The North Carolina
Bakersville: Out of crisis, a culture of wonder and creativity.
by Jay Fields
“Tug on anything at all and you'll find it connected to everything else in the universe,” John Muir once wrote, and in the early days of 1998, record warm waters off the coast of Peru—what’s called an “El Nino” event—created enough climatic turbulence north of the equator to crack massive thunderheads over Roan Mountain, and swell Cane Creek to the point of becoming a fluid battering ram flying down the valley towards Bakersville.
Bridges, broken up and tossed to the side, splintered trees like matchsticks while the fast water overrode stream banks and rushed under sheds and cars. Once the heavy tide reached Bakersville, it destroyed the fire hall and and the Department of Social Services building, severely damaged the day care center on Cane Creek Road, Howard’s Garage, Hemline-Hughes Funeral Home, the Methodist Church and handfuls of other places, washing up into the businesses on Crimson Laurel Way.
The Roan Valley was declared a federal disaster area and, in the midst of recovery, Bakersville was also subject to a development moratorium because of its flood-battered wastewater treatment system.
For a community of less than 350 people (the seat of government in Mitchell County), the road ahead must have looked like a forest of broken-down spruce trees.
A perfect reason, as it turns out, for hundreds of volunteers to pitch in, clear debris, help businesses reopen, and begin planning for a town with even more to offer.
As Mayor Charlie Vines has said, “The flood in 1998 brought the citizens of Bakersville closer than ever before.” Out of teamwork, it became clear that a redefined floodplain could shake loose an opportunity—specifically a creek walk along the Cane, which would in turn add to the civic fabric and simple beauty of the town.
With the help of the National Forest Service, HandMade in America’s Small Town Program, the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Bakersville completed its creek walk in 2000, clearing a path for additional economic activity, including an upsurge of galleries and artist studios. From 2003 to 2007 alone, ten vacant buildings were occupied by new galleries, restaurants or service businesses.
A little more than 10 years after disaster struck, Bakersville has emerged as a revitalized and lively place. In part because of the nearby presence of the Penland School, the work exhibited in its shops and studios would hold ground in New York or London; its Rhododendron Festival is an outdoor masterpiece of good fun; and its “Creek Walk” a celebration of community, resourcefulness and catch-and-release trout fishing.
The Astors and the Vanderbilts once overnighted in Bakersville on their way to the gardened saddles of the great Roan. It was a small place then, too, but on the map of people who knew about the best things. It’s still a small place. And it’s back on the map. It’s back on the map of people who, when you mention the word “Bakersville,” smile and begin to recollect the high mountain valleys and the last time they had the extreme good fortune to walk the short streets of this alluring mountain town.
(Editor’s note: Many thanks to Bob Henslee of Bakersville for supplying a master list of flooded buildings and other points of clarity.)
Thanks to Jay Fields for providing this article, which originally appeared in the Toe River Journal.
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