We don’t like to think about tragedy running in families, but sometimes it does, and sometimes it makes heroes out of ordinary people, like Bob Shanks of Telford.
The family’s history is almost as old as America itself. Migrating from Germany to Pennsylvania, and then to Virginia, they eventually settled in East Tennessee. Family documents state that in 1794, one of Shanks’ ancestors, Michael Fraker, purchased 450 acres of prime property in Leesburg from an Englishman named James Carmichael for 800 pounds. Members of the family have been wresting a living from the mountains ever since.
In the early 1900s, Shanks’ paternal grandparents, E.J. and Fannie Fraker, settled in the Morristown and Strawberry Plains area, where his grandfather was a circuit riding preacher, and that’s where this story takes on a unique twist: E.J.’s 12-year-old brother, Garfield, got a yen for adventure and took off for parts unknown, thereby setting off a train of events that took the family in a direction none would have expected them to go.
E.J. mounted a search for his brother and finally found him flourishing in South Dakota. He was so impressed with what he found there that he made the trek back home, packed up his family and migrated north to join Garfield.
While they were living in South Dakota, Shanks’ grandmother, a strong woman who worked beside her husband harvesting the corn, walked back and forth from the fields to the house to tend to her young children. On Oct. 12, 1919, tragedy struck. Their 2-year-old son, E.O., managed to get into the kitchen cabinets in her absence.
“That little boy pulled a can of red lye from the kitchen cabinet and spilled it on the floor and on his body,” said Shanks. “He peed in it, played with it and in return, that fiery red lye burned the soles of his feet off and took all of his toes, severely damaged his hands and left him scarred for life. The doctors cut great patches of flesh from my grandmother’s back to cover his feet so he could walk again.”
“To say times were hard is an understatement,” Shanks said of that period in his family’s history, “and everybody worked hard just to survive after the tragedy with that little boy.” E.O survived, albeit scarred, and was 11 when the Dust Bowl drove the family back home to East Tennessee. He graduated from Washington College High School, married and had a son, Robert Shanks.
Unfortunately, it seems that E.O’s son was tragically destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was in a car accident on a bridge on June 6, 1965, that should have killed him, but instead resulted in a shattered hip. Then on Oct. 12, 1977, he was harvesting corn with Rex Massey, a lifelong friend, when he slipped and fell into the corn picker, losing his right leg to the machine and mangling the other.
“I couldn’t get out,” Shanks said, “and Rex ran the fastest any man could run, and I still remember hearing the truck crank when he left me there to bring help. That man saved my life.” Jimmy Balding, whose family farm is adjacent to the field where Shanks was trapped, heard him calling for help while Massey was gone, saw what had happened and made the calls that brought emergency services to the field.
Frank Huscroft, now retired from the Tennessee Department of Human Services, Vocational Rehabilitation, helped Shanks get the first of a series of artificial limbs that have enabled him to get around and continue to farm, raising chickens, tending cattle and growing acres and acres of, yes, corn. Huscroft said he is still amazed at the innovations Shanks has come up with, saying, “Bob retrofitted that man-made limb more to his liking and his innovations have helped countless others.”
Patrick Stern and his wife Pat live in the Embree House, a stone structure built by Seth Smith in Telford in 1791. They have come to appreciate both Shanks’ Appalachian values and his friendship. Stern and his contractor were trying to build the foundation for a new stone mailbox when Shanks’ white pickup came into view. Pulling over to lend a hand, Shanks found the men stymied by solid rock. The man with one leg most people wouldn’t stand on stepped in and with his amazing upper body strength led the way, teaching the younger men how to wield the pickaxe.
“Bob Shanks is a man of incredible strength and determination,” Stern said, “and he is not afraid to use it to help others.”
Shanks, and his iconic, no-frills white Ford pickup truck is a familiar figure to residents of rural Washington and Greene Counties, and one of his favorite projects is the annual Telford community apple butter-making festival held the first weekend in October.
“I saw Frank Huscroft’s wife making apple butter in a brass kettle,” Shanks said. “The product was good, but I knew she needed a better cooker, so I had a big copper kettle made for the cooking.”
Since then, the project has grown to include several community churches that process the product at the community cannery for sale. Although new regulations imposed by the Tennessee Department of Health have discouraged the sale of apple butter made with open-air method, Shanks says they still make some that way for the sake of tradition.
“Making apple butter outside over an open fire is an old Appalachian-American tradition we don’t want to lose,” he said of the outdoor demonstration, “and we believe the public needs to see it done and taste the product.” (All of the apple butter sold comes from the state-of-the-art cannery nearby).
Philip Tipton, whose father died when he was 14, found a father figure in Bob Shanks. “He was my guide growing up and he taught me to farm saying, ‘You make your money on the farm before the sun comes up and after dark, then you work your other job during the day.’ He taught me I had to work for what I got, and he didn’t let me get by with anything.”