Scott County, Tennessee
FNB Chronicles

This page was created 06 Sep 2008

The cave-home is gone now, but for 20 years the Crusoe West Family thought of it as

No Place Like Home

FNB Chronicle Editor

There’s no place like home, Home is where the heart is, and Home Sweet Home may be clichés, but they all apply when you are referring to the cave home of MARY and ROBINSON CRUSOE WEST. It was "ever humble,’ but it was a comfortable home for over twenty years.

"Uncle Crusoe," as he was called by friends and neighbors, discovered the site for his home when he was eight years old and his hunting dogs "treed a ‘coon" for him at the cave at Pine Hill. In the fall of 1934 Crusoe was 60 years old when he worked night and day to close in the cave as a shelter for his family before winter set in. Thirteen children -seven girls and six boys (including two sets of twins) — lived at least some of their growing up years in the cave-home, except the oldest daughter, ARTEMY, who was already married.

The entry to the cave is by a narrow path down between two large rocks. The wooden steps and handrails fashioned by CRUSOE have long since rotted away. There was a cold spring to the right of the cave entrance, sheltered by the same rock that provided a roof for the house. it was a built-in fountain and refrigerator. Next to it, under the crevice, was the potato house, which was lined on one side with shelves for canned goods from MARY’s garden. Stacks of potatoes and baskets of apples were kept in its narrow corridor.

An imposing "roof" was above the home of Robinson Crusoe and Mary West and their children in the Pine Hill area near Oneida. The cliff remains (on the farm of Bob Thompson), but only memories remain of the cave-home and the quaint and colorful lifestyle of the Scott County family.

At the lip of the overhang CRUSOE stacked great stones to form a middle front wall and, on the inside, to frame a fireplace big enough to warm the living quarters. A flue at the top carried away the smoke. At the far end of the overhang was a door to the kitchen where MARY’s cook stove turned out many good meals. A smokehouse dangled from the porch ledge outside the kitchen. The drop off on one side of the porch was around eight feet. Between the kitchen entry and the living room door at the other end of the fireplace wall was space that held five double beds.

MARTHA HAMMOCK, daughter of CRUSOE and MARY WEST, is now 69 years old and lived in the cave-home from the time she was around 11 years old until she married at the age of 16.

She remembers the tall pine trees and heavy forest around the cave and how pretty it was in wintertime with snow on the trees.

The layout of the two rooms inside the cave consisted of a long "boxcar-type" bedroom with three beds on one side and two beds on the other. The kitchen had a long eating table with benches. An open fireplace was used for heat in addition to a wood-burning cook stove.

The spring that flowed all year from inside the cave provided cool storage for milk and butter. In the summertime stones were used to create a make-shift dam on the spring as it flowed away from the cave, which created a really refreshing "swimming hole" for the children. MARTHA remembers how soothing the waterfall sounded as the spring fell inside the cave into the trough where the milk and butter were cooled.

MARTHA recollected how apples that had been holed up in the ground (as many as 20 bushels at a time) smelled when the dirt and grass were shoveled back to take the apples out to eat. Cabbage was also preserved by "holing them up." Back then, fresh vegetables and fruits couldn’t be bought at stores as readily as today so every way possible to preserve food for winter was used. Her mother, with the help of the daughters, canned gallons and gallons of fruits and vegetables for the family and its numerous visitors.

CRUSOE raised potatoes three times each year — he planted one patch in March, another in July and another in the fall. The cave provided the perfect climate for potato storage.

MARTHA said she milked a cow from the time she was 6 years old and ironed with an iron of cast metal that had to be heated on the wood cook stove. Fabrics were not as they are today, either. Everything had to be ironed. A hoe was fashioned to fit the small children and the brothers and sisters worked alongside CRUSOE as he farmed the CLABE CROSS farm, now known as the BOB THOMPSON Farm on Pine Hill. Back then there were no farm machines like farmers use today. Fodder was all pulled by hand and fields were all planted, hoed and harvested by hand.

Crusoe West (center) and Dorothy Calahan (right) at the entrance to the cave-home on Pine Hill. Although thoughts of living in a cave might seem harsh to some, it was really quite comfortable, their children recall.

A family photo taken of Robinson Crusoe and Mary West in front of their cave-home for some 20 years. All but one of their children spent at least part of growing up years here.

A wooden stairway with rails descends between two huge rocks to the cave-home of Crusoe and Mary West.

