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.
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 TwoPart Three:
In the late 1800s when the railroad from Old Fort to Ridgecrest was completed, passengers were treated to a very impressive sight as their train climbed the 13 miles of switchbacks and seven tunnels to the top of the mountain. Several times during their ascent they were treated with a view of “the fountain” at Round Knob Hotel, with gravity-powered water shooting nearly 100 feet into the air. The fountain would later become known as Andrews Geyser and, after a period of neglect in the mid-20th century, has become one of the most recognizable and visted landmarks in McDowell County. It has come to symbolize the achievement of bringing the railroad across the rugged mountains of McDowell County.
Freezing weather sometimes transforms the geyser into an ice cone.
Steve Little, now Mayor of Marion, has always harbored a keen interest in the railroad and played a central role in bringing the geyser back from disrepair and neglect in the mid 1970s. He lays out the history of Andrews Geyser and talks about its rehabilitation, which coincided with the American Bi-Centennial.
Listen to Steve tell the story of Andrews Geyser, recorded at the historic Old Fort depot:
Steve also gave us a great overview of the history of the railroad in McDowell County. You can watch the 3-part video presentation as part of our special railroad page.