Curves Ahead

by Robert Beeland, Kurt DeLay, and Joseph Marrasciullo

Staff Writers

Monty Adams overlooks the Sherwood Mining Company’s quarry and the valley below.

UPDATE (6/9): A previous version of this article made mention of the State of Tennessee’s reallocation of land in Sherwood, stating that the land belonged to the Tennessee Land Trust. The land is, in fact, owned and managed by a set of State of Tennessee agencies, now reflected below.

The remnants of Gager Lime and Manufacturing Company are crouched in the shadow of the Tennessee Cumberland Plateau, alongside railroad tracks that run through the town, southward toward the Alabama border. Further down the road sits a convenience store, then an abandoned elementary school. A ways further, a cattle farm, further yet, a cemetery. As the sun creeps over the hilltop, sunlight crawls across the western face of the opposite side of the valley. Mourning doves usher in the dawn. As the sun climbs higher, the coos of the doves are edged out by the drone of cicadas and harsh chatter of crows. Light breaks over the crumbling roofs of the abandoned factory’s concrete silos, like jagged ramparts. Ozymandian, the ruins stand daunting, solemn and alone.

Alone, that is, except for the almost comically out-of-place office building of the Sherwood Mining Company. Founded in 2006, the company takes advantage of the remains of the old Gager limestone mine, picking up where Gager left off almost 60 years later. Its office is less of a building and more of a small, portable office with a trailer hitch on one end and a wooden porch attached to the other. The office is empty; the mine’s remaining two full-time employees are back on the hill in the mine. A dump truck rattles down the road; gravel spills out the back.

The Sherwood Mining Company’s office.

Ten miles up the road, the University of the South sits atop the Cumberland Plateau, nestled in the rolling sylvan landscape of central Tennessee. Among the specialities the school offers, it is perhaps most known for the work of its faculty in forestry, geology, and ecology. It isn’t hard to imagine, considering the almost 13,000 acres of heavily forested land that the University claims. Extensive and diverse, this “backyard and living laboratory,” as it is described on the school’s website, is a dream come true for any scientist concerned with the environment. The academic buildings peak over the tree canopy, neo-gothic monuments of rust-tinted sandstone, dotted with stained glass windows and ornate spires.

Residents often refer to the campus as “the Mountain,” though it truly sits on a southwestern tip of the Cumberland Plateau, which stretches through northern Alabama, across central Tennessee, and into the northern tip of Kentucky. The Plateau juts sharply out of the limestone valleys of the surrounding plains, a contrast arising from the distinctly disparate geological makeup of the two areas. Being made of sandstone, the plateau boasts an unusual insolubility relative to the calcium carbonate that comprises its limestone neighbors. Years of geological upheaval have produced a fairly immediate transition between the two, resulting an abundance of sheer cliffs and impossibly steep inclines.

Unlike a mountain, the plateau is not a result of earth being pushed out from tectonic activity, but rather withstanding millions of years of erosion more effectively than its more soluble counterpart. The natural caves and dramatic rock formations that dot the outer perimeter of the plateau are largely the product of millennias’ worth of runoff rainwater. Exposure to the elements has not only yielded a dramatic, compelling landscape, but also exposed several pockets of very pure limestone.

Choristers outside All Saints’ Chapel on the campus of The University of the South. Photo courtesy of sewanee.edu.

The turnoff down the south side of the Mountain is just inside the University’s western gates: tall imposing pillars of sandstone, noticed only by students as a part of a peculiar tradition, an indication to tap the ceiling of their car in order to acquire their “Sewanee Angels” to guard them on their trip away from campus. Sherwood Road runs past a small local cemetery, continues down past the turn-off for a nearby Episcopalian convent and an odd 20th century science-library-turned-apartment-complex, and remains mostly straightforward until an aptly named intersection with “Turning Point Lane.” At this point, the road dips down the southwestern face of the descent, weaving through hairpin turns and serpentine twists, hugging the natural bend and curve of the plateau’s figure. Small well-kempt clearings appear as shoulders to the road every few hundred yards, only to disappear into dropoffs shrouded in kudzu and eager saplings.

