A decade ago, Kieran Roe sealed and stamped an envelope and dropped it in the mail. What he got back proved to be far beyond his expectations.

“I couldn't have fathomed everything that would come from it,” said Roe, executive director of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC). Roe’s envelope contained a grant application to the Corporation for National and Community Service with a proposal to initiate Project Conserve, a new AmeriCorps program in western North Carolina.

“We were still a fledgling land trust. We only had a few staff and we needed help,” recalled Roe.

AmeriCorps was created under President Bill Clinton by the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. The program— often billed as a domestic version of the Peace Corps–engages adults in intensive community service with the goal of helping others and meeting critical community needs.

Members within AmeriCorps commit to part- or full-time public service positions among non-profit community organizations and public agencies. The proposal that Roe submitted was to establish positions to fulfill environmental and conservation needs in the region.

Roe’s application proved successful, and Project Conserve was born, hosting its first members in 2004.

“It started small,” said Project Conserve Director Amy Stout, who was hired to administer the CMLC program in 2008.

“Only ten members made up the first class. But it grew quickly.”

Within only a few years, AmeriCorps Project Conserve hosted more than 30 full-time service members across nearly two dozen organizations in western North Carolina. Each Project Conserve member serves 1,700 total hours over an 11-month term.

“Members receive a small living stipend as well as an education award that can be applied to existing student loans or used to pursue future studies,” said Stout. “The pay isn’t significant, but they’re driven by a burning desire to make a difference in their community.”

Making a difference, in fact, is what has defined the program. Since CMLC initiated Project Conserve a decade ago, nearly 200 AmeriCorps members have completed service terms. Their collective contribution has exceeded an astonishing 410,000 hours of public service to western North Carolina communities.

Currently, Project Conserve places 32 service members at more than 21 different environment and conservation organizations across the region spanning more than 20 counties.

CMLC hosts five Project Conserve members each year. Other host sites include Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Mountain True, Polk County Office of Agricultural Economic Development, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, among others.

“Each AmeriCorps Project Conserve position is unique, but they are united by two long-term goals: to build greater community awareness and support for conservation and to make sustainable improvements to at-risk natural areas in western North Carolina,” said Stout.

Project Conserve takes a holistic approach to conservation by incorporating the interconnected focuses of land conservation, water quality, local food, and energy conservation.

“To support our goals in these areas, Project Conserve positions are centered around key service activities. These include Conservation Education, where members coordinate educational activities for youth and adults designed to increase participants’ awareness of conservation issues, inspire them to get involved further, and build valuable conservation skills,” added Stout.

To date, Project Conserve members have educated more than 45,000 adults and youth about environmental and conservation issues in WNC.

Direct service on rivers, trails and public lands is another goal of the program where service members create and improve publically accessible trails to provide more recreational opportunities for the community. Its AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 5,000 hours of service in support of CMLC’s budding Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail network alone.

“And because volunteers multiply the impact of Project Conserve members and build community support in the region, volunteer engagement is one of our most important service goals,” said Stout. “Members recruit and coordinate community volunteers for conservation projects like water quality monitoring, habitat restoration, and invasive species removal.”

Project Conserve members have recruited 5,200 volunteers who served 28,400 additional hours to benefit local conservation projects.

“I’m pleased that CMLC’s benefit to our community hasn’t been limited to only a few counties. The program has reached all of western North Carolina,” said Roe when reflecting back upon the impact of Project Conserve. “Each day you hope that something you do will leave the region better than it was the day before. I think Project Conserve did that, and continues to do that every day.”

While Project Conserve members’ contribution to our region is obvious, its impact on those who serve has proven profound as well. The program has also succeeded in cultivating burgeoning conservationists—many whom remain in the region and continue to positively affect it for years after their initial service ends.

“I wouldn’t be here without Project Conserve,” said Tom Fanslow, CMLC’s land protection director. “Like it has done for so many, the AmeriCorps program gave me the opportunity to get my foot in the door of conservation in WNC.” Under Fanslow’s helm, CMLC has protected more than 18,000 acres of land since he joined the organization as an AmeriCorps member in 2004.

Fanslow is far from the only member of Project Conserve to springboard to a permanent career in conservation. Seven of CMLC’s fourteen full-time staff are Project Conserve alumni.

“In addition to public service toward our region, Project Conserve also gives members field and office experience, which helps them refine their interests and guide the next steps of their careers,” said Kristen Lee, Project Conserve Program Coordinator and former AmeriCorps service member at CMLC.

In total, 32 AmeriCorps alumni are currently employed by a Project Conserve host site.

Few others have the perspective of John Humphrey to assess the magnitude of the CMLC’s array of contributions to the community since the land trust’s founding 20 years ago. In addition to donating the organization’s first-ever conservation easement, he served as an early board president and presided over hiring its first full-time staff member.

“We’ve saved almost 30,000 acres of land,” said Humphrey. “Helped created a state park and two state forests. Saved a rare plant from the brink of extinction.”

“But Project Conserve may be the best thing that we’ve ever done,” he concluded. “The amount of talent and passion that this program has brought to conservation in our region is staggering. Look how many of these folks stick around and continue to do good things for years into the future.”

“Project Conserve isn’t just impacting those whom it serves among our region. For those who serve, it’s changing their lives, too.”

AmeriCorps Project Conserve is administered by CMLC and funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the North Carolina Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, and the critical support of its host sites and community partners.

Since Project Conserve's start in 2004:

  • 410,000 hours of service have been completed in WNC
  • 196 members have completed 11-month service terms
  • 30 members have served 2 terms of service
  • 40 environmental and conservation organizations have been involved in hosting members
  • 32 Project Conserve alumni are now employed by host sites
  • 45,000 people have been educated about environmental and conservation issues
  • 5,200 volunteers have been recruited who have served 28,400 hours

The good news featured last month about the previous year’s protection of 1,000 more acres of our region’s beloved natural treasures was only half of the story. Often overlooked is the fact that placing land in protection can be just the beginning of the conservation process.

Once conserved, active stewardship efforts are imperative in order to uphold critical natural heritage values of properties under the protection of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC). Stewardship not only preserves existing merits, but often enhances, restores, and makes accessible these already precious local lands.

Read on to learn how several of CMLC’s stewardship initiatives improved and preserved many of our community’s protected lands in 2014.

Advancing the Little Bearwallow Trail

Made possible by CMLC’s acquisition of the Wildcat Rock tract in 2013, the next segment of the budding Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail broke ground last year in an effort to link the summit of Little Bearwallow Mountain to the new public trailhead on Highway 74A in Gerton. Phase 1 of the new Little Bearwallow Trail was constructed by the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and a private contactor last spring.

