A place where two worlds collide head-on

By Scott Muirhead • Guest Columnist

Frog Level is what remains of the golden age of the railroads, the age when bulk goods, travelers and mail were carried exclusively by train, when neither interstate highways nor 18-wheelers existed. Some might believe that age a better time, more romantic, more soulful, and I don’t know about that.   

But it is impossible not to believe that 80 or 90 years ago there was something magical about a lone train whistle calling to a small town deep in the mountains. The train might have come from Winston-Salem, or even Raleigh itself, and it might have been headed anywhere! The train always stirred excitement with its arrival onto the Depot Street crossing. Its presence was reassuring; and if not exactly sacred, it was something, something larger than life.

I don’t suppose any train ever did depart that was not loaded with the expectations of the hopeful, and with the regrets and longing of a whole lot of the rest left standing in its ephemeral cover of smoke and steam. Trains took people away, even those who stayed behind. And nothing then was ever so quiet as the town when the train had departed.

Trains must have been revered. Their roaring and chugging and squealing and rumbling was big, sure enough, but the trains represented something even bigger, really big, bigger than the town, bigger even than the mountains themselves. Was it progress? Was it industry? Was it power?  Maybe, probably it was. But there was more. With an ear-piercing whistle blast announcing the approach into town, and then with the click-clacking of caboose wheels as they eclipsed time and space and disappeared, the great steel leviathans spoke to us, telling us unerringly that beyond the horizon there was something more.

Then center stage, Depot Street now is forlorn. The glamour of travel, of new shipments for the department store, of the unceasing energy of commerce, most of that has gone away. The brick buildings remain, but they seem sad for the most part, as if aware they are just mere remnants of another time, faded from this world. Today the freight trains that roll into town are infrequent, and they possess no mystery, just sand for the concrete plant, and lumber for the lumber yard. Trains are incongruous in a high-tech world, mere plodding nuisances to drivers in a hurry.

Frog Level is where two worlds collide, one the lunatic fringe of wastrels, the other a loose set of ambiguous rules, variously interpreted. Above Frog Level is the contemporary commerce of Main Street with all its many shops and subsidiaries, places like the county courthouse and the ubiquitous insurance agencies. Then, two blocks below Main Street is the realm of the wrong side of the tracks, where the complexities of life are less well examined. There you will find the town waver. Anytime, most any day, he’ll be somewhere between the bridge and the car wash, ambling and lurching and punching the air with his open palm at each passing car and truck.

What day is of no more importance to him than the time of that day. All that matters are the cars and trucks passing through Frog Level, his part of town, his Waynesville. It’s where the soup kitchen feeds the winos and the junkies and the ne’r-do-wells; where the chemical company mixes and brews its industrial potions; where the old has been outpaced and outmaneuvered by the new. It is that urban stretch people drive through to get to somewhere, because for them Frog Level is nowhere.

But it is a real place of real events, where can be seen, for instance, the dashed hopes and dreams of speculators emblazoned on the store fronts of stores that never opened. For a couple of years about a decade ago Frog Level had been Waynesville’s real estate bonanza of the post-Vietnam era. Deals were struck, properties were traded and sold, leases were drawn and signed and initialed. The Smoky Mountain Railroad was coming to town, bringing tourists and their money, and the prosperity of would-be merchants was just around the bend.  

Then the railroad didn’t come, and now the storefronts are boarded up or blacked out, and all those hopes and dreams have moved on down the line.

Only the soup kitchen and a coffee shop seem to prosper in the microcosm that is Frog Level. The electric motor shop and the cabinet maker and the used appliance emporium are still around, but they have been there through 30 years or more, unaffected by boom or bust.  Meanwhile the bridge over Richland Creek, just down from the cabinet shop, serves as the rooftop of a communal campground where the winos take shelter from the weather and the world. They’ve got themselves a regular cardboard condo complex down there; and nowadays they even share a cell phone. Such is the domain of the smiling waver.

It’s doubtful the man knows where he is, surely who or why he is; or whether he knows society has pegged him the crazy guy who waves at everybody. And perhaps that is why he always smiles. He smiles because of all the things he does not know. And maybe he smiles at the irony residing in the fact that so much of what he doesn’t know doesn’t matter anyhow. It implores us to ponder the question: Why do we smile who know so much? The waver sure looks happy, not to know so much.

I would bet that most people feel sorry for the waver, thinking him deprived. I don’t. When I cross over the tracks and pass him by, him standing there smiling with his open palm high in the air, I am usually enroute to a place I am compelled to go. Him, he doesn’t have to go anywhere; but I do, and I am headed to the courthouse to pay another tax on my little bundle of burdens; or to one of the insurance agencies to pay a premium to protect the little bundle; or to one of the banks to deposit the imaginary wealth of a paycheck that seems ever too small.

