A Mountain of a Tale
With apologies to Bobby Forbes, the best teller of this tale, I wrote the Vandiver Man as I remembered it and as I have told it numerous times to campers around the fire at the Coach Mike Chapel across the lake. Enjoy it and add your vignettes that I might have inadvertently omitted. Iâ€™d love to hear those extra pieces, if you have timeâ€¦ .Coach Mike, Jr
A MOUNTAIN TALE
The most famous mountain feud, between the Hatfields and McCoys of the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, may not have been the most acrimonious. There were two families in the North Georgia Mountains, the Oâ€™Shields and the Vandivers, who may have hated each other worse. Both families had lived in or near Tallulah Falls, Ga. as far back as anyone in either family could remember. And they had been feuding for so long that even the eldest of the elderly in Tallulah Falls could not remember how it started. Anyway, with feuds it doesnâ€™t matter how they start; once they get going, they take on a life of their own. And this one was a very lively feud. The Oâ€™Shields lived in Y Camp valley and the Vandivers lived on Hickory Nut Mountain. Their land abutted along a line that extends trough Camp Chattooga property. And if ever a Vandiver crossed over from the south, or if an Oâ€™Shield crossed over from the north; there was bound to be shooting from the opposite side. Both families patrolled their boundary with a vengeance, and in just the years of our story (beginning around 1900) their had been three killings, two Vandivers and one Oâ€™Shield. No-one knew how the feud began, but certainly land issues kept it going; because the Oâ€™Shields had the bottom land. Their corn field in what is not the Y Camp lake was known all over Rabun County for producing the sweetest and most abundant corn in the areaâ€¦ and they hardly had to work. In fact most people thought the Oâ€™Shields took their good land for granted and were a bit lazy, because their life was easy. On the other hand, life was arduous for the Vandivers. Their apple orchard was situated precariously on the slope of Hickory Nut and they had to build retaining walls of huge stones to hold on to what little topsoil was left. If you hike Hickory Nut today you can see the remnant of that wall, a mini-Wall of China with huge stones. Only a family with huge boys like the Vandivers could have picked up and maneuvered those stones into place to create that wall. Old man Vandiver had twelve strapping sons; in fact he had had fourteen until the Oâ€™Shields killed two who were crossing their land on the way to Clayton. It was the death of these two that triggered the plan for revenge in the old manâ€™s head.
Old man Vandiver decided it was time, once for all, to deal with his lazy neighbors to the north. He and his boys were going to sweep down on the Oâ€™Shields on early fall morning and wipe them out. But to do that would take more guns and ammunition than the old man presently had available. And so he place an order to Sears-Roebuck in Atlanta and sent two of his boys down to Tallulah Falls to meet the freight train, no UPS in those days! For the job he chose his oldest boy and his youngest. He picked the oldest because he was the smartest and most resourceful of all his brood. He chose the youngest, because he wanted muscle to load the supplies onto the wagon. And muscles were about all this twelve year old had. He was already six and one half feet tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds, according to the scale at the freight officeâ€¦ but there was not much brains to go with the muscle. In fact the boy was, if not retarded, very, very slow. Part of the problem may have been his head which seemed much to small for this boy. On a normal twelve year old the head would have fit just fine, but on this boy it looked like a cantaloupe on two cement blocks. The fact that his hair had always been sparse did not helpâ€¦ this was a child only a mother could love! Well, the train was late; and so the older brother decided to get a drink at the tavern; but as his brother was too young he gave him a fifty cent piece and sent him over to a traveling carnival which was on the edge of town. This was not like the modern fair with rides and games. It was more a freak show and it had fortune tellers and jugglers and magic acts; things like that. The boy wandered around with the fifty cent piece â€˜burning a hole in his pocketâ€™ and then he saw her sign: â€˜FORTUNES READâ€™. The gypsy was a palm reader and the boy wanted to know his future. Not knowing anything about money he gave her the whole fifty cents when a nickel would have done. When she looked at his palm, she blanchedâ€¦ her face as white as a sheet. She handed him his money back, but he wasnâ€™t having any of that. Did I mention that this gigantic imbecile also had a bad temper? As his face was turning beet red, the gypsy decided to tell him the truth: â€˜What scared me is that your â€˜life-lineâ€™ doesnâ€™t seem to have an ending. Of course, you will die one day; but what I read is this. You will have a long life, and no matter what kind of accidents occur along the way, you will not die. If you get hit by a train, jump off a cliff, shot point blankâ€¦ you will not die. Until your time comes; but when that time comes, there will be nothing you can do to avoid it. That is what I see.â€™ Finally, the train arrived and the loaded up and went home. But all the way the older brother could tell there was something wrong with his younger sibling, but he could not coax anything out of him. And he also knew it was best just to leave this one alone.