The new footpath ascends from the trailhead 1.1 miles up the north slopes of Little Bearwallow to a picturesque 100-foot waterfall. Because this new section of trail partially traverses private property, a permanent public trail easement was purchased from CMLC conservation landowners John Myers and Jane Lawson.

“It was always our vision protect this land and share it with the community,” said Myers.

Myers and Lawson were recently awarded CMLC’s prestigious Lela McBride Award for their commitment to the conservation of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge and innovative vision to connect conserved lands by public trails.

Phases 2 and 3 of the Little Bearwallow Trail are still under construction and not yet open to the public. They are being built by the Carolina Mountain Club (CMC), North Carolina and Vermont Youth Conservation Corps crews, and a private contractor. All three phases of the new trail are expected to be open for hiking in 2016.

“This trail is an example of making the most out of all resources available,” said Ed Sutton, owner of Trail Dynamics, the contracting company hired to construct a portion of the new trail. “It’s a hybrid project that has utilized skilled labor from volunteer, semi-professional, and professional trailbuilders. It is exciting to be part of it.”

“When it’s done, Little Bearwallow will be one of the best new trails in the region. It has everything hikers love—a waterfall, cliffs, wildflowers, and a scenic viewpoint,” said Sutton. “And eventually, it will be a second route to the top of Bearwallow Mountain, the most popular spot [in the Upper Gorge] of all.”

Sutton added that the Little Bearwallow Trail not only has natural features coveted by outdoor enthusiasts, but each phase will appeal to different users. “The hike to Little Bearwallow Falls is only about a mile each way and can be completed by most folks, regardless of age or ability.”

For intermediate hikers, Sutton said “those seeking a view and a slightly longer hike will soon be able to continue beyond the falls for another mile to Wildcat Rock. More experienced hikers can keep going from there for more of a backcountry experience.”

The trail project—which will ultimately extend three miles—was made possible with funding from the Recreational Trails Program, Conservation Trust for North Carolina, Donald Jones Foundation, REI, and Fernandez Pave the Way Foundation.

When completed, the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail will connect multiple conserved lands of CMLC and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy by a 15-mile continuous footpath circumnavigating the high ridges surrounding the community of Gerton.

The trail network features waterfalls, dramatic cliff faces, rock outcroppings, and expansive summit vistas. It can be accessed within a 35 minute drive from Asheville, Hendersonville, or Lake Lure.

Bog Restorations in Flat Rock

In addition to monitoring more than 100 existing conservation easements in 2014—an important obligation undertaken annually to ensure that conservation values of protected properties persist—CMLC partnered with the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in an effort to restore Flat Rock’s King Creek bog.

The project focused on removing invasive plants threatening native, rare species that call the bog home. These invading weeds also disturb natural water levels and hydrology critical to sustaining the bog itself.

“USFWS calls it the holy grail of mountain bogs in terms of its conservation significance,” said CMLC stewardship director Sarah Fraser.

Restorations efforts also got underway last year at Hyder Pasture, another Flat Rock mountain bog. CMLC acquired the former wetland in 2013 and intends to complete a full-restoration of the bog in 2015. The project is again in partnership with USFWS, as well as NC’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Partners hope that the project will mirror CMLC’s successful rehabilitation of nearby Ochlawaha Bog. Both bogs are home to the bunched arrowhead flower, one of the rarest plant species in the nation.

The bunched arrowhead is found not found anywhere in the world outside of Henderson and Spartanburg counties. The gradual disappearance of local mountain bogs nearly resulted in its the extinction.

“It may be the rarest flower in our community,” said Fraser. “We hope that our efforts will keep it around so it can continue to be part of our local heritage.”

Biologists feared that the flower had vanished forever from the Ocklawaha Bog several years ago, but its blooms returned triumphantly following the completion of the bog’s restoration in 2012.

“It has already begun to come back at Hyder Pasture, too,” said Fraser of the success of efforts to-date. “We’ll keep making sure its home there is permanent.”

Hemlock Restoration

In 2014, CMLC ramped up its stewardship efforts in the fight against the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA). For more than a decade, the non-native pest has been decimating hemlock trees across the southern Appalachians. With help from local HWA consultant and CMLC-conservation landowner Patrick Horan, of Sapphire, the land trust released 4,600 predator beetles on threatened hemlocks.

The beetles are natural predators to the adelgid. Previous releases have visibly slowed hemlock degeneration on CMLC conserved lands.

The releases were in partnership with private landowners of CMLC conservation easements. Beetles were also deployed on CMLC-owned conservation lands like the Wildcat Rock tract which hosts the less common Carolina hemlock species on its cliffs.

Unlike the blight that eliminated chestnuts trees of grandeur from our landscape in the early 20th century, Horan believes that recent intervention with beetles will prevent HWA from eradicating hemlocks. “There will still be hemlocks in 100 years,” said Horan.

Preserving Biodiversity in the Hickory Nut Gorge

The Weed Action Coalition of the Hickory Nut Gorge (WAC-HNG), a CMLC initiative to expel invasive plants in conservation focus areas surrounding Gerton, Bat Cave, and Lake Lure, treated a total of 372 acres previously infested by non-native species in 2014.

WAC-HNG and CMLC utilized both volunteer manpower as well as goats to pull out the non-native plants before reseeding with native species.

 “The Hickory Nut Gorge is one of the most biodiverse locations in our region,” said David Lee, WAC-HNG Project Coordinator. “There are plants and animals found here that aren’t found anywhere else.”

Since invading plants can easily outcompete indigenous species, Lee said that the impact of WAC-HNG’s  projects can prevent rare native plants from disappearing entirely from the Gorge . Said Lee, “When a species disappears, the entire balance of our ecosystem could be threatened. By restoring native habitat, we preserve not just those plants but potentially all living things.”

CMLC has protected more than 28,000 acres at more than 150 projects among the Blue Ridge Escarpment, French Broad River Valley, Hickory Nut Gorge, and beyond since its inception in 1994. For more information and to support land conservation in WNC, visit carolinamountain.org.

"My grandparents undoubtedly had the most influence on my life of anyone," said Andrea Owensby of Edneyville, about her grandparents William Thomas and Effie Collins Justice.

"There are certain things I remember them teaching me, not so much in words, but just by their actions."

But perhaps more than anything else, what Owensby's grandparents taught her was an appreciation for the mountain that they called home — an appreciation that will last, quite literally, forever.

