Twenty miles northeast of Asheville lies the Big Ivy community, best accessed by N.C. Highway 197, known as Barnardsville Highway. If I turn left when U.S. 19-23 bottoms out into Highway 197, I’m headed for Jupiter; right, towards Barnardsville.
I’ve come to see the Barnardsville/Big Ivy Community Club‘s 1959 scrapbook, which is made of hammered copper attached to wood and adorned with images of English ivy, (though the ivy referred to in “Big Ivy” is actually the mountain laurel that covers Ivy Creek). The scrapbook tells the tales of Barnardsville and the larger Big Ivy area.
Inside the scrapbook, black and white photographs and newspaper clippings show residents at work: a man scything the roadside, another mowing; a team manning a saw; A.E. Hensley displaying his tobacco; men roofing. A man poses by a sign for the neighboring Ox Creek community, rolling countryside that borders the Blue Ridge Parkway, where about 275 families now live.
Today, a modernized version of that sign announces birthdays and anniversaries, and, about six years ago, warned, “Be alert: Aggressive black bear attempting entry into homes in Ox Creek area,” an image that made it into that year’s Ox Creek scrapbook.
Much rural history documenting the people and progress of communities across Western North Carolina would be lost if not for scrapbooks like these, some dating as far back as the 1940s. Today, dedicated members of rural community clubs across the mountains are working to preserve these scrapbooks—some stored in closets and left to mold and disintegrate—while also thinking seriously about how to document the present for future preservation.
First made for contests, books now reveal rural WNC history, development
In 1949, the first “rural development contest” began in Western North Carolina, a contest that prompted many small communities across the mountains to begin documenting community efforts in one of the only ways available to them – through a scrapbook. Then, the best scrapbooks helped communities win prizes of up to $1,000.
Since then, and even before that in some communities, community members across the mountains have kept scrapbooking for the contests held regionally by the Asheville-based nonprofit WNC Communities and held countywide by the N.C. Cooperative Extension.
According to Linda Lamp, WNC Communities’ executive director, the prizes recognize community programs ranging from a food pantry, an emergency shelter, or a thrift store to efforts focused on education, heritage, economic development, farmland preservation, and health and wellness.
The scrapbooks also document the development of each community. They once counted the number of bathrooms and home renovations, along with which families received the newspaper and Social Security. Today, they largely show work on community centers and community education and development programs.
Jan Lawrence, director of the Dry Ridge Historical Museum in Weaverville, said the scrapbooks compiled decades ago also prompted communities to plan for the future.
“People had just come through World War II and were getting back on their feet,” she said. “The highway system had just been developed, and they were beginning to take a deep breath and be able to plan strategically. Before then, it was just day-to-day living.”
Lawrence said Morris L. “Mac” McGough, a founder of WNC Communities, formerly called the WNC Development Association, encouraged community clubs to start keeping scrapbooks. “(McGough) bridged the cultures and generations and made people understand that heritage would get away and that there was a better way to live—they could have electricity and indoor plumbing,” she said.
Lamp said many of the 65 clubs across the region participate in the program and make scrapbooks, some housed in glass cases at community centers. “This is much bigger than Buncombe (County),” Lamp said. “These communities are taking the lead in the scrapbook-preservation process.”
Marilyn Cole, a retired N.C. Cooperative Extension agent who once held scrapbooking workshops, said that Beech Mountain in Avery County and Hanging Dog in Cherokee County are among the communities with outstanding scrapbooks, ones she thinks should be archived within the state’s public universities, at Western Carolina University or N.C. State University, for example.
Cole recalled years when scrapbooks filled an entire room at the Grove Park Inn at the annual WNC Communities awards ceremony. The display –multiplied over the 62-year history of WNC Communities – means it would take such a large archive as those to house the histories these scrapbooks hold.
Keeping irreplaceable records from disintegrating
When Carol Kinney Grimes and her husband, John, retired to the Buncombe County Ox Creek community in 1996, she became fascinated by the area’s farming history, in part because she grew up on a farm in Stockbridge, Mass.
“I loved that our neighbors in Ox Creek had great pride in their heritage and family histories,” Grimes said. “Several were excited to tell me about the old scrapbooks stored in the community center building. I went on a hunt for them and was horrified at the storage condition and the degradation of the oldest scrapbooks.”
Grimes decided to rescue the mouse-eaten and mildewed albums by becoming a member of the Ox Creek Community Club Board of Directors. She scanned several of the scrapbooks in jeopardy, dating from 1957 to 1964, and then printed them on archival-safe paper.
Black and white photos in the 1957 scrapbooks show how the Ox Creek community worked to build a community center. Then, the scrapbook shows, 58 families lived in Ox Creek, compared to around 275 in 2011.
At the time, the community didn’t have a community center, so people met in homes. Some of the farmers gave the community club acreage to plant tobacco, which volunteers planted and harvested. The proceeds went to buy the supplies that built the building.
“They could only work occasionally on weekends or on a warm summer evening,” Grimes said. “I think that’s wonderful and shows the spirit of the rural American in Western North Carolina.”
