Appalachian sisters joined by creative ‘spirit’

art frAmy Ammons Garza has always looked out for her little sister, Doreyl Ammons Cain.

“Make sure you mention when the mural will be unveiled,” Garza said. “She’s always forgetting things.”

“I am not,” Cain countered with a laugh. “Ever since we were kids, she’s made sure everything I needed is taken care of.”

Appalachian Women’s Museum finally gets Monteith House

fr monteithhouseThe Appalachian Women’s Museum finally has a home to call its own.

Dillsboro town council members agreed Monday to lease a section of the historic Monteith farmstead to the organization, whose members have sought a brick and mortar place to honor the feats of Appalachian women.

Railroad, Jackson leaders at impasse on plan to bring train back to Dillsboro

fr trainThe news of stalled talks between the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and Jackson County was met with mixed feelings in the little village of Dillsboro, which once served as the hub for the bustling scenic railroad.

Critics try to derail train stimulus in Jackson

The great Dillsboro train debate rolled on in Jackson County Monday with a public hearing this week on whether the county should give the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad $700,000 in exchange for the promise of more riders and tourists.

Will Jackson ante up to bring tourist train back to Dillsboro?

Jackson County is one step closer to giving money to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to outfit the scenic rail line with a refurbished steam engine in hopes of getting a tourist boost in return.

Mural project aimed at renewal

art muralsA mural project called “On Hallowed Ground” aims to honor the heritage of Dillsboro, showcase artistic talents and lend a hand in the revitalization of the village.

Business owners lobby for train at every turn

fr tillisSince the headquarters of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad moved from Dillsboro to Bryson City in 2008, the little picturesque tourist village in Jackson County has been waiting for its gravy train to return.

Some say good riddance as sweepstakes machines pull out of Dillsboro

Business in Dillsboro has continued to slow during the past few years, to the point that even the cash cow of video sweepstakes parlors pulled out after a brief run.

A couple of businesses have closed this year, including the Dillsboro Smokehouse Bar-B-Que — continuing a slow but steady exodus of shops in the three years since the tourist railroad once based in Dillsboro moved its operations to Bryson City.

Tuckasegee River revival: Demolition of Dillsboro dam restores aquatic life

In the two years since the Dillsboro Dam was torn down, the Tuckasegee River has become home to a growing number of aquatic species, from mussels to insects to fish, as natural river habitat has been restored.

“We’re certainly glad that it’s gone,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Mark Cantrell said last week. “The response was immediate.”

Duke Energy demolished the 12-foot high, 310-foot long dam in February 2010 as environmental mitigation for several other larger dams it operates in the region. Jackson County battled for seven years to keep the dam. It wanted to make the dam a centerpiece of a new public park and promenade, complete with walking paths, benches, fishing areas and river access. Plus, the county argued the dam was historically important to the community.

Duke, however, succeeded in removing the small and ancient dam as compensation for using the Tuck in its lucrative hydropower operations, which net the utility millions annually.

Duke’s contention that the river would be better off environmentally without the Dillsboro dam does seem to have come true, according to Cantrell.

“What we’re seeing now is the rebirth of that section of river and a confirmation of the decision to remove it. There’s no question about it — if you are an angler, boater, fish or bug, the Tuckasegee River is better with the Dillsboro Dam removed,” he said.

Jackson County trout fisherman Craig Green said that he supported the removal of the dam and has been happy to see the river return to its natural free-flowing state.

“Recovery is a strange word — it wasn’t that things were bad, but clearly the dam removal has enhanced the flow for the fish to move back and forth,” said Green, who is a past president of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River.


A tourist attraction

Cantrell described the physical shape of the former river as coming back in “a really impressive” manner.

The dam had turned a nearly mile-long stretch of the river behind it into a slow-moving backwater. The backwater was 310 feet wide — the same width as the dam — but the natural river bed is just 50 or so feet wide.

To Mark Singleton, a paddler in Sylva, the removal of the dam “was like unwrapping a big old Christmas present.” He couldn’t wait to see what the river’s natural contour would be like once it returned to its true form.

With the dam gone, boaters discovered a natural rock ledge below the surface where the dam used to be. The ledge doesn’t deter experienced kayakers, he said, but it is a bit too challenging for beginning boaters to use, so most bypass that section.

“It doesn’t get paddled a lot,” said Singleton, the director of American Whitewater, a national paddling and river advocacy group based in Sylva.

As part of the mitigation, Duke Energy was required to build a public river access just upstream from the former dam site. On one side of the river, there is a parking area, restrooms and a boat put-in. On the other side is a more primitive parking lot used mainly by fishermen.

James Jackson, owner of Tuckasegee Outfitters, said the removal of the dam and the subsequent growth in visitors coming to raft has been measureable. He estimated yearly business growth of 10 to 15 percent in terms of visitation.

“I think it is one of the larger tourist attractions in Jackson County,” Jackson said of rafting on the Tuckasegee.


The recovery to date

By removing Dillsboro Dam, river species that had vacated the mile-long backwater behind the dam have now returned.

“One of a dam’s great impacts on a river is changing the area behind it from a free-flowing river to a reservoir, typically unsuitable habitat for most native stream species,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell said the dam acted as a barrier for a number of fish species, some that needed to go upriver to spawn. The sluggish water previously held behind the dam also acted as a barrier to certain fish, he said.

Twice a year in 2008, 2010 and 2011, biologists such as Cantrell monitored fish and other aquatic life, providing a before-and-after picture of how dam removal affected the river, especially at the site of the former backwater.

A species considered foremost during dam removal discussions was the Appalachian elktoe, a federally endangered mussel found only in Western North Carolina and a sliver of East Tennessee. The elktoe did not exist in the pooled-up backwater behind the dam, but monitoring has now found more than 140 elktoe mussels in the stretch, a sign the previously bisected population will reconnect, strengthening its long-term viability.

Before removal, the reservoir area was home to a diminished variety of macroinvertebrates. These insects, crayfish, and other animals without backbones form much of the life in a stream ecosystem. Just more than a year after the removal, macroinvertebrate diversity had increased, on par with sites upstream and downstream of the reservoir site. Among macroinvertebrates, biologists often pay special attention to mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies, which tend to be sensitive to water quality and are indicators of stream health.

Following removal, the diversity of these three insect groups increased dramatically in the former reservoir area — from a monitoring low of only two types in October 2008 to a high of 40 in May 2011. Using macroinvertebrate numbers and diversity as a measure of stream health, their return lifted this stretch of river from a “poor” quality rating in 2008 to a “good” ranking in May 2011.

“It all seems to be right on track,” Cantrell said.

As expected, fish diversity has responded somewhat more slowly to the dam removal, though biologists have noted the fish community is shifting to one typical of a Western North Carolina river, and the number of fish species dependent on flowing water is increasing. Additionally, in May 2011, biologists found an olive darter, a species of conservation concern for state and federal biologists, upstream of the dam site for the first time. The discovery could mean the fish took advantage of the dam’s removal to expand its range into upstream habitat.

Biologists also made an encouraging discovery downstream of the dam site. For several days in 2008 and 2009, biologists scoured the river downstream of the dam searching for mussels. They uncovered 1,137 Appalachian elktoes, which were all systematically tagged and moved upstream, away from potential harm from the demolition.

“Regarding the health and well-being of the Tuckasegee River, removing Dillsboro Dam has been a success,” said Hugh Barwick, Duke Energy biologist who managed the dam removal and biological monitoring. “The removal was a positive step in improving aquatic life in the Tuckasegee River in the vicinity of the former dam and reservoir.”

WCU calls on Sylva and Dillsboro to paint their towns purple

Sylva might not exactly be your classic college town — it's certainly not Chapel Hill or Boone. But efforts to bind this community with Western Carolina University have taken catamount-like bounds forward recently.

The evidence?

First, there's a "paint the towns purple" week running Monday, March 19, through Friday, March 23, with students and campus groups adorning storefronts in the official purple and gold colors of WCU. This decking out of Sylva, Dillsboro and the Cullowhee area foreshadows the official installation of new Chancellor David Belcher. He interviewed for the job just more than a year ago, and officially started last July, but the installation ceremony takes place Thursday, March 29.

Secondly, there's the fact that WCU's "First Couple," Chancellor Belcher and wife Susan, are on a first-name basis with many business owners in town. Previous sightings of top WCU administrators in town were as rare as spotting actual catamounts stalking Sylva's downtown district.

