A hike with plenty of history
There are few places on the Cumberland Plateau more rugged or more remote than the No Business Creek valley west of the Big South Fork River.
Located far from the nearest town and inaccessible except for foot or saddle, No Business is as true a wilderness as one could hope to find anywhere in Tennessee. And, yet, this backcountry valley was once home to one of this region’s most thriving communities.
The forces of nature and the passage of time are slowly erasing all sign that man once lived in this valley. But for those who venture in, there are stories yet to be told.
At one point, No Business was home to nearly 300 people. There were grist mills, swinging bridges, a school, a store … even a hotel. The little community even had its own baseball team.
Today, you can drive to Terry Cemetery off Divide Road in the Big South Fork, then follow a footpath along the ridge until it narrows to its end, sit at a spectacular unnamed overlook that provides postcard-worthy views of the No Business valley’s expanse, and imagine what life must’ve been like 100 years ago.
From up here, there isn’t much to see, except the tops of trees. The forests have regrown, reclaiming the fields and erasing more of the signs of human settlement. There was a time, though, when the valley was cleared all the way from the cliffs that line the south side of the creek to the cliffs that line the north side of the creek. The families that lived at No Business farmed the rich bottomlands, while their livestock grazed and foraged on the hillsides closer to the craggy cliff lines.
As recently as the 1970s, a number of structures still stood throughout No Business, though the community had long been abandoned. But, one by one, they were torn down or fell down, were burned or hauled away, or otherwise decayed until nothing remained.
The story of No Business dates back to 1796. Richard Harve Slaven, a 19-year-old veteran of the American Revolutionary War, was given a land grant in the valley and built a home near the mouth of Tackett Creek, which empties into No Business Creek a couple of miles from the BSF River. It has been written that Slaven’s home, believed to have been the first permanent residence in what is now the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, was essentially a fortress, with rifle slits instead of windows.
One can only speculate whether Richard Slaven was afraid of Indians — though the hunting parties had essentially disappeared from the region by that time — or the return of war, or if he was merely being cautious. In any event, he lived in No Business for the next 44 years. He and his wife, Susanna Mabel Mounts, had 10 children: Mary, Sarah, William, James, Jonathan, Absalom, Alexander, Elisha, Pleasant and Andrew. They had 65 grandchildren and many more great-grandchildren.
No one is really sure how No Business got its name, or when. There are stories that have been handed down through the years by word of mouth. One popular tale claims that Indians killed a white man who stumbled into the valley, saying he had “no business” there. But the more likely source of the settlement’s name came from one of its first residents. As told by retired Big South Fork Ranger Howard Duncan, a woman who had moved to the valley with her husband told him that they had “no business” being there.
That same sentiment is spelled out in the names of other streams further north into Kentucky, like Troublesome Creek and Difficulty (which then and now was pronounced “Diffick-ulty” by the locals).
Indeed, life was rough at No Business. There were no hospitals for the sick, no funeral homes to care for the dead. When someone died, their husband, father or brother would prepare the body for burial and dig the grave. Sometimes, there were small family cemeteries. Sometimes, bodies were buried in stand-alone graves.
In his book, Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past, historian H. Clay Smith related the story of Reason Slaven — Richard Slaven’s great-grandson who lived in No Business in the early part of the 20th century. Slaven visited a general store in Oneida, Tenn., and the store’s owner noticed him picking through an assortment of lace. When the shopkeeper asked Slaven if he needed help, Slaven said that he needed to purchase some lace, black satin and tacks.
“By now, (the storekeeper) knew what the hurry was,” Smith wrote in the book. “Reason was buying necessary material for a coffin.”
It turned out that Slaven’s wife had died. He had made the day-long trip from No Business to Oneida to purchase materials to make her a coffin.
“(The storekeeper) tells how the two large tears that rolled down Reason’s face were enough to break the heart of any man,” Smith wrote.
No Business continued as a community for the better part of 200 years. In the beginning, there was no industry; families lived a life of subsistence. And while there was a one-room school, there wasn’t much education to speak of, either. As former Big South Fork archaeologist Tom Des Jean has noted in writing, the gravestones that can be found illustrate a decline in education over the years — denoted by the misspelled words that were carved into the stones. The families of the remote territory simply had no need for an education.
In the late 19th century, however, industry came to the Big South Fork region. There were jobs to be had for the first time, both cutting timber and mining coal. Suddenly, there was a new priority placed on education, and literacy improved. In time, the coal played out and the timber dried up, and that would ultimately spell the end of the No Business community.
As America found itself in World War II, the population of No business was declining. And when the young men from the community went off to war and saw the outside world for themselves, they returned with little desire to stay in the remote, disconnected community west of the river. One by one, the families began to pack up and leave.
By the end of the 1950s — a little more than 100 years after Richard Harve Slaven, No Business’ first settler, died at Tackett Creek — only one man remained: Dewey Slaven, Richard Slaven’s great-grandson. Slaven and his “old maid” sister lived together at No Business, with Slaven going to town about twice a year to pick up supplies, like tobacco, and to learn what news there was to be told.
As Smith wrote in Dusty Bits, “They had no radio, television or any form of communication with the outside other than with those who might go there on fishing or hunting business; and, at that, they would never see Mr. Slaven or his sister, as they did not ‘star’ (as they called it) before the fog cleared from the river, and that was usually around 9 a.m. If you should have drifted by their house, you would have found no people more friendly or hospitable than these two; whether you were relative, friend or stranger, you were welcome to their well-rounded meal, as it is called, and to as many meals and nights’ lodging as you desired, and without charge.”
By 1960, Slaven had fallen ill and was convinced to leave No Business to seek medical attention. He would not return. He died in a physician’s care in Stearns, Ky. Upon his death, Scott County Court closed the polling place at No Business, which it had left open out of respect for Slaven, the only voter remaining in the valley. And, 164 years after his great-grandfather, Richard Harve Slaven, built the first home in the valley, No Business was abandoned.
Today, visitors to the No Business valley can still find the crumbling stone foundations of homes, metal washtubs that were used at the homesteads, an old wire fence here and there, and evidence of the stone walls that were built along the creek to prevent it from flooding the fields. Until just a few years ago, there was also an old Ford car along the road that the residents of the valley used to travel. It has since been removed.
As Smith succinctly put it in Dusty Bits, the passing or departure of the final residents of the valley “has turned No Business and Parch Corn, together with Williams Creek and Station Camp, over to the fishers and hunters.”
Today, the easiest way to access No Business by foot is by driving to Terry Cemetery. A loop hike can be made by hiking from Terry Cemetery to Maude’s Crack, then connecting with the John Muir Trail north into the valley. After crossing No Business Creek on a wooden footbridge, turn west along the creek, following it to Longfield Branch. Hikers have to ford Tackett Creek and also No Business Creek at Longfield Branch. There, an administrative access road maintained by the National Park Service can be taken back to Tery Cemetery at the top of the gorge. Just west from Longfield Branch is the Boyatt homestead, where the Once Upon A Lynching tale of Jerome Boyatt and his father, Ranse Boyatt, played out.
To get there: Take S.R. 297 west from Oneida, to its terminus at S.R. 154. Take S.R. 154 north to Divide Road. Take Divide Road east to Terry Cemetery Road. The trailhead is located at the end of Terry Cemetery Road.