Across the Unakas, Hitched to Buck and Baldy
Across the Unakas Hitched to Buck and Baldy


Sandra (Nipper) Ratledge

Over gullies and around gulches, the wagon creaked and rolled ever onward. Uphill and then downhill, over the rugged and narrow trail, it crept. A team of strong and sturdy oxen pulled it slowly along. These weren't just any oxen though. They were Buck and Baldy. A necessary part of the Hampton family they were and as basic to daily life as corn pone.

Indeed, if not for their strength, the corn fields would have lain fallow and the table barren. If not for their endurance, Bob and Merky Hampton would never have ventured with little daughters Azilee and Mary across the towering Unaka Mountains from Hanging Dog, North Carolina and beyond into the Knobs of Southeast Tennessee. For certain, no one could have attempted such a move as they did in 1906, without a wagon and a team of mules. Instead of mules, however, they depended on this pair of powerful yet docile oxen to pull them and all their household belongings safely over and down the rocky, steep slopes from Unaka in Cherokee County, North Carolina. Nearby, at Rough Ridge Creek they had set up housekeeping soon after their wedding. Their destination, only six years after marriage, was Belltown in Monroe County, Tennessee. Later, the oxen pulled their wagon to Mt. Vernon, also in Monroe County. Their first son was born there on May 26, 1906 and named "Homer, " for indeed they had found a new home in Tennessee.

After finding a suitable place to rest in route from Unaka, Bob unhitched the oxen, watered them in a nearby stream, set them to graze in a grassy spot, and gathered wood for the campfire. Merky tended to the girls, built a fire, and cooked on the open flames. Camping along the woodsy trail was quite an adventure for curious, young Azilee, age five, and baby Mary, only two. To quiet their fears of hooting owls and squalling bobcats, Merky retold the familiar family story about the hoot owl and John Nicholson. She knew this tale would lighten the mood and lift their spirits with laughter.

When John Nicholson was a youngster out camping one night, a hoot owl started calling clearly, "Whooo!"

"John," he said quickly.

"Whooo?" came immediately.

"John Nicholson," he replied.


"JOHN NICHOLSON!" he answered loudly.

"Whooo? Whooo?"

"John Nicholson, I told you! My name's JOHN NICHOLSON!"

By this time, his companions were laughing outrageously for young John had been conversing with an owl. Azilee never forgot the old tale and, with much laughter, fondly recounted it to me as a child.

Only a few years later, the Hamptons bought a farm at Liberty Hill in McMinn County, Tennessee where the family remained. There Bob turned the fields with Buck and Baldy hitched to the plow, then furrowed, and planted seed. Eventually, he also set up a sawmill on his farm and made a living in the sawmill business as long as health permitted.

Buck and Baldy's contribution to the family livelihood and the valued part they played in our family history were never forgotten by my grandmother, Azilee, nor by her daughter Beulah (Cline) Nipper. So, this story, now nearly a century old, was shared with me many years ago by my mother, Bob and Merky's granddaughter.


©1999--present year by Sandra N. Ratledge. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Any reproduction or inclusion of this website's contents in publication whether online or in print is prohibited. Do NOT copy photographs and upload on Find a Grave or any other internet websites, blogs, attach to family trees, or print in publications. Do NOT copy stories, articles, documents, sketches, anecdotes, letters, obituaries, content data, etc. and attach to family trees or upload on other websites of any kind.

Sandra Ratledge

This site is dedicated to the memory of my mother,
Beulah Cline Nipper, a beautiful product of the Knobs.