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A Beautiful Person Leaves a Beautiful Legacy
Ruth Jones’ Cedar Mountain farm is decidedly beautiful. Its forest is charming, the rolling pasture is serene. Its quaint farmhouse, rustic barn, and historic spring house are endearing. In every way, it is just like Ruth.
“She was a kind and gentle person. She never met a stranger and never had an enemy,” said Mark Tooley, a friend of Ruth's since high school. “I wish that you could have known Ruth.”
Ruth Elaine Jones, a Transylvania County native, was a graduate of Brevard High School and UNC Greensboro and a dedicated member of Rocky Hill Baptist Church. She spent her career as a health educator for the county health department — a position she held for more than 30 years. Ruth was a loving daughter to her parents, whom she cared for much of her adult life. By all accounts, she was the sincerest of souls.
“Ruth devoted her life to her church, her community, her friends, and her parents, never asking for or expecting anything in return,” added Tooley. “She always had a smile on her face.”
Ruth passed away in June 2011, leaving us suddenly — and far too early — at the age of 56. It was only four months prior that she discovered she was ill with cancer. Ruth will be missed, but her legacy — and embodiment of her values — will forever live on through the land that she held so dear.
Affinity for the land
Ruth spent almost her entire life on her farm, which undoubtedly shaped the person she became.
She represented at least the fourth generation in her family to live on and tend the southern Transylvania County property.
Ruth was a descendant of the Jones family that includes prominent 19th century western North Carolina road builder Solomon Jones, who, after constructing a road from South Carolina up the steep slopes of Caesars Head continued it to present-day Henderson County.
That century-and-a-half-old road, which still bears his name, crosses through the middle of the family farm. Those who make the drive to enjoy the view from Camp Greenville’s Pretty Place pass over it and can enjoy the scenic qualities of the historic homestead.
“Prior to her passing, we talked a lot about how important land was to her,” said Ruth’s lifelong friend, Beth Carden. “She had an affinity for the land.”
Ruth and Carden were distant cousins and grew up just down the road from each other. Because Ruth was an only child, the pair grew to be like sisters. “We were best of friends. We did everything together,” Carden said.
Carden insists that Ruth’s connection to the land was rooted both in family and their upbringing.
“We grew up in the woods. We did everything outside,” said Carden, who remembers fondly the pair playing on the farm as children. “We learned everything about nature from the land.”
The farm was adjacent to a summer camp, which the girls visited often. They participated alongside the campers — swimming in the lake, making crafts, square dancing, and “doing what campers did,” said Carden.
“We went back to school each year, and kids asked us what we did all summer,” she said. “We told them ‘you’d never understand.’ It was a wonderful growing up.”
Among their adventures and explorations, the duo absorbed plenty of wisdom from their elders. “We grew up picking their brains. You learned by listening and watching. They taught us how to live in the world around us,” Carden said.
“The farm meant a lot to Ruth because it had also been the home of her grandparents, whom she grew up with. Our grandparents’ generation was dependent on the land.”
Ruth’s parents raised cows and hogs on the property, collected eggs from their chickens, and made their own butter — much like her grandparents had done before them. “Part of her affinity for the farm was watching her parents reap from the land to produce food,” Carden said.
“I believe the land plays a significant role in who people become. People who were dependent on it like her family have a love and appreciation for it. That impacts peoples’ lives. It certainly did for Ruth.”
A timeless gift
Following Ruth’s passing, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) learned that she had willed her farm to the organization. The generous gift came as a surprise, as she had not had any prior contact with the land trust.
Her bequest did not come with any instructions. “Ruth didn’t tell anybody what she wanted done with the land. We think she wanted it preserved, so that’s what we tried to do,” said Tooley, also a CMLC board trustee.
An only child, Ruth had no immediate family to interpret her wishes. CMLC sought feedback from the community and spoke with members of her extended family and church, as well as her close friends. Carden, whom Ruth had named as executrix of her estate, provided insightful guidance in surmising Ruth’s wishes for the property.
“Even though she never told anyone, I believe she always had it in the back of her mind to preserve her property as she remembered it,” said Carden.
Hoping to follow the lead of innovative farmland preservation models used by other land trusts around the country, CMLC put out a call for proposals seeking prospective farmers and their ideas for keeping the farm in agricultural production.
The process was intended to provide an opportunity to diminish barriers to farming such as the high cost of land. “We were hoping to help a new farmer get a good start,” said CMLC Assistant Director Rebekah Robinson, who managed the conservation project.
While seeking a new farmer for the property, CMLC also diligently stewarded the land by removing invasive species and maintaining its aging structures, including Ruth’s house. These improvements, as well as a soil study to determine what agriculture may be best suited for the land, preserved the natural resources of the farm and made it more viable for a prospective farmer.
Though the search resulted in several serious inquiries, ultimately CMLC was unable to find a tenant to farm it.
“It wasn’t large enough to be a viable farming enterprise,” said Tooley, adding that its remote location was another obstacle to attracting farmers. “We just couldn’t find the right farmer.”
Bisected by the road, CMLC ultimately decided to sell each side of the farm independently. To honor Ruth’s presumed wishes, conservation easements were placed on the property in conjunction with the sales.
“By limiting the number of structures and alteration of the farm’s natural resources, the easements protect the natural character of the land and its agricultural value — the values believed to be most important to Ruth by those who knew her,” said Robinson.
A lasting legacy
In addition to honoring Ruth, the conservation of her farm will also have enduring positive impacts on the community and region by safeguarding water quality of its mountain stream and springs, and protecting its scenic rural landscape.
Ruth’s lasting legacy will extend beyond her farm, too. A portion of earnings from the sale of the farm will be used to create a scholarship — honoring Ruth’s love of educating children — which will be awarded annually to a graduating senior at Brevard High School.
Proceeds from the property sale, according to Tooley, will make CMLC more sustainable and better able to protect more natural lands cherished by Ruth, as well as be used by the land trust to engage in conservation education and programming in Transylvania County — continuing Ruth’s legacy of education in the community.
Though there was disappointment that a farmer could not be paired with the land and the property sold as a whole, project partners believe that Ruth would still be pleased with the outcome.
“A great deal of time was spent trying to keep the land intact as a farm. CMLC went above and beyond to fulfill what we all believed were Ruth’s wishes for the property,” said Tooley.
“I think she would be happy.”
Tooley hopes that Ruth’s kindness will serve as an example for others to leave their own legacy through land. “I think it will inspire other landowners to protect what is important to them.”
Most of all, both Tooley and Carden are glad that she will be remembered.
“This was something special,” Tooley said. “As a community, let’s not forget what Ruth did.
“Let us always honor and remember her in perpetuity, as we do the land that we conserve.”
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.