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Wednesday, 09 May 2007 00:00

Hootnoggers: History, definitely delightful

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First, the tomatoes. Then the applause.

Rob Neufeld’s Mountains, Heroes & Hootnoggers: A Popular History of Western North Carolina (The History Press, ISBN 978-1-59629-183-6, $19.95) is not, as its title suggests, a popular history of Western North Carolina, but is instead a collection of anecdotes and sketches, arranged in a loose chronology, about people and events in these mountains.

In a joint note at the beginning of the book, Neufeld and his publisher, The History Press of Charleston, S.C., serve notice that Hootnoggers, as I will call it here for the purpose of brevity and because I like the taste of the word, is “offered without guarantee on the part of the author or The History Press. The author and the History Press disclaim all liability in connection with the use of this book.”

Never before have I read such a disclaimer by a book claiming to be history; I’m not even certain what the author means by such a statement. On the very next page Neufeld assures us that he is an historian; if so, he seems nervous and tentative in his practice of that craft. In his “Preface,” in which he briefly introduces us to his ideas on history and historians, Neufeld also appears confused. He writes, for example, “tell the stories and let the truth follow, I feel.” He then immediately contradicts himself by stating that he “will state conclusions now and then — more for emphasis than definitude.” Within another two paragraphs, he writes that “...after attempts to communicate through analysis, I hastily return to parables and — even better — the recreation of experience.”

Here he surely blunders, or else is careless in his use of language, for a parable is a short story, fictitious, with some sort of moral or religious meaning. Historians, even floundering amateurs, do not resort to parables in recounting the past.

Even the physical placement of the title of Hootnoggers will leave readers somewhat baffled. Looking at the book, it is impossible to tell whether its title is A Popular History of Western North Carolina: Mountains, Heroes & Hootnoggers or Mountains, Heroes & Hootnoggers: A Popular History of Western North Carolina. An examination of the front cover, back cover, front piece, and blurbs of Hootnoggers does not clear up this mystery.

However the title reads, Hootnoggers is in fact a collection, revised and expanded, of Neufeld’s writings for the Asheville Citizen-Times, where he serves as book reviewer and the creator of a local history feature, “Visiting Our Past.” Rather than billing the book as a history, both the author and the publisher should have touted Hootnoggers as stories collected from Western North Carolina.

With these quarrels pushed aside, let me add that Hootnoggers will please most of its readers. Ranging from accounts of the Cherokee and the first coming of the white man to the present, Hootnoggers brings to life an array of characters and events from our region. A long and well-written article tells us about Lois Queen Farthing and her work as a business woman and philanthropist in Cherokee. We learn about the “girls of Candler,” the young women at Candler High School who played championship basketball and who were “encouraged to excel in school, sports and the working world.” We learn about minorities and their role in Asheville, Jewish merchants who opened dry goods stores, African-Americans who brought jazz and blues to the music scene.

Rob Neufeld does some of his best writing in regard to the Civil War and its effect on mountain people. He calls attention to the research that Western North Carolinians supported the Confederacy in far greater numbers than previously thought and correspondingly raises the question of how many Northern sympathizers actually inhabited the mountains. Quoting Terrell Garren, who also studied the influence of Union sympathizers in the mountains, Neufeld tells us that “On April 1, 1861, Western North Carolina was mostly Union in sentiment. On April 15, 1861, after Lincoln called for troops, it was 99 percent Confederate.”

Other aspects of the Civil War examined by Neufeld include the facts behind Charles Frasier’s Cold Mountain, the truth about the Shelton Laurel Massacre, and an analysis of the murder by his own men of Captain Blous Edney, apparently in retaliation for organizing a Home Guard and tracking down deserters.

Miller also excels in his miniature sketches of different mountain people. In just a few sentences, he tells us about Robert Love and how he first came to what is now Haywood County with the Rutherford expedition, the force of nearly 3,000 men who came to battle the Cherokee in 1776. Of Love, who was one of Haywood County’s earliest pioneers and its greatest landholder, Neufeld writes:

When you think of Robert Love, think of George Washington: a surveyor, speculator, soldier, gentleman farmer, slave owner, horseman and dandy. “As a very wealthy and influential man,” a Love genealogist writes, “he had worn a powdered wig on formal occasions in his earlier years, and he maintained his old-fashioned attire, except for the wig, after fashions changed, wearing a blue swallow-tail and knee britches with silver knee buckles and silk stockings.”

“Haywood County in 1810,” Neufeld then concludes with a delightful sense of humor, “was a place where the most common store-bought items were saddles, lead, cotton cards, steel and flint. Knee buckles were a rarity.”

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