglike. The few who had been close enough to hear its movement said it was so heavy it sounded almost like a loaded wagon in the woods. And it was entirely white. Some skeptics thought it was a white bear, which would have been remarkable in any case. To Tennesseans, a white bear might have been harder to believe in than a ghost.
It dwelt in the vicinity of Major Webbâ’s house, the antebellum mansion known as Middlebrook. The house which gave the pike its name is still there, deep in a hollow behind a thick row of trees. Itâ’s a preservationist cause celebre for some, but most donâ’t know it exists. Itâ’s privately owned, not open to the public, and usually invisible from the road.
Townspeople knew the creature as the â“ghost,â” but that didnâ’t prevent them from trying to shoot it. In the summer of 1894, as many as 200 men a night came out to hunt the ghost, to collect a bounty offered by a harried farmer named Day. Even Mayor Melville Thompson came out to take a shot. Some swore they fired right into it, but it never seemed fazed. In any case, nobody bagged the ghost.
Within a few weeks, though, the Beast of Middlebrook retired from the field, perhaps annoyed by the commotion.
From almost exactly a century earlier comes the even stranger story of what might be known as Goosefoot. It appears in a 1794 edition of the Knoxville Gazette. In those days before Tennessee was a state, the biweekly was full of accounts of Indian-hunting expeditions. They tended to be vengeful affairs, and there were plenty of offenses on both sides to be vengeful about. One side would attack, the other side would attack back. Often innocent whites or Indians would die, spawning more rounds of attacks. Such actions were routinely listed in the biweekly Gazette, sometimes under the heading, â“INDIAN DEPREDATIONS.â”
That winter, the command of Capt. John Beaird, a Knoxville-based soldier, was in the region of the Cumberlands, poking around in the vicinity of Cove Creek. Creeks sometimes went by variant names, especially in the early days. We may assume itâ’s the same Cove Creek as still flows into the Clinch near modern-day Norris. When TVA began work on what would become Norris Dam, it was known as the Cove Creek Project.
An Ensign McDonald and one other unnamed soldier were reconnoitering in the woods, and encountered a peculiar animal.
According to the report, â“They observed a creature about three steps from them it had only two legs, and stood almost upright, covered with scales, of a black, brown, and yellow color, in spots like rings, a white tuft or crown on the top if its head, about four feet high, a head as big as a two-pound stone, and large eyes of fiery red.â”
The itemâ’s matter-of-fact tone might surprise us today. It did not change anyoneâ’s concepts of zoology, or of the meaning of the universe. It prompted no speculations about alien visitations or nuclear mutations. It gets no special emphasis in the paper. It was just another report from the Indian front. It was the frontier, at a time of massacres and plagues. The settlers never knew what the French, or Spanish, or British, or Cherokees, or Creeks, or Chickamaugans were up to. There were scarier things in the paper every day.
McDonald and his companion were armed with guns, but were under strict orders not to fire them, except at Indians. The ensign wasnâ’t sure what the thing was; it appeared not to be an Indian.
â“It stood about three minutes in a daring posture. Mr. McDonald advanced and struck at it with his sword, when it jumped up, at least eight feet, and hit the same spot on the ground, sending forth a red matter out of its mouth resembling blood, and then retreated into a laurel thicket, turning round often, as if it intended to fight. The tracks of it resembled those of a goose, but larger.â”
There apparently was some lore about Goosefoot. â“The Indians report that a creature inhabits this part of the mountains, of the above description, which, by its breath, will kill a man, if he does not instantly immerse himself in water.â”
Thatâ’s all the Gazette allows. And, frankly, the above is from notes taken about a year ago, when this reporter was perusing the Gazette for its treatment of the contemporary execution of Marie Antoinette. At this writing, the citation is obscure.
Goosefoot seems to leave local history after that. It may have been the exaggeration of a brandy-and-laudanum-soaked soldier. Or it could be that Ensign McDonald mortally wounded the very last of them. â" Jack Neely
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