In her book Heart Pine, McDowell County historian Anne Swann writes of the Cherokee people’s ancestors,  “…it was they who were the first to climb the peaks and drink from the streams that still exist here. It was their feet that found their way into this magical little place, their eyes which first looked upon its quiet splendor.  They are the ones who accomplished the thing of which we can only dream. They were the first.”

In the video above, Anne talks more about the earliest inhabitants of what is now McDowell County and reflects upon the Cherokee way of looking at the world.

Anne continues the story in this next segment. She focuses on the Cherokee trails and trading paths that ran through the area, the relationship between the Native Americans and the earliest white settlers, and the forts that sprang up due to the conflict. She also relates the story of Lydia Birchfield, who was scalped during a Cherokee raid but survived.

The 1950 Protest

One Sunday in September of 1950, the residents of Old Fort were startled to see dozens of African-American children marching down the main street of town carrying signs saying “We Want Our School Back” and “What Happened to Our School”. The young students were protesting the decision to close the all-black Catawba View Grammar School in Old Fort, which meant that they would have to travel 15 miles to Marion to attend the“Consolidated Negro School”.

From our vantage point now- over 50 years later- this public demonstration is even more remarkable when we realize how early this act of defiance was within the context of what we now know as “The Civil Rights Movement”.

 The Old Fort demonstration was:

  • Just two years after President Truman had integrated the Armed Forces by executive order
  • Only two years after Martin Luther King, Jr. became an ordained minister, and seven years before he formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to fight segregation 
  • Four years before the Supreme Court Brown Vs. Board of Education decision that desegregated American schools

The all-black school that was torn down. Col. Daniel Adams is at far right.

Despite petitions by the parents and the protests by the children, the black elementary school was demolished and the orders to attend school in Marion remained. One of Old Fort’s most notable and respected citizens, Col. Daniel Adams (find out more about him here) published an opinion in the local newspaper calling the closing and razing of the black school “acts of aggression” and “disgraceful”.

After Catawba View School was destroyed, the African-American parents in Old Fort began to submit petitions to the McDowell County Board of Education for their children to be allowed to attend all-white Old Fort Elementary. The applications were denied, and the families tried every legal avenue available to them without success. Then came Brown vs. Board of Education.

The Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional but left the timing and speed of desegregation up to the states and to individual school systems. Therefore, change was slow in coming.

In the summer of 1955, with their children still having to travel to Marion to school, the Old Fort parents decided to make a bold move. They would attempt to register a group of black children in person at Old Fort Elementary on the first day of the new term.

Albert Joyner was a nurse at the VA hospital in Oteen and had only recently moved to Old Fort. At the time, he had no school-age children. He knew of the plans for some leaders of the black community to escort a group of children to the elementary school on the morning of August 24th, but he was not involved.

This full page photo of Albert Joyner and the Old Fort children appeared in Look Magazine in 1956. Col. Adams, walking cane over his shoulder, looks on.

However, when Mr. Joyner looked out his window that morning as he was getting dressed for work, he saw the children standing there alone. There had been threats and warnings from some whites in town, and the designated escorts had gotten cold feet. They didn’t show up.

Without a second thought, Mr. Joyner put on his best suit, walked outside, and led the children through town. A mostly hostile crowd lined the route, but he felt no fear. He felt that he had been called by God to step into this role, so there was no need to be afraid. Some members of the crowd at the schoolhouse were reportedly armed, but there were no incidents. Albert Joyner politely asked that the children be registered but was told by McDowell County School Superintendent Melvin Taylor that “integration will not be begun this year”. In addition to coverage in area newspapers, a full-page photo of Mr. Joyner and two of the children appeared in Look magazine, and Jet magazine also followed the story.

Shortly after the attempt to enroll the children, Mr. Joyner was in downtown Old Fort when white railroad worker W.W. Arney punched him, knocking him into the town fountain. Mr. Joyner’s sister went across the street to a drug store to call the police, but the store personnel would not allow her to enter. The police came anyway, arresting Mr. Joyner as well as Arney. (The charges against Albert Joyner were eventually dropped.) Many times over the ensuing years as the Old Fort integration case wound its way through the court system, Albert Joyner would be subject to threats and intimidation. He never backed down, and always appeared in court. Continue Reading »

On a typical day, hundreds of cars whizz past Woody’s Chair Shop, located  a few steps away from Highway 70 West just outside of Marion.  The building appears nondescript, and it is understandable why many speed right on by.WoodysChairShop  For decades however, seekers of old-fashioned handmade chairs- as well as seekers of a warm welcome and a ready batch of stories- have sought refuge in Max Woody’s shop, and they have received it.

Max’s father passed away when Max was young, but his grandfather Martin Woody taught him the family trade of handcrafting custom-made ladderback chairs.  He’s been at it for nearly 60 years, now with two sons following in his footsteps.

