By Susan M. Thigpen © 1996
Online: December, 1986
In 1983, when the three of us (Bob and Charlotte Heafner and Susan Thigpen) began The Mountain Laurel, we had little writing and no publishing experience at all! We loved to read and listen to old timers telling stories, and knew that little was being written on the subject. In our ignorance we didn't realize that three greenhorns didn't stand a chance of success. I guess it was that naiveté and belief in what we were doing that carried us and The Mountain Laurel through.
We didn't even know how to begin, so we took a thirty mile trip down to Mt. Airy, North Carolina, to the newspaper there. We talked with the managing editor, a nice gent by the name of Cleve Hamlin. He showed us what layout flats were, border tape, and gave us a little of both, along with a glue stick. He told us most publications shoot for around 40% advertising, for us to aim for eight pages for the first issue, and he set a printing date for a month away. I'm sure he never thought he would see us again. A month later we showed up with our flats and we had sold too much advertising for eight pages so we apologized for having twelve.
We thought for a long time before we named The Mountain Laurel. We named it for its double meaning. Mountain Laurel is a beautiful native blooming shrub that covers mountainsides in early summer. It also means, according to Webster's Dictionary, "Honor and Distinction." This was the way we wanted to portray mountain people - with honor and distinction.
Before the first issue, we scraped together about two thousand dollars and promptly spent fifteen hundred of that on an electronic typewriter that would right margin justify. At twenty dollars an hour to have typesetting farmed out, we knew that the typewriter would pay for itself in no time. By the time we printed and mailed our first issue, we were broke (money-wise) as can be, but rich in our expectations. We mailed three thousand copies of that first issue and expected to get back nearly as many subscriptions!
While we didn't get nearly as many as three thousand subscriptions, we did get what we later found out was an unprecedented number, enough to continue with our efforts.
We were housed in an old mountain farm house. We literally "put the paper to bed" on the handmade quilt atop my old brass bed. (That's where the layout sheets were viewed.) The kitchen table was where we glued on the subscription labels (the circulation department), and when we brought home a new batch of five or ten thousand, we raised the living room window and formed a chain of arms lifting them out of our old Ford Torino and into the living room, where they were stacked around the walls, the furniture and (at our children's insistence) left a hole so we could view television and a walkway to the kitchen and front door.
We composed stories in an upstairs room with the window open in warm weather so we could hear the stream behind the house gurgling by. Often a kitten sat in our laps as we typed. All of this happened in that old farm house on a dirt road, in Meadows of Dan, Virginia, where the nearest interstate highway was an hour's drive away, the nearest major airport was in another state and a trip to the post office and bank took nearly a half hour!
I suppose The Mountain Laurel must have been "a better mousetrap," because it wasn't long before the world beat a pathway to our door. The Roanoke Times, The Winston-Salem Journal, The Greensboro Daily News and even the Atlanta Constitution came to interview us. It was picked up on the news wire and newspapers from Rhode Island to Colorado ran the story of the "little newspaper that could." We were simply three country people with no publishing experience and a great idea. All of a sudden, Pulitzer Prize winning writers were telling us they envied the work we were doing. Walter Rugaber, president and publisher of the Roanoke Times (and of scooping the Watergate story fame) told us himself, sitting at our kitchen table, that the name was perfect.
Mountain people have gotten a raw deal when it comes to image. They have been portrayed as lazy and shiftless. They are not like the Snuffy Smith and Lil' Abner cartoons. And the term "hillbilly" is hardly flattering. It never was (and still isn't) easy to eke out a living in these rocky, steeply sloped hills. The people that pioneered here and generation after generation of their families that came after them and stayed in this place deserve credit for ingenuity. They had a wry sense of humor to carry them through. They loved and lived life to the fullest, with little whining and complaining. They "made do" with almost nothing and learned how to utilize what they had to their best advantage. In short, we wanted to introduce the outside world to the REAL mountain way of life.
The mountain people's stories are embroidered with fine details of day to day living that have been forgotten by history books. Things you probably never heard of, but they took for granted. For instance, one family had only the father's watch to tell time by. When it broke, there was no money to have it fixed, much less buy a new one. They had a neighbor come by around noon and when he said it was exactly noon, they stuck an ax in the floor of their porch to use as a sun dial to tell time by its shadow. Another lady told of a "gritter." Never heard of one? She said they took the tin lid of a lard can and punched holes in it with a nail. Then they could use it to "grit" corn and cabbage and such. Not having money to buy such a frivolous item as a grater, they made their own. You will be amazed by some of the stories - get a good laugh out of others and probably shed a tear or two along the way.
Well, it's been years since we started The Mountain Laurel in 1983, and much life experience later. We taught ourselves to use computers and were in the front line of desktop publishing. Somehow we sensed it was the way to go to have control of the layout and look of our "baby," not to mention the best way to keep up with our ever growing subscriber base.
We got our first computer by trading advertising with Freeman Cockram, owner of Floyd Farm Service, in Floyd Virginia. He had won the computer, a Commodore 64, in a contest by selling the most Stihl chain saws. They had had it for months and had never taken it out of the box. Computers in those days didn't have hard drives; you had to keep swapping 5 ¼ disks. When we got our first 20MB hard drive, we thought we would never have to worry about filling up all that space!
The Internet was the next logical step for The Mountain Laurel. While we have had subscribers from every state in the USA and a few overseas, we now are able to provide instant access to anyone in the world. When we began, in 1983, we once tried to figure out how we could send The Mountain Laurel to people in the mountainous regions in China and Russia. We figured even though the language and customs were different, that mountain people the world over would relate to each other in their way of life. We wanted to see if it was so. Now, being on the Internet, we really have the chance to find out! Wherever you are located, welcome to our family of readers.