stokes county feat

Sunsets and stars, hikes and healing

A preserve of wilderness acreage and a soothing retreat for the soul, Johannah Stern’s bed and breakfast is inseparable from the land it stands upon.

When Johannah Stern was in high school, she sent a letter to her older sister at college. Already an environmentalist, Stern wrote that she wanted to buy a house on a mountain and close the gates to lock out the world. When Stern bought a house on a mountain in Stokes County in 1998, instead of closing the gates, she opened them wide. That mountain home is Singletree Gun & Plough, a six-room bed and breakfast. One of the largest of North Carolina’s privately owned preserves, Singletree sits amid 1,000 acres and has become a modern-day version of Stokes County’s old hotels, which drew rich clientele searching for the healing powers of mountain springs.

Stern draws a more diverse crowd to her porch — “folks with million-dollar houses next to folks from doublewides,” she says — but the guests all sip their cocktails the same way: one swallow at a time. And Stern has found that the mountain has its own kind of restorative powers.

Singletree’s side porch faces west, looking out over a field of grass to a line of trees and, in the distance, the Sauratown Mountains, named for a local Indian tribe. Stern cut an opening in the trees, one of the few places where she’s put her mark on the massive property. But with good reason: Every evening, the sun sets straight down that wide notch.

Stern smiles as she surveys tonight’s audience for Mother Nature. “The church ladies,” as she affectionately calls them, are a group of local women who’ve rented a cabin for a few nights to escape their husbands and to enjoy each other’s company. They walk past the south-facing porch of Singletree and stop to take pictures of Moore’s Knob, which at 2,579 feet is the tallest peak in the Sauratown Mountains.

The church ladies rave about that view of Moore’s Knob and chatter about the sunset they’re about to witness. They reach the end of the field, the opening between the trees, and plop down like kids in the front row of a movie theater. But they’ve arrived early. Way early.  Two women rise, recross the field, and climb the hill to their cabin. “We have time to get another drink,” one says with a laugh.

Just as they return, the sun drops between the frame of trees and the church ladies’ backs grow dark, shadowed. The green trees before them fade gray, and, rimmed in orange, the mountains become an ethereal — and ephemeral — blue. The horizon melts from orange to pink to purple. Silently, the ladies stand and walk back to their cabin.

“I love when people come here and get it,” Stern says. “It would be easy to develop this property, or put in houses, or sell it to Walmart. But we’ve maintained it as a little piece of heaven.”

Stern gives a tour of her property that begins in a car on a road. Soon the road becomes impassable — and walking here beats driving anyway — so she parks and gets out. She wears hiking shoes and carries lipstick in her pocket.

Avoiding ruts and rocks as she descends toward the Dan River, Stern points to dozens of native hemlocks, whose low branches protrude less than two feet, evidence of a killing infestation.  “Sorry,” she says mournfully, patting the trees as she walks by. “Sorry. Sorry. Wish we could help y’all.”

Stern longs to preserve this property, and she’s saddened that it’s changing regardless of her hopes. “I thought when you bought wilderness, you” — she stops talking and dances like a little girl. “It’s nonstop work and heartbreak. But it’s a privilege to have that heartbreak. I feel very privileged that I can walk out of my door and hike all day long and not see a soul.”

She leaves the road to follow what she claims is a deer trail, though perhaps only she and the deer can see it. Finally she leaves even that slim path, diving down deeper into the woods toward the Dan, taking no notice of branches and thorns, carving her own course on land that seemingly no soul has ever walked before.

Suddenly an abandoned tobacco barn appears.

The one-horse path on the far side of the barn gave rise to the name Singletree. The term refers to the weight-balancing bar between the cart and the pulling animal.

Stern stops at an overlook, a view of the five miles of riverfront she owns. “There’s something about the water and listening to it,” Stern muses. “It’s so clean. It’s like looking at a fire in the fireplace. It’s just mesmerizing.”

Back in the wilderness, she points out trilliums, lady’s slippers, ferns, and, 50 yards ahead, orange bursts of Flame Azaleas. She finds another trail — this one plainly visible — and begins the ascent from the forest. The trail takes her right and then left, over a creek, and up — always up — and eventually joins the path. The tour finally over, she steps from the mountainside into the sunset field.

After sunset, the night sky turns black, unpolluted by man-made light. Stern and her family often take sleeping bags into the field and look at the stars. Gazing into space   feels “numinous,” a Latin word that means “a sense of the divine.” It’s the same feeling C.S. Lewis called joy, the idea that a moment is far larger than the facts it involves.

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Where heritage is written on the walls

History, not ghosts, lingers in a rediscovered gristmill that fulfills one man’s lifelong dream.

Andrew Jones searched for years. From Nova Scotia to Myrtle Beach to Guatemala, he investigated multiple locations to open a river-based business. He longed for a place to indulge his passion for history, which never changes, and rivers, which never stop changing, a place where he could hold tight to traditions that slip away a bit more each day.

In 2010, on a paddle trip down the Dan River, he noticed an old gristmill, standing alone, just off a curvy two-lane highway not far from the river. The “For Sale” sign grabbed his attention. He ignored the 22 “No Trespassing” signs, choosing, like the experienced hiker and trail cutter he is, to follow a rhododendron-hung trail behind the mill. The trail ran between a dried-up chase (a canal that once fed the mill with water) on his left and the gurgling river on his right.

Jones couldn’t decide what to be most amazed by: mill, trail, or chase. “The site clearly had the marks of history and a sense of place in the community. Those were the things that had been missing from the other places I checked out,” he says.

Down the path, he discovered a dam, which in turn had once diverted water to the chase. By the time he’d walked back to the mill, Jones knew he would buy the place. Thus began a hands-on history lesson that continues to this day.

Built in 1910, the mill was bought by Dee Jessup in 1937 and was eventually passed on to his son, Porter. Following Porter’s death in 2000, the building remained untouched. But when Jones inspected the porch, the real education began. Writings, carvings, and doodles formed a halo around the front door — initials and math calculations and professions of love, messages that predated household electricity, nevermind Facebook walls. Though Jessup had painted the building’s exterior, he’d left the door area unchanged, a time capsule that was never buried.

“It’s pretty clear that people have been coming here for generations, sitting and waiting for their daddy’s wheat to be ground, or whatever the case might be,” Jones says. “This is where time passed.”

He believes that memories of those times are the only reason the building still exists. If the community hadn’t valued what had happened there, Jones says, the place would surely have been looted and burned to the ground after Jessup died. Instead it still stands, safe, sound, and untouched, except for four-legged squatters, with whom Jones remains in constant battle.

Jones’s education deepened when he opened the doors. Items were strewn everywhere, piled high, an “old-man path” the only means of passage. The sight reminded him of his grandfather’s garage, and just as only his Jones’s grandfather knew where his stuff was, only Porter Jessup knew what treasures lay within.

As Jones and his friends dug in and carried out, coaxing order out of chaos, artifacts emerged. The gristmill is a three-story history book that’s half read, and Jones reads a new chapter every day. One Friday afternoon, he leaned over a pile to read a piece of paper tacked to the wall: a rain chart from 1966, covered in neatly written, still legible script after 48 years of hanging in the same spot. Jones guesses Jessup kept track of rain because it predicted the future — told him how busy (or how idle) he’d be in the coming months. Jessup could prepare for long days at the mill, or he could ask for extra work shifts at the nearby factory.

As Jones sifted through the building’s contents — the third floor filled with used tires and uncountable empty containers of lubricant — a portrait of the man who once owned the building, and the community he served, emerged. Porter Jessup was a mechanical genius, a planner, and a freethinker.

