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Wood becomes staff of life for mountain man

(c)2010 NPT PHOTO BY DAVID POPIEL

Curtiss McKnight stands in a parking area off Cosby Highway not far from the post office.
He has been a regular roadside vendor of his handcrafted walking and talking sticks
since 2003.
Published: 2:44 PM, 03/27/2010
 

Author: David Popiel
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

The week after spring continued to snake along in an uncertain direction as our hometown watched snow, sunshine, and rain before slipping towards April.

You have seen this fellow with his tall peaked broad brimmed hat and long coat and flowing Snuffy Smith beard as he stood off Cosby Highway just south of Webb's Exxon grocery. Motorists taking the route towards Gatlinburg have watched him or stopped to buy his wares since 2003. I've seen him and finally took the time to learn more about this mountain man and his craft.

It was a Sunday morning, still cool, when he and his wife, Peggy, were at the parking area across from the Smoky Mountain Visitors Center. Dozens of his walking sticks stood like a silent forest decorated to catch passing motorists' eyes and some with ornamentations, feathers, and bells, gently moving or jingling. Curtis McKnight came out of an old model vehicle to chat about his walking stick craft. I made a few photos and said we'd meet again and we did last Thursday on a rainy afternoon at the Plain Talk. Curtiss arrived with a tall stick with carvings, including his likeness at the staff top. Peggy, who has family roots in Cocke County, was with him. He seems to be a man with a simple lifestyle but must have a story in the past too.  The Old Man by the Side of the Road has not always been a vendor along the busy highway.

"Everyday is a blessing," he said greeting me, as I looked at a business card he gave me days ago: "Staffed by curtiss.com"-so it seems even mountain men have Websites. It is hard to tell his age, and at 59 he is fortunate to be alive. Born in Marigold, Mississippi, he has lived in Louisiana and spent almost seven years in the Marines at both Camps Lejeune NC and Pendelton CA. Curtiss picked up cooking and baking skills and used these to develop a bakery near Shreveport, La. Years of baking make him a master baker whether baking pastries, cakes, rolls or breads. At one time the family business supplied Barstow Air Force Base. The McKnights ran the bakery from 1976 until 1993.

I wondered and asked how he got from the bayou gigging frogs with his boyhood wood spears to our mountains? Peggy played a role for sure. The daughter of Jim Spence and the late Zola (McFalls) Spence, she was born in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, but grew up around Edwina. It was by shear accident she met Curtiss here in the mid 1980s. They both shared a mutual friend, Walter "Doc" Banks. Peggy was a close friend to his daughter, Dauphine. Curtiss had met Walter's son during a camping excursion to the mountains where they ended up digging ginseng. Curtiss and Peggy eventually were introduced at Doc's house. They became friends and eventually married but moved back to Louisiana where he continued as a baker. She did not like the state or lifestyle and told him, "I'm going back to Tennessee. Are you coming?" Yes, he went along. That was about 1999. Between them they have several children. You may know Lucas Jenkins or James Spence from here. Unfortunately, he wasn't here long when he suffered the first of what became six heart attacks. There came a time when he could only sit on the porch and whittle, contemplating his fate. Had it not been for a Johnson City doctor he would have lost his right leg. His sitting spells turned into conversations with God. Curtiss was depressed and didn't know what he would be able to do and God replied: "What do you have in your hand?" "He used sticks to change my life," recalled Curtiss, now 59. "I needed a stick to walk with." Doctors had stripped veins from his legs for heart bypass surgeries. He whittled sticks, had extras completed and people started buying them. Peggy was doing housekeeping in Gatlinburg and the couple lives a modest lifestyle off Banks Road. As a youth, his grandfather had taught him to whittle-most of the boys his age had pocketknives and whittled. It was natural to walk into the woods, select sticks, and whittle into staffs. They began selling along the highway and still do Thursday through Sunday on the weekends when it isn't raining or snowing. Peggy also took up the Case knife and learned whittling.

Curtiss doesn't have to go far from his backyard into the woods to find sticks. He studies these for a while and then gets to work bringing out their color, beauty, and natural forms, twists, spirals. Many have carved figures on top, such as the one he did with famous moonshine icon Popcorn Sutton's likeness. Curtiss makes sticks in all sizes for children up to really big folks. Some shorter ones he calls "Talking Sticks," fashioned like those used by native Indians. These are more ornamental and had the specific use by Indians at gatherings to give the holder of the stick "permission to talk." It is where we get our idea for the gavel, said Curtiss.

You will find Curtiss surrounded by many dozens of sticks but no two are ever alike, much like the buyers who pay anywhere from $15 to more than a $100. Practically, you pay per foot and amount of carving involved. Tourists return every year to visit with him and bring friends to meet this Old Man by the Side of the Road. His sticks have been bought by a US ambassador to Zimbabwe, locals, out-of-state travelers, missionaries to Japan, Brazil and Venezuela, he said. Some folks have even paid him $200 for large highly embellished walking sticks. "This blew my mind. I wouldn't pay $50," he said. The work is fun and provides his livelihood and connection to community.

In plain talk, talk a cue from the wind and woods and sit a spell on the porch this spring being ready for any new adventure with your stout walking stick.

 

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