“A big neighborhood” is what Carl Goerch called this state, and in this neighborhood, these mountains, Sandhills, and beaches, he found himself. To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the magazine he founded, we used his writings as a guide and explored North Carolina by plane and car, pen and camera. We understand why he fell in love.
You first understand that this machine is made of wood and fabric as you climb into its cockpit. A foot, misplaced where it says, “Not a Step,” will go right through the nylon-covered wing. The technology of this biplane is the same as the crates that mounted the skies over Belgium in World War I: You’re stepping into what is essentially a flying kite with wire controls, an open cockpit, and a polished wood propeller in front of a ring of cylinders composing the engine.
The starter motor whines as it turns the fitful prop. Shortly after it blasts to life, becoming a circular blur, you taxi down the grass runway and into the wind. The ride is pleasant on a sunny day, even as the aircraft — a red Command-Aire — picks up speed.
As the airstrip wheels away, you see a lake, then a railroad track through the pines. The disparate parts of the North Carolina landscape, pasture and scrub, are quilted together. No longer presented with just the trees, you see the forest.
If you fly over this great and horizontal state long enough, and if you meet as many of your fellow North Carolinians as you possibly can, calling almost every one a friend, then you can get a better sense of who Carl Goerch was.
You hold part of his legacy now, as this is the magazine he founded. He had a vision of North Carolina that was unique, and it played a role in shaping the way we see ourselves.
In his life, Carl Goerch was a newspaper reporter, a journeyman, host of a political radio show, a renowned storyteller, a devil-may-care pilot, a reading clerk for the State House of Representatives, author of seven books, a failed duck hunter, gadfly, glad-hander, entrepreneur, practical joker, public speaker, and tireless promoter of our state and its people.
He came to North Carolina from Tarrytown, New York, by slim chance — the editor of a Washington newspaper who hired him to be a reporter 100 years ago did so only after fishing the trade journal that contained Goerch’s personal ad out of the trash during Linotype repairs.
Goerch labored and hobnobbed with equal diligence, and by the 1930s, he knew he wanted to deliver his findings about North Carolina to a larger audience. He founded a weekly publication that he called The State in 1933. It was an immediate success, combining humor, legislative doings, homilies, colloquial musings, rhapsodic travelogues, and small-town news items. Goerch was a win-win entrepreneur who never let public good be the enemy of personal profit.
It’s not clear how the man had time to write anything. Two decades before we had a state highway system, Goerch put more than 2,000 miles a month on his car, just driving within the state. But Goerch’s favorite mode of travel was flying. He flew his Command-Aire to Charlotte and Greensboro and Ocracoke. And all of that driving and all of that winging it had an effect. As the years progressed, Goerch’s writings about North Carolina become more nuanced, more detailed. A deeper sense of place — this place, Carl’s place — emerges.
In the 1933 inaugural issue of The State, Goerch called North Carolina “largely a local state.” By the publication of his first book in 1943, he had decided that we are better described as a big neighborhood. To celebrate the 80th anniversary of his magazine, this magazine, photographer Missy McLamb and I decided to follow in the man’s footsteps.
Together we took a tour of the state as Goerch saw it, big neighborhood that it is, guided by the man himself.
Armed with Goerch’s books filled with his recollections, we began our journey in Durham, at Lake Ridge Airport, for a view of North Carolina from the air. For Goerch, the draw to flying was magnetic; he paid barnstormers $15 for five minutes in the air when they came to Little Washington. A friend who owned a biplane agreed to give Goerch some informal lessons, and it wasn’t long before his considerable powers of persuasion convinced the friend to let him fly solo — illegally — from New Bern back to Washington. Goerch was so inexperienced that he followed the curves of the road instead of flying straight, and he had to circle the field several times before making something of a proper landing:
“On the fifth trial, I grazed some cornstalks, hit the field with my wheels, bounced two or three times and finally came to a stop with plenty of room left. I’ve made plenty worse landings since then.”
Once in Raleigh, Goerch bought a plane of his own and became a decent, if careless, pilot, cheerfully admitting to never getting anything more than a learner’s permit. At Lake Ridge, our pilot’s 1941 Waco UPF-7 biplane wasn’t appreciably different from Goerch’s beloved Command-Aire. I wasn’t interested in recreating one of Goerch’s “spectacular” landings, but needn’t have worried. The pilot was skilled, and the day was gorgeous. The little farmhouses and tobacco barns we flew over must have been a familiar sight to our unseen traveling companion, and we understood what he meant when he wrote:
“I can live to be a hundred years old, but I know that never again will I get as great a thrill as I experienced when flying that plane all by myself.”
