A closer look at this quiet mountain town reveals a community that’s just now growing up.
Jake Blood is a walking brochure. The red Parkway Playhouse is one of the oldest continually running summer theaters in North Carolina, he says. The old library was a bank. The new library used to be the Yancey Collegiate Institute. There’s Otway Burns, the privateer, the namesake. There’s his statue in the town square with the cocked hat and the sword. He never lived here.
“Have they told you about The Road?” Blood says, asking the same question as everyone else in Burnsville.
Yes, everyone talks about The Road. U.S. Highway 19 East is a muddy mess of asphalt residents hope will become a four-lane highway. A good portion of it has been finished between Burnsville and Interstate 26, making it possible to get to the interstate in 20 minutes and Asheville in 40. In a couple years, it will stretch all the way to Boone. Yancey was the last county in North Carolina to get a four-lane road; now it’s counting on it.
It needs The Road because it needs the traffic. Burnsville has 1,700 people in it. Yancey County has 17,000. For business owners, it’s hard to make the math work.
There’s a motel in town. The chamber of commerce director wants a hotel. She already knows people spend the day here. She wants them to spend the night — in a hotel. To build a hotel, Burnsville needs traffic. It needs The Road.
Blood knows this. In addition to being a hiker with a chin-strap beard, he is head of the local economic development. What could more tourists do for the town? “We don’t call them tourists,” he says. “We call them visitors.”
There is a focus on what Burnsville could attract. On what it could become. But what does it already have?
Quilts, sculptures, and murals
Look at nearly any building downtown, and you’ll get a clue.
Start with the squares. Some are four feet wide, some are eight. All are made up of smaller squares and triangles, each with their own colorful patterns. The one out at Heritage Lumber is supposed to look like a circular saw. The one on the side of Burnsville Hosiery has five socks on it, arranged into a star. The one on the side of the Toe River Arts Council is a red, blue, and yellow North Carolina star. All of them are supposed to be quilt squares. For $5, you can buy a map of the western North Carolina quilt trails, showing you where to find each one. There are more than 200 in Yancey and Mitchell counties, each one different, with special meaning.
The one everybody says you have to see is the sundial quilt square on the side of the Yancey Common Times Journal on North Main Street, the one with the rod dangling out at an angle. It’s accurate within six minutes. Bob Hampton, the town astronomer and physicist, designed it.
There are sculptures, like the turtle on a rock in front of the Town Center on South Main Street, across from the art gallery. You have to look closely for that one. There’s a bigger one, a gnarled rock-and-limb sculpture at the end of South Main, that’s harder to miss.
There are murals, too. One shows the yellow brick road from The Wizard of Oz. The Emerald City has been replaced with the Yancey County Courthouse.
“I see people out there all the time, and they’re posing with it,” Denise Cook says of the mural. “I’m always taking pictures of people taking pictures.”
Cook runs the Toe River Arts Council. Her office overlooks Oz. Ask to see some art, and you’re going to be in for a long conversation. Twice a year, Cook and others put on the Toe River Studio Tour, where dozens of artists across Yancey and Mitchell throw open their doors and let anyone in to see how they make what they make. There are glassblowers, potters, wood carvers, soap sculptors, and painters. Each one puts a red arrow out in front of their studio to say come in.
Cook says more than 500 artists live in the county, giving Yancey County one of the highest concentrations of artists in the country. Her theory: Many of them come to the Penland School of Crafts just down the road, fall in love with the mountains here, and decide to stay. Drive around on the back roads around Burnsville and you’ll see decorated mailboxes, and homes with kilns out front.
An artistic solution
The dump is a 20-minute drive from downtown Burnsville. On top of a mountain overlooking the old landfill are a couple of Quonset huts with artists set up in every corner. In one, Michael Hatch pulls a glob of molten glass, which clings to the end of a metal rod like honey, out of a furnace glowing orange at a temperature of 2,045 degrees. Reggae music plays. Hatch dips the rod back into the furnace over and over, blowing into one end to make a bigger bubble inside the glob until it starts to look like a lightbulb. Each time, it gets bigger and bigger, and Hatch spins it and uses a set of metal pincers to pull, roll, and shape it into a vase.
