|Getting High: the highest points in Wilson|
|Wednesday, April 25, 2012|
No man in Wilson County stands closer to heaven than Snooky Ricketts when he reaches the summit of Ballard Hill from his farm 3 miles south-southwest of Watertown.
Here, the 5-foot-5 Ricketts plants his feet at an elevation of 1,363, according to United States Geological Survey (USGS) topographical maps, which put him very near the highest point in the county.
Near the top of Ballard Hill on a sunny but cool morning in mid-April, white blossoms smother the blackberry vines, and May apple plants shoot up green stalks with big leaves. Trees cover most of the summit here, so panoramic views of the countryside are impossible.
To truly scan the horizon, Ricketts has to drop 17 feet down and a quarter of a mile southwest of here to a grassy clearing, a hill he calls Nebo at 1,346 feet above sea level. Standing on Nebo, a man with 20-20 vision can see Nashville skyscrapers to the west. Also clearly visible are the Gallatin steam plant towers, the Hartsville nuclear plant cooling tower and the lookout tower on Jennings Knob.
“In early morning, you can see the sun hitting the bleachers at the raceway,” said Ricketts, 76, referring to the Nashville Superspeedway grandstands south of Gladeville.
“We always thought Mount Defiance was the highest point because that’s where we (his siblings) were all born. We lived there right under it,” recalled the man who lives off Sherrilltown Road on a hilly farm where he raises and sells pleasure horses for field trials and cross-country riding.
Representatives of the State Forestry Department in the late 1960s informed him that the hill on the eastern-most part of his farm was the highest place in Wilson County.
(It appears the actual highpoint is a slight bump about 50 to 60 feet across Ricketts’ fence, no more than a foot or two higher than the surrounding ground.)
USGS topographical maps show that five of the 10 highest points in Wilson County are clumped in the area south of Watertown between Sherrilltown Road and Statesville Road. Mount Defiance at 1,327 feet, located about a half-mile east of Ballard Hill, boasts four communication-relay towers.
You won’t find the name Ballard Hill on most maps. But that’s the name Ricketts gives it as it was once part of a farm owned by Ballard Griffin in the first half of the 20th century. To reach this destination, Ricketts motors along dirt and rocky trails and across grassy fields on his Honda all-terrain vehicle. Once leaving Nebo, he goes down a ridge bisected by Bug Hollow and then it’s uphill all the way to the highest place in the county. His Australian blue heeler B.J. runs just ahead of the tires, like he knows exactly where his master is headed.
Standing beside a stretch of a wire fence that Ricketts put up about 15 years ago, he pointed over the obstacle and said that his Daddy and older brother grew corn on this highest plot of ground back in the early 1940s.
“That’s black, real rich soil. These old hills back in them days, they didn’t know what fertilizer was. Daddy grew corn that long,” said the farmer, indicating the distance from his fingertips to the crook of his elbow. “When I was a kid, I’d rake it up like wood.”
William “Snooky” Ricketts came into this world less than a mile from here in the hollow below Mount Defiance, the seventh and final child born to Halton and Annie Ricketts. His siblings were Annie May, Riley, Leanne, Marie, Ray and Gifford.
When Snooky was 6, his father bought the house that he has lived in the past 70 years. It was built in the early 1900s by a family named Lewis. His daddy raised corn, hay and tobacco and hauled logs with teams of mules. “He would buy young mules, work ’em and sell ’em and buy some more,” Ricketts said.
While in the eighth grade, the lad had to drop out of school at Watertown to help his father work the farm. He knows hard work and remembers splitting posts at a gap in the hills when the temperature was 6 degrees. “I wonder if anybody would do that today?” he wondered out loud.
This morning, Ricketts wears a Co-op ball cap, brown cowboy boots, overalls, a work shirt, blue jacket and gloves. On his 300-plus-acre farm he raises goats, cattle and horses. He could peddle panoramic views to the public if he had a mind to do so. The bloodline of his horses goes back to the 1940s; the awe-inspiring hilltop views go back to before men walked this ground.
From 1973 to 1998, Ricketts drove a county school bus. His late wife, Pat, did the same for 10 years before going to work in the medical records department at Middle Tennessee Medical Center in Murfreesboro. She died in December after a six-year battle with breast cancer.
