Close your eyes and imagine this: It’s another picture-perfect Western North Carolina Wednesday morning with Chamber of Commerce weather and nary a cloud in the sky.
Fire, smoke, and efforts to make more of both fill the event pavilion at Haywood County Fair Grounds on a chilly May morning that feels more like early March. The Dutch oven class gathers around a fire in the right corner of the open-walled building, the blacksmiths get ready for their afternoon class in the far end and a cotton ball flames placidly atop the green metal case that Doug Knight is using to hold flint rocks for his fire-starting class. Class is in full swing, but nobody is paying the burning cotton any mind. They’re all too busy trying to ignite nests of frayed rope and char cloth with hard-won sparks from flint and steel.
It’s harder than it looks.
At Carolina Readiness Supply in Waynesville you can buy freeze-dried macaroni and cheese by the 20-ounce can and a solar oven in which to warm it.
You can get a woven bracelet in a variety of fashionable colors that converts into handy lengths of cord. Then, in theory at least, you are prepared for almost anything: making simple repairs to your backpack, starting a fire with a friction bow or fashioning a ladder for an elaborate escape from some futureristic prison.
You can buy emergency kits that contain quick-assemble shelter and his-her hygiene necessities, water purification systems, lanterns of every type and variety, and 50 pounds of pinto beans packed for 25 years safe storage. You can outfit an entire library of books on survival subjects, from square-foot gardening to “Bug Out: A Complete Plan for Escaping a Catastrophe.”
At Carolina Readiness Supply, you can —just as the store name promises — get ready. For what exactly? Take your pick: Armageddon, if you choose; or just the winter’s inevitable big, electric-ending and roads-closing snowstorm.
“Will you be ready when the lights go out?” serves as the slogan of Carolina Readiness Supply, owned by Bill and Jan Sterrett. It’s a question that many in the region, and the nation, are now trying to answer.
There is a word in our modern lexicon for the Bill and Jan Sterretts of the world. They are dubbed “preppers.” These are people who have been made uneasy, for a variety of reasons, and who believe they need to prepare for potential huge changes: A terrorist attack, a devastating plague, a national technology failure or, perhaps, biological warfare.
Some preppers store enough food, water and supplies to last a month or two; others have much bigger plans and fears. They want to survive in whatever new reality would follow a societal collapse. They see prepping as an insurance policy of sorts: protection for themselves and their families in the event of major catastrophe — a catastrophe they hope never strikes. But if it does, they plan on being ready.
On the most extreme end, there are people in this region busy building and supplying bunkers. But the problem with bunker-builders, at least for the reporter writing on these topics, is that these are folks who aren’t particularly eager to clue others into their whereabouts and actual identities. After all, if there’s a huge crisis, you don’t exactly want to be the only place in the area identified as bunker-safe and food-ready.
Bill Sterrett is a familiar figure in Haywood County. He retired in January 2007 as chief deputy for the Haywood County Sheriff’s Department.
Sterrett does not strike an observer as the hysterical type. He speaks only after due consideration, and so softly that, in a conversation, you soon find yourself murmuring questions in return and leaning forward to hear his answers.
Sterrett described himself as a man who has a deep interest in the traditional ways of doing for oneself and one’s family, and of simple living in general.
The economy started derailing not long after Sterrett’s retirement from law enforcement. Sterrett, like many in the U.S., looked to his investments and wondered what best to do. He had considered divesting himself of property, and of buying and working a small farm, but given ever-increasing financial restraints that dream seemed an ever more remote possibility.
“I wanted to learn the old ways, and to be self reliant,” Sterrett said in explanation. “But the economy sometimes dictates what you can and cannot do. I grew concerned about the value of paper money in the bank, and felt that it would be better to convert our cash dollars into commodities.”
That led to the idea of Carolina Readiness Supply. But his wife, Jan, wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic participant in her husband’s plans, at least not initially.
“I’m like, ‘OK, whatever,’” she said. “I told him, ‘Go ahead, do what you want.’”
Then Jan Sterrett read One Second After by Montreat College Professor William R. Forstchen, a book she now sells by the hundreds to others off the bookshelves of Carolina Readiness Supply. This apocalyptic novel, a New York Times bestseller, tells the story of a man struggling to save his family and his small town in Western North Carolina after an electromagnetic pulse sends America into a post-modern version of the Dark Ages.