“Now I’m gonna add the eyes,” he says, pulling two globs of glass out of the furnace and sticking them to the front. “Now the nose.”
He pulls another glob out, then pulls it apart into lips. You get one shot to get the facial features right. Hatch usually needs only one; he’s been blowing glass for 25 years. He rolls the face jug in a bin of powdered blue glass and puts it back in the furnace until it glows with an orange hue over the blue, over and over. When he’s finished, he sticks it into a heater that keeps it at 900 degrees. It takes 20 minutes for Hatch to complete a face jug, and he’s never fully satisfied. “I could tell you what’s wrong with anything in here,” he says.
There’s one more thing. The inside of the hut sometimes smells like burning garbage, because the EnergyXchange — a collection of studios for artists and greenhouses — is powered by old trash. After the Yancey-Mitchell Landfill closed in 1994, crews sank nine pipes into the dirt cap that covered the decomposing garbage below. The gas that comes up is piped out and powers the furnaces that heat the huts. Natural gas is about 98 percent methane. This gas is around 52 percent. “It’s temperamental, and it’s different,” Greg Ledford says, “but it’s a free fuel source.”
Ledford has been watching Hatch. He’s used to the smell. When he got here, it was so rancid to him that he moved his office as far away from the furnaces and kilns as possible. That was a few years ago when Ledford became the webmaster at Mayland Community College over in Spruce Pine, and his boss asked him if he could do some on-site management as well. Sure, Ledford said. I can be webmaster from anywhere.
And that’s how Ledford wound up in charge of the EnergyXchange.
He walks around the place with a ball cap, a thick jacket, and a curious eye, checking in with artists.
“What you got there, Amber?” he asks.
“Glass,” she says.
“Imagine that,” he laughs, and moves on.
Ledford thinks he can be a little annoying, but he can’t help it. He likes to watch. “I get on their nerves a lot,” he says, “because I stand over them.”
Out back, Ledford points at the solar panels that put electricity back on the power grid, and greenhouses where blueberry, azalea and rhododendron grow. Both of those things bring in money, but the art brings the excitement.
There are glass whales on the floor, glazed teacups on a shelf, ceramic gourds in boxes. But it’s the process that gets Ledford out of his office. “I like it when they fire the kilns,” Ledford says. “It’s like being a kid at Christmas.”
View from the top
For 30 years, Kathy Hogan came to Burnsville every Christmas. Her parents had moved up from Florida. It was quiet, beautiful, a retreat. She thought she knew Burnsville. But then, in 2006, she moved here. She had to make a living. What’s it like to go from visitor to citizen? “Hmm,” she says. “It’s a bit more challenging.”
Hogan and her husband have run Solstice Cycles since it was just an addition to the barn on U.S. Highway 19 East. Solstice is the only place to buy a bike here. Hogan sells mostly to locals. She sells Raleigh bikes because they’re just as good as the more expensive ones, and more people around here can afford them. She says there was a vast, untapped need for bikes. She found her niche.
Burnsville’s niche? “It needs to focus on tourism,” she says.
Hogan leans up against a wood- paneled wall in her shop and cups her hand around a mug of coffee. She makes money off the repairs, she says, but in a town like this, you can only sell so many bikes to locals. The industry isn’t coming back, she says.
The fabric manufacturer Glen Raven is still chugging away at one end of town, making heavy duty fabric for outdoor umbrellas and sails. At the other end, across the street from Solstice, the new owners of the old Avondale Mills are picking through the old yarn plant, looking for copper and tubing and other stuff they can sell. It wasn’t a bad factory, the CEO said in a letter before the place shut down back in 2004, but there were other places where it’s cheaper to make yarn, and 163 workers lost their jobs.
It was about that time that an economist came to town and said that if Yancey County wanted to grow, it’d probably have to increase tourism. There’s a handful of a lot of things in Burnsville: a handful of restaurants, a handful of churches, a handful of motel rooms, a handful of stores downtown. The town and the county, one longtime resident told me, “have to decide what they want to be when they grow up.”
