The way we were

My grandfather used to tell the best stories: how he bought a train ticket to Raleigh with the proceeds from a prize-winning calf; how he milked endless cows to pay his tuition at N.C. State; how he — an overalls-wearing farm boy from Transylvania County — beat the pants off a city-slicker frat-daddy in the race for N.C. State student-body president.

Like all of us, he was a living history of his times. My family used to say we should tape his stories, or write them down. But none of us ever did. So when my grandfather died — three years ago this April — his history died with him.

Unfortunately, it’s not an unusual situation. Every day, more of our region’s unique history passes away. But Tammy Hopkins is working to make sure at least some of it survives. Six years ago, Hopkins moved to Western North Carolina from San Diego. Like so many people who land here, she fell in love with the area and wanted to learn more about her adopted home’s history. She was fortunate to find a job that let her do that, working as the marketing and special events director for the Cradle of Forestry in America Interpretive Association. (If you grew up around here, chances are you took at least one school field-trip to the 6,500-acre historic site in Pisgah National Forest. Maybe you even scrubbed some clothes clean with a washboard or hand-churned butter there.)

In November 1998, Hopkins learned how fragile history can be when the Cradle of Forestry’s trained historian, Floyd “Preacher” Rose, died.

“Preacher had all that information in his head, and very little of it was written down. So when he passed away, we didn’t just lose Preacher. We lost his knowledge, too,” Hopkins remembers. That loss ate at Hopkins — so much so that, one night in August 1999, she had a powerful dream. When she woke, Hopkins knew she had to create a documentary — one that would record the living history of what it was like growing up in Western North Carolina in the last years before the once-isolated region opened up to the rest of the world.

With help from the Cradle of Forestry, Hopkins found funding for her dream through a North Carolina Regional Artist Grant; a Grassroots Grant from the N.C. Arts Council; consortium funds from arts councils in Henderson, Haywood, Polk, Jackson and Transylvania counties; and donations from CP&L, the Rotary Club of Brevard, and Brevard’s Gallery on Main. Then she went to work.

The result is Women of these Hills: Stories of Growing Up in Appalachia, a 79-minute-long video that captures the memories of Selena Robinson (82), Vera Stinson (90), Vera Cansler (91), Barbara Miller (67) and Sheila Kay Adams (47) — five women who’ve lived their entire lives in Appalachia.

“I think I chose women because I was very fond of my grandmother, and I felt like everyone could relate to grannies. I thought I should use someone younger, too, and chose Sheila Kay Adams [a Madison County-born storyteller, singer and songwriter] because I had seen her perform. She’s a really powerful storyteller, and so many of her stories are about her granny’s life in this area.”

Vera Cansler and Barbara Miller both work at the Cradle of Forestry with Hopkins — Cansler as a quilter, and Miller as a weaver and spinner.

“When I first got the idea, I knew I wanted them to be involved with the project,” recalls Tammy. “And everyone said I had to get Vera Stinson and Selena Robinson,” she continues. Both women are historians from Transylvania County, and the histories they relate share many similarities. But because Stinson is white and Robinson is black, their lives naturally differed in many ways.

Collectively, the five women gave Hopkins more than 375 years of individual memories to tap.

“I had this list of questions for them, things I wanted to know about. Then I asked other people what they’d like to hear about,” she says. “Everyone was interested in moonshine — ‘How do stills work?’ ‘Did you know any moonshiners?’ — that kind of thing,” she laughs. Each woman spent a day with Hopkins, answering her questions about everything from illegal corn liquor to romance in the mountains.

True to the straightforward nature of most mountain folks, the women’s answers were honest to the point of bluntness. On the subject of courting in her day, Vera Stinson comments, “Marriage was for keeps. Somebody asked me how I was married for 53 years and I told them, ‘Well, I didn’t hand out any samples when I was a kid.'”

She continues, “Now they’ll shack up and everything, including some in my own family, I guess.”

Videographer Jack Conrad (of Asheville’s Abbey Road Productions) filmed the proceedings, and over the next 11 months, Tammy spent almost every weekend and evening whittling down the resulting seven hours of footage to documentary length.

Margaret Lynn Brown, a history professor at Brevard College, wrote and performed an opening narration for the video, and Sheila Kay Adams, Marion Boatwright, Dwight Diller and David Holt all donated background music. Work on the project was finished late last year. So far, Women of these Hills has been well received. It won Best North Carolina Documentary in last year’s River Run International Film Festival in Brevard, and it’s entered in several other festivals.

About the video’s reception, Hopkins says, “People — especially those who grew up in this area — seem grateful to have this region represented so accurately and respectfully.”

In an era when hackneyed sit-coms have replaced storytelling and regional accents are blending into placeless monotones, Women of these Hills documents what was good — and bad — about truly belonging to one place and one time, offering what might be among our last opportunities to experience what life was like when the whole world ended at the crest of the next ridge.

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