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Thursday, 26 January 2012 01:12

Marking his plot in life: Author shares his love of local lore and mountain heritage

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For most boys, Superman and Batman were their heroes; for Bob Plott, his ancestors were super men.

As he grew up in Haywood County, Plott would spend hours listening to his elders tell stories about the old-timers and life in Western North Carolina.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I was always interested in history,” Plott said. “These guys were looked upon as celebrities almost.”

His ancestors regaled Plott with tales starring the Plott hound, a hunting dog named after his family, and the lives of frontiersmen who were the first non-natives to inhabit the area. It was the eventful lives of the frontiersmen — his ancestors among them — who traversed unknown lands and created a life in mountains that most intrigued Plott.

His favorite shows were about cowboys and Indians or frontiersmen like Daniel Boone.

“I really wanted to emulate (them),” Plott said.

Plott drew upon his fascination with his heritage and the remarkable adventures of early mountain men and preserved those tales in writing, including in his fourth book Colorful Characters of the Smoky Mountains.

His lifelong interest in history and a push from author George Ellison were the impetus for his foray into writing about five years ago. Ellison is a scholar of Southern Appalachian folklore and natural historian who lives in Bryson City. He is also a columnist for The Smoky Mountain News.

A shared interest in Appalachian folkways had brought Ellison and Plott together, and the friends regularly corresponded through email and went hiking together. During a hike one day, Ellison told Plott that he should write a book.

“George is like a mentor slash father figure to me,” Plott said.

At the time, however, he considered the idea a joke and shot back that he would only do it if Ellison found him a publisher.

Plott didn’t want to self-publish a book. It is “a point of pride” to have a novel printed by a publishing company, he said.

Not too longer after their hiking excursion, Ellison called Plott to say he had located a publisher willing to read Plott’s book proposal. Shocked and having no idea what to write, Plott took Ellison’s advice and wrote about what he knew — the history of the Plott hound. The hound is a particular breed of dog that specializes in bear hunting. North Carolina honored the Plott hound by naming it the official state dog.

Not a month later, Plott had a book contract with History Press in South Carolina.

It took six to eight months to research information for that first book, he said.

“I think research is the most fun,” Plott said.

Luckily, he had a wealth of information at his disposal.

“My family was like pack rats; they didn’t throw anything away,” Plott said.

His extend family had mixed reviews about the novel idea but later hopped on board.

“The Plott family — at first, it was about a 50-50 split. (Then) I think maybe they saw how sincere I was,” Plott said.

Once he finished writing, Plott once again asked for Ellison’s aid. This time, he needed another set of eyes critiquing his work.

Plott arrived for an editing session with Ellison at 8 a.m. one morning, thinking they would finish by noon and would have time to get lunch or hike together. But, with the exception of a few short breaks, Plott and Ellison reviewed every inch of the manuscript until they finished at 9 p.m. that night.

“I’ve never taken that sort of beating in my life,” said Plott, who was a professional boxer.

The resulting book, Strike & Stay: The Story of the Plott Hound, chronicles the migration of the Plott family and their dogs from Germany to the U.S. and their life in Western North Carolina. Although a main theme of the book and his two subsequent books is hunting, people should not be discouraged from reading them, he said.

People get too caught up in the fact that the book is about hunting, Plott said, but it also focuses on the lives of the people and the troubles they faced while breeding the Plott hound.

Ever since 1750, when his great-great-great-grandfather Johannes Plott migrated to the U.S. from Germany with five of his hunting hounds, Johannes’ descendents have cared for his hounds’ offspring — a torch Bob Plott now carries on himself.

“I’ve been around the dogs and hunted with the dogs,” he said.

Although Plott hounds surrounded him as a child, Plott did not start breeding the namesake dog until after he got married. Previously another family had kept the tradition alive, so Plott did not feel obligated to raise his own pack.

“It’s important, but somebody else is doing it,” Plott said of his mindset at the time.

Plott currently has seven hounds and will keep no more than eight at a time. Anymore than that, the hounds become harder to properly train.

Similar to himself, Plott’s son Jacob has grown up with the hounds.

“He doesn’t care anything about hunting (but) he loves the dogs,” Plott said.

 

Inspirational mountain men

Plott has now completed four books. His previous books were focused mostly on hunting, but his new book expands more on the lives of Western North Carolina’s most colorful residents, most of whom are dead and whose stories need to be preserved.

“All these stories … I intended to be freestanding,” Plott said. “(But) if you read it from start to finish, there is a progression.”

A big change from his prior books is that Colorful Characters includes two living Haywood County residents — Charles Miller and Earl Lanning. Both men did what they wanted with their lives, Plott said.

For example, when Lanning was 14, he decided he wanted to be a cowboy and hitchhiked to Wyoming. After waiting out a harsh winter in Wyoming and working for a time as a cowboy, Lanning returned to WNC looking for another opportunity.

“These people are so inspirational to me,” Plott said. “They have this passion for life.”

Today, people tell themselves or listen to others tell them that something is impossible.

“If it came in their mind, then they could do it,” he said. “I think that is something we lose sight of sometimes.”

Plott himself is an example of “you can do anything you set your mind to.”

Because of his success as a writer, people often bring him local artifacts or stories, stoking ideas for his future work.

People “come out of the woodwork,” Plott said.

The books and his connection to the Plott hound have also allowed him to branch out into education. Plott brings his hounds into schools as part of a local history lesson and talks about their past and the “the ecological importance of hunting as well as the cultural importance.”

Although he offers programs for all ages, Plott has found schoolchildren to be some of the most entertaining audience members.

“They ask you the greatest questions in the world,” he said.

One girl asked him how puppies are made and another boy continually pitted two dog breeds against each other, asking Plott which he thought would win in a fight.

“The kid goes through 15 different dog breeds,” Plott said in a laughing manner.

 

Man of many trades

In addition to writing, Plott works in Morrisville, training NASCAR pit crews. Throughout his life he has held a variety of jobs, including running a martial arts school and serving as vice president of several textile companies. He continues to expand his repertoire, adding woodcarver and sketch artist.

“Drawing’s been a God-given talent,” Plott said. “I came from a generation where there was not a lot of value in that.”

The emphasis was more on attending college, getting a degree and earning money to support your family, he said.

“The stuff now is pretty decent,” said Plott of his art, mostly renditions of bears, dogs and people.

Plott currently lives near Hickory but hopes to move back to Haywood County at some point, possibly after his son graduates high school.

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