Twelve Tall Tales from Wilkes County
by Jerry D. Joines
North Carolina Folklore Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (February 1972),
Born in Wilkes County, February 12, 1952, the author attended
public schools there. He is now a junior at the University in Chapel
Hill, majoring in zoology. He has studied folklore under both Daniel
W. Patterson and Charles G. Zug III.
John E. Joines, the source of these tales, is my father and a resident
of Wilkes County, North Carolina. He was born in 1914 in the Brushy
Mountains community of Brocktown near Moravian Falls, a part of
the county not until recent years approached by modernization. Brocktown
is about ten miles south of Wilkesboro in the vicinity of Pore's
Knob, highest mountain in the area and the site of a look-out tower.
Many of the older people of the area grew up in genuine Appalachian
mountain tradition. My father was and is a part of this tradition
and retains a great many songs and stories that have come to his
attention in the past. He enjoys talking and singing, and his stories
and songs are so familiar to him that they are almost commonplace.
He has heard most of them for as long as he can remember, and he
has made no special effort either to learn or remember material.
In his early years, he worked at a number of jobs, including farming,
sawmilling, orchard work, and horse-breaking. It is significant
that his favorite pastime is, and has always been, hunting. His
experience with dogs and game enables him to tell detailed stories
which capture the listener's belief until the lie is revealed at
The twelve tales which follow are given in precisely the order in
which he related them to me in March and April, 1971.
ONE. Did I ever tell you about that old bird dog I used to
own? I guess he's about the best old dog that anybody ever hunted
after. I know one time I had 'im out goin' out through the field
with 'im, and I had an old single-barrelled gun and he went into
a briar patch and he pointed a covey of birds. I told him to flush
'em, and out come one bird and I killed it, and loaded my gun back,
and when I got it loaded out come another bird. I shot it and loaded
my gun back and out come another bird. And after I'd killed about
five or six birds, I got to wonderin' how he's a-lettin' one bird
fly at a time, how he's a-flushin' one instead of the whole covey.
So I got to lookin', and he'd pointed 'em in a stump hole and ever'
time I'd load my gun he'd pull his foot off and let a bird fly out,
and then he'd slap his foot back over the hole till I loaded my
TWO. I's a-huntin' one day and a bunch of kids were playin'
down on the bank and he [my old dog] run down to where they
was a-playin' and come to a full point, and I thinks, "Why,
you're crazy, they ain't no birds there, and them kids playin' there
on the bank." I got to lookin', and one of the little old boys
had on a shirt made out of a Bob-White flour sack, and he had the
bob-white on his shirt pointed.
THREE. And when I's out one time it come a big rain and the
creek was up pretty deep, and goin' up the creek bank and he [the
bird dog] run up to the end of a log and pointed at the log. I kept
searchin' around, and I couldn't find no birds and finally I looked
down in the log and there was a nine-pound catfish. I go the catfish
out, but I kept wonderin' why the dog pointed the catfish. He's
never tried to point no fish before, nor nothin' like that, and
I got the catfish home and started to clean it that night and it
had seven potteridges in it. The potteridges had evidently run in
the log to get out of the rain and the creek got up and the catfish
swum up in the log and eat the potteridges, and the old dog pointed
the potteridges, and I thought he's a-pointin' the catfish.
FOUR. I finally lost 'im though. I took him out a-huntin'
one day and he got gone, and I hunted and hunted and hunted and
I never did find my dog. I knew he was a good dog. He wouldn't break
a point if he ever pointed a covey of birds. He'd just stand and
hold 'em until I came and told 'im to flush 'em. And the next year
I went back and I found his bones where he's standin' at full point
and he had nine piles of partridge bones in front of him. He'd pointed
a covey of birds and stood there and held them till they all starved
to death, and he starved to death, too.
FIVE. Did I ever tell you about the coon dog I had a few
year ago? I believe he was the best that I've ever been in the woods
with, and I've owned several good coon dogs. I know I went one night,
settin' up on a ridge and there was a big chestnut tree over there
on the side of the ridge there, right below me. And that old dog,
when he run a coon that went inside of a den in a holler tree, he'd
bark different than he did when it was on the outside of the tree,
so I'd just call 'im and he'd leave. Well, I set up on that ridge
that night, and he just kept strikin' a coon, and he'd run it, and
it'd make a big circle around over the mountain, and come back and
go in that one old holler chestnut. I don't know how many coons
he did run in there that night, and the next mornin' about daylight
he treed in that old holler chestnut, and I went over there and
he had so many coons in that tree that, ever' time the coons would
draw their breath in, the crack in the chestnut would spread four
inches and when they'd let it out, it'd go back together. I don't
know how many they was; I didn't keep count of 'em, but they was
several coons in that tree.
