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Siblings Preserve Long John Mountain Summit
‘I tromped all over that mountain, up and down, and all around,” Virginia Browning Turner said of her beloved Long John Mountain in Hendersonville. “So have my children, and so have my grandchildren. It is very special to me.”
As a child, Turner explored the long ridge and walked in the former footsteps of its namesake, local pioneer John McCarson.
“I know how the mountain got its name, thanks to Frank Fitzsimons,” she explained, referencing the lore within the volumes of “From the Banks of the Oklawaha.” According to Fitzsimons, the “rough and tough” McCarson stood 6 feet 7 inches tall, and some insisted he reached 7 feet in height — when barefoot.
”Back then, that was unheard of,” Turner said. McCarson’s stature earned him the moniker Long John, and the ridge on which the 19th-century pioneer built his cabin became known as Long John’s Mountain among his friends who visited to fox hunt.
Like McCarson and his friends, Turner explored nearly every inch of the mountain as a child. “It was my personal playground. I spent so much time growing up on that mountain — it became very precious,” she said.
Turner, 80, and her brother, Bert Browning III of Saluda, inherited property atop Long John Mountain from their parents, Bert Jr. and Sara Browning. The couple purchased a farm on the mountain in the 1940s to add more milk production to the family business, Kalmia Dairy.
They named the farm Mayfields to commemorate the month of the year in which they married as well as purchased the land and other significant milestones in their lives. For many years, the family employed one of Long John Carson’s grandchildren as the farm’s herd manager.
While Turner never lived on the farm, much of her childhood was spent on horseback ascending the pastoral slopes of Long John to reach the mountain’s ridge.
In the early 1960s, dairy production on the farm ceased when her parents sold the cattle to begin the Hawthorne Hills subdivision on the property. Lots were sold, and over the next several decades, the neighborhood was constructed in three phases.
By the time the fourth phase of development — the highest value property at the top of Long John Mountain — was ready for construction, Turner and her brother had inherited the land following the passing of their parents.
“I did fine (with the development) until we got to the mountain,” Turner said. “I just couldn’t do it.”
Her brother Bert, 85, ultimately agreed. “It’s OK to use some of what God and creation have given us, but it’s not right to ruin it for all of time,” he said. “It’s been there for a few million years, and for one owner to come along and destroy it for posterity seems grossly unfair to me.”
Sold or developed, their Long John Mountain property could have brought the siblings a substantial financial gain. But instead, Browning and Turner began pursuing permanent conservation of the tract with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.
Last year, they donated ownership of 50 acres to CMLC to ensure its perpetual care. The tract includes the 2,700-foot summit Long John Mountain itself.
Between U.S. Highway 64 and N.C. Highway 191, the mountain is visible from much of Hendersonville and forms the immediate backdrop to the city when viewed from the east. Development has encroached on much of the mountain, but the forest within the donated property remains in its natural state. Even logging hasn’t impacted the tract in more than a century.
“My mother and father were very grateful people who worked hard. Throughout their ownership, they protected the entire ridgeline from development,” Browning said. “My sister and I felt it only fitting that this land be shared with the public now and in perpetuity.”
Turner and Browning worked with the local land trust because of their unyielding faith in the nonprofit’s mission. “I trust CMLC,” Turner said. “We wanted to give it to them lock, stock and barrel — the whole thing. Then they can have the legal rights to defend it if anything encroaches upon it.”
Turner added, “We took care of it up until this point. Now it’s theirs. And they’ll take care of it.”
In addition to preserving the mountain view that charms Hendersonville, conservation of Long John Mountain also safeguards regional water quality. Nearly a half mile of tributaries on the tract that flow into nearby Shaw Creek will forever be shielded from sedimentation and pollution that can result from construction on steep mountain slopes.
Several plant species that have declined in abundance in the region — including French Broad heart leaf, wild ginger and galax — make their home on the property and now have permanent habitat protection, thanks to the siblings’ conservation effort.
To Turner and Browning, this adds additional meaning to their act of setting aside the top of Long John Mountain. “I always had the feeling that I never owned it … that I was only a steward of it. If anything, I am to leave only a light footprint and to protect the living things that have always been,” Turner said.
“We seem to be on a path as a nation of destroying everything, including the land,” she added. “I could not bear the thought of my mountain being destroyed by roads and houses.”
Now in its ownership, CMLC will protect, manage and defend the land atop Long John Mountain in perpetuity in order to conserve its natural heritage. Though access to the public is not imminent, the tract could one day become a nature preserve or park and host publicly accessible trails.
Turner is hopeful generations to come will enjoy the land as have she and her brother.
“It is my hope that, when the sun begins to set leaving only the mountain shining in sunlight like a wonderful jewel, others will share my love of the mountain and its natural inhabitants and my delight in knowing that all are now safe,” she said.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, CMLC protects land and water resources that improve quality of life for residents and visitors in Henderson, Transylvania, and surrounding counties. Since 1994, the land trust has protected more than 27,000 acres in the French Broad River watershed, Hickory Nut Gorge, and Blue Ridge Escarpment. For more information, visit www.carolinamountain.org.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.