There was an old song on the frontier that children sang. It went,
“The boys plow and hoe, the girls spin and sew, and we’ll rally in the canebrake, and shoot the buffalo.”
If we don’t sing it today, it might be for the simple reason that most people today have never heard of the canebrake.
When the pioneer arrived in Middle Tennessee, he found large masses of natural cane growing. Brake is an old English word for thicket.
There are stories of canebrakes being miles in length and breath. One Revolutionary War veteran moving to Middle Tennessee wrote, “…remarkable good land; for seven miles we came through a Cain Break.”
And, the canes grew large.
John James Audubon, the famous painter of North American birds, reported that the canes grew as tall as 30 feet, and the individual canes could be as big as 3 inches in diameter. It is similar to the Asian bamboo.
The Cherokee used cane to make the shafts of their arrows, and larger canes were used for building their huts and making tool handles. Split canes were woven into baskets, mats and fish traps.
But, it wasn’t just the cane itself that was useful … the seed of the cane was food for wild turkey, deer, birds, and bear.
Growing in clusters, the seed was comparable to rice or wheat and was full of natural fat. They were eaten by the Native American, and the early settlers ate them until they could harvest their first corn crop.
When the pioneer arrived and saw huge stretches of bottomland covered in the cane, they knew the ground to be fertile. The cane was an indicator of good soil.
Yet, it was another trait of the cane that made it especially valuable to the pioneer. It stayed green in winter.
While other grasses died and turned brown, cane — which is also a type of grass — stayed green and was food for the pioneer’s cattle and hogs. A cow could go into a cane brake for the winter and live off the cane and its seed.
Before they were hunted to extinction, the woodland buffalo also ate the green cane in winter.
Bears could also winter over in the cane as it would grow thick and kept any other plants from taking root.
Davy Crockett wrote about chasing a bear into a canebrake, saying, “We got up close to him, as the cane was so thick that we couldn’t see more than a few feet. Here I made my friend hold the cane a little open with his gun till I shot the bear, which was a mighty large one.”
There was also a reptile, the canebrake rattlesnake, who lived among the cane and grew to large size, feasting off mice that were attracted to the rich seed.
But, like the chestnut trees we wrote of in last week’s article, the canebrake would disappear from the landscape.
The large tracks of cane were plowed under as the pioneer turned the virgin land into farms. Canebrakes were burned, and the ash was left on the field as a fertilizer for the pioneer’s first corn crop.
Their cattle ate the cane down to the ground, and hogs would root out the soil, breaking up the roots of the cane, destroying its ability to grow back. Since it took a few years for a mature cane to set seed, the canebrakes never recovered from the pioneer’s plow and his cattle and hogs.
Today, remnants of the old canebrakes can be found at the edges of fields where the plow can’t reach or down by the river and creek banks where livestock don’t browse.
Many a country lad would, in the past, go find a cane to make a fishing pole, and larger canes were used to make pipes for smoking tobacco and — as you might have already guessed — a good cane could be bend and dried and make into a walking cane.
I have occasionally come across wild cane on walks around the hills of Trousdale County, and currently, there are efforts by Tennessee biologists to restore some of the old canebrakes on state lands.