Get to know the man that brought Banner Elk to life and changed the course of its history forever during the Lees-McRae Summer Theatre performance of From the Mountaintop: The Edgar Tufts Story starting July 11.
From the Mountaintop
The second of three performances during the summer, From the Mountaintop: The Edgar Tufts Story recounts the life of Tufts—a man who arrived to the region in the late 1800s as a seminary student to organize a church, and later went on to establish the Banner Elk Presbyterian Church, Lees-McRae College, Cannon Memorial Hospital, and Grandfather Home for Children.
The musical, written by Janet Barton Speer with songs and lyrics by John Thomas Oaks and Tommy Oaks (author and composers for the very successful Denim King: The Moses Cone Story), follows Tufts from his earliest struggles as a motherless teenager to his ultimate triumphs in Banner Elk.
The show will premiere July 11 in Hayes Auditorium and Broyhill Theatre with additional performances July 12, 13, and 16 at 7 p.m. and matinee shows July 14, 16, and 17 at 2 p.m. Individual show tickets range in price, per person, from $38–43 for adults, to $18–20 for students and/or children. Tickets can now be purchased online, by mail request, or at the box office.
The Edgar Tufts Story
In the late 1800s, a disliked Methodist minister was accused of drunkenness after mischievous boys sprayed whiskey on his trousers. Incensed, he bellowed from the pulpit that Banner Elk, North Carolina, would make good “kindling wood were the Lord prepared to burn the world!” The preacher left in a huff, promising never to send another Methodist to the village. Thus, the climate was ripe for a Presbyterian. Young Reverend Edgar Tufts, an apprentice from Hampden-Sydney Seminary, planned to complete his assignment in Banner Elk, return to marry his beloved “Miss Bessie,” then find a church in an urban setting. However, the lure of the mountain people and their needs led him to –indeed marry Miss Bessie– but then return to Banner Elk where he famously (an amazingly) became the founder of Banner Elk Presbyterian Church, Cannon Memorial Hospital, Grandfather Home for Children, and Lees-McRae College. If that were not enough, he was instrumental in the beginnings of Avery County (once part of Watauga), helped to establish a bank, and even brought electricity to the village.
Seldom in good health, Mr. Tufts was a small man who probably had tuberculosis three times. But he had an energy that defied physical prowess. His daughter, Margaret Tufts Neal, would say, “First he saw a need.” He saw impoverished young girls in need of education, so he created a school for girls – unheard of in those times. He saw abandoned children in need of refuge and created a home. He saw people in the mountains in need of a doctor and clinic, both of which he provided. All this while he led the Banner Elk Presbyterian Church. Edgar was an itinerate minister as well, and until his death, continued to travel as far as Blowing Rock where he preached at Rumple Memorial, sometimes riding up on his horse unrecognizable, totally covered with ice and snow. Parishioners would bring out hot water to free his feet from the stirrups.
His ministerial duties also took him to Cove Creek, Hump Mountain, Arbor Dale, Pineola, Elk Park, Shulls Mill, Hanging Rock and others. Some say he was responsible for the beginnings of thirty-three churches. Banner Elk has celebrated Reverend Tufts in the past, but Lees-McRae Summer Theatre is in a unique position to bring the story to life in a different way. Janet Speer has been carefully selecting actors who have the look and the heart to play the characters representing early Banner Elk. The music, by John Thomas and Tommy Oaks, is based on mountain tradition and played by mountain musicians. The Oaks are extraordinary composers who have an uncanny ability to wind the music in and out of dialog with seamless effort. Researching the play has included nearly fifty interviews, books, visits to libraries and museums, and work spent meticulously retouching old photographs. The play is set against projections of these pictures as the audience sees the story unfold in front of images of actual events. History and imagination will work in tandem to create a magical moment in the theatre where audiences may travel back in time to see what Banner Elk looked like in her infancy. Reverend Edgar Tufts was an extraordinary man with extraordinary dreams. From the Mountaintop: the Edgar Tufts Story will bring these dreams to the forefront of our imaginations.
All of Edgar’s founding institutions (The hospital, children’s home, college, and church), along with the Town of Banner Elk, the Banner Elk Heritage Foundation, and a group of “first family” historians, are participating in a 2019 summer event; Celebrating Banner Elk’s Heritage of Service. Displays throughout the town will present vintage photographs from Banner Elk’s history, and each institution is uniquely honoring their founder. Banner Elk has the distinction of being a town founded on service; service for learning, service for healing, service for sheltering children, and service for faith. It was improbable, to say the least, to find a college, a hospital, and an orphanage in a small town. Reverend Tuft’s vision breached the walls of improbability and made it happen.