Beyond stereotypes: portrait of the rural mountain community of Spillcorn

PAST AND PRESENT: Angela Shelton, left, and her grandfather, Evoyd Chapman, are descendants of families who have lived in Spillcorn and the Laurel Valley for generations. Photo by Milton Ready
PAST AND PRESENT: Angela Shelton, left, and her grandfather, Evoyd Chapman, are descendants of families who have lived in Spillcorn and the Laurel Valley for generations. Photo by Milton Ready

BY MILTON READY

For many of you reading this, places like Spillcorn in Madison County might as well be in a foreign country or on a different planet, so little-known and little-visited are they. Yet they still exist, and, no, you won’t hear the sound of dueling banjos or see gap-toothed degenerates lurking near abandoned barns as you near it. Instead, you will come across some of the most beautiful small valleys and streams in Appalachia, all only a few short miles from Asheville or Knoxville and inhabited by some of the most gracious, kindly if perennially misunderstood descendants of original mountaineers.

Spillcorn is an example of how many supposedly sophisticated urbanites perceive rural communities, a curious mesh of victimization, romanticism and interest. Indeed, the contrast between Edenesque settings and stereotypes concerning their inhabitants only makes places like Spillcorn seem more exotic, more alien. But why?

A quotation from the Talmud perhaps explains: “You don’t see things as they are. You see things as you are.” Still, look closely at the community itself and you might discover much that is missing in today’s socially obese, narcissistic, hyperconnected yet increasingly solitary, anxious and depressed society: a sense of belonging, of community, of support and, yes, even of completion. Yet even if you find this appealing, most folks probably wouldn’t want to visit or live in Spillcorn, so foreign have we become to one another as Americans.

Most depictions of rural, white American communities fail to capture the complex, enigmatic yet critical role they have assumed both culturally and politically. Even two of the most celebrated such studies, J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy and Brian Alexander’s 2017 account Glass House, depict them as far more isolated and similar than they really are. In North Carolina, smaller mountain communities like Spillcorn, Spring Creek, California Creek, Cussin’ Knob, Lumptown, Lonesome Mountain, Troublesome Gap, Bluff, Paw Paw, Democrat, Paint Rock, No Business, Bee Log and Sunburst have provided the crucial votes necessary to facilitate the rise of the tea party in North Carolina and the nation since 2010. It should be no surprise to anyone that Mark Meadows, the most prominent congressman in the Freedom Caucus, hails from Cashiers or that Phil Berger and Tim Moore, key backers of the notorious “bathroom bill” who dominate the General Assembly, come from similar communities (Eden and King’s Mountain). For many, Spillcorn — not Asheville or Charlotte — is the “real America.”

Milton Ready
Milton Ready

Communities like Spillcorn exist today almost in defiance of a larger outside world and what some call modernity. That rebelliousness is the hallmark of their existence. The first settlers arrived late in the 1780s and, within a generation, an interconnected network of smaller communities like Spillcorn materialized, each centered on a nucleated family like the Sheltons, Rices, Hensleys, Cutshalls, Cantrells or Metcalfs. Most of those families are still around, if perhaps now less noticed.

During the Civil War, most Laurel Valley communities stubbornly refused conscription into the Confederate States Army. Scores of men deserted or eventually made their way to join Union regiments just across the Tennessee line. William Trotter’s 1988 book Bushwackers: The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains, tells their story. Still, Spillcorn and similar small communities paid a price. The infamous Shelton Laurel massacre as depicted in Phillip Paludan’s 1984 investigation Victims exemplifies that suffering, as does Charles Frazier’s best-selling 1997 novel Cold Mountain. Few in the Laurel Valley were spared the scourge of “war at every door.” After the war ended, Shelton Laurel disappeared forever, another victim of an endless feud between Spillcorn and Madison County’s “river towns,” Marshall and Hot Springs. Mapmakers in Marshall simply deleted it.

