Our mountain heritage

Posted on 2006-12-28. Filed under: Mountains |

I read this article today. It’s from the Charlotte Observer. It’s a great article and inspired me to create a Mountains category to which I’ll post some things that remind me of home and the heritage there.


Their names take us on a trip through our history, our geography and our relationship with the land.

Coon Mountain … Onion Knob … Hog Hill … Never Mountain… Winding Stair Knob … and the stately Grandfather that looks down on all the rest.

Nearly 200 mountains rise above the Catawba Valley, most in western Burke and Caldwell counties. Catawba County has the least, with just a few isolated peaks breaking through the gently rolling ground.

Each mountain belongs to the Brushy, South or Blue Ridge chain. The valley straddles the Piedmont and mountain regions, with Catawba and Alexander counties and the eastern parts of Burke and Caldwell in the Piedmont, and the northwest sections of Burke and Caldwell in the mountains.

Sometimes we take our mountains for granted because they have always stood here, for us and our ancestors. We’re used to a three-dimensional world that makes us feel closer to the earth.

But then we round a curve to face a mountain, and the ordinary is again extraordinary.

These hills inevitably formed us and the way we have lived. Music, traditions, personality, crime, the way we spend our time — mountains made their mark on all.

Music old and new

Of course, they inspired music, and people have written countless songs in their honor. In turn, the mountains held onto the old music styles longer than other parts of the state, due in part to the isolating geography.’Mountains inspired a sense of awe and kind of connected musicians to something greater than themselves,’ said Wayne Martin, folklife director for the N.C. Arts Council who has studied traditional music for 30 years. ‘It’s a very romantic place.’

By the 1940s, other parts of the state started to let go of old-time string-band music in a movement away from things rural, replacing it with swing, jazz and later rock ‘n’ roll, Martin said. Though mountain people also embraced those new forms, even incorporated them into the old music, they never let go of the traditional sounds.

Mountain music blends styles from Scotland, England and Ireland with the black American banjo and blues, said Joe Newberry, N.C. Department of Cultural Resources spokesman.

‘I like to call old-time music like a melting pot of American music,’ Newberry said. ‘It forms something that hits straight to the heart, and, above all, it’s dance music.’

Mountain people still recite the traditional ballads that forebears inherited from their British homelands — songs that originated in the Elizabethan period, said George Holt, performing arts director at the N.C. Museum of Art.

‘They were sung even on the Outer Banks 200 years ago,’ he said. ‘That has completely died off, yet it’s a viable tradition in Western North Carolina.’

On their own

To say that mountain people are independent is like saying Americans cherish their freedom.

‘There’s that story, I think it was Daniel Boone — he woke up one morning and saw smoke from somebody else’s chimney and said, `Rebecca, it’s time to move,’ ‘ said Terrell Finley, administrator of the Mountain Gateway Museum and Heritage Center in Old Fort.

The mountains made their own world for people who lived here before reliable roads and the telephone and television connected them to other places.

Because the mountains had less of a stake in the old South’s economy than other parts of North Carolina, many mountaineers opposed the Confederacy, said Dan Morrill, a UNC Charlotte history professor. Their land didn’t lend itself to growing cotton and other crops dependent on slave labor, and many people had no money for slaves.

‘The place that’s least oriented to the Confederacy in Catawba County was the area around Anderson Mountain,’ said Gary Freeze, who wrote two volumes of Catawba history. ‘It had the fewest enlistments.’

Mountaineers mostly stuck out lean times on their own.

‘I remember my father-in-law say, `We heard there was a Depression. But we grew everything we needed,’ ‘ Finley said. ‘It hurt them some but not like other places that depended on industry. … That independence helped them survive.’

Perhaps the mountains’ distance from the state’s centers of power compounded the isolation.

‘Some people feel the mountains didn’t get their just due from Raleigh,’ Finley said. ‘I remember when we were kids, they’d say all politicians think the world drops off west of Winston-Salem.’

Running whiskey

The mountains’ relationship with illegal whiskey is well-known.Other areas of the state produced moonshine, but illegal alcohol distilled from corn mash seems forever associated with the hills.

‘The thing that caused moonshiners was poverty,’ Morrill said. ‘I don’t think it was exclusively a mountain thing at all, but there was more poverty in the mountains and therefore more moonshining.’

‘Farmers used excess corn to make money,’ Finley said. ‘It was hard to haul enough corn out to sell, but they could load enough whiskey in a wagon to make it worthwhile. They could sell whiskey at a higher price.’

Also well documented is how the moonshine trade spawned stock-car racing.

In the 1930s and ’40s, moonshine runners raced in cow pastures on Sunday afternoons in the souped-up cars they used to escape the law. Stock-car racing graduated to formal dirt tracks in the 1940s.

Hickory became the hub of public races. At first, drivers competed at what is now the Catawba County fairgrounds. Then Hickory Motor Speedway opened in 1951 and hosted racers who became NASCAR legends, including Junior Johnson, who started out running moonshine in Wilkes County.

Gold fever

The South Mountains in southwest Burke County supplied the product that spurred what’s known as the Brindletown gold rush.

Weathering of the mountains in the Brindletown community freed gold from host rock and sent it into creeks, where miners panned for it, said Chris Tacker, curator of geology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

That gold mining, which started in about 1828, predated the Gold Rush that led people to California.

‘Stuff in the paper played it up like gold was laying around in the street,’ Tacker said. ‘People from the eastern part of the state started looking farther afield and discovered there was gold in those valleys.’

The rush eventually died out, but people still pan for gold here.

Mountain people, perhaps more than people from other geographic areas, seem inextricably tied to the place that birthed and raised them.

The ‘hollers’ and hilltops they live in influence so much of who they become, whether they realize it or not.

And these mountains will be here long after they’re gone.

Copyright © 2006 The Charlotte Observer, All Rights Reserved.

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