The town of Sherwood sits at the foot of this hill, nestled in the Crow Creek Valley. Sherwood and many towns like it in the area were founded by people drawn to the exceptionally pure limestone and mineral water around the base of the plateau. And, moreover, since its establishment in 1878, the town of Sherwood has been dependent on limestone in one way or another. One focus has been the surface mining of limestone for desulfurization stone, or “scrubber stone” in coal plants to absorb sulfuric compounds released from the combustion of coal and reduce the environmental impact these gasses would otherwise have on the atmosphere. However, because of the recent loss of a contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Sherwood Mining Co. has become a mine without a cause. Where they once employed seven full-time mine workers, two part-time mine workers, and sixteen truck drivers, they now retain only two full-time employees, two part-time, and one bookkeeper. The company hopes to transition to multi-purpose granular lime, says mine administrator Monty Adams, though they currently aren’t selling much more than gravel and filler stone.

About 7 miles further down Sherwood Road, past the Sherwood mine, sits the Lhoist Mining Company. From the moment of their arrival in 2009, Lhoist North America’s Franklin County branch has been able to dwarf the production capacity of the Sherwood Mining Co.. With the ability to mine below ground, Lhoist also produces a much higher grade of limestone than the Sherwood Mining Co.. “Our roots date back to the nineteenth century when in 1889 Hippolyte Dumont opened a factory in Belgium,” explains the Lhoist website’s “History” page. Since 1889, has expanded their presence to over twenty-five countries worldwide in Europe, Africa, Asia, and North and South America. Meanwhile, Adams and his Sherwood Mining Co. must independently work to stay afloat, now wholesaling their lower-grade limestone.

Lhoist North America Franklin Co.

Maps courtesy of Google Maps

Maps courtesy of Google Maps

“The Crow Creek Valley…it’s the place time forgot,” Adams said over lunch one morning—lunch comes early at a mine that opens at 6 a.m..

Adams reclines in his computer chair inside the Sherwood Mining Co.’s portable office building. He is a tall man in his sixties with a light grey beard and piercing blue eyes. His accent lacks the Tennessee Valley twang common to Sherwood, but maintains a kind of ambiguous southern drawl. His desk is covered in miscellaneous paperwork, his walls plastered with calendars and newspaper clippings.

With no internet, no cell signal, and limited emergency radio signal, the town of Sherwood certainly feels out of place in the modern technological era. But time, it seems, isn’t the only thing that has forgotten Sherwood. It’s a common feeling in the valley: the feeling of neglect. Among other things, what stands out most to Adams is the relationship between the people of Sherwood and the people at the University, commonly referred to as “Sewaneesians.”

“Their decisions [the Sewaneesians’] seem to favor a certain class of people,” Adams feels.

“They’re good people, real good people… and they have good intentions, but sometimes they just don’t think it through.” This lands on a heavy note; Adams leans back and takes an exasperated bite out of his turkey sandwich.

One particular example that stands out for Adams is a past effort by a group of University employees on the Mountain to stop mowing the shoulders of Sherwood Road. The idea, he says, was to preserve the wildflowers that grow on the side of the road.

“People couldn’t see around corner. You had kudzu growing out into the road, and deer strikes all the time. You go around a corner and you couldn’t see a deer in the brush. People kept hitting deer; it was real dangerous. And all for these little wildflowers.”

Brush hogs trimming foliage along Sherwood Rd.

“And don’t get me wrong, they sure are pretty. Really, they are, but come on. They’re not worth people getting hurt.”

When Adams went to complain about the overgrown undergrowth, he was surprised to find that people up the hill seemed generally unaware of the problem. “I said to them, ‘when’s the last time you took a trip down to Sherwood to see those flowers?’ and they couldn’t tell me, it’d been so long.”

Along the ascent up the Mountain, toward Sewanee, pinkladies and buttercups cluster in spotted pink and yellow blurs along the less-maintained shoulders of the road. Yucca stems stand stark among small clusters of purple thistle and carpets of clover. Passing “Lost Cove Road,” the incline becomes immediately apparent. Like the descent, climbing up Sherwood Road is an arduous process that requires a great deal of focus. Coming down the mountain allows for a great deal of relaxed, wide curves with the occasional hairpin turn. On the way up, those same curves become tight, nail-biting turns, offering little visibility, especially when entering the infamous “Sewanee fog.” The runaways on the side of the road are neatly trimmed, though the amount of true shoulder to the road is minimal.

Dr. Jon Evans, a professor of biology and sustainability at Sewanee, argues that Sherwood’s incompatibility with modernity may ultimately be to its benefit. The rezoning of the Crow Creek Valley could be “the most exciting thing to happen to Sherwood,” he says. A place that is “barely even a town” could stand to gain from the creation of a state park, a potential fate of the redistributed land now belonging to multiple State of Tennessee agencies, he argues.

