Pennington Mountain


In the hill country of Tennessee, these family members draw strength from the land—and from each other.

There’s a layered feeling in the hills of central Tennessee, the same sort of rich, close-to-the-earth satisfaction that comes from contemplating the unbroken repetition of furrows in a field. The feeling comes from the hills themselves, one rolling into the next, then into another, ridges paralleling ridges until the whole region seems to have been mapped out, tilled, and planted by one master cultivator.

Whoever planted the hills populated them, too, not with people but with animals. Deer still bound through the thickets. Raccoons still wash in the streams. Squirrels hide in the trees, and foxes sneak through the forest, just as they did in the 1800s when trappers marched the length of the trail called the Natchez Trace, trading with Indians and carrying furs to market in the cities.

It is well before 5 A.M. in the Tennessee hills when Tre (call him “Tray”) Pennington, 17, and his grandfather bump along an old dirt road in their pickup. There are no signs to point the way to the Duck River, no landmarks that would stand out to someone new. Mostly there are trees, thick, green, and heavy. It’s only where someone’s cleared out space for a farm or a home that you get any extended view.

Grandpa (call him ’Pa) slows the truck at a clearing and pulls in next to some trees. He doesn’t have to say a word. Tre knows it’s on foot from here. They scramble down a steep bank and pull their boat out of the underbrush, from the same place where they’ve tied it up every day for years. It’s a shallow boat, square on both ends.

They check to make sure there’s gas for the motor; they lift in the paddles and load a few plastic buckets on board. Then, for a few minutes, they wait.

It isn’t that there needs to be more light, although the sun is yet to crest over the hill. It isn’t a question of when the catfish will bite, because the trot lines ’Pa baited with grasshoppers yesterday have been in the water all night long. It isn’t even a question of sneaking a moment of rest before the work begins, because both the young man and his grandfather are eager to be on the river.

It is, quite simply, a moment of reverence, a pause to appreciate nature, to take in the beauty of a morning at its birth.

Finally it is ’Pa who whispers.

“Let’s go,” he says.

Tre responds with a nod. The boat glides into the mild current.

Soon they reach the lines. ’Pa holds the boat steady while Tre lifts each fish, flopping and slimy, out of the water. He brings them in one at a time, almost like taking laundry off a clothesline. Some fish, quite small, are set free. On the big ones, Tre guesses how many pounds.

“This one’ll go for five or six, won’t it Grandaddy?”

“More like four or five,” ’Pa responds.

Ask what kind of fish are in the river, and Grandpa will explain. “Lots of cats,” he says. “Blue. Yeller. Channel. Other fish, too. Perch, Bass, Carp. But you don’t take them often.”

This day when the four lines are cleared, the catch totals fifty catfish and one carp.

Tre does most of what little talking is done. He tells about the time ’Pa got knocked out of the boat by a tree limb and lost his hat. He teases Grandpa about the nickname Grandma gave him.

“She calls him a pelican,” he says, “because he could eat fish three times a day.”

Then there’s silence again, not the awkward silence of people who don’t know what to say, but the silence of men who know each other well.

“I wonder if we’ll see anything today,” Tre finally says as the boat turns for home. Often it’s deer, sometimes a beaver, once in a while a blue heron. Today they see a turtle.

Back home the catfish are cleaned and skinned, dipped in corn meal and fried. “What we don’t eat, we put in the freezer,” Tre explains. “We can trade it for beef.” The carp will be pressure cooked and bottled, then stored on the shelf like salmon. ’Pa can remember times during World War II when canned carp helped keep the family alive.

When breakfast is over, Tre and his brothers and sister are off down the dirt road for about a mile, where the school bus will ferry them on into Columbia for their classes. The bus stops by a little before seven. Then it’s a one-hour ride to the city. There are 300 students in the school, which includes grades from elementary through high school. Two of the teachers and 13 of the students are LDS. “Pretty much everybody in the school is friends,” Tre says.

There must be hundreds of stories to tell about the Penningtons. Their family’s membership in the Church dates back to the Nauvoo days. Tre’s father, Ray Junior, (don’t call him Pa) is, among other things, a stonemason who built his own home. Mom (call her Penny) hails from Los Angeles, California, but loves living in Tennessee. Grandma (call her Ovie May) hated the name Raymond, but she married ’Pa, whose real name is Raymond, anyway. Great-grandma (call her Mamie Bell) at age 85 still makes the finest quilts in the county, maybe the entire state. Rebecca Lynn, 14, is the only sister in the family, but she keeps right up with her four brothers: Tre (an adaptation of the French word for “three,” because his real name is Raymond Lee Pennington III); Joseph Sanford, 14; Ronald William, 11; and Jeffrey Aaron, 9.

So why begin a story about the Penningtons by talking about catfishing? Because it’s so typical. Tre and ’Pa out on the river represent the quiet confidence of a family that lives close to the land and depends on it to teach them and feed them. They also represent the quiet, confident communication, sometimes without words, of a family that depends on each member as another source of strength and love.

