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Todd Boera has had a day. As the sun rides low on the horizon, he drops down in the grass beside the new barrelhouse of Fonta Flora, one of North

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Todd Boera has had a day. As the sun rides low on the horizon, he drops down in the grass beside the new barrelhouse of Fonta Flora, one of North

Appalachian Atlantis: The Lost Mountain Utopia of Fonta Flora

Todd Boera has had a day. As the sun rides low on the horizon, he drops down in the grass beside the new barrelhouse of Fonta Flora, one of North Carolina’s hardest-working and most creative breweries. He’s just finished weeding a garden bed that contains the starts of fruit he hopes will someday become beer, and the heat of the day has sapped him. His partner, Brit Josa, appears with pints of clear lager brewed with organic limes, and Boera sags a little deeper into the ground, a smile venturing onto his face. It’s Friday, and the weekend has begun.

Behind Boera, happy families chitchat at picnic tables in the shade of a giant wooden barn; glasses of liquid gold and almond hues are clinked, emptied, and refilled. Where Boera’s garden ends, the meadow from which it was dug begins, giving way, gradually, to forest and, in the distance, the resting hulk of Shortoff Mountain. The air smells of turpentine and tart cherry, and a cooling breeze filters in through the trees. “There’s nothing else quite like this,” Boera says, taking in the bucolic charm of it all.

Founded by Boera and three friends in 2013, Fonta Flora Brewery opened a new production facility and tasting room last year. The new 14-acre site, on the old Whippoorwill dairy farm at the edge of Linville Gorge, provides ample space to grow some of the brewery’s ingredients. Before the light fades entirely, Boera marches out to the garden to switch on his irrigation line so that, tomorrow, his newly planted cantaloupe seedlings will be watered. “I’ll have to remember to have a bartender run out and turn the hose off,” he says. Typical brewery stuff.

As Boera walks, stiffly, he motions to his right, where hip-high shrubs tied with pink planting ribbons rise from the tall meadow grass. Pawpaw and spicebush — these are the brewery’s possibilities for local flavor. The whole property, gleaming barn and all, has the speculative air of a frontier settlement hacked out of the forest: Brave. Isolated. Optimistic. In this sense, the brewery’s name is fitting. For though the enterprise is new, its name is not. 

Most who belly up to the bar won’t know it, but the original Fonta Flora — the brewery’s inspiration — resides just a few miles from where they drink. Supposedly a verdant Shangri-la for settlers, Fonta Flora was considered a remote utopia in its day, with ever-productive fields and a communal air — a place where folks helped each other and, people say, “the races lived in harmony.” Until, that is, the waters of progress claimed it.

• • •

Fonta Flora, so the story goes, now resides at the bottom of Lake James. Between 1916 and 1923, the Southern Power Company, a predecessor of Duke Energy, dammed the Catawba River, Linville River, and Paddy’s Creek in Burke and McDowell counties to make a hydroelectric production facility. In the process, they created Lake James and, so it is believed, flooded the idealized community of Fonta Flora, which straddled the Linville River just south of Linville Gorge. Few people today know much about the settlement, or what was lost when Lake James was made. But stories tell of a racially integrated community with bustling farms and homesteads.

“It was a fertile, green, lush place,” says Valaida Fullwood, a writer and consultant based in Charlotte. Her family lineage goes back to the early years of Fonta Flora, when her great-great-grandparents Christian and Riley Rufus McGimpsey were prominent African-American residents. Born into slavery, Riley McGimpsey rose to become the patriarch of one of several large free black households that prospered in the region after the Civil War. Fullwood doesn’t know specifics, but in her family’s telling, Fonta Flora was a special, peaceful community. “Just the name itself evoked thoughts of an idyllic kind of place,” she says.