Looking through the scrapbooks, Grimes was most surprised to see how tightly knit the Ox Creek community had been. “The determination of the folks to get these things done was an inspiration,” she said.
Along the way, Grimes learned how to scan and lighten dark-set 1950s-era photography by hiring an instructor from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College for an afternoon tutorial. She entered the images into a presentation that she projected onto an Ox Creek Community Center wall last spring. She invited all the neighbors who were around in the 1950s and 60s to identify the people in the pictures.
“It was so much fun,” Grimes remembered. “They would remember these folks and an event or different things that happened in the community and where things were.”
These historic preservation projects are urgent, Grimes noted, because oral histories can be lost when community members die. Dry Ridge Museum now stores them along with the dozens of remaining original scrapbooks. After saving the images, Grimes had to throw away some of the most deteriorated scrapbooks.
Now, Grimes’s preservation efforts are inspiring other clubs to do similar work.
After hearing about her preservation work, the Spring Mountain Community Club, in Fairview, turned to an all-digital scrapbook format for the first time for their 2010-2011 scrapbook, said Carolyn Smith.
Smith, who is president of the club, said the possibilities going digital afforded, such as distributing personal copies of the scrapbook to members, were appealing. The club also spent about the same amount of money on digital book printing as it would have on photo printing and scrapbooking supplies. Smith said they hope to eventually digitize older scrapbooks, too.
Going digital isn’t a quick fix, though. They’re searching for better software after their 66-page scrapbook received an “honorable mention” in the Buncombe County Extension contest. The two years before, they won first place with a traditional scrapbook.
Another disadvantage was that just two members worked on the project instead of a team of people working together. “We lost the camaraderie and fellowship the traditional method fostered,” she said.
Community, personal histories discovered, saved
Cole has seen the personal impact community club scrapbooks can have.
At one of her scrapbooking workshops in Jackson County, she came across a candid shot of her father, who had just died, and her son while they were on a Cub Scout adventure together. “That was the last picture that we ever saw of my dad and my son. We had not experienced that event, but there was that picture in that scrapbook.”
Pictures from Cole’s childhood are in the scrapbooks of Avery’s Creek, where she grew up. “They shared a picture with us where my sister and I were riding our ponies, herding our cattle when we were young,” she said.
“It’s just amazing how much (scrapbooks) capture the spirit and culture of those communities,” Cole said. “It’s like a living legend, as far as I am concerned, because so many of those folks in those scrapbooks are deceased.”
The scrapbooks intrigued Big Ivy resident Melinda Stuart because she believes in the importance of studying local history: “I’ve always felt that, in our mobile society in the U.S., that if people would take an interest in the history of wherever they are, it would be very good for us all. They would have a better sense of where they are … to know what’s gone on before and why the place looks the way it does and the story of the people who were here.”
Today, about 2,800 families live in Big Ivy, compared with the 80 documented in the 1959 Barnardsville scrapbook. Back in 1959, the life of Big Ivy residents was much more self-sufficient and centered in Barnardsville rather than Asheville, said Stuart, a former history curator who retired, in 2000, to Big Ivy with her husband, George. She has begun scanning some of the images from the scrapbook, which she posts into her Flickr stream.
She and Big Ivy residents Alma Shuford and Lillian Carson gathered recently to discuss and look through Big Ivy and Barnardsville scrapbooks at the Big Ivy Community Center Library. Shuford, a teaching assistant in the Buncombe County Schools for 29 years, spotted a picture of her father-in-law in the 1959 Barnardsville scrapbook. She has been instrumental in creating Big Ivy scrapbooks since 2000.
When the three met, the history of the building was central to their discussion. Construction of the current building, erected in 2001, was a community effort WNC Communities recognized with a Calico Cat Award, and Carson was a leader in fundraising for it.
“It was hard for a few years,” Carson recalled. “We hung on by a string,”
This year’s scrapbook helped document the success of the community club’s thrift store and was a first-place prizewinner in Buncombe’s Cooperative Extension contest. Steve Duckett, who directs the Buncombe County Cooperative Extension, said that judges like a blending of digital and traditional forms of scrapbooking. “Digital scrapbooks defeat the purpose—takes the warmth away, the personal touch,” he said.
Yet traditional scrapbooks—older ones with wood spines decorated with fabric, and more recent incarnations with construction paper and plastic sleeves—are challenging to preserve. Leicester Community Club President Greg Brookshire, a volunteer at the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society, said the main challenges are access to scanning equipment and the time it takes to preserve the books.
“It’s still time-consuming and that’s what people back away from,” he said.
But he thinks the society might be the right home for community club scrapbooks. It offers free scanners, and, once digitized, the files can be placed on the society’s Intranet and made accessible to visitors to the society’s offices.
It could also let more people see what’s preserved in the books.
Until recently, Brookshire said only board members of the Leicester Community Club saw the Leicester scrapbooks, which date back to the 1980s. Some of the older scrapbooks were taken home by community members and then thrown away after they died, he said.
It’s all about “preserving things that can’t be replaced,” he said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”