These days, though, there's a new top cat in town.


'Purple pride'

T.J. Eaves, president of WCU's Student Government Association, said that he believes the "paint the towns" purple event will help introduce more students to businesses off-campus, and help business owners in turn promote "purple pride."

"We're really looking forward to it," said Eaves, who added that "when students do get downtown, maybe they'll keep on going" after the event ends.

Randy Hooper and his wife, Debbie, own Bryson Farm Supply & Natural and Organic Food Store on N.C. 107 in Sylva. Hooper said that it's easy to underestimate the importance of WCU to the local economy, and to the financial wellbeing of his particular business as well.

"It would surprise you," Hooper said, explaining that in addition to selling food items to students and a complete inventory of food, garden and lawn items to faculty and staff, WCU's grounds crew buys much of the material for campus from Bryson Farm Supply.

"We get really good support from them," Hooper said, who wasn't sure yet what role his business might play in the paint the towns purple event.

Special deals will be offered all day March 26 by local merchants and restaurants to WCU students, faculty and staff who show their university identification cards.

Sylva town board member Lynda Sossamon, a WCU graduate and co-owner of Radio Shack, said in a prepared news release that the events are "a great reminder" of how important WCU is to Jackson County's communities.

"This is a great way to bring students, faculty and staff into Sylva and Dillsboro and to get members of the community, some of whom may have never set foot on campus, to go to campus," she said. "We truly are a part of WCU, and WCU is a part of Sylva and all of Jackson County."


Forging friendships

Dieter Kuhn, who with his wife, Sheryl Rudd, owns Heinzelmännchen Brewery, is at something of a loss to describe the first time he met the Belchers. Chancellor Belcher promptly engaged Kuhn in a lengthy intricate conversation — in the German language.

"He is totally fluent," said Kuhn, a transplant from Germany to the U.S., still clearly delighted with the unexpected language and cultural exchange with WCU's man at the helm.

Students under 21 can get birch beer and root beer at Heinzelmännchen Brewery; graduate students and faculty and staff can get the real stuff, and often do, Rudd said when asked about how important a role WCU plays at this back street in Sylva business.

Hannah Armstrong, who started as a WCU intern at Heinzelmännchen Brewery and now works for the business part time after graduating two years ago, said Sylva has a long way to go before becoming a true college town, however.

"The students are unaware in general that Sylva is even here," the Greensboro transplant said, adding that most WCU students tend to travel to Asheville for shopping and entertainment. Or they simply build bonfires in their yards and drink beer beside them there, Armstrong said.

Rudd hopes to see that indifference change. She was attired appropriately in a purple-colored shirt, and was working at the brewery on Saturday in part to adorn the business' front window in the school's colors. Rudd said that simply by being who they are — friendly and unassuming — the Belchers have begun changing the equation between the university and the community. And for the better, at least in her view.

"It has been wonderful to see them in downtown as customers," Rudd said. "They have actual conversations with you."

This was not what the town's business owners experienced in the past. Previous WCU administrators have had little to do with the local community, at least not in a direct fashion via business owners or other regular folks. In addition to the visibility of the Belchers, relations between WCU and Jackson County have seen additional improvement thanks to the rebirth of WCU's retired financial officer Chuck Wooten, who is now serving as Jackson County's manager.

Bernadette Peters' experience with this suddenly friendly WCU has been similar to that of Rudd's and Kuhn's: extremely positive. Peters is the owner of City Lights Café, located just off of Sylva's Main Street on East Jackson Street. The café's official color logo-wise is purple, giving Peters a head start on the paint the towns purple event.

The café is a frequent hangout for university types. Some of WCU's information technology crew meets there on occasion; several graduate students routinely study in the café.

Peters spoke warmly of David and Susan Belcher and the couple's visible presence in the community that is now their home.

"They call you by name," Peters said in a tone of some wonderment.


Special events

March 26 is being set aside as a day of special events in honor of the installation of David Belcher as chancellor of Western Carolina University. The day will be capped by a program at Sylva's Jackson County Public Library at 7 p.m. called "Reflections on Place: An Evening with Distinguished Storytellers" featuring Cherokee storyteller Jerry Wolfe; former N.C. Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer; and Ron Rash, WCU's Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture and author of The New York Times best-seller Serena. It will be followed by a reception.

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