By Ol’ Tennessee Ridgerunner
Recently I came across a disparaging blog comment about the so-called risk of relocating from Eastern US metro areas to a more secure rural Appalachian region in advance of a national calamity. I’ll paraphrase the comment since I don’t recall it verbatim. It went something like this: There are sparsely-populated areas east of the Mississippi River that are good “bug out” locations, but they’re full of well-armed redneck hillbillies who don’t like strangers. As a proud Tennessean by the grace of God, I take some umbrage to stereotypical commentary of this nature. Please allow me to refute this condescending horse hockey.
I’m aware that some survival and preparedness experts strongly recommend that you relocate west of the Mississippi River if you want to live where it’s safer from a natural or social disaster. The Intermountain West certainly has its share of advantages, but there’s no perfect retreat location. Every location has pros and cons, so you want to find an affordable and practical property with lots more positives than negatives. I submit that perhaps one of the safest places east of the Mississippi - logistically, geographically and agriculturally - is around the Appalachian Mountain Redoubt.
Despite what some writers would have you believe – that Tennessee’s mountains are full of psychopathic peckerwoods with too many guns – the Cumberland Plateau region of the Appalachian Redoubt offers a great many positives to prospective homesteaders. Since many people already live east of the river, but aren’t prepared physically or financially to live in the Mountain West, there has to be a practical option. Do your own research and I think you’ll find that areas west of the Appalachian Redoubt - specifically the Cumberland Plateau regions of Tennessee and Southeastern Kentucky which are situated across the wide Tennessee Valley from the Appalachians and Blue Ridge Mountains – are a viable relocation alternative for inhabitants of high density urban areas planning to ride out a nationwide disaster.
In early Tennessee history, the Appalachian Mountains were a significant obstacle that prevented our ancestors from moving westward. Before railroads, intrepid travelers moved from east to west using a route through the lowest point of the Cumberland Plateau -- the Cumberland Gap – near where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia all meet. The top of the Cumberland Plateau is 500 to 1000 feet higher than the land west and east of it.
Because of its geography and natural resources, the Plateau offers prime retreat locations. The largest timbered plateau in America, the Cumberland Plateau is a segment of a great upland that extends from western New York to central Alabama. In Tennessee, it is made up of 14 thinly-populated rural counties with an average elevation of 2,000 feet above sea level. A succession of rugged ridges and valleys are situated between the Cumberland Plateau and the Appalachians. Running nearly parallel to the mountains, these ridges provide good retreat areas and serve as important impediments to metropolitan refugee travel. The valleys between the ridges and plateaus are all productive agricultural lands with good river flows, but they lack the innate safety benefits of the mountains or high plateaus. The Cumberland Plateau’s eastern ridges and valleys are bordered in the south by Chattanooga and to the north by Knoxville. The Plateau cuts across Tennessee roughly midway between Knoxville and Nashville. The southern part is divided by the incredible Sequatchie Valley which runs about five miles wide through the heart of Marion, Sequatchie and Bledsoe counties. The elevation cools the warm southern summers, and the winters are generally mild. The highlands of the Cumberland Plateau are far enough from the eastern coastline to be relatively safe from the potential drift of disaster refugees who will likely follow a path of least resistance.
As you might expect in any mountainous area, roads on the edge of the plateau are winding and curvy with the exception of I-40. Once drivers reach the immense Plateau, they are greeted by a lush rolling landscape rich with streams, waterfalls, gorges, and hillsides covered with hardwood forests that have long been a source of regional income.
People of the Cumberland Plateau
Though many of the Plateau natives proudly call themselves "hillbillies" or “rednecks”, they do not resemble the toothless, uneducated or inbred stereotypes that movie screen writers would have you accept as factual. Warm, friendly, intelligent and forward-looking, the mountain folk probably regret that they've been discovered and that this low cost-of-living area has become popular, particularly with retirees who have abandoned Florida and other high-cost states. Locals have a long history of tolerance and the acceptance of differing views. During the War of Northern Aggression, citizens of the Plateau supported Confederate and Union causes. It’s safe to say that as long as you check your “attitude” at the state line, you’ll be accepted by locals and blend into the mountain communities in due time.
Innovative and resourceful talent has always been plentiful on the Plateau, which was originally settled by the Scotch-Irish from Virginia and North Carolina. Historically, locals have expressed it primarily in woodcarving, quilting, pottery, spinning and weaving of cloth, cabin and furniture building, and goodies from a Mason jar, such as honey, apple butter, jams, jellies, and preserves. The Plateau has a rich mountain musical heritage and the Cherokee Indian history is preserved there as well. During Prohibition years, a different type of Mason jar creativity emerged as moonshiners plied their craft and risked imprisonment to eke out a living. These crafts survive today (legally) and proliferate throughout the Plateau and all of Appalachia.
The Appalachian alternative
As a relocation alternative, the Cumberland Plateau has advantages provided by the state of Tennessee, such as no state income taxes, a fairly moderate climate, an abundance of productive rural farm land and a reasonable population density. A longtime red state with liberal gun laws, Tennessee has a conservative Republican majority in its legislature and in Congress. The state sales tax is higher (7%) than states adjacent to the Plateau, but therein lies the solution for those wise rural homesteaders who settle within easy driving distance of state borders where sales taxes are lower, ie: Georgia 4%; Kentucky 6% and Alabama 4%. Tennessee counties claiming all or substantial portions of the Plateau are: Bledsoe, Campbell, Cumberland, Fentress, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Morgan, Overton, Pickett, Putnam, Scott, Sequatchie, Van Buren, White and Warren. Other counties on the edges of the Plateau also offer decent retreat and homestead-building opportunities.
