Jim Geary has been collecting toys since he was a boy in 1950. The fascination and hobby that has stuck with him throughout his life all started with a 1911 Rolls Royce model car kit.
Much of Western North Carolina’s native history is hidden in plain sight along the Tennessee River Valley from Otto to Bryson City.
The grassy field is empty and the playground vacant as the sun sheds evening beams across the grounds of Cowee School. But when Susan Ervin looks at the unoccupied asphalt track and pavilion bare of coolers and tablecloths, she sees the busy community scene she’s hoping to experience on the long-awaited May 13.
It’s the day that will kick off the new Cowee Farmers Market, a goal Ervin and a core group of eight others have been working toward for months. In the empty field of the decommissioned school-turned-community-center, she sees vendors setting up displays of fresh produce, crafts, preserves, meats and plants. She sees a local band playing in the pavilion, tip jar open. She sees children playing on the swing set, teenagers tossing a football around in the field — just people having fun.
A group of friends have come together to create a non-profit entity to operate a new pottery school in the Macon County Heritage Center at the old Cowee School.
An old closed-down elementary school in the rural Cowee community in Macon County will soon reclaim its role as a community focal point and gathering place.
Editor’s note: Marie Cochran attended the production of the “Liar’s Bench” on June 20 at the Mountain Heritage Center on the WCU campus and wrote this review for The Smoky Mountain News.
I am very familiar with the term “the Liars Bench” in its practice of casual storytelling among Southern men sitting in the courthouse square and at barbershops; yet I was skeptical to hear this lighthearted phrase associated with the account of 19 Black men who drowned on a chain gang only decades after the Civil War.
As a disclaimer, for the last month I’ve been a witness to the assemblage of information and a participant in debates that raged about the proper way to engage a diverse audience. Yet, I waited like every other audience member wondering whether “Tears in the Rain” would be told as a gruesome ghost story, a sorrowful tale of faceless men who perished in an unfortunate accident, or an insightful portrayal of a human tragedy.
Charged with stealing, 15-year-old Charles Eason was sentenced to work on a prison chain gang.
It was 1882, and the teenager from Martin County soon found himself side-by-side with other convicts, many two and three times his age. Mostly from the eastern part of the state, the gang was sent to construct the railroad lines in Western North Carolina.
Now that the children are gone, and art projects sit abandoned next to overturned desks and emptied cupboards, community members have a vision to bring life back into the old Cowee school outside of Franklin. But the community’s path to reclaiming the schoolhouse is facing growing opposition in the Macon County government as to how the initiative should be funded.
The historic significance of the Cowee Valley corridor received a national boost this month following the designation of N.C. 28 as part of the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway.
“We had to make our case for the project, document the project and show its scenic and cultural importance,” said Ryan Sherby, who works for the Southwestern Commission, a group charged by the state with spearheading regional planning and administration.
The N.C. Board of Transportation voted this month to extend the byway designation by 20 miles. Jeff Lackey, state coordinator for the Scenic Byways program, dubbed N.C. 28 “a natural fit” because of the environmental and geographical qualities of the area it runs through.
The corridor passes by historic West’s Mill Village and through the ancient village of Cowee, once the principal commercial and diplomatic center of the Cherokee Indians. West’s Mill was the site of a gristmill built by a family of that name. Stores, schools, churches and barns were built in the 19th and early 20th century near the mill. Many of those buildings remain today.
The new segment of this scenic byway will get official state signs and be included in the Scenic Byways Guide, which provides information on all 55 such byways in the state. The promotion as a scenic highway could help fuel additional tourism in the area.
Indian Lakes Scenic Byway starts at the far tip of Fontana Lake. It snakes around the lake, through Stecoah and ends at the Nantahala Gorge. It now continues along N.C. 28, paralleling the Little Tennessee River and ending in downtown Franklin.
Sharon Taylor, deputy director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, a Franklin-based conservation group that focuses on the Upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River valleys, said the designation is more than just a nice appellation — it helps underscore the importance of the area, and the work being undertaken to preserve its heritage.
“There is real significance,” Taylor said. “There is just so much going on.”
Most recently, community members attended a public workshop to discuss the future of Cowee School. The school will close in two years and be replaced by Iotla Valley Elementary School. County leaders and the Cowee Community Development Organization will review a report on suggestions gathered at the workshop. The Cowee organization is a particularly active community group, and has been instrumental in such initiatives as helping to gain the Scenic Byway designation.
In practical terms, being dubbed a scenic byway doesn’t limit any development except for new outdoor advertising, such as billboards, which can’t be placed within 660 feet of the nearest edge of the highway’s right of way, said Julia Merchant, a spokeswoman for the transportation department.
State law specifically states there is no required modification in local land-use regulations or restrictions, or in commercial or agricultural activities, future highway work, development, or road maintenance or improvements.
For more information, access the state’s Website at www.ncdot.gov/travel/scenic.
According to public input so far, a reworked Cowee School could bear close resemblance to another historic Western North Carolina schoolhouse — what is now known as the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center in Graham County.
Students at the Cowee School will vacate the campus in two years for a newer and bigger school. Macon County is considering a long list of possible future uses for the building.
At a series of public input workshops last week, consultants showed that the county is far from alone in its quest to reinvent the Cowee School.
