By Julia Merchant • Contributing writer
As a professional storyteller, Tim Hall is no stranger to spinning yarns — but it’s in Western North Carolina that Hall hopes to weave his biggest story yet.
Hall’s ambitions of creating a five-story Storytelling Center of the Southern Appalachians in downtown Bryson City may seem sky high, but according to him, they’re anything but a tall tale.
Today, Hall’s dream is not much more than a sign that hangs in the window of the 1910 Citizens Bank Building on Everett Street, proclaiming the site the future home of the Storytelling Center. Hall has already taken out a 30-year-lease on the building, and envisions it one day housing a museum, storytelling center, live radio broadcast, and an entire wing dedicated to research and education of the Southern Appalachian region.
“It encompasses all sorts of new ideas that we’ve always wanted to see here but just could never seem to get the ball rolling,” says Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce. “I really admire his initiative and the scope of the plan.”
Securing enough funding will be the most important factor in getting Hall’s vision off the ground, and likely the most challenging. Hall has personally paid for all the expenses related to the Center so far but can’t continue to do so.
Hall estimates it will cost $2.4 million to renovate the building and build a five-story addition. He hopes to raise the money through donations, grants, benefactors, members and sponsors.
Treasure trove of tales
Hall, who lives near Atlanta and collects stories throughout the South, felt like he had stumbled upon a treasure trove when he first visited Bryson City several years ago.
“I think it’s one of the most glorious cultures that there is in the world,” Hall says. “Story after story can be found here.”
Because of its remote character and independent spirit, the area clung to a way of life that had long been abandoned in many other places. There are still plenty of old-timers walking the streets who remember what it was like to build a cabin or cook over an open fire. And Hall has collected these tales by simply sitting downtown and striking up conversations with people.
“I’ve had 85-year-old men sit down next to me and talk to me for two hours,” Hall says.
The stories of Bryson City residents became fodder for the show Crossroads, Hall’s first foray into radio, which was broadcast on 1590 AM WBHN in Bryson City. Subjects have included the once-booming logging town of Proctor and a local midwife who is said to have birthed nearly 1,000 babies.
“I like for folks to feel like they’re sitting in the main room of a log cabin in front of the fire in mid-January, when Grandpa’s in the rocker telling them a story,” Hall says. “That’s the type of stories I like to tell.”
A lost art
It’s a tradition that’s quickly disappearing, Hall says, as more modern forms of entertainment, like video games and the Internet, have come to replace it.
“We’ve lost the art of being able to sit down and tell a story,” he says. “I want people to understand that a story doesn’t have to be anything projected; that the mind itself can paint a wonderful picture.”
When one hears Hall’s vivid depictions, it’s easy to be transported to times gone by.
“What I like about storytelling is taking people on the journey,” Hall says. “I want people not to just hear the story, but to listen to the sounds of the birds in the forest or the chaos of the lumber yards in Proctor.”
Bringing history to life in the way that storytelling does creates a level of understanding and appreciation of the past that is “sorely needed” in today’s world, says Wilmot.
“Museums are nice, but there’s just something about seeing people do it,” she says.
Storytelling is sometimes thought of as children’s entertainment, but Hall says he enjoys telling stories to adults even more, because he can watch them connect with his words and transport themselves back to a past era.
“Everybody can relate to these stories — they think back to their family and their heritage,” Hall says.
Hall is optimistic that storytelling won’t be lost completely. He believes there’s been a recent trend toward remembering and preserving the past.
“More people are coming back to their heritage and their history than in the past,” he says. “An awful lot of it is being lost, and people are realizing that.”
Hall envisions the Storytelling Center for the Southern Appalachians playing a key role in preserving the mountain’s rich heritage. He has spent three years so far cultivating his idea, incorporating the nonprofit Psalms of the South to back the project and securing a home for the Center.
Hall’s long-range vision calls for converting the Citizens Bank Building into a museum of regional history. Behind the bank building, Hall wants to build a five-story research and education center that will host live broadcasts of his show Crossroads, as well as lectures and classes on Southern Appalachian topics.
Plans for the Center “are set in stone, but not in granite,” says Hall.
“I have preliminary drawings of the proposed interior, but nothing is finalized,” he says. “It is a work in progress. Each step towards opening the doors of the center brings challenges and rewards.”
The first phase of the project, restoring the historic Citizens Bank Building, is currently on hold. An engineering firm’s structural analysis of the building uncovered asbestos and lead paint, which must be removed before restoration can begin. The roof, which was found to be in poor condition and contains asbestos, must also be replaced. It will cost approximately $100,000 to perform these tasks.
“The funds for this work must be acquired, and the work performed, prior to the restoration beginning,” says Hall.
While Hall tries to raise $100,000 for the roof repairs, the larger goal of $2.4 million looms ahead. While there is no shortage of philosophical support for the project, the lack of activity on the ground has made some “a bit cautious,” according to Gary Carden, one of the region’s best-known storytellers
Carden agreed the idea of a storytelling center is a fantastic one.
“In fact, I would be willing to contact a platoon of storytellers who would gladly contribute their talents to the ‘dream center,’” Carden said.
Carden uses that term because in his eyes, the Center is still more of a hope and vision than an actual place. He says the proposed Center has yet to initiate a storytelling activity.
“Something needs to happen other than radio shows and the display of grandiose blueprints,” Carden says. “We need an announced program, the names of participating storytellers and an audience.”
Carden says that the obstacles Hall has already encountered won’t deter the region’s storytellers from getting involved with the Center, as long as “the Center will define goals that they can relate to and if the Center will conduct activities in which they can participate.”
To advance his fundraising goals, Hall held a public information meeting about the Center this past Saturday (Aug. 29). He said he’s already worked with the Partnership for Swain County to identify possible grants and loans. He has also hired Jerry Span, former director of activities at Fontana Village, to direct public relations for the project.
Wilmot hopes that ultimately, Hall’s vision will strike a chord with people and translate into success though it may take a while.
“Anything this large in scope will seem like he’s got a long way to go, but I think the community will embrace the idea,” says Wilmot, who pledged the Swain County Chamber’s support for the endeavor. “We do have a unique heritage and culture here, and we certainly need to work to preserve that.”