In an oft-told tale, a returning Civil War veteran from Madison County, upon seeing his Laurel Valley home again, supposedly dropped to his knees and exclaimed, “Thank God almighty! I’m home to ol’ Sodom.” Sodom Laurel, that is. Home meant family, kin, community and surrounding emerald mountains. To all but locals, though, Sodom Laurel has also disappeared: In the 1880s, Presbyterian missionaries renamed the place Revere, a more patriotic appellation. In fact, many mountain communities have seen their names similarly erased, Devil’s Fork becoming Sweetwater and Jewel or Duel Hill changed to Walnut, all in an attempt at cultural eradication that failed everywhere except on paper.

In the years since the Civil War, Laurel Valley communities like Spillcorn have faced any number of crises, including the deliberate closing of their schools during consolidation in the 1970s, a loss of traditional employment in farming and tobacco, the migration of the young to towns and urban areas like Asheville and Johnson City, an opioid crisis, and a near boycott in local government hiring. Today Spillcorn exists as a crossroads community centered on Amos, Baker and Culvin Creeks. On any given Sunday, perhaps 10 to 12 come to the local community church that, for over a century, has stubbornly resisted Presbyterian, Methodist and Catholic missionaries and all the external support they offered. But why?

In the 2016 presidential election, rural, white communities in North Carolina like Spillcorn gave Donald Trump more than 62 percent of the vote, even though his policies will undoubtedly further damage those areas’ economies and their residents’ lives. Thus far, Trump has proposed budget cuts to rural health and public transportation services, Meals on Wheels and programs designed to promote job creation in rural areas. Medicaid and perhaps even Social Security — the very threads holding many rural, white communities together — surely will be next. Still, Spillcorn and other places like it will nevertheless vote for Trump or a conservative candidate like Meadows because they like their perceived “values,” a euphemistic term that, to them, means white, Christian ones underpinned by a healthy anti-authoritarian, even libertarian, attitude.

Lastly, white, rural communities like Spillcorn are ignored at the risk of misunderstanding their agency and influence in America today. The recent presidential election affirms that, as do the hatred, divisiveness and, yes, even rage that now permeate American society. As communities like Spillcorn struggle to survive in an urbanizing global economy, many are willing to turn on and even tear apart an America they once exemplified.

Retired UNC Asheville history professor Milton Ready lives in Tryon.

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14 thoughts on “Beyond stereotypes: portrait of the rural mountain community of Spillcorn

  1. NFB

    “It should be no surprise to anyone that Mark Meadows, the most prominent congressman in the Freedom Caucus, hails from Cashiers ”

    Actually, he doesn’t. Meadows was born in (gasp!) France to parents from Arkansas and Tennessee and grew up in Florida. He moved as an adult to Highlands and later to Glennville and now lives in Biltmore Park. None of those well moneyed and terminally upscale NC addresses have much of anything to do with places like Spillcorn.

    • luther blissett

      Yeah, Cashiers and its surroundings are nothing like the remote communities of Madison County: a bunch of upscale stores and restaurants surrounded by country club / golf course resorts and lakeshore properties for the rich and/or retired.

    • JDS

      Now how would you know ? If you do not live in spill corn why comment?

    • Milton Ready

      Actually, they do. Yes, yes, and yes, you’re correct about Mark Meadows, but you should know that Cashiers, Highlands, and Glenville are part of the most conservative belt of mountain counties in North Carolina, and you should not be fooled by disparities in wealth. Jesse Helms, who certainly understood NC as well as anyone, predicted that country club conservatives and rural towns and counties would be part of the new , modern conservative movement that would bring family values, a euphemism, back to America. It seems that upscale and rural have a lot in common in North Carolina politics. Biltmore Park rings perhaps the most conservative, deeply red district in North Carolina if not in the South, a sure thing for someone like Mark Meadows.

  2. don

    The historical construct is well done here… the present day political extrapolations not quite as well. Thanks for the piece though…. definitely a worthwhile 3 minute read. And the kingdom of Madison…. may it long live! ;)

  3. Peter Robbins

    I didn’t realize there were any conservatives in Madison County, but, as a resident, I appreciate the heads-up.