Back on the ground, we headed toward Little Washington to visit the Daily News, where Goerch got his start as a reporter only a couple years out of high school. The job came out of a twist of fate. The newspaper publisher had already disposed of a trade journal that contained Goerch’s ad seeking employment. When a mechanical press breakdown occurred on the serendipitous day, the publisher, waiting for the press to be repaired, fished the trade journal out of the trash and read it, this time focusing on Goerch’s ad.
“When I think of the narrow margin by which I managed to locate in this state, it sometimes gives me the shivers. If the linotype hadn’t broken down at that particular time and on that particular date, chances are I never would have settled down here and would still be living among the Yankees without ever realizing what I was missing.”
We continue down two-lane N.C. Highway 264 to catch the Swan Quarter ferry to Ocracoke. I thought for a moment about how the road probably didn’t look terribly different from Goerch’s time.
We drove our car onto the deck of the large, humpback ferry, got snacks from the passenger area vending machines, and plugged our computers into the outlet. Soon we were gliding over Pamlico Sound.
This is an altogether more modern approach to the Outer Banks than what Goerch took a century ago in a bobbing wooden mail boat. If he was lucky, he could sit on an empty fish box or on freight packages beneath a shelter. If not, he took the weather as it came. Most of the village of Ocracoke would have turned out to greet the small craft, as its arrival was the big event of the day.
“Usually it’s some small boy, perched precariously on a piling at the end of the pier, who is the first to glimpse the boat swinging around the point and getting ready to come in through the narrow entrance of the harbor. ‘Here she comes!’ he calls out. People leave their stores. They rise from the boxes or crates they’ve been sitting on and begin walking out on the pier.”
Judging simply by the amount of ink he spilled on the subject — filling an entire book called Carolina Characters — Ocracoke was Goerch’s favorite place on earth. When he flew here, he would judge by the color of the sand whether it was safe to put his plane down. Ocracoke embodied all that he loved most about this state: its wildness, remoteness and natural beauty, its simplicity, the closeness of its community, the lack of what he called sectionalism. In describing the inhabitants of that tiny island, Goerch might well have been speaking of all North Carolinians:
“You may have all the money in the world, be known all over this country, wield all kinds of influence but it won’t get you anywhere. If the people on the island like you it’s because of you, yourself.”
Goerch probably wouldn’t recognize Ocracoke today, beyond the great bend of Silver Lake, or the pristine and glorious 12-mile stretch of white-sand beach. The village has grown in 80 years, though it still can be walked in minutes. And so we did.
We came upon a little dirt-and-shell lane called Howard Street. And we walked with Goerch, past the wooden houses from the 1840s, along the neat and weathered fences that still match his description:
“The houses are entirely of frame structure, nicely painted and, for the most part, neat in appearance. Oleander trees grow in many of the yards. So do zinnias, hydrangeas and other blooms. Most of the yards are fenced in and the fences are in good repair.”
He goes on:
“There is considerable vegetation on the sound side — scrub pines, water oaks, wax myrtles, yaupon, red cedar, and in many places, heavy growth of underbrush and marsh grass. There are also a number of fig trees, and the fruit from these is simply delicious. Fig preserves and hot biscuits. Now, there’s something that really is fittin’.”
We slipped into one of the many graveyards strewn about the island, this one full of Howards, the graves softly sinking into the sand even as the headstones are gathered up into the blooming privet. Maybe the scent that hung in the air, one of floral sweetness and newly cut wood, has been there since habitation.
Out past the lighthouse is the 120-acre Springer’s Point Preserve. Nothing here has changed since Goerch’s time, or Blackbeard’s, for that matter. We saw, as Goerch must’ve, the sun filtered through the seaward oaks, red bay, and yaupon, before breaking onto the beach in front of a tidal pool.
Goerch writes about hunting with Babe Ruth near Lake Ellis. We followed his path from Ocracoke, taking the Cedar Island ferry and driving up through the low, marshy country of Carteret County up into Craven, and we stopped near a hunting lodge deep in the pines, about 10 miles from New Bern. The air was still; the newly-hatched mosquitos aggressive. Goerch bunked with Ruth near here and recounts one exchange.
“Babe Ruth was sitting on one side of the bed. He had just dropped his shoes on the floor when he turned around, looked at me with a scowl and said, ‘Listen, bo; do you snore?’
I told him I didn’t think so.
‘I certainly hope you don’t,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a habit of hauling off and hitting folks when they snore. It’s something I do in my sleep and never know anything about it until I wake up the next morning and discover that I’ve given some guy a black eye or bruised his nose for him.’”
