Tennessee vs. Appalachian State

0
Days
0
Hours
0
Minutes
0
Seconds

Destination: The high country

Untitled-1

The heat and humidity that have held East Tennessee in a death grip since early July finally relinquished this week, and the first taste of autumn made for an excellent opportunity for an adventure. My destination? The highest point in Scott County: Guinea Hill Knob.

It takes much longer to drive to Guinea Hill Knob than it does to actually ascend to the summit. It’s a long way from anywhere. In fact, it’s located in the extreme southern tip of Scott County. When surveyors carved out Scott County from portions of Fentress, Morgan, Campbell and Anderson counties in 1849, they generally followed the ridge tops through the Cumberland Mountains. And it is here, at Guinea Hill Knob, where Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties all meet.

The first thing to understand is what Guinea Hill Knob is and what it isn’t. It’s the highest point in Scott County — with a peak of 3,268 feet — but it doesn’t tower above the surrounding terrain features. This area, in the heart of the Cumberland Mountains, is all high country. The ridges are well above 2,500 feet and there are several peaks above 3,000 feet.

In fact, there are eight peaks above 3,000 feet in this general area — just on the Scott County side. There are additional 3,000-ft. peaks on the Anderson County and Morgan County sides.

All of which is to say that Guinea Hill Knob doesn’t stand out — at least not from its base. But once you’ve ascended to the summit, you realize just how remarkable this high point really is.

2

Photo: That’s Walnut Knob to the right, and Guinea Hill Knob to the left. See a difference? Not really.

There is actually some debate over whether Guinea Hill Knob is the highest peak in Scott County. Well, actually no one is debating it. But it could be debated. The Lists of John, a digital inventory of more than 200,000 peaks around the world, lists three peaks in Scott County of identical height: 3,250 feet. Walnut Knob, just to the south of Guinea Hill Knob, is one of them. The other is Burge Mountain, located a couple of miles to the east. And since Guinea Hill Knob has a lesser prominence than the other two — meaning how high the peak towers over the ridge line — it is usually listed third.

But Tom Dunigan — a former University of Tennessee adjunct associate professor and retired research assistant at Oak Ridge National Laboratory — maintains a landmark inventory of the Cumberlands that is a treasure trove of information about both the Cumberland Mountains and the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. He has determined Guinea Hill Knob to be 3,268 feet, compared to Burge Mountain’s 3,246 feet and Walnut Knob’s 3,240 feet.

Either way, we’re talking about a difference of less than 20 feet between them, which is really splitting hairs. The bottom line is that once you’ve ascended to the top of Guinea Hill Knob, you feel like you’re on top of the world. And in this corner of the world, you truly are on top.

The easiest way to get to Guinea Hill Knob — as long as you remember that “easiest” is a relative term — is by way of the Emory River valley, taking Gobey Road from U.S. Hwy. 27 just north of Wartburg in Morgan County. The drive to the Emory River headwaters is a spectacular one along a two-lane country road. At the head of the creek, the road turns to gravel and climbs to the top of the mountain.

But there are several different ways to get here. S.R. 116 between Lake City (Rocky Top) and Petros is little more than a hop, skip and a jump away, and you can also get there from the head of Brimstone (by way of Lone Mountain) or from the headwaters of Smokey Creek.

I chose a little more adventurous way. I was in my Jeep, the top was off, the sun was shining and I had time to kill. So I peeled off of Brimstone Road at Slick Rock, and climbed to the top of the ridge and the old Brimstone coal haul road that runs the length of the ridge top from Huntsville to the top of the mountains near Devonia.

Back when coal was king in these mountains — in the ’70s and early ’80s — these roads were fine routes, suitable for almost any vehicle. Over the years after the coal trucks quit hauling, they fell into various states of disrepair. In the 2000s, an boom of natural gas exploration led to many of the old roads being repaired and some new ones being built. So many of the old roads through the Cumberland Mountains are now gravel once more.

My journey, which leads along the ridge top above the Brimstone Creek valley, was mostly along those gravel roads. A few years of erosion have taken their toll on the roads, and there are puddles aplenty, but for the most part four-wheel-drive was not needed. The lone exception was a stretch of roadway around the base of Round Mountain. For whatever reason, this stretch of roadway — which is between Signal Mountain and the road that connected the old coal haul road to the coal tipple at the railroad below on Brimstone Road — has always been neglected. It was repaired several years ago when a natural gas main was laid through the mountains but was never graveled and brought to the same standard as the rest of the roads. As a result, it has deteriorated. Still, someone had been through on a dozer a few days ago, smoothing some of the ruts and draining some of the mud holes. The 4×4 use was mostly a precautionary measure on my part.

From Signal Mountain, the old haul road continues to parallel the Brimstone valley — which is far below and out of sight during this time of year, when the foliage is still on — until it eventually turns up Mill Creek and away from Brimstone Creek.

Far above the head of Mill Creek — across the valley from Flower Mountain and near where the Brimstone high country coal washer once set until it was dismantled a decade ago — the road begins following the Scott-Morgan county line. For the next several miles, it follows the county line past Sandy Gap Mountain, Norman Pond Knob and along Ligias Ridge. All of these peaks are around 3,000 feet. The climb into the mountains is nearly complete, and — mile for mile — there are more reclaimed strip mines here than anywhere else in these Cumberland Mountains. This was the heart of coal country 30 years ago. It has since been logged of most of its mature timber and is now exporting a not-insignificant amount of natural gas.

From Ligias Ridge, the road rounds the base of Walnut Knob and passes through Guinea Gap. By this point, the Frozen Head State Environmental Area is not far away. The road itself is on what is now the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, and most of the territory to the west is owned by Emory River LLC.

The coal haul road rounds the base of Guinea Hill Knob on its east side, continuing on to S.R. 116. But a 4×4-accessible gas well access road on the north side of the peak leads to within 1,000 linear feet of the summit.

That’s close to being at the highest point in Scott County. But not close enough. “Back in the day,” when coal mining was a major activity in these mountains, an old road led all the way to the summit, where a radio tower was located. Getting there by vehicle is no longer possible, however. To reach the summit, you have to park and do it like God intended it to be done — on foot.

And that’s easier said than done. It may be only 1,000 feet, as the crow flies, but men have to rely on their two legs instead of wings. The vegetation is dense and the climb is steep. I use wild game trails to climb to an old road bed, climb that to an old clear cut that ascends most of the way up the east side of the slope, then use another series of wild game trails to get through a gap in the bluffs that ring the top of the mountain. Then, I’m there.

8

Photo: This is what the highest peak in Scott County looks like. 

1

Photo: I have no idea what this is, but it looked neat.

9

Photo: I’m not the first critter to venture here. Pig crap!

Turns out, the wild game trails I’m following are being used mostly by wild boar. That isn’t too surprising. We’re too high for most whitetail deer to venture, and elk typically stick to the low country this time of year. I had already passed a herd of wild boar on the way in.

13

Someone stacked a pile of rocks near the summit. Who and when is left to the imagination. I like to imagine that this pile of rocks was stacked by the surveyors back in 1849 to mark the spot where Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties meet. In reality, though, these rocks look to have been stacked more recently than that.

12

The Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation’s easement for Frozen Head runs almost to the summit, encompassing territories to the south and west of the mountain.

11

This is also the boundary line of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, and I nearly tripped over a survey stake. The state purchased this territory a decade ago to add to what was at the time known as the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area. Royal Blue and Sundqvist WMAs were merged with the new property to form the North Cumberland WMA. The new addition is known as the Emory River Unit of the WMA.

10

In places, pieces of coal litter the ground. A lot of coal has been mined in these mountains over the years.

7

From the summit, High Point Mountain is visible to the southwest.

6

Since timber cutters cleared most of the mature timber on the mountain’s east slope, it’s possible to position one’s self for a perfect view down the Smokey Creek valley.

4

And, if you look to the southeast, you’ll find TVA’s wind farm atop Windrock Mountain, where the massive windmills turn in the breeze.


3

It’s hard to see; you’ll have to click the above picture for a full-scale view. But this panoramic shot from the summit shows the Smokey Creek Valley (left) and the wind farm (right) from the same vantage point. You don’t find views like this just anywhere!

IMG_4699

This radio tower once stood atop Guinea Hill Knob, harkening back to the days when coal was king in these mountains. It was still standing 15 years ago but has since toppled and is all but invisible in the undergrowth. 

5

Standing atop Guinea Hill Knob, it’s easy to imagine that you have the whole world to yourself. And you do have this little corner of it to yourself. This high up, there are no man-made sounds, except for an occasional aircraft overhead. On weekends, ATVs rumble through these mountains, but on week days, it’s just you and nature — one on one. It’s easy to sit and stare forever, the same way John Muir must have done it when he trekked across the United States generations ago. These mountains are scarred by the coal-mining, the timber-cutting, and the gas-drilling that has gone on here, but there’s still something majestic about them…especially when you’re this high up, where you can truly feel like you’re on top of the world.

The Cumberlands in the Civil War: Part II of V — Scott’s strategic importance

Scott County, Tennessee’s involvement in the Civil War was not extensive. The county is best-known for staking its claim to independence in 1861 out of a desire to remain loyal to the union. It is often written that warfare along the northern Cumberland Plateau was limited to a handful of small skirmishes because the terrain are left the region of little importance to either side.

And that’s true — for the most part. But when the Union Army needed a way into Tennessee, Scott and Fentress counties played a vital role in providing that route. It wasn’t intentional; it was more of a coincidence of geography than anything. But in so doing, Scott County was able to assist with the downfall of the Confederacy, which it had resisted from the beginning.

When Tennessee voted to secede from the Union on a second ballot in June 1861, despite the objections of East Tennessee, Scott County was so incensed that county leaders met in Huntsville and passed a resolution declaring the Free & Independent State of Scott. The residents of Scott County were largely loyal to the Union, and of the men from Scott County who enlisted to fight for either side during the war, they overwhelmingly chose the blue over the gray.

By the time Tennessee voted to secede, becoming the last state to do so, it had already become apparent that war would eventually come to the Volunteer State. Governor Isham Harris, who had lobbied for secession, immediately set about the task of shoring up the state, which was sharply divided between Rebel sympathizers in the west and Union loyalists in the east.

The East Tennessee defiance did not go unnoticed in Washington. While Harris was concerned with the situation in the east, President Abraham Lincoln saw it as a key objective of the war — not in the least because of the railroad that linked the western and eastern portions of the Confederacy. That railroad just happened to pass through East Tennessee, and if the Union could take control of the railroad corridor from Chattanooga to Virginia, it could disrupt the movement of supplies between the Confederate states.

Harris responded by placing General Felix Zollikoffer — a newspaper editor and Congressman turned Confederate soldier — in charge of East Tennessee. Sensing that his policy of leniency towards the Unionists in the eastern part of the state was not paying off, Harris ordered Zollikoffer to suppress the resistance by arresting the pro-Union organizers in the east.

Zollikoffer was also charged with finding a way to stop the invasion of Union forces that Confederate leaders knew was inevitable. He complained that he didn’t have enough men to successfully defend the 200 miles of Tennessee’s northern border with Kentucky and Virginia, particularly the rugged terrain of the Cumberland Mountains. Zollikoffer counted more than three dozen gaps through which Union forces could enter Tennessee, telling Isham, “You can’t expect me to hold 43 gaps in front of me.”

Nevertheless, Zollikoffer set about the task of fortifying the border by filling those mountain gaps with rock and timber. The forces under his command worked from Jacksboro east to the Cumberland Gap. But because of their limited time and resources, they erred by not paying enough attention to Scott and Fentress counties on the plateau.

In October 1861, Zollikoffer surveyed the northern plateau, writing, “This section of the country is in a perilous condition.”

There were four roads leading across the state line in Fentress County and two more in Scott County. Knowing he didn’t have enough troops to successfully defend the region, Zollikoffer instead left small cavalry patrols to survey the area, one of which was stationed at Chitwood’s, an old crossroads in what is now Winfield. His plan was to instead fortify the passes along the plateau’s eastern edge — such as the one through which Old Hwy. 63 was later built between Pioneer and Caryville — to prevent Union troops from advancing into the East Tennessee valley. His reasoning? Once the Yankees invaded Tennessee, they would find the barricaded gaps at the plateau’s eastern edge and be faced with a choice: turn around, or starve.

In November 1861, Zollikoffer’s fears of a federal invasion by way of the northern plateau seemed to be realized. A resident of Huntsville — perhaps one of the very few who were sympathetic towards the Confederate cause, or perhaps a plant — warned him that the Yanks were coming. Zollikoffer wired Harris in Nashville: “A reliable citizen from Huntsville, Tennessee, just in, reports the general impression that the enemy are sending in a force by Chitwood’s from Williamsburg Kentucky.”

Zollikoffer rallied a small number of his troops and headed north to meet the Union soldiers, but when he reached Wartburg in Morgan County, he learned that the report was only a false rumor.

Still, the report unnerved Zollikoffer. He decided to take the fight to Union soldiers in southeastern Kentucky. By engaging them there, and dispersing them, he could stave off the inevitable invasion of Tennessee. 

Zollikoffer led nearly 5,000 men through the Cumberland Mountains. He climbed to the top of the mountains along the Scott-Morgan county line. W.J. Worsham, one of the infantrymen marching with Zollikoffer, wrote, “We ascended the Cumberland Mountains again, on whose top we traveled for thirty miles, through as lonely and desolate country as could be found. We passed a residence about every six miles, til we reached Jamestown.”

Zollikoffer’s decision to march into Kentucky proved fatal. In January 1862, his army was crushed at the Battle of Fishing Creek, just south of Somerset. Zollikoffer himself was killed in the fight after mistakenly approaching a Union officer in the driving rain.

As a result of that battle, East Tennessee newspaperman Landon C. Haynes — a Confederate antagonizer who had urged Tennessee to secede after Lincoln’s election — wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that “there is now no impediment whatever but bad roads and natural obstacles to prevent the enemy from entering East Tennessee.”

For the next 18 months, Scott County truly was of little use to either side. It was during this time, with Zollikoffer out of the picture and Lincoln’s hopes of capturing East Tennessee delayed, that guerrilla warfare began to take root here (see part III of this series in September). That lawless period of the war gave rise to some of the region’s legendary tales, such as the heroism of Julia Marcum, who lost an eye defending her Scott County home from Confederate soldiers, and the Duck Shoals skirmish in what is now the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, where 10 Confederate guerrillas were killed as they holed up in a home they had raided near No Business Creek. Except for the attempts of a Chattanooga millionaire named William Clift to raise a Union regiment in Huntsville (see Part V of this series in November), and the response of the Confederates to squash it, which led to the Battle of Huntsville, there was little “official” warfare in Scott County.

That changed in August 1863. The Union Army, under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, was prepared to take Knoxville, securing the strategic objective of East Tennessee and interrupting the Confederate railroad supply line. 

Burnside had suffered a humiliating setback at Fredericksburg as commander of the Army of the Potomac in late 1862. As a result, he had been demoted by Lincoln and assigned to the quiet Midwest, where there was little warfare taking place. Burnside spent several months attempting to silence anti-war sentiment by passing directives that were later overturned by Lincoln.

Eventually, Burnside was ordered to advance on Tennessee as part of Lincoln’s objective. On Aug. 21, 1863, Burnside’s troops — more than 12,000 strong — marched out of Lexington and headed south.

Burnside’s destination was the Cumberland Plateau. He realized that the Confederates would expect him to invade by way of the Cumberland Gap, and also knew that the gap would be heavily fortified. Instead, he chose to flank Confederate forces by entering Tennessee through the northern plateau area, which he expected to be lightly guarded. 

The going was slow. Heavy rains had set in, making the roads muddy and sloppy. The already rugged terrain had become even more of an obstacle. At times, wagons had to be pulled by hand through the mud. 

Initially, Burnside planned to march the entirety of his 12,000 troops through Scott County. But faced with the slow going, he chose to speed things along by dividing the army into two columns. One entered Tennessee over the Monticello Road into Jamestown. The other entered Tennessee at modern-day Winfield, through Chitwood’s.

Burnside himself accompanied the latter group, traveling from what is now Winfield to Huntsville, crossing New River and marching up the Brimstone Creek valley, through Hamby Gap, and into Morgan County. From there, the troops descended to Montgomery, which was at the time the Morgan County seat, and on into the valley.

Resistance from the Confederacy was minor — and futile — as the Union soldiers moved into Scott County and through the Cumberland Mountains. More than 10,000 of them marched through Huntsville and up Brimstone Creek, and there are records of citizens turning out to gaze in amazement at the endless sea of blue that marched by.

Leander McKee, one of the Union soldiers marching with Burnside, wrote to his wife that the Confederate cavalry had been dispatched to meet the advancing Union soldiers but “went back to Knoxville and reported the mountains full of damned Yankees. They said they hold every pass and was on every road. In fact, such an army was never known as there was in the mountains. It is no wonder that they thought we had a large army, for we was on every road.”

The Union soldiers were met with praise and gratitude in Scott and Morgan counties, where the Confederacy was still despised. And they received a hero’s welcome in Knoxville. But their march through the Upper Cumberlands did not come without consequences for the local residences. Food was in short supply — for the soldiers as well as their horses — and raiding parties were organized to seize supplies.

One tale is written of a farmer in Scott County who had 140 bales of hay stored for the winter. Burnside’s men requisitioned 100 bales, leaving him 40. Then, hours later, a second raiding party arrived and seized the remaining 40.

