This Land Is My Land

MountainFued_02Just before 10 a.m. on September 7, 2009, residents of Mill Creek heard gunshots. Some heard one shot; others as many as three. At the time it did not seem important. The sound was not uncommon along Mill Creek Road, an unmarked ribbon of blacktop winding through the hills four miles southeast of Dahlonega. Even when deer and turkey were out of season, hunters fired in their backyards and farmers scared foxes and coyotes from their fields. For thirty-one years, seventy-two-year-old retired plumber and former licensed gun dealer Lewis Dempsey had taken to his hundred acres, where he and his customers rehearsed a symphony of percussion: the crack of a 12-gauge shotgun, the rat-a-tat of an AK-47.

The report coming through the cornrows and timber on that clear Labor Day morning was the pop of Dempsey’s Glock 9 mm. But it came from the south, from the neighboring Crane land. The Cranes were Mill Creek’s longest-tenured residents. For almost a century they owned most of its land. Although they had sold the bulk of that land to newcomers like the Dempseys, the Cranes still held sway in those hills. Their patriarch was seventy-six-year-old Jewell Crane, storyteller, moonshiner, unofficial mayor of Mill Creek.

That morning Crane drove his blue pickup toward his garden to tend his collard greens. But after the shot, or shots, he lay on his back on the ground by his truck, camouflage hat knocked from his balding head, blue denim overalls darkening with blood. And Dempsey drove north on Mill Creek Road in his Ford Escape, across the boundary that separated Crane’s property from his own.

There are no straight lines in nature. Rivers, mountain ranges, and timberlines wind and bend and gradually shift across the landscape with time. They make imperfect borders. The Cherokee who first inhabited these hills believed a man could no more set aside land for himself than he could bottle the wind. They were barred from the 1832 Gold Lottery that raffled off pieces of Cherokee territory to white residents of what became Lumpkin County, driving the tribe westward on the Trail of Tears.

On paper these parcels were perfect squares of forty acres—a quarter the size of standard Georgia farm lots. At the height of Georgia’s Gold Rush, these gold lots were in high demand. But by the 1840s, the gold was mined out and the prospectors had gone to California. Over the next 150 years, the property grid was divided among new generations and sold to outsiders, piece by irregular piece. During these transfers, surveyors would enter dubious landmarks such as “rock piles” and “big trees” into the deed descriptions. “I once came across a property line described as ‘Two smokes on a mule’s back from the chestnut stump,’” says Richard Webb, who in thirty-six years as a surveyor in North Georgia has dug through volumes of yellowed maps and deeds. “Well, how big was the mule? And what were you smoking?”

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