New River Symposium 1984
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Douglas Swaim
N.C. Division of Archives and History
Asheville, North Carolina

Let me begin by painting a rather frightening picture of one threat to the cultural landscape of Grassy Creek, North Carolina: imagine a tailgate flea market in a shopping center parking lot somewhere in southern Florida. Imagine a booth in this flea market with a table with a sign on it that reads, "Ashe Co. Land—Lots for Sale." Apparently they know down there where this bit of heaven is because the sign doesn't even say North Carolina—just "Ashe Co."

The scene has been reported to me as fact. And it has the ring of truth to it. About 17,000 tax listing forms were mailed from the Ashe County Tax Supervisor's office this past January. Of these, about 1,400—more than 8 per cent—were sent to Florida. In all about 4,000 Ashe County property tax forms—almost a quarter of the total—were mailed out of state. Follow these forms through the postal service and they would take you to 46 states and 5 foreign countries.

As an indication of the direction of the trend, Ashe County Register of Deeds Shirley Wallace reports that approximately 60 per cent of Ashe County land sold last year went to out-of-state residents, whereas ten years ago the figure was half that.

Ten years ago the residents of Grassy Creek and other sections of the New River Valley were facing another threat, the proposed inundation of their homes and farms by 42,000 acres of lakes backed up behind two power generating dams to be built near Galax, Virginia, and owned and operated by the Appalachian Power Company. The project had actually first been proposed back in the early sixties but was not granted a federal license until the mid-seventies. Lawsuits pressed by environmental groups and by North Carolina Attorney General Rufus Edmisten delayed the project long enough for Congress to designate 26.5 miles of the river in North Carolina as part of the federal Wild and Scenic River system thereby blocking the project, but the campaign was really won at the local level where it had been fought for 13 years. As Hamilton Horton who headed the National Committee for the New River, put it, "Three little mountain counties whipped the AFL-CIO, the Federal Power Commission, and the worlds largest power company."

The threat posed to New River residents by a flea market booth selling Ashe County land in Florida in 1984 is not so clear as dams and rising water, but the alarms seem to be going off in some people's minds just the same. Citing a concern that Ashe County will soon be experiencing "extreme growth" and fearing the consequences of "haphazard" development, the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce recently established a Land-Use Planning Committee "to begin a study on what kind of growth Ashe Countians would like to see here in coming years."

"The problem has been addressed off and on for 10 years and maybe longer," reported Chamber President Jim Barlow. "It's time to think seriously about it. In my opinion this is probably the most beautiful place in the eastern United States and it could be ruined by uncontrolled growth." Early in January of this year the Ashe County Board of Commissioners gave their blessing to the Chamber study.

During a recent interview, Chamber Director Rex Daugherty shed some light on the failure of a previous attempt to sell land-use planning in Ashe County. "We tried it back in 1976," he said, "but that time it was presented by young, educated outsiders. At the public meetings they would get asked, 'Where you from?' 'Horse Creek.' 'No, where were you born?' 'Michigan.' Sit down!' They knew what they were talking about, but they didn't talk with our accent. We're not going to make the same mistake this time around." Although it's much too early to predict how the current land-use proposal will be received around the county, Daugherty senses a shift in opinion among the oldtimers that just might win it support: apparently they truly are beginning to consider the pace and magnitude of change brought on by outsiders as a serious tresspass upon their cultural territory.

All this—tailgate booths, Floridian invasions, wild-and-scenic-dam-stopping rivers, enlightened chambers of commerce, and coming-around oldtimers—I offer as a context for considering the issue of a preservation strategy for the Grassy Creek community in Ashe County, North Carolina.

Back in 1976 when the proposal to dam the New was still alive, a team of architectural historians from the North Carolina Division of Archives and History was sent to survey the area slated for inundation. Their mission was to identify and assess the historic architecture of the valley—to help make the case against flooding if the resources proved of sufficient value, or at least to record for posterity what was there before the flood.

What they found was a nineteenth-century agricultural landscape as intact as any in this agricultural state of ours, complete with vigorously embellished classic farmhouses and extensive collections of supporting farm outbuildings. What resulted was a National Register nomination for the valley of the New's Grassy Creek tributary in the form of a rural historic district, as well as individual nominations for several other buildings scattered throughout the study area.

As far as I am aware, the historical designations played little or no role in the Congressional deliberations which saved the river from the power company; nonetheless, I know for a fact that the staff of Archives and History was delighted to have the opportunity to explore the New River Valley and that they consider what they found there to be of major significance as cultural resources of western North Carolina and the state.

The Grassy Creek Historic District was officially entered in the National Register of Historic Places on December 12, 1976. Davyd Hood wrote the nomination. Were Davyd to drive through Grassy Creek this afternoon, he would find that little has changed in the eight years since he did his first research there. On the one hand this is good: the rampant subdivision of New River property ahead of the Florida invasion has mostly been a southern Ashe County phenomenon. On the other hand, however, this is not so good, even in relation to a preservation agenda: the National Register nomination has meant little or nothing to Grassy Creek. Buildings that were empty and deteriorating in 1976 are still empty and deteriorating today, which means they won't be around much longer unless something is done with them soon.

This is where I enter the story. As the preservation specialist for the state in western North Carolina, it is up to me to try to get a preservation program going in Ashe County if it is not happening on its own. This is a project I have taken on during the last several months, and what follows is more a progress report and prospectus for those efforts than the delivery of a finished preservation strategy. It is a report on a process that has begun and, hopefully, will continue.

Davyd has given you an excellent perspective on the architecture and landscape of Grassy Creek. Now, what are the factors working for and against historic preservation in the community? First of all there is relative stability of land ownership, and the same relationship to the land which produced the cultural landscape recognized as significant in the National Register nomination still exists to some degree. That is to say, Grassy Creek's history is continuous, with no precipitous breaks in this century as have been experienced almost everywhere else. The names on the tax roles are pretty much the same as one hundred years ago. This is the kind of cultural environment where what we call "historic preservation activity" approaches the ideal of "a way of life"—a predisposition to take care of the land and the buildings previous generations have placed on it.

In the case of Grassy Creek no doubt the pride the natives feel in their community has been reinforced by all the attention it has received from outsiders, largely due to the historical designation. Davyd published an essay on Grassy Creek in a book on North Carolina architecture in 1978. I know this book found its way into at least one Grassy Creek home. And as recently as last May the Jefferson Times in West Jefferson ran a two-page feature on the historic district. All of this would seem to bode well for historic preservation in Grassy Creek.

I do not know enough about the farming economy of Ashe County to say with any certainty what direction farming is taking in Grassy Creek, but I would guess that it is something of a swing issue. On the one hand, as the writer for the Jefferson Times put it last May, "Grassy Creek is a practicing agricultural economy," and it is this continuity with its agricultural past that makes Grassy Creek the living page of history that it is. On the other hand, I would guess the problems confronting the small farmer all over America today—rising costs of energy, feeds, fertilizer labor, and equipment—are present in Grassy Greek making some farms marginally profitable, forcing farm families to consider "public" work, discouraging the next generation from taking the reins, and tempting even the most land-loyal farmer to sell out or subdivide. I had one Grassy Creek farmer tell me it is practically impossible to hire out heavy handwork, like fence building, these days. He pointed enviously at the scroll-work on his childhood home and said neither did he know of any carpenters who could do that any more, or even repair it properly, for that matter.

In Ashe County today the biggest threat to the survival of the traditional agricultural landscape is this increasingly marginal nature of farming coupled with the burgeoning demand for land for second home development. And I might as well interject right here that we preservationists have no program for saving the family farm, although we certainly wish we did. In this respect, when it comes to rural preservation programs, we can only treat some of the symptoms and not the disease itself.

In Grassy Creek there has been very little abandonment of the historic housing stock. This is an obvious problem over much of the state where changed housing standards have led folks out of nineteenth-century frame farmhouses and into brick ranchers in droves. Overall it appears the older buildings are still considered desirable dwellings in the historic district.

Unfortunately there is one key exception. A Greer family farmhouse that is critically important to the district due to its location and visibility, its architectural flair, its history, and its splendid collection of outbuildings has been vacant now for about ten years. Its owner lives in the community—fittingly enough, in Grassy Creek's only brick rancher.

I see the task of bringing a historic preservation program to Ashe County and Grassy Creek as basically twofold: 1) to try to bring to bear the preservation tools and programs that already exist at the state and national level; and 2) to help organize local preservation interest into an effective preservation constituency or lobby. Organizing a local preservation constituency is by far the more important step. When it comes to promoting preservation in the community, the closer to home the source of the message, the less artificial it is and the more likely it is to be heard. Remember the fate of Ashe County land-use planning back in 1976 when it was being promoted by "outsiders."

