Tuesday, October 11, 2016

History of Ashe County, NC

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. 

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