By Colby Dunn • Correspondent
This week, kids across America will learn the story of the first Thanksgiving. How the pilgrims, beleaguered and starving, broke bread with their Wampanoag neighbors, who extended a helping hand, teaching them to grow the corn and squash that kept them alive. They celebrated a meal to give thanks that at least some of them had survived the first winter, and that they finally had a successful harvest. So in terms of how we celebrate today, the timing, at least, is right.
It was the only thing he knew how to do. It was the only thing he wanted to do.
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was a moonshiner, through and through. Meandering the thick woods surrounding Maggie Valley, and points beyond in Southern Appalachia, Sutton gained a reputation throughout the Southeast as the maker of the finest ‘shine ever created. For decades, he kept making liquor even after being caught on a handful of occasions.
Growing up on the Isleta Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, 26-year-old Cody Grant could name off the tribes he descended from — Cherokee, two sects of Pueblo — but he didn’t know anything about them, except their names.
“For me, it was because culturally, I was lacking,” said Grant, who split his time between New Mexico and Cherokee as a child. “I didn’t place big stock in cultural values.”
David Burress wants to live forever.
Not necessarily in the immortal sense though. Burress is an accomplished blacksmith. And for him, it’s all about sharing and perpetuating the sacred traditions of working with the elements of the Earth — fire, water, metal, wind and coal.
In order to have a clear vision of the future, one must cherish the traditions of the past.
“Southern Appalachian traditions are our heritage,” said Beth Woody. “They made us what we are today. To know who we are now, we need to know who and what we came from.”
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.
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.
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.
It took just moments for this roomful of 60 people with their varying musical backgrounds and abilities to unite in song. But they did just that thanks to the guidance of shape-note teacher Anne Lough of Haywood County, who walked them through the basics of this historic musical method.
Lough is an instructor and performer, versed in traditional singing, storytelling, folklore, folk dance and the shape-note tradition. An enthusiastic and charismatic speaker — even on this day with the start of a bad cold — Lough is exceptionally skilled at persuading shy potential musicians to forget their hesitations and join in an old-fashioned sing-along like this one last week at Lake Junaluska. The “sing” was part of the monthly “Live and Learn” series, which features guest speakers and authors on an array of topics, from history to the environment, and in this case, heritage.
“This connects people with their heritage,” Lough said after the event. “This really is Americana — whether they are Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian.”
Shape notes are a musical notation in which symbols or “shapes” — diamonds, squares, upside-down triangles, right-side-up triangles and so on — match solfege syllables (think do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do). Shape notes allow singers to learn tunes easily and quickly than learning to read music — even the explanation takes longer and is more difficult to grasp than the actual shape-note system.
People who have encountered shape-note singing don’t soon forget the experience. Kate Thurber, a resident of Massachusetts who winters in Waynesville, first heard the unique singing at a Mountain Heritage Day event a couple years ago. She was at the traditional arts and crafts venue at Western Carolina University in the company of a friend.
“It was pouring the rain and we happened to go in a building and they happened to be doing shaped note singing. It was beautiful,” said Thurber, who welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the technique.
Culture and music, Lough told the crowd, go hand in hand: shape notes “are part of our Protestant hymn tradition here in America,” she said. “It’s very important to American musical history.”
And the Southern Appalachians have a particularly rich tradition in shape-note singing, one that lives on in “sings” today.
Initially in America, the pilgrims were strictly singers of psalms. They used the Ainsworth Psalter, published in Holland in 1612 and brought to these shores in 1620.
But culture and music do indeed go together, and as the decades passed and more secular folk arrived in America, purely religious singing gave way to more casual singing in the community.
Rote learning, the primary method of teaching and learning vocal pieces, was slow and cumbersome.
Enter shape-note singing, a means to help singing teachers help those wanting to sing. A three-shape system dominated pre-Civil War; after that, a seven-shape system came on the scene, too, not so much replacing the previous notations as supplementing them. But the system’s roots are much more ancient than America, Lough said.
Guido of Arezzo, a medieval monk, is believed to have created a method of teaching vocal songs that was dubbed the Guidonian Hand. In this system, each portion of the hand represented a specific note. While teaching, the music instructor would indicate which notes to sing by pointing at his hand.
From a simple hand grew entire musical-notation systems.
Lough, a native of Virginia, has lived in Western North Carolina with her husband, Rob, since the 1990s. She said the musical culture here has proven a wonderful experience for the couple: Rob Lough, like his wife, is a musician.
“I could never have imagined the richness, the interest in preservation” found here in WNC, Lough said, who added she doubted that there is anywhere else outside this region that would have allowed her to make her living as a musician. Lough plays the autoharp, guitar, hammered and mountain dulcimer.
Never tell people how to do things, said the indefatigable General George S. Patton. Instead, he said, tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
That viewpoint resonates clearly with Lori Anderson, and it’s why she’s working hard to keep old Appalachian traditions alive, remembering their creativity in an age where such resourcefulness is becoming increasingly harder to come by.
“The thing I rely on most about the past and history is their ingenuity. Here they were in the mountains and they had to figure it out themselves,” said Anderson. “I think that’s something that we’re losing, that if someone doesn’t show you how to do it or do it for you, you’re not going to do it.”
Anderson is a corn shuck artist, and her craft is not one that is practiced or passed down by many in the 21st century. She herself learned the art by self teaching and trial-and-error, before connecting with her mentor, Annie Lee Bryson, known regionally as the corn shuck doll lady.
Then she got plugged into the heritage and tradition that comes with corn shuck art, and when Bryson died last year, she shouldered the burden of keeping the Appalachian art alive.
Though most of what corn shucks are known for in the mountains is dolls, Anderson’s passion in the craft lies elsewhere.
“As I was apprenticing with her (Bryson), I could see the passion that she had for making her dolls. That was her joy,” said Anderson. “So, instead of grabbing a hold of her corn shuck joy, I found my own: corn shuck wildflowers.”
Her flowers are stunning replicas of the plants found here in the Smoky Mountains, and thanks to them, she was recently accepted into the prestigious Southern Highland Craft Guild.
In the absence of her friend and teacher, however, Anderson is now doing double duty, with one hand in the past, teaching and demonstrating the traditional corn shuck doll techniques that Bryson perfected and propagated, and the other moving forward, using the husks to make ever more unorthodox creations, stretching and redefining the boundaries of the craft.
But mostly, she’s trying to keep it alive. There are very few books around that teach the intricacies of corn shuck art — Anderson said that every time she comes across one, she snaps it up. And the human resources like Bryson who taught widely in the past are dwindling.
So Anderson goes into schools and fairs and places such as Western Carolina University’s annual Mountain Heritage Day to expose more people to an art that has roots in their communities.
“A lot of times the kids don’t even know what a corn shuck is,” said Anderson. “They think the corn comes frozen in the three-inch little cobs.”
It’s truths like that which keep Anderson pursuing the heritage art of corn husks, keeping up a steady education campaign and demonstrating regularly at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and elsewhere.
Technology, she said, is proving a bane to the ingenuity that birthed many of the Appalachian crafts that are, today, revered. Figuring out how to make something of what you have, said Anderson, is the crux of Appalachian heritage crafting, and it’s a skill she’s trying to keep alive and cultivate.
This, of course, hasn’t always been her livelihood. Anderson was born and raised in Florida, but spent summer vacations from childhood at Deep Creek in Swain County, instilling in her a deep love of the mountain community.
When an opportunity popped up for she and her husband to relocate to Bryson City in 1998, they leapt at the chance.
Crafting has always been a part of her life — she even bought a load of quilting supplies before the move, expecting to pick up the traditional mountain art — but it’s not until she got here that corn husk creating found her and she found Bryson.
“She had taught for all those years and, you know, some people were mildly interested in them,” said Anderson. But until she came along, there was no torchbearer. For her part, Anderson plans to be a little more vocal about passing on the art than her predecessor.
