In a small homage to the St. Patrick's Day holiday, this week we traveled to Cocke County to explore the history of a small community on the eastern edge of Newport known as Irish Cut.
The neighborhood is almost entirely residential with the exception of a small church. In the middle of the 20th century, the community's identity was tied strongly with the local grocery store and school that are no longer in operation.
"I went to Irish Cut School from the first grade through the eighth grade," said Jim Shelton, a lifelong resident of Irish Cut. "This was just a three-room school and it did not have any water when it was originally built by the WPA in the 1940s. We had to carry buckets of water about half a mile from a nearby sawmill to the school. Then we put a well in front of the school to get water."
The Irish Cut School shut down almost 50 years ago when small schools consolidated, but its brightly-colored stone walls still stand strong today.
"This is made of sandstone from a quarry about two miles from here," said Shelton. "There are several quarries around this area."
"The limestone and other rock can still be seen in walls around the county," said Duay O'Neil, a retired teacher and historical collector who writes for The Newport Plain Talk newspaper. "My father had a great uncle who was one of the Irish stonecutters shortly after the Civil War. Many of our early settlers here in Cocke County came from Ireland and Scotland."
O'Neil said the first wave of Irish settlers arrived shortly after the Revolutionary War, lured by land grants offered to military veterans. Another sizeable contingent of Irish came to East Tennessee in the years following the Civil War.
"I think part of the attraction for the early settlers is our land is so much like what they were accustomed to in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Many Irish settled on a place called Irish Bottom where the Pigeon River and the French Broad River meet. We also have Dutch Bottoms along the river, too."
While Irish settlers cut a foundation in Cocke County, those early residents have nothing to do with the name of the community Irish Cut. The community's name is also unrelated to the nearby stonecutting operations, according to Shelton.
"The word 'cut' is a railroad term. When the railroad tracks have to be dug out below the surface, they call that a cut. You would cut a path for the tracks on top of hills so that the grade wouldn't be so steep," said Shelton. "On the edge of our community is s a railroad cut that runs about a mile long. It became known as the Irish Cut because it was Irish laborers who moved the soil and moved the rock. They were brought in here from somewhere else and I don't know of anyone who stayed here who worked on that cut."
There are now around 90 families who live along Irish Cutt Road. Before the road dead ends, you can still see the old Irish Cutt Grocery store building and the Irish Cut School.
"The community is spelled C-U-T. The word 'Cutt' is a misspelling by a guy from California that stuck for the name of the road. The store used the same spelling as the name of the road it was on, but the community itself is spelled Irish Cut," said Shelton. "When I was growing up this was an extremely tight-knit community. There isn't a house on this road that I have not been in as a child. The grocery store was the center of activity around here where everyone met with each other."
"Many of the families in Irish Cut have lived there for several generations," said O'Neil. "There is always that connection for a lot of them that no matter where you go in this world, it's 'Well, I'm from Irish Cut.' It is a unique name."
"It is just a modest community, but there are a lot of fine people. And watching the sun race up and down that hill, it's just a beautiful picture," said Shelton. "Like any small community, there are some folks who grow up here who can't wait to leave and others who want to stay here forever. I love it here and wouldn't want to live anywhere else."
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