SIX. I know one night one of my friends had come up to go
with me a-huntin', and we went over and set down on a stump. That
old dog he just kept runnin' around all over the country, and he's
run back into the road about a mile below us, and then he'd go off
and strike again, and then he'd run back into the road. My friend
said, "I thought you had a con dog," said, "I never
saw a dog that'd run races and then quit; I thought they's supposed
to tree when the run 'em up a tree." I said, "That dog
ain't run none up a tree yet." I said, "You wait until
daylight, and I'll show you what he's doin'." Well, he kept
doin' that all night. Next mornin' we saw him comin' up the road
and had about fifty coons in front of him a-herdin' 'em along up
the road. I says, "I told you I had the best dern coon dog
in the South."
SEVEN. My Grandpa, when he got up about eighty-five years
old, he had 'im a big mill rock, oh, it was about six foot across
and about eight inches through. He'd always, ever' Christmas, he'd
get him a gallon of apple brandy and he'd go out and pick that mill
rock up and stick it up over his head. He'd done that ever' Christmas
since he got married, so one Christmas he's about eighty seven he
got him a gallon of brandy, and he'd always wait till after dinner
before he'd go out and stick the mill rock up. He got him a gallon
of brandy, and he took 'im two or three drinks, and he eat dinner,
and took 'im another drink or two, and he decided to go out and
put the mill rock up over his head. And it'd been awful cold there
for about six weeks, just real freezin' weather and the gorund hadn't
thawed nor nothin', and he went out there and he got down and he
got a-hold of that mill rock and he couldn't even shake it. So he
goes back in and drinks a little more brandy, and goes out and tries
it again, and he couldn't move it again. He goes back and he sets
down, and he looked awful bad. Granny said to him, "Grandpa,"
said, "What's the matter with you? said, "What are you
so down and out about?" He said, "I'm a-gettin' old and
old fast, woman." said, "Last year that rock wadn't even
heavy, and this year I can't even move it." He sat and studied
a while and took 'im two or three more drinks of brandy, and went
out and he got down on his knees and he got a-hold of that rock,
and he grunted and groaned a time or two and give a heave and stuck
it up over his head and he had nine acres of topsoil froze to it.
EIGHT. He built him an old gun, a great big gun, barrel I
guess it was about fifteen or twenty feet long, and big around as
a washin' tub almost; but he'd made it out of old pipe and stuff
so he made it sort of like an old muzzle loader, you know. He put
him a fuse in the back and then he'd pack in a great big load of
powder. He'd usually put a keg of powder at one time, sometimes
two kegs. And that summer ever' time he'd have a piece of scrap
iron, any kind of an old broke clevis or end or clip off a swingletree,
or a grab or a piece of axe or a piece of broken glass or anything,
he'd just drop it down in that gun barrel, and he'd do that till
it come about three or four big frosts in the fall of the year.
Then he'd pack him some waddin' on top of that junk and he'd shoot
that gun. Then he'd send all of his children and grandchildren up
on the mountain to get the game. It'd usually get enough to last
till next year. He'd freeze and can meat and have enough to last
'im till the next year.
NINE. Did I ever tell you about the cold winter we had when
I was a boy? I know one winter, sound was even froze. It was so
cold everything just froze; you didn't hear a sound all winter.
I know I had a pack of dogs and I got out there one day a-rabbit-huntin'.
They jumped a rabbit and run away 'round the mountain and backwards
and forwards for about an hour; and I noticed I couldn't hear 'em
bark but I didn't think much about it, I'd got so used to not hearing
no racket. Rabbit run by me and I killed it, and thought no more
about it till the next spring. And it turned warm up in the spring
after the game law had closed, and there wadn't no open season on
rabbit, and the game warden happened to be passin' through and heard
them dogs runnin' that rabbit around the mountain and the gun go
off and shot it. And he come and arrested me for huntin' out of
TEN. I had a cat one time and I had two young dogs, and they
was always chasin' that cat. And I had a stackpole down in the field
where I'd had some hay stacked and got all the hay hauled off and
left the pole standin' up. It was about three or four hundred yards
from the house. These pups would get after that old cat and run
'im around the house a time or two and then he'd take off down in
the field and climb that stackpole. They done that till the pups
got up about grown, and they was pretty good-sized dogs, and gettin'
so they was pushin' that old cat pretty fast to outrun 'em. So he's
afraid they'd catch 'im and kill 'im, they's makin' 'im get up in
high gear to get to that stackpole before they caught him. So I
slipped down there in the field one day and I pulled that stackpole
out, and laid it down. So the dogs got after the cat, and around
the house he went about twice, and he made a dive for that stackpole,
and you know that cat run forty foot in the air before he even noticed
that pole wadn't there.
