New River's North Fork Headwaters Research Project

Community members at Headwaters Community Day

Funding by the Appalachian Regional Commission Collaborative Teaching Project, 2002-2007

The high elevation ecologies found in what is called the "High Country" of Watauga, Ashe and Avery Counties has been the focus of recent tourism, recreation, and second home developments. Coupled with the federal designation of the 25 western North Carolina counties as the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, much attention is focused on tourism as a force of economic development in western North Carolina . Historic communities made up of farmers, millers, artisans, store keepers, and a wide range of entrepreneurs dotted the landscape, and the particular ways that agriculturalists and others who used the region's resources contributed to the appeal which the region now boasts for the visitors. Yet preservation of the region's ecologies, and support for maintenance of the region's farm lands, waterways, village centers, artistic and material culture must be part and parcel of the plans for sustainable development.

For six years, research in the North Fork New River region has focused on documenting the region through historical and ethnographic research, focused on community formation and change, migration, economic networks, exchange, commerce, cultural ecology and use of natural resources, and on collaboration with communities for community sustainability. Outcomes to date include 5 MA theses, numerous student conference presentations, and a book manuscript in progress.

With the opening of the Elk Knob State Natural Area in 2004, researchers have collaborated with local residents toward the development of exhibits for the new park which reflect the communities' definitions of themselves. Research focuses on collaboration with community, community narrative, and community representation. A goal is to develop scripts, including digitized images, with accompanying artifacts if appropriate, subject to community approval, for exhibits for the park.

Elk Knob State Natural Area celebrated its opening with a Headwaters Community Day September 24, 2005. Student researchers participated in the opening celebration by taping interviews with elders and scanning photographic images of family photographs.

Based on work over the fall semester with residents of the historic communities of Meat Camp, Pottertown/Tamarack, and Sutherland, we recommend practices which support the sustainability of local communities, including:

  • documentation of local history as residents wish themselves to be represented
  • public lands policies which include local residents in planning and use policy-making
  • support for conservation and protection of fragile high elevation ecologies and headwaters

Inspired in part by Noah Adam's visit to Boone and to Ashe County to collect information on the New River for his book Far Appalachia: Following the New River North (2001), the graduate seminar, ANT 5120, Appalachian Culture and Social Organization, has been directed toward a research collaboration with residents along the north fork of the New River. Since the fall of 2000, students have conducted interviews with local residents, attended events at the Riverview Community Center, visited in community churches, and developed individual research papers and projects focused on the headwaters communities of the north fork of the New River.

Beginning fall semester 2001, students have participated in the Appalachian Regional Commission sponsored Teaching Project, linking the work of classes throughout southern and central Appalachia together in discussions and reports on local communities regarding the development of sustainable communities in Appalachia. Student research topics range from the Civil War, African-American communities, the Sutherland Methodist Church, the Elk Knob Missionary Baptist Church, to the volunteer fire department as a locus of democracy, local family farming, and Hispanic farm workers.

MA theses related to this project include:

  • Sarah Poteete, 2003, By Their Own Agency: Medical History of Ashe County, NC
  • Suzanne Savell, 2003, Building Community From Within: The Story of the Riverview Community Center
  • Vicky Hayes, 2005, The Ballad of Mary Jane

Students in the 2005 class helped with the Elk Knob Homecoming celebrating the opening of the new Elk Knob State Natural Area at the Gap between the Elk and Snake Mountains in Watauga County. They collected photographs and stories which reflect the communities' definitions of themselves with the goal of developing scripts for exhibits for the new park. The emphasis is on collaboration with community, community narrative, and community representation.