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Exploring Parch Corn Creek’s stone fortress

If you walk the Big South Fork River downstream from Station Camp Crossing, you’ll find literally tons of stones stacked into piles along the east (right) side of the trail.

This isn’t an uncommon occurrence in these old BSF agrarian communities. It wasn’t a land that was particularly suitable for farming — even in the stream bottoms where the soil is much richer and moist than on the tabletop plateau lands that surround the river gorge. Early settlers did the best they could, which often required moving a lot of rocks in order to grow gardens and crops. Sometimes these stones were stacked into walls to hold back flood waters from the streams. You find examples of these along No Business Creek. Other times the rocks were used as foundations and chimneys for the homes, barns, corn cribs and other buildings that were built on the small subsistence farms that sprang up throughout the river settlements. And sometimes, as is the case on the east side of the Big South Fork River downstream from Station Camp, they were simply piled around trees that still stand as old-growth reminders of days past.

The mere sight of these rock piles is a testament to the back-breaking labor that these pioneers put into making this unforgiving landscape a little more livable. Many of the rocks would’ve required at least two people to man-handle. It’s not hard to look at pile after pile of stones and marvel about how many hours went into moving them into stacks.

A little further downstream, though, the rocks go from random piles around old oak trees to the remnants of what must have once been something magnificent.

This was part of a rock wall stretching hundreds of feet near Parch Corn Creek | Ben Garrett/IH

Across the river from the mouth of Parch Corn Creek, out of sight from the horse trail that runs along the river, is what remains of a rock wall that once stretched hundreds of feet, with at least three sides.

There appear to be no recorded stories about what the purpose of this rock wall might have been. It’s almost as if an early resident of the river gorge was attempting to build a fortress to protect against some sort of enemy.

The most obvious “enemy,” of course, would have been the raging waters of the Big South Fork River after late-season floods threatened gardens and crops. But the long wall of the “fortress” is on the uphill side of the terrain feature — away from the river. If there was ever an enclosing wall built on the lower side, it has been disassembled at some point over the years by someone who needed the rocks for some other purpose.

Stories repeated through the years suggest that slave labor was used to clear some of the land around the Big South Fork river settlements. But there’s little evidence of slave ownership in these small communities. Some of those who settled here owned substantial amounts of land but few of them owned any amount of money to speak of. They couldn’t have afforded slaves even if they wanted them. In some cases, the work was done by hired servants or laborers. For the most part, however, the grueling work was done by the landowners themselves — men who were simply trying to create a life for themselves and their families.

There’s also some speculation that some of the manmade rock structures of the BSF region were created by Indians who predated white settlers in these lands.

This was part of a rock wall stretching hundreds of feet near Parch Corn Creek | Ben Garrett/IH

There’s merit behind the speculation. Elsewhere in the southeastern U.S., Native Americans sometimes built rock walls or other rock structures, usually as boundaries around places that were sacred to them.

But there are no records of permanent Indian settlements within the BSF. This was primarily a hunting ground for transient natives.

Ultimately, the most likely explanation for walls such as these is a simpler one: early farmers who cleared lands such as these for crops and gardens had to put the rocks somewhere. And because a linear wall took up less room than a huge pile of rocks, these unwanted rocks sometimes wound up being stacked into walls lining the field’s edges. They served a dual purpose of keeping livestock like pigs out of the crops.

This was one of the corners of a rock wall stretching hundreds of feet near Parch Corn Creek | Ben Garrett/IH

Every spring, after the winter’s frosts pulled more rocks to the surface that had to be moved before plowing, those rocks would be added to the walls.

Regardless, it’s pretty obvious that these rocks were formed into walls by man. The deer and bear that roam these forests certainly didn’t do it. And they remain as a reminder of just how harsh life in these places once was.

It’s easy to visit these areas today and romanticize about how wonderful and simple life would have been here. For many who settled these lands, life was indeed wonderful … but it was hardly simple.

This was part of a rock wall stretching hundreds of feet near Parch Corn Creek | Ben Garrett/IH

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