Sewanee, to some, could be a catalyst in this process. The University has been involved with “land use change more broadly on the Cumberland Plateau pretty extensively,” remarks Evans. Evans sees prime opportunity for the creation of a natural park, remarking that “the town has to reinvent itself to give people a reason to come… There’s not going to be any more industry down there.” In summary, “the land changes, mines close, lands that were formerly private become public, there’s new opportunity that there wasn’t before. Whether Sherwood can take advantage of that is up to Sherwood.”

Despite the generally delicate descent, Sherwood Road quickly bottoms out at the base of the hill, levelling to an almost perfect parallel with the adjacent rail line. A procession of coal-laden CSX carts lie in wait for the pushing train engines to come from the nearby town, Cowan, and latch onto the caboose, giving the carbonized cargo a much needed boost to make it up onto the plateau. A wooden shack draped in a Trump banner sits sandwiched between “Lost Cove Road” and the foot of the hill.

A Trump banner in Sherwood.

“This is Trump country… we’re Trump people,” Adams explains. Adams sports Trump bumper stickers both in his office and on the rear window of his Jeep. “The last administration, whether they meant well or not, they made changes, and they didn’t phase anything in… To make a massive change without phasing it in is bad policy,” Adams asserts from the front steps of the trailer office. Among other things, Adams is especially skeptical of man-made climate change. “They make these statements,” he says, “maybe it’s a fact, but maybe it’s only part of the whole picture.“

Environmental policy change has never been popular in Sherwood—residents have been quick to protest outside influence on their local economy. One especially disputed topic has been the reallocation of land in the Crow Creek Valley to State of Tennessee agencies. Last year, the Land and Water Conservation Fund and The Land Trust for Tennessee, in partnership with the State of Tennessee, officially protected over 4,000 acres in both Franklin and Marion counties, many of these acres being found in Sherwood. This was done, in part, to protect the painted snake-coiled snail, an especially rare species of land snail native only to the outer limits of Sherwood. Painted snake-coiled snails are often found under hanging limestone ledges, a common sight at a limestone quarry.

This rezoning also protects mining jobs in the area for the next fifty years, presumably anticipating them to have been phased out by that point. Adams and others at the company are concerned for a number of reasons, most immediately by the loss of a pillar of the town’s identity. Limestone mining has been at the core of Sherwood’s economy for almost a century and, to many, to take limestone-based production out of Sherwood would be to remove the essence of the town itself.

Sherwood was founded in 1878 by Charles D. Sherwood, a former Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota. His original interest in the town was wrought of the medicinal properties of the local mineral water, primarily due to the presence of limestone. The Gager Plant itself operated as a quarry and kiln from 1892 to 1949.

Ted Thieman chose to open Sherwood Mining Co. in 2005, but was stonewalled by nascent plans for the protection of the painted snake-coiled snail. In an article published in Wilmington, North Carolina’s Star-News that same year, several Sherwood residents voiced their opinions regarding the newly opened Mining Co.. Many were vocally supportive of the arrival of new job opportunities, whereas almost no one was familiar with the impeding snail in question. A few community members voiced opposition to the mine, primarily because it would “put more trucks on the road” or disturb the Gager ruins, which have since come to be regarded as a kind of historical relic.

In the 2002-2003 publication of its “Ten in Tennessee” Endangered Properties list, The Tennessee Preservation Trust, which described the Gager Lime Manufacturing Company ruins as “displaying elements of the Egyptian Revival and Gothic Revival styles,” in agreement with some historically-minded Sherwood residents, advocated for the protection of the ruins. Nonetheless, the ruins themselves face an uncertain future. The same Tennessee Preservation Trust report asserted that “[t]he continued lack of maintenance threatens the [Gager Lime Manufacturing Company Ruins] and will likely lead to further deterioration—whether intentional or accidental—of the remaining buildings.” The report ended with a one-word description of the site’s threat level: “neglect.”

For this little town of just over 400, any alteration to the local economy is significant, especially if it serves only “a little bat, a pretty flower, and some little snail,” as Adams puts it. The Star-News quotes one Billy Lee Johnson who says plainly, “we don’t need the snails, the snails don’t feed nobody.”

“These people grew up here. They use this land. This is where they hunt, where they go four-wheeling, camping, hiking. These woods are an important part of people’s livelihoods,” Adams insists. Adams himself is an avid gardener, known among his peers for his show-stopping tomatoes. He and others are intimately connected to the land. To them, any efforts of a foreign body outside of Sherwood’s hypernuclear community to impose restrictions on such an integral part of their lives would be misguided and unfair.