Owensby's grandfather acquired land on a ridge extending from Sugarloaf Mountain, in eastern Henderson County, in the 1920s. To make the purchase, he worked for 5 cents an hour constructing stairs during the early days of Chimney Rock Park. Cabin Ridge, as his land became known, is where he raised his children and where Owensby spent much of her own childhood.

"He told me that I used to ask more questions than any human he had ever come upon," she remembered of her time with her grandfather when she was a little girl. "He was always patient with me. He would just stop and lean on his hoe or shovel and talk to me."

With her grandparents, young Owensby gardened, dried apples, collected seeds and made buttermilk. She also explored the forests with them, hiking to nearby destinations on Sugarloaf Mountain such as Sunset Rock, Cloven Cliffs, The Pinnacles and Worlds Edge.

"They were such stewards of the land, every piece of it. The land was actually more home than the cabin," she explained.

Her grandparents placed more emphasis on the land because they said it brought forth life. They took pride in growing their own food, and the cabin was built next to a mountain spring that reliably provided fresh water.

"My grandparents had a lot of joy here. They shared everything," Owensby said.

Much of what they had was homemade — built for function and not looks. The furniture did not match, and no two dishes were alike. Her grandmother cooked on a wood stove her entire life. Owensby said that the family once bought her grandmother a new kitchen stove to surprise her.

"She was flabbergasted and tried to be really nice about it. But she put it in the back room and stored her pots and pans in it," Owensby said.

Her grandparents weren't quite comfortable with newfangled things. They had what they needed.

The deep influence of her grandparents and her time at Cabin Ridge always made her feel something special for the property.

"It's always been, as long as I can remember, my absolute favorite place to come," she said. "The best times I have ever had have been here. The most major decisions I have made in my life, I have made here."

Owensby assumed ownership of Cabin Ridge in the late 1980s. While her grandparents are no longer there, she insists that the property still "feels different."

"It's because of my grandparents. It's like their whole spirit lives here. That peaceful, joyful, share-everything kind of feeling."

To ensure that feeling is always present on her grandparents' land, last year Owensby worked with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy to convey a conservation easement on 60 acres of her Cabin Ridge property.

The conservation easement honors the memory of Owensby's grandparents by permanently protecting it from development. The easement ensures that land will always remain in its natural state, the way her grandparents knew it and loved it.

Owensby has had several offers over the years to purchase or subdivide pieces of Cabin Ridge. She always declined. Once an inquirer told her "it's just land … it's just dirt."

"No. It's not just land," she said defiantly. "I have a deep emotional attachment to this land. There are places you go that don't quite feel the same. There are other places you notice it, but you definitely notice it here."

She first began considering permanent conservation of her land when she learned of CMLC in 2005 after the organization purchased nearly 1,600 acres at Worlds Edge — just a few miles from her property. That conservation effort prevented imminent development on a nearby scenic ridge line. Now permanently protected, the Worlds Edge tract is part of Chimney Rock State Park.

"It made my heart hurt to think that there could be houses up on (Cabin Ridge) one day," she said. "I understand that people need places to live, but I wish there was more discretion when building on ridge tops."

Owensby also didn't want the property to become a financial burden on her children when she is no longer able to care for it. In many cases, a conservation easement can lower property tax burdens, easing pressures to sell.

"I have a vision that my sons, my grandson, and maybe my great grandsons and granddaughters will come here and walk on this land." She wants them to be able to feel what she feels at Cabin Ridge, always.

A passionate advocate for what she feels for the land, Owensby now shares it with visitors by renting out a small cabin on the property — one built on the former site of her grandparents' original cabin. Though a few concessions have been made to modern conveniences, the new cabin sits on the same rock foundation and has a wood-fired cookstove, and a hand pump draws water to the kitchen sink.

When guests stay in the cabin, Owensby said, "It's one of the biggest joys I've ever had. It feels like I am sharing it with people and allowing them to feel what I feel about it."

Her visitors arrive wide-eyed and excited, seeking out a mountaintop experience that lacks the distractions of electricity, traffic and busyness of the everyday world — and a breathtaking vista with all of Henderson County laid out before them, to boot.

"People come to get away," she explained.

Some guests to Cabin Ridge call it peaceful. Some even call it healing. Whatever you call it, thanks to Owensby's conservation easement honoring the enduring spirit of her grandparents, Cabin Ridge is forever.

For more information on Owensby's Cabin Ridge, visit www.thecabinridge.com.

“Well, everything is a long story,” explained unassuming and soft-spoken John Humphrey as he gazed across his picturesque Mills River farm. At age 95, Humphrey has a lot of stories to tell.  But sometimes the story isn’t about what has happened on the land itself, but the impact to the land made by that of an individual. Humphrey’s far-reaching role in protecting western North Carolina is certainly story in and of itself.

Raised in urban New Jersey, Humphrey’s love affair with the rural countryside was unlikely.  It was his immersion amongst the Appalachian mountains at an early age that planted a seed that would one day grow into a passion for conservation.  “At summer camp, I was exposed to wildlife, trees, mountains and hiking,” he explained.  But if his love for protecting the land was born then, he didn’t know it.  A career in chemical engineering and instrument sales brought him to rural Mills River in 1968.  Once on the farm, interest for his land began to blossom. 

Humphrey developed a deep connection with his land, and he soon realized had that it might lead to something long-lasting.  Then in 1996, he donated a conservation easement on 180 acres of his mountain farm to Henderson County’s newly formed Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC).  It was CMLC’s inaugural conservation project and proved to be the springboard for a movement of preserving land in our region that is still going strong today.

Nestled in a secluded valley between two high ridges, Humphrey’s property features both lush forests and scenic farmland.  But its conservation protected more than its beautiful landscape alone. The easement safeguarded water quality on Foster Creek, a headwater tributary of the Mills River—which provides drinking water to nearly 100,000 residents of Henderson and Buncombe Counties.  A rare southern-Appalachian bog and nearly 300 species of plants and animals also find safe harbor on his farm.

Humphrey’s enthusiasm for conserving his property is exceeded only by his passion to care for it. Managing its resources and educating himself is a process for which he has never tired.  “I’m always trying to learn more about what the care of the land is all about,” he explained.  And the nonagenarian remains as sharp as ever.  “This is the only sassafras tree on the entire property,” Humphrey told me while pointing at a tall grey trunk at his farm.  Standing among a forest of trees seemingly numbered in the millions, I suspected he was telling a tall tale.  But Humphrey knows his land like the back of his hand, and he knew his statement as a fact.  One might suspect that the land itself is what keeps him so keen.  