The hills and the Penningtons are friends. Any member of the family can show you where to gather hickory nuts, blackberries, ginseng root, or a dozen other delicacies Mother Nature provides. Tre especially knows the routes and the ridges. He can pick out animal trails or guide you to beaver dams.

And the Penningtons are friends with each other. It’s evident just in the way they like being together. Even though ’Pa, Grandma Ovie, and Mamie Bell live in one house and Ray Junior, Penny, and the kids live over the hill in another, they’re practically neighbors. It seems like the children spend equal time in both places.

At school, Tre and Joe are in the same class, because Tre has dyslexia and has had trouble reading. So Joe has become Tre’s unofficial tutor. They often do their homework together.

“Tre has always learned from experience,” Sister Pennington explains. “Joe learns from books. Even though they’re in the same class, they’re not jealous of each other or embarrassed to be seen together. They really help each other.”

“It’s a little strange being a sophomore instead of a senior,” Tre admits. “But it doesn’t matter. The most important thing is to work and to learn.”

“To work and to learn” could be the family motto. The Penningtons have done a lot of both. In summer, when Ray is laying rock, sometimes the rest of the family will go with him on a job. They help him select the right stones, and Tre and Joe help mix the mortar.

“I’ll pack a lunch and bring the other kids along, and it’s almost like we’re going on a picnic,” Sister Pennington says. “We learned a long time ago that work’s not a chore if you make it fun.”

The family also runs a fur business. The shop, “Garden of Eden Furs,” is just outside ’Pa and Ovie May’s place, and during the cold months of winter, there’s a lot of time spent inside.

“It gets so busy during fur season that the adults in the family don’t do much else,” Brother Pennington explains. “Lots of people come buying and selling. We have to grade the furs by quality and size. The unfinished ones have to be scraped, washed, tanned, stretched, and dried.” Except on Sundays, the adults work all day, then go to bed sometime between midnight and 4:00 A.M. They start again at 6:00 A.M. The children help whenever they can, squeezing in their meals, school work, and Church activities too.

Sometimes, when Brother and Sister Pennington have to go on a buying trip, Tre is left in charge of the shop. He has established quite a reputation as a good judge of fur quality, a skill that takes a lot of training. He also knows how to put together a crew.

“He’ll go and get workers, kids from school and grown men, too,” Brother Pennington says. “He’s a good manager of people. He works with them and tells them hunting stories to keep them entertained. We can leave him with a whole big load of fur, and when we get back it’s always done.”

The Pennington men have always trapped in the hills. ’Pa can remember being out in the fields with his grandfather, just like Ray remembers being out with his, and Tre with his. They have always learned reverence for life, respect for the harmony of nature, to take care of animals and not to overhunt during shortages.

But it was ’Pa who always dreamed of running a fur business. The family has pitched in to make his dream come true.

Tre once suggested that the fur company ought to change its name to R & R & R Furs, “since there’s Ray Senior, Ray Junior, and me.” But he decided against it. “We’re not the only ones doing the work,” he said.

When summer comes and school’s out, Tre, Joe, and Becky keep right on working, at home in the garden, around the house, and if they’re lucky, for a farmer who can pay them as a hired hand. But when they get a spare moment or two, they have some favorite places to visit.

One is the swimming hole, where Ron and Jeffrey tag along. Another is the lookout tower, the one where Ovie May’s father worked when he was fire warden.

“One time he came down from the tower to go to a fire,” Joe laughs. “And he forgot his wife was up there with him. He locked the door, and she was in there till nine that night!”

Or you can ride in to see Hampshire, the nearest small town. It’s the closest thing to organized civilization before you get to Columbia.

“It’s not a big town, really,” Joe says. “It’s like on Heehaw. Population 15. Salute!” But the family remembers well the visit of an uncle from California. He came from Los Angeles to Hampshire, and went home hungry to return. “This is life,” he said. “People know each other here.”

If you’re fortunate, if somehow you gain the confidence of Becky, Joe, and Tre, they’ll take you to visit another place—a quiet, cool cave where a fresh spring has its source.

“We don’t go inside,” Joe explains. “We just sit out front and enjoy the shade.”

“When I’m up here I like to think about how pretty it is,” Becky says. “To watch the birds and animals, to think about who’s responsible for them.”

“It’s a nice place to come when you need to be alone to think,” Tre says.

It’s even the sort of place you could pray if you needed to. For the Pennington teenagers, it’s not only a thinking spot. It’s almost like their own Sacred Grove.

Being there makes you want to ask questions like, “Are you planning to go on a mission?”

Tre looks at you as if to say, “Doesn’t everybody?”

“I’ve been planning on a mission since I was yea high to a grasshopper,” he says. Joe echoes the response.

Walking back along the trail, they see ’Pa fishing in a pond. They stop to talk for a minute, then continue on their way.

