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"Listening to History" has been reprinted with permission from The News & ObserverCopyright 1998-2008.

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Betty Ballew: The Place I Love Best On This Earth

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 2/14/1999. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

Betty Ballew grew up in one of the most beautiful valleys by the Blue Ridge Parkway: the North Fork, just north of Black Mountain. Earlier this century, thousands of Appalachian families were displaced to make way for reservoirs, hydroelectric projects, and national parks and forests.

Ballew was among the dispossessed. She lost her home in 1954, when Asheville dammed North Fork creek to create a reservoir to supply the city with drinking water.

Recently, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill historian Kathy Newfont and I visited Betty Ballew at her home in Burnsville. As she told us, the reservoir flooded her family's farm, but at least an old forest still covered the hills and mountainsides. Then, in 1987, she looked toward the North Fork Valley and saw a gaping muddy scar of clear-cut land. "It broke my heart, " she said. The city of Asheville was allowing a timber company to clear-cut her former home.

As a member of Citizens Against Clearcutting the Asheville Watershed (CACAW), Ballew helped lead a grass-roots campaign to save the North Fork. It was a long, arduous struggle against city officials and the timber industry, but ultimately CACAW did halt the clear-cutting. Many CACAW members opposed the clear-cutting because it would have polluted the water supply and destroyed a scenic forest. Mrs. Ballew's feelings ran deeper.

Betty Ballew. Photo by Chris Seward, 1999. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer.

In Betty Ballew's words: 
I used to tell Mama that when I died, God was going to let me come back and look out for North Fork. My people have lived there, and died there. I never felt like North Fork belonged to anybody else. It was our home. I didn't want them to go and destroy it. The places where they were cutting the trees, they meant something to us. They weren't just places with trees growing on them. They had stories behind them.

My great-grandfather was Lorenzo Sevier Pressley. He walked home to the mountains after the Civil War. He came back and married his sweetheart in Jackson County. Then they walked to the North Fork and settled in the very head of that valley and raised a family. They had 9 or 10 children. They lived on the land and farmed the land, and had a lifetime and died, and the land never belonged to them. Never.

We lived on the land and farmed it, and took care of it just as though it belonged to us. My uncle and parents took care of it because it was there and it was alive and it needed to be looked after. They farmed the bottomland, not the mountainsides, and they only took what they needed.

They had cows and chickens and horses and pigs and the whole business. I can remember my uncle plowing with a horse and cultivating corn. He would get on the horse and ride to Black Mountain to have the corn ground, then would come back with cornmeal. Mostly, they grew food to eat. They grew corn, potatoes, beans. Whatever they could grow, they grew it and canned it and survived on it. North Fork was quiet, very secluded. We didn't have electricity.

We had running water into the kitchen. Didn't even have a bathroom in the house. We used oil lamps - and I thought I could see! I can remember sitting on the porch at night and hearing the hootie owls. And I remember standing on a great big flat rock and watching the moon rise above that mountain and listening to the night sounds.

It's hard to describe the way I saw North Fork then. It was free and easy. I ran around like some little wild animal in the woods, I guess. Barefoot! Mama never knew where I was going. I'd be in the woods, over at the creek, just wandering around. Little girls have lots of fantasies and I read fairy tales, and I'd play pretend games. On the hillside, there was a laurel thicket, and under the thicket there was green moss. It was a soft place, and clean, a nice place to be. I liked to play where the moss grew.

Every Fourth of July, my aunt and uncle and my mama and daddy, and my brother and me, would go up to the very head of the valley. There was a pine forest that was old and beautiful, right beside the creek. And underneath it was completely level, and the pine needles would come down so that there was like this carpet beneath the trees. We'd build a fire and cook and play in the creek. We'd get up early and stay all day.

I never was afraid back there. Never. I think that's part of the reason why I loved it and didn't want to see it destroyed. Because it was a safe, wonderful, quiet place where nothing should be endangered, not even the trees. And when it happened, I was fit to be tied. It was painful to see that dam built. I remember crying myself to sleep night after night when they moved us away, because they were destroying everything I had ever known. I cried when they came and brought machines and graded it up, and I still cry now.

When they moved us out, they also had to tear down the church and move it. And move the cemetery. For all of us who had family buried there, it was hard. Very hard. They took off a front of a mountainside and filled in a valley with dirt. It was bad.

All those years later, when I saw the clear-cut, it broke my heart. The city forester saw money growing there instead of trees. He didn't grow up in that mountain area. He didn't have an appreciation of it. It's different with mountain people. They almost are a part of the land. It wasn't just a place to live: It was part of you, and you were part of it. North Fork was my identity, where I came from, what made me who I am.

The mountain people that I grew up with had a bigger influence on my life than I knew at the time. As I get older, I see myself growing into them, and I know that's not a bad thing. They brought me to my Christian experience, and they taught me the value of loving your family, being honest, working hard, and being kind and generous to other people. And doing the right thing no matter what it takes.

Sometimes we get so busy, that we let our world change without making an effort to see if it's changing for the better. Other than working in my church and doing things with the children at school, I had never really done anything with the public. It just came time to do it. There's a time in your life for all things, and it was just time to stand up for what was right.

I could not let them barge in there and tear down a beautiful place and not try to stop them. I think some things just need to be cherished and left alone. That place is one of them. The dam was enough. It had to be - they needed water. I can't go home to where I was born, and I would like to, but at least I know that the place I love best on this Earth will be left alone.

This is an excerpt from the "Listening for A Change" project of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Additional Resources:

Audio Recording: Interview with Betty Ballew by David S. Cecelski, 29 January 1999, K-0258, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Image Credits:

Seward, Chris. "Betty Ballew."  Photograph. 1999. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer.