Every day Mountain Gateway Museum is the hub of a small community. It is a modest rock building constructed by the WPA in 1937, and it is now the scene of weddings, reunions, fly fishing, family picnics and more. On Sunday afternoons in good weather, local musicians gather to jam on the porch or amphitheater, no charge for the audience. It is not unusual to see groups of school children visiting. Last week it was 200 from Rockingham county.
Yesterday it was raining, but the pickers were ready to entertain and the audience had their funnel cakes and popcorn close at hand. It was Pioneer Day in Old Fort, NC.
There were exhibitors in tents all along Mill Creek and in the two historic cabins. Most of them were in period dress of the early 1800’s. As were some of the locals. There was homemade soap, jelly, candles, pottery, jewelry, and wooden utensils, furniture and walking sticks. Some of the participants were re-enactors who make a hobby of demonstrating their wares and their craft skills all over the state. It has been a very long time since I’ve seen a gentleman making a broom on a 19th century cabin porch. (Actually, it was a first, and it was hard to tear my diy husband away.)
Children were entranced at the sight of a working loom and spinning wheel made in 1757. And they begged to pet the lambs. I’m sure the ones who ventured across the creek to see the re-enactors’ campsite remembered the inconveniences of yesteryear when they got back to their warm, dry homes. I hope they remember the exhibit of Decoration Day borrowed from Western Carolina. Many people never heard of this southern tradition that is much more than putting flowers on graves. We stood for awhile to listen to the family that played their bluegrass music on the porch. I don’t remember their names, but the tune was “Carolina Pines.” Mama played bass, daddy sang tenor, the teen on mandolin and little brother on banjo joined right in there. Lovely to see smiles on so many faces.
Before we left for home, we crossed the two-lane main street to visit the grand opening of Arrowhead, a local gallery that spotlights the talents of mountain artisans. Paintings, prints, sculptures, children’s clothing, wood artwork, pottery and jewelry filled the large building. And we saw neighbors, one of the delights of a small county. We missed the car show because of the rain. And we have to go back to see the historic railroad depot.
Unfortunately, there was a pall over the event. Not just a cloud. The museum might be a victim to the state budget cuts. A delegation will meet with officials next month to discuss alternatives and plead the case that the history of western NC mountain culture deserves preservation. Here is the origin of independent pioneers who banded together to fight for their homesteads against natives, foreigners and the elements of nature. The mountains are where the fierce spirit of rugged individuals took breath to fight at King’s Mountain, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. In the Civil War, many a mother mourned a family torn apart by this same independent conscience. These are solitary, proud people who can survive alone but know the advantage of working together. “They live after their own nature.” Thoreau would say.
Today they are working together to save their heritage from abandonment by their contemporaries. I am against government waste, and there are many projects that appear to me to be worthless pits of excess. But according to Anne Allison who consulted the figures of the NC Department of Cultural Resources, the cost to the state of each tourist for the Gateway Museum is less than fifty cents. There is nothing like it in the western part of the state, and in the east the mountain people are merely footnotes.
I look forward to future events of bicycle races up to Mt. Mitchell hosted by the site, as well as the annual Gold Festival and Oktoberfest. The Mountain Gateway Museum is an economical necessity for this tiny town depending upon its small share of tourism. It is a cultural necessity for all of us who could lose the wisdom of past lessons of freedom and perseverance.
“State Budget Threatens Mountain Gateway Museum” McDowell News, March 21, 2013