A school built in 1915 in Portland, Ore., was recently converted into a 35-room hotel with a restaurant, movie theater, bar and brewery. Another school in Toronto was transformed into a community art center with cheap rent for artists’ studios and art-related nonprofits.
But the Cowee School is closely looking at the nearby Stecoah project as a model to aspire to.
The Stecoah Center now provides 20 programs to more than 12,000 people each year, including an Appalachian concert and dinner series, heritage crafts and cooking classes, Cherokee exhibits, and an artisans gallery featuring regional crafters.
“It would be great if we could get to that point here,” said Eric Moberg, chairman of the Cowee Community Development Organization.
However, the planning process is still in its preliminary stage, and dozens of ideas abound on how to move forward.
On Thursday, consultants met with 14 entities, including Southwestern Community College, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, several folk heritage groups and a range of county agencies.
Gabriel Cumming, a facilitator at the workshop, said the organizations he heard from pitched a variety of ideas: culinary classes, quilting bees, Little League games, hunting safety courses, and turning the gym/auditorium into live entertainment space.
At this point, Cumming said he isn’t sure which ideas will rise to the top.
“We can accommodate a number of possible uses,” said Cumming. “Some are more compatible than others.”
In a week or so, the team will put together a publicly available report on results from the two-day workshop.
Macon County Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who represents Cowee, said he’d rather not reveal his thoughts until after receiving input from the community.
“I would not want to put Bobby Kuppers’ vision out there until I find out Cowee’s vision, not just Cowee but the entire county,” said Kuppers. “That building is an asset to the entire county. I think the entire county should weigh in.”
Kuppers praised the community for working in advance to determine a use for the school.
“We don’t want the building to sit there without some kind of plan,” said Kuppers. “I’m proudest that we did get out there in front of it. We’re not reactionary, ‘Well, the building’s empty, what are we gonna do?’”
Commissioners will ultimately endorse which uses will find a home in the old school.
“At the end of the day, a balance is going to have to be struck between the competing interests,” said Kuppers.
The Macon County Parks & Recreation Department is “extremely interested” in setting up basketball courts where rows of classroom trailers now reside, according to Stacy Guffey, who is serving as a consultant for the process. The Recreation Department may also want to convert the school’s green space into a soccer field, and turn the semi-circle walking trail into a full loop, Guffey said.
One benefit of having the Parks & Recreation Department take over is that county government would cover the cost of grounds maintenance, Guffey said.
Southwestern Community College is also highly interested in offering heritage-related classes at the school.
Many Cowee residents are simply thankful that the school will stay in tact.
“It doesn’t matter as long as it isn’t torn down or allowed to decay,” said Connie Rehling of Cowee. “I just don’t want to see it go away.”
Moberg acknowledges that many in the community have a soft spot for the school.
Jo Corbin, 77, started attending Cowee School in the sixth grade. Her mother taught third grade there for decades, and she returned to Cowee to teach second grade for eight years. Corbin’s three children attended the school as well.
“So when I come through that front door, I’m at home,” said Corbin.
As former students reminisced over historic photos and signed their name to a quilt, some shared their own ideas on how to rework the school.
“I think it’d be great to have antique shops,” said Dorothy Berry, one of the first students to attend Cowee School.
Betty Duvall Teem, Berry’s twin sister, said she’d like to see the school continue being used for fundraisers.
“I really want the building to be a useful part of the community like it always had been,” Duvall Teem said.
Bob Corbin, a 77-year-old Cowee resident, said he would like to see multiple uses for the school. “Just have it available, and let it be productive in its existence,” he said.
Corbin favors keeping the gym, track and fields open to the public, and opening up the school for meetings of community and political organizations.
Like many others, Corbin is not in favor of drastically changing the historic school’s look.
“It’d be good to preserve the general appearance established in the 1940s when they built it,” Corbin said. “It could be a tribute to that time, that era.”
Moberg said he would like the schoolhouse to continue its focus on education with college-level classes in traditional arts like weaving, quilting, and jewelry-making. There could also be courses for adults on basic computer and digital photography skills.
Moberg said he’d also love to see a substation for the Sheriff’s Office and a permanent EMS station since first responders usually have to drive over to the community from Franklin. Guffey said, however, the volume of calls in Cowee are likely too low for law enforcement to move in.
Many participants favored a focus on historical preservation with museum space.
“There’s so much history here in Cowee,” said Moberg. “We want to make sure and exhibit that.”
With the historic Cowee mound nearby, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has also been participating to ensure any Cherokee exhibit is historically accurate.
After ideas are gathered on how to use the school, consultants will have to come up with a concrete business plan on how to use every inch of the building.
Fundraising will also be integral in moving the project forward.
“We’re going to need community support, there’s no question,” said Moberg. “I hope the community will rise to the occasion and help with fundraising.”
While Moberg said he’d like to see the school be self-sustaining, Lynn Shields, executive director of the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center, said revenue from programs aren’t enough to cover costs. Despite its success, the Stecoah center still relies on grants and donations to subsidize operations.
“It’s a constant struggle,” said Shields. “We are still reliant upon grant funding. The search for funds is constant. It is not self-sustaining at this point.”
Shields’ advice for the Cowee group is to stay focused on the mission.
“It takes a long time,” said Shields. “You just have to hang in there and show up every day.”