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Residents Have Strong Ties with their Land
It has been awhile since I've shared a story from the Green River Preserve. But that certainly doesn't reflect a shortage of stories. I've realized that the tales and legends of this special place — tucked away in the Green River valley of southwest Henderson County — are so numerous, and so compelling, that I'm not sure all of them could ever be told.
The day I met Sandy Schenck, Green River Preserve camp owner and director, I told him I wanted to hear all of the stories about his land that he held so dear. At the time, I didn't realize what a ridiculous and impossible request this was. But of all the stories that Schenck managed to share with me over the course of that afternoon, his favorite seemed to be the one he told to me first: the story of Joe Capps, a man who so deeply valued land, he seemingly walked to the ends of the earth for it.
"I first heard the Joe Capps story when I was a boy visiting the Green River valley, and it still sometimes brings tears to my eyes," Schenck said. Capps and his family lived and farmed in the Green River valley in the early 20th century.
"The story goes that Mr. Capps and his family had about four or five acres of land at the time. One day he went to his family and said, ‘We're not going to make it. We don't have enough land. We need more,' " Schenck said.
Mr. Capps went on to tell his family that the only way to get more land was to go to work in the textile mills in Greenville, S.C.
"That will allow us to earn enough money to buy more land," Capps told his family, according to Schenck.
Capps' family was outraged. "They said he was condemning himself to hell," Schenck said. "Those were powerful words back then. It was a terrible thought — a mountain man leaving his family to work in a textile mill."
But that's what Capps did. For six years, from 1904 to 1910, he worked at Poe Manufacturing Co., a textile mill in Greenville. So determined to afford more land for his family in his beloved Green River valley, Capps worked six days a week at the mill, making only a few dollars per day.
So determined, in fact, that Capps walked all the way there and all the way home. Every week.
According to Schenck, "He would leave Greenville on Saturday afternoon and walk all the way up the (Blue Ridge) escarpment." Capps' walk would extend into the night. He would arrive home by Sunday morning. He went to church with his family and then stayed for dinner. After exchanging his dirty clothes for a clean set, he would walk back to Greenville in time for work on Monday morning.
"He did that for six years. That's a 35-mile round trip. With more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain, at least," Schenck said. "That's unbelievable."
Records from January 1911, just about the time that Capps stopped walking to back and forth to Greenville, say he purchased 151 acres of land in the Green River valley for $830. It was a fantastic achievement following a remarkable and long journey. Capps finally had his land, which he described as "the soul of his family."
According to Schenck, the story of Capps "was as elusive as a trail of lost footsteps." He had shared the story with his cousin, David Schenck, and they agreed they needed to track it down before it disappeared.
Keeping the story alive
Indeed, that's almost what happened. David collected oral interviews from old-timers living in the Green River valley, hoping to shed more light on Capps. He visited Euva Capps, an elderly woman who was related to Joe. Ms. Capps was a young girl during the period that Joe was walking to Greenville. David was fearful that her declining health might prevent her from speaking with him.
Despite being sick, when asked about Joe Capps' long walks, Euva sat straight up, ripped the oxygen mask off of her face, and revealed the story to David. Euva would pass away just two days later.
"The story was almost lost," Schenck said. Now he's grateful that it wasn't.
"People do not understand what land means to people. When you hear stories like that, you get a sense of what it meant."
Schenck and his wife, Missy, know that sense of what the land meant to so many before them, and the meaning it holds for them now. They felt it so strongly that in 2006, they entered 2,600 acres of their Green River Preserve property into a permanent conservation easement with the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. The easement ensures that the land — which includes the uppermost headwaters of the Green River as well as several miles of boundary with DuPont State Forest — will never be developed.
The Schencks and CMLC are excited to know that the land around where Joe Capps lived and worked so tirelessly to obtain will forever remain the way he had known it. And that by conserving the land, they're protecting its stories.
Said Schenck, "Stories are very much a part of what the land is. They have to be together to have the meaning of each."
The trees remain
CMLC's conservation easement is not the only honor paid to Joe Capps' sacrifices for the land. His family and descendents refused to cut the trees on their land along the trail leading to Greenville. This act itself was a sacrifice, as the wood would fetch a good price if logged and sold; "money on the stump," Schenck called it. The venerable trees remain today as a memorial to the sacrifice Capps made to acquire his land.
"As a child, it was simply a fascinating story of remarkable people in the valley. Now, as a camp director who has worn out many a pair of shoes on Green River trails, I am in awe of the painful length of that walk, often done by night, up the steep ridge and through the gap," Schenck reflected.
"I still lead children on hikes in the valley, and sometimes, when we come to a view and see a bulldozed patch where there were once trees, I feel a tinge of sadness. The children make me hopeful, so I continue to tell them the story, just like my parents told it to me. But I wonder, if (more) folks knew the story, how might that view look different? What new awe might we all feel for those trees?"
The conservancy protects land and water resources vital to our region's natural heritage and quality of life. Since 1994, CMLC has protected more than 23,000 acres in Henderson, Transylvania and surrounding counties. For more information, visit www.carolinamountain.org.
Green River Preserve is a co-ed summer camp for the bright, curious and creative. The camp strives to provide a challenging and nurturing learning experience and to inspire a deep appreciation of interconnectedness, ecological respect and the joy of living. For more information, visit www.greenriver preserve.org.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.