It’s just one of the drawbacks to prosperity, but riding with me usually are my two boon companions, Worry and Stress. I never see them hanging out with the waver, but they are well known to most all of us of the dubious fortune to be enlightened and aware and playing by all the rules.

Henry Thoreau said, long ago, that he pitied the peasant trudging beneath the weight of all his worldly possessions bundled on his back; but Thoreau did not pity the man because he had so little to his name. He pitied him because he had so much to carry.

The Frog Level waver has no bundle on his back, and he smiles and he smiles. Maybe he smiles and waves to encourage us, us who perhaps he pities.


(Scott Muirhead is a builder who lives in Maggie Valley.)

Waynesville’s special police unit puts new spin on fighting crime

Not long ago, Waynesville’s historic Frog Level district was fraught with littered beer bottles and an unrelenting band of vagrants.

“Sleeping under back decks, defecating on front doorsteps, leaving wine bottles and beer cans,” said Lieutenant Brian Beck. “The creek banks looked worse than the landfill.”

The historically bustling railroad and industrial district is just a few blocks from Main Street and was recently revitalized. But it continued to be a gathering spot for the homeless, partly due to the proximity of the Open Door soup kitchen.

Now, Beck says complaints from Frog Level have gone down drastically.

“The business owners are very happy. People can walk down the street without being accosted,” said Beck.

Crucial in the cleanup was the Special Projects Unit at the Waynesville Police Department — a division of law enforcement that is rare in most small towns, especially those west of Asheville.

Police Chief Bill Hollingsed, who has supervised similar units at other agencies, resolved to start something comparable in Waynesville about two years ago.

The Special Projects Unit currently includes five officers fully devoted to community outreach and crime prevention in neighborhoods that are regularly problematic.

“When [neighbors] have to pick up the phone and call several times a day or week over the same house or the same problem over and over again, they get frustrated, we get frustrated,” said Hollingsed. “Instead of reactively responding to calls, we’re trying to be proactive.”

Because Frog Level had its fair share of repeat offenders, SPU officers stepped up their presence in the district and even ordered litterers clean up their own trash.

“They’ve been better than better,” Brian Pierce, owner of Panacea Coffee House in Frog Level, said of the special unit officers. “Patrol officers come down usually every morning and sit in the parking lot and watch things, make their presence known.”

It’s just one example of the many projects SPU busies itself with regularly.

Officers conduct driver’s license checkpoints in areas with rampant speeding. One works full-time patrolling schools to curb drug problems and fights.

The unit also conducts D.A.R.E. programs in the school. It offers presentations to store owners on how to best secure their businesses. Officers even fingerprint children at special community events for parents to keep on file in case they are ever kidnapped.

Battling drugs

SPU officers routinely help rid neighborhoods of drug houses where illegal deals are frequently made and violence is likely to break out.

In extreme circumstances, SPU can use the civil nuisance law to force property owners to forfeit the house. Most commonly, however, drug-dealing tenants are kicked out by their landlords, according to Sergeant Sylvia McMahan with the Special Project Unit.

The SPU has helped seize cocaine and, in one case, $8,000 in drug money.

But solving most cases requires patience, McMahan points out. Officers keep detailed notes on everything they observe and keep in mind that they’re taking a long-term approach.

“It’s not a quick fix,” said McMahan. “It’s a long, drawn-out process.”

In Waynesville, the secret to the Special Projects Unit’s success has a lot to do with flexibility. Since officers aren’t usually tied down with routine patrol shifts, they can go into a community and take the time to work on bigger picture issues, from code enforcement to animal control to extra special attention with surveillance.

“We can be there basically around the clock until we get the problem solved,” said McMahan. “We have more time to spend in a certain area than what your regular patrol officer does.”

Despite SPU’s success, most Waynesville residents aren’t yet in the know about the unit.

“I don’t think they know what we do,” said McMahan. “We’re sort of behind the scenes.”

Rare in WNC

To Chief Hollingsed, preventing crime on the front end reduces the crime load that would otherwise land on the plate of regular patrol officers — making it a good use of resources. But it’s a luxury other small town police departments say they couldn’t afford.

With fewer than 10 officers working at the Bryson City Police Department, Chief Rick Tabor said it’d be impossible to have a whole unit devoted to preventing crime.

“I would love to have the resources to have anything like that, even if it was just one person,” said Tabor.

Det. John Buchanan with Sylva Police said at this time, all officers are required to keep a log of noteworthy events during their shifts. The assistant chief of police reviews those logs and asks patrol to be stepped up in areas with high incidents of crime.

“Our resources are so small here,” said Buchanan. “We just kind of have to do what we can.”

Is feeding the hungry bad for business?

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

It’s lunchtime at the Open Door, a 12-year-old soup kitchen in the Frog Level community of Haywood County, and chatter and laughter fill the modest dining hall. Here, down-on-their-luck residents can get a free hot meal and some much-needed social support. The non-profit serves as a haven from the troubles of the outside world, say visitors.

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