By Julie Havlak
Carolina Journal News Service
As he stood on his porch, watching the flames consume his studio, Brant Barnes wasn’t thinking about the fire.
Barnes was remembering an old neighbor of his, a man who had died the night after just such a fire. He was thinking about the man’s bitterness, his death, and his own compromised heart.
Barnes turned and went back inside and switched on the television. The fire kept burning, and soon there was nothing left.
The year of 2020 will leave little for Brant and Karen Barnes. Their income vanished when the governor shut down North Carolina in March. Barnes suffered a heart attack in June. A tree toppled across their house in July, and their pottery studio burned down. The latest blow was losing the Western North Carolina Pottery Festival.
Barnes holds the charred remains of his best work, sitting in the shop he built five decades ago. This, too, he will lose soon. They can’t afford the rent without revenue from festivals.
“I’m ready to drink a cup of eggnog and call 2020 done,” Karen Barnes told Carolina Journal.
They will leave another vacant storefront in downtown Dillsboro. The town has suffered other epidemics and other economic blows, and survived them all. But the coronavirus pandemic and the governor’s shutdowns have staggered tourism and imperiled communities across rural North Carolina.
Dillsboro lies in a mountain valley, where it’s hidden by mist in the morning and swallowed by darkness at night. The town’s fortunes have suffered more than its neighbor, Sylva, and its stores boast colored siding rather than brick. The stone church remains the finest building downtown.
But the town retains its old charm. The locals decorate the streets with scarecrows, and they distract from the vacant storefronts.
No one knows the consequences of canceling the festivals. There are glimpses – the potter who lost his income, the struggling restaurant owner, the couple who closed their shop, the empty sidewalks downtown – but no complete picture.
Appalachian towns produce an overabundance of festivals. They’re a desperate crop, engineered to attract the tourists who keep the region alive. Many festivals are sickly things that don’t last long, but the pottery festival in Jackson County was different.
The passing decades have not been kind to rural America. Here, people live poorer and die younger, as a rule. A sixth of Jackson County’s population lived in poverty in 2019, and the median household income was just $44,028, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Tourism is the lifeblood of Dillsboro. Whenever that transfusion falters, businesses disappear.
Business owner Mike Dillard has seen it happen before. When the train left Dillsboro, businesses vanished with it, and the Great Recession reaped its own toll. Now the town has canceled its largest festival, the coronavirus pandemic rages on, and businesses fear new shutdowns.
Dillard is a soft-spoken man who runs The Well House, a deli shop that has stood on the hill downtown for half a century. The Western North Carolina Pottery Festival used to be his best day for the whole year. The festival drew more than 300,000 people to Sylva and Dillsboro, and generated $500,000 for the economy, said potter Joe McKee, who helped found and organize the festival.
“You can’t look back,” Brant Barnes said. “All you can do is look forward. You’ll drive yourself crazy looking back. So, we have good humor about it.”
These locals meet their own financial woes with the grim, unflagging optimism of rural Appalachia. But the fate of their town has them shaken.
The shutdowns and the virus devastated their economy. Unemployment climbed past 14 percent in May, and roughly one in16 people still didn’t have jobs in Jackson County in September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
The economic recovery has done little to help those who rely on tourism and the entertainment industry. They remain crushed by the governor’s strict capacity limits and the constant fear of viral spread.
Brenda Anders is a transplant from further south, but she has adopted Dillsboro as her own. To her, she says, this community has become something of a family. Before the pandemic, she would run Dogwood Crafters, throw Christmas parties, round up cards for the hospital, help at a bookstore and host picnics in the park.
“This is my heart,” Anders said. “This, next to my family, is my center.”
Now she is a woman with too much energy who looks a little lost. She drove the garbage down to the dump herself for months, just to get out of the house.
If this community is her center, she is losing another piece of it this year.
“I’m really afraid of what the suicide rate has gone up to,” says basket weaver Debbie Douglas, sitting inside Dogwood Crafters. She leaves the rest unsaid.