ELEVEN. I had two old cats one time and they got into a fight
in the backyard. They fit and fit and fit, and all at once they
just started climbin' one another. Them fool cats climb one another,
one would run up to the top of one, and then the other would run
up him, and they done that till they went clean out of sight and
fur fell for three weeks. I never saw such a cat fight in all my
TWELVE. I know when I was a kid we had an old cat and wanted
to get rid of 'im. My daddy he hauled him off to town. It was ten
miles to town. We was ridin' in a wagon. We took 'im down to town
and turned him loose. We carried him across the Yadkin River and
over to the North Wilkesboro side and turned him loose. Well, when
we got back home, the blame cat was settin' at home on the porch.
And Dad said, "I will fix him," so he got him a sack and
put him in it the next time he went to town, and he got him some
big rocks, and he put the rocks in the sack, and tied the old cat
up in the sack, and throwed him in the river. And when we got home,
he's a-settin' on the porch, as wet as he could be, and I don't
know how he got out of that sack. Dad tole me, he said,, "Well,
you've got to see if you can't get rid of that cat." And I
said, "Why, I can get rid of him easy." So I took the
old cat way down in the woods. There's a big stump down there, and
I took my axe with me. I just laid him down on that stump and chopped
his head off. Went on back to the house, and in about an hour we's
settin' there on the porch talkin', and I looked out the road and
there come that cat, come out of the woods and was trottin' out
the road with his head in his mouth.
The first four of these tales concern the feats of an intelligent
bird dog. The intelligent dog story is a common one, and specific
variants were found for three of the four tales. For the first,
concerning the dog who traps a covey of birds with his foot and
releases them one at a time, one Alabama and two Texas versions
were located. One of the Texas stories explains the dog's ability
by the fact that he hunts "blue quail," birds which would
rather take refuge in a prairie dog hole than fly away.1
No specific variant of the second story, in which the dog points
the bird on a Bob-White Flour sack, was found. The story is similar
to Baughman number X1215.8 (ag), wherein the dog points a sign reading
"A. Partridge, Attorney."
The tale of the dog pointing a fish that has swallowed a bird appeared
in a Northern newspaper, The Yankee Blade, in 1852.2 In a
version from Indiana, the hunter kills a bird, the bird falls in
a pond and is swallowed by a fish, and the dog points the fish.3
One variant of number four was found, in which the dog points a
bird and hold the point until he starves. The story was collected
from an Indiana barber who told it for the truth. The man had a
rotten piece of the dog's collar which he used to verify his tale.4
By far the most common of these stories, insofar as available sources
would indicate, is the tale of the breathing tree. Versions of this
tale have been found in Indiana, Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee, and
Arkansas. The Maine version appears in Dorson's Jonathan Draws The
Long Bow under the title, "Major Brown's Coon Story."5
The hunter in this version sits on a log and is pinched by the closing
crack. He investigates and finds the log full of coons, breathing
in unison. One Indiana version tells of a peach tree packed with
sleeping mice.6 A Kentucky version (told, incidentally by
John Jacob Niles) has bees instead of coons inside the hollow tree.7
The Arkansas version has the tree swell to several times its normal
size, with steam from the coons' breath coming from a hole in the
side.8 Vance Randolph, who collected this story, told of
This "pooched-out tree" story is known all over the
Ozark country, and has been several times in print. I told it
myself in The Camp on Wildcat Creek. Hal Norwood included it in
Just a Book, remarking that the whole tree would "contract
and expand like a horse breathing." Norwood credits his version
to George Nall, a blacksmith of Lockesburg, Arkansas, and says
the truth of the story was vouched for by A. D. Hawkins, a lawyer
who lived in Little River County, Arkansas.9
The story seems to be favored by colllectors and quite possibly
by the tellers themselves.
