Chief's Car
Chief's Car

Sandra Nipper Ratledge

Just as life seems inconceivable now without cars, so day-to-day existence was unthinkable to my great-grandfather without his horses, mules, and oxen. Born on October 22, 1880, the oldest son of Joe and Mag (Barnett) Cline, Ed grew up on the Cline farm lying just inside the Monroe County line and bordering McMinn County in the Knobs of Southeast Tennessee. There he curried horses and mucked out their stalls from childhood. As a youth, he learned to till the soil walking behind a mule-drawn plow. At harvest, he harnessed a team of mules to the old weather-worn wagon, brought crops from the fields, and afterwards sold them at his country store or hauled them to market at either Englewood or Mt. Vernon or on to Wilson Station where they were loaded aboard a train and outbound.

Beasts of burden were essential in early times not only for tilling, planting, and reaping but also for transportation in these red clay hills. Typically, the Lord's Day was the only day reserved as respite for both man and mule. So it was that on most Sundays the whole family simply walked to nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church for worship services, usually conducted by Joe Cline, a lay preacher. However, for events like homecoming at Eleazer Methodist Church, revivals, camp meetings, and funerals elsewhere, it was customary to ride in the rickety old wagon pulled by his mule team named Big Red and Baldy. Ed and his wife Sarah (Roberts) Cline made a striking couple sitting side by side atop the wagon seat -- he with his slick, shiny black hair and tanned face contrasted beside Sary with her porcelain complexion and brilliant auburn curly locks tucked into a bun at the nape of her neck. This fetching pair were beloved and remembered by one and all, by kinfolks and neighbors alike, in the hills and hollows of the Knobs.

In addition to using horses for farming, Ed had earned part of his livelihood astride one. Like his father who was a Constable in the Knobs District after the Civil War, Ed also pursued a job with law enforcement. He served the little town of Englewood in McMinn County, Tennessee as Chief of Police. Thus it was that local folks began referring to him simply as the "Chief." This nickname prevailed for many years, in fact, throughout the remainder of his life; even his grandchildren lovingly called him "Chief" rather than "Grandpaw Cline," a term reserved for the elder Joe Cline. Great-grandchildren and their descendants for generations also designated him by this nickname. To me then, these great-grandparents were not "Ed and Sarah" but always "Chief and Granny Cline" and much loved.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, technology advanced faster than ever before and reduced man's dependency on horses. After the advent of an assembly line and mass production of the first cheap Fords, automobiles became affordable to the general public for the first time. Soon autos began appearing on the back roads of the Knobs, thus frightening horses, prompting them to rear and sometimes throw riders. After World War I, numerous T-Models traveled these unpaved country roads. The clamor of their noisy motors and honking horns often caused horses to bolt and therefore endangered horseback riders.

Automobiles were no longer just a newfangled sign of the future but had evolved into a status symbol of progress. Chief decided that the time had come for a change. Some zealous salesman had convinced him that an automobile would be more serviceable, reliable, and less costly over the years than his horse. So, Chief purchased a car to facilitate his patroling duties around and about Englewood and to ease his travel back and forth from his farm in the Knobs. Little did he know that this purchase would be fraught with difficulties from the beginning, nor did he realize that his problems would eventually become a source of lighthearted conversation at family gatherings. With his ever-ready smile and soft chuckle, Chief laughed away the teasing and enjoyed the good humor as much as anyone.

Compared with modern standards, cars were uncomplicated in the early days as were the limits on their usage. Other than ready cash, no requirements like a license or a driver's test were imposed on drivers at the time. Why, all he had to learn, he thought, was how to start, accelerate, and stop the contraption! Everything seemed simple enough when the salesman had demonstrated it. Motoring about Englewood was easy since the land was level and the few drivers drove slowly within the limits of town. However, maneuvering on the unpaved, narrow, winding roads of the Knobs proved troublesome for anyone -- even experienced drivers.

To get home, he had to take Liberty Hill Road (# 39). It was barely wide enough to accommodate the passage of two cars headed in opposite directions and quite curvy. It took as much concentrated effort as he could muster just to stay on the road. By the way, Chief always drove on whichever side of the road he pleased or, better still, straight down the middle if he could keep it there. It was holding her straight that caused such a problem! He claimed all the swerving was to avoid familiar ruts and mud holes in advance. Of course, before turning every blind curve, he honked the horn to warn any approaching drivers of his presence. As was common practice, he also honked the horn to acknowledge every friend and neighbor along the roadside. So, folks were puzzled sometimes about whether the horn's "oogle--oogle" was a greeting or a warning.

From Liberty Hill Road, he always turned left onto Burger Branch Road at Wash and Mary Davis' old home place and took the shortcut home. Here the branch flowed across the road, and then the red dirt path narrowed to just one lane. In order to pass, one of the cars had to pull off to the side of the road or into a gulley. Drivers prayed for safe passage along the low-lying wetlands here. They hoped to be spared the embarrassment of begging a farmer to hitch his mule and pull the car out of a ditch or the creek.

This road home wound round and about, uphill and downhill, into the hollows along Burger Branch. At some distance, it eventually forked to the right near Aunt Cricket (Cline) Pangle's old home place and from there sloped downhill toward his farm. About half way down that familiar slope, he had to make a sharp left turn and then come to a full stop at his house. The red clay road must have been as slick as a wet muskrat that day. Its surface seemed to slither after every shower. Naturally, the car increased in speed with its downhill descent, making a ninety-degree turn to the farm even more difficult. He knew the car was going too fast to maneuver such a tight turn. Anxiously, he pulled back hard on the steering wheel like any mule teamster, yelled, "Who-o-o-a, there! Who-o-o-a!" but just kept on rolling.


©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.