(This is a talk delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Franklin, NC, July 5, 2015)
This story starts about 35 years ago, when I made my very first stop at an Ingle’s grocery store. I had visited these mountains in 1955, and camped in these mountains twenty years later, but this meeting happened when I moved here, and as I say, it was my first visit to an Ingle’s. This store happened to be in Black Mountain.
As I stepped out of my 1965 Volkswagen squareback I was hailed by a lanky old man who was leaning against a pickup truck about twenty feet away. He gestured at the canoe atop my car and said, “You oughta take that boat down to the Nantahalee Gorge!” Then he took a long drag on his cigarette.
I told him I’d not heard of that before. I introduced myself and he did the same. Luther Ownsby is what I think he said. Though it could have been Ownby, or Owenby, or Owensby. It wouldn’t be until sometime much later that I came to understand that in some of our hollers confusion about those names could get you punched or shot at or worse. So I’ll just call him Luther.
Luther nodded. “I died there, you know.”
As you might suppose, this was news to me. “Yes?” I asked rather than affirmed.
“Workin’ on the Fontannee Dam. I drownded. I fell in the water and sunk plumb to the bottom and I drownded.”
“I can’t swim, you know. So I sunk right to the bottom and drownded.”
I looked a little harder at him. He was wizened, and gaunt and had the grey pallor of a long-time smoker. But he seemed to be very much alive. “And you died?”
“I died. And I saw all my people on the other side of the river. Mamaw and Papaw and aunts and uncles and cousins. My dead brother too, and they was all in white and looked so peaceful. They was wavin’ at me and sayin ‘It’s not your time yet.’”
I didn’t say anything, only nodding to let him know I heard.
“Then I was up on the bank. Some fellas had fetched me up off the bottom and hauled me out.” He shook out another cigarette and before he lit up he looked hard at me and said, “Water is one of the powers, you know.” Before I could reply he added, “That was the second time I died.” Then he lit his smoke.
“What was the first?” was the obvious question.
“We was livin’ in cabins while we built the Fontanee Dam, you know. And they had screen windows. And one night when I was sleepin’ a terrible lightnin’ storm came around and the lightnin’ came in through that screen and set me on fire, and I died.”
“Lightnin’s one of the powers, you know.”
I nodded again.
“But then an angel looked in at me, through a window in a wall where there wasn’t a window, and the angel said it wasn’t my time. And so I was still alive.” He paused and added, “Alive that is, you know, until I drownded.” He then lapsed into silence, smoking his cigarette while I tried to think of something to say.
Finally, I asked, “Did you say Nantahalee?” He simply nodded. So I thanked him for the advice and headed into the store.
What I later understood was that he was suggesting the Nantahala river and that he’d worked on the Fontana Dam which was built in the 1940s as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority effort to electrify much of the central south. You could say that before the TVA was established pretty much all of the technology in the region was wireless. Other than a telegraph wire along the railroad and barbed wire around the cattle, I suppose. Oh, and the Biltmore House which had electricity from the get-go. George Vanderbilt had money. You might say the Vanderbilts were one of the powers.
In the years since Luther made his suggestion I’ve rafted on the Nantahala, and at least in the gorge you really wouldn’t want to use a canoe. The white water is pretty fast and the drops pretty steep. Back when Luther worked on the dam I’m sure the gorge was a really remote location, but today it is easily accessible. Tourists by the raft-load run the river, dodging boulders and kayakers. Fontana Village is a well developed vacation resort.
But back before the TVA moved in, many sections of this region were extremely isolated. A native I met while I lived in Broad River Township, down south of Black Mountain, was named Luny Gilliam. Luny told me that growing up in the early 1950s there was no road to Black Mountain which is now the closest commercial center. Broad River even shares the Black Mountain ZIP code.
Luny told me, “You couldn’t buy a job here. And we’d load our apples on a wagon and take the dirt road to Hendersonville. That meant an overnight trip because you couldn’t make it there and back again in a day on a wagon.”
Another example of that isolation is a widow woman I worked for in Broad River from time to time. I put a new clutch in Pearlee Ledbetter’s pickup, and did repairs on her tractor, and even painted her barn. It had stood there unpainted for decades, perhaps a century or more, an unpainted, weathered gray. Pearlee told me she had always wanted it to be red, and it was one thing she wanted to see before she died. In exchange for my work, she let me farm an acre of bottom land for a couple of seasons. Pearlee was one of 13 children, and her dead husband was one of 13 children, and 12 of each set of siblings had married into the other. There weren’t other choices available. I think she had been an Owenby. Or an Owensby.
Luny told me once that he was more than a little upset when his son went all the way to Asheville to find a wife. Today that’s a half hour drive but in Luny’s youth Asheville might just as well have been Charlotte or Chicago or Shanghei – it was distant and foreign and strange.
Pearlee is long gone now, as is the barn. In its place is the fairly grand entrance to a gated community that replaced her farm, a place intentionally fenced off from the rest of the valley. Sixty years ago there was no paved road from Broad River to urban civilization and today there’s a gate on one of the recently paved roads to keep people out.
