Those of us who live anywhere east of Charlotte learn at an early age that farming and textiles are an important part of our past, even if they no longer dominate the economics of the Coastal and Piedmont regions as they once did. Less frequently a part of our education, however, is the historical importance of a third industry — mining — to the Western part of the state.
My first stop today was the Museum of North Carolina Minerals, located just off the Parkway in Little Switzerland. The museum is not large — maybe two rooms’ worth of exhibits, all told, with the rest of the building’s space occupied by the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce — but the exhibits tell a focused story not only of what a mineral is but also of how important mining was to the western North Carolina counties up through the first part of the 20th century. Most compelling is the audio narrative of a last-generation miner who tells his story while visitors thumb through a collection of period snapshots of mining operations in the area, donated to the museum by local residents.
Also on display are reminders of how important mining was to the rest of the state and the nation as a whole — from dozens of reports on North Carolina mineralogy written for the Governor, to a proclamation from President Woodrow Wilson extolling the importance of miners to the fabric of the nation.
Just as in the East, where the historical industries that forged that region’s character are mostly either long gone or managed by anonymous corporations and are steadily being replaced by new economic engines, the Western counties also have had to transform their economies to fill the void left behind by the mining industry. One of the most visible of these new economies in the northwestern counties is wine-making. I stopped by one winery — the Linville Falls winery — that was only a few miles from the Minerals Museum. Like so many of the wineries in this part of the state, the Linville Falls winery is a healthy mix of the old and the new — old, repurposed barns standing side-by-side with modern villas and vines that are only just beginning to develop some age and character.
The winery was not yet open to the public when I arrived, but one of the owners allowed me to walk around the property and take a few pictures. Just before leaving, I ducked my head into one of the smaller barns, where two workers were busy storing many large barrels of recently-casked wine.
Gustavo and Rene moved to Linville Falls eight years ago from Mexico. They said they are pleased with the work and with their adopted community. They also indicated that it didn’t hurt that their job sometimes included sampling some of the winery’s products — something most of last century’s miners (who rarely owned the mines in which they worked) almost never were able to do.
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Featured Hike — Linville Falls (MM 316.3)
As was the case a few days ago, my Linville Falls excursion was more of a stroll than a hike, but with the rain the heaviest it has been so far this week, I was not terribly upset about having to opt for a relatively short walk. The walk to the first cluster of falls is only about one-half of a mile, and it is an easy walk at that, though it does require a little care on the segments that cross bare (and today, slippery) rock.
At the first juncture, several paths branch out to various falls and overlooks scattered around the Linville Falls area. I walked down to the lower falls and spent most of my time there listening rather than looking: the river was flooded from all of the recent rain, and the sound as the water arced through the tight rock formations was as loud as a diesel train engine.
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Accommodations: Evergreen Terrace, Deep Gap — Always nice to sleep in your own bed. The service here is a little hit-or-miss, but what it lacks in staff attentiveness it makes up for in the ready availability of snack foods, beer, and ample parking. The most interesting thing about tonight’s accommodations is the raging flood in rain-swollen Laurel Creek. For those of you who have been to Evergreen Terrace before, you may be surprised by the sheer volume of water coursing along the creek’s path — so much water that the bridge over the creek was cut off today from the land on the far side.
Dinner: Food Lion, Deep Gap — Always nice to cook at home, too. Spinach, sauerkraut, hot mustard, and beer-braised brats.
Drive music: “Southern Accents” and “Stories We Could Tell,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — Both are from the Pack Up the Plantation live album (the second song a cover of a John Sebastian song), and both put me in mind of the miners who stared out at me from the photographs on display at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals.