Friday, May 23, 2008

Claude Gentry and Freedom Hills

-click to enlarge-

Mr. Claude wrote a series of books on the Freedom Hills of Alabama. He was inspired quite by accident, as we'll see later in the article.

The flying "bug" bit Claude late in mid-life and after learning to fly he used his planes often to get away for various reasons. The speed of flying let him go fishing early and get back to work later in the day. He also flew many miles to research material for his books.

The photo above may have been made on an extended research trip for his book "Kit Carson" in several states, including Arizona. Pictured is traveling pal E. L. "Swede" Johnson and a relative. They had an enjoyable time except once on the return trip while trying to fly around a thunderstorm front. They were first caught in a tremendous updraft, and then a sudden downdraft. The downdraft almost became disaster. At the last minute before being slammed into the ground, the powerful Franklin engine on the Stinson Voyager finally pulled them to safety in calmer air.

Claude owned three planes, the last being the Stinson 4-passenger in the photo. Once on a Sunday afternoon, he and Duke Young chased a "UFO" that was spotted in the eastern sky. It was very high, above the ceiling limit of the Stinson. They didn't catch it or get close enough to get a good look, but it definitely had two lights in the center. They chased it from Baldwyn to near Russellville, Alabama. Afterwards, Claude said he didn't think they had chased a UFO unless, of course, it WAS a UFO.

The Freedom Hills in Alabama, a range of hill country north of Red Bay, was once a haven for unlawful people on the run from justice. It was also an area of corruption harboring bootleggers, gamblers, and others. A number of law enforcement officers went into the hills to get someone, and a lot of them were never seen again.

The hills became a place to hide as far back as when President Jackson banished the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma (the Trail of Tears saga) partly for their support of England when we were fighting for independence. Many Indians were loaded onto barges and taken down the Tennessee River on their journey to the reservations. They got stuck on the Muscle Shoals due to low river water levels. When it became evident they would be there a long time, they escaped into the hills looking for food and never came back. That probably coined the name of the hills, "freedom".

Claude had a boathouse and cabin on Pickwick Lake in the northern part of the hills. He went there often to fish. Using his plane he could go up in the early morning, do a little fishing, and return in the early afternoon and tend to his businesses. He was told by a man he had confided in that he shouldn't fly up there anymore. He took it as a threat. It was. He later learned that his plane had been shot at with a high-powered rifle on at least one occasion. He didn't hear the shots, and luckily, they missed. He later learned he had been landing and taking off directly over the operation of a very notorious bootlegger. The bootlegger thought he might have been spying on his still. Claude drove up to the lake after that.

Claude met an Alabama sheriff, U. R. Jernigan, who was somewhat successful in capturing some wanted people in the hills. He was the real-life "Sheriff of Freedom Hills" in Claude's books.

We are now editing and will have some video later about Sheriff Jernigan, Mr. Claude, Dave Heflin and Henry Outlaw re-creating some activities in the hills.


Sources: “Fourscore and More in Dixie”, by Claude Gentry. Cherokee Indian information links, World Wide Web. Photo courtesy of Larry Johnson.


  1. Great story, Carl. I didn't know that there was still that much bad business in the hills in the 1950's. As I told you before, we moved to Fulton from Birmingham Ridge, and there was a lot of criminal activity there in those days.
    Just mostly illegal whiskey making and other stuff kept the jail full.
    Bob B.

  2. I know of two planes that Mr. C had. If there were 3, what was the other? Did he lose one in the airport fire?
    The Piper was the only other one I can recall.

  3. Sorry Carl: But that is not Claude with my Dad.. That is my Uncle Al Deckert of Larned, Kansas. They stopped there on the way back from New Mexico and moist likely Claude is taking the picture..