Don’t do me any favors

When Mountain Home Fire Chief Jimmy Gasperson agreed to burn off the brush in a far corner of Henderson County’s Mill Pond Cemetery, little did he know he was about to become embroiled in a flap that would attract the attention of local newspapers and even the nightly news. But because the cemetery contains the all-but-forgotten graves of freed blacks dating back to before the Civil War, Gasperson has found himself, in recent weeks, defending what he says was originally just a good deed.

The cemetery, located just off the intersection of N.C. 191 and South Rugby Road in north Henderson County, is as unassuming as a graveyard can be. Bordered on two sides by busy roads, even the kept graves are hard to spot from a passing car. And the neglected, historic grave sites are nearly buried in a half-acre tangle of small trees and thick brush.

Gasperson says the Mountain Home Fire Department has been asked by the cemetery’s caretaker to conduct controlled burns, in order to beat back the brush, periodically over the last 10 years. Usually, he’s been happy to oblige. This year, however, a neighbor complained about the burn. Gary Allison was quoted in the Jan 19 edition of the Hendersonville Times-News, protesting that no one had notified nearby homeowners about the burn, and suggesting that it might have damaged the graves in the neglected section of the cemetery. “I’m sure the families [of the deceased] wouldn’t be pleased to know they were burning over their loved ones,” said Allison, according to the Times-News report.

The incident also caught the eye of WLOS reporter Emily Lopez, who interviewed both Gasperson and George Jones, the head of the Henderson County Genealogical & Historical Society. And when Gasperson found himself defending his actions in the media yet again, he says he began to regret having agreed to conduct the controlled burn, in the first place.

“There’s a bunch of broom sage on one side of the cemetery,” Gasperson explained in a recent telephone interview, “and we weren’t aware that there were any graves down in it. There’s a lot of brush — like 4-inch trees — growing in through the graves, and only when you burn it off can you get in there and see it.”

Many of the graves are marked only by simple, uncarved stones, set on end to show that a loved one was interred there.

“The broom sage burns incredibly fast, so we burned it off and protected the graves that we could see and [that] had been cared for,” reported Gasperson. “We never had a reason to go in after we burned it off, because the broom sage burns clean, and we just burnt the area from one side of the road to the other. Unless you got way up in that brushy area after you burned it off, there’s no way you could see the graves.”

According to Jones, the cemetery started out as a family burial ground that gradually became part of a community cemetery. “There were blacks buried in the lower corner, many of them freed blacks,” said Jones. “That part was never kept up. It grows up — and every year, for years, we’ve been burning it off. That way, we’ve been preserving it. The rest of it is still a community cemetery.”

The media-weary Jones dismisses any charge of wrongdoing on his part, inadvertent or not, focusing instead on the need to maintain the cemetery. “Every grave lot up there depends on the family to clean it up,” he says. “It’s not always in the best shape. Some of the older, more prominent families in the Mills River area are buried there, and that’s all there is to it — no more and no less.

“If you think there’s a story here,” he adds, “I’ve got 200 more [cemeteries] in this county I can give you a story on.”

Frank Wilson, the head of the Henderson County NAACP, agrees that the incident has been overblown. “There was no malicious attempt to deface [the cemetery] because black people were buried there — it was just a misunderstanding, and one that was easily understandable,” he says. “I met Gasperson out there, we went out and walked the area, and he showed me where the grave sites were. With that brush being so high, no one could know there was anything there, unless you were familiar with the area.”

For his part, Gasperson is ready to put the controversy behind him. “We were actually doing this as a public service to the community … something we did just out of courtesy. But sometimes, courtesy doesn’t get you anything but trouble.”

To learn more about the Henderson County Genealogical & Historical Society, call 693-1531.

Hepatitis scare over

Just before the holidays, Asheville residents learned that they might be facing a Hepatitis A epidemic; now, the threat has ended. The Buncombe County Health Center scheduled emergency hours to provide Immune globulin to the public, and La Paz — the restaurant where the scare originated — cooperated openly and fully with local health officials. As of Feb. 10, the time window for the appearance of symptoms in anyone who might have been exposed had closed, with no new cases of Hepatitis A reported.

“Many factors have contributed to preventing the spread of Hepatitis A, including proper food-handling and hand-washing practices by La Paz employees,” said Barbara Dalton, the Health Center’s disease-control supervisor, in a recent media release. We saw rapid response from the community [in] receiving Immune globulin, as well as full cooperation of La Paz and its staff in receiving their shots and providing important information to the Health Center and the public.”

