For years, Buncombe County native and lifelong resident Whitney Ponder was looking to relocate from the city back to the county. Her search for the perfect home narrowed in 2021, when she discovered a listing for a property in Leicester previously owned by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Ponder wrote a heartfelt letter to the current sellers, explaining how she would honor Lunsford’s legacy if given the chance. In a little over a week, it was hers.
Even at the time, says Ponder, the outcome felt inevitable. “I don’t know how to explain it. … But I knew, before we ever even toured the whole house, that I was supposed to be in it. It was just really weird.”
Ponder, who grew up about 10 miles from Lunsford’s homestead, says her late mother, Brenda Gail Rice, regularly shared stories about participating in Lunsford’s youth competitions.
For readers unfamiliar with Lunsford’s legacy, he dedicated his life to researching Appalachian music and dance. In 1928, he launched Asheville’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, the longest-running festival in Western North Carolina. And today, the second-longest running festival in the region, the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival, is named in his honor.
Currently, Ponder is turning the home into the Pondering Bascom Performing Arts and Education Center. The nonprofit, which is still in its early stages, will eventually provide a community gathering space for traditional performances, education and hands-on workshops.
The work, says Ponder, has been hard and at times overwhelming. She has relied primarily on her own funds for renovations, along with a grant from The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. But now with a board established and a plan in place, she hopes to start hosting fundraisers in the near future.
“Just when I start to get discouraged, something magical happens that assures me that this is what I am meant to do,” she says.
A reunion of sorts
One of those occurrences happened at the end of September, when filmmaker David Hoffman visited Ponder’s home.
Fifty-eight years ago, at the age of 21, Hoffman traveled from New York to the Buncombe County countryside, where he filmed the documentary Music Makers of the Blue Ridge (Bluegrass Roots). The film features Lunsford, along with folks living, working and playing music throughout the surrounding hills.
In September, Hoffman was in town for the annual Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival. Ponder invited the filmmaker to return to the house where he and Lunsford met. Hoffman — accompanied by his wife, Heidi, as well as a small film crew — toured the property. The event marked Hoffman’s first time back at the site since 1965.
“It’s very emotional to be at this house,” Hoffman told Xpress during the visit. “I can remember walking and shooting in these directions. That was a long time ago.”
Hoffman described Bascom as a worthy subject for the documentary. “Every morning he’d have something for me to eat, which I always did out of politeness. And then we’d go all over. I remember all the roads, they were dirt back then. He loved the names of the roads and would say them as we would drive by. I could still hear them — it was like music to me: Sandy Mush, South Turkey Creek, North Turkey Creek.”
Throughout the tour, Hoffman shared his memories, and Ponder shared her new vision for the space. At one point, Hoffman paused and pointed toward a field adjacent to the home and asked Ponder if the location once had a footbridge. She nodded, and Hoffman relived the scene in the film where Lunsford danced across it.
“He picked that [spot] for the sound,” Hoffman said. “He liked the sound of his feet on that bridge, tapping on it with incredible shoes. He always wore a dress shirt and a tie and his hat. It was because he respected the people we visited.”
One of the film’s most memorable scenes, which features a large group clog dancing to a live bluegrass band, took place in the living room of Ponder’s home. Ponder says she wants to restore the room to host intimate gatherings that include dance, music and sustainable lifestyle workshops.
Many of these future workshops, she says, will use what’s on the property. For example, she has an old stove ideal for teaching canning. Lunsford, who was an attorney, also made a living briefly selling fruit trees. Ponder, who has discovered an old apple tree behind the house, wants to honor that part of his legacy by using the fruit in classes on topics such as cider making.
“This place deserves to be shared,” she says. “But I’m not trying to restore it to what it was like when Bascom lived here. This is the new generation. This is the evolution of Bascom’s house.”
“I don’t have children of my own, but I can be an instrumental part of fostering these younger generations who are still playing those old ballads and mountain traditions,” Ponder continues. “So let’s keep them alive. They might be modernized; they may have a twist to them. But we’d still be carrying on in that tradition of preserving our heritage and … where we came from. That’s really important.”
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