The Best From High Country Magazine

Published Friday, June 19, 2015 at 3:02 pm

14_07_29_West_Jefferson_HCM story for High Country Magazine on historic West Jefferson and recent improvements and the art scene and retail and revitilization

By Bernadette Cadhill  (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, August 2015)

To enter West Jefferson at night-time is like entering a fairyland.

That’s the impression that Ashe County’s largest town gives during the drive off the foothills of Mount Jefferson into downtown once darkness has fallen, says Cabot Hamilton, Director of the Chamber of Commerce.
Cabot is referring to the effect of one of several major streetscape upgrades the town has made within the past 3-1/2 years.
While Jefferson Avenue was in the throes of a major refurbishment, “The town aldermen decided to work with the Blue Ridge Electric Co-op,” he said. “They took down the ugly streetlights all up and down the block – the big metal street lights – and replaced them with these very attractive aesthetic antique-looking town lights.”
Cabot may be focusing on night-time here, but the fairyland simile applies also to the daytime, because this gorgeous, thriving destination in the northwest corner of North Carolina is the kind of old-tyme small-town America that Disney spends many millions of dollars on to replicate. But West Jefferson is better than Disney: it is real.
It is hard today to picture what those big metal street lights actually looked like and it is hard to remember exactly how West Jefferson looked before the repaving of the roadway, the planting of trees, the replacement of traffic lights with four-way stops, the burial of power lines underground, the introduction of cross-walks and the extensions of the sidewalks at intersections, called “bump-outs.”
It is difficult because these details of the new-look downtown seem long-established fixtures which developed organically with the town. Meanwhile, West Jefferson feels welcoming and safe – somewhere worth stopping to explore.

Part of a Fairy Tale

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Dancing in the streets captures the spirit of West Jefferson’s celebration of the Christmas tree industry. With a mountain and heritage-building backdrop, Christmas in July attracts participants from everywhere, just for the fun.

A variety of attractions create that urge to linger. One art gallery after another, each with a working artist to talk to; a batterie de cuisine boutique, inviting new creativity in the kitchen; a store for sampling specialty olive oils; a small-town hobby shop; clothing and shoe stores; and a used paperback bookstore: all these call out, “Stop! We’ve got to explore!”
When hunger or thirst strikes, restaurants in historic buildings offer a variety of meals and beverages. Outside once again, an ice-cream shop offers the ideal to-go dessert, facilitating an easy downtown ramble or allowing a sit-down on one of the donated benches to watch the world go by. Off Jefferson Avenue, there are more art galleries to sample, a traditional hardware store complete with creaky floors to root around in, antique emporiums, a cheese factory, coffee shops, a real diner from the past and, on Wednesdays and Saturdays a bustling farmers’ market.

14_07_29_West_Jefferson_HCM story for High Country Magazine on historic West Jefferson and recent improvements and the art scene and retail and revitilization

Within sight of the junction of Jefferson and Main, countless stores provide a variety of browsing and shopping experiences.

14_07_29_West_Jefferson_HCM story for High Country Magazine on historic West Jefferson and recent improvements and the art scene and retail and revitilization

Boonedock’s provides a great place to eat, drink and watch the world go by.

In addition, all during the summer, concerts take place in the park, while festivals such as the fiddlers’ in August, the literary, complete with book and quilt fairs, in September and Christmas in July punctuate the summer months, offering many diversions that appeal to countless tastes, while even before Thanksgiving a holiday parade kicks of a series of wintertime festivities.
Overall, in fact, West Jefferson conveys a feeling of warmth, of a place worth a stay. What is more, with Mount Jefferson watching over downtown from every angle, and Paddy Mountain further defining the valley which the town occupies; and with several other mountains establishing stunning views, the surroundings point to potential diversions outside town.
Along with the delights of locally crafted pottery, of colorful quilts, of artworks in a large range of styles, and with the attractions of countless artifacts arranged in beguiling and entrancing window displays – all these features, both natural and crafted, combine with the red brick of the buildings, the green of the hills and the pastel and bold hues of the fourteen murals that punctuate structures at unexpected locations, to make West Jefferson, no matter the time of the day, or even year, seem truly part of a fairy tale.

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Cabot Hamilton, Director of the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce has been involved in West Jefferson’s transformation, and enjoys the improvements that public art has meant to the town.

The Magic Wand
The fairy tale, in fact, is the story of how the upgrades in West Jefferson’s main thoroughfare came about. Back in October, 2003 the West Jefferson community, working with North Carolina State University had developed a wish list of everything they would like to do to improve the town. These community wish-lists come from meetings called charrettes.
“No one thought they’d live long enough to see it accomplished,” said Cabot.
However, a fairy godmother was watching over the town, in the shape of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).
“[Jefferson Avenue] is a North Carolina state highway. They were coming in to repave it,” said Cabot.
The state pays for such major but prosaic works, which involve grinding down the old roadway before resurfacing.
“They happened to see the charrette,” said Cabot.
As a result, the NCDOT identified an opportunity to wave a magic wand and transform what was then a dowdy town into a pleasing, pedestrian-friendly and pedestrian-safe one. This was where the stop signs and bump-outs came in. The DOT would provide the extra money needed for the enhancements.
The proposal was a no-brainer. “The town aldermen got together. It was kind of hard to say no, not because it was the NCDOT, but because they had a billfold,” said Cabot. “It was right at a quarter of a million dollars. So the town aldermen said, ‘Yes, let’s go for it.’”
During this process, the town worked with the Blue Ridge Electric Co-op to replace the “ugly streetlights” with the “fairy” lights, while the power company also put the wiring underground.
“That made a huge difference,” said Cabot. “And all of a sudden, old people like me, who thought they’d never live to see the wish list said, “Wow, they’ve done it!’”