The railroad came to Western North Carolina in the late 19th century, reaching Asheville in 1880. Soon afterward George Vanderbilt began to make regular visits to the area, ended up buying everything he could see, and built an estate. Though we tend to focus on the immense wealth, architecture, landscaping and forestry practices he engendered, it’s worth noting that it was the railroad that brought Vanderbilt here and enabled the easy tourism of New Yorkers and others from eastern cities to these mountains. It ended the isolation of the towns and villages along the rails. Within 10 years of the train’s arrival, Asheville’s population swelled from 2,500 to more than 10,000.
Farmers had new markets and residents had more available commercial goods. Life was busier and arguably better, certainly for most people.
In the early 1900s, Edith Vanderbilt, Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance teamed up to create a combination training and marketing effort, teaching various crafts and providing an outlet to the wider world. This became Biltmore Industries, heavily dependent on the railroad to market its wares. That business continues today.
A company called Manual Woodworkers and Weavers was founded in 1932 in the Hickory Nut Gorge – in Gerton. It appears in retrospect that it was modeled on the success of Biltmore Industries. They organized local weavers and crafters who worked at home and the company made the connection to the railroad and out-of-state markets.
Once electrification hit, everything speeded up. Electricity meant knitting mills and manufacturing plants and canneries. Stokely foods canned vegetables and Gerber arrived to bottle baby food, while Ball moved in to make canning jars. Growing industry meant there were road-building jobs as well. New and better roads improved the connectivity of all kinds of local producers to more distant markets.
Luny, the apple grower I mentioned earlier, told me a story that relates to the expanding market here. In the 1950s, as I noted, Luny’s family hauled their apples to Hendersonville, At least they hauled the apples that weren’t converted to apple jack right in the valley. From the time of Johnny Appleseed, and surely long before that, a major impetus for growing apples was alcohol production. The same was true for corn, and clandestine distilleries were soon using Ball jars to bottle their product.
As roads improved Luny’s clan used a truck instead of a wagon. When the market expanded they were able to sell their apples to produce distributors who shipped the fruit to a much wider area. The funny part of Luny’s story involved television. Gerber baby food was running TV ads that promised to reveal the entire recipe for Gerber’s apple sauce. The ad featured a slowly tumbling, perfectly formed, blemish-free, Red Delicious apple. As the perfect apple landed the announcer intoned, “Apples, just apples.”
Luny’s punch line was this: all the apple growers in the region knew that the local Gerber plant was the market of last resort. If your apples were so bad that no one else would even consider buying them, you always knew you could sell them for baby food.
By the time I moved here just more than 35 years after Luther drownded while building the Fontana Dam there were satellite dishes beside a whole lot of homes in Broad River and everywhere else in these mountains. That’s why Luny was seeing Gerber ads on TV. In half a lifetime this place had changed from insular and isolated to being literally and figuratively plugged into the world. A boy who had grown up in a remote backwater holler had become an adult cracking jokes about Madison Avenue advertising.
But that was only a beginning, as we’ve seen in the 35 years since.
It is entirely possible that the changes wrought by the railroad and or rural electrification were more significant than the ongoing communication revolution… but the jury is still out and we’ll presumably have a more definitive conclusion 35 years hence.
Electricity brought effective lighting and power tools into mountain communities, whether for residential or commercial use. It had a huge effect on reading habits, as kerosene lamps gave way to light bulbs. It brought radio and then TV communication, delivering cultural and political change in its wake. It enabled some local craftsmen and artisans to compete with others more northern and urban, though still in a relatively limited market. Producers in the hollers had access to middle-men in a chain of wholesalers and retailers that linked to an ultimate purchaser.
Telecommunications changed everything again. Early phone systems like the party lines I recall from my youth, made local connections easy and cheap, with long distance more or less complicated and expensive enough to inhibit many phone owners. The barriers gradually fell until today most of us experience no difference in cost or difficulty between local and long distance calls.
During and following that same period we saw the Arpanet – a university and military computer system – evolve into the Internet across a World Wide Web. Today, anywhere on earth, you can access the Web. It’s easiest if you have a very local connection like an ethernet or wifi system in your home, but it is publicly available in many places, commercially available in many restaurants and hotels, and technically available via satellite if you have the right equipment.
In some sense there are no more obligatory “hollers” – places where people are technologically cut off from the larger world. A dozen years after I met Luther, when I lived in Broad River, off the grid and up near a ridge, with a phone line that predictably went dead during every other winter ice storm, I could log onto AOL via a dial-up connection. It was like magic.
I died there, you know. I did.
I was responsible for maintaining a couple of miles of private dirt road that serviced a dozen or so homes. Over the years I’d call in a truck load, or a few, of road bond – that’s unwashed gravel – and patch up one stretch or another. On the occasion of my death the driver was making his third delivery of the day and I hopped into the cab to write him a check. He raised the bed and started forward on a fairly flat stretch of road. Suddenly something snapped, the lift piston or a steel rod in the pivot point, and we were rolling sideways down the mountain. We tumbled three-sixty and were gaining speed.
