Glen Smith at the age of 18 photographed among his basketball teammates at Granville Junior High School during the 1934-35 season. Reprinted by Jackson County Sentinel, Wednesday, November, 1991.
The river had frozen over at Fort Blount Ferry. When mail carrier Silas Williams arrived at the ferryman’s shack that January day he saw a slab of ice stretching across the Cumberland. It was rare for the river to freeze. But cold air had come to Jackson County and a week later it was still hanging around. The Putnam County Herald, of January 25, reported that the temperature in Cookeville hit a record low of eleven below zero on January 18, 1940. The river froze on January 25 and stayed so through January 29.
The ferry couldn’t operate, even if its Model-A Ford engine would crank. It was locked in ice. That was a problem for Williams. He needed to cross the river to deliver the mail in Smith Bend on the other side.
When the ferry was out, he knew the routine. It was one the cranky old ferry boat forced on him too much. He had to backtrack to Flynn’s Lick and on to Gainesboro. Then continue north on Highway 56 across the only Cumberland River bridge in Jackson County and drive nearly to Whitleyville. There catch Highway 85, a narrow, steep, curvy road, to Gladdice, the entry to Smith Bend. From there he’d still have to drive all the way to the bottom of Smith Bend, to the Fox Farm, just across the river from where he now sat in his truck looking at the frozen river. He dreaded the extra hour of driving.
The frozen dirt road sloped down to the ice before him. You can imagine his impulse.
Several days later the Nashville paper arrived with its story of what happened next. It included a photo of Silas Williams standing beside his truck. The caption told how when Williams found the river frozen he was undaunted. He headed his truck across the ice and continued on his route as usual, delivering the mail. It even uncorked the old cliché, “Neither rain nor sleet nor snow….” Duty, courage, ingenuity, was the story of the caption, just what you’d expect.
The incident wasn’t all happy. In good time, a rumor reached Smith Bend about how the caper had nearly cost Silas Williams his job, presumably for putting the mail at risk in the icy river. The irony of the secret he couldn’t tell must have been bitter indeed:
He didn’t drive the truck across.
Thus begins the real story.
When Williams drove up to the ferryman’s shack that day, old man Les Lynch the ferryman was likely inside, for the reason that he was usually there. Lynch lived toward Flynn’s Lick, only a half mile away. A small wood-burning stove kept his shack cozy. The little building was where he sat and watched the river and waited for the occasional car to show, either in front of his shack or across the river. He had another reason to be there, too. The Jackson County Highway Department required him to operate the ferry from sunup to sundown. He needed to be there to earn his pay, whether the ferry ran or not.
It happened that another man was also there that morning, twenty-three-year-old Glen Smith. He lived two miles away on the Smith Bend side. Why he was there is lost to history. His twenty-year-old wife Margaret was at home. They had been married two years. Pregnant, she would give birth to their first child five months later, in June, a boy.
A country man, perhaps Smith was out that morning to simply see the effects of the cold weather on the countryside. Maybe he thought Lynch would have some whisky, not an unusual condition. Or maybe he was hoping to find a checkers game in the warm shack. I can only speculate.
But I know he was there. He was the one who drove Silas William’s truck across the river. The mail was never at risk; Williams carried it in a pouch and walked across.
Why the incident happened at all is a mystery. What did Smith say to Williams, a man more than thirty years older, or Williams to Smith? Why was Williams willing to risk his truck? The questions spin out. One question roars: What compelled Smith, a man with a young wife and a child on the way, to take such an insane chance, to risk death in the icy water over little more than a stunt? It’s too late to know now. We can only examine Smith’s life for clues.
He was a strong swimmer and he knew the river well. He swam and fished in it, hunted beside it, and plowed fields on its banks. He could swim across the river with ease. He bragged about swimming the river on his back while holding a pile of fourteen mussel shells on his chest.
So he had no fear of the river. But, swimming ability aside, if the truck had broken through the ice, he would’ve had scant chance to escape. Had he succeeded in exiting the truck, the current might have pulled him downstream beneath the ice where there was no opening overhead. Even if he’d reached the opening, he could not have climbed out without help. And of course a person dies of hypothermia quickly in such cold water.
When Smith drove onto the frozen river the ice began to crack. He could hear the crack running down the river and around the bend.
Smith was a natural country athlete. He could ride standing on the back of a running horse. He’d played basketball at Grandville Junior High School. He had also played for Cohn High School in Nashville, until he was kicked out of school for threatening to throw a teacher out an upper-story window. In his telling, the dispute was over an answer he’d given to a question in science, a subject he liked. The teacher claimed his answer was wrong. Other family members candidly claim the dispute was actually over smoking. In any case, he was dismissed from school. That ended his education and his basketball career. He had other scrapes in Nashville. He was arrested for illegally seining fish in a creek.