Dillard will be the only one left on the hill when the Barnes abandon their shop.
Barnes built the shop for a sculptor 50 years ago. It was his first job out of college. Regulations were lax back then, but artists were still broke. They cobbled it together from fallen barns, but the workers rebelled at hammering old nails straight.
Now it’s a teardown. The beams are riddled with termites, and no one could hope to pass inspections to sell it. But still, it is a beautiful space. Massive, clouded windows filter light into the studio, and faded postcards paper the walls.
It will become another piece of the downtown that Anders couldn’t save, but she hides her disappointment well.
She’s seen this happen before. In this town, when business owners retire, there isn’t always someone to replace them. Anders worries the traditions will be lost.
“They didn’t want to close, they held on, but no one can live forever,” Anders said. “That’s where we are, that’s where much of Dillsboro is. The crafts aren’t that big a part of their lives.”
There are bright spots – a new brewery, a fresh pizzeria – but whether the young people will stay will depend on whether they can stay.
“It’s a great place to live, a hard place to make a living,” Dillard said. “People I went to school with couldn’t wait to get out of here. They couldn’t wait to go to the concrete jungle.”
Not him. Dillard did a year-long stint in city living, and hightailed it back to the country. He loves this town and its mountains, with the mist rising off the streams and the yellow flames of the poplars.
But he knows the lean months are coming for Dillsboro, when winter arrives and tourists vanish. Even in good years, businesses struggle to break even.
“The ones that I worry about are the people who made it through this summer, who’re breaking even right now,” Dillard said. “The ones that have made it this far, are they going to make it through the lean months coming up?”
When McKee, the potter, canceled the festival, he knew he was cutting a critical revenue stream for Sylva and Dillsboro. McKee has lost his own income to cancellations, but he felt he didn’t have much of a choice.
In normal years, McKee crisscrosses the country for festivals. Now he’s trading pottery for produce and eating cheap tuna sandwiches. He has two boys to support. One is already in college on scholarship. The other has his brother’s SAT scores written down.
“It’s scary as hell,” McKee said. “You’re used to working, you’ve got a lot of drive, and that’s taken away from you. Now there’s not a lot of reasons to get out of bed.”
Sixty miles away, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, apple growers face the same blight.
The N.C. Apple Festival normally sends 300,000 people flooding into downtown Hendersonville over four days. They spill into restaurants, frequent local shops, and apple growers make enough to last the winter. Not this year.
“It’s the same story everywhere, on the coast, in the mountains,” said David Nicholson, executive director of the Apple Festival.
Without the festival, Creasman Farms lost half of its revenue.
“A lot of farms get lost in the mix of this,” said Colby Buchanan, Creasman Farms manager. “Some farms that participate in the apple festival don’t have another outlet. For them not to have the festival, it was a total bust.”
For the past 26 years, Nicholson has spent every Labor Day weekend on Main Street. Like many locals, Nicholson has raised a family dynasty around the festival. Where he once delivered fried apple pies, his granddaughter now titles herself the “director of ice services.”
Nicholson remembers sitting with his wife and young daughters, watching the parade from the balcony of the historic courthouse. This year, when he turned down Main Street, it was empty.
“I had decided that I was not going to be overly sad about it because it was the right decision,” Nicholson said. “But this is not what it’s supposed to look like. This is wrong.”
No one knows what happens next.
Help won’t be coming from the private sector. The governor’s shutdowns crippled local chambers’ ability to aid their businesses.
When even the giants stumble, small town festivals struggle to survive.
In Dillsboro, they’re making plans for the next season. The pottery festival will return, but most locals’ plans rely on a vaccine or a miracle. They all share the low horizons of survival. No one is looking far into the future.
They’ll hold on until they have to let go, and a little longer, too.
Dillard says he’ll make it until early in the year if the shutdowns continue. After that, he can’t – or won’t – say.
“One way or the other,” Dillard said.