The next morning they Vandivers descended on the Oâ€™Shields land; miraculously they met no scouts along the way. At the edge of the corn field they dropped down and began to crawl through the harvested corn stalks. Suddenly, shots lit up the night like the Fourth of July. Two of the old manâ€™s sons were killed instantly and the rest barely made it back to the woods on the edge of the field. The reason there were no scouts was the Oâ€™Shields had been waiting in ambush, knowing all along that the Vandivers were coming. Apparently, after a few drinks the oldest son had begun to brag about what they were going to do to the Oâ€™Shields the next day and some of the Oâ€™Shields friends heard and got word to them. And so after the initial shock there was about an hour of desultory firing from both sides. Just when old man Vandiver decided to head for home and lick his wounds; a shout was heard from the end of the creek near the Y Camp athletic field. Everyone on both sides stopped shooting and looked that way and they say this huge man crouching low and running right down the creek bed. When he got near what is the Y Camp lodge, the youngest Vandiver jumped over some hay bales which the Oâ€™Shields had been using as cover for their firing. Though three of them shot at him â€˜point blankâ€™, no-one hit him. He didnâ€™t even bother to shoot back. Instead he used his rifle like a ball bat and knocked the brains out of three Oâ€™Shields; literally. He killed all three and then turned and ran back toward the woods on the far side of the field with Oâ€™Shields firing at him all the way. They got of at least a dozen clear shots and not one hit this reckless young man.
When the Vandivers got home, they all turned to congratulate their youngest brother; but he was nowhere to be found. Apparently, he had wandered off into the woods on the way home, and he did not return until three days later. When he came, everyone was working in the orchard. He didnâ€™t say a word, just acted as if he were back from a bathroom break, picked up his basket, and began to pull apples from the tree. Over the next few months, he continued this strange behavior. For example, heâ€™d be hoeing around a tree; heâ€™d drop the hoe and wander into the woods; come back a week later; pick up the hoe; and start working as if heâ€™d been gone ten minutes. This strange behavior kept up (No-one dared question him about it. In fact, they were all a bit afraid of him.) until finally one day he left and was never seen or heard from again.
And that is when strange things began to happen. First, a cow would disappear, at least part of a cow would disappear. There were bears in the mountains, of course and so fairly large wild cats, but these disappearances did not look like their work. Wild animals generally are efficient; they eat all of what ever they kill; but who ever was killing these cattle was leaving most of the animal for the vultures. And strangely, the cowsâ€™ necks were always broken which is not the way a bear or wild cat would kill. It was almost as if a human being with super human strength had done the killing. And though no-one dared say it out loud, people began to wonder if a wild-man were not wandering the mountains.
Finally, it happened; a man was killed. This is how it happened. Old man Vandiver decided to stay home. It was Easter Sunday, the one and only Sunday he ever went to church, but he was getting over the flu. He sent the family and told them not to worry. He may have been seventy on his last birthday, but he was â€˜Vandiverâ€™ seventy; he could take care of himself. So they reluctantly left him, rocking on the porch, cleaning his double barreled â€˜twelve gaugeâ€™. When they got back from church, the old man was not on the porch, but that was not unusual; he liked to walk his land. However when he was late for lunch, that was unusual, and so they sent a couple of the young boys to look for him. They heard screaming down by the creek and everyone ran to the sound. There they found him, face down in the creek, dead; worst of all, his entire right arm was ripped from the shoulder socket and flung across the other side of the creek. The old man had bled to death on that spot. Why had he left his gun propped beside the rocking chair if he had seen a trespasser, and what trespasser could have done this? It was as if he recognized the interloper and put out his right hand to shake in greeting; but how could that be?
