by Nelda Rachels
Some of us think of Palmersville’s once famous local landmark, Coley Gully, as the Grand Canyon in miniature, but then maybe those of us who have never actually seen the Grand Canyon are just easily impressed. Perhaps at one long ago and ancient point in time, Coley Gully was much larger than it is now and under the ocean at that. According to UTM Professor William McCutchen, this area was once part of the Gulf of Mexico. He seemed happy to display his geological maps of sedimentary deposits and shelves showing the once-upon-a-time shoreline, which stretched as far north as Southern Illinois and as far east as the Tennessee River. Gradually, the Gulf has been filling in with sediment, leaving the area as it is today. In fact, on my visit fifteen years ago the Gully was much deeper and impressive than it is now. Current landowners have sped the process of stopping the massive erosion problem and of filling in the Gully by planting pine seedlings. These trees are now massive entities in themselves and are doing their job nicely…too nicely for those of us who like to explore big ditches.
On a recent visit to Coley Gully, I was struck by the beauty of the white sandy “beaches” in the gully’s depths. Chickasaw and other area Indians probably admired that same sandy basin, perhaps using the sandstone rocks with their ironstone concretions at the gully’s bottom as color for facial or pictorial paintings. McCutchen demonstrated this by licking his index finger, lightly touching the rock I had brought, and smearing his “dirty” finger casually across a bit of scrap paper. The miracle of color—a pretty reddish brown—skated across the white page.
Jumping ahead a few hundred years to the 1930s and 40s, I’m told that Coley Gully at that time was the playground for another culture, teenagers of European descent. Many of those same teenagers, though older now, still remember when Coley Gully was the “happenin’” place. Hubert McKelvey, Hubert Smethwick, Mason Kemp, and other Palmersville residents shared a hodge-podge of memories about the area with me.
Hubert Smethwick remembers that school field trips and picnics were often held at Coley Gully. He says students roasted marshmallows and hot dogs for picnics. Other innocent fun included nighttime bonfires, storytelling, and sandstone rocks piled high and heated up in order to watch them explode like loud firecrackers. Mason Kemp remembers that seniors usually went to Coley Gully in the latter part of the thirties but that Kentucky Lake took over as the field trip of choice by 1941. However, Palmersville Seniors weren’t the only “jet-setters” to visit Coley Gully. Young people from all over West Tennessee and Kentucky knew about this big ditch and frequented it in their old Model Ts, or as Mr. McKelvey remembers—an old Studebaker. Some of these visitors remember playing a game called “Perhaps.” Young boys and men would slide down the steep sandy sides of the gully. “Perhaps” they’d skin their bottoms or “perhaps” they wouldn’t.
Hubert McKelvey remembers sand in the pockets of teenagers and in the shovels of do-it-yourselfers that came to the gully to collect the lovely, pristine sand for mortar. He also remembers the name of the owner from which the gully gets its name. A man by the name of Coley (the spelling is in dispute by locals, though a deed search could settle that question once and for all) Adkins lived near the gully a bit before Mr. McKelvey’s time, perhaps during the early 1900s. Mr. Adkins’ home was located between two gullies and near a stream. Other locals hint at a moonshine still on the site (whether before, during, or after Coley Adkins’ lived there, no one seems to know) where whisky flowed perhaps swifter than the Gulf waters could swirl around those sandstone cliffs. Today, it isn’t moonshine that residents nearby worry about, but the rumored big cat or panther that haunts the area, preying upon the sheep and cattle.
Pine trees now obscure the two gullies (only the larger one is “famous”) and their depths are not nearly as impressive as they were a few short years ago. Teenagers now have their computer screens, fast cars, and bustling malls to keep them occupied though Mack’s Grove Baptist Church does go to Coley Gully for occasional cookouts. They must not mind going to a little trouble. These days, one must locate gracious property owners, ask for gate keys, climb boundary fences, fend off cows, ticks, and poison ivy, all while looking over one shoulder for that big cat. It’s probably easier to get to the Grand Canyon. I’ve heard it’s a really big ditch!