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THE GREAT GRAHAM COUNTY TAX FIGHT
By Marshall McClung
Taxes are not a very favorite item with most citizens and may be considered a necessary evil in order for society to function at best. When wrongfully accused of not paying you taxes, insult is added to injury.
Such was the case of John Denton, one of our early pioneer settlers in Graham County. John Denton moved his family to what is now Graham County from near Benton, Tennessee around 1870. John chose a home site in what is now a part of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. The Denton family are the only white people known to have ever lived in Joyce Kilmer. Before John built his family a cabin, they lived in a large chestnut log in which he had hewed out two rooms.
John was a Civil War veteran having survived such major battles as Bull Run and Vicksburg, so a fight was not something he wasn't accustomed to.
What brought about the big fight was a poll tax of two dollars payable by every adult male. On this particular day, John had come to Robbinsville and was in George Walker's General Store. Sheriff Bob McElroy confronted John and accused him of not paying his taxes in front of several men gathered in the store. John replied that he had paid his taxes and had a receipt as proof. The sheriff called John a liar and was immediately knocked to the floor by John with one blow. You must understand that in those days a person's word was his bond, and business deals were sealed with a handshake. To call a man a liar, especially in public was considered an affront to a person's character and called for immediate retaliation. The sheriff jumped up from the floor and swung at John with a large knife cutting off a portion of his beard. John then struck the sheriff in the chest with a large metal weight used for the scales knocking him unconscious.
Some of the sheriff's friends were in the store and took up the fight at this point. Two of them came at John with knives drawn from opposite directions. John stepped between them, caught them by the neck, slammed their heads together with such force that they both fell to the floor out cold.
Other men started attacking John, as many as three or four at a time, and the fight spilled out onto the store's porch. A large pile of firewood was stacked on one end of the porch, and John started throwing sticks of firewood right and left, felling men in every direction. Pear in mind that John was in his 60's at the time and was fighting men thirty and forty years younger that him.
By now, several men had been knocked unconscious by either John's fists or the firewood, in the store, on the porch, and out in the street. At this paint, men began coming out of the nearby courthouse to join the fight just as John ran out of firewood. The fight then moved onto the courthouse square which was unpaved at the time. Large rocks lay all about on the ground, and John made use of them, throwing the rocks as he had the firewood. Men fell in all directions after being struck by the large rocks. In all, some twenty men had fought John Denton.
Finally the fighting stopped with John still on his feet, unmarked except for losing part of his beard. Most of the injured had to be carried to their homes.
There is no record of an charges being pressed against John. Neither is. there any record of anyone ever bothering him in any way again when he came to Robbinsville. Several local residents saw the. fight including Bruce Slaughter, George Walker, the store owner, and Captain Nathan Green Phillips who was a justice of the peace Bob Barker, a retired lawyer from Andrews who did a lot of historical work in Graham County was familiar with the story. John Parris, who wrote for the Asheville Citizen mentioned the fight in one of his books, "These Storied Mountains," published in 1972. I did a story on the John Denton Family which was published in the Graham Star in May, 1994. Much of the information for the story was obtained from one of John Denton's granddaughters Oleta Nelms who served as a hostess at Joyce Kilmer for many years. She remembered hearing about the fight and recalled that family members said that John had indeed paid his taxes and had a receipt.
John Denton died in 1913 at the age of 73. He is buried with his wife Albertine in the Denton Family Cemetery on Little Snowbird.
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