The men in Mildred Kelly's family worked with the railroad for generations.
The McDowell community of Graphite, or Graphiteville, is located just down the mountain from Ridgecrest and takes its name from the mining activity that took place there around 1900.
Mildred Kelly has lived in Graphite her entire life, as did her mother and grandmother before her. Her home is located just across the yard from the house where she was born.
A few miles southeast of Graphite, the citizens of Old Fort dig out after the 1916 flood. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Silvers)
Mrs. Kelly welcomed us to her front porch to talk about the 1916 flood, the depression years,home remedies, the railroad, and the observations she has made in her 80+ years. (You’ll also hear the sounds of a late summer morning, the chickens in the yard, and Buddy the dog doing battle with a persistent flea…)
To drive up to Graphite or to see it on a map, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is one of the most isolated places in western North Carolina. But as you can see in the photo to the left, which was taken from Mrs. Kelly’s porch during our interview, she has had good reason never to feel isolated at all.
Listen to Mrs. Kelly using the media player above.
In the schoolyard in the 1920s. Mr. Burgin is third row, second from the left.
Willard Burgin makes his home on land originally cleared by his great-grandfather in the upper reaches of the Crooked Creek community, barely this side of the Buncombe County line. He’s just up the road from the old Mount Hebron Bible Institute where his parents met and where he briefly went to school himself. Nestled peacefully at the foot of the mountain, his home is a refuge from the rush of the modern world. We visited there for almost two hours, and only one car passed the entire time!
Mr. Burgin proudly displays his medals from WWII.
Mr. Burgin is a treasure-trove of memories and stories: from cutting wood for the tannery in Old Fort when he was a child, to seeking emergency assistance from the “snake doctor”, to searching the hillside behind his house so he could milk the family cow, to planting by the signs, to loading ammunition boats in Iceland during World War II.
Listen to our conversation with Willard Burgin here:
Members of the CCC from Camp Jim Staton on Curtis Creek (Photo courtesy Dee Daughtridge/Old Fort Library)
When Franklin Roosevelt became President in 1933, nearly one-fourth of Americans were unemployed. FDR set about immediately establishing the programs of the “New Deal” to address this critical problem. Two of the most successful were the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). The WPA put men to work constructing public buildings, parks, bridges and roads while the CCC concentrated on natural resources conservation. Terrell Finley, Administrator of the Mountain Gateway Museum in Old Fort, talks about the profound impact that both organizations had on McDowell County:
Due to the rugged terrain and distance from the closest towns, the North Cove and Ashford communities in the northern tip of McDowell County remained relatively isolated until the mid- twentieth century. Electricity didn’t arrive until 1947, and telephones were rare until about 1960. Nearly everyone farmed and the community was tight-knit.
Cousins and neighbors Clara McCall and Freddie Brown are members of two of the oldest families in the Cove. They came together at the old Brown house to reminisce about the railroad, the yearly arrival of the thrashers, kerosene powered refrigerators, memorable characters, grandma’s cooking and everyday life on the farm.
You can listen to Clara’s and Freddie’s conversation (in three parts) here: Part One:
Rockett Motors in Old Fort (present location of Old Fort Mountain Music). Jep Gibbs was employed here early in her working life. (Photo courtesy of Bill Nichols, John's Market Collection)
Jessica “Jep” Gibbs was born in 1913. The majority of her life has been lived in the Old Fort area, and she currently resides just minutes from where she grew up. In addition to her other stories, in this clip she talks quite a bit about her friend Binkie Adams, daughter of the visionary Col. Daniel W. Adams. (A future post will be devoted to Col. Adams.) Binkie was a much-respected county historian and wrote many articles for the Old Fort News Bulletin.
Listen to Jep here:
To read a transcript of an oral history of Binkie Adams written in 1997 by Martha Stevens, student of Freddy Bradburn at McDowell Tech, click here: Binkie Adams. (Thanks to Old Fort librarian Dee Daughtridge for providing the transcript.)