Todd Boera, co-owner of Fonta Flora Brewery, found inspiration in the lost community’s story. Valaida Fullwood traces her family history back to Fonta Flora. photographs by Emily Chaplin & Chris Council, Joshua Vasko

When the current matriarch of her family, her great-aunt Annie, and her older siblings would share stories during holidays and gatherings at the lake in the mountains, “there was always a kind of nostalgic longing,” Fullwood says. “It was a point of pride that we were from there, and that we knew our history. But it was also bittersweet that whatever life existed there was no longer there — and that everything was under the lake.”

There would have been roads, country stores, a post office, and a church. Many of these landmarks do, indeed, appear on old maps of the region. Some locals even say that when the lake level is low, you can see the spire of the church steeple poking up from the green depths.

Others say that’s bunk.

The McGimpseys (above) — including Riley (far right) and Christian (center) — were a prominent family in the community that is now under Lake James. This 1903 photo was taken more than a decade before the Catawba River, Linville River, and Paddy’s Creek were dammed. photograph by family portrait courtesy of Nettie McGimpsey McIntosh/Picture Burke

But ask Helen Norman, a dogged local historian, what she thinks of the lost community, and she’s likely to offer a startling reply: “Would you have time for a tour of Fonta Flora?” And, apparently, there’s no snorkel required.

Norman has a stern, wary countenance that quickly gives way to hand-rubbing giddiness in the face of a mystery to be solved. History turns her engine, you see. When she’s not busy at the Paddy Creek Campground, which she owns and runs with her husband, Ben, Norman and her sister, Patricia Page, dig into local history. Together, they’ve written a string of self-published books on Burke County landmarks and lore, which tend to have the effect of popping everyone’s balloons. Case in point: No, that trail on your property isn’t the famous Yellow Mountain Road.

Some locals even say that when the lake level is low, you can see the church steeple poking up.

Though the sisters often tromp through the mountain laurel to verify their findings, Norman and Page’s work mainly takes place in halls of record. “There is so much misinformation,” Norman says. The best way to understand what happened to Fonta Flora — the real Fonta Flora — is to go and see it for yourself, she says.

Setting off on a tour — not in a canoe, mind you, but in a silver sedan piloted by her daughter — Norman is eager to prove that much of Fonta Flora still exists above the waterline. The first stop: a jungle-eaten building with a tree growing up through the porch. This, Norman says, gesturing to the relic in the woods, is the last post office of Fonta Flora. It was in service just after the damming of the lake.

A short way down the road, a neighbor, Jim Crooks, helps track down another decrepit building — Fonta Flora’s original post office. This one is accessed through a lakeside campground, which is teeming with weekend water lovers. Oak trees frame the views of Lake James — named, like so many things in North Carolina, after James Buchanan Duke, benefactor of the university. A warm breeze stirs the lake’s surface as families crowding pontoon boats float by; probably none of them is entertaining thoughts of old Fonta Flora below.

This weather-beaten building is in better condition than the first, though only just. Its log exterior has clearly fed generations of termites, and the mortar of its once-generous chimney has washed away in years of rain.

At another must-see on the itinerary, Norman motions to an ordinary clearing in the woods: This is where the Corpening family farmhouse stood, she says. And here is the homesite of the McGimpsey family — Fullwood’s ancestors. Each spot on the Fonta Flora tour proves to involve places that were, but no longer are. There’s nothing corporeal to be found on these patches of ground, but to Norman, it’s as though the stuff of life is all there, clear as day.

Sleuthing sisters Patricia Page (left) and Helen Norman use maps, deeds, and other archival materials to sort Fonta Flora fact from fiction. They point to the original post office — sitting high and dry today — as evidence that much of the community wasn’t flooded. photograph by Charles Harris

• • •

Norman’s carport is set up like a de facto war room, an amateur historian’s archive with maps delineating the ownership regimes and family ties of Fonta Flora, each an inscrutable painting from the past. It’s clear from the paper trail that if the community wasn’t flooded, well, something certainly happened to it.

Some folks had moved even before the power company came knocking.