“I think I’m not going to be so quiet,” she laughs, when asked about where her replacement will come from. “Because I think it’s very important, to learn the old ways of doing things is very important.”
Even if you’re using the old ways to make new things.
For the last six years, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area has been waiting for signs. Twenty-two signs, to be exact, marking heritage sites in the region deemed of interest to visitors and residents.
The signs were one the original concepts when the heritage area won federal designation in 2003, and a grant to install them has been in hand for six years. But it might be two more before the first goes into the ground.
In the time they’ve been waiting, the Chrysler Building could have been constructed four times. Mars has orbited the sun three times. Twenty-four million babies have been born in the United States.
But the sign project, which is partially funded by a federal transportation enhancement funds and orchestrated by the N.C. Department of Transportation, hasn’t been able to get its feet off the ground.
Now, though, says Angie Chandler, the project is back on track.
Chandler is the executive director of the Blue Ride National Heritage Area, and she’s currently selecting a firm to head up the design and engineering of the signs. Total, the project will put up 80 signs at locations throughout the area. The first 22 are already identified and well into the process. They include places such as the Oconaluftee Indian Village and Unto These Hills, the outdoor drama outlining Cherokee history. Progress has been made, says Chandler, and she hopes to have the them all installed well before her 2013 deadline.
“I hate that the project fell into hard times and that there were some delays, but I can say that for the past 18 months, we have worked through the issues that we felt like were there, communicating with the sites, developing strong, positive communication with the NCDOT to get the project back on track,” says Chandler. “We’ll quickly see this project move into some real action.”
The history of the storied signs is a little difficult to trace, but one thing is clear: they did, indeed, fall on some hard times.
Chandler has only been manning her post for the past 18 months, so she’s not too sure what stalled the project for the four-plus years preceding her tenure.
Consensus is that there were complications and miscommunications with the folks down at the DOT. That might be a nice way of putting it, but again, it’s hard to tell. No one who started with the project is around anymore.
Marta Matthews, the DOT point person for federal transportation enhancement grants, says she’s at least the third person to have the job.
The protracted delay seems to be one part administrative muck up, one part turnover troubles and a smattering of miscellaneous obstacles thrown in.
On the administrative front, there was much confusion about when and how the grant money could be used. The money comes from the same agency that pays for highway work — the Federal Highway Administration — and there are rules that come with it. Namely, that everything must be done at once, not parceled out piecemeal. This makes sense for highways — you plan it, you design it, then you build it. But applying the same rules to informational signs is arguably less logical. All 80 signs have to be planned and designed before any could actually be ordered and put up.
DOT representative No. 1 — or was it No. 2? — took the position that the those rules wouldn’t apply here. But this is where those turnover problems come into play. That person left, and the confusion deepened when the new representative came in with the exact opposite directive.
Then there were other issues, like securing rights-of-way to put posts in the ground.
While the first 22 have been planned, the rest are still in the early stages, so the 22 that have been in a six-year holding pattern aren’t going to come out of it for another year or two.
To be included in the heritage sign program, each site must put up $1,500 on the front end and another $200 every five years for the privilege of boasting a sign. The federal dollars will serve as matching funds.
As an interim measure, Chandler and her team have put together a brochure leading visitors to the sites of future signs, places like the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Graveyard Fields, located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Haywood County.
When the heritage area announced the brochure, they said it was a way “to support these early investors in this program.” For those 22 early investors, six years is, after all, longer than one would reasonably expect to wait for a sign that’s been paid for.
But regardless of past hiccups, Matthews and Chandler are both confident that the project is picking up speed like never before.
They are, at least, on the same page, making demonstrable steps towards eventual completion. Since Chandler took the helm, they’ve produced the brochure and put out the call for a project management firm to take over the final stages.
“I think with some of the momentum they have, we’ll get this done pretty quickly,” says Matthews.
By 2013, 80 locations, including key entrances to the area, will have signs that Chandler says will increase tourist traffic and dovetail with marketing efforts to bring these historic sites a higher profile and more visitors.