There are no large towns on the Cumberland Plateau. The larger mountain towns are Crossville (11,300) in Cumberland County, and Signal Mountain (8,500) in Hamilton County near Chattanooga. Others include Jamestown (1,950) in Fentress County, Oneida (3,700) in Scott County, and Tracy City (1,450) in Grundy County. On the western edge of the Plateau are Sparta in White County and Livingston in Overton County, both with between 4,000 and 5,000 population. Harriman (6,300) and Rockwood (5,400) are located in Roane County on the northeastern edges of the Plateau, while Pikeville (1,600) in Bledsoe County and Dunlap (4,800) in Marion County are found on the southeastern edges. Chattanooga metro (530,000) is close, but just off the southeastern-most part of the Plateau. There are four low-growth Cumberland Plateau area counties that have less than 10,000 residents: Clay, Hancock, Pickett and Van Buren. These underdeveloped areas are rich in resources and ripe for homesteading.
Natural resources, climate
The Cumberland Plateau has long had abundant coal, natural gas and oil deposits, but its hardwood forests and agricultural potential are also a significant attribute. The Plateau has a 180-day growing season and an annual rainfall of 50+ inches, making irrigation mostly unnecessary. You can grow almost any temperate-climate crop in a truck patch or home garden. Although the earth is well drained and workable, it is strongly acid and low in natural fertilizer. Local farmers compensate by planting nitrogen-fixing legumes, such as peas, beans, vetches, clovers, peanuts, and other legumes that grow in a symbiotic relationship with soil-dwelling bacteria. The Plateau usually gets about a foot of snow annually and July temperatures range from a high of 82 degrees F to a low of 64 degrees. In January, highs average 39 degrees and lows 21 degrees F.
One of the primary hunting destinations is Catoosa Wildlife Management Area, a 78,000-acre wildlife reserve - one of the largest in North America with annual hunts managed by the Tennessee Fish and Game Commission. There’s an abundance of deer, quail, wild turkey, grouse and wild boar.
There are four state parks and a massive national wilderness area: Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, which has become one of the nation's newest public playgrounds to the north on the Plateau. It will eventually encompass 123,000 acres of heavily forested, extremely rugged terrain in Tennessee and Kentucky with over 80 miles of prime canoeing waters, whitewater rafting, hiking and horseback trails.
The Plateau is home to Tennessee’s largest state park, Fall Creek Falls, encompassing more than 26,000 acres sprawled across the eastern top of the Plateau, between Van Buren and Bledsoe counties; one of the smallest, Cumberland Mountain State Park (1,780 acres), and one of the skinniest, Cumberland Trail, which cuts across 11 counties and is Tennessee’s only scenic hiking park with 185 miles of its projected 330+ miles of hiking trails now open. To the south is South Cumberland State Park and natural area. To the northwest is Dale Hollow Lake and State Park (in Kentucky). The majority of the Dale Hollow Reservoir lies in Clay, Fentress, Overton, and Pickett Counties in Tennessee and parts of Clinton and Cumberland Counties in Kentucky. Located in the Cumberland River basin on the Obey River, the huge reservoir created by Dale Hollow Dam covers 27,700 acres and makes the lake waters a fisherman’s paradise.
Tennessee has the most documented caves in the US - more than 8,000 - but most are either too small to enter or on private property. Some Cumberland Plateau area cave systems welcome visitors, such as Cumberland Caverns in Warren County and Raccoon Mountain Caverns in Hamilton County.
For those considering relocation to the Cumberland Plateau, property prices are a top concern. Visitors from most other areas of the US are always amazed at the real estate bargains to be found on the Plateau and in most of Tennessee. Some undeveloped land can be found for less than $500 an acre, and decent farmland can be found for $1,500 an acre. It's not uncommon to find a three-bedroom, two-bath house for under $60,000 with a few acres of land. The asking price for a nice brick, three bedroom, two bath house is $75,000, and a small two-bedroom, one bath with 2-car garage for $45,000. A 64-acre tract of wooded mountaintop was asking $2,100 acre. A two-bedroom, one bath mountaintop cabin on 32 wooded acres with a lake was asking $153,000. Of course, you could spend a lot more, but these are examples of a few bargains that were easy to find online. Experienced assistance with evaluating retreat-type properties and finding homesteading property bargains can be found here.
At heights averaging 1,000 feet above the valley floor, the Plateau is good homesteading land. Substantial tracts of wooded land with water sources are readily available. The significant height itself provides an element of security and usually discourages most people who prefer the creature comforts and convenience of the valleys. In a disaster situation, most refugees from major urban areas will concentrate their scavenging along the big valley highways, and only wonder off into the rural areas after exhausting the resources of towns closest to interstates. This exodus thins out the refugees and lessens the threat to homesteaders on the high ground.
That’s the reality of the Cumberland Plateau today. No eerie banjo music like in the movie Deliverance; no moonshiners running amuck, and no toothless goobers on every front porch. It’s a fine place to homestead if you do your research and keep your wits about you. You can learn more about Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau region and the Appalachian Redoubt here.