In 1907 the North Carolina Legislature authorized the State to furnish not less than 50 convicts for the purpose of constructing a railroad from Elkin to Sparta...by July 1, 1911 the line was completed to the foot of the mountain nearly half way to Sparta. The first train to make the run from Elkin to the foot of the mountain was July 4, 1911. A large number of people from Alleghany County met the train on that day for a big celebration and ride on the train. this proved to be the end of the line for the railroad as the task of financing and building the road over the mountain was too much. A station was built at the foot of the mountain and was called Doughton. The train ran from Elkin to Doughton until the 1930's at which time it was discontinued.
In addition to the railroad, the Sparta Rolling Mill ground out meal and feed in 1924. The Goodman Lumber Plant was built in 1937 and worked on project across the region and as far as West Virginia. Electricity came to Alleghany in 1939 when the Richardson Manufacturing Company sourced the region with power via a dam on Little River.
Industralization, Transportation, and Work
Avery County's low population and its per capita income, resulted in inadequate funds for building a courthouse and jail. There were turnpikes being created by privately owned companies, and some road maintenance, especially public roads, would have help from local citizens from time to time. At the time, most public roads followed natural features, such as creeks and rivers. Many roads would cross or ford these waterways on several locations. Roads would become impassable due to weather events like floods or heavy rainfall swelling the waters.
Even before Avery County was formed, the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad ran from Johnson City, Tennessee into Cranberry, NC and beyond. This railroad was in place in the year 1882. Mountain railroads were unique due the topography of the land, requiring a smaller gauge for the tracks. The railroads allowed for greater income to flow into the region with the previously mentioned industries, but also with a growing popularity in tourism. The mountains were becoming more and more accessible to outsiders, while also allowing insiders to gain access to areas beyond their previously remote dwellings.
Industries within Avery varied: mining, farming, productions of hosiery, woodworking, and carpentry. The area contains multiple minerals and ores including, mica, feldspar, and iron. Many of these materials stopped being mined due to lack of export transportation. The loss of the railroad primarily inhibited such exportation. The 1962 report suggests that tourism is the primary source of economic growth for Avery County. The county is situated within the highest peaks on the entire east coast, and conveniently accessible to the Blue Ridge Parkway, allowing for travelers to access the county easily. At one time, in the 1960s, the single largest industrial employer was the hosiery manufacturing. The United States' desire for ornamental shrubbery made way for many local commercial nurseries to thrive in Avery County. Recreational activities also became more popular in Avery County. Such activities include winter skiing. Many of the higher peaks in the county utilize snowmaking operations to aid in providing snow to cover the slopes.
Agriculture and Industry before the War
From its creation up until the mid-1800's, Burke County's economy was almost entirely agrarian. Corn was the most important crop, while farmers also grew beans, squash, peas, potatoes, and grains. Three types of farming existed in the area: pioneer, yeoman, and plantation.
The pioneer farmers grew what fruits and vegetables they needed, raised hogs and chickens, distilled their own whiskey, and planted their own tobacco. They were self-sufficient and did most farm work by hand. The yeoman farmers owned larger fields and yielded more crops, but the workload was supplemented by slave labor. Plantations were commercial farms frequently owned by wealthy slave owners who made livings as doctors, lawyers, bankers, ministers, and other professions outside of farming. These operations depended entirely upon forced slave labor and employed overseers to enforce absolute obedience.
Prior to the Civil War, the most important industry after agriculture was mining. Iron mining began in Burke County as early as 1778, and gold mining began to flourish following the discovery of gold in the southwestern part of the county in 1828. It is estimated that by 1833, approximately 5,000 slaves were being made to work the county's gold mines. In 1849, the California gold rush began to attract miners and slave owners in Burke County to the west, and by 1860 gold mining was nearly at a stand-still.
Smaller industries included the work of local craftspeople who produced such necessary items for transportation as saddles, wagons, carriages, and wheels. Additionally there existed a small population of blacksmiths, millers, and carpenters who made their livings in Burke County.
Following the end of the Civil War, the first traces of industrialization began to take hold in the area. The arrival of the railroad in Burke County brought about the beginnings of the lumber industry. Once trains were able to transport substantial amounts of logs and lumber out of Burke County, sawmills began appearing around 1870. Most were powered by waterwheels.
By 1920, the introduction of the gasoline engine to sawmills had increased production and output efficiency tremendously. As a result, woodworking shops and furniture factories flourished. The Morganton Furniture Manufacturing Company, established in 1885, was the first to manufacture and commercially distribute furniture and building supplies on a large scale in Burke County.