Preserving and caring for his farm alone is only a chapter in the story of Humphrey’s impact to the land.  Following the preservation of his farm, he immersed himself in CMLC’s mission—protecting land and water resources by permanently conserving and actively caring for a regional network of farm, forest and park lands.  Humphrey educated himself on easements, land acquisitions, and the inner workings of a conservation organization.  He has gone on to serve twelve years (and running) on CMLC’s board—including two terms as its esteemed president.

Humphrey’s enthusiasm for conservation proved contagious.  Convincing his neighbors to work with CMLC to convey conservation easements on adjacent properties, his farm ultimately became the anchor tract of more than 750 acres of land protected by CMLC in the Mills River watershed. Since John’s maiden conservation easement in 1996, CMLC has aided more than one hundred private landowners as well as local and regional government agencies in conserving more than 23,000 acres of land in Henderson, Transylvania and surrounding counties.

In 2005, Humphrey’s unparalleled commitment to conservation ran so deep, he bet the farm on it—literally.  Risking his personal assets to enable CMLC to purchase the 1,568-acre Worlds Edge tract in Rutherford County—now a part of Chimney Rock State Park—he willingly offered up his Mills River farm as loan collateral.

Whether preserving his own property, passionately managing his land or influencing others to pursue a path of conservation, Humphrey represents the heart and soul of protecting our region’s natural resources.  Far more than a founding father of CMLC, John represents conservation at its core.

In the face of rapid development that is transforming our region’s landscape, western North Carolina is fortunate to have Humphrey caring for its mountains.  The future of the region will be bright should more of its residents follow John’s lead.  And he is optimistic.  “Well, maybe more of them will if we keep after it,” he said.

A venerable 150-year old white oak in Flat Rock’s Ironwood Square now bears Humphrey’s name in honor of his service to our region.  The tree’s roots run deep in the land while its trunk stands strong among ever present change.  Its branches are forever reaching for new heights.  It’s a perfect tribute to John Humphrey, a hero of conservation in western North Carlolina.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

Alexander’s Ford certified as part of the Overmountain Victory Trail; protected forever

It was October 4, 1780. A patriot army of some 1,600 men made camp for the night on the banks of the Green River at a crossing that would later become known as Alexander’s Ford.  The militia had traveled nearly 300 miles, with some soldiers having come from as far away as Tennessee and Virginia, in pursuit of Major Patrick Ferguson and his British army.  Unbeknownst to the patriots, it would be their final rest before fighting the Redcoats in the bloody Battle of Kings Mountain. 

“For many of the soldiers, Alexander’s Ford was to be the final place they lay their heads down to rest on this earth,” noted Paul Carson, Superintendent of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail (OVT).  The OVT, a unit of the National Park Service, travels through Virginia, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina, retracing the route of patriot militia as they tracked down the British to Kings Mountain.

For two centuries, the events at Alexander’s Ford were barely remembered.  But now the memory of the patriots’ long journey and their sacrifices for a new nation are revived and forever preserved through creation of the Bradley Nature Preserve at Alexander’s Ford.  The new preserve, permanently protected by a 162-acre conservation easement, is the result of persistent efforts of Polk County, the Marjorie M. and Lawrence R. Bradley Endowment Fund of the Polk County Community Foundation and Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.

“We couldn’t ignore the history of this place,” explained Ambrose Mills, project manager for Polk County who oversaw the preservation efforts at Alexander’s Ford.  This fall—on the anniversary of the patriot encampment—Mills and Carson commemorated the conservation of Alexander’s Ford by officially certifying it as part of the OVT.  More than two centuries after the American Revolution, colonial re-enactors from the Overmountain Victory Trail Association gathered with their muskets to fire a volley in celebration and honor. 

Every autumn, re-enactors travel the 330-mile route of the Overmountain Men, as the original patriot militia came to be known, camping in the same locations and following the same trails and roads.  The patriots marched in pursuit of Major Ferguson in retaliation for his threats to colonial settlers in the southern highlands.  “Lay down your arms and swear allegiance to the King or I will march my army over the mountains, hang your leaders, and lay waste with fire and sword to your home and fields,” he warned.

In response, it was the patriot settlers that took up arms.   They marched on horseback in pursuit of Ferguson, crossing both the Appalachian and Blue Ridge ranges—hence “Overmountain”— through rugged terrain and poor weather, and with limited provisions.  In less than two weeks, the volunteer army reached Alexander’s Ford.  Two days later, they finally caught the British troops in South Carolina, and defeated them at the infamous Battle of Kings Mountain.

The battle proved to be a decisive turning point in our young country’s fight for freedom.  Thomas Jefferson later wrote, “Kings Mountain was the joyful annunciation of that turn of the tide of success which terminated the Revolutionary War with the seal of our independence.”  The victory by the Overmountain men bore our nation.

But what happened at Alexander’s Ford was critical to the militia’s success at King Mountain.  “While Kings Mountain was a turning point in the war, it was Alexander’s Ford that was a turning point in the march”, said Carson. “It is one of the most important places along the entire OVT.”

It was at Alexander’s Ford that General William Campbell, commander of the patriot army, made two critical decisions.  With many soldiers near their breaking point, Campbell sent ahead only his best men and horses to fight the Redcoats.  While this decision split his force, the soldiers who continued onward had more speed and fervor. 

Also at Alexander’s Ford, Gen. Campbell received crucial intelligence—Ferguson and his troops were headed east to unite with the main British Army.  The patriots then changed their course to intercept Ferguson’s men.  Carson speculated on the consequences had events at Alexander’s Ford not occurred as they did. “It is possible that Kings Mountain would have never happened…and the outcome of the war may have been very different.”

The Bradley Nature Preserve at Alexander’s Ford hosts more than just history.   Its verdant forests and botanical diversity make it an ecological treasure, too.  Both its history and its natural bounty will soon become accessible for visitors to appreciate.  The county plans to build a picnic shelter, a bike path, and hiking trails; a portion of the property will open to the public as early as next summer. “This is historic and hallowed ground,” said Carson. “When you come to a place like Alexander’s Ford, and you stand on that ground and you know what happened, it’s something that’s really moving.” 

The project partners worked tirelessly on the Alexander’s Ford project for more than six years.  “Worthwhile experiences are seldom easy, and that is certainly true in this case,” said Tom Fanslow, CMLC’s Land Protection Director.  CMLC worked with the landowner and Polk County to garner grants from three North Carolina trust funds—Parks and Recreation Trust Fund,  Natural Heritage Trust Fund, and Clean Water Management Trust Fund.  “That’s a record for us,” explained Fanslow.  “Each funder had its own emphasis:  water quality, historic preservation, wildlife habitat and public recreation.”  Funding from these agencies was used to match a generous donation from the landowner.

