A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

The first of the three bocce ball courts tilts to the right, Dr. John Lafferty explains. And knowing this should influence how you roll your ball. Not that the good

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

The first of the three bocce ball courts tilts to the right, Dr. John Lafferty explains. And knowing this should influence how you roll your ball. Not that the good

The first of the three bocce ball courts tilts to the right, Dr. John Lafferty explains. And knowing this should influence how you roll your ball. Not that the good doctor and his fellow players inform opposing teams of this tilt.

“No!” Lafferty and his gaggle of teammates shout in unison, all gray of hair and fierce of spirit. Tilts and other such vagaries are for bocce teams to discover on their own.

Competitive fire may be wired into all sports, but it’s a tad surprising to see among this particular group of athletes in the foothills village of Valdese. Here, the ancient game of bocce ball is intimately entwined with a peace-loving religious community known as the Waldensians, originally hailing from northern Italy. The group’s three-court bocce shed is located behind a men’s club founded in 1909. Impressively, the club’s formal name is Le Phare Des Alpes — LPDA for short — which, in the Waldensians’ French-Italian patois, means “lighthouse of the Alps.”

The bocce court in downtown Valdese is next to the Waldensian Presbyterian Church.

The heart of bocce culture in Valdese can be found at the Waldensian Presbyterian Church downtown. photograph by Tim Robison

Waldensian immigrants settled this area in 1893 and are responsible for many of Valdese’s institutions. Dominating downtown’s ambling Main Street is the Gothic-style Waldensian Presbyterian Church, which features a bocce court right next to its babbling fountain. You don’t have to be Waldensian to partake in bocce ball, but it’s unlikely that you’ll play the game here and not rub shoulders with a member of the community.

But some fear that Waldensian traditions are fading. In recent years, active membership at LPDA dipped so much that attaining a quorum to tend to club business was a feat. The numbers are better now, but the percentage of members who are Waldensian has sunk from around 80 a few years ago to more like 60 or 70 today.

A group of men regularly play bocce in Valdese.

Bocce ball aces (from left) Dennis Barus, Steve Martinat, Rob Murray, and Barry Remington hope to attract younger players in Valdese, where the ancient game is a Waldensian tradition. photograph by Tim Robison

That’s OK with ponytailed 73-year-old club stalwart Rob Murray, as long as people of any persuasion keep showing interest. “What we’re saying is, ‘Come, we’ll teach you the game,’” Murray says. “It’s easy. You can hold a glass of wine and play.”

Murray, one of the town’s leading ambassadors of bocce, is as sly as a fox reigning over his patch of forest. A wink seems attached to everything he says. But make no mistake — he’s serious about this game. Like the visiting teams forced to puzzle through the peculiarities of each bocce court, Murray and his fellow Valdese Waldensians have been busy figuring out how to keep their centuries-old tradition in play.

• • •

The town of Valdese perches just off whirring Interstate 40 between Hickory and Morganton, but its story starts in a place and time far, far away. In the 12th century, long before the revolution of Martin Luther, a French merchant by the name of Peter Waldo seized on the Bible’s calls to live humbly and help others. Renouncing wealth, Waldo and his followers disavowed the hierarchies that ruled the Middle Ages, preaching as laypeople, condemning papal excess, and rejecting Catholic dogmas like purgatory and transubstantiation.

Not surprisingly, the powers that be came down hard with campaigns of persecution. Early Waldensians fled to remote valleys in the Italian Alps. Eventually, they left their crowded villages to establish new communities abroad, from South America to the Old North State. Accustomed to jagged terrains, the North Carolina contingent liked the look of the foothills, where they established a settlement in 1893 and took to farming.

At the Waldensian Presbyterian Church, you might even find Murray practicing on the court next to the sanctuary. photograph by Tim Robison

But farming didn’t take to the Waldensians, what with the region’s unforgiving ground. “This land is rock,” Murray grumbles. “You can garden and garden, but every year, there’s more rock. Don’t know where it all comes from.”

Never ones to fold easily, the Waldensians plowed into other trades, opening a series of textile mills and a bakery. For decades, kids clamored around the bakery, asking for scraps like broken cookies — all free; first come, first served. The Waldensian mills eventually closed. The bakery is now in corporate hands. But cultural history endures in the life-size outdoor displays dotting the town’s Waldensian Trail of Faith, the elaborate exhibits at the Waldensian Heritage Museum, and a series of murals on Main Street.

“Growing up, the heritage was such a big part of my life,” Amy Melton says. “The perseverance of the Waldensian people — it gave me a sense of pride.” After living in New Bern for a while, Melton, now 44, returned to Valdese with a family of her own. “Kids now have a hard time finding their place and knowing who they are,” she says. “I want my girls to have that [sense of heritage].”

