I arrived in Madison County in November of 1973, one of a handful of new people moving to the county, most of us coming from cities up and down the east coast. Some of us were seeking refuge from those cities, some were looking to learn old skills that were still practiced in our new home, some were coming for the music, all of us were looking for inexpensive land, and a slower pace of life. In Madison , we found those things, and many more, all readily available. We also found a population of people who welcomed us to the community, sharing their knowledge, inviting us to their homes and churches, and adopting us into their families. Some of those newcomers left, unable to deal with the winters, the isolation, the lack of jobs, the politics, but many of us have stayed.
My first winter I went to the annual Christmas Parade in Marshall. There were so many people downtown - shopping, visiting, watching the parade - that it was hard to move. Bringing up the rear of the parade, Santa Claus, played by Dave, the town maintenance man, rode through, tossing candy to the children and hollering Merry Christmas to All. Afterwards, a youngish man who I later learned was Jackie Ball, stood in the street in front of the courthouse and raffled off a steer that had been donated by Bill Roberts, the County Magistrate. The proceeds went to some local good cause. For someone raised in suburban Washington, DC, the day was a revelation of life in a small mountain town and it let me know I had come to a place where customs and traditions were ancient and unknown to me.
Much has changed in Madison County since I first got here. Thanks to a government program, people are no longer straight-piping their waste into our creeks and river. Health care has gone from being next to non-existent to a rural health care system that is a model for the entire nation. Improved roads have provided better access to jobs, entertainment, and education. And our economy has evolved from one almost totally dependent on burley tobacco to one based more on service, tourism, and the arts. I would venture that most of these changes, and numerous others, have been welcomed.
Perhaps the most significant change has been in our demographics. We have so many newbies coming to Madison that even an old-newcomer like myself is astonished and overwhelmed. People are arriving every week, and like the new people that showed up forty years ago, some of these “not from heres” will leave. Many will stay. They will buy land, or buildings in town, sold to them by local families who need the money or whose heirs no longer want to farm or run the business that has been in the family for generations.
These new folks are bringing energy and ideas, diversity and smarts. Mostly, they are bringing goodwill and a strong desire to be part of our community. I’m okay with all of that and have often said, “If someone wants to move here, invest, and become an active part of our community, I’m all for it.” Part of being a member of a community, especially in a small place like Madison, is being engaged in the discussion of what best for all of our neighbors. Because of the changes in our county, and those yet to come, that discussion becomes vital.
At the same time, there are newcomers who act as if they, and they alone, know what’s best for a place and a culture they hardly acknowledge, much less understand. There is little recognition of families who have centuries-old roots in this community who have survived here during less hospitable and more challenging times. I sense that those opinions, that history, barely matter to some people. I just hate that.
I live on one of the few remaining dirt roads in the county. It stretches for close to five miles and I’m fond of saying “our road keeps the riff raff out.” It’s slow, meandering, and close and I hope it stays that way. Our road takes me back to when I first moved here and reminds me of the reasons I’ve stayed as long as I have. There are changes along our road and I study them as I drive. A cleared field that’s been overgrown for decades, a new shed being built, a mailbox where there has never been one, old homes being renovated, gardens being tended and animals roaming through pastures. And I think, I like that these people are bringing life to these long-abandoned home places and buildings.
All of this brings me around to the proposed asphalt plant. I’ll say right off that “I’m agin’ it.” Here’s why. While I can comfortably wax poetic about my dirt road, I know and appreciate our need for pavement, which means asphalt. But do we need a plant right here in our backyard? I think not. In my 45 years in the county, I’ve watched more and more roads being paved every year and we haven’t needed our own asphalt plant yet. There is an existing plant ten miles down the road. Then there’s the pollution, the potential health risks, and the close proximity to families, health clinics and daycare centers. There is the effect an asphalt plant will have on the town of Marshall and its new and burgeoning economy of art, music, and healthful living, It seems the main beneficiaries of such a plant will be the owners of French Broad Paving. Now, I have no quarrel with someone wanting to expand their business, especially a locally-owned one. But if that expansion means physically endangering community members and sacrificing the goodwill of community residents, both new and old, it just isn’t worth it. Profits over people have never been among our community’s values and traditions.
Last Saturday, I went into downtown Marshall for the 12th Annual Mermaid Festival and Parade. Even with the on again/off again rain, the town was packed with people - eating, shopping, visiting, listening to live music on the courthouse steps, having a good time. I’ve got to say it was an odd assemblage of folks, even for suburbanite me - people dressed as mermaids and pirates, riding in octopus and fish floats, waving swords with parrots on their shoulders. And I found myself asking what had Marshall become? At the same time, it reminded me of that Christmas Parade years ago. Yes, the people were different, looked different, sounded different, certainly were dressed different. But the sense of community, the building of new traditions, music echoing in the background, engaged people in a place they love, where they intend to build their lives, that was the same as that Christmas years ago.
I have loved Madison County and Marshall for its culture and history, its strong sense of community, its traditions, the sacredness of the mountains around us, and its people. I have also loved it for its eccentricities, its oddness. Herman Melville would have agreed that Madison County is a true place.
Madison County will not return to the way it was 45 years ago. Those days are gone. I miss much about those times. But we’ve changed so much already and there is bound to be more to come. How we wrestle with those changes as a community will speak volumes about who we are and our ability to live by our values.
Happy Fathers Day Everyone.