Book Review: ‘Voices from the Headwaters’

Posted by | August 7, 2014

hilda downerPlease welcome guest author Hilda Downer. Downer is an Appalachian poet who grew up in Bandana, NC. She works as a nurse with severely traumatized children. She is a member of the Appalachian Studies Association, NC Writers Conference, and the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. Her most recent book of poetry, Sky Under the Roof, was published by Bottom Dog Press in 2013. She lives in Sugar Grove, NC.


In the tradition of the admirable Foxfire Books and their archive of oral histories collected by students, some fine books have sprung from that catalyst. Sitting on the Courthouse Bench, for example, edited by Lee Smith, records the memories of the people of Grundy, VA, before a dam was to be built which would have literally flooded out the town and its stories. Now, following suit is Voices from the Headwaters: Stories From Meat Camp, Tamarack (Pottertown), & Sutherland, NC published by the Center of Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, Boone, NC; edited by Patricia Beaver and Sandra Ballard with associate editor, Brittany Hicks.


In collaboration with the Elk Knob Community Heritage Organization (EKCHO), Appalachian State University students have for more than a decade collected the remembrances of mountain life as it used to be at the headwaters of the New River’s North Fork – beginning at the gap between the Elk and Snake Mountains in Watauga County, including the area in between Boone, Mountain City, and Jefferson in Ashe County, NC.

The interviews gathered by the students of Patricia Beaver in Sustainable Living classes at ASU help clarify what hardship and joy the people of this area come from. Here are the stories of several generations, from those who first settled to those living in the present day. While dispelling the specific myth that one might get shot that dissuades even local people from visiting Pottertown, these stories collectively help diminish mountain stereotypes altogether.

People from the area might remember where the white farmhouse in a field with the big silo once cornered the junction of 194 and 421; New Market Center now proudly hails customers, with the silo left standing. They might recognize the band, The Dollar Brothers, from local festivals and venues. However, people from almost anywhere would recognize the faces and stories of relatives in WWII, the first appearances of Model-T Fords, the hard and rewarding work of living on a farm, and the love amid family gatherings. The stories are not just Appalachian and not just American. They are universal and show how connected such an isolated region is to the rest of the world – and how affected the region is on a global level.

The book also chronicles the formation of the Elk Knob State Park and the subsequent annual Elk Knob Headwaters Community Day. The state park includes the Elk Knob Summit Trail, a steady climb with idyllic views and unique stone “chairs” that invite one to rest along the way. The Elk Knob Summit Community Day celebrates the tradition of the mountain community coming together with food, crafts, and music. The celebration is representative of how hard times past did include potluck dinners provided by the good cooks in the community, and is a lot of fun. Among the many things that attendees can partake in is to learn how to make a corn shuck doll, taste apple cider pressed fresh right in front of them, and listen to local well known musicians whose talent further connect this community to the outside world.

Voices From the Headwaters includes stories of people shaped by and connected to place. Now that the place, Elk Knob, is preserved as a state park, the stories of the people from this area are now preserved in this book as well. The book itself carries on the mountain tradition of storytelling. As more young people set out to gain their own sustainable houses and farms, they need these stories to learn and gain inspiration from. The point of the entertainment of storytelling, after all, was to teach or learn something from the past in order to use it in the present and future. This book is not just for the sake of the people telling the stories or the students that collected them. Their stories are for our sake and the sake of the young people’s future.

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