“People ask me if the mill is haunted. It’s not. But it’s got a lot of fingerprints on it,” Jones says. “I can see the way his tools are organized. I can see where he kept the parts he needed most. Even without his friends and family telling me, I can tell that he was listening to basketball games on the radio and sitting in the lounge chair by the front door with his welder right at hand, ready to work on whatever popped up.”

As word of Jones’s purchase of the building circulated, community residents arrived on that porch to pass the time again. Instead of showing up with a wagon full of corn in horse-drawn carriages, they pulled up in pickup trucks. And instead of asking Porter Jessup for help, they told Andrew Jones about the help the millwright had given them. They looked for their names on the porch and related stories about what had once happened there.

“We started finding all these little pieces of history and time. I think of it as stored memory,” Jones says. “I see nostalgic people coming in here every weekend and picking up things — ‘I remember this’ — and telling some story about it, whether it’s the old Kentucky Gentleman bottle or Alka-Seltzer. Whether it’s tied to this place, it’s tied to the period.”

Jones’s hope is that the mill will once again become a gathering place. He’s opened campsites out back. He’s taken down the “No Trespassing” signs and encourages visitors to walk that path beneath the rhododendrons that so captivated him. He plans to carve more trails.

The building won’t be a gristmill again. But Jones has heard stories of people playing banjos and churning butter as they waited, and he hopes to keep those traditions alive on the porch. “These are things that are right at the generational cusp of becoming more folklore than practice,” he says. “I think if we put our thumb on the scale just right on a location like this, we can keep things being practiced rather than as folklore.”

jessup mill

Like the back of his hand

A guide never tires of the Dan River’s lure — and the fish that elude him.

Fishermen clamber onto a four-wheel vehicle to navigate the bumpy mile down to the Dan River. As they descend, the Dan becomes visible through the trees. This morning it’s full of fish (allegedly) and empty of people.

In recent months, people hear the words “Dan River” and automatically think “coal ash spill.” But Stokes County is 70 miles upriver from the spill. The misconception frustrates Stokes County citizens who spend a lot of time in and around the Dan. So they patiently clarify — the mountain river is pure here, pristine — and hope people grasp the truth.

Fishing guide Kyle Hoover steps into the river and offers advice for traversing it. As a guide and geographer, Hoover has spent countless hours in the Dan, and he’s mastered the secret and the shuffle that prevents falling: Never pick up your feet too far from the riverbed. Rocks covered in green are safe; the green gives purchase to your foot. Step on a bare rock, and there’s a good chance you’ll slide off and find yourself more in the Dan than you intended. Fortunately, the river is so clear that that both kinds of rocks are visible.

As Hoover, a patient and gracious teacher, seeks a more rewarding fishing spot, he climbs out of the river, walks a few hundred yards, then wades back in directly across from a rock face 150 feet tall and 50 feet wide. He’s mapped large portions of the Dan, and views like this keep him coming back.

As do the fish. Normally, the smallmouth bass all but jump out of the Dan and into Hoover’s net (allegedly), but today they’re spawning, uninterested in cooperating. As noon approaches, the fish remain mostly hidden, but the people start to arrive, in kayaks, canoes, and tubes, all ages and genders, wearing sunscreen, sunglasses, and smiles, content to let the river take them wherever it meanders. Some have fishing poles, which have been used for casting and little else. But those guys are smiling, too. Only a fool thinks the point of fishing is to catch fish.

A generational general store

A Danbury landmark aims to preserve tradition, conversation, and community.

Jane Priddy Charleville holds a knife in one hand and bread in the other, working and talking simultaneously. “Mild or spicy?” she asks, pointing to two tins. As she spreads pimento cheese, she tells the story of Priddy’s General Store. At the same time, the store around her tells it, too.

A sign for her late father’s chainsaw business hangs on the wall behind her. To her left, cans of food line a shelf. To her right, boots and shoes fill displays along the wall. She stands on the same wooden floor that her grandparents once stood on. The four walls that once surrounded them now surround her in the store that still bears their name.

