A Parkway view
The tourism industry has ballooned from modest beginnings in the early 19th century when Low Country planters escaped the heat of summer by heading for the hills to become the defining economic and social force in WNC.
Preserve. It’s a simple word that carries so much weight on its slight, two-syllabled shoulders, especially here in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. For many who call the hills and hollows of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee home, preserving things is an integral strand of DNA in our shared genetic makeup.
The act of preservation began simply enough. For our mountain ancestors, preservation was not an option or a luxury; it was a way of life. Long before the days of Frigidaire and General Electric appliances, early settlers would preserve meat through the processes of salting or smoking. Fruits and vegetables from the harvest were put up for the winter in cans, jars or other containers, and the verb “preserve” morphed into a noun as great-grandmother’s peach preserves shared valuable pantry space alongside her blackberry jelly, strawberry jam, and apple butter.
Over the years, preserving things in the mountains became less a matter of survival, at least in terms of direct, day-to-day sustenance. For the vast majority of us, we now trust our neighborhood Ingles, our Fresh Market, our Bi-Lo, our Name Your Grocery Store of Choice Here to ensure that the bacon is properly cured, packaged and refrigerated, the green beans and broccoli frozen, the locally grown apples and grapes happily hobnobbing with their exotic cousins from warmer climes, the oranges, bananas, and papayas.
We don’t have to go about the dirty business of growing and harvesting, raising and slaughtering, canning and curing. Preserving things important to us is no longer just about the art of preservation. It’s about the preservation of art. It’s about the preservation of heritage and culture. And it’s about the preservation of the staggering natural beauty that has become a hallmark of what it means to be blessed enough to live in this corner of the world.
It also has become a vital part of the region’s economy. Although we are no longer personally responsible for preserving the things that wind up on our family dinner table, the people of this region still depend in large part on preservation to pay the salaries that put food on our tables, the roof over our heads, and the clothes on our children’s backs. It’s because of the tourism industry that flourishes in the wake of our successful efforts to preserve.
Tourists flock to these peaks and valleys to revel in the splendor of our mountain scenery, with long-range views of ridgeline after ridgeline extending far into the horizon, seemingly to infinity. From Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Blue Ridge Parkway, from Grandfather Mountain to Looking Glass Rock, from the Cherohala Skyway to Chimney Rock, the incredible views remain for generations to enjoy only through efforts to preserve these natural treasures.
Visitors come for the profusion of festivals of folk music and dance that dot the region’s calendar year-round, from the just-concluded Mountain Heritage Day that takes place every last Saturday of September on the campus of Western Carolina University to the Mountain Quiltfest coming up in March in Pigeon Forge. They travel here for the myriad of museums of folk art and crafts, to soak in our Appalachian Mountain traditions, to watch demonstrations by painters and potters, basket-weavers and metalsmiths, and to purchase their handiworks. And, without even leaving the country, they enter a sovereign nation to experience the culture and heritage of the first people to live in the mountains, the members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.
It’s plain to see that, in the Southern Appalachians, preservation has spawned something far more than just a cottage industry—although many of our local artisans and crafters do work out of their homes. In addition to transient visitors, these mountains have become a haven for part-time residents and vacation home-owners. And, speaking of cottage industry, these aren’t cottages rented by weekend visitors. Second homes, many of them massive high-dollar estates in developments that, fittingly enough, have “preserve” as part of their names, have added to a local tax base already lifted by our efforts to preserve.
We’re not talking small potatoes, either, the type that Great Aunt Bessie Mae might have stored over the winter in the root cellar. The N.C. Department of Commerce’s Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development estimates that in 2011 alone the tourism industry generated $1.34 billion in spending in the 16 westernmost counties of North Carolina. That’s billion with a ‘b.’
Even Dollywood, with its theme-park bouffant wigs and Splash Country false eyelashes, prides itself on staying true to its mountain roots, promoting a wide variety of traditional crafters showing their stuff, including blacksmiths, glassblowers, and candle-makers. For those who prefer preservation of the natural variety, Dollywood also features a bald eagle rehabilitation center; they’re in rehab because they’ve been injured, not because they’ve been partying with Charlie Sheen.
Despite its ample upside, all this attention on preservation can have its pitfalls, points out Richard Starnes, professor of history at WCU, in his book “Creating the Land of the Sky: Tourism and Society in Western North Carolina.” The tourism industry has ballooned from modest beginnings in the early 19th century when Low Country planters escaped the heat of summer by heading for the hills to become the defining economic and social force in WNC.
“The positive impact of tourism on the region’s employment, economic development and local tax revenue are indisputable,” says Starnes, currently interim head of WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences. On the other side of the equation, he says, are commonly held concerns about the potentially negative aspects, including inflated property values resulting from widespread second-home construction, air and water quality issues associated with an influx of tourists, and the loss of forestland for recreation and timber to real estate development.
“Of course, not all residents are pleased with the roles that tourism plays within the region. Even today, native-born residents sometimes resent outsiders, whom they feel view mountain people as backward and ignorant,” Starnes says.
Some stereotypes remain because they’ve been perpetuated by many mountain businesses over the years—from an Asheville “motor lodge” with its neon-lit image of a barefoot, shotgun-toting hillbilly, corncob pipe clenched tightly in his mouth, to the use of tipi and headdress imagery by Cherokee entrepreneurs to attract tourists to town in spite of the fact those items reflect the culture of American Indian tribes of the Plains. Thanks to the staying power of “Deliverance,” we’re all sadistic, toothless sodomizers; and given the infamy of Popcorn Sutton, we’re all moonshiners.
I often find myself discussing these stereotypes with my son, who worries that his mountain roots will automatically brand him. I remind him of Billy Carter, Jimmy’s younger brother and promoter of Billy Beer, who once defined the difference between rednecks and good ol’ boys: A redneck rides around in a pick-up truck, drinking beer and throwing the cans out of the window; a good ol’ boy rides around in a pick-up truck, drinking beer and throwing the cans in the back. We have a lot more good ‘ol boys (and good ol’ girls) than we do rednecks these days, I tell my kid.
To be sure, there are aspects of our mountain heritage that could use some improvement. Our levels of education are still too low, our levels of poverty still too high. Our law enforcement officers spend too much time dealing with problems associated with meth, and our health care professionals spend too much time working with patients suffering from obesity, diabetes and other issues related to poor nutrition. Every geographic region has its own set of problems, but being the stubborn, independent mountain people that we are, we continue to chip away at ours.
Driving with my family on the Blue Ridge Parkway on a rainy late summer day, clouds were clinging to verdant mountaintops like whiffs of sticky cotton candy as tendrils of fog danced across on the face of Devil’s Courthouse. Even my teenage daughter was able to put down the cell phone and stop texting long enough to gaze out the window at scenery that was absolutely breathtaking in spite of the overcast and the drizzle.
Yes, this is a special place, one that is well worth preserving—for ourselves, for our children, for our children’s children, and for generations to come.