McKee wrote to his wife that the Union soldiers were just as bad as the Confederate guerrillas who had been robbing the people of the Cumberlands blind.

“We have met with a hearty welcome in East Tennessee. The people have treated us with a great kindness and we have robbed them in return,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, the Cumberland Plateau had served its purpose. It had provided the Union with an invasion route, and Burnside’s troops were successful in taking Knoxville. They later successfully defended Knoxville from Confederate soldiers in the Battle of Fort Sanders. And the Confederates’ efforts to rout the Yankees out of Knoxville weakened their forces in Chattanooga, allowing Major General Ulysses S. Grant to seize control of Chattanooga. 

As a result, East Tennessee — which had voted overwhelmingly to remain with the Union rather than secede two years earlier — was controlled by the Union. The Confederate’s grip on the eastern portion of the state was lost for good.

The Cumberlands in the Civil War: Part I of V — The day Scott staked its independence

When Tennessee voted to secede from the United States of America in June 1861, the move was made despite fierce oppostion in East Tennessee. On this side of the state, citizens strongly objected to the decision of their fellow Tennesseans west of the Cumberland Plateau to leave the Union — so much so that the counties met in a convention in Greeneville and asked Nashville’s permission for East Tennessee to form its own state. When that petition was denied, political leaders east of the Cumberland Plateau reluctantly accepted the decision.

But Scott County was having none of it.

In the weeks after Tennessee voted to join the Confederate States of America, Scott County’s leaders met in Huntsville and voted to formally leave Tennessee, forming the Free and Independent State of Scott. The rebellion was never recognized by Tennessee, yet it wasn’t until 125 years later — in 1986 — that Scott County officially voted to rejoin the Volunteer State.

That defiant day in 1861 helped Scott County stake its claim as a fiercely independent people, a reputation that endured for generations in the rugged terrain of the northern plateau, where the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River carved a deep ravine on one side and the Cumberland Mountains towered tall on the other.

There were likely multiple factors for Scott County’s decision. But the driving force behind the decision was the lack of slaves here. 

There were relatively few slaves in all of East Tennessee in 1861, a big reason why the eastern side of the state wished to remain loyal to the Union. And that was especially so in Scott County, where there were only 61 slaves when the Civil War began. In fact, Scott County was one of just two counties in the state with fewer than 100 slaves. By contrast, there were twice as many slaves in Morgan County and three times as many in Fentress County when the war began.

Commercial argiculture just was not as important in Scott County as it was in many other parts of the state, including parts of East Tennessee. The people of Scott County farmed, but they were largely subsistence farmers, using family farms to put food on the table and clothes on their childrens’ backs.

Scott Countians did not support Abraham Lincoln for president; they voted for former Senator John Bell from Middle Tennessee, who represented the Constitutional Union Party and took a neutral stance on slavery. Lincoln received only a handful of votes in Scott County.

Still, when pro-secession politics took root in Tennessee after Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress rebellion in South Carolina, the people of Scott County sided with the Republican president. When Tennessee first voted on the issue of secession — at the behest of Governor Isham Harris in February 1861 — Scott Countians voted against it by a margin of 385-29.  Ninety-three percent of Scott Countians who voted were opposed to seceding from the Union. 

That measure failed across the state, with 68,282 Tennesseans voting to remain with the Union and 59,449 voting to join the Confederacy. But Harris was undeterred, and had a second ballot taken after the Fort Sumter Crisis. 

While the pro-secession attitude was growing throughout Tennessee — even in the east, though a plurality of citizens east of the plateau remained opposed to secession — as the events of 1861 unfolded, Scott Countians were growing more resolved in their defiance of Nashville’s wishes to leave the Union. People here were not caught up in the politics that were unfolding throughout the nation; they simply wanted to be left alone. In fact, when Rev. Herman Bokum, of the Knoxville Bible Society, traveled to Scott County several months after South Carolina voted to secede, he was surprised to learn that citizens here had no idea of what had happened. News was slow to reach the rugged terrain of the northern plateau, where newspapers were not yet being printed and would not begin to be printed for more than 20 years, when the Scott County Call was briefly published in Helenwood.

But when future U.S. President Andrew Johnson stood on the steps of the courthouse in Huntsville on June 4, 1861, and delivered a fiery speech against secession as part of a whirlwind tour of northern plateau villages to drum up anti-secession support, Scott Countians listened. Four days later, Scott County voted against secession by the largest margin of any county in the state — 521 voted to remain with the Union and only 19 voted to join the Confederacy. Only 3.6 percent of voters wanted to leave the Union. In Morgan County, the vote was 630-50, and in Fentress County it was 651-128. 

It has been written that only three families in Scott County in 1861 favored secession. Legend has it that a man from one of those families proclaimed his loyalty to the South by leaping into the air and yelling, “If I lived in Hell I’d fight for the devil!”

While the northern plateau was voting strongly in favor of preserving the Union, the rest of the state did not follow suit. Despite objections from East Tennessee political leaders that the vote was tainted by fraud, the final tally showed that more than 108,000 Tennesseans had voted to secede and join the Confederacy. Fewer than 50,000 had voted to remain with the Union. 

And when the Greeneville convention’s bid to leave the state failed nine days later, Scott County Court met in a special session in Huntsville and passed a proclamation declaring itself a free and independent state.

In his book, “Veterans of Scott County,” former Scott County Commissioner David Jeffers writes that Scott Countians were angered when news of Tennessee’s secession reached back home. Using Esther Sharp Sanderson’s “Scott County and Its Mountain Folk” as his source material, Jeffers tells the story of an old farmer who stood up at that court meeting and said, “If the g*dd**n state of Tennessee can secede from the Union, then Scott County can secede from the State of Tennessee.” 

Indeed, that became the motto of the court’s decision, as members of the governing body admitted that they did not have legal standing to secede from Tennessee, but also claimed that Tennessee did not have legal standing to secede from the United States.

While Scott County’s secession from the state may have never been formally recognized by Harris, there is evidence that Tennessee unofficially regarded Scott Countians to be traitors and funneled Confederate troops into the area to teach a lesson.

According to Jeffers in his veterans’ book, the state sent a contingent of 1,700 soldiers to Scott County to arrest and hang all members of the county court. However, Jeffers writes, the Confederate soldiers retreated after encountering resistence in the Brimstone area.

None of the members of county court were ever captured. However, they may have come close. Historical accounts indicate that after the Battle of Huntsville on Aug. 13, 1862, in which Confederate soldiers forced Union forces to retreat but no casualties were reported, the Confederates spent two hours looting Huntsville and searching for the members of county court who had led the effort to secede.

Facebook has a dark underbelly

My weekly newspaper column: 

Despite all its positives — allowing long-lost friends to reconnect and scattered families to stay in touch — social media giant Facebook certainly has its negatives. It has become an alarming platform for bullying, and the network is disturbingly reluctant to intervene. It is a haven for scammers and spammers. And, perhaps most concerning of all, it has become an incredible driver of misinformation.

A single post on Facebook can go “viral” in a matter of minutes, receiving hundreds or thousands of shares. In some cases, that’s great — law enforcement can employ the public’s help in catching a dangerous fugitive, for example. But in many cases, that can also be bad, because the viral posts contain misinformation that does more harm than good.

Locally, an incident on Aug. 17 was a perfect example of that. As several schools went into “soft lockdown” — whatever that is; principals say that is a term they don’t use, but it’s a term that was widely distributed, including in a post by yours truly — rumors flared throughout the community.

The lockdown decision was made after the Scott County Sheriff’s Department issued a “BOLO” — be on the lookout — for a burglary suspect the previous evening. The Scott County man, whose name has not been released by authorities, allegedly stole several guns and his whereabouts were unknown. On Wednesday morning, the Sheriff’s Department spoke with principals at each school to alert them to the situation.

The result was a play-it-safe approach: schools heightened their security efforts as a safeguard. And then Facebook blew up.

There are some who feel that last week’s response to the burglary was an over-reaction. Burglary suspects are routinely unaccounted for — even suspects who have stolen guns. But, to be fair, we still don’t know the exact details of the burglary or the suspect; the Sheriff’s Department has been mum, except to say Wednesday afternoon that students were believed to be safe. In a short conversation with the Independent Herald, detective Abby Duncan said that there was believed to be no direct threat to any school.

And while burglary suspects are routinely unaccounted for, schools going into lockdown mode because of various threats is also a relatively routine occurrence. It’s safe to say that never before has a lockdown generated as much local anxiety on Facebook as last week’s did.

There are several reasons for that — not the least of which is the number of people affected, since several schools were on lockdown. But another reason, and an unfortunate one to say the least, is misinformation that was being spread on Facebook. There were stories of gunmen threatening schools, stories of windows being covered and students being ushered into safe rooms — the stuff of Hollywood scripts.