And it only took nine years.
An overwhelming majority of citizens who showed up at a public hearing in Robbinsville spoke out against the Corridor K road project last Thursday (Oct. 29).
The proposed four-lane highway would supplant the winding, two-lane roads that are currently the only means of access to Graham County. In the process, it would bore a half-mile long tunnel — the longest in the state — through a mountain. It would also tower over the rural Stecoah Valley area.
Corridor K, a 127-mile route through the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, has been in the works for more than three decades. The DOT wants to start construction by 2014 on a 10-mile section of the 17-mile missing link in Graham County.
The road’s three goals are to bring economic development, end a geographic isolation N.C. DOT sees as dangerous, and improve steep and curvy roads that currently feature inadequate shoulders.
The highway would take the thousands of tractor-trailers out of the Nantahala Gorge, which is currently the main artery to reach Murphy but is clogged with buses loaded with rafters and kayakers.
David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner, said the new highway would increase tourism in Swain County, bringing more people in to raft the Nantahala and ride the train.
“It would bring in more people to Western North Carolina, period,” said Monteith.
But only two of the 22 speakers at the N.C. Department of Transportation hearing piped up in favor of the road. The rest enumerated every conceivable reason for why the road has no place in Graham County.
Bob Grove said the proposed roadway would not help Graham County’s economy. It would more likely provide easy access to a big-box chain stores like Wal-Mart than to downtown stores. For Grove, the highway provides an open invitation to local residents to head out of town to do their shopping.
Grove and many others suggested that it would be far less expensive and less destructive to improve the existing roads, rather than build a highway that would destroy the town’s main draw for tourists: scenic, winding two-lane roads.
Tom Hoffman of Virginia said he might stop coming to Graham County if the highway is built and that he would not return to “ooh and aah at a freeway interchange.”
Many voiced concerns about Robbinsville losing its rural character and transforming into yet another American “Clonesville,” with strip malls, billboards and fast-food chains lining the streets.
Others who objected said second home owners, who would surely come with the highway, would jack up tax values and drive out today’s local residents.
“It’s a euphemistic thing to be calling it economic development,” said Brian Rau of Stecoah. “To me, it’s just plain development.”
The issue hit close to home for Guy Roberts, who would lose the property that’s been in his family for five generations and more than a hundred years.
“We would like to preserve what is there for future generations,” said Roberts’ son-in-law Jeff Phillips. “I want to be able to fish with my grandchildren and have horses and cows they can play with. I want to be there for the rest of my life.”
A telling example of Graham County’s position came at two points in the night. Nearly everybody raised their hands when asked if they were against the road. When Melbe Millsaps asked who actually worked in Graham County, only a handful went up.
Millsaps said even though Corridor K would cut through her property, it would also provide more jobs and better access to education and healthcare for Graham County. Millsaps said she knows how dangerous the roads there can be after being forced to commute two hours each way to get to her nursing school.
“I think it’s time for Graham County to move into the 21st century and build the road,” Millsaps said.
Denny Mobbs, who lives in Ocoee, Tenn., agreed and said it’s time to bring some development into Graham County.
“We don’t want a pristine impoverishment,” said Mobbs.
Others worried about the road’s environmental impact, including air, noise and water pollution. The tunnel, which would be a major expense of the project, avoids the Appalachian Trail by going under it.
Melanie Mayes, a Knoxville geologist, said the N.C. DOT had not released any information about the possibility of landslides and acid leaching out of rocks.
Mayes pointed out that there was not even a single geologic map on the environmental impact study that was released. When Lewis said the N.C. DOT would give her all that information, Mayes retorted that it should have been released long ago.
Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom reminded citizens that even though Corridor K is controversial, they should realize that the county’s roads do need to be fixed in some way.
“It’s dangerous, I tell you,” said Odom. “You folks have a lot to debate, but we have some immediate needs, too.”
Let the N.C. DOT know what you think about the Corridor K Project by Dec. 4.