Lee’s new memoir, Dimestore will be published in March, 2016 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Click to hear Lee Smith read a portion of The Last Girls.

Fiddling for Dollars

When we bought our North Carolina mountain cabin over 20 years ago, the nearest community was almost a ghost town. Only the general store (est.1914) had stayed open since Todd’s heyday back in the early 1900s. But this summer evening, I find a traffic jam when I head into tiny Todd (population only 50, but 900+ in the area, if you count rural and post office boxes)to hear some old-time music at the store’s  Friday jam and check out the dance at the Mercantile. I have to park way up the Big Hill Road and walk back down along the New River.  I have to elbow my way into the old Mercantile building, where the wooden dance floor in back is literally jammed with dancers of all ages, spiky-haired kids mixed in with tourists and old guys in overalls, everybody dancing up a storm to the music of longtime resident Cecil Gurganus and his Laurel Creek String Band--- spotlighting 14 year-old fiddler Meade Richter.

            Who ARE all these people? What happened to turn this town around?

             The citizens stepped up and took charge, that’s what, guided and inspired by charismatic leader Becky Anderson (named by U.S. News and World Report in 1999 as one of “America’s top twenty visionaries” for community and civic development work). Anderson dreamed up HandMade in America, a fiercely regional non-profit organization  dedicated to revitalizing and establishing a sustainable placed-based economy around the culture of western North Carolina---an innovative “creative economy” emphasizing  heritage and cultural tourism. Since 1996, HMA has been helping communities learn how to sell themselves without selling out.  Its Small Towns Program is based on mentoring, self-help, technical advice and assistance, and bonding with other towns.

 I attend HMA’s annual Small Towns Cluster meeting held on May 22 in Asheville, where leaders from 13 small towns have gathered to share their triumphs and woes in an atmosphere something like a cross between a family reunion and a revival. Becky Anderson congratulates them all as “ordinary communities doing extraordinary things. Small towns, no limits!”

“We learn from other communities,” says Beth Morrison from Todd. “We don’t really feel like we’re in competition. We’re scattered, and we’re not doing the same thing. We’re doing a lot of music at Todd, for instance, while West Jefferson is doing art”---such as barn quilts, murals, workshops, and galleries.

 Crossnore prides itself on its weaving industry, children’s home, and new medical center. Marshall is putting 28 art studio spaces into an old high school. Andrews hosts the Highland Games and runs a wagon train. Spruce Pine’s new retail store and catalog sold more than $300, 000 of locally crafted holiday products in 2006.  Hayesville announces a new “Jackrabbit Trail:” “It’s amazing what a 12-pack of beer and a chainsaw will do,” according to delegate Rob Tiger.
“It’s not just the projects---not just the events. It’s the understanding that building partnerships, building collaborations, is what makes for a successful community,”  emphasizes Jane Lonon of West Jefferson. In fact, “partnering” may be HMA’s key concept: partners include the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, the Golden LEAF Foundation, the North Carolina Arts Council, the Ford Foundation, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Wachovia Bank----to name only a few.  

“Todd would not be here today if we had not relied upon HandMade in America for guidance,” says business owner Emilie Enzmann of the Todd Mahal Bakery and Mercantile. 

Other recent Todd enterprises include New River Adventures (kayak, canoe, bike, and tube rentals in the old depot building); a farmer’s market; several new nursery and landscaping businesses;  and community supported agriculture programs such as Stacy Martin’s  Yellow Wolf Farm (check out the holistic dog biscuits).

  I’ve signed up for a trout-fishing lesson at RiverGirl with proprietor and environmentalist Kelly McCoy, who sold literally everything she owned in order to go into business a year ago. I find her down at the depot along with her potbellied pig Petunia in his little pen, three or four little yapping dogs, and  a crippled baby goat named Jackson .  We get the rods (made by Kelly), reels, rope, and head for the riverbank . Here I try casting for the first time. “Throw it out at ten o’clock, pull it back at two,”Kelly instructs in her Alabama drawl – and hey! The yellow tippet lands flat out on the grass exactly like it’s supposed to. I learn about rocks and nymphs and flies. With her Fishery Science degree from Mississippi State,  Kelly used to do species identification with a group in Florida. “We’d talk about life, we’d talk about everything. We always talked about what we’d put in our shop, if we had our own shop…and now I’m doing it. I’m really doing it. And they’re all living vicariously through me. I wake up every day and think I’m in paradise.”