And let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with concerned parents taking to Facebook to ask questions and seek information. I’m a parent, too. It’s human nature for parents to be concerned about the safety of their children.

It also should be said that the spread of misinformation was probably innocent. Concerned parents see a report, don’t realize it’s unfounded, and repeat it. It goes viral, not because the parents did anything wrong, but because they were concerned.

The problem, though, is the origination of the misinformation. And the ease of which it can be spread. What might have been minor concerns from many parents turned into major concerns as these reports continued to pop up on Facebook.

And here’s the dark truth of the matter: Facebook serves as the perfect platform for people who derive special delight from intentionally starting wild rumors.

Two weeks ago, when a suspect in a domestic dispute was shot by an Oneida Police Department officer in the Walmart parking lot as he brandished a realistic-looking air pistol, Facebook became a play-by-play account of what was happening . . . and much of the information was wrong. There were reports of officers being shot, of a gunman roaming the inside of the store, of multiple victims.

One Facebook user warned everyone to stay away from Walmart, saying that “multiple people have been shot.”

That might have been the innocent and unintended spread of misinformation. Except the same user later posted again, claiming to have seen the entire ordeal play out first-hand and adding that the suspect had held the gun to the victim’s head as cops arrived on the scene.

That last part may or may not have been true, but if the Facebook user was close enough to see the suspect allegedly holding a gun to his wife’s head, they were certainly close enough to see the only person shot was the suspect himself — not “multiple people,” as was earlier claimed.

Unfortunately, that report quickly gained traction on Facebook.

Even when the spread of misinformation is unintended, it can have dangerous consequences. Several months ago, a Facebook user shared a photo of a Helenwood man, saying that the man had abused a small child. Hundreds of people shared the photo. The man was instantly branded a child-abuser. The problem? He was not charged with a crime, and still hasn’t been. (For the record, the Sheriff’s Department says the case is still under investigation, but no charges have been filed.)

Another case-in-point came just last month, when a driver in Knoxville entered the wrong side of Interstate 40 and collided head-on with a semi-truck driver. Both were killed instantly. The grisly crash scene became a raging fire that had to be allowed to burn itself out.

Almost instantly, rumors began spreading that the wrong-way driver wound up on the wrong side of the interstate because he was playing Pokemon Go — the augmented reality game that took the nation by storm this summer — on his phone. Despite multiple media reports from Knoxville saying there was no indication that the driver was playing the popular video game, the rumors took hold. When the daughter of the truck driver posted photos of the accident scene to Facebook and said that her father had died because the driver of the other vehicle was playing Pokemon Go, her post was shared more than 136,000 times. In reality, investigators say that wrong-way crashes are far too common on that particular stretch of I-40, where there are multiple interchanges that authorities say can easily confuse drivers. Nevertheless, the Pokemon Go rumor spread like wildfire, eventually resulting in a Snopes.com page debunking it.

None of us are immune to the innocent spread of misinformation on Facebook. I’ve done it, and you probably have, too, if you’ve been around Facebook long enough. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that sometimes it’s best to carefully consider the information in quesiton before hitting the “share” button.

• Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarett@ihoneida.com.

Facebook’s dark underbelly: unchecked rumors

Despite all its positives — allowing long-lost friends to reconnect and scattered families to stay in touch — social media giant Facebook certainly has its negatives. It has become an alarming platform for bullying, and the network is disturbingly reluctant to intervene. It is a haven for scammers and spammers. And, perhaps most concerning of all, it has become an incredible driver of misinformation.

A single post on Facebook can go “viral” in a matter of minutes, receiving hundreds or thousands of shares. In some cases, that’s great — law enforcement can employ the public’s help in catching a dangerous fugitive, for example. But in many cases, that can also be bad, because the viral posts contain misinformation that does far more harm than good.

Locally, Wednesday was just another perfect example of that. As several schools went into “soft lockdown” — whatever that is; principals say that is a term that they don’t use, but it’s a term that was widely distributed on Wednesday, including a post by yours truly — rumors flared throughout the community.

The lockdown decision was made after the Scott County Sheriff’s Department issued a “BOLO” — be on the lookout — for a burglary suspect Tuesday evening. The Scott County man, whose name has not been released by authorities, allegedly stole several guns and his whereabouts were unknown. On Wednesday morning, the Sheriff’s Department spoke with principals at each school to alert them to the situation.

The result was a play-it-safe approach: schools heightened their security efforts as a safeguard. And then Facebook blew up.

There are some who feel that Wednesday’s response to the burglary was an over-reaction. Burglary suspects are routinely unaccounted for — even suspects who have stolen guns. But, to be fair, we still don’t know the exact details of the burglary or the suspect; the sheriff’s department has been mum, except to say Wednesday afternoon that students were believed to be safe. In a short conversation with the Independent Herald, detective Abby Duncan said that there was believed to be no direct threat to any school.

And while burglary suspects are routinely unaccounted for, schools going into lockdown mode because of various threats is also a relatively routine occurrence. It’s safe to say that never before has a lockdown generated as much anxiety on Facebook as yesterday’s did.

There are several reasons for that — not the least of which is the number of people affected, since several schools were on lockdown — but another reason, and an unfortunate one to say the least, is misinformation that was being spread on Facebook. There were stories of gunmen threatening schools, stories of windows being covered and students being ushered into safe rooms — the stuff of Hollywood scripts.

And let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with concerned parents taking to Facebook to ask questions and seek information. If my children’s mother wasn’t in the same school building as them, I’d be concerned, too. That’s human nature as a parent — or at least it should be.

It also should be said that the spread of misinformation was probably innocent. Concerned parents see a report, don’t realize it’s unfounded, and repeat it. It goes viral, not because the parents did anything wrong, but because they were concerned.

The problem, though, is the origination of that misinformation. And the ease of which it can be spread. What might have been minor concerns from many parents turned into major concerns as these reports continued to pop up on Facebook.

And here’s the dark truth of the matter: Facebook serves as the perfect platform for people who derive special delight from intentionally starting wild rumors.

Two weeks ago, when a suspect in a domestic dispute was shot by an Oneida Police Department officer in the Walmart parking lot as he brandished a realistic-looking air pistol, Facebook became a play-by-play account of what was happening — and much of the information was false. There were reports of officers being shot, of a gunman roaming the inside of the store, of multiple victims.

One Facebook user warned everyone to stay away from Walmart, saying that “multiple people have been shot.”

That might have been the innocent and unintended spread of misinformation. Except the same user later posted again, claiming to have seen the ordeal play out first-hand and adding that the suspect had held the gun to his victim’s head as cops arrived on the scene.

That last part may or may not have been true, but if the Facebook user was close enough to see the suspect allegedly holding the gun to his wife’s head, they were certainly close enough to see that the only person who was shot was the suspect himself…not “multiple people,” as was earlier claimed.

Unfortunately, that report spread like wildfire on Facebook.

Even when the spread of misinformation is unintended, it can have dangerous consequences. Several months ago, a Facebook user posted a photo of a Helenwood man, saying that the man had abused a small child and criticizing the Sheriff’s Department for not arresting him. Hundreds of people shared the photo. The man was instantly branded a child-abuser. The problem? He was not charged with a crime, and still hasn’t been. (I reached out to the Sheriff’s Department for clarification on Wednesday. They say the case is still under investigation but no charges have been filed.)

Another case-in-point came just last month, when a driver in Knoxville entered the wrong side of Interstate 40 and collided head-on with a semi-truck driver. Both were killed instantly. The grisly crash scene became a raging fire that had to be allowed to burn itself out. Instantly, rumors began spreading that the driver at fault wound up on the wrong side of the interstate because he was playing Pokemon Go — the augmented reality game that took the nation by storm this summer — on his phone. Despite multiple media reports from Knoxville saying there was no indication that the driver was playing the popular video game, the rumors took hold. When the daughter of the truck driver posted photos of the accident scene on Facebook and stated that her father had died because the driver of the other vehicle was playing Pokemon Go, her post was shared more than 136,000 times. In reality, investigators still haven’t released an exact cause of the crash, but wrong-way crashes are far too common on that particular stretch of I-40, where there are multiple interchanges that authorities say can easily confuse drivers. Nevertheless, the Pokemon Go rumor spread like wildfire, eventually resulting in a Snopes.com page debunking it.

None of us are immune to the innocent spread of misinformation on Facebook. I’ve done it, and you probably have, too, if you’ve been around Facebook long enough. If there’s a lesson to be learned, though, it’s that sometimes it’s best to carefully consider the information in question before hitting the “share” button.

Unethical businesses should fold

If New York’s little-known indie jewelry designer, Lady Grey, was looking for notoriety, it found it when it called out Ivanka Trump after her recent purchase.

But that notoriety came at the expense of the designer’s integrity and illustrated America’s rapid descent down the slope of decency in politics.

