Recent activities reveal not much has changed for decades
By Michael M. Barrick
(Note: Caldwell County, N.C. is in Northwestern North Carolina, along the southernmost border of Appalachia as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission. It is on the eastern slope of the Eastern Continental Divide, with the Blue Ride Escarpment stretching into the county. About half of it is mountainous, though the county and Appalachian region end at the Catawba River, at the southern end of the county. The mountains run southwest to northeast roughly parallel with N.C. Hwy. 18. North of that line, mountain ways still prevail; to the south, the urban Piedmont has infiltrated into what was once rich farm land – and, in places, still is – along the Catawba River. Based upon my travels throughout Appalachia, the observations in this essay apply to many regions of Appalachia trying to recover from its dependence upon a mono-economy).
LENOIR, N.C. – Any essay or discussion about religion and politics is full of risks, even more so during the sacred seasons of Hanukkah and Christmas and the time of the African-American Kwanzaa celebration. Add in that we just completed the most contentious election season in memory, and we’ve got frayed nerves. So, first some disclaimers about what this essay is not about.
- This is not a criticism of the Caldwell County schools or anyone working for them. I support public education. I have taught at South Caldwell High School, served on the School Board, was a Community in Schools mentor, and our children attended and graduated from the county schools.
- This is not about the “right” to say “Merry Christmas.” I’m 60-years-old. Nobody has ever told me I couldn’t say Merry Christmas. If I’ve ever offended anyone saying it, I am not aware of it.
- This is not about ensuring that we have a Christian nation. We are not a Christian nation. We have never been a Christian nation. I hope to goodness we never have a theocracy. If Donald Trump moves in that direction, you can be sure it’s for political purposes, not because of firmly-held values. I respect other faiths. I respect no faith. In fact, while it’s nobody’s business what faith I hold (or don’t), I can say that I sure do respect my many friends who are agnostic or atheist. Based on the way Christianity is lived out in this country, it’s amazing anyone claims the faith.
Which brings me to what this essay is about: Caldwell County’s contradictory natures. I’ve been traveling here since I was a young child and we’ve lived here the better part of 25 years. History and geography essentially divide the county in half; that it’s a bit contradictory is not surprising. However, our granddaughter’s recent Christmas concert at the school she attends here in the county – combined with the overwhelming support received by Donald Trump in Caldwell – revealed just how ironic and nuanced this county can be.
The Christmas concert was very well done, sweet and well-received. The staff, teachers and administrators are to be commended for the hard work put into it. However, I did not hear one Christmas song that was remotely sacred. That bothers me, because, well, for God’s sake, it’s Christmas! I may have missed it, and if I did, I apologize. Maybe they were given legal advice that prevented them from using sacred music. If so, such advice is questionable, because in the past, choirs have chosen to sing sacred songs; it was done at South Caldwell and courts have allowed them.
In any event, at the end, I imagined that somebody would get up, Jimmy Stewart-like, humbly grasp the microphone and say, “Well, uh … that was sweet, but I fear we have forgotten why we gather.” He or she would then start singing, “Joy to the World” and all in the room would join in.
I suggested it to my wife. She quickly nixed the idea. Plus, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.
But still, I imagined it. Of course, it would have been inappropriate. It would have upset the children, disrupted the work of school personnel, and potentially escalated into something quite unpleasant. Still, it seemed like the reaction I expect from people who fiercely defend Christianity and all things Christmas.
It seems all the spunk has been taken out of them. That’s what happens when you can’t find work and your communities are slowly shuttered.
Caldwell’s economic decline because of its past dependence upon the furniture mono-economy has left many unemployed and underemployed people. Finding themselves unable to find new work, they have quietly receded into the decaying neighborhoods of our small towns or small homesteads scattered among our mountain regions. Meanwhile, a slow but growing influx of artists, musicians and craftsman offers hope.
Geography is a challenge for us also. Northlakes is nothing like Edgemont. The booming south end of the county is more aligned with Hickory. Meanwhile, farmers in Collettsville, Kings Creek, Dudley Shoals, Buffalo Cove and elsewhere struggle to maintain family homesteads as retirees move into the mountain townships like Globe and Patterson. The artisans moving into Lenoir are adding a flavor to the town not seen since Doc Watson was playing downtown.
So, we do seem to have two Caldwells – the conservative descendants of the county’s settlers and the new settlers, looking to convert Lenoir into an art and music destination or live out their retirement years here.
The best description I’ve heard of Caldwell County was from then-Mayor Robert A. Gibbons Sr. roughly 20 years ago. I was working as a reporter at the News-Topic. My beat included the Lenoir City Council. It led to some interesting exchanges with Mayor Gibbons. When he retired, he called and asked that I tell the story of his roughly 25 years as mayor. In an exhaustive and entertaining interview in our conference room, a very relaxed Mayor Gibbons provided an excellent history of Lenoir and insight into the backroom deals not previously disclosed. Not every comment was printed.
However, one thing he said about Caldwell County was so characteristically descriptive and politically incorrect – not to mention arguably accurate – that I had to print it. I’m going from memory here, but I am confident that this is an accurate paraphrase if not exact quote. As we were concluding the interview, the mayor leaned closer to me across the table and volunteered, “You know, there are two kinds of people in Caldwell County. You have the folks living in the mountains that don’t give a happy damn about anything, and then you’ve got those folks who like that dancing on your tiptoes like they do at the Civic Center.”
That sounds like Caldwell County, circa 2016, to me.
With feet in both camps – a Mountaineer, but also a writer – I get it. As a mountain person, I just want to be left the hell alone. As a writer, I am compelled to seek avenues for my craft, avenues which often include me sticking my nose in the business of others. Obviously, these goals can sometimes be at odds.
The artists and musicians are in the minority. Their venues are limited. The existence of the Caldwell Arts Council and other robust efforts in the area are encouraging. Still, the question is, can the two Caldwells coexist? Can the young people filling Lenoir’s restaurants and bars in the evenings lives alongside those folks whose parents and grandparents filled the furniture plants once humming along 321-A? Election Day makes me wonder. Early Voting revealed a very divided community; for 17 days people screamed at one another as the Board of Elections failed to do its job. The school concert, though, brought folks together. For a short time, for our children, we set apart our differences.
That means we can do it in other ways too. So, wherever you fit in the spectrum, let’s remember we’re all neighbors. Feel free to celebrate your faith. But please be kind enough to let others choose not to. That will be a big first step in healing the wounds caused by a very contentious election season. Only then can we move together to help our community continue its recovery.
Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! A Festive Kwanzaa! Cheers!
© The Lenoir Voice, 2016
On Twitter: @lenoirvoice