Norman and Page say that the facts tell a somewhat different story from the lore. The community living around the Linville River was diffuse, not concentrated; some folks had moved even before the power company came knocking. The slopes around Fonta Flora had been logged extensively by the turn of the 20th century, and flash flooding had become a scourge. Newspapers reported that many of those who stayed seemed all too happy to take the power company’s offer for their land and pack up.

Certainly, there were African-American families living in the area, and there were churches where both white and black families prayed. But the sisters could find no record attesting to particular racial harmony in the community. While leafing through maps in the carport, Page recalls evidence of a number of black Civil War veterans living in Fonta Flora after the war. But Norman shakes her head no. They lived in the nearby community of Linville’s Store, she says. Close, but no cigar.

The sisters also point out that there isn’t much hard evidence to support the claim that Fonta Flora was, as its name would suggest, a remarkably fertile land — though, like much of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is a hot spot of biodiversity. The best documentation that Norman could find was that a variety of cabbage seeds sold from Fonta Flora were particularly good at germinating.

The tenacity of Fonta Flora mythology is due, in part, to the permeability of historical boundaries. On a paper map that hangs in the North Carolina Room of the Morganton Public Library, labeled “Fonta Flora Community Prior to 1914,” the entire northern corner of Lake James is listed as containing Fonta Flora. “That’s probably where the stories come from,” Norman says, as the map was, mostly, wrong. The real Fonta Flora fell into only a portion of that map, according to Norman’s careful analysis of old deeds. That means that only about 20 percent of Fonta Flora is beneath the lake.

Norman’s trove of maps indicates that only about 20 percent of Fonta Flora disappeared under the waters of Lake James. photograph by Charles Harris

• • •

Six Fonta Flora homesteads would have been flooded, the sisters estimate. Plus nearly 1,000 acres of farmland, one post office, one general store, and a prizewinning racehorse farm. That said, a dive into the lake probably wouldn’t bring up much tangible evidence. Reflecting the thrift of that era, Page says, “as far as we can tell, a lot of the nice houses were taken apart and moved elsewhere.”

Myths are chummier than facts, and pair better with beer.

The lake was drained in 1954 to unclog intakes for the power station, and, in those days, locals scavenged the muddy lake bed, searching for mementos. In photos from that time, a home’s forlorn chimney rises from the mud, smudged hearth and foundation still visible, but not much else. And even that chimney isn’t what it seems, Norman says, because it’s actually located outside of what would have been the Fonta Flora community. Most of the Fonta Flora chimneys had been reduced to rubble, she says.

But myths are chummier than facts, and pair better with beer. The sign affixed to Fonta Flora Brewery’s new barn shows the company’s name swimming below a choppy waterline. The image is dark and romantic, like the aroma of malt and yeast slipping through the brewery’s wooden exterior; the beer will lure a new generation to the legend.

But the real history of Fonta Flora lives on in its people, who really didn’t move far. Six years ago, Fullwood and her sister organized a family reunion for the extended McGimpsey clan, complete with a bus tour and a picnic by the lake. Seventy-five mothers and grandmothers, aunts, uncles, sons, daughters, and cousins came — as well as the matriarch of the family, 89-year-old Great-Aunt Annie Fullwood Brewer. It was a moving day. “The beauty, the mountains, the peaks, just feeling connected,” Fullwood says, is what came through the most. It’s meaningful “to know that your ancestors saw these same places and were inspired by the same skies and views.”

That, more than an old map hanging in a library, is probably what keeps the fantasy of Fonta Flora going. Still, there’s no harm in imagining all those lush farms, worked by mountain men and gentleman farmers alike, the racial harmony inside the small country church, the sustainable community humming along beautifully until the waters came.

Like the beer makers down the road who merge artistry and agriculture, more than a few locals aren’t bothered that their image of an Appalachian Atlantis may be wrong. The lore is part of the landscape, and here, the land is a treasure. “I don’t care if it’s true or not,” one longtime local once told Norman. “I’m going to believe it anyway.”

This story was published on Sep 30, 2019

Aaron Reuben

Aaron Reuben is a science writer living in Durham. He studies psychology and the environment at Duke University.