Take the Nu-Wray Inn. It used to be that, an inn. It’s no longer a hotel, but you can still rent it out for groups. The Nu-Wray sits on one corner of the square, just like it has since 1833, a year before Burnsville became a town. A 1957 Life magazine article said it served “Southern, family-style meals at set hours.” Even today, most of Burnsville closes at 10, if not sooner. It’s hard to find a gas station open at that time of night, and so the one that is open is a hangout. People are talking in front of the register at Jordan Oil at 10. They’re not there to buy anything much. They’re just having a conversation. There’s Mary Jane’s Bakery Cafe down on East Main, with live music to go with your food on Saturday nights and a porch out back overlooking the creek, but by 10, the band is usually wrapping up.
You can have a glass of wine or a beer in town. Yancey County was one of the last dry counties in North Carolina before Burnsville voted to allow alcohol in 2010. The tally wasn’t even close. The issue only came up for a vote because next-door Mitchell County allowed it in 2009 and people started to drive over there to shop and have a glass of wine with dinner.
Jake Blood isn’t all that crazy about it, and neither are the Baptists in town, he says. He doesn’t think big-city charms would work here. “You’re not coming here because of what it was like where you left,” he says.
Blood decides to show me what things look like from Phillips Knob, which looms over town. The road to the top gets progressively worse. First you pass the No Outlet sign. Then you turn left and leave pavement behind for a gravel-and-dirt driveway that switches back again and again and again. It’s bumpy. There are no guardrails.
Blood just got a new red Subaru Outback and it’s doing well, gripping what little there is to grip on the ride up this oversize trail. The top is more than 1,400 feet up. The knob itself is cluttered with cell phone towers and television transmitters and an old forest service fire tower with a rotting wooden floor that looks out over the tree line.
Blood starts pointing at mountains. Table Rock. Roan Mountain. Grandfather. He swings south and points at the Black Mountains, a range of peaks that forms a J on the map. Way off, you can see Big Tom and Mount Craig and Mount Mitchell; the latter looks smaller than the other two but is actually the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. There are 17 peaks that are more than 6,000 feet tall in Yancey County, Blood says.
It’s easy to ignore the town down there, the tiny cars crawling along, the white square building tops, the hamlet that spreads out longways across the plateau below. You get the overview; the backdrop; the general sense that the scenery is gorgeous, the land rugged, and the shadows long.
You can’t see the quilt squares. You can’t see the people. You can’t hear the gnashing over what Burnsville was, what it is now, and what it needs to be. You can’t see The Road. The Road isn’t The Road yet. And you can’t see the mural that overlooks the square. It’s a mountain scene, with a winding path that bounds off into the hills. The signpost next to it reads “Highway to Hope.”
5 things not to miss in Burnsville
In business downtown since 1985, if you can’t find a gift here, you’re probably going to have a hard time finding it anywhere. The shop is connected to a children’s store with modern and retro toys. 12 West Main Street. (828) 682-9101.
The highest peak in the east is named for Elijah Mitchell, who made it his quest to prove that his peak was higher than Clingmans Dome. In 1857, while on the mountain to measure its elevation, Mitchell fell to his death. Today, you can reach the mountain via the Blue Ridge Parkway. 2388 N.C. Highway 128. (828) 675-4611.
Laura and Mike Hoskins turned an old Presbyterian school’s dorm into a six-room bed and breakfast, where you can rock on the porch and enjoy English muffins and eggs in the morning. 109 Robertson Street. (828) 682-4505.
Festivals on the Town Square
Burnsville’s population swells in the summer, and there’s usually something happening in the middle of town, from Cinco de Mayo celebrations to cruise-ins. The Yancey County Chamber of Commerce has an exhaustive list of things happening nearly every weekend in town. Downtown. yanceychamber.com.
Editor’s note: Mary Jane’s Bakery Cafe is now Kirkwood’s Cafe.
Enjoy a steaming omelette for breakfast, and pair your cold beer or glass of wine with freshly baked pizza at dinner. Live music adds character to the atmosphere on the weekends. 114 East Main Street. (828) 678-9362.
66 EnergyXchange Drive
Burnsville, N.C. 28714
771 West Highway 19 East Bypass
Burnsville, N.C. 28714
Terrell House Bed and Breakfast
109 Robertson Street
Burnsville, N.C. 28714
Jeremy Markovich is the special projects producer at WCNC-TV in Charlotte. His most recent story for Our State was “A Seat at the Bar” (May 2013).