  4. luther blissett

    I first heard the phrase “subsidized subsistence” used to describe people living in the remoter parts of Alaska, and to some extent that applies to the more rural areas of WNC: a culture of hardscrabble self-contained self-reliance that nevertheless relies upon some degree of redistribution and assistance. For example, the burley market was controlled by quotas and price support for most of the 20th century, and the transition away from tobacco was underwritten by federal assistance and settlement payments, along with the great work of ASAP to encourage new cash crops and markets:

    http://asapconnections.org/wp-content/uploads/Final_The-End-of-Tobacco.pdf

    And that’s fine. It’s a good use of tax revenue, and now that the farmers’ markets are back up and running, it’s a good way to spend the food budget if you can afford it.

  5. Melissa

    I have lived in Revere, Sodom Laurel all my life. In the beginning it had went back to the name Sodom. I played on a Sodom ball team. As I grew older the name was changed back to Revere because of all the negativity associated with the word Sodom. I personally am glad it is Revere as is most people who live here. While examining towns with unusual names is fun most people who have to answer the question, where do you live, would much rather say Revere rather than Sodom. Just my two cents.

  6. ray anthony

    I grueup on barns branch nere spillcorn played baseball and loved the place and the people in the 70ties. . Ill be moveing back to carolin s soon .maybe we can meet each other. Again. Ray anthony

  7. Stan Hawkins

    I couldn’t help myself from catching possibly your political slip in your comments when you state that “policies will undoubtedly further damage those areas.”

    Does that mean you are pointing your finger at possibly the previous liberal policies that contributed to that prior damage? If so, that would be a good place to start.

    Otherwise, a good historical read.

    • Milton Ready

      When I refer to “policies that will further damage” small communities like Spillcorn I do not necessarily mean those from Washington, DC, but ones that might come from Raleigh and Marshall, the County Seat. School funding, highway construction, local government hiring, consolidating schools, and locating government centers like offices and DMV agencies away from smaller communities like Spillcorn and Spring Creek deliberately disadvantages them. Policies don’t have to be labeled liberal or conservative to have negative effects on smaller local communities. Sometimes they simply are homegrown, the product of decades of local grudges and battles between nucleated families in the mountains. We are the ones who look upon smaller, rural, mostly white communities as we see and label them, not as they really are. Their thinking isn’t necessarily liberal, conservative, Trumpian, or at all like ours.

      • Stan Hawkins

        Thanks for the clarification, as your original construct seemed a bit aimed at conservatives. Certainly us mountain folks are a bit more apt to be a little stubborn and get our tail feathers raised up regardless of political affiliation. This tends to happen more when outsiders try to tell us how to live as is some of your well taken point in the hills and hollers of Madison.

        It is worth remembering that the Democratic Party held sway in the NC legislature for over 100 years, and began to come to power in Madison in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Also, it may be of interest in remembering that Charles Taylor R, NC 11th district voted no on NAFTA.

        Thanks again for the history.

  8. Steve Tweed

    I find it ironic that the core ideals of an entire culture would be held in such contempt by Mr. Ready simply because because an election result did not suit him.
    Looking at the 2016 electoral map, you will please notice that Donald J. Trump won Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania; America’s “Heartland”.
    Why no such contempt for them?
    Was Mr. Ready’s premise fostered by a pre-existing social bias?
    As a Madison County native, I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Ready in that the voting demographic has changed here. In a county with a total population of just over 21,000 more than 5,000 are registered as Independent. That’s more than half of registered voters.
    For an explanation, look no farther than the corruption & heavy handedness of the Democrats five decade reign here, as well as the extremes of both major parties at state and national levels.
    Thoreau intentionally went to Walden’s Pond, searching for a purposeful life.
    Irish and German immigrants did the same here.
    May I suggest a good realtor to Mr. Ready?

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