It was about this time last year when I got an intriguing email from Herald Editor Jim Buchanan.
He asked if some of us at the Jackson County Genealogical Society could come up with a “top 10” list of the people who shaped the county’s past – the historical figures we thought all local residents should know. The newspaper would then use that roster to tell the county’s history through stories of its most influential people, thus creating a sort of primer for area residents.
I immediately emailed JCGS Librarian George Frizzell, the best local historian I know. For those not familiar with George, he spent his professional career directing Special Collections at Western Carolina University, where he led the way in creating a wonderful archive of Jackson County history.
Compiling the list was not as easy as it seemed. In fact, after agonizing over it for a couple of weeks, we gave up and sent Jim our top 20. And even then we actually included 21 names because we had a tie.
Some of the people we chose have been the subject of books or academic studies; others are noted for their own writings or achievements, and some are names woven into the development and cultural fabric of our county.
Jim is a busy person, and with all his other newspaper responsibilities, he hasn’t yet had time to tackle the list. When I asked last week if I could write about our local notables, he graciously agreed.
So, in the coming weeks, we’ll get to know the people who were most instrumental in shaping the county we have today. Here are the names of those we will be profiling: 1) Dr. John R. Brinkley; 2) William Holland Thomas; 3) C.J. Harris; 4) Gertrude Dills McKee; 5) Samantha Bumgarner; 6) Robert Lee Madison; 7) Tommy Love; 8) Judge Felix E. Alley; 9) John Parris; 10) Sol Schulman; 11) Dan K. Moore; 12) Nimrod Jarrett Smith; 13) Yonaguska; 14) Steve Streater; 15) E.L. McKee; 16) Lacy Thornburg; 17) Dan Tompkins; 18) E.R. Hampton; 19) William Allen Dills; 20) Col. John Zachary/Barak Norton.
While we’re sure arguments could be made for adding others, both George and I agree the above list is solid. We’re leading off with Dr. John Brinkley, far and away Jackson County’s most notorious native son. Born in Beta, he made a fortune with his questionable goat-gland surgeries, revolutionized radio advertising, almost won a write-in campaign for governor of Kansas, owned the most powerful radio station in the world, ended his career in bankruptcy court and died a broken man in 1942.
Also on our list is Samantha Biddix Bumgarner, who grew up in Dillsboro and made a name for herself winning area fiddle and banjo contests. She is believed to be the first Appalachian banjo player to cut a commercial record, and she was among the many musicians who reached a wider audience courtesy of Dr. Brinkley’s radio show.
We have E.R. Hampton and William Allen Dills, the men credited with founding Sylva and Dillsboro, as well as Col. John Zachary and Barak Norton, leading early settlers of the Cashiers area. Also present is Robert Lee Madison, who founded the school that became Western Carolina University. Another person on the list is a man so pivotal that “The History of Jackson County” (our favorite reference book) states that “the early political history of Jackson County centers around the career of one man – William Holland Thomas.”
Other politicians include Gertrude Dills McKee, the daughter of William Allen Dills and the first woman to be elected to the N.C. state senate; and Dan K. Moore, who grew up in Sylva and was North Carolina’s 66th governor, later serving on the state’s Supreme Court. We’ve included another statewide office-holder, Lacy Thornburg of Webster, North Carolina’s attorney general from 1985 to 1993 and a retired federal judge.
Representing the Eastern Band are Chiefs Yonaguska (Drowning Bear) and Nimrod Jarrett Smith. In cooperation with Thomas, Yonaguska formulated a strategy that allowed the future Eastern Band to avoid forced removal on the Trail of Tears and remain in North Carolina. Smith, who led the tribe during the rapid demographic changes of the late 19th century, helped formalize Eastern Band governance and obtain status as a recognized entity under North Carolina law in order to address these challenges.
We have early entrepreneurs C.J. Harris and E.L. McKee, along with longtime Sylva merchant Sol Schulman; athletes Steve Streater and Tommy Love; and journalists John Parris, who rose to fame as a World War II correspondent before coming home to author the beloved “Roaming the Mountains” series for the Asheville Citizen; and Dan Tompkins, influential editor of the Jackson County Journal for more than 30 years.
I’ve written about many of these people over the years – some more than once – and I’m looking forward to reviewing their stories. Others are less familiar to me, but with George’s help, I’ll learn about them and share information about their lives and contributions as well.
Reading through the list, I can already think of others who should perhaps be on it, but we have to start somewhere. Who knows? It may turn into a top 25 or 30 before we’re done.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.