Lady Grey is quite proud of itself, taking to Instagram and Facebook to post its hand-written note to the daughter of Donald Trump, in which it pledged to donate the proceeds of her purchase to several organizations with liberal viewpoints — one of them a gun control lobbying group and another an immigration reform group.

Most news media covering the cheap publicity stunt have applauded the move, gushing about how brilliant it was on Lady Grey’s part.

And that’s nonsense.

Not only is it crude, it is — as my colleague Jason Davis pointed out on Facebook — a violation of Ivanka Trump’s privacy. Since when is it okay to publicize clients’ purchases for the world to see? And why on earth would you treat a paying customer that way to start with? 

Regardless of your political views on Donald Trump — and mine should be well-known — it’s not okay to publicly assail someone simply because of the views of their parents. It’s despicable. Worse still, as a business, it’s unethical. 

It’s probably safe to say that very few of Lady Grey’s customers are conservative-minded. The designer knows its clientele and this was a calculated move. But it’s time for Americans of every walk and political persuasion to stand up and start demanding decency in the political process. Lady Grey, with this cheap stunt, is no better than Donald Trump. And the media’s rush to applaud it is sickening. 

After all this time, football is still my favorite

My weekly newspaper column: 

Murder trials. Government meetings. Visits from high-profile politicians. Civic club functions. Election returns.

Whenever someone asks me what I enjoy most about the work I do, I tell them I most enjoy the fact that there is nothing routine about the work I do. From one day to the next, little stays the same. Oh, the basic function might be unchanged — my job is to gather, package and distribute information — but the stories are ever-changing.

There are stories of triumph and stories of tragedy. Stories where boredom leaves me nodding off to sleep and stories where adrenaline keeps me on the edge of my seat. There are some days I start off in a shirt and tie, as I cover one story, and end it in shorts and a t-shirt, as I cover another. Granted, there aren’t nearly enough of the latter, but you get my point.

But the number one thing I enjoy about my job, without question, is covering high school football.

The high school football field is where I cut my teeth in journalism. It earned me a break into an industry I never expected to wind up in back in high school, when I was trying to decide between being a sports broadcaster or joining the Marine Corps.

On Friday, when local teams kick off the 2016 season, I will begin my 16th year of covering high school football. And as my roles have changed in the decade and a half that have followed, the excitement of climbing into a press box or roaming the sideline with a camera and a notepad hasn’t dimmed in the least. I’ve gone from being a sports stringer to a full-time reporter to an editor to a publisher. At heart, though, I’m still the guy showing up on Friday nights to cover high school football.

There’s something special about high school football. It’s in the way the game captures the emotions of the young men who line up on either side of the ball, the way that it captures the hopes and dreams of entire communities. Whenever I travel someplace new for a football game and I’m not quite sure where I’m going, I look for the stadium lights towering over the tallest trees and buildings. Those Friday night lights illuminate more than the playing field. In many ways, they illuminate the essence of small towns across Tennessee and throughout the south.

That’s why, in any ordinary small town on any ordinary Friday night, you’ll find the mayor holding up the fence alongside the town ne’er-do-well, fathers from teams past cheering on their own sons, and grown men getting way too excited about a game they have absolutely no control over.

From Oneida and Huntsville to Sunbright and Coalfield to Maynardville and Sneedville and beyond, the high school football team allows the townspeople to wear their community pride on their sleeve, to showcase the very best of what they have to offer. When the sun begins to set and the stadium lights click on, life pauses. The politician, the banker, the lawyer — they take a back seat to the 17- and 18-year-olds on the field in ranks of importance.

I was still fresh out of high school myself when Paul Roy called me in 2001 and asked if I would be willing to cover high school football for the Independent Herald. I couldn’t have known — and probably wouldn’t have cared, anyway — that I would still be plugging away at the same newspaper a decade and a half later. All I knew was that I was being given the opportunity to write . . . and be paid for it. As a college student who lived in a rat-trap apartment and purchased 89-cent frozen pizzas by the dozens, that sounded like a lucrative offer.

If there was a problem, it was the assignment. I was taking over Paul’s sports coverage responsibilities, and Paul covered Oneida football. I was a Scott High graduate, and Highlander football was all I had ever known. I knew Class 3A rivalry games against the likes of Kingston and York Institute. I wasn’t too sure about Class 1A games against tiny schools like Coalfield and Midway.

But the Independent Herald already had someone on staff to cover Scott High football. LeEtta Boyatt covered the Highlanders then, and still does. So I gladly accepted the offer to cover Oneida.

I spent the next two years driving from Cookeville to Oneida on Friday evenings, where I’d pick up a camera and then drive to wherever the game was being played. After the game, I’d drive back to Oneida, drop off the film (God bless the digital era that was soon to come), file my story, and then make the jaunt back through Fentress County to Cookeville.

In truth, I spent just about every dime I made covering football on gas to get me to and from the games. But I didn’t care. I was being paid to watch sports. To a young sports fanatic, it was an incredible concept.

I’m not so young anymore. I’m starting to see a few gray hairs when I peer into the mirror and my ankles pop and crack when I climb out of bed in the mornings. But one thing hasn’t changed: being paid to watch football is still pretty incredible.

I’m not excited to see summer end, because that means winter is soon upon us. But summer’s end means football is here, which means that all is right with the world — at least for the next few Friday nights.

• Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.

The worst of the heat is likely behind us

Summer in the Mid-South has been mostly hot, dry, and just downright miserable, but the worst of it may now be in the rearview mirror.

According to the National Weather Service, Oneida has recorded 29.73 inches of rain, year-to-date. That’s more than 5 inches below normal, and the departure from normal has grown significantly in the last 2-3 weeks as dry conditions have tightened their grip on the Cumberland Plateau region. Streams are flowing below normal (the Big South Fork River is flowing at 112 cubic feet per second at Leatherwood Ford, while Clear Fork is running at 25 cfs at Burnt Mill Bridge) and lawns are drying up. Interestingly, points north, south, east and west of Oneida have received more rain in the past 2 weeks than Oneida proper, which has received zero measurable rainfall during that time span.

Meanwhile, the average temperature for August is running 3 degrees above normal, after July was nearly 2 degrees above normal. Temperatures haven’t been quite as hot in early August as they were in late July. Oneida officially hit 90 degrees 7 days between July 21 and the end of the month, and thus far has not hit 90 in August (though most days have been close, with the exception of Monday, when temperatures topped out at only 83 degrees). 

But some cooler temperatures are starting to creep back into the region on the long-range models. Today’s midday run of the GFS model still shows temps in the 90s during the last weekend of this month , but it’s also trying to throw a cooler spell in between now and then, with temperatures dipping well into the 50s at night. In fact, that run of the GFS takes temperatures all the way down to 53 degrees on the morning of Aug. 23, which would feel like fall after what we’ve been experiencing lately. The GFS also brings slightly cooler daytime temperatures our way next week as increased rain chances invade the region.

Okay, so maybe it’s just a sliver of hope, but at least it’s hope…right? RIGHT? 

For what it’s worth, the GFS ran 4 times today. Two of those model runs showed temperatures remaining below 90 degrees here on the northern plateau for the next 2 weeks, while the other 2 showed the heat building in significantly towards the end of the month. Don’t bank on that just yet, but it’s worth watching.

The main thing to remember is that we’re at the peak of the summer heat, climatologically speaking. In a typical year, temperatures reach their peak in early August, then slowly start to fall. That decline is very slight through the month of August, but then becomes more rapid in September. 

After that…

Fall: The Climate Prediction Center’s forecast for the months of September and October have much of the continental U.S. locked into above-average temperatures, with below-average precipitation centered over much of the South. In other words, a continuation of what we’ve seen lately. And that may well prove to be the case. But there are also some indications that are emerging that suggest that may not be the case.

Winter: You may have seen a post floating around Facebook today that appears to be a report that the Old Farmer’s Almanac is reporting this winter will be brutally cold and snowy. Actually, that was a story from August 2015, and it was for the Winter of 2015-2016. The new Old Farmer’s Almanac forecast, which has just been released, actually predicts a warm winter for the inner Appalachian region and for the South. 

And while it’s “just” the Old Farmer’s Almanac, don’t dismiss that as a bunch of junk just yet. With La Nina conditions developing in the equatorial Pacific region, that could turn out to be very much the case. Moderate La Ninas tend to result in warmer-than-average winters in our neck of the woods. On the other hand, if the La Nina is not strong enough to override other atmospheric conditions in the Northern Hemisphere, our winter could actually turn out to be quite cold. It’s simply too soon to tell at this point. Within the next month, things should start to become clearer. At this point, the really long-range models are flip-flopping between a warm winter and a cold winter for much of Tennessee. Again, it’ll largely depend on how La Nina strengthens. 

Not enough gay on TV?

In a true sign of our society’s continued downward spiral, CBS is being criticized because it’s fall schedule includes no gay leading characters.

