Ashe County is a place rich in history, heritage, and culture. The lands that now make up Ashe County were first used during the Paleo-Indian period of 12,000 BC to 8,000 BC. It appears likely that there were temporary camps on the uplands used by hunter-gatherers, whose permanent camps were located in eastern Tennessee. Woodland period (500 BC to 1,000 AC) sites are found as well, suggesting the valley was an important food-gathering route through the mountains.
Prior to the 18th century, the Cherokee, Creek and Shawnee Indians
hunted, fished and battled within the region. There was little
colonization until 1725 and because of Ashe County’s remoteness, it is
often referred to as the “Lost Province”. It was the westward movement
in the colonies that brought settlers. The Celtic people who traveled
here were drawn by the promise of land and opportunity. Though not of
the landed class, they were educated and were accustomed to a lifestyle
uniquely suited to the mountains. These very independent immigrants were
beyond the regulation of colonial governments and could build herds
with a minimum of land. An abundance of wild game and fish, along with
crop cultivation, helped them to survive the harsh winters and thrive.
Encompassing approximately 427 square miles, Ashe’s boundaries have
been a topic of continuing dispute throughout the years. The area was
part of Anson County during the early English colonization period;
became part of Rowan County in 1753, Surry County in 1771, Wilkes County
in 1777 and was briefly part of the State of Franklin from 1784-89.
Incorporated as a separate entity by the North Carolina General Assembly
in 1799, Ashe County came into its own. The name was given to honor
Samuel Ashe, who had been Governor, Superior Court Judge, and a
Revolutionary War patriot. The new county contained approximately 977
square miles. In 1849 approximately 320 square miles was ceded to the
formation of Watauga County, and in 1859 approximately 230 square miles
to the formation of Alleghany County.
Seeking a “proper and convenient” place to be the County’s seat, the
North Carolina General Assembly appointed a special commission in 1799.
In the first of many displays of exorbitant spending, the commissioners
purchased 50 acres of land for $100. With this expenditure, the Town of
Jefferson (for a short time called Jeffersonton) was born, being the
first town in the nation to bear the name of Thomas Jefferson, who
happened to be the Vice President of the United States at the time.
Other incorporated towns within Ashe County include Lansing and West
Jefferson, undoubtedly the County’s retail and service hub, offering a
wonderful traditional-style walkable downtown.
In 1828, Dr. Elisha Mitchell, for whom Mount Mitchell was named,
visited Ashe County. From his vantage point atop Mt. Jefferson he
exclaimed: “Nearly the whole county of Ashe lay at our feet, the
merrymanders of the river can be traced as on a map. Some of the
plantation in view also presented a noble appearance, but oh, what an
ocean of mountains!” Dr. Mitchell’s description still has meaning for modern day Ashe
County. The county is organized by its geography of mountains and
winding routes of the New River and the New River’s many tributaries.
The county is still rural and the modest farm complex from the late
nineteenth or early twentieth century is still the most numerous
property type. Decentralized communities served these farms with general
stores, post offices, schools, and churches. Many examples of each of
these buildings can still be found in the county.
Hunting, trapping and farming were of early significance to Ashe
County citizens. Traditional crops included wheat, rye, oats, barley,
buckwheat, fruits and vegetables. Cattle operations have also been
historically important to the local economy. The early 1900s saw much
activity in the dairy industry, with cheese making factories in Grassy
Creek and Beaver Creek, Sturgills, Crumpler and Ashland. Eventually, the
Kraft-Phoenix Creamery established a plant in West Jefferson in the
1930s. Having had several owners, the plant is now the Ashe County
Cheese Plant, for many years, the only such facility in North Carolina.
In addition to the harvesting of crops, mining operations have
flourished locally, including those seeking iron and copper ores. Copper
mining started in the late 1800s, with Ore Knob being possibly the best
known mine (at one time, being the leading copper producing mine in the
United States). During these times, most farm implements used locally
were forged in Ashe County. Helton was the iron-making center of the
County, producing plows, hoes, wagon wheels, axes, mattocks and shovels.
Early industries in Ashe County included the Phoenix Chair Manufacturing Company, started around 1935 as a
byproduct of chairs being produced in a small saw milling operation.
Some of the Phoenix Company’s contemporaries include the Knox Knitting
Company of Creston, an Oak Flooring Company established by W. E. Vannoy
in 1935 and the Peerless Hosiery Company, beginning in 1953. Other,
larger industrial operations to locate in Ashe County have been the
Sprague Electric Company, the P.H. Hanes Knitting Company, the Gates
Rubber Company, producing belts and hoses, as well as Southern Devices, and Leviton Manufacturing.
Since the early 1960s, the production of Christmas trees and holiday greenery has become the largest single agricultural enterprise in the county. With over 700 local growers, Ashe County is recognized as the largest producer of Christmas trees in the United States.
Ashe County’s early education system consisted of private schools,
being held either in the summer or winter. A County Examiner was
responsible for certifying teachers, who were primarily women or young
girls during summer, and men or young boys during winter. Classes were
often held in churches, homes or vacant stores, and teachers would stay
alternately with different families within the community. Public schools
began in the county in 1870, with school consolidation beginning in
1930. Separate schools for black and white children operated until 1965,
when the system was integrated by the County.
One of the county’s most distinctive features is the New River. It is
said to be over three hundred million years old, and is unique in that
flows North. The river has been a major reason for settlement here, as
well as a popular source of recreational activities. On July 30, 1998,
it became protected from major development when it was proclaimed an
American Heritage River by President Bill Clinton.
The Museum of Ashe County History, located in the historic and newly
renovated 1904 courthouse, displays many artifacts and treasures,
providing insight into the county and the people who settled the area.