More than 230 years after the historic Overmountain march, a second long quest has come to a close at Alexander’s Ford.  Like the Overmountain Men, CMLC and the project’s many supporters persevered to protect something important for future generations.  The permanent conservation of the land will forever honor those who bravely sacrificed for our nation’s freedom.  For as long as the forest grows and the river flows, the memory of the patriots’ heroism will now endure at Alexander’s Ford. 

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

Green River Preserve (GRP), a summer camp and wildlife preserve in southwest Henderson County is full of intrigue and lore.  Totaling more than 3,000 acres, the Preserve’s pristine forests, clear waters, and abundant wildlife are forever protected by a conservation easement held by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.  Conserving the land has helped protect many of the stories harbored by its deep hollows.  But perhaps it’s even more than the land and stories that are protected—GRP’s secluded coves may be home to more than meets the eye.

“Jack-o-lanterns are one of the strange mysteries that mountain folks experienced in the Green River Valley,” said Sandy Schenck, owner of Green River Preserve.  Newman Levi, a lifelong resident of the Green River Valley, first told Schenck about jack-o-lanterns when he was a young boy and the hair-raising tales stayed with him throughout his life.  “He got me really interested in these things.  They’re just fascinating.”

“Jack-o-lanterns are big balls of lights that drift around the woodlands.  They seem to have a curiosity. They would come visit you,” explained Schenck.

Schenck recalled one of Mr. Levi’s most chilling stories about the strange phenomenon.  “Newman was on Bobs Creek at the old family place.  There was a foot trail that went up the mountain to his neighbor’s cabin.  One evening, he and his father were on the front porch.  They were worried about their neighbor because he had been very sick. Suddenly, they looked up the trail and here comes a lantern headed toward them,” said Schenck.

The Levis suspected that something wasn’t quite right.  Surprised that someone might be walking the trail that late, they assumed their neighbor had taken a turn for the worse and someone was coming to tell them.  The men started to walk up to meet the visitor but  “as they got closer, they realized something strange, and they stopped,” said Schenck.

The light continued to come straight towards them.  Despite its flickering and bobbing, the light wasn’t a person carrying a lantern.  Instead, it was a glowing ball of light hovering above the ground.  It was a jack-o-lantern.

“It was the first time Newman had ever seen one. It came right up to him, a big, bright ball of light, then it rose up into the air, wove its way through the trees, and disappeared,” said Schenck.

Other stories from the Green River Valley tell of jack-o-lanterns following people, sometimes unbeknownst to them.  Schenck recalled a story of a resident of the valley who used to chase them.  Despite many tries to catch them, the balls of light would always drift just out of reach.  “Funny thing about it, you could get right up to a jack-o-lantern but you could never touch it. And they never bumped into anything, not even trees or rocks,” he said.

Pearl Cox, another long-time Green River resident, also saw jack-o-lanterns in the valley.  Mrs. Cox told Schenck, “Oh yeah, I saw them all the time.  But you don’t see them anymore.”  Schenck, who has never seen one himself, asked her, “Where do you think they went?”  “Ever since we got electricity in the valley, they seem to have just disappeared,” she replied.

The strange lights aren’t unique to the Green River Valley. They have been seen elsewhere in western North Carolina.  Some believe the infamous “Brown Mountain Lights” near the Linville Gorge to be the same type of phenomenon. 

If you’re dubious that jack-o-lanterns actually exist, rest assured they’re very real.  Similar floating orbs have appeared in literature dating back hundreds of years, and they’ve been witnessed all around the world though often known by different names.  Another common name for them is “will-o-wisps”.  And while they’ve been seen wide and far, scientific explanations for them vary.  Many scientists suspect it is a natural occurrence of marsh gas igniting to form the light. But the theory doesn’t explain jack-o-lanterns seen outside of swamps.

These floating balls of light inspired the Halloween tradition of a pumpkin carved with a face and illuminated by a candle.  The name “jack-o-lantern” came from the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a foul man who made a deal with the devil that went terribly wrong.  When cursed to forever roam the earth trapped between heaven and hell, the devil bestowed him with an ember to light his way. Jack placed it inside a turnip to make a lantern.  And while the original Irish Halloween tradition used a turnip, Irish immigrants in North America used pumpkins which were more abundant and easier to carve.

Some cultures believe that jack-o-lanterns warn of danger.  In Robert Morgan’s historical-fiction “Headwaters”, a story featured in one of my previous columns about Green River Preserve, settlers gathered into a militia that marched up the Green River to drive away Native Americans.  As the men prepared to head off for battle, Morgan wrote of the many lights glimmering on the mountain slopes.  It was 1815 and there was no electricity in the valley.  The lights just may have been jack-o-lanterns.

Schenck and many others believe that jack-o-lanterns appear at times when someone is in need of help. “They’re a wondrous thing. They’re not scary,” said Schenck.  He offered the story of Alfred Heatherly, another early resident of the valley, as proof that jack-o-lanterns represent a positive energy.  “Alfred was headed back to his cabin in the dark of the night.  He was on a narrow trail and had nothing to light his path. The rhododendron was too thick to walk through.  It was bad times for a fourteen year-old boy,” said Schenck.  But just when Alfred had completely lost his way, he was suddenly surrounded with light.

“He could see every stick and twig on the forest floor.  He knew right off it had to be a jack-o-lantern. It started to move and he followed behind as it wove its way through the rhododendron thicket, leading him until he emerged from the other side. Then it drifted up into the air and disappeared,” Schenck said.   With goosebumps on his arms, Schenck added, “now, figure that one out!”

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

Sandy Schenck, and his wife, Missy, permanently protected more than 2,600 acres of their Green River Preserve (GRP), a summer camp in southwest Henderson County, with a conservation easement held by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy in 2006.

The Preserve is more than worthy of permanent conservation.  But the Schencks protected GRP for more than its abundant natural resources.  For them, it was also about preserving the history so deeply ingrained in its mountains, the heritage that lingers in its hollows, and the past generations that haunt the valley.   

 “We’re protecting the land but we’re losing the stories,” Schenck admitted.  So for nearly two decades, it has been his mission to preserve the past at GRP by collecting its timeless lore.  He enthusiastically shares these tales with the children who attend his camp.  Like he has for the land itself, Schenck is ensuring that the history at GRP is passed on to the next generation. He hopes that they can learn from it, too.