This isn’t the first time a movie or a book or a TV lineup is being criticized for not being gay enough, but it is the latest example. I think my issue on gay rights issues is pretty clear. I’m very much a libertarian on this topic. But, seriously, we’re criticizing a network for not having enough gay programming when fewer than 4% of the people in the U.S. are gay? Really?

Oops, he did it again

A common pattern has emerged in this election season: Donald Trump says something completely outrageous and foolish, he gets called out on it, and his supporters try to cover for him, regurgitating his claims that the media is just out to get him and claiming that anyone who criticizes The Donald is taking it out of proportion.

It’s happened again.

Donald Trump said something reckless, gets called on it, blasts the media as “dishonest”, and inevitably someone will comment on this post or shoot me an email accusing me of falling into the trap laid by the “liberal media” while insinuating that I’m unable to think for myself.

Just so we’re all clear, here’s what Trump said:

“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.” 

The video is here.

Naturally Trump’s campaign attempted to smooth over his comments, given how vitriolic they are. Trump and his handlers insist that Trump was referring to “the power of unification,” as his senior communications advisor, Jason Miller, put it. 

We all know that Second Amendment advocates are a powerful voting bloc. I’m one of them. But if you think Trump was simply suggesting that gun rights supporters need to unite to stop Clinton at the ballot box, I would suggest taking a step back to view Trump . The reality is that Donald Trump just became the first presidential candidate in history to subtly suggest that another presidential candidate might be — or maybe should be — assassinated. That’s in keeping with the trend, given that Trump has become the first presidential candidate in history for a whole lot of things, most of them unflattering.

Most likely, Trump wasn’t literally suggesting that someone with a gun put a stop to Clinton. Most likely, he wasn’t truly trying to incite violence. He said something he thought was cute, without pausing to think about the consequences. His mouth out-ran his brain, which has been another theme in this campaign.

But that speaks to Trump’s character, both as a candidate as well as what kind of president he would be.

Have you wondered why Trump continues to shoot himself in the foot, even after all this time? We know his party can’t reign him in; Trump is truly an independent, even if he masquerades as a Republican. But isn’t it stunning that he hasn’t discovered a filter for his dumb thoughts after all this time? 

Not really, when you pause to consider the kind of person Trump is. This is a man who’s made a career out of pride and boastfulness. He’s a renowned narcissist; not even his supporters question that. He’s blasted anyone and everyone who disagrees with him, to the point of saying that, as president, he’ll pass new laws to go after journalists who write unflattering things about him. Given everything we know about Trump, does anyone actually think that he’ll allow anyone in his inner circle who will advise him that what he’s about to say is ludicrous? That’s highly doubtful.

And that’s why Trump continues to say truly stupid things, then blasts those who call him on it. 

The problem is that if Clinton is elected, the Second Amendment is in trouble. Oh, Clinton can’t get away with abolishing the Second Amendment…not by reshaping the Supreme Court and not even if she has a Democrat-controlled Congress behind her. But she can redefine it. And in Clinton’s world, the Second Amendment has a very narrow scope — one that certainly isn’t like the founders intended. In Clinton’s world, there’s no need for “assault weapons,” because you don’t need them for “hunting.” There’s no need for high-capacity clips, because you don’t need them for “hunting.” And if large cities or states don’t want the Second Amendment to apply to its citizens, that’s okay, too, because the SCOTUS’s Heller decision must be reversed in Clinton’s world. 

The media organizations who are “fact-checking” Trump’s statement by saying he’s being dishonest when saying Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment are either being dishonest themselves or they’re playing loosely with semantics. 

The truth is that Clinton has called gun-owners who are NRA members “extremists.” The truth is that Clinton has pledged unilateral action to enact stricter gun laws and circumvent Congress. The truth is that Clinton wants to ban law-abiding Americans from owning so-called “assault weapons,” and has ignorantly referred to these rifles as “weapons of war.” The truth is that Clinton wants to remove legal immunity for gun manufacturers, allowing frivolous lawsuits that could potentially put those manufacturers out of business. The truth is that Clinton has locked arms with the Brady campaign, which has advocated for “sniper rifles” to be banned — and if you’re wondering what a sniper rifle is, according to the Brady bunch, it’s many of your all-American deer rifles, such as the .30-06, .308, .270, .243, etc.

When pressed by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulus to say that Americans have an individual right to own guns, Clinton refused. She also told Stephanopoulus that the District of Columbia’s pre-Heller gun law was “reasonable.” Keep in mind that DC’s law, prior to the SCOTUS ruling in 2008, was a complete handgun ban. Additionally, it was a felony to put a bullet in the chamber of a gun…which pretty much amounts to a full ban. 

So if Clinton wants to ban “assault weapons,” and supports an organization that has openly called for banning “sniper rifles,” and thinks it’s reasonable for cities and states to ban handguns, what’s left? Shotguns? 

There you have it. Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to abolish the Second Amendment. She respects “responsible” gun rights. She thinks you can have a shotgun…but only if it doesn’t have a pistol grip, or if it isn’t semiautomatic, because otherwise it would be an assault weapon. Presumably, Clinton would allow us to own revolvers, as well. 

When Obama campaigned for president, he placed gun control on the back burner. And when he actually addressed gun control, he did so only half-heartedly. (See his much-maligned executive actions, which were ballyhooed but really didn’t accomplish anything.) 

But based on everything Clinton has said and promised, gun owners have much to fear from a Clinton presidency. 

That’s what makes the Trump candidacy such a disgrace. He represents the only chance to prevent Clinton from being president, and he’s blown it, because he’s an idiot.

And the more he opens his mouth, the more it becomes clear that he isn’t just an idiot…he’s a dangerous idiot, with no respect for anything that’s decent.

No Mayberry: Violence can happen anywhere

My weekly newspaper column: 

It’s beyond reason to think that it’s only coincidence that there have been two officer-involved shootings in Scott County in a span of less than a month at a time when similar incidents are generating headlines across the nation.

Prior to last month’s shooting of a domestic violence suspect in the Cherry Fork neighborhood south of Oneida, Scott County had seen just one officer-involved shooting incident in the past 10 years. Now there have been two in less than a month.

Whatever is driving the violent confrontations between law enforcement officers and suspects across the nation, we now know that our sleepy community is not immune to it.

If you’ve followed the narrative as it has played out on the evening news, on partisan blogs and on social media networks over the past few years, you might have come away with the impression that interracial violence is at the root of officer-involved shootings.

But that supposition — that white cops are shooting black suspects at a disproportionate rate — is a misperception perpetuated by the mainstream news media. In reality, half of all suspects wounded or killed in officer-involved shootings are white.

More likely, the issue at the core of the increase in violent encounters between law enforcement officers and suspects is a growing disrespect for authority. While race and other factors have varied, one thing that almost every officer-involved shooting that has generated headlines over the past couple of years has had in common is simply this: the suspect has disregarded officers’ demands.

That isn’t to say that none of the surviving suspects or dead suspects’ families have had a valid complaint when they’ve claimed police brutality; those claims are always best viewed on an individual basis. Video from last month’s high-profile officer-involved shooting in Baton Rouge, La., for example, seemed particularly troublesome.

But that doesn’t change the underlying narrative in every one of these incidents — a man commits a crime or is  suspected of a crime, ignores officers’ demands, and winds up hospitalized or dead.

Those common circumstances, unfortunately, don’t seem to matter — not to distraught family members of the suspects, not to political advocates and, all too often, not to journalists whose jobs are supposed to be about enlightening, not furthering an agenda.

And just as officer-involved shootings have hit close to home, the criticism has inevitably followed.

Most of the time, in matters such as these, there are few reliable witnesses aside from the cops themselves. Sunday afternoon at the Oneida Walmart, though, there were several witnesses unaffiliated with either the police department or the suspect who watched the episode play out.

To a person, every witness said the same thing: the suspect was waving a gun, he was instructed by officers to put down the gun, and he refused to do so.

That didn’t stop some friends and family of the suspect from crying foul. In a Facebook post Sunday night, a man purporting to be the suspect’s cousin claimed that the shooting was an “injustice.”

“You can’t just shoot people just cause you want or because you think you can or think you can be above the law of the system or the law of man,” the man said, before soliciting donations to “help fight this terrible injustice.”

Never mind that every witness who came forward after Sunday’s incident said officers had no choice but to do what they did. To this man, who is using Facebook as an activism tool and, apparently, as a fundraising tool, all cops are “power-hungry bullies that serve themselves.”

That isn’t unlike situations that we’ve seen play out across the nation after officer-involved shootings in recent months. And those responses are telling in their own way. Seldom do you see an admission of guilt — though, to her credit, another member of the Sunday suspect’s family said on Facebook that he “made a terrible mistake.” Instead, the instant reaction is almost always to blame law enforcement. That’s the reaction from the friends and family of the suspects who wind up on the wrong end of the confrontations. Disturbingly, it’s also the immediate reaction from many among the public who learn of these incidents through media reports.