“School bus and farming is all I’ve ever done,” Ricketts said, who began dealing with horseflesh back in the mid-1970s. “We fooled with draft mules and raised mules for a while, and then I accidentally got into raising riding horses for 40 years.
“I never sold any of my horses at a sale,” he said, “but to people who came to the farm. These horses were the foundation of the (Tennessee) Walking Horse. They had Walking papers. We broke ’em to ride, get up cattle. We called ’em pleasure horses.
“They was a period there for 10 to 15 years, by the time I’d get ’em ready, just by word of mouth, I sold my horses,” said the horseman, who presently has two or three well-trained horses to sell. “I’ve sold horses all over the country: to California, Arizona, Colorado, Mississippi, North Carolina."
Horseback riding is his favorite pursuit. He rides every weekend if the weather is nice. And his farm offers majestic places to do exactly that.
He tells the tale about the time a 9- or 10-year-old boy was trail riding with him along a rocky ridge beyond Nebo. The boy said to me, ‘How’d you build this?’” Snooky laughed at the memory and said, “I told him, ‘Mother Nature built it.’"
Snooky’s son Randy Ricketts also shares a funny anecdote related to Nebo.
“Years ago, a group of Boy Scouts came up here and talked Daddy into letting them going up and camping on Nebo. Them boys and their troop leaders hiked up there and camped out,” Randy said.
“It was supposed to be a beautiful weekend, but a storm came up that night. For some reason Nebo is bad about lightning strikes. That little ole storm popped up, and there was a bolt of lightning that hit that fence on the back side, and it run the entire length of that fence and made the entire fence glow white hot.
“Daddy looked up and saw a bunch of flashlights coming off that hill like fireflies. There's a little ole barn by the house and them boys camped in that barn that night. Daddy laughs when he tells that story,” Randy said with a laugh.
Ricketts said the State Forestry Department approached him in the late 1960s and told him that he had the highest point in Wilson County. They wanted to purchase 2 acres and right-of way so they could construct a lookout tower from which men could watch for forest fires.
Because the men in the tower would have to pass through a number of closed gates and Ricketts had so much stock in those areas, he decided not to sell the property. Thus that lookout tower wound up on Jennings Knob near Shop Springs.
On rare occasions, Ricketts discovers strangers knocking at his door asking permission to hike across his farm and up to Ballard Hill, such as Robert Schwab, who hiked to the summit on March 21. Schwab, who lives in Berrien Springs, Mich., is a professor at Andrews University where he runs the MBA program. He is a county highpointer, also known as a peak bagger.
“There’s a group of us who like to go out and visit the (natural) highpoint of every county. We’re kind of an informal club. It gets some of us desk jockeys outside where we can get exercise and some fresh air,” Schwab said. “I am one of these people that is obsessed with visiting these county highpoints. I’ve visited over 2,100 highpoints in the United States. I’ve been working on Tennessee for over 10 years.
“It’s a crazy hobby but a fun thing to do. There are about 400 or 500 people doing this,” said one of the nation's top county highpointers. “I have completed every county in 26 states. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Some of the highpoints are in highly restricted places, like military areas. You see some of the prettiest spots in the country. It's not like driving down the interstate.”
Schwab spent three or four hours on Ricketts’ farm and recalled, “He has a very nice spread there. It’s a wonderful layout. You hike up over on the ridge and then down and up again. The highpoint is not visible from his house. It’s actually relatively easy to get to.
“Some of these (highpoints) are like crashing through the brush and briars, and you have black flies and mosquitoes after you. This was actually more of a family type of hike with no real obstacles,” Schwab said, and reminded hikers to ask for permission before trekking on to private property.
On a number of past Fourth of July evenings, Snooky, his family and friends have gone up Nebo and spied simultaneous fireworks shows in Nashville, Smyrna and Lebanon.
“I like to come back here in the winter time when the timber’s bare,” he said, sharing a secret. “You can see for miles and miles, and at night you can see all the lights.
“If I’ve got cattle, I might be back here once a week or ever two weeks,” he said about the high ground near the summit of Ballard Hill. “I used to just go up there to see my cows and ride them ridges, but I never realized what I had until other people got to talking about it.
“They tell me I’m a lucky man,” said Ricketts, who some days stands taller than any man in Wilson County.