Mitchell County highlights heritage output
by Rob Neufeld
In Mitchell County, the Historic Courthouse Foundation has commissioned local feature writer Elizabeth Hunter to capture its history in prose and photos. The result is impressive: a large-format, glossy, narrative survey titled, “Voices of the Valley: Mitchell County Celebrates 150 Years.”
The style of the writing is variously dramatic, rhapsodic, documentary, and anecdotal.
Hunter starts the reader off with imagining an airplane trip home, and taking a look out a window.
“The patchwork is giving way to a coverlet of nearly unbroken green,” she writes. “The mountains!”
The virgin forests of the Toe River Valley are gone, she notes, “yet echoes of the valley’s earlier life endure”: a pageant of botanists, pioneers, preachers, and miners to be followed by merchants, manufacturers, and professionals.
“Faceted Gems and Froth Flotation” is the title of the sixth chapter in the second section, “Changing Times, 1911-1960.”
A full-page, 11 x 11-inch color photo of a rock blast faces the opening text, which goes along with an inset photo of Roby Buchanan of Hawk at his work bench.
“Roby Buchanan was called the ‘Tiffany of the Hills,” Hunter writes. She quotes a National Geographic interview with him, in which he praises kyanite, a “sky blue mineral occurring here in small quantities.” It keeps a spark plug from “exploding in the heat,” he relates. “Feldspar gives the (plug its) outside finish. All dug from our hills.”
Rummaging in mica waste on the land his grandfather had sold for $500 at the end of the Civil War, Buchanan found gemstones that he taught himself to facet, using tools he geared to his father’s gristmill wheel.
“Roby Buchanan was rare as the pale blue aquamarines he found and faceted,” Hunter concludes, before moving on to other subjects: the Spruce Pine mica belt; and the pegmatite around Chalk Mountain, not exploitable until Carolina Mineral Company developed the froth flotation process in Kona in the 1940s.
“Kona’s name,” Hunter adds, “supposedly derives from feldspar’s chemical makeup: K for potassium, O for oxygen, and Na for sodium.”
On the opposite page from this bit of history is another full-page photo, a treasure, a group portrait of 20 animated U.S. Mica Depot employees, 17 of them women.
Lay-outs and hold-outs
You excuse the promotional ring of “Voices of the Valley” and applaud the tangible riches: useful knowledge; oral histories and private papers; a supremely good choice of photos, nicely laid out (designed by David Davis); believe-it-or-not-type sidebars; chronologies; human interest features; and a powerful theme.
Businesses come and go, creating boom and bust cycles. The people make do and make good. Landscapes alter; folkways and folklore survive.
Hunter’s treasury becomes encyclopedic.
She provides a glossary of apple varieties; a gallery of contemporary craftspeople; and an essay on music in Mitchell County. She displays a photo of Pine Mountain scored by quartz mines; and tells the tale of the eviction of African-Americans after a sensationalized murder story in 1923.
With such ambition, omissions are noticed: the Cane Creek archaeological site, and Cherokee history; pre-Civil War pioneers (the area had been part of five other counties before becoming Mitchell in 1861); the Red Hill community, subject of K.B. and S.R. Whitson’s dramatic “Untold Story of the Whitson Brothers”; Gloria Houston and “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree,” and her father, J. Myron Houston, co-founder of the Carolina Barn Dance; Thomas Rusher’s book, “Until He Is Dead,” and the story of Waightstill Avery Anderson, who killed three men in a mica mine dispute, fled, and later became President McKinley’s bodyguard.
If you want even more than “Voices” gives, you can go to Mitchell County’s sesquicentennial website, Mitchell150.com.
Hunter and her expert research team—Sue Ledford (photo coordinator), Rhonda Gunter, Daniel Barron, David Biddix, and Chris Hollifield—decided to expand on certain stories, and made key choices, including the final one.
The book’s epilogue tells about Monroe Thomas, “Kona’s Gentle Giant.” Made an invalid in the early 1920’s by typhoid fever contracted as a teenager, the poet and family historian composed a career of championing local heritage.
When his right hand became useless, he taught himself to write with his left, and penned letters to school administrators.
“I sometimes think that the best thing we could do would be to dismiss school for a year and put the teachers, with pay, out into the land” to study local history and geography.
He opposed school consolidation. Thus, “Voices of the Valley” connects with a story that developed after publication, last month’s closing of the Buladean and Tipton Hill Elementary Schools.
Voices of the Valley: Mitchell County Celebrates 150 Years by Elizabeth C. Hunter (Mitchell County Historic Courthouse Foundation hardcover, large format, 162 pages, many color photos, $40).
MORE ABOUT THE BOOK
Visit the Mitchell County Historic Courthouse Foundation website for more about the book, which can be purchased online and at various stores, libraries, and cultural attractions in Mitchell County.
MORE ABOUT HERITAGE EFFORTS