Most everyone has heard about railroad laborer John Henry who was famous in folklore for his strength and endurance. Some folks have maintained that he and his exploits that were touted in story and song are only mythical. Others say that the tale grew out of the heroics of a real man named John Henry who indeed was a superman of sorts. He is said to have competed with a steam driver and died during the daring attempt.
It has been many years since I heard the song. There are several verses that deal with different aspects of John Henry’s life and work. My first recollection of hearing the song is when I was a child. A neighbor played the banjo and sang many of the old ballads and “John Henry” was usually included.
But when it comes to strength, Mountain City has had its own strong man. The late Joe Dunn was the epitome of strength and endurance. Some of his feats are true and some, like John Henry’s, may have been exaggerated and embellished over time.

Recently Keith Wilson mentioned to me that he had a printed story about Joe Dunn. He thought I might want to feature it in a future column and he brought the story to me a few days later.
The story was printed on a long strip of paper. The printed portion of the strip was a justified column. The word “justified” refers to the column being even on both sides. The column was two inches wide and 50 inches long. I found it to be very interesting. I don’t know its origin but it mentions several people who knew Mr. Dunn personally and they related some stories about his strength.
When I worked at Adams’ Grocery in Mountain City after my stint in the Army, I came in contact with Mr. Dunn. I worked at the store three years and I remember him well as a customer. He was up in years and he would ask me to help him gather the groceries for the coming week. I was glad to help him and if I remember right, he walked home and carried his sack of groceries on his back.
According to Wilson’s printed story, Dunn was nicknamed “Red Joe” not just for his red hair. He had a ruddy complexion as well.
There are several stories concerning his strength that are almost incredible. A person quoted in Wilson’s printed story said that his dad told him that Dunn carried a railroad rail out of the mountain. He went on to say that those things are about twenty feet long and it takes eight or ten men to lay them.
Another person who is mentioned in Wilson’s story remembered hearing that Dunn could carry six hundred pounds by himself. Another story claims that he would go out just before Christmas and cut Christmas trees. One person in the story is quoted as saying “He’d come down the street carrying such a load you couldn’t see him for the trees. He’d carry, I guess a pick-up load, a tremendous load.” According to Wilson’s story, he would sell the trees for about 50 cents each.
Another person said he was immune to bee stings and was often called upon to move a hive to another location. That person said Dunn would handle the bees with his bare hands. I guess we’ll never know how much that was told of Dunn is myth and how much is true. But, the people that were quoted in Wilson’s story said that he was a fine man. And from what I can gather from the story, he wasn’t afraid of work or any man as far as that’s concerned.