Charleville takes the sandwiches from the toaster oven, brings them to one of two tables covered with checkered tablecloths, and faces the heart of the store. She sells a little bit of everything at Priddy’s General Store: jams to mole repellant, pans to spices. But what she offers for free carries far more value.

• • •

Even back in the 1970s, when the school bus dropped off Charleville at Priddy’s every day, she knew how good she had it. She rushed over the porch and banged through the door of the general store. She grabbed a bottle of Mountain Dew and a bag of Tom’s barbecue potato chips, watched her mother work the counter, and listened to the grown-ups’ conversations. If she got bored, she explored the crowded shelves of the business that was founded in 1888, bought by her grandparents in 1929, and the one she runs today.

“Back in the day, general stores were your 6 o’clock evening news,” Charleville says. “In the summertime, the old men would come over after supper and bring the kids. We’d play kick the can, hide-and -seek, ride bikes. This place was like the park. Everybody came together. We just had a blast.”

But eventually Charleville wanted more than that. Or thought she did. She enrolled in college and chased a career, intent on leaving Stokes County behind. But then she came back, first to help her parents run the store, and again, after her father’s death in 1999, to run it herself.

She raised her three children in Priddy’s, like her mom, who still owns the store, raised her. Charleville built a makeshift nursery in the back to keep one eye on the kids and the other on the counter. They’re teenagers now, and the youngest insists her mother leave the store as it is, to fix the creaky door rather than replace it.

Minding the store, keeping it running, wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now, but Charleville is convinced God made straight her path back to Priddy’s and its familiar walls. She grows misty-eyed just talking about it. “It’s the magic of this place.”

The magic is in the customers who value conversation over the cold calculations of big-box emporiums, the aroma of a fried apple pie, the way an RC Cola tastes better out of a glass bottle, the unmistakable twang on bluegrass night. “This place is all about taking a step back in time, giving people the opportunity to experience the taste, sight, sound, and feel of the good old days. That’s our goal here,” she says.

Charleville wants customers to come in and stay, to talk and not rush away. That’s how she remembers her years here. “Folks had time to talk to people,” she says. “They knew what was important in their lives. People get that here. I had a customer say to me, ‘Jane, the conversation is why we come. It’s not always to buy that pork and beans or that Pepsi. Part of it is the conversation.’”

She’d never thought of Priddy’s that way. Now that approach connects what she loved about the store as a child to her hopes for its current incarnation. Still, Charleville  herself sometimes fights the very rush-rush urges she hopes the store will dispel for others. She’s been a busy mom and wife, president of the North Stokes Athletic Boosters, a member of the Stokes County Economic Development Council, and the mayor of Danbury. Occasionally those commitments mean she can’t focus on customers, which bothers her. She wants to run a store that enables and encourages customers to show up and chat about nothing and everything. If she’s too busy to join them, what’s the point?

As Charleville talks, two friends drop by. They talk about kids and good deals and big houses and working too much and politics and movies. “I ask God every now and then, ‘You led me back here, but you didn’t tell me how long you wanted me to hang around’,”  Charleville says, then laughs. Because she’s not going anywhere. “This is why I came back to Stokes County. It wasn’t to be mayor or be on the EDC board. I wanted to share my family tradition and my childhood with everybody else,” she says, “because it’s good and simple and wholesome, and it’s honest and it’s real.”

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Jessup Mill
1565 Collinstown Road
Westfield, N.C. 27053
(336) 351-0903
jessupmill.com

Priddy’s General Store
2121 Sheppard Mill Road
Danbury, N.C. 27016
(336) 593-8786
priddysgeneralstore.com

Singletree Gun & Plough
1215 Single Tree Road
Westfield, N.C. 27053
(336) 593-2155
singletreegunandplough.com

This story was published on

Crossman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. He spent 12 years at the Sporting News and has 10 national writing awards. Crossman’s work has appeared in the notable mention section of the Best American Sports Writing anthology three times.