A well-known book is entitled "The Past Is A Different Country." That statement is certainly true when it comes to Watauga County.
Watauga County had just finished celebrating its centennial when the decade of the 1950s began. In many ways, the county more resembled itself in 1900 than it does today. Few could have guessed the incredible changes that were about to take place.
Agriculture was still the big business of the county. There were major changes over the previous two decades, however, as improving roads allowed farmers to market their products outside the area. Cabbage was booming, with much of it leaving the county or being used by a local sauerkraut factory.
The real news, however, was burley tobacco. In 1929, just six acres of burley was cultivated in the county. By 1939, there were 420 acres. By 1950, the number had topped 1,150 acres - with cash sales of over $2.2 million. Truck crops, most notably snap beans, were much in demand.
One of the largest industries in the county was the Appalachian Evergreen Co., which bought and shipped millions of galax leaves, holly, hemlock and other native plants and shrubs. Wilcox Drug Co. was then purchasing over 100 different roots, herbs and barks, sending out millions of pounds each year.
Boone, then as now, was the commercial center of the region. Belk's, Smithey's and Hunt's Department store were mainstays in the downtown. People from throughout the county came to Farmer's Hardware. Young couples looking for wedding rings might head for Walker's Jewelry Store. Boone Drug and Carolina Pharmacy were the places to get a prescription filled. That might keep you out of the hospital - located in what is now Founder's Hall on the ASU campus.
Boone, of course, was much slower. The town basically ended near the present McKinney Alumni Center. At the present south end of town, near Wal Mart, cattle drives were a regular part of life and almost all the land was in farms. Over 100 Grade A dairies were in operation in the county, by the way.
As for Appalachian State Teachers College, it had about 1,000 students. As he had for over half a century, Dr. B.B. Dougherty led the school. But age was beginning to show on this giant of education. Nearing 80, however, he remained active in the school and business world of the town. Younger fellows like Alfred Adams and Wade Brown listened and learned from the old man. Some, however, were beginning to notice how many of Appalachian's buildings were starting to show serious signs of aging.
Out in the county, general stores still supplied many of the needs of their local communities. Not everyone could afford cars, so the smaller stores were a necessity of life. Some still bartered for goods, giving cash-poor families a chance to trade for what they needed.
Power was coming into the remoter parts of the county. Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. was constantly stringing line, reaching more and more customers. Interestingly, taxes were higher in those days. The tax rate for Watauga County was $1.25 per $100 valuation, roughly twice as much as today.
Church membership was pretty much the norm in the county. Local churches claimed roughly 13,000 members, or over two-thirds of the population. The largest single denomination was Baptist, with over 8,000 members.
The county was completely "dry" as far as alcohol sales. After some wide-open periods, when there were bars in Boone, the liquor business was shut down. In the late 1940s, a referendum for beer and wine sales was defeated by a 12-to-1 margin.
If you wanted to catch a movie, you could go by the Yonahlossee Theatre in Blowing Rock, or Boone's Appalachian Theatre and Pastime Theatre. Afterwards, you might stop by the Appalachian Soda Shop or -across from the Post Office - the Boone Trail Cafe "the eating place of Weestern North Carolina."
Finally, if you wanted to call someone, you only needed a few numbers. Call 14 and you could speak to Mrs. A.E. Hamby, manager of Hamby Tourist Court, which offered rooms and cabins in the downtown. Dial 194-M and you could speak to Hillside Dairy, opposite the bus station, which produced pasteurized milk, whipping cream, butter, and ice cream. Trailway Laundry Inc. has the number 79. And you could send flowers to a loved one by ringing Boone Flower Shop at 214-J (or 321-W at night).
Among this, there are some familiar names and places. But Watauga County has changed dramatically during this last half century.
Watauga Underwent Educational Revolution In 1950s
The year 1950 found Watauga County behind, and falling back farther, in education. Even compared to its neighbors, Watauga County had some major problems. While Ashe County, for example, was already consolidating its high schools, Watauga had no less than 28 schools in operation. Of these, 12 had less than 50 students; 20 had fewer than 100. The largest enrollment was at Boone Demonstration School with 551 students; the lowest, Penley, with 7.
There were other problems as well. Hiring was done on a "good old boy" (and girl) basis, and teachers were hired to teach areas for which they were not certified. School buildings were decaying, especially the smaller ones. Blowing Rock Elementary School was bad enough that the town threatened to secede into Caldwell County for a time.
A lot of what happened never made the public record, but the problems seemed to have started at the top. Dr. B.B. Dougherty had served as school superintendent from 1899 to 1914, and proved a success, as did Smith Hagaman, who held the post from 1915 to 1934. Then came W.H. Walker.
Other than having to deal with inherited problems of small, aging schools, Walker seems to have done an adequate job through the 1930s. During World War II, he received a leave of absence and served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. S.F. Horton filled in back home.
After Walker came back home, serious problems began to surface. In 1948, Walker was arrested and convicted for drunk driving. Three years later, it happened again. While we are sometimes told what a permissive, "anything goes" age this is, Walker managed to remain the leader of the schools in spite of these convictions.
Walker had some powerful friends. The board of education supported him, and the Watauga County Democratic Party's executive committee, apparently for political reasons, backed their view. Walker seemed entrenched. Seemed is the operative word.