In an effort to sample local opinion and take the very first steps toward getting organized, a meeting was called at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Dewey Cox in Grassy Creek on February 17 of this year. Ten people came out to that meeting—several members of the Grassy Creek Methodist Church and some folks from the Ashe County Library. Most of those present either own land in Grassy Creek or have family ties there or are members of the larger Grassy Creek community although they don't live within the historic district. Several who attended are active in the Ashe County Historical Society. Irene Cox (Mrs Dewey Cox) has to get credit for organizing the meeting. From my vantage, I would have to call the meeting a key event in introducing historic preservation to Grassy Creek and so I would like to describe it in some detail.

After I made some general remarks about the existing federal and state preservation programs and what is possible at the local level, discussion focused on two questions: 1) how best to organize a local preservation group; and 2) how to save the vacant and deteriorating Greer family farmhouse mentioned above. Clarice Weaver, an Ashe County public librarian, suggested that the by laws of the Ashe County Historical Society would lend themselves to setting up a historic preservation committee and offered to pursue the possibility with that group. After considerable discussion about the options for the Greer farmhouse, we decided to approach the owner about either giving the house to the community for use as a community center or offering it for sale to someone interested in restoring the place. Appropriately enough, the meeting concluded with a tour of Dewey Cox's mother's house, another key Grassy Creek farmhouse constructed in stages beginning in 1849 and now vacant but protected by Mr. Cox.

I have one overriding observation on the discussions that day: several times the possibility of turning outside the community for help came up—as I presented a general picture of preservation options, as we pondered the fate of the Greer house, and in talking with the Coxes about Dewey's mother's place—and each time an uneasiness was expressed over doing so. As Jack Young put it, "Of course we are reluctant to consider selling outside of the community of families that have been here all along." These sentiments are natural and, relative to preservation values, laudable.

Two months have now passed since that first meeting and I would like to briefly report on our progress since then. First of all, I understand that a proposal has been made, or will be made shortly, to the historical society about setting up a historic preservation committee. Irene Cox, who lives in Grassy Creek and organized the February meeting, will chair the committee. I will be giving a program to the historical society at their May or June meeting, and it is my hope that they will become the local sponsoring organization of a comprehensive county survey of historic buildings. This would be the same kind of study that was done in the New River Valley in 1976 but this time over the whole county. Such a study is the foundation piece for any local preservation program. Recently I discussed with the director of the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce the possibility of such a study being accomplished under the auspices of the chamber's land-use planning committee. Feeling that the committee already had a full agenda, he recommended that it be a historical society project and that the historical society coordinate its findings through the study with the investigations of the land-use planning committee. This all sounds like a very workable approach to me.

I have recently talked as well with the owner of the Greer farmhouse, and he has said that he is willing to sell the house to someone for restoration if about 100 acres of farm goes with it. I brought up the notion of his giving the house to the community but he didn't seem very interested in the idea. My next step will be to bring a representative of the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina, which operates a state-wide revolving fund for saving endangered buildings, to Grassy Creek to see if that group can buy an option on the Greer property. The foundation would then market the property nationwide and sell it with restrictive covenants requiring the farmhouse's restoration. It might even still be possible to get the house into the hands of the community if the new buyer wants only the land and could use the deduction on donating the house.

I think one message I want to get across to the folks in Ashe County at this point is that the Florida people are not the only ones who would like to buy a piece of the ranch. I would suggest that there is an important segment of the market which is interested in the traditional character of Ashe County property and could well be utilized as an ally in the attempt to preserve the existing quality of the landscape. By no means am I advocating selling out across the board to these more sensitive buyers—and I'll be the first to admit that the more local solution to the preservation problem is the least artificial and most satisfying route—but at the same time we must be aware that this market is there as well and that in some circumstances it could be the best alternative to a local fix.

A case in point: a fellow from High Point recently visited my office in Asheville. He and his wife have purchased an Ashe County farm and he was eager to get the farmhouse listed on the National Register. They intended to restore the house and use it as a second home. He was extremely excited about owning his piece of heaven and doing everything he could to protect it. Although this is not the survival of the family farm—and let's push for national and state policy to insure that—it's also not the tailgate flea market selling unrestricted lots.

The success of preservation in Grassy Creek is going to depend on a continued commitment to the land on the part of the families whose forebearers made the landscape what it is. I suggest they will fare best if they are able to blend their conservative loyalty to the place with a canny openness to new alliances and, perhaps as well, compromises to the traditional private property owner rights and prerogatives. Controls that have long appeared as intrusions on the property owner's sacred territory may in today's light be reconsidered as protection from outside assaults on the landed heritage.

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Last Updated: 08-Jul-2009