Everything in the cab was floating around, like when astronauts used to train in those padded airplanes, only the cab wasn’t padded. A thermos, a lunch box, a clip board, an empty potato chip bag, my ball point pen, and two men, because of course we weren’t wearing seat belts. Somehow I managed to hold onto the check book.
My life passed before my eyes. First I thought, wow! So this is how my life ends! Then it was scene after scene and face after face and a profound sorrow that I wouldn’t get to say goodbye to the people I loved.
None of them were dressed in white, however, and nobody said it wasn’t my time yet.
I flashed on the garden that I hadn’t weeded in weeks. A book I hadn’t finished reading. Did I leave dishes in the sink? Trivia and treasures and regrets and joys speeding by for, what? Seconds? Surely not a full minute, but in dream-time an eternity. Then everything stopped.
A stand of massive chestnut oak trees had broken our fall. Trees are one of the powers, you know.
We were upside down with the cab nose up. When it seemed clear we had stopped moving I pushed open the door. It was more than a dozen feet to the ground. I jumped, he jumped and we scrambled out from under the looming wreck. I was badly bruised, he had a couple of broken ribs.
That was actually the third time I died. But I digress.
Today you can run an internet sales business from your home in Broad River, do university level research, join a global chess club, post kitten videos to Youtube, share recipes, watch Jon Stewart, or find your next spouse on Match.com. A weaver in Weaverville can sell her creations to a buyer in Britain via Etsy. The buyer in Britain can sell the weaving to another in Malaysia via eBay. The buyer in Malaysia can sell it to a collector in Franklin via Bonanza or YardSellr – two of the many up and coming competitors in the person-to-person online marketing business.
There are financial barriers but they are falling fast. A three hundred dollar cell phone has more computing power than the computers that landed astronauts on the moon and is arguably a more effective communication tool than the radio the astronauts used to announce “Houston, we have a problem.”
That smart phone can take pictures and videos, transmit selfies around the globe, browse Web sites, find parking places, tap into restaurant reviews and provide driving directions to addresses you’ve never visited before, tune in to music or news both audio and video, be swiped at a checkout like a credit card or accept credit card payments and check your status on Facebook or tweet on Twitter, do conference calls and watch cute kittens frolicking in kitchen sinks or dressed up as Santa Claus.
To give you some sense of the scale of this communications revolution – people upload 400,000 hours of video to YouTube and over 350 million photos to Facebook –EVERY DAY.
Amidst all those Gee-Whiz apps, it seems to me that the two game-changing functions are for commercial transactions and social networking.
Following World War II, television became a great divider in our country as people opted to stay at home on the sofa instead of getting out in the world. Club memberships dropped, church attendance fell, bowling leagues dissipated, and local sports teams lost audience to 24-7 coverage of professional games. That’s because it represented the high point of one-way communication. They talked. We listened.
Today there is a very real sense of global community emerging, most famously on Facebook, but in myriad other social sites. People are exposing and sharing emotions and ideas that are often buried in old-fashioned face-to-face interactions. It’s really no wonder that people are falling in love online, and breaking up as well. Honesty is a two edged sword. But it goes far beyond one-to-one connections. Interest groups are coalescing without regard to geography, and local groups are recruiting more effectively than they have for decades.
And meanwhile the internet has become an economic leveler, at least among the 99 percent. As I noted earlier, anyone, anywhere can compete in a global marketplace, a market of both goods and ideas.
A Luny Gilliam growing up in Broad River today could find work as a game programer in Chicago or do day-trading on the New York Stock Exchange without leaving home.
The only threat to this wide-open communications system is financial. Some companies would very much prefer to peddle different levels of service so that the high dollar players would get faster service and the low dollar players be relegated to the slow lane. In other words, poor folks would be isolated in the electronic hollers, the backwaters of commerce. This raises the issue known as net neutrality, and it involves the idea of a last mile.
The World Wide Web is an incredibly complex network of server farms, fiber-optic cable, switching devices, radio communication and much much more stuff that few, perhaps nobody, actually understands. But to tie into that Web I need to find a place to plug in either physically or via wi-fi, and the company which makes my connection possible owns the so-called “last mile.”
Advocates of net neutrality raised concerns about the ability of broadband providers to use their last mile infrastructure to block Internet applications and content, to offer premium speed, and even to block out competitors.
Opponents claimed net neutrality regulations would deter investment into improving broadband infrastructure and try to fix something that isn’t broken.
On February 26 of this year, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruled in favor of net neutrality by reclassifying broadband access as a telecommunications service. By defining it as a common carrier, the FCC decreed that the playing field will be level. No company can relegate some customers to the hollers and elevate others to the Biltmore House.
Like water and lightning and the Vanderbilts and ancient oak trees, the FCC, it seems, is one of the powers.