Seventies Set Stage For Today's Watauga County

Boone and Watauga County would both show serious growth spurts

It always plays a little different up here in the mountains, and if the turbulence of the 1960's passed us by to a degree, the Seventies wrought some of the biggest changes ever seen in Watauga County.

As if to serve notice of a new resort area mentality - and economy - The Land of Oz theme park opened on Beech Mountain in 1970. And the floodgates opened when beer and wine, then liquor by the drink was voted into Blowing Rock shortly thereafter, ushering in the era of P.B. Scott's and a welcome mat for the restaurant, motel, and tourist industry.

Boone and Watauga County would both show serious growth spurts; the county from 23,404 residents at the beginning of the decade to 31,666 in 1980, and the town growing from 8,754 to 10,191.

The unparalleled growth occurred across the board, as Appalachian State's enrollment would top 9,000 by the last year of the decade.

Blowing Rock would register its 1000th resident in 1978. And again true to its form as a contra-indicator of national trends, Watauga County registered about half the crippling 9.1% unemployment rate midway through the ten-year span. Despite an oil crisis and recession that gripped the country in the mid-seventies, the recreation industry was not to be denied; for the first five years of the decade, non-local land ownership jumped over 20% in Watauga.

Only 10% of that off-the-mountain owned land was built upon, a sure indication of a coming seasonal economic base, and the ten years prevailed over a 250% jump in land values - and cost - countywide.

The average local wage in 1976? $125 a week. But the decade would see increased prosperity; in 1975 the per-capita income of county residents was a scant $3,617; a figure that would increase only five years later to $6,083. But in that year the number of families living in poverty still amounted to 22%.

In 1975 the Boone airport still had an unpaved runway; there were four banks in Boone and Trailways bus service. The county property-tax rate was a whopping 95 cents on the hundred. Aside from the world-renowned bashes at Scott's, there were plenty of other celebrations of note; Boone celebrated its centennial in 1972 and Doc Watson played at Horn in the West - 25 years old that year - for the country's 200th birthday bash in 1976.

Skiing was becoming bigger than ever, especially after the appearance of World Champion Jean Claude Killy locally in 1974. Boone became the sight of the world's largest windmill when the government located its experimental wind turbine on Howard's Knob in 1978. And just to the north, it must be noted that the first Woolly Worm festival was held in 1978, with 'Brown Sugar' predicting a mild winter.

Boone would get some notoriety through two of its favorite sons; Governor Holshouser hailed from the High Country, as did state Attorney General Rufous Edmisten, whose career got started with Senator Sam Ervin and was the first man to serve a subpoena on President Richard Nixon in the Watergate affair.

And to keep tabs on it all, the Sundown Times - to become the Mountain Times - was founded by Blowing Rock resident Ken Ketchie in 1978. One other huge change was taking place on the ground in Watauga as throughout the region; the traditional vegetable, sheep, cattle, and tobacco farms were giving way; either shutting down or converting over to another, experimental crop, Christmas trees. Watauga County recorded 1,235 farms in 1969, and had dropped to just 900 by 1975.

Full time farmers dropped in 1977 to 301 from a high of 2,636 at the start of the decade, but the end of the seventies would also see the tree industry take hold and begin to salvage the family farm in the northern mountains.

With all the activity, the decade also saw the formation of the Watauga County Economic Development Study, whose conclusions can be well considered more than twenty years later; "the county should encourage only quality and planned recreational development which will not result in environmental degradation, traffic congestion, higher service costs, and low-wage jobs for county residents."

Boone Becomes Windmill City

Today's quiz; what had 2000 kilowatts, created devotees called 'wooshies', was the largest of its kind in the world, and didn't work?

Managed by NASA and operated by BREMCO, the windmill was hoped to be part of a renewal energy movement begun under President Jimmy Carter.

The Federal Energy Research and Development Administration had begun their research into wind-powered energy in 1973, with Howard's Knob selected as one of 17 sites, and 1n 1977 announced that Boone would be the location of the granddaddy of them all; a $6.2 million, ten-story, 350-ton, 2000 kW (two million watts) monster built by General Electric.

It was hoped that the windmill would generate enough electricity for 300 to 500 average size homes at winds of 25 mph. Even without the subsequent election of Ronald Reagan, who pulled the federal funding for alternative energy source research and development, the indications soon showed Howard's Knob generation less of electricity than of eccentricity.

The woosh of the steel blades - actually through the blades as they stood stock-still - was producing less power than pranksters, as a local group of college students started a group called the Wooshies. The Charlotte Observer took full journalistic advantage with a story on a "full-blown mythical cult," and a lead that if you placed a giant windmill in front of ten thousand college students "someone had to tilt." Three students produced a twenty-minute '60 Minutes' style spoof of the DOE project, with narrator 'Morley Water' interviewing locals from the Boone Drug's Joe Miller to a store mannequin.

Head Wooshie and filmmaker Bill Le received a B-minus grade for the film. The Wooshies may have begun the poking of fun, but more serious was what tourists and locals alike observed from down in town; the blades more often than not didn't move, thereby not generating any electricity. Some claimed to have seen puffs of smoke arising from out of the housing area on top of the tower.

Too heavy, problems linking the blades to the hub, left to rotate in reverse and burning out the engines, whatever; some experiments fail. In the struggle for the public consciousness, the Wooshies undoubtedly prevailed over the would-be whirligig, with sardonic knick-knacks sold in the town, and mock ceremonies alluded to in published reports. And local attitudes toward the federal government? Unshaken.

Beer Wars Grip Blowing Rock

In the mid-1970's, Blowing Rock was coming into its own as the entertainment capital of the mountains, fueled by renowned venues like P.B. Scott's; and by alcohol.

It was also coming to the end of its rope. Scott's was bringing huge national acts almost weekly, and entertainment almost nightly to the once-sleepy town, and with the attention and income came problems, and finally, public protest. It all began innocently enough back in 1965, when the North Carolina General Assembly authorized a beer sales election for Blowing Rock, an election which saw beer and wine voted in that August. That allowed sales in restaurants that had a 'Grade A certificate'.

It was in April, 1977, that an amendment to that passage began the fight that would ultimately close Scott's, though never rid the town of alcohol.

Noticeable by its absence was a grandfather clause for existing establishments, giving anti-beer forces a double-barrel to aim at the bars they were intent on closing. That same year an attempt to eliminate beer sales in the town was defeated by a two-to-one margin. By 1978 the cries of outrage had brought the owners - who had formed a group called the Blowing Rock Beverage Association - to voluntarily close an hour earlier; at 12:30 a.m.

They were also considering another voluntary measure; a one-cent self-imposed tax on each beer sold to fund the hiring of an additional policeman. As one member put it; "we want them (the residents of Blowing Rock) to see that we are civic-minded and concerned." But the drumbeats continued.

In May, 1979, some owners were served summonses by state ABC officials and Blowing Rock Police, to answer questions whether their restaurants met the criteria for serving alcohol; i.e. could they attribute 51% of their overall sales to food, not beer and wine. By April 15 of 1980, a final standoff was reported, as three establishments in the town were ordered by the ABC board to send in their permits. None did, and all remained open to serve both food and beer, citing an appeal from the owners and the Blowing Rock Town Council.

With the outcome cloudy, precedent was set, as alcohol in the county continues to maintain a foothold, but meet stiff resistance at its spread. As the headline said in the April 17, 1980 edition of The Mountain Times; "Beer Still Flowing In Blowing Rock." Twenty years later both the drinks and the debate flow ever onward.


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