Aunt Fannie: Hostess of Sinking Mountain, Buttermilk for Female Guests, Stronger Stuff for the Men

Sinking Mountain is located about seven miles northwest of Tallulah Falls. Some people claimed the mountain was sinking a few inches every year. They swore you could feel the mountain moving under your feet. Others dismissed this claim as sheer nonsense. But we are getting ahead of our story about the Hostess of Sinking Mountain.

Fannie Picklesimer was born across the Georgia state line in North Carolina in 1825. In 1841 at the age of 16, she married William Rufus Kerby and moved to Rabun County. Four years and four children later, Fannie’s husband died shortly after completing the family’s log home at the foot of Sinking Mountain. She remarried in 1852 to Ambrose J. Smith, who became one of the most prosperous farmers (relatively speaking) in the Camp Creek settlement around Sinking Mountain. He also had time for siring seven more children.

A railroad (which later became the Tallulah Falls Railroad) was extended to Tallulah Falls from Cornelia in 1882, ushering in an age of tourism and grand hotels at the village. Traveling by train, thousands of tourists flocked to the village to view the thundering falls, called the Niagara of the South, in the 1000-foot-deep Tallulah Gorge. For several decades, Tallulah Falls was one of the most popular resorts in the Southeast.

Serving Fried Chicken to Tourists

Growing numbers of these tourists made the difficult trip by horse and buggy to visit Sinking Mountain to see if it was, in fact, slowly disappearing into the ground. Fannie Picklesimer Kerby Smith, by this time known as Aunt Fannie, quickly took notice of the tourists passing by her home at the foot of the mountain. Known as a good cook, the enterprising woman decided to capitalize upon this situation by serving meals to the tourists. Visitors came with the idea of enjoying a meal of Aunt Fannie’s fried chicken, home-grown vegetables and hot biscuits, but some decided to stay for a few days or even weeks.

Aunt Fannie’s guestbook was filled with gastronomical praise. One visitor exclaimed, “Fried Chicken! And buttermilk ain’t even in it.” Reflecting the tourist magnet that Tallulah Falls became, her guestbook contained laudatory comments in French, Italian, German and Spanish. One scholarly guest praised Fannie’s cooking in classical Greek. During the week of August 1, 1892, Aunt Fannie’s guests came from Atlanta, Athens, Macon, Toronto, Kansas City, New Orleans and New York.

Moonshine for the Gentlemen

However, there was another, more colorful side to Aunt Fannie’s homey hospitality. Andrew Gennett, head of Gennett Brothers Lumber Company that clear-cut thousands of acres of Rabun County forestland, once boarded at Aunt Fannie’s home. He characterized her as “a notorious old woman who had dealt all her life in liquor, but was also a competent and successful housewife.”

The 1891 the Clayton Tribune carried an article from the Vernon Courier (Lamar County, Alabama) that reported, “Aunt Fannie Smith, a peculiar character who lives at the foot of Sinking Mountain near Tallulah Falls, has been raided by the revenue men, who destroyed 300 gallons of illicit liquor…Her husband was an illicit distiller and, since his death, she has continued the business. Her cabin is a favorite resort for all the visitors to the falls. She treats the women to buttermilk, while the gentlemen always get the illicit article.”

Cherokee Chief Who Went to Church

The few Cherokee in the area knew a good thing when they saw it, and we are not talking about whiskey. During the summer months, Indians sold blankets, pottery and jewelry to tourists passing the Smith property. In winter, Fannie provided food to the Cherokee camping on the farm.

According to one of her daughters, Fannie persuaded Chief Gray Eagle, leader of the small remaining band of Cherokee in Rabun County, to attend her Wolf Creek Baptist Church. It did not go well. The minister, gesticulating wildly, delivered a leather-lunged fire and brimstone sermon to his congregation, condemning sinners in the audience to a one-way trip to the fiery pits of hell. Unaccustomed to such shouting and gyrations, Gray Eagle stood up, stared at the minister and said, “Whiskey too much. Whiskey too much.” He left the church and never returned. Undeterred, the minister completed his stem-winder.

 Poking Around for a Nickel in Hell

Aunt Fannie also was known to be a frugal businesswoman. A granddaughter recalled, “It’s been said she was quite stingy. One local saying about her was that she wouldn’t actually go to hell for a nickel, but she’d poke around the edges trying to get at it until she fell in.”

In addition to feeding her many guests and plying men with moonshine, politics was Aunt Fannie’s other great interest. On the day of an election, she would station family members and friends at polling places around Rabun County to prevent people from voting more than once. (Apparently, the practice of voting multiple times did not originate in Chicago). Even in her later years, Aunt Fannie would ride throughout Rabun County to campaign for her favored candidates.

Aunt Fannie continued serving fried chicken, buttermilk and corn whiskey to her guests until the day she passed away at 89 in 1914. Her home no longer exists, and Sinking Mountain cannot be found on today’s maps. Perhaps it actually sank.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia magazine in August 2022.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.