The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Roan Mountain Side Trip

By Bruce Kistler © 1987

Issue: February, 1987

We were literally in the clouds. Great billows of dense fog blew across the road, limiting visibility to only a few feet. Rain hissed against the windshield as we sat waiting for it to let up. It never did. We had come to the top of Roan Mountain to see the famous rhododendron gardens but the front lashing the ridge forced us to turn around and go back.

Half way down the Tennessee side we dropped below the level of the clouds. It got lighter but the rain never ceased. Then, at the state park near the bottom, we saw a sign to "the farmstead." It was apparently one of those living history exhibits. Since we had missed out on the rhododendrons and had plenty of time, we decided to take a look.

The entrance road climbed steeply and eventually ended in a large gravel parking lot. Before us in a once secluded hollow with its red roof glistening, was a trim white farmhouse. A few outbuildings and a small barn of rough hewn timber stood nearby. An old Chevy was parked under some trees near the house and we saw two people on the porch.

During a lull, we donned ponchos and sloshed our way down the steep embankment to the house. A thin man in a baseball cap and a grinning dark haired teenage boy greeted us as we took off our dripping rain gear.

"Looks like your drought is over." I commented, knowing that the locals had been praying for a day like this.

"Lord, yes," he answered, "we sure needed it. Me and him was fixin' to do some work but the rain won't let us."

"Yah, I saw him run the lawn mower into the shed as we were coming down."

Apparently this fellow was not only the maintenance man but also the tour guide because without being asked he proceeded to tell us about the house and farm.

"My daddy built this house in 1908." he began, "There was two log houses here before that. You see that depression in the yard? That's where the last log house stood. I remember helping take down the chimbley."

This undoubtedly was stock information that he related to all visitors, yet it wasn't canned. The story of the house he had lived in was told with honesty and pride.

"Did you always get into the valley the way we came up?" I asked.

"No. We went t'other way, down there," he said, pointing down the hollow past the barn. "But when I worked at the mill I used to walk a trail that ran up over the mountain, the way the new road does, to catch the shift taxi. That was a mighty long walk every day."

My wife and I looked around inside. A bedroom to one side of the narrow hall was furnished with a few antiques, a pitcher and bowl, a quilt on the bed. In the living room was a small fireplace. The kitchen was bare except for a massive old cast iron stove which, curiously, stood in the middle of the room. The kitchen had evidently been an addition to the original house and was built around the chimney.

The four of us went out on the side porch. The rain washed air was cool and fresh.

"There's the springhouse. It would keep the milk just as cold as could be. And down past that is where the trail went that I used to walk to catch the shift taxi. I used to sure hate that walk on wet, windy days like today."

"What about snow? Do you get any here in the winter?"

"Oh my, yes." he explained, "I remember in '37 it snowed four feet deep. The snow came clear up to this window ledge."

"Wow. This little valley must've filled up like a bowl."

"In fact", he said, "the state planned to build a ski resort here. That road and the parking lot were for the hotel that was to be built. They ran out of money or something and it was never built."

"That's fine with me." I said, "I'll take this over a resort hotel any day. Like that monstrosity that sticks out like a sore thumb at Banner Elk. I couldn't believe they would let them build something like that."

"It don't suit the mountain does it?"

We stood there for awhile in silence, listening to the comforting drone of a billion raindrops on a billion leaves.

"That road cost 'em a million dollars," the man continued, "Got it all built and then no hotel and no ski resort. They didn't know what to do with the road so they decided to restore the farm here and make it into an exhibit."

"It's lucky for you that the house was preserved."

"Yes. They were going to tear it down. When they decided to restore it, it was in bad shape. Vandals had torn out the ceiling for wood to make fires. Built the fires right in the middle of the floor. It's just a wonder the house didn't burn to the ground. They hired me to work on the house and be the caretaker."

"Looks as though your old fields are being taken over by poplar and brush." I motioned to the steep encircling hills, "Did you cultivate all this?"

"Yes, every bit. We grew corn and tobacco and vegetables and such like. We kept cows and pigs and chickens too."

"No electricity in the house?"

"No, never was. When I built that picket fence awhile back, the state boys said they'd bring me up a skill saw and a generator. By the time they did, I had the job nearly done using a hand saw. That's how it was here; you just had to make do."

Another couple had braved the rain and the man went over to answer their questions. We sat on the porch waiting for the rain to abate so we could get back to the car. In truth, we did not wish to leave the serenity of the pretty little valley. The rain slanted down. A big puddle had formed in the yard where the log cabin had once stood. A robin shook in a nearby rosebush. Atop a fence post a cardinal added a touch of crimson against the lush summer foliage.

At last, but too soon, the rain slowed and we reluctantly put on our ponchos and trudged back up to the parking lot of the would be hotel. We drove down the mountain and I stopped and filled up with unleaded.