Max Woody knows his way around a fiddle as well as a lathe.

Max Woody knows his way around a fiddle as well as a lathe.

In addition to having received orders for chairs from all over the country (and beyond) and currently with a 3-5 year waiting list, Max Woody has another claim to fame.  It was right here in his shop that the Friday night pickin’ parties that grew into the tradition known as Old Fort Mountain Music began.  (You can watch our feature about Old Fort Mountain Music here.)

So sit back and enjoy this visit to Woody’s Chair Shop. Max tells us how his craft has been handed down through the family, plus he takes us into the workshop,  where he still works on machines that he proudly declares “obsolete”:
The Burgin House was a center of social life in the community for many years. (Photo courtesy Peggy Silvers)

The Burgin House was a center of social life in the community for many years. (Photo courtesy Peggy Silvers)

The Burgin family looms large in McDowell County history as well as in the history of our nation.  Along with the Greenlees, Carsons, and McDowells, they were among the first settlers of what is now McDowell County. Phillip Burgin arrived in America in 1677, and his son Benjamin “Pioneer Ben” Burgin made his way to the Old Fort area around 1770.  He built a two-story walnut log home in 1779 that was a local landmark until it burned to the ground 150 years later. The Burgin family sent over 30 of its men into service in the Confederate Army, with nearly a third losing their lives. union

In the years just before his death, George Aden Burgin (1874-1959) wrote down many of his own memories as well as stories told to him by his father and grandfather. McDowell resident and Burgin family chronicler Peggy Silvers reads one of his heartbreaking Civil War stories for us and then talks about the forgotten victims of the Civil War- the families left behind in these mountains to battle raiders, deserters, outlaws, and starvation. (Peggy is author of Echoes in the Mist: The Burgin Family 1677-1989 and is beginning work on a book about the homefront in the Civil War based on diaries and letters from that era.)

Leaving HomeListen to Peggy Silvers here: (There is much, much more to learn about the Burgins.  A good place to start is their astonishingly detailed family history website.)

If you’ve ever taken a drive up Highway 221 North from Marion toward Linville Falls, you’ve probably noticed the large rocks and boulders that dot the fields and pastures on both sides of the road. All those tons of rock tumbled down the mountainside and to their current resting place during the cataclysmic flood of 1916. 

One of the many homes to be ruined by the flood. Countless others totally washed away, leaving hardly a trace that they had ever stood at all. (Photo from the Carson House Library)

One of the many homes to be ruined by the flood. Others totally washed away, leaving hardly a trace that they had ever stood at all. (Photo from the Carson House Library)

Much of western North Carolina was devastated by the event, especially along the McDowell and Mitchell County line and down into North Cove.  The Orchard at Altapass sits almost astride the continental divide, which was ground zero for this disaster. Bill Carson from the Orchard tells the story of the flood through the eyes of someone who lived through it.

The men in Mildred Kelly's family worked with the railroad for generations.

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)

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.


For decades, a major draw for visitors to McDowell County was the Lake Tahoma Steak House and adjacent cabins. Before the interstate was built, this spot at the junction of Highways 70 and 80 was a hot spot for locals and tourists alike. The restaurant offered one of the first buffets around and the cabins were considered to be so unique and charming that some couples traveled to McDowell County to spend their honeymoons in them. LakeTahomaCabins

Bill Gibbs (whose photo with the bear “Smokette” is part of the header of this website) built the business and his son Pete ran it for many years.  Pete, along with his wife Betty, talk about the steak house, his dad, and those famous bear suppers.


Listen to Pete here:

(Little Siena Restaurant has now operated in the Lake Tahoma Steak House location for decades. You can find out more about them at their website.)

Women’s Work

We’ve all heard the old saying “A woman’s work is never done”, and that was especially true on a farm or plantation in the old days. Dr. James Haney of SpinningWheelthe historic Carson House takes us on a tour of an exhibit in one of the upper rooms of the home devoted to “women’s work”.  He talks about the use of the loom, spinning wheel, quilt press, and even a somewhat intimidating-looking tool called a shuck hackle.

(As you will note if you spend much time exploring this website, Dr. Haney was very generous with his time and expertise for this project. We thank him profusely.)

In the schoolyard in the 1930s. Mr. Burgin is third row, second from the left.

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 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:

(It may take a moment for the audio to load.)

Members of the CCC from Camp Jim Staton on Curtis Creek

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:

Former rocket scientist (no kidding) and master storyteller Bill Carson of the Orchard at Altapass spins a yarn about romance, destiny, and the Overmountain Men- culminating  in McDowell County’s pivotal role in the Battle of King’s Mountain and the Revolutionary War.

The view from Freddie Brown's front porch
The view from Freddie Brown’s front porch

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: Part Two Part Three: