By Sherrie Norris
An early morning fire on Tuesday, May 25, destroyed a High Country landmark when the home place of the late, legendary storyteller Ray Hicks went up in smoke.
When fire fighters were dispatched to a structure fire at 218 Old Mountain Road above Banner Elk around 5 a.m. on Tuesday, few probably realized the historical significance of the call.
Despite the best efforts of several local fire departments fighting the blazes for several hours, the dwelling burned to the ground, as did adjoining outbuildings. Officials say the cause of the fire is still under investigation, and according to tax records, the property is still owned by the Hicks family.
Built in 1900, the Hicks home-place, located high above the Banner Elk and Matney communities, looking over into Tennessee and beyond, was more than a two-story house on the side of a mountain.
It has been photographed, painted and otherwise reproduced countless times through the years, and its likeness hung on walls of homes and businesses from coast to coast.
But, it wasn’t “just” the two-story house itself that held such fascination for people of all ages and walks of life in every corner of America. It was such a part of the man who lived there for his entire 80-years of life, and the source of inspiration for many of his famous Jack Tales that received global attention.
Many of us who were “lucky enough” will carry memories for our lifetime of climbing the curves to Old Mountain Road, looking out over the expansive, majestic view of four states, as Hicks often pointed out, and descending the worn pathway down to the place he called home.
Hicks loved talking about life on the mountain, a place from where he never ventured too far, for too long at a time.
“People git mixed up when they talk about Beech Mountain,’ he once told us in his familiar and quite distinct (Elizabethan, perhaps) dialect. “They don’t really know much a-bout hit. Now, I’ve lived hyere all my life and I’ve yet to see a ski slope anywhere close by. They can call that place over yander (pointing in the distance) whatever they want to, but this hyere is Beech Mountain.”
Built by his grandfather, the house stood as a shrine of sorts, welcoming guests for decades from near and far.
Whether we sat on the steps of the porch beside the woodpile, on the woodpile, in a ladder-back chair, or inside the house around the old woodstove — in awe of the unique father of Jack Tales himself — visitors were entertained and captivated, all at once. Even after his death, his closest followers gathered at the house in his honor several times in an effort to keep his memory alive.
When he died in 2003 at the age of 80, Hicks left behind a legacy that will not soon be forgotten. Followed in death by his wife, Rosa, and then soon afterward by their son Ted, Ray was survived by other children, Leonard, Dorothy, Kathy and Juanita.
Where it All Began
Ray Hicks was born in his ancestral home on August 29, 1922, the house his grandfather had built nearly a decade earlier. As one of 11 children born to Nathan and Rena Hicks, Ray called it home until his death.
He knew the mountainside around that home-place like the back of his hand – every herb, weed and tree that ever grew, and called every wild creature by name; he never forgot anything he learned. He was known as one of the community’s most productive farmers, and dabbed in other things, as well. He even tried his hand as a barber, but that was short-lived, he shared.
“People always called me a jack- of- all- trades. They would just show me a little of how somethin’ was done, and I’d citch on real quick. There ain’t much I can’t do.”
He once shared with us how, as a young lad, he walked about six miles round trip to school each day, many times barefoot; he chuckled when he said, “I weren’t much when it come to books, but one day I come into the room and there was the teacher a-tryin’ to build a far in the stove. She tried an’ tried an’ never could git hit a-goin’, so I walked up to her and took over and had that stove farred up in no time. Well, after that, she counted on me ever’ day to build the far. She never did bother me ’bout my ‘rithmetic or readin’ anymore. When my seventh year come and we had to pass a test, I didn’t know a thing what wus on the paper, so my teacher, she just finished hit fer me and let me pass.”
Evidently, it was not a formal education that made Ray Hicks the man he was. He was one of the wisest men most of us will ever meet – blessed abundantly with common sense.
Ray grew up hearing his daddy telling Jack Tales, a family ritual each night as they gathered around the fire. Later, he too, learned to tell stories, and fast became a highly sought-after entertainer in adjoining communities.
He never forgot who invited him to his first public appearance, and told us several times: “Miss Jennie Love, over at Cove Creek, was the first one who ever had me come to school and talk to her young’uns. She offered me three dollars fer my trouble, but I didn’t want to take hit.” He added, “After that, they was a wantin’ me ever’wher.”
That was back in the ’50’s, Ray shared, and as we know, the rest became a part of our history we hope will never be erased.
During the last five decades of his life, Ray was invited to countless venues all over the United States, but preferred to stay close to home. He was often the main attraction in Jonesborough, Tenn., where his natural storytelling abilities helped establish one of the nation’s largest yarn-spinner’s annual festivals. Until his illness prevented him from participating, Ray never missed one of the storytelling festivals.
He was also warmly welcomed in schools and universities around the southeast when he came to share his tales.
Hicks was featured in countless articles and documentaries, as well as several books about his life. He appeared in the movie, “Where The Lilies Bloom,” in the 1970s with friends and relatives, when “the big camries (cameras) come to town” he said.
“I was just myself – didn’t put on any airs for no body,” he stated. And that’s something he never did. Being a celebrity meant little, if anything, to this mountain man, but he never turned away those who wanted to hear his tales, and seemed to enjoy telling them as much as those who listened.
He did agree to go to Washington DC to receive his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Smithsonian Institution, and to Raleigh, where he received the NC Folk Heritage Award. He was also granted many other accolades throughout the country.
“Ray never cared much about going off places,” his sweet Rosa said. “He always said if you went anywhere that you would be just the same when you got back, so why bother going?”
At his side for over 50 years, Rosa, a petite, soft-spoken mate who bore him five children never seemed to tire of his endless narratives. She loved company as much as did Ray, but always scooted to the background while Ray entertained their guests. Often, she was in the kitchen, where she spent much of her time cooking and canning her garden goods, or outside in her lovely flower gardens in the summer.
The last time I visited the Hicks home with friends, Ray had traded in his worn bib overalls for pajamas, and his lanky, nearly seven-foot frame seemed diminished, somewhat.
Snow was on the ground and a hot, billowing fire was roaring in the old woodstove in the middle of the family room; a room that served as the center of the Hicks’ household, where friends and family gathered, and where, in those last months, Ray’s hospital bed occupied the front corner. We brought him a box of moon pies, which he accepted as a treasure. It was the simple things in life that mattered most to that gentle man.
On good days, and that was a pretty good day, he’d sit up in his favorite chair, facing the stove, his can of Prince Albert and rolling papers close at hand, as well as his spit bucket and a pile of white birch sticks fashioned into his own patented invention he called “fire starters.”
Regardless of how bad he might have felt, he was determined to entertain us, and quickly jumped into one of his tales – this one about Jack and the “dunkey.”
He kept us in stitches as he jumped from one yarn to another in the blink of an eye, speaking in a unique dialect recognized everywhere as his very own. Although short of breath, he wouldn’t let us leave before he pulled his harmonicas from a rolled-up brown paper bag, leaving us spellbound with a private concert we will never forget.
At that time, his family, along with Hospice staff, with whom he had developed a very special bond, lovingly cared for him and saw that his needs were met on a daily basis. Just a few weeks later, he was hospitalized and then transferred to a local nursing home, where he lived out his last days. He died Sunday, April 20, 2003.
At the time of Ray’s death, his storytelling friend, Connie-Regan Blake, recognized unmet needs at the Hicks’ home and gathered community support to make life easier for Rosa and Ted, who had also begun to experience health problems.
Ray was content with things the way they were and had never wanted upgrades. Even Rosa wasn’t too excited about a kitchen range or a microwave, much preferring the old cook stove that had provided many a meal for her family and friends.
Through the local Three Forks Baptist Association in Boone, and the International Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, funds were raised and volunteer laborers added a bathroom, a new kitchen, appliances and a monitor heater.
Rosa was grateful for the electric cook stove that was brought in, but said she could’ve done without it. “It’s too complicated and I’m used to my old cook stove.” The washer and dryer were helpful, she admitted, but said the monitor heater “doesn’t do near the job the old wood stove does in the front room.”
The Hicks home had electricity since ’49, although no television, and they used only a battery-operated radio for outside entertainment. A telephone was installed before Ray passed away, suggested by Hospice, to which he reluctantly agreed.
“Ray growled about it, but he let ‘em put it in, anyway,” Rosa said. “He didn’t want anything modern in the house. He said if we had water, it would just freeze up in the winter and be more trouble than it was worth.”
Ray wouldn’t have liked having modern conveniences in the house, she said. “He was born here and lived here right up to near the time he died. He always thought this kinda stuff was unnecessary and caused people to be lazy.” That’s why she declined the gift of a dishwasher.
Rosa spent a lot of time in her new, sunny kitchen, working jigsaw puzzles on the table, looking out the big window, over the panoramic mountain scenery, and watching the birds.
Rosa said they never did have many “material things.”
“If we had sold off some of the land around here,” she said, “there would’ve been a little money for things like a new room.”
But the land had been in the family for generations, and Ray never wanted to part with it. “I don’t want to get to heaven one day and have Ray tell me ‘You didn’t do what I wanted you to do,’ Rosa said. ‘I couldn’t stand for something like that to happen.”
She was sincerely grateful to those who helped make her world easier. “The old ways weren’t so bad, but now that I’ve had it easier, it would be hard to do without.”
Old Mountain Road was never the same after Ray’s passing, but still a part of him remained in that old house. The “high-falutin’ city slickers” that Ray often told about coming in search of him, were no longer trudging up the curvy graveled road looking for their story. But his obituary found its way to some of their papers, including The New York Times and the L.os Angeles Times.
Those of us who found him, time after time, still treasure the memories, and will always remember Ray Hicks and his family.
Soon after his death, Rosa told me that Ray might’ve been gone, but his spirit never left. “He was laid to rest just over the hill, but I’ve heard him call my name. Once in a while we’ll hear a noise or a sound that only Ray himself could have made. Ted will say ‘There’s Dad.’ I knew he wouldn’t give up and leave easy.”
And now, the house at 218 Old Mountain Road has gone up in smoke, but something tells me that Ray — and old Jack, too — will still hover around that mountain for a long time to come.