That was 1902; the next horror came two years later and it came to the Oâ€™Shieldsâ€™ house in Y Camp valley. It was the Fourth of July and Oâ€™Shields had come from all over Rabun County to celebrate as a family. There were two dozen husbands, wives, and children at the house for dinner and fireworks. As they were about to sit down to eat, they heard screaming from down at the well (off the end of dock oneâ€¦ the house was right about where YB is today). Three of the men grabbed shot guns and headed down to the well. In the mean time the girl came running, sobbing out, â€˜Heâ€™s over by the creek.â€™ But who was he? Then they heard shots and the men came back breathless, â€˜Bar the door.â€™ And so they closed the huge wooden door and dropped a â€˜two by eightâ€™ in the cross slot behind it; but it did not matter. In a matter of seconds the door crashed in off its hinges and the massacre began. When the authorities came the next day to investigate, what they found was: Broken bodies with heads and arms missing strewn everywhere. As near as they could count, twenty-three men and womenâ€¦ all slaughtered by a mighty beast of a man; hairy and huge with a tiny head atop great massive shoulders. The way they were able to reconstruct was that one little girl had survived by hiding behind a window curtain. She watched the whole thing but was so traumatized that after telling the story one time, she never once spoke again. She married and had children, but she was mute for the rest of her life. Also, she had a white shock of hair over her left earâ€¦ I will never forget that shock of hair. I saw it and her one day in 1964 when Pop Pearson sent me over to Many Oâ€™Shieldsâ€™ house with a message. Mandy was the camp caretaker before Bobby (who married Mandyâ€™s daughter, Sarah Emily). As I knocked on the door she opened it; I was so shocked I didnâ€™t stop running until I got to the dam back at camp! It was her, the only eye witness to the Oâ€™Shieldsâ€™ slaughter on the Fourth of July in 1904. She was the only one to see him face to face and live, but she was never able to tell about it after that day.
It was Christmas 1905 that tragedy visited the Vandivers. Even though their hated enemies were all dead, they were not able to celebrate for very long. The oldest Vandiver boy, who should have taken over from his dad, had moved to Clarkesville and was working for the Georgia Power Company setting poles and electric linesâ€¦ hard work but it paid better than apple farming. Anyhow, he and his wife and ten year old son were heading home for Christmas day celebration. Everyone had gathered at the homestead on Hickory Nut and they were the last to come, having farthest to go. As they got close they young boy hopped out of the creaking old wagon and ran ahead to see the tree and play with his cousins. As the wagon neared the house they could hear him screaming. When they ran to the scene, it was a carbon copy of the Oâ€™Shields on the Fourth of July a year and a half earlier. Mangled and massacred bodies were everywhere. I did not mention earlier but they buried the bodies as best they could and, just as at the Oâ€™Shields, they burned the house down. Who would have lived in either of those houses after that?
No-one was whispering anymoreâ€¦ no one was avoiding the fact that a wild beast-like man was roaming the mountains. In those years 1904-1910, no self respecting man would leave his family at home alone at night. Large bolts and locks were installed on every door in the county and gun sales were up all over the mountains. The oldest Vandiver boy had moved back to the homestead on Hickory Nut, and he built a house down near the creek. He wasnâ€™t farming since he was still working for the power company, building the dams that would form Lake Burton, Seed, and Rabun. One day in the early spring he had gone to Tallulah Falls for supplies, but he intended to be back well before dark. Just in case he had instructed his wife that if we were late she was not to worry. She was to get the â€˜twelve gaugeâ€™ down from over the fire place and give it to her son. Ironically, it was granddadâ€™s old gun! The boy had never recovered from that Christmas day. He was eighteen now, but he acted like a ten year old. If anything happened, he was bound to panic and so the instructions about the gun. Well, as Murphyâ€™s Law has itâ€¦ something happened. The wagon broke an axel as the Vandiver boy was leaving Tallulah Falls. As it began to get dark and dad was not home, the boy began to whimper. And the darker it got, the more he cried. To calm him his mom put the gun in his hands and sat him back to the fire place facing the front door and two front windows (the only windows in the main room of the house). As he began to calm down, suddenly they heard a cry about two hundred yards from the front of the house. Then all was quiet for a while until they heard another cry one hundred fifty yards away but this time behind the house. Then they heard it again, closer and back in front. Then they could hear it moving in tighter and tighter circles around the house and then nothing! There was simply no sound at all for what seemed eternity. And then in the window to the right of the door, like the sun risingâ€¦ they saw the head come up, up, up. It was a tiny thing, atop massive shoulders; they both screamed as one and the boy pulled both triggers at once. The force from the blast took out the entire window and part of the surrounding walls, and the monster screamed back, turned, and began to run away. How it managed to survive the double blast of buck shot, no-one would ever know. It left a path of blood from the front yard leading toward Tallulah Falls to the east. When the son finally got home, he gathered his friends and their dogs and they tracked the blood to within thirty yards of â€˜Loverâ€™s Leapâ€™ on the edge of Tallulah Gorge where the trail stopped. It was as if the monster leapt ninety feet over the precipice and fell seven hundred feet to the rocks below. As they peered over the edge they thought they saw something down there, but when they went down there was only some blood; nothing else.
