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.”
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.