14_07_29_West_Jefferson_HCM story for High Country Magazine on historic West Jefferson and recent improvements and the art scene and retail and revitilization

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The Young Upstart
This magical transformation in West Jefferson’s appearance could not have occurred without the solid foundation created early last century when the town appeared out of nowhere as the young upstart that became Ashe County’s primary center of commerce. Then, the town was just the vision of dreamers who had heard as early as 1909 that the railroad from Abingdon, built to support the Hassenger Company’s lumber extraction operations, planned to expand to exploit the seemingly endless stands of the county’s virgin timber.
Jefferson – then more than a century old – seemed the logical stop for the train; but the Virginia & Carolina was primarily an industrial railroad and local speculators quickly spotted opportunities for making money from it.
A partnership of locals came together at the end of 1913, said historian Gene Hafer, to consolidate the land in what was then a quiet rural valley in order to plan a brand-new town for the trains. The resultant West Jefferson, about two miles southeast of Jefferson, is one of the only towns in the east of the United States created to attract a railroad – not one that grew because of a depot already, if recently, established.

A Soft, Feminine Feel
West Jefferson’s layout is different from early U.S. towns, said Gene, who worked with Raleigh’s Bientennial Commission in the 1990s and advises the board of the West Jefferson Centennial Commission in planning for the town’s centenary next year. Unlike Raleigh, which copies Thomas Jefferson’s favored masculine, angular grid style, “West Jefferson follows the contours of the land,” he said.

14_07_29_West_Jefferson_HCM story for High Country Magazine on historic West Jefferson and recent improvements and the art scene and retail and revitilization

Students learn how to paint at the Florence Thomas Art School on South Jefferson Street

The lines rounded a hill and, unlike in most railroad towns where they charge straight through with commerce squarely framing each side, in West Jefferson they sported graceful curves on arriving and departing, with two more curves for the wye which allowed trains to turn round. These man-made additions echoed the curves of the earth – a sensitivity to the shape of the landscape which gives West Jefferson a soft, feminine feel.

14_07_29_West_Jefferson_HCM story for High Country Magazine on historic West Jefferson and recent improvements and the art scene and retail and revitilization

Frenchy works at his famous folk paintings in his studio.

Another difference is that the street where the early action was – Back Street – actually fronted the railroad, while the town’s planners designed a traditional, straight thoroughfare – today’s Jefferson Avenue – a block away. It now anchors commercial activity at the intersection with Main. This may have been the planners’ back-up plan in case the railroad didn’t come, or died down the road. The Avenue is pleasingly broad and with the scale of the buildings in this open valley, it feels expansive. West Jefferson may be busy, but there’s plenty of room to breathe.

14_07_29_West_Jefferson_HCM story for High Country Magazine on historic West Jefferson and recent improvements and the art scene and retail and revitilization

Raney Rogers welcomes visitors who hunt out her work on Long Street, at the Acorn Gallery, West Jefferson’s oldest artist owned Gallery.

14_07_29_West_Jefferson_HCM story for High Country Magazine on historic West Jefferson and recent improvements and the art scene and retail and revitilization

The mouse inside Ashe County Cheese.

And so, apart from the town’s modern makeup, there have always been sound reasons to talk of it affectionately. As native, local artist and Alderman Stephen Shoemaker said, “I have a good friend [originally from Louisiana] and he’ll stop whatever he’s saying and close his eyes and say, ‘Stephen, I just love it up here. This is the best place…’”
Stephen himself stops for a moment. Then he continues, his voice reverberating with emotion, “It’s a very special place.”

No Little Hick Town
Yet, not so long ago, West Jefferson looked jaded, having the air of many another rural town at the point of slipping into irreversible decline.
Stephen, who returned in 1997 after many years away noticed immediately that “it wasn’t thriving. The town was dying.”
Such a decline might have taken the early town boosters by surprise, for West Jefferson took off like a rocket from the time of its creation, attracting all comers. Stephen remembers how, when he left in 1964, the Ore Knob Mine was still in operation, the Phoenix Chair company was in full production, there was a working hosiery factory and his Dad had the Belk’s store, opened in 1939. Kraft Cheese was also churning away as it had done for years, while during the big cattle markets, trucks would line Jefferson Avenue and the cows would holler and crowd the whole place out.
Then too, the Virginia Creeper – long since bought over by the Norfolk & Western Railroad – still chugged through, stopping to pick up miscellaneous freight, including the cows, while also carrying passengers on regular runs to Abingdon and for excursions during the leaf season.