• • •

Inside Highlands Butchery, Alex Garrison, bearded and wearing a baseball cap, passes a plate and explains bocce ball’s appeal. “Essentially, it’s shuffleboard meets bowling,” he says. Pressing a napkin to her face, his wife, Tamika, counters: “No,” she says, “it’s like bowling and horseshoes.”

The bantering twosome are gathered with their sons, detailing life in Valdese over a traditional Waldensian meal of soutisso sausage and potatoes with a tangy salad and a hard roll. The butcher describes soutisso as “Christmas in a casing.” More precisely, it’s pork laced with nutmeg, allspice, garlic, pepper, and other seasonings that no properly proprietary Waldensian chef will verify.

But back to bocce: Descriptions vary, as do spellings. It can be bocce or boccie or bocci, with the preferred pronunciation being botch-UH. And there’s no telling what they called the game in ancient Egypt, where evidence suggests it was trending as far back as 5200 BC.

The earliest incarnations may have involved rocks and coconuts. But the Italian version passed down from the Roman Empire is what the Waldensians brought here. It’s played on narrow, sand-and-clay-packed courts, about 50 to 75 feet long, outlined by six-inch-high walls. Two teams of four or more compete to “pitch” (more like roll) wooden or plastic handballs closest to a smaller target ball called a pallino — or, in Waldensian patois, a bouchin (pronounced boo-sheen).

The Garrisons take a portable version of bocce ball on vacations with them, eager to explain the history of the sport to curious onlookers. They’ve lately been delighted to see the game popping up as brewpub recreation far beyond Valdese. But there’s nothing quite like the hometown experience.

• • •

One afternoon, Rob Murray’s squad of bocce aces raucously coaches a newcomer as a player’s granddaughter skips about nearby, flaunting dinosaur finger puppets. There’s no wine out today, although 79-year-old Dennis Barus — reputed to be the best player in town — notes that it’s been used before as “aiming fluid.”

Murray remembers the old days of bocce ball in Valdese, when it was strictly a men’s game. Back then, the matches could be spicier than a soutisso sausage. “It was a bunch of guys standing around, drinking wine and cursing in patois,” he says. As a kid, Murray would watch excitedly, wanting to get in on the game but finding himself shooed away. Other kids steered clear of the courts, having been sternly warned off by their mothers.

Photograph from 1916 of men in Valdese playing bocce.

One of the town’s earliest “boccia” courts was located in a lot next to present-day City Hall. photograph by Tim Robison

The exclusivity eventually took its toll, and bocce nearly went belly-up in Valdese. In the early ’60s, fewer younger men were learning the game. That’s when town elders got serious about renewing the community’s sense of heritage and its pride in the game. “Now,” says Gretchen Costner, executive director of the 50-year-old Waldensian Heritage Museum, “we’re eager to tell everyone about bocce — women and children included.”

The town’s primary courts have evolved from clearings in a pine forest to the three well-groomed sand-and-clay lanes behind the one-room LPDA clubhouse two blocks off Main Street.

“The game’s pretty simplistic,” Murray says, “but it’s also like chess in its strategy. You get better by working on your accuracy and speed.”

Soon, new terms and tricks are flying around as fast as bullets: Techniques for rolling the handball. When to risk the hard, aggressive toss known as a “raffle” (pronounced rifle). How to bank a ball off the border boards.

Bocce balls, a Valdese Textiles jersey and pro-flare pants, and historic images of past Waldensian life inside the Waldensian Heritage Museum.

Displays inside the Waldensian Heritage Museum trace Valdese’s teams back to the late 19th century. photograph by Tim Robison

The club now hosts out-of-town teams for tournaments and less formal matchups. “Sometimes everyone’s laughing their heads off,” says 69-year-old Barry Remington, renowned for the curve on his pitches, “and sometimes you can cut the tension with a knife.”

That isn’t surprising considering that the stakes of the game go far beyond any individual bout. The Waldensians are playing for the preservation of a culture that survived the worst that the Middle Ages and Renaissance could throw at it — and that now navigates the wilds of modern times. “This is all about heritage,” Murray says. “That’s why I’m around. To make sure that it’s here for someone else down the line.”

For more information on the Waldensian Heritage Museum, call (828) 874-1111 or visit waldensianheritagemuseum.com.

Highlands Butchery
205 Rodoret Street North
Valdese, NC 28690
(828) 368-0385

print it

This story was published on Mar 25, 2024

Billy Warden

Billy Warden is a Raleigh-based writer, TV producer, and marketing executive as well as two-time TEDx speaker and longtime singer with the glam rock band The Floating Children. His work has been recognized with a Muse Creative Arts award, Telly awards, and a regional Emmy nomination.