Book Review: ‘Spruce Pine,’ by David Biddix and Chris Hollifield, Arcadia Publishing, arcadiapublishing.com, $21.99
It’s fitting that Arcadia Publishing will release “Spruce Pine,” the latest in its ongoing ‘Images of America’ monographs on small towns across America, here in the US market on Sept 28. Locals of this western North Carolina community may appreciate that the book’s appearance coincides with the anniversary of the two week trek of the Overmountain Men, who made their way from Virginia and across the Blue Ridge during the Revolutionary War, passing through the area en route to the famous King’s Mountain battle of October 7, one of the turning points of that war in the southern theatre.
This volume follows the overall series pattern: at 126 pages and 222 photos, the book takes a ‘Life’ magazine photo-essay approach to its topic, and keeps in-depth analysis of big historical trends offstage.
That will suit genealogists with family connections in the area just fine, though. The authors have carefully captioned the individuals seen in page after page of group photos representing just about every conceivable small town organization: school groups, church groups, Boy Scouts, sports teams, mining workers, fire department members, and so on.
Local sons David Biddix and Chris Hollifield have seamlessly edited photographs from standard sources, such as the National Park Service and East Tennessee State’s Appalachian Collection at Sherrod Library, with personal photographs from a number of local residents, and it’s the latter that makes this book such a valuable addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the town or the region.
The authors could have delved a bit further in their fact checking in one or two instances: they tell us that the English Inn, one of the earliest hotels in the area, is reputedly the largest log structure in North Carolina. Well, is it or isn’t it? And at another point we’re told that the South and Western Railway cost more than $1 million per mile of track to build. In today’s dollars? Not made clear. These are minor quibbles, and thankfully not typical throughout the book. Overall the captions, like the arrangement of the photos, follow a clear narrative arc, from early settlers to the building of railroads and establishment of mining, through the two World War eras, and on into present times and the emergence of modern interactions with the outside world.
The book rightly keeps its main focus on local goings on, from a profile of Dr. Charles Peterson, the ‘father of Spruce Pine,’ down to entertaining shots of the Mayland Fair or folks hanging out at the White Swan Restaurant for a soda.
But county fairs and soda jerks are part of small towns everywhere. While tying Spruce Pine into broader American small town culture, Biddix and Hollifield have simultaneously done a marvelous job of capturing the specific soul of Spruce Pine. We meet, for example, the Woody family, who for seven generations has made ladder-back colonial chairs in town. They made one for President John F. Kennedy, and The Smithsonian Institution has a Woody rocker as part of its permanent American Crafts Collection.
Spruce Pine does have several more claims to fame on the national stage. The Chestnut Flat Mine produced the quartz that was used to cast the 200-inch mirror for the Hale Telescope at Palomar Mountain in California. Local son Roy Williams, who led UNC to NCAA championship glory in 2005 and again this year, is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. And businessman Brad Ragan’s Carolina Tire Company and its parent Brad Ragan Incorporated became Goodyear Tire’s largest retailer, with worldwide operations.
‘Spruce Pine’ is also quick to point out that plenty of well known people have been through town, from Presidents Nixon & Ford, to music stars Bill Monroe, Chet Atkins and Kitty Wells.
In her forward to the book, local children’s book author Gloria Houston waxes poetic about trying on prom dresses at Belk’s store, and the smells of disinfectant and popcorn butter at the Carolina Theatre, which sets the boosterish tone of the book overall, straight through to the end page photograph of a 1950s billboard promoting Spruce Pine as ‘The heart of vacationland.’ If you’re looking for labor strife, murders, or affairs between the choir director and the mayor, you won’t find any of that between these covers. And that’s a shame, because history isn’t only made up of the good old days, although those are fun to revisit.