Alvin Smith (right) relaxes with Crusoe West in the shade of the cliff overhang at West’s cave-home.

Clona Yancey, who is now 67, remembers her daddy having the children wash their faces in the cold spring water that was piped to an old 60-gallon moonshine still tank in the front yard. He said: "Hot water will harm your eyes." So, year ‘round, they washed their faces in cold water. She comments, "You know, none of us kids had acne and, as far as good eyesight, I don’t wear glasses today and Daddy didn’t need glasses either. There must have been something good about us washing our faces in cold water."

On a recent visit to the cave site with BOB THOMPSON and my husband, Freddie, I was hoping to see how it looked when a family lived there. Having heard of the cave-home of CRUSOE’s since I was a young girl, I had in mind it was a deep cave and rooms were divided within the cave. Actually, it is a somewhat shallow cliff out-cropping, probably 20 feet deep now at its widest point. Most of the living area had to have been built as an extension in front of the cliff. Except for a rusty bed spring, a leather shoe sole and a few tin cans, there are no reminders that this had once been home for a large family. I expected to see a chimney or some kind of remaining wall structure, but nothing is left for someone like me (who was never there when it was a home) to envision how it really was. I was disappointed.

BOB THOMPSON, however, remembered it just like he had visited CRUSOE yesterday. He pointed out where the milk and butter were kept. He knew where the front door opened into the living quarters. He showed us where the chimney and kitchen were built as an extension from the cliff overhang. The chimney rocks are now stacked in campfire fashion underneath the cliff and signs of digging for relics or artifacts has changed the flow of the spring through the cliff.

As small children, BOB and SCOTT THOMPSON remember making housecalls to the cave, or rockhouse, as it was also known, along with their father, Dr. MILFORD THOMPSON, when CRUSOE was in failing health. BOB THOMPSON remembers very vividly a story that CRUSOE like to tell, Once, while on a house call with Dr. MILFORD, CRUSOE pulled BOB down by the collar to within an inch or two of CRUSOE’s mouth and told BOB to look in and see what he could see. Of course, BOB didn’t see any teeth because CRUSOE didn’t have any, so all he could see was a gaping hole and as any frightened little boy would say, he replied: "I don’t see anything." CRUSOE said, "Well, you should. There’s a farm, a wagon and fine team of horses in there that I drunk up!"

BOB also told about CRUSOE plowing with plowing with bull. The way he could keep the bull plowing was to lead an old milk cow to the end of the rows and that old bull would plow "up a storm" in hopes, I suppose, of visiting that old cow.

Everyone liked to visit CRUSOE and MARY, partly because of the novelty of them living in a cave, but mostly because of the plentiful food that was always served. MARTHA remembers baking as many as l00 biscuits at a time and frying 3 to 4 pans of hams for one meal! According to MARTHA, visitors were frequent and welcome at the CRUSOE WEST home.

BERT VINCENT, the late renowned columnist for The Knoxville News-Sentinel, visited the dwelling in 1946 along with DORSEY ROSSER, who was sheriff of Scott County at the time.

VINCENT wrote: "The entrance to this cliff home is by narrow steps down between two large rocks. There was the cliff home! Didn’t look bad at all. This cliff is about 40 feet high. The dwelling is made of plank. It sits back under the cliff. A big spring of cold water gushes out from beneath this cliff at one end of the house. And, back under there around that spring sat eight big crocks of milk.

"Dorsey hollered ‘Hello!’ Mrs. CRUSOE came to the door. She was as friendly and hospitable as you’ll find in any city home. She was barefoot, but her hair was well combed. She has the clearest blue eyes. I was there to see how cliff dwellers live, and what they look like. She unlatched a make-shift door that opened into a deep, dark cavern under the cliff. And there, on rock ledges, sat row after row of canned beans, peaches, apples, tomatoes and other good stuff.

"I didn’t find it so dirty. There are but two boxed-in rooms: The kitchen, which has a good wood cooking stove in it —and, the big room where they all sleep in four beds, with OSCAR, a paralyzed son by an accident from the mines he was working in. The chimney that burns all those cords of wood that are piled up on top of the cliff, is built at the front, up at the edge of the cliff. At the other end of the house from the spring is another stream of water, and they have this piped to the corner of the house: They use this only for washing.

