Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in January 2010.
And bless our hearts, for the old year’s gone and the New Year’s come,
And for good luck, we’ll fire our guns!
These are the final words of the chant of the Cherryville New Year’s Shooters, who ring in each New Year with a tradition that began more than 200 years ago and was brought to our state by some of its earliest settlers. Part solemn ceremony and part traveling celebration, shooting in the New Year is a unique piece of North Carolina history and a meaningful day for area residents.
Beginning at midnight each year on the first day of January, shooters go as a group throughout the area, to homes and businesses that have been in the community for generations. There they call out the residents to shoot in salutation. For more than 18 hours, and through three different counties — Gaston, Lincoln, and Cleveland — the shooters follow the route bringing ceremony and good tidings to neighbors. At each stop along the way, a crier recites the “Chant of the New Year’s Shooters,” and then participants fire their muskets, one by one, each loaded with black powder, no bullets allowed. The noise of the musket is thought to drown out evil spirits and bad luck; while the chant — part poem, part speech, and part song — asks for peace and prosperity in the New Year.
Tracing the tradition
Although the chant is written in more of an Old English style, the custom itself came from German, Swiss, and other European settlers in the area. Many of the pioneers arrived in our state via Pennsylvania, where the Mummers now bring in the New Year with costumes and a parade. The tradition of the Mummers is closely related to the New Year’s Shooters, as this, too, began with visits
from house to house. Citizens carried firearms for protection and noise, singing and dancing at each home and receiving a meal or drink from the host in return. Both practices continued to evolve through the years, with an emphasis on costumes, entertainment, and parades in Pennsylvania, while in North Carolina, the focus became home visits and ceremonial shots.
Locally, there is documentation of New Year’s Shooters in the Cherryville area back to 1770, before the town was even established or named. A copy of a chant dating back to the 1800s is on display at the Cherryville Historical Museum. Many of the names of these original settlers are also the names of the current shooters, showing the passing of this custom from generation to generation. Some families have been on the route for more than 100 years, and local participants claim that not one year has ever been missed.
A historic event in modern times
Rusty Wise has been shooting since he was 16 years old. He remembers looking out his window at 2 a.m., then a little boy, watching as the Shooters came to visit his home. Now he serves as secretary for the New Year’s Shooters organization and puts in many hours of work to make the event happen. Long gone are the days of small groups walking from farmhouse to farmhouse; there are now more than 300 shooters and a caravan of participants. He works with president and long-time shooter Carl Dellinger for weeks ahead to determine the scheduled stops. The organization holds meetings to discuss safety and training and spends time coordinating with law enforcement and emergency services. Information is posted on the group’s website, and the large finale shot held at nearby Rudisill Stadium provides an ideal spot for the many spectators.
Still, Wise is humbled and amazed by the timelessness of the event. “Few things stand the test of time the way the Shooters have,” he explains. “New Year’s is the time in our community when people still come out to be together.” Even those who have moved away often make New Year’s the day they visit home. Last year, there were participants from four different states.
History and community
What keeps the tradition flourishing is not only the historical significance, but also the emotional ties of those who participate each year. Each shooter has his or her own individual story. All of the black-powder guns are either historic or carefully made replicas. Some shooters wear special hats, decorate their vehicles, or add to the pageantry of the day in other ways. Wise remarks that on New Year’s Day, job titles, economic status, or other things that separate citizens on a daily basis have no meaning. Everyone is an equal part of the community.
For Darrell Beam, who has been shooting since 1981, participating with different generations of friends and family is one of the things that make the experience so valuable. He says, “My daughter Amanda’s first shot was at the age of five. I made her rifle with a pistol barrel and scaled down the stock to fit the barrel, making it a miniature black-powder muzzle loader. I bought 10 barrels 16 years ago on clearance. I have one left. The others have been made into what we call kid’s guns for other up-and-coming shooters. Although Amanda remains the youngest so far, I am saving the last barrel for a grandchild.”
His favorite spot to shoot is the Carolina Care rest home, where the residents are brought outside on sunny days or watch from inside when the weather is bad.
Beam and Wise remark on shooting for so many hours straight, through all kinds of weather, through the cold dark night where shots are quieter, to the midday shots with hundreds of participants and spectators.
The Cherryville New Year’s Shooters are an ode to both history and community with moments both solemn and jubilant. Despite the many years of history behind it, the event is as important as any holiday could be in the modern life of the region. Beam says, “It is a rolling party covering 18 hours and at least 60 miles with more hugs and Happy New Year wishes than you could ever imagine.”
Anne Aldridge Webb lives and writes in Alamance County.