No reference to the sixth tale was located. The story of the dog
herding a large number of coons would come under the general area
of intelligent dogs, and it is likely that other versions of this
The two tales of Grandpa were also without exact counterparts. Tales
of great strength are common, and this story would come under the
general area of Baughman number X941, the "remarkable lifter."
The story is so concise that the writer would imagine that other
versions do exist. The story of the gun would perhaps belong to
Baughman number X112.2*, "great gun scatters shot in wide pattern."
The story of the frozen rabbit race is excellent, for the frozen
sound idea is topped by the arrest for hunting out of season. A
similar story concerning a fox race comes from the southwestern
part of Virginia. The fox hunters hear a chase one night, and recognize
the voice of a dead dog, and also the voices of the dogs lying at
their feet. The story ends when they realize that it is merely a
thawed-out race that actually took place in the colder part of the
The tale of a cat running up a stackpole may be original, for no
other versions were found. Again, the availability of material and
the limited nature of collecting enterprises could be responsible
for the fact that this tale is not commonly published. On the other
hand, the tale of the two cats climbing each other dates back a
number of years. Two versions were found, one from Kentucky and
one from Arkansas.11 In both tales, the animals involved
were wildcats, and not just ordinary housecats. The Arkansas tale
was collected in the 1890s. Both tales closely resemble my father's
version, even to the detail of fur falling for days.
Two versions of the last tale, concerning the cat that could not
be killed, were found. One tale from Oneida County, New York, is
exactly like the version here.12 Three identical attempts
are made at killing the cat, and finally the cat returns with his
severed head in his mouth. The version from Alma, Kansas, has the
cat drowned, shot and finally decapitated for killing chickens.13
It is of interest that the final tale involves an impossible situation.
It is the only tale among the twelve that involves the idea of a
humorous and blatant contradiction. The story is classified by Baughman
under X1211, "lies about cats," and it is also representative
of X1720, "absurd disregard of anatomy."
My father's stories are excellent examples of tall tales. They are
concise, usually consisting of one motif each; they are exaggerations
of reality, told as if they were true; and there is ample evidence
that the tales are widely known in the oral tradition. Finally,
because of the skill of the narrator, they are well told and for
fullest appeciation one should really hear my father tell them.
Baughman classifications for the tales:
[NOTE: refers to Ernest W. Baughman's Type and Motif Index of
the Folktales of England and North America. The Hague: Mouton &
ONE. X1215.8 (ac)
TWO. X1215.8 (ag) (similar)
THREE. X1215.8 (ad)
FOUR. X1215.9 (ab)
FIVE. X116 (a)
SIX. X1215.8 (a) (general group)
SEVEN. X941 (general group)
EIGHT. X1121.2* (similar)
NINE. X1623.7* (similar)
TEN. X1211 (general group)
ELEVEN. X1212 (a)
TWELVE. X1211 (ca)
1. Alabama version: Southern Folklore Quarterly, 1944, p. 107,
"Tales of a Mississippi Soldier." Texas versions: Robert
B. Downs, The Bear Went over the Mountain, p. 151. "The Blue
Quail Dog," reprinted from Charles F. Arrowood, Backwoods to
Border. Also Southern Folklore Quarterly, 1945, p. 188, "East
Texas Hunting Windies."
2. New York Folklore Quarterly, 3 (1947), 20, "Yorker Yarns
3. Hoosier Folklore Bulletin, 3 (December, 1944), 61.
4. Hoosier Folklore Bulletin, 4 (March, 1945), 18.
5. Richard Dorson, Jonathan Draws the Long Bow (Harvard University
Press, 1946), p. 227.
6. Hoosier Folklore Bulletin, 1 (June, 1942), 14.
7. Hoosier Folklore Bulletin, 1 (1942), p. 66.
8. Vance Randolph, We Always Lie to Strangers (Columbia University
Press, 1951), p. 96.
9. Randolph, p. 96.
10. Herbert M. Sutherland, Tall Tales of Devil's Apron (Radford,
Virginia, Commonwealth Press, 1970), p. 57.
11. Kentucky version: Percy Mackaye, Tall Tales of the Kentucky
Mountains (Century Company, 1926), p. 55. Arkansas version: James
R. Masterson, Tall Tales of Arkansas (Boston, 1942), p. 90.
12. Harold W. Thompson, Body, Boots, and Britches (Philadelphia,
1940), p. 150.
13. Samuel J. Sackett, Kansas Folklore (University of Nebraska Press,
1961), p. 14.
Used by permission of the author and the North Carolina Folklore