“He knows every fishin’ hole worth wetting your line in,” Tre whispers. “But have you noticed how he always underestimates the size of the fish?”

Back at the house, supper’s on the stove. But even though she’s busy cooking, Sister Pennington is happy to brag about her children.

“They love each other. That’s the key,” she says. “We love them, too. We try to let them know they can talk to us and we’ll value their opinions. Kids are what life is all about.”

She has found a time or two when the children have surprised her—pleasantly.

“Joe and Tre decided that they want to look like missionaries, even before they go on missions. They keep their hair short. On Sunday they wear white shirts and ties. And it’s amazing—they started a fad. It caught on with their friends. They really influenced them.”

Another time when the family went to visit relatives in California, the children were amazed to see how large the Aaronic Priesthood and Young Women groups were.

“They have more kids in one ward than we get at a stake youth conference,” Becky said. She was also amazed that there were so many seminary activities. “Here it’s been all home study. But next year we get to try early morning. It means getting up sooner and lots of driving, but I think it will be worth it.”

Come in the door at ’Pa and Ovie May’s house on a Sunday afternoon, and the first thing you’ll notice is an entire wall covered with photos. There’s one of Mamie Bell and her husband Joe, taken when Ray Senior was a baby. There are photos of kin from all over the hills, like the Bohn cousins who live over on Coon Creek. And of course there are photos and photos of the family—at school, on birthdays, on the day someone was baptized, on the day Ray Junior was made a counselor in the bishopric of the Columbia Ward, Franklin Tennessee Stake.

In there with all the rest is a slightly faded picture of Joseph Smith clipped from an old Improvement Era and mounted in a frame. It is accorded a special place of honor, as though the Prophet were a family member or a close personal friend.

Often the pictures demand some explanation, and the explanations provide snatches of family history: Mamie Bell chasing snakes with a hoe in her mother’s tomato patch; Ovie May’s mother helping to feed seven families up and down the valley during the Great Depression; Dad’s grandfather as the only priesthood holder in the area; Church President Harold B. Lee visiting the Saints in Tennessee.

Ovie May will join in with stories about going to church in the old days: “The first Sunday School we had was held in a two-bedroom home,” she explains. “We put planks between the chairs to make benches. Anytime the missionaries would come through, they’d stay for a week and we’d have meetings. I can remember when there wouldn’t be anybody there but our family.”

The doorbell rings, and Becky ushers in the current full-time missionaries, who’ve been invited for supper.

“Wash up,” Joe says. “And then you’d better be ready to eat!”

His words ring true as plate after plate is brought to the table. There’s fresh produce from the garden—tomatoes, cucumbers, country corn, cole slaw, potato salad. There’s catfish, of course, and beef if you’d like. Bread. Homemade plum jelly and peach jam. Chess pie, that tastes like lemon but is made with vinegar. Peach pie. Hickory nut pie. And lemonade, milk, or water to drink.

Then before you can say, “Wait, let me help with the dishes,” it’s out to the car in a hurry and “let’s get driving; it’s time for church.”

Brother Pennington takes a little longer route, just to give you a better view of the hills. He even stops for a minute at one particularly scenic spot.

“The area around here was settled by the Greenfields and the Scotts,” he says. “They’ve still got descendants in the ward. Sister Payne, Sister Parker, Sister Morrow—they’re all from that stock.” He talks about tracts deeded to his own ancestors, the Greenfields, by U.S. President Andrew Jackson for services rendered in the Battle of New Orleans. Standing there on the hillside he points out who owns what land and why, and tells you whether or not they’d ever sell, or farm the land, or if they’ll just let it be.

Here again you’ll feel the comfort of looking out over ridge after ridge after ridge, at green next to green next to green. It’s that same layered sensation so common in Tennessee, but this time there’s another feeling added in. It’s the understanding that, not only are the hills solid and secure, but so are the families that live in them. That the Beckys and the Joes and the Tres benefit from layer upon layer of heritage, from the lives of parents and grandparents, from the teachings of prophets and leaders, from their association with each other, and from a gospel that stresses the importance of families, not only in the forever of eternities, but here and now for all the joy they give.

And then it’s time to get back in the car and drive some more, or you’ll be late for church.

[photos] Photography by Richard M. Romney

[photos] There’s a stillness in the early morning hours, a comfortable kind of quiet ’Pa and Tre don’t rough up with conversation. They pause to appreciate a morning at its birth; then they float off in the gentle current in search of fish.

[photos] Generation joins generation here, until the words friend and family are synonymous. Everybody helps with the fur business, everybody wants to sit with Mamie Bell on the front porch swing, and everybody teases Tre about his coonskin cap.

[photos] Becky, Joe, and Tre might take you to the pond to skip stones, or up to the fire tower. But it’s only if you gain their confidence that they’ll invite you to their favorite place—a cool, quiet cave that for them is almost like a Sacred Grove.