After that frightening, eye-opening read, Jan Sterrett was ready to get ready, too. For what, she wasn’t exactly sure, but ready Jan Sterrett planned on being. Her husband no longer sounded a solo tune; One Second After resulted in a harmonious husband-wife duet.
“I knew we had to do something,” Jan Sterrett said. “We had to.”
Jan Sterrett, in turn, sent the book to her trauma-surgeon son, who lives in Pheonix, after he asked skeptical questions about his parents’ plans post-Dad’s retirement.
“He called back after reading it and told me, ‘Now I understand,’” Jan Sterrett said, adding that her son and his medical partners are now, too, “getting ready.”
Troy Leatherwood might not be the exact textbook definition of a prepper, but he’s a fellow with an abiding interest in living off the land. His family did just that for six generations on their property in Jonathan Valley in Haywood County. The 56-year-old licensed contractor has subsequently made a professional living elsewhere, including selling real estate in Balsam Preserve. His brother, John, still farms the family land.
Together, the brothers want to convert part of the family spread into a subdivision for others interested in living off the land — a prepping place, if you will, for preppers.
The Leatherwoods, Troy Leatherwood said, want to form a community of like-minded individuals. People who want to learn the old ways through classes on topics such as blacksmithing, gardening and so on.
Leatherwood’s idea was rooted in observations from the Internet. He noted that a particular survival blog was receiving an amazing amount of weekly “hits,” and that “a lot of the stuff on there was what mountain people grew up with.”
A light-bulb moment, of sorts, occurred.
“We should sell and market what we know,” Troy Leatherwood told his brother, and fill an obvious and growing business niche. Make some money and help some people at the same time, he said.
John Leatherwood was agreeable. The brothers are now using 16 acres of their family’s land, divided into 10 lots. They plan on having irrigated raised beds for gardening, plus other homesteading-oriented amenities. They’ve planted fruit trees, and move-ins can help and learn on the family’s currently operating, neighboring farm, Troy Leatherwood said.
The Leatherwoods plan to work on the property over the winter. They are accepting applications now, however.
Troy Leatherwood emphasizes that he isn’t a doomsayer. But he believes even harder times could come to the U.S., and that it would be foolhardy for people not to prepare, not to be ready.
“I call it being smart enough to realize that there are real dangers out there,” he said, adding that more and more technology means an ever-increasing risk of dangers.
The demand for goods sold at Carolina Readiness Supply seems to be increasing. Jan and Bill Sterrett moved recently from a previous location on Depot Street because they outgrew the space.
From the looks of it, they might soon outgrow the floor space of this newer store, too. The Sterretts would like to add a line of woodstoves to their offerings, and possibly other readiness supplies as well.
Jan Sterrett said that to her knowledge, there’s not another store in the Southeast quite like Carolina Readiness Supply. And the growing customer base seems to confirm that — a guestbook used to build an email network for the store indicates people coming to shop here are from across the region. But they also hail from other neighboring states: Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia.
The Sterretts are clearly enjoying their new line of work. Bill Sterrett said they are learning, too, through researching new products and determining how best to use them. It isn’t exactly the small farm he once dreamed of working, but Carolina Readiness Supply, Bill Sterrett said, is fulfilling a dream that he never quite before knew existed.
Here’s how much food an average family of four would need to last a year.
Wheat 175 lbs
Flour 20 lbs
Quinoa 30 lbs
Rolled Oats 50 lbs
White Rice 80 lbs
Pearled Barley 5 lbs
Spaghetti or Macaroni 40 lbs
Dry Beans 45 lbs
Dry Soy Beans 2 lbs
Dry Split Peas 2 lbs
Dry Lentils 2 lbs
Dry Soup Mix 7 lbs
Peanut Butter 1 qt
Almond Butter 1 qt
Nonfat Dry Milk 14 lbs
Granulated Sugar 40 lbs
Molasses 1 lb
Honey 3 lbs
Beef Gelatin 1 lb
Salt 8 lbs
Dry Yeast 0.5 lbs
Source: Good Earth Health Food store