“The University was not a partner in this project,” insists biology professor Dr. David Haskell concerning the State’s land reallocation. Haskell is tall and bearded, not unlike Adams in appearance, though he speaks with a British accent that has mellowed with years of exposure to North American dialects. He is often to be seen roaming the halls of Sewanee science buildings, toting complex skeletons of owls and taxidermied birds. When he’s not garbed in his tattered academic gown, teaching classes concerning biological and ecological non-fiction, he likes to hike and enjoy the pristine surroundings Sewanee’s 13,000-acre campus offers.

The University assisted indirectly by its ongoing studies and stewardship of its own land.” He continues, “the fund enjoys wide bipartisan support (85% of voters) for its work in providing land for outdoor activities such as hunting and hiking. The fund also protects clean water and natural heritage in all fifty states. Without the fund, access to hunting and hiking lands would dry up in many areas.”

With regards to the snail, Haskell describes land snails in general as “an essential link in many ecosystems.” These snails mediate the interrelation between soil and larger animals, especially in regards to birds, who rely on snails as a source of calcium in the springtime. According to Haskell, snail diversity in Southern Tennessee is “particularly high,” and actions taken in recent years protect “several species living here and nowhere else on Earth.”

A painted snake-coiled snail. Photo courtesy of David Withers and nooga.com

The degree to which an unassuming species like the snail plays a role in the ecosystem is, by and large, inaccessible to those not trained in the field, unfortunately. The majority of the constructive efforts on the side of conservationists go primarily into enacting the protective legislation, rather than educating the public on the implications of their work. Consequently, well-intentioned environmental efforts easily come off as esoteric restrictions based on special interests. This lack of inclusion of so many people so intimately connected to the landscape has not been without notice.

As Sherwood Road approaches the Turning Point Lane bluff, the landscape begins to change. Houses drift further apart. Driveways reach further and further back into the woods, transitioning from pavement, to gravel, to aged trenches of tire tread in topsoil. Yards become less and less manicured, and the forest begins to reclaim the landscape over which it once held dominion. The trees are the most outstanding characteristic of the downhill trek, looming over the road at every turn, reaching especially high at the points in the road where brief, exposed walls of rock reveal the underbelly of the plateau. Somewhere in these woods, a treasure trove of snails lie coiled.

“To hell with your snail, people are losing jobs here,” say Adams, echoing the sentiments of those at the mine.

A slightly yellowed newspaper clipping of an article entitled “Coal: The Lifeblood of a Country” is pinned to Adams’ office wall. The article, by Homer Hickam, describes the unsung heroics of the American coal miner. “WALL STREET JOURNAL Friday April 9, 2010” is handwritten in pen at the bottom. Hickam describes coal miners like his father as “good strong men who are far more important to our country than even astronauts… This country would be on its knees without coal miners,” he continues. The article details the sacrifice of coal miners, highlights the country’s dependency on coal miners’ work, and concludes in a call to arms, urging the reader to “take pride that such heroes live among us.”

A “Friends of Coal” sticker adorns the opposite wall of Adams’ office. “In the environmental movement,” Adams explains, “there are some people who are so far to one side that they are blind to true life existence as we know it; they’re just bent. They feel so strongly, and I respect that. I really respect people feeling strong about what they feel. But you’ve got to remember that there are people out there that, that strong feeling makes a difference in their lives.

The Sherwood Mining Co. quarry.

Despite his grievances, Adams is actually personally familiar with the University. He attended the University himself in 1970, becoming particularly well-known for his introduction of waterbeds to campus—that is, until the University outlawed waterbeds on campus, effectively putting a halt on Adams’s undergraduate entrepreneurial endeavors. Though his first year wasn’t “academically fruitful,” as he puts it, he “established a place [he] wanted to stay.” After leaving school at the end of his freshman year, Adams spent the next few years “fooling around on what some people call a ‘hippy farm’” before signing on to work for a professional farmer. Earning $8 every day, Adams worked for the farmer until he was eventually able to buy him out. From there, he went on to own upwards of 800 acres of row crops and cattle for almost 35 years.

In the 1990s, Adams decided to try his hand at local politics and was elected county commissioner. Ultimately becoming the mayor of Franklin Co. for two terms, Adams boasts several major accomplishments from his political tenure, namely the construction of Franklin County High School, an imposing campus of almost 1,600 students, outfitted with amenities otherwise inaccessible to smaller county schools. Furthermore, Adams oversaw the establishment of a new health department and the completion of a new jail. He describes his accomplishments as “just all the things you gotta do in a county as far as infrastructure.” He holds the most pride in the feeling that he was able to “feel like [he] made a positive difference in everyone’s lives.”