In 1930, after the Y Camp was built, there were loggers in the area, clear cutting the mountains of hardwoods. They did not bring their families; it was only men and they lived in camps of twenty or thirty. Lumber jacks were hard strong men with little fear of anything. So when the group decided to go to Mountain City one night to a Square Dance, one decided to stay behind. He wasnâ€™t afraid to be alone; he just didnâ€™t feel like a dance that night. So as the rest of the men hopped in the â€˜pick-upâ€™ truck and shouted, â€˜Watch out for the wild man,â€™ he just laughed. Later that night he was dozing and woke up with a chill as the fire was burning low. There was no more wood in the house, so he went outside to split a few more pieces. As he cut he said that he felt as if somebody were coming up behind him. Suddenly, he felt the hugest hand he had every felt come walloping down on his shoulder. Without even thinking, he turned and with a shout, buried his small hatched in the shoulder of the beast. He didnâ€™t get a clear look but he thought is was a man and he felt like he had almost severed his arm from his shoulder. The beast let our a blood curdling shriek and fled. Again men and dogs tracked the bloody trail to near the edge of the gorge, again the body below, but no-one there when they got to the bottom.
In 1949 my father was at Y Camp as an assistant director for the first time. His first year was Queenieâ€™s last. She was the last Y Camp horse. The program had been discontinued but they kept Queenie as a mascot. They campers would go and feed her but no one rode her any more. One rainy night Mandy came to get Pop and Coach Mike to help her with Queenie. It seems she had gotten herself tied up in barbed wire and broken her neck in the process. I remember that my dad was impressed that a woman could have so much strength. He admired the way Mandy had lifted the horse out of that wire single handedly. I was struck by the fact that a horse could, by itself, get into such a mess. It seemed to me that some one would have had to knock her down, break her neck, and roll her up in that wire; but who knows?
I was a leader in 1965 when the Chattooga leaders came to tell us that something like a bear had been seen on the far side of the lake. One of the girls, however, was not so sure it was a bear. Four of us retrieved the camp â€˜twenty-twoâ€™ rifles and went with them to check it out. What we found was nothing except what was the largest footprint I have ever seen. It was not an impossible size, I guess, but it was hugeâ€¦ maybe a size twenty-five. We didnâ€™t have anything to make an impression with, but it made an impression on me. I will never forget what I saw that dayâ€¦ and the boy will never forget what he saw in 1995, either. He was a great kid, even though he was muteâ€¦ and he was a great artist. When he came back that day from the Cove Hike, we knew he had seen something terrible. He couldnâ€™t tell us about it, but he did draw it and you can see his drawing on the office porch window.
Okay so it is 2008 and this all started in 1890 when the Vandiver boy was born. So is there a 118 year old monster stalking these hills? I doubt it, but remember the gypsy said he would have a very long life and that until it was his time to die, nothing would be able to kill him. What I saw in 1965 and what the boy saw in 1995, we saw and no-one can dispute that fact. But itâ€™s been a long time since anything really bad has happened. Fact or fiction, the Legend of the Vandiver Man will haunt these hills for many years to come.