The Green River Valley is steeped in heritage bestowed by both Native Americans and European settlers.  One of the valley’s most fascinating stories involves a conflict between them.  And while it is not a happy tale, it is one that should remind us that this land was cherished by many—enough to fight for it with tragic results.

The story involves one of the last Cherokee encampments in the Green River Valley.  The tale was personified in Robert Morgan’s fictional anthology The Mountain’s Won’t Remember Us.  His story, Headwaters, is a harrowing first-hand account of a young white boy’s role in the struggle against the valley’s few remaining Native Americans. 

To best convey its history, I will reference both Schenck’s and Morgan’s stories.  While Morgan’s version is a work of fiction, its basis was a very real event.  It was Clyde Morgan, Robert’s father, who first told Schenck the story—the same one told to Robert. 

According to Schenck, the event took place between 1812 an 1815.  It was a period when white settlers were steadily moving into the valley and was a time of dramatic change.  Many Native Americans had left upon the settlers’ arrival, but several still remained on the land that they had called home for generations. 

Today we can only speculate on the reasons that newly arrived white residents decided they no longer wished to co-exist with remaining natives of the valley.  Schenck suggested it was to drive off non-Christians, while Morgan’s story implied that the settlers believed Native Americans were stealing from and harassing them. 

What we do know is that one day they decided to act and a group of men convened in the lower valley—near where the Cedar Springs Church stands today.  “As the story goes, everybody got their rifles,” explained Schenck.  “The idea was to scare the Cherokee out of the valley.  It wasn’t to kill them.”

Morgan’s story details the party traveling up the valley at night by lantern light.  Their intent was to surprise the Cherokee at their camp at the very head of the river.  The road—today Green River Road—was “only a track” back then.  Their journey was six miles to the headwaters.  About halfway they stopped at a conspicuously large boulder.  There, they prayed for safety and guidance.  The rock, which still stands adjacent to Green River Road inside the Preserve, is known as “Prayer Rock” among locals today.

The settlers’ militia finally reached what Morgan refers to as “Old Fields”.  At the time, the field was full of corn farmed by the Native Americans and it hosted a Cherokee lodge.  A rustic structure “propped up by poles and covered with bark”, the Native Americans were inside, fast asleep.  “The word was passed down from rifleman to rifleman–many of which were young boys–to shoot into the lodge,” said Schenck.  A bloody battle ensued—perhaps one more violent than the settlers had intended. 

Morgan’s description of the skirmish is haunting.  “In the still of the morning it sounded like a thousand cannons started firing as the echoes bounced off the mountains and rattled around,” he wrote.  While fictionalized, the imagery in his story cannot be far from what the participants actually experienced during the battle. Morgan depicts the experience as felt by the young boy mustered into combat, “[There] was firing and screams all around…and so much smoke it was hard to see.”  Many Cherokee were killed. Presumably, most of the Native Americans that remained were driven off of the land in fear as the settlers intended.

While evidence of Europeans settlers in the Green River Valley is now more visible, Native Americans left an equally lasting presence on the land.  The field where the battle took place still exists in the center of Green River Preserve’s base camp.   “To this day, there are artifacts all over the ground,” said Schenck.  “This field was used for thousands of years.  We have found spear points on the site dated to 7000BC—that means there have been 9,000 years of human occupation right here at the camp.”

Perhaps that’s why the field arouses such positive emotions to visitors today, despite the tragedy that once occurred there.   He feels its strong energy frequently, as do many of the campers.  I have unquestionably felt it among my visits to Green River Preserve—a feeling of warmness and content that came over me.  It is a feeling of not wanting to leave.  Above all, it is a feeling of peace.

Maybe the generations that called this land home for so long are pleased that it has been protected—both physically and spiritually.  Maybe they are happy with the appreciation for nature and the preservation of heritage that is instilled among so many young minds every summer, year after year, at GRP.  Or maybe they are content to know that people have not forgotten them, and never will.

While the struggle at GRP two centuries ago was tragic, Schenck continues to tell its story so that the presence of the Native American people among the headwaters of the Green River will never be forgotten—and will continue to live on like it always should have.  Schenck is achieving his goal: he has saved more than the land.

Visit the Green River Preserve website to learn more about the camp and opportunities for children.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

“This land is full of wonderful stories and history,” says Sandy Schenck, owner of the Green River Preserve summer camp in southwest Henderson County.  Located at the upper end of the Green River valley and hosting the headwaters of the river itself, Sandy’s land has more than a few stories to tell.

In my mission to tell the great stories of the lands protected by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, Sandy Schenck was without question the easiest interview I’ve done. So I was surprised to find it difficult to start writing about the Green River Preserve.  Simply put, there were too many stories to choose from. Sandy’s been collecting them since his first boyhood visits to the Green River, and now he’s preserving them for generations to come.  I hope to share many of these stories in this column, but I’ll start with Sandy’s effort to preserve the history of the land and incorporate it into the Green River Preserve experience--a story in and of itself.

When I first met with Sandy, I was excited to find many similarities between us. We were both raised in Charlotte and attended school at the University of North Carolina (far too distant from western NC, we agreed).  We were both exposed to the mountains intermittently during childhood, but our families always whisked us away back to the flatlands of the Piedmont. My strongest connection with Sandy is the departure of a life at lower elevations in pursuit of more meaning among these mountains. Now we both seek to protect this beautiful region, and we’re both intensely interested in discovering its stories.

Sandy left a career in the business world in 1987 and came to western North Carolina with his wife, Missy. They constructed a summer camp on land the Schenck family had owned since the 1950s. “I came up here and never looked back. I couldn’t wait to get from behind a desk and out in the woods,” he says. Sandy has been making an impact on our mountain region ever since– both on its past and its future.

Nearly twenty years after opening the camp, the Schencks placed a conservation easement on 2,600 acres of Green River Preserve with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy in 2006.  It is one of the largest private conservation preserves in western North Carolina. Its vast forests, pristine streams and abundant biodiversity will be forever protected for generation of campers to enjoy. 

Sandy and Missy are interested in preserving more than the Green River valley’s natural beauty alone.  “Other people do not understand what land means to people in the mountains.  The stories are very much a part of what the land is. Both have to be preserved to give each other meaning” says Sandy. “This is one of the few valleys left that hasn’t changed dramatically. You’ve got families who have been here for five, six, seven generations. You don’t find that many places these days,” he explains.

During his childhood, Sandy often visited Green River Preserve with his family.  He learned the lore of the area from the people who had lived in the valley for generations. “The mountain folks were so influential to me as a child. They would teach me the things that they thought were important,” he remembers.  Characters like Neman Levi, a lifelong resident of the valley, taught Sandy about tracking, hunting, and the valley’s history.  “We would walk all over this place.”