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Stephen Shoemaker opens up to art-hunters in his gallery.

“West Jefferson wasn’t a little hick town like some people may think it was. The Bowies built a big house here. Tam Bowie was one of the landowners and a state representative…” Bowie was also the lead founder of West Jefferson.
“We had the Graybeals, who had the Ford company,” continued Stephen. [All] these people had money and they had a lot of class about them. [The Graybeals] would play croquet on the lawn in their white suits and women their long dresses. I remember that as a kid, watching them play croquet.”
By the end of the next decade, however, West Jefferson had changed.

The Mill Town Without the Mill
“I’ll take you back to the 70s,” said Cabot. “It was worse than sleepy. I heard somebody say [the town] looked like a mill town that the mill had left.”
John T. Shoaf, in The Heritage of Ashe County, 1799-1984, wrote, “We sure missed the train when it was taken off … It was a big loss…It served a good purpose. It helped people to get something out of their timber. Also people raised chickens and turkey, which they dressed, packed and shipped on the train. I can remember the boys leaving on the train going to World War I.”
“Cars and trucks [did] help us to carry on,” Mr. Shoaf allowed, but another onslaught was approaching.
“I remember coming back and Belk’s department store closed, Blackburn’s department store closed, some of the hardware stores started to close,” remembered Stephen. “A lot of businesses were just aging out. They all kind of grew up together …”
But now the old order was changing, and it hadn’t yet “yielded place to new” and West Jefferson in the 1990s was effectively depressed.

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Parker Tie Company is great for hard-to-get merchandise. Leon Miller has been with the company for about 8 years.

Public Art and Revitalization
Yet the seeds of revitalization had long before been planted and were beginning to sprout. Around the time the railroad pulled out for the last time, “that’s when Ben Long came and started doing the frescoes [in the Episcopal churches],” said Cabot. That brought tour buses and the early beginning of the interest in art.
“A couple of artists came and opened small galleries and it just kept going,” he said, for the churches, the fresco visitors and the new artists had recognized already West Jefferson’s small-town charm in spite of its threadbare appearance, said Jane Lonon who arrived in 1981, fell in love with it and stayed.
It had, she said, a quality and pace of life that many people are searching for.
“It was wonderful … It was the people, the spirit, the reverence for history and heritage … that attracted [me] and many others to want to live here.”
The drive and commitment of people like Jane, now Executive Director of the Ashe County Arts Council, helped to create a central role for arts in the community, building on what the Long frescoes had begun.
“The downtown murals, I think, were the first spark at what beautification could mean, what that could do for our community,” she said.
sidebarThe murals, in fact, were another attraction for visitors and provided the impetus for more. (For the April, 2014 High Country Magazine story on the Ashe County Arts Council, click to www.hcpress.com/april-mag-2014).
It was around this point that the charrette rolled in, generating interest in more revitalization. The next few years led to the creation of the Back Street Park where summer concerts take place, the stairs to the remodeled library leading directly from downtown and the new facilities for the farmers’ market.
Meanwhile, in 2005, the town received a $20,000 Grant from the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center to plan for storm sewer upgrading, while in 2007, the town enrolled in the North Carolina Main Street Communities program, which among other benefits gives grants for the improvement of heritage building facades. West Jefferson’s unique combination of heritage properties from 1915 to 1957 also qualified for a listing in 2007 as a heritage district on the National Register of Historic Places.
Much was already in train, therefore, before the NCDOT came in to repave the road. But then, as if by magic, these different trends happily converged – along with “some nice, gift-wrapped money to make it happen,” said Cabot, adding that none of this would have occurred without co-operation among many organizations, businesses and individuals both within the town and at county level.

14_07_29_West_Jefferson_HCM story for High Country Magazine on historic West Jefferson and recent improvements and the art scene and retail and revitilization

Ashe County’s Cheese Factory and Store make a striking show both indoors and out on East Main.

A clear measure of the success of all this work is the increased occupation rate of downtown commercial buildings.
“Before the bump-outs and what the town did over the past three years, there were multiple vacancies. Now I think only two buildings are vacant,” said Cabot. “[The transformation] has drawn retailers to the town because they like the way it looks. There are people walking the town day and night. You may have had difficulty finding a parking spot. Aesthetically it has been a humungous improvement. It has been revitalized.”
In fact, the downtown West Jefferson’s streetscape won a design award from the North Carolina Small Town Main Street program in 2013, while today the community is trying to set up the next level of charrette with North Carolina State University, to determine what new heights to set its sights on in the first years of its second century.
Today, West Jefferson is home to sixteen art galleries. Besides the murals, the town’s “art on fire” project has transformed regular fire hydrants into whimsical characters and eye-catching splashes of color; the Florence Thomas Art School has located right downtown, the Arts Council spawns county barn quilts and tours, and between June and October, a gallery crawl takes place every month.

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“We don’t have a rush hour. We have a rush minute.” – Cabot Hamilton, Director of Ashe County Chamber of Commerce in West Jefferson.

“We have accomplished a lot of what was on that original [charrette],” said Cabot. “Now we need to decide what else we need [to do]. We need to take advantage of the motivation that’s out there to keep it going.”

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