A groundswell of opposition, spawned by Walker's personal problems and the condition of the schools, swept the county. Citizens opposed to Walker hired an attorney, William McElwee of North Wilkesboro, to represent them. As it turned out, they had some friends in higher places than Walker.
On July 7, 1955, the North Carolina Board of Education landed like a ton of bricks in Watauga County. Exercising some rarely used authority, the State Board dismissed the entire Watauga County Board of Education. They then appointed a new board, chaired by Dr. Charles Davant Jr. of Blowing Rock. The other members were Dr. W.G. Whitener, an Appalachian State professor, and W.H. Mast Jr. of Valle Crucis.
Walker was gone immediately. In his place, the board hired W. Guy Angell as superintendent. The new leaders worked to improve the schools, forcing uncertified teachers to go back to school and beginning things like fire drills.
While this political war raged in Watauga, a battle of another kind was underway in Washington. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., ruled segregated schools were inherently unequal and this unconstitutional. Within a few years, the Boone Colored High and Colored Elementary schools faded into memory.
Progress was slow but steady in Watauga schools - and then, one night, a bright light passed over the mountains. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first Earth-orbiting space satellite. The appearance of Sputnik, with its technological, scientific and military implications, startled the United States education system into action. In 1958, Congress overwhelmingly passed the National Defense Education Act, and federal money started, for the first time, to pour into local schools.
Meanwhile, Watauga County's educational reformers, led by Davant and Angell, were starting to take a hard look at the county's schools. What they found was frightening: even the best schools were woefully behind in both physical plant and courses offered. In the succeeding decade, they would work together to give Watauga County a desperately needed major leap forward in education.
In case you were wondering, here is a list of the 28 schools open in Watauga County in 1950 (schools in italics had less than 50 students; those with over 200 students are bolded): Appalachian High; Boone Demonstration; Howard's Creek; Rich Mountain; Rutherwood; Bamboo; Green Valley; Winebarger; Deep Gap; Stoney Fork; Mount Paron; Elk; Lower Elk; Blowing Rock High and Elementary; Penley; Bradshaw; Valle Crucis; Grandfather; Cool Springs; Cove Creek High; Cove Creek Elementary; Rominger; Presnell; Windy Gap; Bethel High and Elementary; Pottertown; Boone Colored High and Elementary.
1950s Began A Tourism Boom In High Country
Watauga County had always had the resources to attract tourists, but it took some local visionaries and some national changes to get the High Country tourism industry going.
Tourists were nothing new to the region. As early as 1840, the Mast family in Banner Elk took in short-term lodgers, most of whom came from lowland North Carolina to escape the heat and diseases of summer.
From then until World War II, tourism was locally important, especially in Blowing Rock. But most tourists were well-to-do; vacations for the average person were the exception rather than the rule. Poor roads also kept many from this region.
World War II changed all that. An overall business boom that followed, plus G.I. benefits in education and housing, created a far stronger middle class than had ever existed in the nation before. The war had shown the weaknesses of America's transcontinental highway system. New and better roads began to appear everywhere. Cars became a necessity of life as never before, and families now traveled together in the summer and on holiday weekends.
That was what was happening nationally. Locally, the first big news of the decade was that work had resumed on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The war had shut down construction. On July 6, 1950, the first new section of the highway to open since 1942 was finished.
In 1950, the completed parts of the Parkway in North Carolina stretched from the state line with Virginia to Deep Gap, and from Beacon Heights (the intersection south of Grandfather Mountain) to Bull Gap (Milepost 375) near Asheville. By the end of the decade, the completed portion stretched from the Virginia line south to Blowing Rock, from Beacon Heights to Asheville, and in scattered sections towards the Smokies. That provided visitors with both a reason to come and an excuse to return to explore new sections as they opened.
In 1950, there were two attractions in the region. Grover Robbins Sr. had opened The Blowing Rock in the 1930s. In 1935, Julian Morton had improved an old road on Grandfather Mountain to a wooden observation tower and started charging admission. Much would happen in this decade.
When Hugh Morton returned service in World War II, he took over the management of the Linville Improvement Co. When the family business was dissolved in 1952, he took Grandfather Mountain, then a money-losing attraction.
He had a problem. From Linville Peak, a person could see for miles, with views into four states. The only problem was that between it and Stone Rock, which had access to the parking area, there was a deep valley. Morton came up with a remarkable solution: a 218-foot Swinging Bridge. In September 1952, in the presence future Gov. William B. Umstead and many other celebrities, the bridge was dedicated.
Morton proved a tireless promoter of the Mountain and the whole region. In 1952, barely 10,000 people visited Grandfather Mountain. By the end of the decade, that many might come on a good weekend.
They were helped in getting there by a new highway. N.C. 105 opened up the valley of the Watauga River to development. So were the first people to come to the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, which began in 1956 and has grown to be a major attraction in its own right.
Other exciting things were happening as well. Topping that list was some plans undertaken by Grover Robbins Jr., the son of the man who founded The Blowing Rock. In 1957, he opened Tweetsie Railroad on the highway between Boone and Blowing Rock. The railroad, which soon took advantage of the era's fascination with the Wild West, proved an instant success.
In Boone, another group of visionaries, excited by the success of the county's centennial celebration, decided to stage an outdoor drama on an annual basis. Within a few year's, Kermit Hunter's "Horn in the West" was yet another reason to visit the area.
The tourism industry, once a small part of Watauga County's economy, was on its way to becoming a major player in the region. The 1950s would prove the critical period for tourism in the area.