Sherwood is cut off from most other places in almost all regards. Geographically, Sherwood residents are forced to make the ascent out of the valley and through Sewanee for practically anything they cannot provide themselves. Even the fire engines rely on other towns’ fueling stations when their small personal fuel reserves run low. Despite these impediments, something about the Sherwood community keeps people around, holding fast to their Crow Creek Valley identity.

In all things, Adams considers the community first. As Adams is no stranger to politics, he feels especially disappointed in the events of recent years that have led to the increasing disregard for his community members entirely. He attributes losing the TVA contract to the closing of a coal plant as a result of stricter environmental regulations. In many cases, he explains, it is more efficient to shut down a plant than to outfit it to new regulations: “with environmental rules changing, it’s gotten difficult for them to operate. We used to run 80 loads a day, now we’re lucky to get half a dozen or so… it’s a shame for us, but they’re saving a lot of money.” And, like the land trust, this has affected not only the mine, but the Crow Creek Valley community as a whole.

“Folks who are involved in the pursuit of stronger environmental rules and regulations, their goal is to protect the environment. That’s a good thing. There’s some logic to it. But at the same time, you’ve got to find the moderation in between… It’s good to protect species, but you’ve got to find a way to do it that provides for some amount of understanding that the people out here on the ones who are going to take it on the chin.”

And herein lies the problem: who takes it on the chin. In either scenario, a disadvantaged group is subject to the decisions of bureaucrats outside of their day-to-day experiences. Whether it’s a land snail under a limestone ledge or a miner trying to feed his family, deprivation of agency over one’s environment and wellbeing feels like a fundamental affront to one’s basic rights. And the University, whether it is the authority actually enacting the policy changes or not, seems to have a near monopoly on influence in the area. Those with generations of family lineage cemented in these hills are slow to trust outsiders with the land and lifestyles that have anchored their worldview for so long.

The average Sherwood resident is almost forty-five years old, working to stay just above the poverty line, and white. And, in the event of drastic change, a homogenous populace will necessarily yield a homogenous response. It is no wonder, then, that Sherwood and towns like it have become so vocal in their outcry against outside influence, out of line with their collective interest. In a country where free trade and responsible environmental stewardship are constantly portrayed and antitheses, it is no wonder that well-intentioned policy reform evokes social unrest and political polarization. According to Adams and those at the mine, people all over the country are fighting just like them to preserve their traditional American ways of life.

Tracks running parallel to Sherwood Rd.

Despite this, the future is unlikely to make room for historic small-town America. The steady gate of progress is largely unhindered by nostalgia and camaraderie. It is entirely possible that the time will come when small, production-based towns are rendered totally unnecessary, but that time will come like any other, one day at a time. In the meantime, the task at hand is to give every effort in resisting the alluring mirage of idealistic immediacy.

Within the scientific community, climate change is almost unanimously agreed to be man-made, and the value of individual organism within an ecosystem can be immensely complex, despite its humble appearance. Nevertheless, these facts lack the sense of tangibility reserved only for the cultural and anecdotal notions of everyday living. Every community is necessarily steeped in its own uniquely-shaped socioeconomic frame of reference, and this oftentimes proves to be the greatest obstacle in the pursuit of common welfare.

Fear of change, fear for the future of the planet, fear for the future of one’s family, all of these fears resonate consciously or otherwise in modern American life. In the case of Sherwood and small towns like it across America, the fear is for a way of life. Citizens fear for their children’s future, for their familial legacy, for their financial security. In Sherwood, a mine is more than a piece of infrastructure; it is the physical embodiment of the identity of its community.

Sherwood Road has the funny way of always being twice as long as you remembered it. Landmarks are hard to come by and easily obscured by the ever-changing face of the Cumberland flora. There are dips and curves and all manners of winding, but despite its precarious figure, Sherwood Road’s labyrinthian nature serves as a reminder—a physical manifestation of the long, difficult discourse required to bridge the gap between places as alien to one another as Sherwood and Sewanee. It is an artery that connects Sewanee and Sherwood indelibly. Despite their differences, the two communities will forever remain two parts of a whole, members of the same collective body. With dedicated persistence, no division is insurmountable. Equally as crucial as the road itself is an awareness of the perspectives of the two places it links. Solidarity across class and cultural lines is a two-way street, and there are no free rides.

 

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