So, then, is it any wonder — in an environment where police officers are being labeled and disrespected at every turn — that these incidents are on the rise?

Maybe it’s time to reevaluate the meaning of the term “authority.”

• Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.

Trump in trouble in GA?

While Matt Drudge and other reliable Trump pushers are crowing about a couple of polls the last day or two that presumably show that Hillary Clinton’s post-convention bounce is ending, little has been said about an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll that finds Clinton leading The Donald by four points in the Peach State.

The poll, released Thursday, is within the margin of error, but it follows a WSB poll conducted July 31 that showed the two candidates tied in the state.

This underscores the electoral math problem that Trump has as he tries to find a way to keep Clinton out of the White House. Georgia is a reliably red state that last voted for the Democrat in a presidential election in 1992 — and prior to that had not voted for a Democrat not named Jimmy Carter (the Georgia native) since John F. Kennedy.

If Trump can’t secure Georga, exactly what state can he secure? Obviously he has the red-state stalwarts like Tennessee and Texas, but beyond that?

Trump has major problems.

Trump is toast

Stick a form in him. He’s done.

That’s no surprise, of course. Most of us have known for months that Donald Trump had no real hope of winning the presidency.

But even the most optimistic Hillary-haters who were clinging to hope that The Donald could somehow worm his way into the White House are now giving up hope.

There is much about this election cycle that will forever be mystifying — how is it that in a nation of 318 million people, we were stuck with these two clowns for president, for example — and this week has given us another mind-numbing development. After suffering from diarrhea of the mouth for the past 12 months and emerging unscathed time after time, Trump has finally done himself in — after the Republican National Convention has ended and there’s no way for the GOP to get him off the ballot, of course.

Trump has spent the last week being Trump, and his chickens are finally coming home to roost. From encouraging Russia to hack into emails containing state secrets to attacking the mother of a slain American soldier to lashing out at a mother and her crying baby, Trump has outdone himself this week. It was the latter — where Trump demanded a woman remove a crying baby from his press conference — that was especially stunning. Never in the history of politics has such a narcissist as this advanced as far as Trump. Watching his speeches, which are always full of pomp and blunder but never actually say anything, I fully expect Trump to say “Off with his head!” when someone speaks out in protest. He truly seems to envision himself an iron-fisted ruler who can squash anyone who stands in opposition to him.

And as these events continue to occur, one thing stands clear: every time I think I can’t be anymore amazed that seemingly level-headed people are insisting on voting for Trump, I am.

Yet, the warnings that have been issued by Trump naysayers such as myself for so long are being proven true right before our very eyes.

Before Trump had locked down the Republican nomination, I was told repeatedly by my friends that Trump would stop being so brash and bombastic after securing the nomination; that he would start to act more presidential. Of course they were only repeating what Trump himself was saying. And here we are, now in the heat of the general election campaign, and Trump is still being as brash and as bombastic as ever.

And Americans are finally growing sick and tired of it.

Even when Trump was at his peak in the polls, he had little to no chance of being elected president. He always had an electoral problem. The math just didn’t add up. A friend was astounded last week when I told him that Trump is simply unelectable. He claimed that Trump should be considered the favorite at this point in the race.

That, of course, is completely untrue, and the polls are now starting to show. Clinton’s lead, as measured by Real Clear Politics’ poll average, is nearly seven points — and climbing. She’s up by an average of 8.0 points in Pennsylvania, 6.0 points in Michigan and, now, 2.7 points in Florida. She’s up 7.0 points in New Hampshire and 8.0 points in Colorado. Trump is not leading any of the traditional battleground states…and he can’t even sew up traditionally red states like Missouri and Georgia.

This is looking less like a Trump win and more like a Clinton landslide. Indeed, if the election were held today, Clinton would win more than 350 electoral votes — well north of the 270 she needs to claim the presidency.

It’s quite a miserable pickle the Republican Party has gotten itself — and the nation — into. Hillary Clinton a shoo-in. Who could’ve imagined this two years ago?

You guys know how big a fan I am of Home Free, the (relatively) new acapella country vocal band. Now that they’re doing original material, they’re getting even better. Check it out.

So I’m helping Hillary — big deal

If I’ve been told it once, I’ve been told it a thousand times these past few months: “If you vote third party, you’re helping Hillary Clinton win the election.” 

It’s said as if it’s an ominous threat, as if Hillary Clinton’s election as president would be a doomsday scenario for the United States.

Let’s make no mistake: Hillary Clinton is one of the most dishonest, crooked, untrustworthy candidates to ever seek the White House. Her election will be a sad day for America.

But, with that said, pardon me if I don’t see a great deal of difference between Clinton and Donald Trump. 

Trump is also one of the most unsavory candidates to ever seek the White House. His election would likewise be a sad day for America.

So am I supposed to choose? 

I think not.

I’ve said over and over that I do not vote for the lesser of two evils. I vote my conscience. It’s true that Clinton’s election — given the advanced ages of several Supreme Court justices and Clinton’s own statements in support of drastic gun control measures — would likely imperil gun rights, an issue that is near and dear to me. It’s also true that Clinton’s stance on a number of other measures conflict with my own points of view.

By the same token, Trump’s election could very well be disastrous in terms of national security, and he has vowed policies that would intrude on a number of other civil rights besides the 2nd Amendment. He’s crude, he’s crass, he’s insulted many of my friends and neighbors who don’t look like him or act like him.  And on the all-important issue of the Supreme Court, there is hardly a guarantee that Trump would nominate justices who would rule correctly on the 2nd Amendment. Gun rights is a decidedly conservative issue in America, and Trump never espoused conservative points of view until he decided to run for president. In fact, he has in the past endorsed draconian socialist measures (confiscating wealth to pay down the U.S. debt) that not even Clinton would dare mention in her run for the White House.

The truth is, America is in deep cuckoo this time around. These are the two most corrupt and undesirable candidates to ever seek to be the leader of the free world. It’s embarrassing that in a nation of 318 million people, these are the best we could prop up to run for president. But it is what it is. And one of them is going to be president. 

The truth is that we have gotten into this position because America’s two-party system has failed us. No, the Republican establishment didn’t want Trump, but the establishment was undermined by the millions of Americans who were tee’d off at inaction and double-talk by the GOP. The truth is, Americans revolted on both sides of the political spectrum; it’s just that the DNC was more effective at employing underhanded tactics to prevent Bernie Sanders from taking over than the RNC was at preventing Trump from taking over.

Trump is not a conservative, and the Republican Party has completely failed conservative Americans as a result. Judging from the millions of Sanders supporters who refuse to endorse Clinton, I think we can safely say that liberal Americans feel the Democratic Party has failed them, too.

So what’s left? 

What’s left is for the 57% of Americans who find Trump untrustworthy and the 56% of Americans who find Clinton untrustworthy to send a message to the Washington cartel. 

That can be done by voting third party.

Don’t let anyone tell you that a third party vote is a wasted vote. That is a fear tactic employed by the powers-that-be in both major parties; a way of keeping the masses feeding at the Republican and Democratic teets. Too often, Americans fall for the idea that they’re wasting their vote if they don’t choose one of the two leading candidates, no matter how many times they have to shower to get the stench off them once they’ve left the polls. And, hey, if you so despise Clinton that you think Trump is an attractive choice — or if you so despise Trump that you think Clinton is an attractive choice — then vote your conscience, by all means. As for me, I see six of one and half a dozen of the other, and I’m making my statement by voting for neither.

Gary Johnson, of the Libertarian Party, has consistently polled between 11% and 14% this summer. If he can get to 15% in the major polls by Labor Day, he earns himself a spot on the debate stage alongside Trump and Clinton, which would expose him to millions of Americans who to this point don’t even know he exists. 

That last happened in 1992, when Texas billionaire Ross Perot earned a spot on the debate stage and went on to capture 19% of the vote in the general election. By contrast, he mounted an independent campaign again in 1996, failed to get on the debate stage, and received only 8% of the vote.

If Johnson were given the opportunity to debate, and captured the same successes that Perot accomplished in ’92, all the players for a political revolt would be on the table. If one out of every five Americans said “no” to Clinton and Trump, and “yes” to a third party candidate, the two major political parties would have to sit up and take notice.

Is Johnson fit to be president? No. Is he going to be president? No. 

But this isn’t about electing a third party candidate. This is about sending a message to the two parties who have become so embedded in their own corruption that they’ve created the complete disaster that is the 2016 presidential campaign. 

Look, Trump or Clinton is going to be president (and we can say with about 90% certainty that it’s going to be Clinton). There’s no changing that. For the plurality of Americans who think they both stink to high heavens, our only hope is that Congress can hold them in check over the next four years. And that none of our sitting SCOTUS justices kick the bucket or decide to retire. 