"As we were leaving we met the 71 year old CRUSOE, who had a limp in his right leg. He had been feeding four big fat hogs. ‘Why,’ he said, and laughed, ‘living under a cliff is all right. We’ve got a lot of comforts down there: Water, and it is cool in the summer; and in the winter cold winds never hit us. I want you boys to come back again, and stay night with us,’ he added. But, I guess we’ll never go back to stay all night. Not me! I’m afraid of copperhead snakes.’"

DOROTHY CALLAHAN of Oneida is the daughter of Alvin Smith, brother of Mary Smith West. DOROTHY’s brothers are Levi, Clyde and Arvil Smith.

DOROTHY provided many of the old pictures of the CRUSOE WEST home that accompany this story. DOROTHY visited her Aunt MARY at the WEST home and had many good meals

Crusoe and Mary West pose in front of their cave-home. They were the parents of 13 children, all but one of which lived beneath a cliff overhang on property now owned by Oneida’s Bob Thompson

Catherien and Charles Foster (at right) and their daughter, Hattie Faye, pose with her parents, Crusoe and Mary West.

From left are: Lemuel West, Robinson Crusoe West and Alvin Smith.

there but she declined many offers to stay the night, especially after MARY told her she had found a copperhead snake in the bread pan once as she took it out to prepare cornbread for supper. She also said the family had reported hearing rattlesnakes in the walls from time to time.

CRUSOE was first married to MARY ELLEN COTTON and had three children:

JOHN SHERIDAN WEST, who died as a child; LEMUEL WEST, who died just in the last few years; and another son named JOHN SHERIDAN, also deceased, who was named for his brother who had died earlier. Comment was made by MARTHA HAMMOCK that she felt no differently about her half brothers than she did her full brothers and sisters. They were just one big happy family.

CRUSOE was born on December 5, 1873, the son of CHARLIE WEST and MARY ANN PHILLIPS WEST. He had two brothers and four sisters: JOHN D.; LACEY, who married LIZZIE ELLIS; WINNIE, who married George Pike; EMILY, who married SHARP LAXTON; ARTEMA, who married JOHN STANLEY; and NAN, who married a WEST.

MARY SMITH WEST was born on March 20, 1898, the daughter of LIDGE SMITH and THURSDAY ANN WOODS SMITH. She had four brothers and three sisters:

ALVIN; CAL; IKE, who married DELLIE TERRY; ALVIS; EARIE, who married GEORGE PENNINGTON; SARAH, who married JOHN LAXTON and, a second marriage, to GEORGE HAMMOCK; and ROSE, who married LAWRENCE TERRY.

CRUSOE suffered a series of strokes and, when he became bedfast, was moved in with his daughter OMA BUTLER, with whom he lived until his death on November 29, 1959 at the age of 86.

MARY and her youngest son, ROBINSON CRUSOE WEST, Jr., moved into a two-room house next to her oldest daughter, ARTEMY ACRES, on the Pine Hill Road. Later, they moved to Paint Rock. MARY lived 12 years after CRUSOE died. They are both buried in the West Cemetery at Paint Rock.

CRUSOE and MARY’s children are: ARTEMY, born August 2, 1915, and she lives on Pine Hill; SYLVESTER, died atone week of age; OSCAR, born October 14, 1918, and died in 1945 from injuries suffered in a mine accident; JERRY, born August 28, 1920, is married to ANNA MAE PENNINGTON; EMILY, born August 20, 1922, married WILLIE HAMMOCK, and is deceased; MARTHA, born June 30, 1924, and lives in Oneida; OMA, born August 21, 1926, is married to WILLIAM BUTLER, and is a twin to CLONA, whose husband WILBERT YANCEY died in 1986; CHARLIE, died at nine months of age; LEE, born April 7, 1931, and died November 10, 1977; CATHRIEN (twin of LEE), lives in Virginia; JAMES, born May 25, 1934, and died in a car wreck at the age of 28; and ROBINSON CRUSOE, Jr., born June 26, 1936, and lives at Paint Rock.

No matter what the reason for CRUSOE moving his family to the humble cave dwelling, they fared very well. The work they did was hard, but they had plenty to eat, ample clothing and a shelter that, was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Why, they even had "running" water before most city folks did!

I’ll bet not one of the children of CRUSOE and MARY WEST would trade how they were brought up and the memories they have of living in a cave-home. It’s just a shame that the structure is not standing today for them to visit and recall their childhood days...and for to visit and see first-hand their "Home Sweet Home."

FNB Chronicle, Vol. 5, No. 1 – Fall 1993
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
(p1, 4-5)

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