Not to be denied, he took up baseball, developed a mean curve, and pitched in community-league ball for Gladdice, a team that played Defeated Creek, Rock City and so on. He was back in the Gladdice and Smith Bend area now, where he lived the rest of his life.
So fear likely wasn’t the factor when he drove onto the ice that day. Confidence was. He never doubted his own judgment and ability—like the player who knows he’s going to make the shot. Hearing the ice crack didn’t faze him.
Fear wasn’t the factor. Throughout his life, in dangerous situations he was always calm. Two cases well observed:
He was welding with an acetylene torch in his little shop while Billy James Hackett looked on. The acetylene tank erupted, spewing fire at its top like a blowtorch, and flame quickly ran up the wooden wall. Acetylene is bottled in a high pressure tank with explosive potential. Hackett ran hard 100 yards across a tobacco field before he stopped to look back. He saw Smith take a log chain, throw a loop over the tank and pull it out of the building and then go to work putting out the fire in the shop.
Another time Smith was sitting on the Gladdice store porch with several other men. His daughter-in-law suddenly burst from the trailer across the road where her family lived screaming “Gina’s choking!” Gina was Smith’s beloved granddaughter. He rushed over. The child was already lifeless. Smith lifted her up, took her chest between his hands like a basketball and suddenly compressed it. The food popped out of her throat and she began breathing again, unharmed. This happened before the Heimlich Maneuver was widely known. Nor did Smith know it. He analyzed and solved the problem in the moment.
He was known as a marksman, an important skill in country society. Again, the store porch: Landon Holland, Jr. brought his .22 caliber over for Smith to look at. He had lost the front sight and wondered could Smith make one. Always confident, Smith took the rifle, examined it a minute and then stepped off the porch. He dropped in a round, picked up a small lump of coal and tossed it into the air. Raising the rifle he blew the coal to bits in mid-air. Pieces rained down on the store roof. “That rifle doesn’t need a sight,” he kidded as he handed it back to Holland.
Neighbors remember Smith as a generous man who helped others. Throughout his working life he repaired vehicles and farm equipment for neighborhood farmers, working in the heat and cold, usually charging only enough to pay the cost of welding rods, acetylene, and such.
But there was another side. He had what you might call a hyper-sense of justice and would accept no insult. That got him into fights. He once knocked a man cold over a checker game. From the distance of time passed, one can question whether grievances he held were justified to the extent he believed or if an exaggerated sense of honor common to Southern men of that era was in play. He was not to be messed with.
Not a big man, photographs show a lean, muscular man standing about six feet tall, weighing maybe 155 pounds. One time he fought two men at once, jumped off his tractor and flattened them both, got astraddle the stronger one and had to be pulled off. I happened to witness that fight myself from the schoolhouse window. I was a young child, but the memory lingers.
Generally, he ignored authority. He treated other people with respect and expected the same from them. Inconvenient laws, he ignored. Although he owned and flew light planes throughout his life, he never bothered to earn a private pilot license. He flew in and out of a hayfield 1,100 feet long, so short it made most pilots skittish. Hauling passengers and giving instructions without a license was illegal, but he did it. The Frank G. Clement Bridge was the second river bridge built over the Cumberland in Jackson County. He flew his planes under it, also illegal.
Smith founded an excavation company and accumulated several heavy-equipment machines. He exhibited fine skill in operating a bulldozer, even in tight and dangerous places.
The qualities Smith evinced throughout his life, in some combination, were those the twenty-three-year-old Glen Smith apparently brought to the frozen ferry the day he drove Silas William’s truck across. That doesn’t explain why he did it, but, at the very least, the act seems in keeping with how he lived his life.
Silas Williams continued his dedicated service, carrying the mail on Route Number 4 for ten more years, until his retirement in 1950.
The river, it rolled on and never froze again, at least up until this present January, the seventy-fifth anniversary of that 1940 freezing.
The ferry continued its sometimes derelict operation until 1973, when Cordell Hull Reservoir raised the water level at Fort Blount. The ferry boat promptly sank at its mooring. It was pulled out, used a while longer, then dragged a quarter-mile up the road and left there. It rests beside the road yet, rusting in the blackberries and honeysuckle.
Glen Smith lived to the age of eighty, dying in 1996 of COPD after a lifetime of smoking Camel cigarettes. Oddly, he always went by his middle name. His first name was Dallas, the same as mine. He and Margaret Smith went on to raise three boys and one girl. Had he been wrong about the strength of the ice on that day back in 1940, he would have left only one son, a son his widow would have raised, a son he never would have known.
I was that son.