Charles and Pearl Cox, who Sandy describes as an “old school mountain family”, introduced him to milking cows, churning butter, and cooking on a wood stove.  “Mr. Cox always wore a pistol. It was a huge gun; a .45 caliber. I remember one day sitting on the front porch with him.  As a child, I knew the basics of gun-toting—and that was to never carry a loaded gun,” he recalls. Mr. Cox wore the pistol everywhere, and one day curiosity got the better of young Sandy. “We were on the porch, and I was in a little rocking chair. I looked up at Mr. Cox, who was in a big rocking chair, and said ‘Mr. Cox, is that pistol loaded?’ Without hesitation, he flipped it up from its holster. KA-POW!  He lobbed a shell into the air towards South Carolina.” Sandy remembers the sly smile Mr. Cox gave him returning the gun to its holster.

Thinking back to his childhood, Sandy thinks of the mountain folks as his camp counselors. Now Sandy is the teacher and he’s making sure the stories of the valley and the lore of the local people are an influential part of camp experience at Green River Preserve.  “What we’re trying to do here is convey that sense of history and wonder about the Green River Valley to the kids who come to camp.”  Sandy wants them to discover--much like our own revelations--that the mountains is where they may find resonance and discover who they want to be.  Passing the stories on to the next generation is his way of doing that.

Since Sandy and Missy opened their summer camp at Green River Preserve to “the bright, curious, and creative” in 1988, thousands of campers have experienced both its amazing natural features and the intangible wonders that Sandy strives to pass on.

“Kids today don’t have the same sense of stories or sense of land. They’re used to seeing it out their car windows as they flash past it. You have to experience it to fully understand it.  That’s what we’re trying to do here, and that’s why stories are so important,” Sandy explains.

It is no surprise that Green River Preserve has become a meaningful place to many over the years. “We have had so many people come here who say ‘there is just something special about this valley.’”  Visitors often speak about the “energy” of the land or even that they detect the presence of its past inhabitants.

Sandy has felt it himself. “I have heard people talking down by the river and went to see where they were but then there were no people. But it was just like I was behind a big wooden door, and on the other side there were happy people and happy sounds.” He admits that it was probably the noise of water on the rocks, but nevertheless, these experiences have always stayed with him.  “I had vivid impressions of listening to people, and I think I was listening to earlier generations of people in this valley,” he reasons.

I noticed goosebumps on Sandy’s arm. “Have you ever had that happen?” he asks me.  Suddenly I was the one with a chill running down my spine. I had indeed experienced this phenomenon during one of my many walks in the woods. Of course, I hadn’t ever told anyone about it. Sandy made me realize that I wasn’t crazy; perhaps we really can hear echoes of the past.

“I can’t help to believe, want to believe, there really is a quality to this land that is truly unique.” But don’t just take Sandy’s word for it. “Get out and walk around a bit. You’ll hear it and feel it. There’s this great mystery and wonder here,” he says.

“Life here is so much more interesting than the buildings and wires of the city,” explains Sandy. “Why in the world would I ever go back to Charlotte?” he asks me. I’ve thought about it for a while—and I still haven’t come up with an answer.

Hours and dozens of tales later—stories I’ll share in future columns--Sandy paused. “Now before we get too far, there’s a great story that you would love.”

Visit the Green River Preserve website to learn more about the camp and opportunities for children.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

At an elevation of 4,232 feet, Bearwallow Mountain is one of the tallest peaks in eastern Henderson County. A grassy meadow occupies its summit, enabling long range panoramic views. The top of the mountain also hosts a lookout tower that once safeguarded the valleys below by aiding early fire detection.

“For 35 years it was my home,” says Clyde Curtis of the top of Bearwallow. Curtis, of Candler, began staffing the fire tower in 1957.  “I jumped at the opportunity when the job came up,” he says. And, after serving for nearly four decades, Curtis says, “I haven’t regretted it yet.” Curtis resided on Bearwallow until 1992; the fire tower was decommissioned only a few years later. Today, most fire detection is performed with aerial flights, or reported by the public using cell phones.

Curtis and his wife lived at the summit year-round, first in a two-room log cabin and later in a small frame house. “We enjoyed the unhurried atmosphere,” he says. “It was pristine.”

While manning a fire tower may seem like a simple job, it was often hard work. More than 10 counties were visible from Clyde’s fire tower on Bearwallow Mountain, and so were a lot of fires. “We sometimes had as many as 30 or 40 fires in a day,” says Curtis. He often remained in the fire tower from dawn until dusk, and sometimes even into the night.

Perhaps no one else has spent as much time on Bearwallow Mountain as Curtis. There is no shortage of tales from his three and a half decades at his mountaintop post. His stories range from bizarre to fascinating. They reveal what one sees when living high up on top of a mountain: just about everything.

At the high elevation and without the protection of trees atop the bald summit, Curtis caught the full brunt of passing storms, including blizzards and hurricanes. “One winter, I had 57 inches of snow accumulation,” he recalls. In the summer, Bearwallow’s lofty summit was especially vulnerable to thunderstorms; lightning frequently struck the fire tower. Once, while standing near the tower, he was knocked off his feet by a lightning strike.

And wind was often intense on the exposed peak. Curtis had an anemometer mounted on the second landing of the fire tower so he could determine the wind speed. Inside his house, a “clicker” counted the revolutions to determine the wind’s miles per hour. “The highest it ever clocked was 103 mph. After that, the clicking stopped. The anemometer blew away.”

Life atop Bearwallow Mountain was exceptionally solitary; isolated at a high elevation and miles from the nearest town, Curtis obtained supplies only a few times a month. Often winter storms would leave him snowbound, preventing him from leaving the mountain for provisions.  On one occasion, when low on supplies, Curtis benefited from some clever improvisation. Not long after radioing the Forest Service to report his dilemma, he noticed a small plane flying towards the top of the mountain.   “The pilot flew over real low and real slow,” he explains. “He had made a parachute out of his daughter’s dress and dropped supplies from the plane. Coffee and cigarettes.” The care package helped Curtis endure several more days of bitter cold temperatures at the high elevation. As to the accuracy of the makeshift airdrop?  “It landed on the front porch of the cabin.”

The resupply wasn’t Curtis’s only close encounter with aircraft on top of Bearwallow. “It was spring and the leaves had just come out on the trees. I heard a loud jet approaching, but by the time I looked, it was already gone,” says Curtis. A fighter jet had “buzzed” the fire tower.  “He was so low, the exhaust from the jet engine burned the leaves off the tops of the trees.”

Often, Curtis still had plenty to look at from the top of the mountain once the sun went down. “On a clear night you could see the lights from Charlotte,” he remembers. On the 4th of July, he had perhaps the most spectacular firework display of anyone around, when the colorful light shows above five different towns were visible at the same time.

It was at night that the most bizarre incidents occurred during his career at Bearwallow. “At night you can see the glow of fire from a long distance, and I spotted one at Ferrin Knob,” says Curtis. Ferrin Knob is a peak near Mt. Pisgah only a short distance off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Like Bearwallow, it hosted a fire lookout tower on its summit and it was common for Clyde to communicate with its tower operator by radio.

Curtis called the tower operator at Ferrin Knob, who was already asleep. “I asked him where the fire was. He said he didn’t know,” explains Clyde, who was baffled at how the operator couldn’t see the fire. “Well, look around for it, I told him.”  A generator beneath the tower had caught fire, and ironically, the fire tower itself was aflame.

Despite Bearwallow Mountain’s name, bears rarely visited Curtis. But he did receive other visitors from time to time. “Hikers would come up quite often,” he recalls. Local residents from the valleys below have sought out the summit of Bearwallow for decades. Its panoramic views and pleasant mountaintop meadow make it a favorite hiking destination in our area. Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC), with the help of the Carolina Mountain Club and community volunteers, recently completed construction of a mile-long hiking trail from the road to its summit.

In 2009, CMLC placed a conservation easement on 81 acres at the top of Bearwallow Mountain, forever protecting the picturesque summit and access to its breathtaking views. It is the first phase in an effort to conserve more than 470 total acres at the top of Bearwallow over the coming years.

Perhaps no one is happier about preserving Bearwallow than Clyde Curtis. “It makes me feel real good. I wish more people could experience the mountain.”

Preserved forever, they’ll always have the opportunity.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

P.T. Barnum is known for saying: “the noblest art is that of making others happy.”  If it’s true that Barnum should be credited for our region’s white squirrels, then he sure was good at his trade.  Few things lend more identity to Brevard and Transylvania County than its endearing population of white squirrels (OK—you’ve got me with waterfalls, but bear with me).  These curious-looking critters have been beloved by locals for decades.  And a sighting never fails to make unaware visitors do a double-take.  Nowadays, white squirrels are calling our entire region home—having spread into Henderson County and beyond.

But where did our white squirrels come from?  It’s a question that has been asked many times over the years and met with many answers.  The most common explanation that I’ve heard credits their origin to the crash of a circus truck.  But that story doesn’t involve P.T. Barnum; we’ll get there soon enough.

The most widely accepted story comes from Barbara Mull, of Mobile, AL, who grew up in Brevard and claimed that her uncle, Harry Mull, gave her two white squirrels during her childhood in the 1940s.  Her uncle obtained them from a friend who alleged they escaped from a circus train wreck in Florida.  Barbara kept the squirrels caged as pets for several years until they successfully made another clever escape from captivity.

Others claim that the original white squirrels were fugitives from a carnival traveling in Brevard itself, not Florida.  But all of the stories of their beginning share one consistency: the circus.  And that’s where Camp Rockbrook lends its own legend to the white squirrels’ lore.

Rockbrook Camp for Girls, a rustic summer camp located southwest of Brevard in the Dunns Rock Township, will welcome wilderness-seeking children for its 90th season next month.  Founded in 1921, it was established by Nancy Carrier who is well known in Transylvania County for establishing the Brevard Music Center and the county hospital.  But Carrier is known for something else, too--her great-grandfather was P.T. Barnum of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame.

In 1888, P.T. Barnum gifted Julia Hurd Clarke—his granddaughter and Nancy‘s mother—money to purchase a large plantation in South Carolina.  Around the same time, Nancy’s mother also bought several hundred acres in western North Carolina—land on which Nancy would grow up and that would ultimately become Camp Rockbrook. 

Apparently that wasn’t the only gift that P.T. Barnum gave to Nancy’s mother and her family.  An array of strange oddities and bizarre items—gifts sent from Barnum—once filled a large home standing in the center of Rockbrook.  The house was affectionately known as the “circus house” among generations of campers.  Among its collection of peculiar circus memorabilia were an elephant’s footstool and Tom Thumb’s chair.

Jeff and Sarah Carter, Rockbrook Camp’s directors, believe that P.T. Barnum might be responsible for another curiosity:  the region’s white squirrels.  “We claim they came from Rockbrook,” says Jeff.  Rumors suggest that the squirrels may have been a wedding present given to Nancy Carrier from the Barnum family, or a present to an infant Nancy prior to P.T. Barnum’s death.  “What a terrible wedding gift,” said Sarah.  But with white squirrels now embraced by the community, she admits, “I guess it’s a gift that keeps on giving.”

Charlotte Page became a third generation camper at Rockbrook when she first attended in 1980.  Her grandmother came to Rockbrook in the 1930s, and she remembers hearing her tales of the “circus house” and its peculiar objects. Charlotte is now Associate Camp Director and enjoys researching Rockbrook’s interesting history, including the white squirrels.  Regarding Rockbrook’s claim to the white squirrels, Page says, “We think our story is much more believable.”  Considering the plethora of oddities sent to Rockbrook by P.T. Barnum, it is hardly a stretch to imagine that he sent white squirrels there, too. 

Regardless where the white squirrels came from, no one questions the region’s pride in them. May’s White Squirrel Festival in Brevard emphatically celebrates our resident white rodents.  Over the years, the festival has become one of the region’s largest.  A Squirrel Box Derby, White Squirrel Music Festival, and the White Squirrel 5K are among the events at which you can celebrate our white squirrel heritage.  This year, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy’s booth debuted its new Hiking Challenge—featuring an iron-on white squirrel patch for challenge completers—and hosted games of white squirrel bean bag toss.

Perhaps we’ll never know for certain how our region became home to these alabaster curiosities, but we sure are excited they’re here.  In fact, Brevard appreciates them so much that they placed a protective ordinance on white squirrels in 1986—making it unlawful to hunt, trap, or kill them within city limits.

White squirrels aren’t the only natural resource that is protected in our region.  In 2010, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy placed a conservation easement on more than 115 acres of mountain slopes surrounding Camp Rockbrook.  Permanently protected from development, its picturesque waterfalls, scenic cliffs, and perhaps the original stomping grounds of the white squirrel, will forever remain preserved for generations more to cherish.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

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