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Living atop Bearwallow Mountain
Rhodes family took great care of land
So what tale warranted "five licks with a ruler" from her schoolteacher? "I was telling everyone how my brother nearly got killed on Bearwallow Mountain," she said.
Grasso is one of 10 siblings in the Rhodes family raised in Henderson County's Clear Creek valley, near Fruitland. Her father, Harley B. Rhodes Sr., was esteemed in the community. She described her father as a forest ranger, game warden, scoutmaster, landowner and farmer. "No one could pass by him without tipping their hat," Grasso recalled. "He was a real Southern gentleman. He always wore his sleeves up."
Rhodes was the first man to staff the fire tower atop Bearwallow Mountain, one of the highest peaks in eastern Henderson County.
The tower was erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934 as a lookout for forest fires in the valleys below. Quick detection of a plume of smoke from its bird's-eye view enabled notification to the fire department below. Rapid dispatch of firefighters to the scene could subdue a small forest fire before it spread into a ravaging inferno, threatening thousands of acres of forest and residents' homes.
According to Grasso, her father spent the entire fire season — typically December through April — on top of Bearwallow Mountain. A small log cabin, no longer present today, served as his sleeping quarters. He spent most of the daylight hours in a small cab — a 7-by-7-foot square room surrounded by windows — atop the 47-foot steel tower frame, looking for developing forest fires.
Grasso said that to reach Bearwallow Mountain, her father walked to the top, hiking several miles. "He only came home when it rained," she explained. "Even then, he had to go back the same day."
Along with her brothers and sisters, she often made the long walk to the top of Bearwallow Mountain to visit and stay with her father. The children frequently stopped to pick up a peck of corn, visiting at a gristmill along the way to have it ground into cornmeal that they could take to Rhodes.
"A peck of corn is pretty heavy," exclaimed Grasso, who recalled carrying it all the way from the valley to the summit. At an elevation of 4,232 feet, Bearwallow Mountain isn't short, either.
Rhodes had been staffing the fire tower a little more than a year by 1936. That was when Grasso's brothers, Luther, age 12, and Harley Jr., age 8, were visiting their father in the top of the tower. According to Harley Jr.'s son, Stacy Rhodes of Hendersonville — who later heard the story from his father, Rhodes Sr. was on a telephone party line relaying a weather and fire report.
"People all over Henderson County were listening in to get the update," Stacy Rhodes said. The listeners included other members of the Rhodes family at their home near Fruitland.
Suddenly, Harley Sr. cut his report short. "My son has fallen out of the fire tower," echoed over the telephone, according to Stacy. The call ended abruptly. Those listening in throughout the valleys below were undoubtedly mortified. Had something unspeakable happened atop Bearwallow Mountain?
"He fell right through that trap door," Grasso said of Harley Jr., who had accidentally slipped out of the cab of the fire tower. "Fell three flights of stairs" — about 20 feet through midair.
What Rhodes Sr. saw when he peered far beneath the lookout cab was almost unbelievable: an 8-year-old boy alive and well, hanging from a single bolt on the side of the tower by the strap of his overalls.
Harley Jr. was pulled to safety by his father and brother, shaken but otherwise unharmed. "It scared the life out of my father," Grasso said.
"He got a good spanking from his mother for playing around up there and not paying attention," Stacy Rhodes said of his young father's harrowing mishap.
Grasso said that other than sharing the story with her schoolmates, "we didn't give him a hard time about it because we were thankful — thankful to God that he was safe."
Harley Sr. staffed the fire tower on Bearwallow Mountain for five years in total, relinquishing the duty to one of his sons, Jim Rhodes, who manned it for many years beyond. The tower was used for fire detection until the mid-1990s.
Like the one on Bearwallow, most fire towers have been decommissioned by the Forest Service. Detection is now performed more efficiently by airplanes as well as reporting from the public via cellphones. The towers remain historic landmarks, structures from a bygone era that still represent the protection of our natural resources.
Even without the aid of the now-inaccessible fire tower, the grassy bald atop Bearwallow Mountain affords one of the best views in the county. For decades, it has been a destination for inspiration and reflection among residents and visitors. In spite of his father's long-ago moment of horror, Stacy Rhodes revels in the mountain's beauty. "It's hard to deny the majesty of it," he said.
Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy began protecting the top of Bearwallow Mountain in 2009 when it placed a conservation easement on 81 acres surrounding the summit. In 2011, the Carolina Mountain Club and CMLC constructed a one-mile hiking trail to the mountaintop to better enable visitors to enjoy its scenery.
Then late last year, CMLC further protected the ridgeline on Bearwallow Mountain though another conservation easement — this one totaling 84 acres.
Ultimately, the land trust hopes to conserve more than 400 acres on the locally beloved mountain, as well as incorporate it in a 12-mile hiking trail loop that will link other conserved lands while circumnavigating the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge near the community of Gerton.
Wish to see the beauty of Bearwallow Mountain for yourself? Join CMLC for its second annual Bearwallow Beast 5K Trail Run & Festival next Sunday, May 5. Runners will climb 1,400 feet from Gerton over the 3-mile course to the summit. The finish line hosts a mountaintop festival with local beer, bluegrass music and a 360-degree view.
Register for the race online at bearwallowbeast.com. Attendance at the festival is free for everyone. For more information, visit carolinamountain.org.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.