Another major feature of industrialization in the county was the manufacture and sell of textile products. Earlier on, spinning and weaving in the home was the source of most of the cloth goods made in Burke County. Then, in 1888, the Dunavant Cotton Mill was organized and built in Morganton. A 10-horsepower engine powered 2,100 spindles, which produced fabrics and other textile products on a scale previously unheard of in the area.
A number of distilleries, tobacco factories, machine shops, plumbing shops, a wagon factory, and a soft drink bottling plant could also be found in the county in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Industrial development was slowed in the 1930's due to the economic hardships of the Great Depression. However, the end of World War II in 1945 marked a new period of continuing industrial and economic expansion for Burke County.
In 1884 a narrow gauge line, the Chester & Lenoir Railroad reached Lenoir from the south and branched out to the north as the Carolina and Northern to terminate at a mill town, Edgemont, in 1894. Lenoir was known as the "Furniture Center of the South."
A popular myth about Appalachia is that the region has always been isolated from the rest of the United States. Yet judging by the Watauga Democrat--the major newspaper of Watauga County—it was clear that commerce and trade were important parts of daily life. In 1899, just before the turn of the century, the newspaper rated the top 5 pests for mountain people: book agents, lightning rod agents, sewing machine agents, organ peddlers, and whiskey distillers and drinkers. (Whitener et al., 48) Mountaineers interacted with people from outside the region on a regular basis. Watauga County has been an integral part of the global ginseng market from the before the American Civil War.
Livestock was one of the first commercial industries in Western NC. By 1848, drivers led herds of cattle in the hundreds on the turnpikes from the mountains to sell in urban centers like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah (Mast, 91). Before the advent of efficient transportation systems, however, farmers like A. Clyde Mast this had to transport his turkeys by foot! Discussing the early twentieth century, Mast explained that turkeys were very popular for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas and Watauga County was a prime location to raise the animals. Starting in Sugar Grove, NC and ending in Neva, TN, (about 15 miles) Mast transported the birds sometimes 600 at a time. It is hard for us to imagine such a task, but before the arrival of substantial road systems, railroads, and trucks, Mast relied on his own two feet and a bag of corn to lead the turkeys to buyers. Mast did not have to worry about where to stop and rest, because when dusk faded into night, the turkeys would simply fly up into trees and make camp for the evening. River crossings proved to be quite the obstacle, however. During one of their trips, Mast and his 600 or so turkeys came across Roan Creek when the water level was dangerously high. Faced with no other option than to cross, the turkey driver led his birds through the creek. When they emerged on the other side, the turkeys now looked more like "drowned rats." (Mast, 17)
Agriculture is a common theme in Appalachian folk songs. Some Appalachian scholars have argued that ballads about farming and agricultural life can teach us important lessons about Appalachia before industrialization (Olson, 1992, p. 61). They can tell us what types of foods Appalachian people ate, how and what they hunted, and how they interacted with the natural world. Songs like "The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn" also reveal how important farming was to family life, as the young man featured in the song was deemed unfit for marriage because of his sluggishness. The woman whom the young man attempted to marry asks,
How can you come to me to wed,
Why you can't raise your own corn bread.
Single I am and will remain
A lazy man I won't maintain.
(Olson, 1992, p.65)
Even though Watauga county saw the construction of roads into the twentieth century—such as the Yonahlosse Trail toll road that connected Blowing Rock to Grandfather Mountain—Wataugans still yearned for railroad. Despite their best efforts, railroad proposals always seemed to fail due to natural disasters, economic shortcomings, or empty promises. In 1911, for example, Captain Edmund Jones and his Philadelphia Firm pledged 100,000 dollars toward the creation of a rail line from Lenoir (Caldwell County) to Boone under one condition: Boone had to match the sum. Boone residents were ecstatic and agreed to help fund the railroad. Unfortunately, the line never made it past Wilkes County. (Hardy, 2005, p. 137) Finally, in 1915, the Virginia Creeper Railroad reached across the Watauga county line into Elkland (now Todd). An important part of the timber industry, the Virginia Creeper Railroad allowed Watauga County lumber to be transported to Virginia - the railroad closed in 1933 due to tough economic times (Akers & Lamberth, 2008, p. 53).
In 1918, the county received a second railway: the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad. The ET&WNC purchased the rights to tracks in the county and ran a line from Johnson City, TN into Boone., NC. Unfortunately, the ET&WNC railroad into Boone was destroyed in the Great Flood of 1940 and the tracks were never repaired. The the lone surviving train engine from the former ET&WNC railroad: Number 12 "Tweetsie," continues to carry passengers at the Tweetsie Railroad Amusement Park in Blowing Rock, NC.