The Health Center credits La Paz’s “quick and effective” response with helping prevent the spread of the infection. Three of the restaurant’s managers had been certified by the National Restaurant Association’s Safe Serve Program, a training curriculum designed to help food-service managers make their establishments safer. According to the Health Center, only 16 percent of food-establishment operators in Buncombe County have taken the training.

“I’m grateful that La Paz, as a good corporate citizen … acted responsibly during this unfortunate incident,” said Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick in the same release. Sitnick also thanked the Buncombe County Health Center and those residents who went to get Immune globulin.

To learn more about the Buncombe County Health Center, call 250-5000, or visit them on-line at www.buncombecounty.orgwhathotHepA.htm

Good books, good kids

Love Kids? Love books? Got a little time and energy to spare? Why not volunteer with The Preschool Outreach Project?

POP has been taking books and read-aloud stories to licensed child-care facilities in Buncombe County for nearly 12 years. Almost 70 percent of the county’s kids spend their days at one of these facilities — most of which can’t get the kids to a library and lack extensive libraries of their own — so POP brings the library to the kids. Volunteers visit child-care centers, deliver books, and read aloud to the kids. No formal experience is required, just a love of kids and a belief in the power of positive learning experiences.

Volunteers are asked to commit about four hours per month for one year; all training and materials are provided by the library staff. The application deadline is March 3; the two-day training period starts March 13. Applications can be picked up at any library in Buncombe County.

For more information, or to receive an application by mail, call 250-4744.

You’ve come a long way, Western North Carolina

What does feminism have to do with Western North Carolina? Consider, for instance, the crushing poverty that’s still all too common in Appalachia — particularly among women struggling to feed, clothe and educate their families. On Saturday, March 4, however, assorted educators, artists and healers will come together for Conference 2000, a daylong exploration of where Carolina women have been — and where they’re headed.

Sponsored by the Western Carolina Women’s Coalition, the conference (subtitled “Women’s Vision: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow — A Century of North Carolina Women”) will feature a lively mix of lectures, workshops, discussions and films. The 90-minute sessions — most led by locally or nationally prominent educators — will cover such topics as “Mothering Boys: Teaching Feminism in Family Values,” “Asheville’s Remarkable Women of the Twenties,” “Strategies for Overcoming the Gender of Money” and “Raising Daughters of Strength.” Other programs will spotlight locally prominent women of color, integrative medicine and holistic nutrition, and the joys and benefits of self-expression.

The conference will officially begin the day before — Friday, March 3 — with “Strong Comes After,” a docudrama by local author Amy Ammons Garza, and will end with a Saturday-evening appearance by internationally known feminist/musician/songwriter Peggy Seeger. Other notable guests will include Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick and local poet Glenis Redmond.

The registration fee for “Women’s Vision: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” is $35, which includes the Friday-night docudrama, lunch, snacks, and the Peggy Seeger concert. Nonregistrant tickets to the play and the concert are available for $10.

To learn more, or to register, call the WCWC office at 251-5986.

Hemp springs eternal

As part of its campaign to gather signatures to force a referendum on making marijuana-related arrests the lowest priority for the Asheville Police Department, the Community of Compassion will present a free, educational forum on cannabis on Saturday, Feb. 26 at the French Broad Food Co-op’s Movement and Learning Center (90 Biltmore Ave.), starting at 7 p.m.

Dr. Duane Davis, professor of criminal justice at Western Carolina University, will discuss the growing consensus among criminal-justice experts and law-enforcement personnel that the true threat to civil society is not marijuana, but the violence and abuses created by our official war against it. Dixie Deerman, R.N., will give a talk on the medicinal value of cannabis, which has been used to treat migraines, asthma, AIDS- and cancer-related wasting syndrome, and a host of other illnesses. Maria Leatherwood of High Mountain Hemporium in Asheville will describe the many economic and environmental benefits WNC could reap from a locally based hemp industry. And hemp activist Alan Gordon will explore marijuana use as a defense against the environmental and psychological stressors of modern life.

For more information, call Dixie Deerman or Steve Rasmussen at 251-0343, or Dawn Humphrey at 258-8432, or visit the Community of Compassion Web site at

— coyly compiled by Paul Schattel

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