Along with his beloved coast, Goerch was also fond of the mountains. We pushed on toward the foothills and stopped in Valdese. Goerch was particularly interested in the town and its Waldensian settlers, whom he admired for their industry. “It is a pretty little town,” he wrote.
“The Latin influence is to be observed in the homes of some of the citizens. Instead of painting these homes some drab color; you will find pink, green, blue, purple and other vivid shades quite frequent.”
Goerch found much to be admired about Valdese, in fact, from the great bakery — still in operation — to the inhabitants’ efforts at viticulture.
“The Waldensians cultivate between forty and fifty different kinds of grapes. And the wine is excellent.”
For Goerch, there must have been a deeper point of recognition here. Like Valdese’s Italian settlers, Goerch, too, was a transplant. He recognized the potential and goodness of his adopted home, and applied his own kind of industry to make it his own.
We wound up farther west, in Burnsville, the seat of Yancey County. The grand Nu Wray Inn still sits on the town square, and Goerch was impressed with the Southern-style dinner service, at which all the guests were seated together at long tables filled with as much food as could be eaten. Goerch wrote of the dinner bell being rung and the resultant rush to the feed, hungry patrons ready to tuck into the abundant spread. “I don’t mind saying that I took out pencil and paper in order to get a complete list,” Goerch wrote, and described the menu: country sausage, backbone, spare ribs, roast turkey, big hominy, sauerkraut, coleslaw, turnips, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, cornbread, black-eyed peas, relish, prunes, biscuits, baked beans, sliced pickles, preserves, jellies, honey, ice cream, cake, coffee, tea, and milk.
“Not satisfied with putting all that food in front of you, Goerch noted, “they act hurt if you don’t take second helpings.” I knew what he meant. I grew up in Burnsville, on the mountain visible in the distance from the inn’s expansive covered porch, and as a teenager, I, too, sat at one of those tables. The Nu Wray Inn doesn’t have those dinners now, but I remember how Rush Wray, descendant of the original owner, exulted in the pre-meal ritual. I remember standing expectantly in the dark-paneled hall and listening as a rare Steinway player piano filled the room with Gershwin. I can’t help but think Goerch heard this, too.
In the morning we made the drive south, on roads much changed since even my own childhood, when Yancey County could boast of having the most one-lane bridges in the state. Goerch loved the mountains, especially in autumn’s riot of color. He noted how taking the road called the Winding Stairs when climbing Wayah Bald from the west is the scariest drive in all North Carolina. Once at the top, Goerch declared the view, simply, “magnificent,” as if to compel the reader to go see for himself.
We turned toward Dry Falls, outside of Franklin in Macon County. We stopped alongside a stream, and as we stood on a bed of river rock — thousands upon thousands of them, rounded by the millennia — we watched the rush of water. Goerch had been here, too.
“On your right is a beautiful little stream bounding over huge rocks and forming sparkling cataracts as it dashes on its way to the Tennessee River.”
We took this trip to see the places Carl Goerch noted, but there was another topography he described, and it was of our people.
Each chapter of his book Characters … Always Characters is about an individual North Carolinian. “Most of them,” Goerch wrote, “are among the best friends I have.” Just reading the table of contents gives an overview of the people who made this state great for Carl Goerch: Miss Blanche, Old Ras, Mr. Yarborough and His Mules, The Busbees of Jugtown. Goerch thrived on stories of his fellow North Carolinians — rural judges, elderly politicians, blue-collar workers. He understood the difference between mountain individualists and Piedmont industrialists, but perceived a deeper connection. “If there is such a thing as a collective character,” he wrote, “it’s the people of North Carolina.”
Goerch knew then how proud we are of our state and our ancestry; it’s a sense of pride that carries forth today and creates a community, in our towns, in our people, in this magazine.
“Whenever two or more North Carolinians get together outside of the state, you can rest assured that a North Carolina Society will be forthcoming … I have received numerous letters from Tar Heel soldiers, sailors and marines in all parts of the world, telling of the organization of a North Carolina society in the desert, in the jungle or on a mountain top.”
Goerch thrived on these stories of North Carolina. He traveled the world, no doubt meeting others who shared his love for adventure and place. But starting as a young man barely into his 20s, he called this state, our state, home, and he died here in 1974. Here were his roots, and they deepened with the passing years.
Tom Maxwell is an author whose work has appeared in The Oxford American, Southern Cultures, and Indy Week. He is also a musician, formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He lives in Carrboro with his two children.