For those of us who don’t see much difference between the two, the choice is clear: Vote neither. Make a statement.

And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re throwing your vote away if you vote for someone other than a Republican or a Democrat. Don’t fall for the tricks of the two major parties who are mostly interested in maintaining their stranglehold on American politics. A vote is an individual choice, and it’s a sacred one — a right that too many Americans shed blood to obtain and preserve for anyone to feel they have to compromise it because they’re going to be wasting it if they don’t. If every American who feels disillusioned and disenfranchised by the current state of affairs in Washington banded together, they wouldn’t be wasting their votes…they would be making a powerful statement — and one that could potentially change the course of the nation.

ATVs on roads just makes sense

Scott County’s on-again, off-again debate over ATVs on public roads is currently on again, and is centered on whether ATVs should be permitted on back roads in and around the county’s popular off-road riding areas at Brimstone and the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area.

On July 5, I presented County Commission with a recommendation from the Scott County Adventure Tourism Committee to allow ATVs only on River Road — the road that is central to both riding areas and events that are hosted by Brimstone and Trails End Campground. 

While a plurality of commissioners supported the proposal, it failed to generate the two-thirds majority it needed for approval. With two commissioners who would’ve voted in favor of it unable to attend the vote on July 18, the measure was deadlocked at 6-6.

The issue is hardly settled, though, and will be back up for discussion when County Commission’s Intergovernmental Committee next meets on Aug. 1.

ATV tourism has grown rapidly in Scott County in recent years, supporting several full-time, part-time and temporary jobs, while also generating increased customer traffic for established businesses and in some cases giving rise to new businesses, such as Cabins of Elk Run, a “mom-and-pop” cabin rental outfit adjacent to Brimstone.

That increased tourism has resulted in additional tax revenue for the local community, including sales taxes that benefit the towns of Huntsville and Oneida, along with local schools, and lodging taxes, which goes into the county’s general fund for the purpose of funding tourism promotion and economic development and industrial recruitment efforts. 

In the fiscal year just ended, Scott County’s 5% lodging tax generated $70,000, up from $50,000 last fiscal year. And the Tennessee General Assembly earlier this year cleared the way for Scott County to add that lodging tax to campground rentals, which had previously been exempt. County Commission finalized that amendment earlier this month.

It isn’t clear how much the amended lodging tax will generate in revenue. But, according to Brimstone, more than 600 “overflow” campsites are offered on event weekends that are in addition to the permanent campsites. Brimstone’s website states that those primitive sites rent for $15 per night, and Brimstone officials have said in the past that those sites are always full during events. So when Hank Williams Jr. visits for Brimstone Paragon in September, those overflow sites will generate $500 per night in lodging tax receipts for Scott County, in addition to what permanent campsites at both Brimstone and Trails End generate.

That brings us back to River Road. A relatively new state law, passed in 2011 and amended in 2012, enables county and municipal governments to regulate ATV traffic on public roads. To do so, those roads must be located within an adventure tourism district, which has to be approved both at the local level and at the state level. Establishing an adventure tourism district requires local governments to formulate a business plan for how it intends to grow tourism, a map of included properties, and other paperwork requirements. 

Scott County’s Adventure Tourism Committee was established in 2014 with the purpose of applying for adventure tourism districts. That same year, the committee proposed an adventure tourism district that incorporates the areas around Brimstone and the WMA. It was approved by County Commission and the State of Tennessee.

To date, however, Scott County has not authorized ATV traffic on any public roads. That has created a lot of confusion as other laws have changed. In 2015, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill that allows ATVs on S.R. 63 through Huntsville on two event weekends each year. That law was supported by virtually every business owner along the S.R. 63 corridor, who said it is imperative to enable ATV riders access to public roads linking the riding areas in the mountains to their businesses in town. Also, the Town of Huntsville established an adventure tourism district that encompassed its entire town, and declared every road within the town legal for ATVs. 

So, currently, an ATV rider can leave Grand Vista Motel and travel on S.R. 63, during an event weekend, and be legal. The rider can turn onto the Courthouse Mall in downtown Huntsville, and be legal. But the second the rider crosses the city limits and enters the unincorporated part of Scott County, he becomes illegal. 

That has not been an issue until now. Local law enforcement have employed a sort of “gentlemen’s agreement.” As long as riders are otherwise riding responsibly, they’ll turn a blind eye to them riding on the road. But relying on a gentlemen’s agreement creates a tremendous insecurity for business owners whose livelihood relies on the ATV traffic. Sheriff’s elections are every four years and there’s no guarantee that the next election won’t bring a new sheriff who enforces the law regarding ATVs on the roadways to the letter. There’s also no guarantee that state law enforcement won’t decide to crack down on ATV travel on those roads, since any public road falls within their jurisdiction.

That, in fact, is what prompted the tourism committee to request ATV authorization on River Road. There has been the threat of increased patrol by state troopers on the roadway during Brimstone’s September event. There’s no guarantee that troopers would write every ATV rider a ticket even if they did show up to patrol the road, but they could. And if they did, they could virtually shut down the event, costing Brimstone what has been estimated at nearly a half-million-dollar investment. Furthermore, if they decided to show up every day, they could completely shut down Brimstone and Trails End entirely.

There is no overwhelming reason to not allow ATVs on River Road, along with other roads in the vicinity of the off-road riding areas. Some residents who live on those roads are opposed to ATV traffic on the roadway, but other residents who live on those roads are supportive of ATV traffic on the roadway. There’s no evidence that ATV traffic makes those roads less safe. In fact, if every ATV rider who attends the events were to trailer his ATV to the event area, River Road would become substantially less safe, because thousands of pickups pulling trailers and toy-haulers would be traveling a narrow, winding road that isn’t intended for such heavy traffic loads.

On the other hand, there are significant reasons to allow ATVs on the roadway. Brimstone Retreats — the lodging arm of Brimstone Recreation — generates nearly $80,000 annually in sales taxes and lodging taxes. The largest percentage goes to the state, but a significant part of the state’s portion is returned to local schools. The local-option portion of the sales tax goes to the Town of Huntsville, supporting things like paved roads and fire protection. The five percent lodging tax goes to Scott County to fund efforts to enhance the local economy. The $500-per-night that the campground lodging tax could generate during event weekend (just on primitive sites; the total amount would be higher) will not be realized if campers cannot use the road to link the campground to the event area and riding area. A number of businesses benefit from ATV tourism, not the least of which are Brimstone and Trails End. According to the Yarbrough Study completed last year, ATV tourism at Brimstone alone generates $5 million in revenue each year, and 80% of that revenue is generated at businesses that are not Brimstone. 

We don’t need trucks

As I watch the news — simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating — coming out of France, I’m saddened by Western society’s love affair with big trucks. These are trucks that are designed only for industrial use and serve only one purpose — to deliver industrial loads. Civilians don’t need a box truck to haul stuff around! These trucks have no business in the hands of civilians.

It’s a shame that it’s easier for a kindergartener to get his hands on a steering wheel than it is for him to get his hands on a book. 

The terrorist in Nice had a criminal record but was still able to rent a truck. That’s a travesty. We must enact sensible vehicle laws that keep trucks out of the hands of criminals. No one is talking about infringing upon your rights. We aren’t coming after your pickup truck. You can keep your F150. But you don’t need a box truck to move your furniture.

Too soon? Well, yes, I suppose it is. But we all know that if Mohamed Bouhlel had used an AR-15 to mow down a crowd of people, the anti-gun politicians would have already jumped on it. They would’ve blamed the “military-style assault weapons,” they would’ve blamed Americans’ love of guns and they would’ve demanded that law-abiding gunowners go to the families of the victims in Nice and explain why they should have the right to own guns. Yet they would’ve ignored the fact that yet another mass murder has been committed. 

It’s convenient to have a scapegoat to blame these senseless mass murders on, but an AR-15 has never been used to kill 80+ and injure dozens more in a single setting. In the right environment, anything is a weapon. And an evil-minded perpetrator hell-bent on inflicting as much terror and torture as possible will use whatever weapon he has at his disposal. Maybe it’s a gun like in Orlando. Maybe it’s a bomb like in Boston. Maybe it’s a truck like in Nice. Or maybe it’s a passenger jet like in New York City.

The fact that all of these tragedies were carried out in the name of Allah, the fact that innocents — including at least 10 children in Nice — are being slaughtered in the ideology of radical Islam, remains the elephant in the room. How absurd is it that the very same politicians who refuse to participate in a moment of silence for terrorism victims because they want to protest the other side’s silence on guns are likewise silent on the issue of radical Muslims who are infiltrating normal society and carrying out these deadly acts? 

Meanwhile Donald J. Trump may be the most dangerous presidential candidate to ever seek the White House, but every time one of these incidents occur — whether here or abroad — it plays into his hands because it strengthens his argument that America must tighten down on its immigration laws.