This territory of lush forestland cultivates an attitude of ease from its high-elevation perch in the western point of the state.
By Beth Teague
Used with permission from Our State magazine and from the author.
Breathtaking scenery doesn’t just complement life in Graham County — it characterizes the county itself. More than 60 percent of the county’s 433 square miles is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, meaning the land is relatively undeveloped and residents enjoy easy access to both the Nantahala National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A section of the Appalachian Trail also winds through Graham County, and outdoor enthusiasts who prefer water enjoy the pristine beauty of three lakes and nationally renowned trout streams.
Located far to the west near the Tennessee border, Graham County is home to approximately 8,000 residents, 10 percent of whom live in the county seat of Robbinsville. Life here is so relaxed, visitors from more metropolitan areas of North Carolina may wonder how Graham County can be part of the same state, as it seems a world away from crowded city life. This slow pace is a primary reason why many natives stay in Graham County, and why those who once lived here eventually find their way back. “It’s amazing to wake up each day and experience the quality of life we have here,” says Claudie Burchfield, a Graham County native who returned to the area from Georgia to work as the county’s planner and economic development director. “We still have the possibility of escape. You can’t get that in an urban environment.”
The history of Graham County is intertwined with that of the Cherokee Indian nation and its removal from North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia early in the 19th century. President Andrew Jackson authorized the Indian Removal Act of 1830, aiming to relocate all American Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River to western U.S. territories. As part of this effort, thousands of Cherokee were forced from their homelands in 1838. Graham County’s Cherokee, known locally as the Snowbird Indians, were part of the mass exodus to present-day Oklahoma, a journey that came to be known as the Trail of Tears.
Some Snowbird Indians avoided capture by fleeing into the surrounding mountains, and many of their descendants still reside in Graham County. Their story is preserved and shared with the public at Robbinsville’s Junaluska Memorial and Museum, named for perhaps the most famous of Graham County’s Cherokee people. Historians say Junaluska was among several Cherokee who — somewhat ironically — fought to save President Andrew Jackson’s life during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. And while he was among the Graham County Cherokee who went to Oklahoma, Junaluska later returned to his native land, making the entire trip on foot. Upon his return, he became a leader of the Cherokee who remained, and the state of North Carolina gave him citizenship and a tract of land within Graham County.
Junaluska lived in Robbinsville until his death in 1858. His gravesite served as an impetus for a memorial and museum established by Friends of Junaluska, a nonprofit organization dedicated to honoring Junaluska’s memory and preserving the heritage and culture of local Cherokee people. “It started with volunteers cleaning up the gravesite,” explains T.J. Holland, museum manager. “That effort snowballed into the development of the museum, which has three objectives: to tell the story of the life and times of Junaluska, to tell the story of the Cherokee’s removal from Graham County, and to tell the story of today’s Snowbird community.”
To better achieve these objectives, Holland says the museum hopes to renovate existing exhibitions and eventually become an interpretive center for the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. “When people talk about the removal of the Cherokee nation and the Trail of Tears, many aren’t aware of the story we tell here,” Holland says. “We tell the story of what happened in Graham County and compare it with events that occurred in other parts of North Carolina, as well as in other states.”
Holland says the museum’s efforts to preserve Cherokee heritage are strengthened by the annual Fading Voices celebration, a volunteer-run festival of what Holland describes as “the old ways”: Cherokee medicines, language demonstrations, crafts, gospel singing, and traditional games and food. Holland says the festival not only ensures the customs stay alive for future generations, but also educates those who are otherwise unfamiliar with such traditions. “Sharing what we do here — what it means to be Cherokee — is important so people can understand different worldviews,” he says. “We want them to understand that some of their neighbors in North Carolina have a whole different culture surrounding what they do. Visiting the memorial and museum or participating in the Fading Voices celebration is a great way to get a wider sense of the history here.”
Living off the land
With so much natural beauty, it’s difficult to pick a favorite scenic spot in Graham County. Locals and visitors alike marvel at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, a 3,800-acre tract located within the Nantahala National Forest. Dedicated in 1936 to the poet-soldier who penned the poem “Trees,” the forest is home to some of the nation’s most beautiful virgin timber, including red oaks, hemlocks, and poplars — some as large as 20 feet in diameter. A two-mile trail takes visitors through a grove of some of the largest trees and past a memorial to Kilmer, whose death in World War I prompted the Veterans of Foreign Wars to ask the U.S. government for a living memorial. Frank Findley, an assistant ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, says a serene visit is assured because camping is prohibited and the area is only accessible by trail; no motorized vehicles are allowed.
Residents and visitors also enjoy the relatively undeveloped shores of the Fontana, Santeetlah, and Cheoah lakes, where natural beauty is complemented by impressive man-made dams. Fontana Dam, in particular, is a popular tourist attraction: At 480 feet, it’s the highest dam in the eastern United States and the fourth highest nationwide.
And for those who prefer a scenic drive over more physical outdoor endeavors, there’s the Cherohala Skyway, a 36-mile stretch of road connecting Robbinsville with Tellico Plains, Tennessee. The skyway reaches elevations as high as 5,400 feet, and the resulting views rival those of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Ginseng, galax, moss, and ramps
While these resources lend themselves to various recreational opportunities, many locals use them for more than fun and games. They put them to practical use, foraging for goods to sell locally and beyond to supplement their incomes.
Robbinsville resident Ila Hatter can attest to the potential for such a career. A wildcrafter and interpretive naturalist, Hatter leads seminars across the Southeast showing folks how to make Mother Nature’s pantry their own. She says she’s inspired by the foraging traditions of those in North Carolina’s mountains, including her neighbors in Graham County. “Traditionally, residents here have been very diverse in how they earn a living,” Hatter says. “Many work in seasonal industries, and in the slow months, they have to rely on other skills to keep food on the table. They’ve learned how to gather natural products people will pay good money for.”
Such products include ginseng, galax, and sheet moss, which Robbinsville resident Chad Burchfield has collected and sold since he was a teenager. He learned the trade from his father, a painter who gathered and sold moss when business slowed during the winter months. Now employed as an environmental health specialist, Chad continues to supplement his income by not only picking moss on his own, but also purchasing it from other local collectors and selling it to wholesale florists across the Southeast.
After obtaining appropriate permits from the U.S. Forest Service, Chad says, gathering moss is a simple task if you know where to find it. “It mainly grows on the shady side of a mountain,” he explains. “You can find it on trees or on logs on the forest floor. If it’s thick and tender, you can lift it off in one big sheet. The sheets can be pretty long; I’ve seen them as long as 46 feet.”
Looking beyond products that turn a profit, many Graham County residents gather plants for use within their homes. For example, Hatter says, many collect and use yellowroot, a wild medicinal plant that acts as a natural antibiotic. And each spring, locals flock to the fields to collect ramps, wild onions similar to scallions or leeks that bloom abundantly in the mountains. Graham County residents celebrate the pungent plant every April at an annual dinner sponsored by the Graham County Rescue Squad.
Held at the rescue squad’s building in Robbinsville, the event known as the Ramp Festival offers a menu of mountain trout, chicken, and assorted side dishes, including several made with raw and cooked ramps. Aside from celebrating the mountain tradition of gathering and cooking the wild onion, the dinner is the primary fundraiser for the volunteer-based rescue squad; many Graham County residents come to the event to support the squad itself. “It’s a time when local people show their appreciation for the service we provide to the county,” says squad commander Keith Eller. “We only charge $5 per person, but many donate more than that to show their support.”
Just as natural resources provide opportunities for the people of Graham County, they also present unique challenges to the county’s planning and economic development activities. “We’re landlocked, and much of the surrounding land is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service, so we’re limited in the types of industries we can recruit,” explains Claudie Burchfield. “But we don’t consider that a bad thing. Our natural resources are an asset, and our relationship with the U.S. Forest Service is a part of that asset.”
In addition to promoting recreational activities and opportunities for cultural and heritage tourism, Claudie says the county touts its proximity to regional attractions, including the Nantahala River and the Biltmore Estate. Claudie says visitors can stay in one of Graham County’s many inns and resorts — including historic Fontana Village, the largest resort in the Smoky Mountains — and enjoy easy access to activities in and around the county. “We want to focus on Graham County as a quiet place to stay,” she says. “You can stay here and journey into our area and surrounding communities. There are so many things to do within a short drive, so it’s easy to incorporate a fast pace into our relaxed lifestyle.”
But once they get here, visitors may find they’re less inclined to seek out that fast pace. Ila Hatter and her husband, Jerry Coleman, embody this sentiment, having moved to Robbinsville 12 years ago to escape the crowds of their former home near Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. “This is the place to find your soul,” Coleman says. “You can hear a cloud move if you know how to listen. The pace is so slow, we like to say that if God rested on the seventh day, he probably did it right here in Graham County.”
Beth Teague writes from her home in Hickory.