Tag Archive | Appalachia

The Death of Elisha Mitchell

An engraving of Elisa Mitchell in the N.C. Museum of History's collection

An engraving of Elisa Mitchell in the
N.C. Museum of History‘s collection

On June 27, 1857, Elisha Mitchell, exploring the Black Mountain range, slipped and fell to his death in a deep pool at the bottom of a 60-foot waterfall. Search parties were organized and the body was discovered several days later by “Big Tom” Wilson.

Wilson was an extraordinary tracker and guide. He was also noted locally as a skilled bear hunter and storyteller. Wilson located Mitchell’s trail and tracked him to the place where he fell. Since the pocket watch Mitchell had been wearing was broken at 8:00, it has been assumed that was likely the time of his death.

In 1835, Mitchell announced that a peak in the Black Mountains was the highest in the eastern United States. He estimated its height at 6,672 feet, only 12 feet short of the present official height. A “controversy of major proportions” ensued in the 1850s between Mitchell and Thomas L. Clingman, who called into question the accuracy of the earlier observations and measurements. Mitchell died in the effort to set the record straight.

Initially interred in a cemetery in Asheville, Mitchell’s remains were later moved to the top of the mountain which now bears his name.

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“The Squire of Turkey Creek,” Bascom Lamar Lunsford

Lunsford at a Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in the 1960s. Image from UNC Asheville

Lunsford at a Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in the 1960s.
Image from UNC Asheville

On June 6, 1928, Bascom Lamar Lunsford kicked off the first Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, an annual tradition that continues “along about sundown” to this day in Asheville. That event spawned similar festivals far and wide. Pete Seeger attended the gathering in 1935 and thereafter dedicated his life to folk music.

The festival was initially held in conjunction with Asheville’s Rhododendron Festival, but split off to become  a separate event in 1930. It was committed to portraying the participants with dignity and to showcasing the authentic culture of the region in a time when popular culture portraying the music and musicians who created it as “hillbillies.”

A program from the 59th annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in 1986

A program from the 59th annual
Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in 1986.
Image from UNC Asheville

Billed as the “Minstrel of Appalachia,” Lunsford was an avid collector and promoter of traditional mountain music, and thus a natural choice to start the festival. In the course of song collecting, he claimed to have spent time in more homes between West Virginia and Alabama “than anybody but God.”  It was his native region which he loved and where he sought to preserve the old-time ways.  He was born in Mars Hill but moved in 1925 to Turkey Creek in Buncombe County.

Lunsford is widely known for his rendition of “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” a plaintive tune that has amused and puzzled listeners for generations.  He penned “Mountain Dew” and performed for the Roosevelts, King George, and Queen Elizabeth in 1939.

Lunsford recorded his “memory collection” of 350 songs for the Library of Congress in 1949.  He was an eccentric, sporting a starched white shirt and black bowtie as a symbol of defiance against the prevalent hillbilly stereotype.

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“War on Poverty” Photo Op in Rocky Mount, 1964

Pres. Lyndon Johnson and Gov. Terry Sanford pose with the X family in Rocky Mount. Image from the State Archives

Pres. Lyndon Johnson and Gov. Terry Sanford pose with the Marlow family in Rocky Mount. Image from the State Archives

On May 7, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by Governor Terry Sanford, visited the home of tenant farmer William David Marlow near Rocky Mount to promote the President’s “War on Poverty” initiative.

The 15 minute visit was essentially a photo opportunity to launch Johnson’s tour of Appalachia.  There have been questions over the years as to why Rocky Mount was selected, not being particularly close to the mountains, though many have assumed it has something to do with the town’s name.

Though the Nash County family that hosted Johnson didn’t live in Appalachia, it certainly met the rest of the criteria for people to be helped by the president’s programs. Marlow lived with his seven children, his wife and his mother-in-law. A World War II veteran, he suffered from a chronic back injury and earned less than $1,500 per year.

To emphasize the family’s living conditions for the visiting journalists and politicians, the Marlows were instructed to hang a load of laundry on their clothesline and to keep their children barefooted. After the visit, the family struggled with the stigma of poverty. Having never thought of herself as poor, Mrs. Marlow later wrote the president, “We have just found out that we are the joke of a whole nation.”

You can read the speech Johnson gave later that day in front of Rocky Mount City Hall online from the American Presidency Project.

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Horace Kephart, and the “Back of Beyond”

Kephart cooking in at a camp in the Smokies

On April 2, 1931, naturalist and writer Horace Kephart was killed in a car crash near Bryson City. Kephart was riding in a taxi with another author, Fiswoode Tarleton, when the car plunged from the highway and overturned three times. Both Kephart and Tarleton were killed instantly.

A former librarian, Kephart came to the Great Smoky Mountains in 1904 seeking solace and spent the rest of his life there, writing about the environment and outdoor life. By 1913, he had published three books on self-reliant living and the natural world. He was an early advocate of the mountain region and tirelessly promoted the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though born in Pennsylvania and raised in the Midwest, Kephart lived in a remote cabin on Hazel Creek and in Bryson City in Swain County for much of his later life.

Kephart wrote many books and articles about the southern Appalachian culture and the natural environment of the area he adopted as his home, which he heralded at the “Back of Beyond.” His book Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913, is the classic work on the region.

Kephart is buried in Bryson City on a hill overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains.

Western Carolina University holds many of Kephart’s papers.

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Miracle in the Hills: Mary Martin Sloop and Crossnore School

Drs. Eustace and Mary T. Martin Sloop, performing surgery under their “antiseptic” apple tree at Crossnore in the 1920s. Image from the State Archives.

On January 13, 1962, Mary Martin Sloop, founder of Crossnore School in Avery County, died at the age of 88. Sloop was raised at Davidson College where her father was a professor of geology and chemistry, and went to Philadelphia to study medicine after being rejected by schools in North Carolina. She married surgeon Eustace Sloop in 1908, and they determined to seek their fortune in the North Carolina mountains.

Settling into a joint practice first at Plumtree and soon after at Crossnore, they attended to the medical and educational needs of the community. Sloop founded Crossnore School because of the deficiencies of the public school system.  As local schools improved, Crossnore’s mission changed to serve orphans and children from broken homes. She worked to reduce the problems of child brides and illegal liquor through education. In 1928, she helped organize the Southern Highlands Handicrafts Guild.

The Weaving Room at Crossnore played an important role in the revival of Appalachian handicrafts. Of students’ craft work, Dr. Sloop said, “It is their character building qualities which concern us most at the school.”

Miracle in the Hills, published in 1952, is her life story and that of Crossnore School.

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For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day, make sure you subscribe by email using the box on the right, and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.