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Stories of the Land: Conservation of Youngs Mountain
‘This mountain has a lot of good history,” said Tommy Hartzog, 66, of Lake Lure, about his property on Youngs Mountain. “A lot of people just don’t know about it.”
Hartzog and his wife, Julie, bought land on the southern slopes of the Rutherford County peak in the late 1990s. Decades ago, a missed opportunity by his father to purchase a rural farm in his native Cherokee County, S.C., left him with a longing to own property one day. “I’ve always wanted to buy some land,” Hartzog said.
“Back in the ’50s, my great aunt had a primitive cabin in this area. (My family) came up here to hike and camp, roughing it,” Hartzog recalled from his youth. The dramatic mountains of the area left an impact on him, so when a search four decades later began for property to serve as a family gathering place, Hartzog looked to the rugged slopes surrounding Lake Lure.
After researching tax records, he identified a sizeable tract on the slopes of the rocky summit of Youngs Mountain, just east of the northern arm of Lake Lure. Hartzog wrote a letter of inquiry to an absentee owner in Florida, and after six months — nearly causing him to lose hope — he received a response that later lead to the purchase of the land. Hartzog did not know at the time the long-lasting impact that his letter would one day have for the mountain.
Separated from the Blue Ridge, Youngs Mountain rises prominently from the Piedmont Plateau, reaching 2,700 feet. While not lofty compared to mountains farther west, the peak rises abruptly some 1,400 feet above its immediate surroundings. Hartzog and his family were first attracted to Youngs Mountain for its stunning natural beauty — which includes forested slopes interrupted by rugged bands of cliffs and rock outcroppings.
While the natural features of the mountain first drew them, the cultural heritage hidden in the hollows below the cliffs ultimately connected Hartzog emotionally with his new property.
“I’ve always made it a priority to find out what this land what like 30, 50, even 100 years ago,” he explained. “I’ve always been fascinated by the older people who grew up here and know the history, long before the area was settled by people from other states.”
A local friend put Hartzog in touch with several longtime residents of the mountain. He visited old-timers and soaked in the history and lore of the area because, according to his friend, “the death of someone who had lived around here their whole life is just like a library burning down.”
The stories often centered around the hardships created by the rugged terrain of the mountain. Its summit was an ideal locale for grazing livestock and growing apples; however, perilous cliffs guarded access from the valley below. Hartzog discovered old deeds that described the sheer cliffs on Youngs Mountain.
“Some of the language is just fascinating,” he said. Called “The Great Cliffs,” the rock faces high up on the mountain were also described as “where the cattle cannot go.”
“Imagine taking a wagon up that mountain, pulled by two mules, to harvest the apples. They had to negotiate the steep slopes without any kind of bulldozer-made road. It’s unbelievable to me,” Hartzog said. “You can still see piles of rocks up on the mountain where I was told entire families would be holed up during the late winter, clearing all the stones on the ground so cattle could graze in the spring.”
Hartzog once explored the slopes with Wallace Early, a World War II tank commander, who grew up in one of Youngs Mountain’s hollows beneath the Great Cliffs. Early pointed out a rock wall in the forest that was all that remained of the cabin and root cellar where his father was born during the winter of 1906.
“A midwife walked all the way up the mountain to the cabin. That particular winter, according to family lore, had such deep snow that she had to stop at a farm in the valley and bind croker sacks to her legs and feet in order to get there through the snow to deliver his father,” said Hartzog, relaying Early’s story.
It is no doubt that the stories of such hardships long ago on rugged Youngs Mountain deepened Hartzog’s appreciation of the land and the meaning it held to the generations who occupied it before him. This history, when combined with its stunning natural splendor, inspired him to begin discussions with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) about forever conserving part of the mountain.
The pursuit of protecting his land on Youngs Mountain began in 2007, but finding the resources to make it possible can often require many years. “Good things like this tend to take an awful long time,” Hartzog said. “But it was worth the wait.”
This summer, North Carolina’s Parks and Recreation Trust Fund — a dedicated funding source set aside by the state legislature to enable the acquisition and development of public parks by local governments — awarded the necessary funds to purchase 96 acres owned by Hartzog on Youngs Mountain.
Hartzog and CMLC partnered with Rutherford County, who took ownership of the land for the creation of a new county park. Hartzog generously donated nearly one-third of the value of the property in order to achieve its permanent conservation.
While development of parking and trails at Youngs Mountain Park will require several years, its acquisition makes possible a critical trail corridor necessary to advance the Summits Trail, a proposed footpath that will circumnavigate Lake Lure, traversing the high ridges that frame the lake.
Though part of this longer route, the future trail segment at Youngs Mountain, will enable a day-hiking opportunity for visitors wishing to trek to the peak’s scenic cliffs.
Youngs Mountain accompanies nearly 1,400 acres of protected land owned by CMLC at Weed Patch Mountain and 200 acres at the Town of Lake Lure’s Buffalo Creek Park. Both tracts, only a few miles to the west, will also host the route of the Summits Trail.
“We feel blessed to be a part of it,” Hartzog said on behalf of his family. “Knowing that it will always be preserved and that it won’t ever change or be logged or developed … is a great legacy for us to be a part of. We’ll always be grateful to CMLC for their patience in making this happen.”
As Hartzog discovered, Youngs Mountain indeed has a lot of history. It once hosted hardships of earlier generations, but because of his appreciation for its past and love for the natural treasures of its present, Youngs Mountain will be protected forever in the future.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.