Washington Tar Heels celebrate N.C. roots

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Washington Tar Heels celebrate N.C. roots

The Sylva Herald: Ruralite Cafe: Published 09/07/06

By Lynn Hotaling

Downtown Sedro-Woolley, Wash., became a little bit of North Carolina six weeks ago as hundreds of people gathered July 15 to celebrate their North Carolina origins.

The event was the “Tar Heel Roots” festival, and another one is set for next summer.

According to Kathy Reim, connections between North Carolina and Washington state are “heartfelt and lasting.” Today some 17,000 people (about 16 percent of the population) in Skagit County (home of Sedro-Woolley) trace their families to North Carolina, said Kathy, whose mother is from Gastonia.

“It’s a proud heritage being a Tar Heel,” she said.

The idea for such a festival was born years ago when Reim was a high school English teacher talking to one of her students’ parents, Skagit County Commissioner Ted Anderson.

“We talked about the wonderful traditions that had come west with the Tar Heels and how something should be done to honor them,” Kathy said.

This summer’s festival was made possible by a National Endowment of the Arts grant secured by Vicky Young and the Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon, Wash. (county seat of Skagit County), though the event itself was in Sedro-Woolley.

On display were photos and family histories along with traditional music and food. To hear Kathy tell it, their event sounded a lot like one of our Mountain Heritage days at Western Carolina University, except they spiced their party with a lot more “Tar Heels,” as in the “Tar Heel Beans” that were for sale along with biscuits and gravy. Not only that, Kathy said they had members of the Queen family to provide music, as has been true of most Mountain Heritage Days. In fact, Jackson County’s branch of the musical Queen family (Yes, they’re related – our own Mary Jane Queen’s nephew Ernest leads Skagit County’s Queen’s Bluegrass Band. A son of Lewis and Bertie Queen, Ernest was raised on Johns Creek near Mary Jane.) even won the Mountain Heritage Award one year.

While the festival is lots of fun, Kathy and her fellow volunteers at the Lincoln Theatre are making a concentrated effort to preserve and record Tar Heel stories and traditions, she said. During the festival, almost 100 people registered their families to take part in those oral histories.

“It is such an amazing phenomena that 7,000 to 10,000 people from three counties in Western North Carolina migrated to eastern Skagit County and other areas close by,” said Young.

Those Tar Heel memories will be recorded as part of “The Washington Stories Project,” a permanent traveling exhibit of panels with pictures, maps and text to tell the stories. These panels will be located in different cities and museums around the state along with the stories of eight other groups selected by the Museum of History and Industry at the University of Washington, Kathy said. Plans call for the panels to be unveiled during a reception in Seattle on Jan. 28, 2007.

“We want the entire state (of Washington) to know about the contributions, hard work and cultural gifts in music and food that families brought here (from North Carolina),” said Anderson, whose family came as part of the past century’s Tar Heel migration.

According to Kathy, the Tar Heel Roots Heritage Committee plans to move ahead with research and hopes to produce a documentary or book to preserve the stories for use in schools and at the Sedro-Woolley Museum.

Next summer’s two-day festival will open with an evening concert at the Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon on Friday, July 27, and end with a music/picnic/reunion at noon on Saturday, July 28, at Riverfront Park in Sedro-Woolley.

Here at the Cafe, we’re glad to hear that folks out in Skagit County are proud of their North Carolina roots. We’ve talked with several who left Jackson County and Western North Carolina at a young age for the big timber and higher mountains of Skagit County and Western Washington. First we got to know, via telephone and e-mail, the late Hod Woods and Fremont and Joan Buchanan. Both Hod and Fremont left Caney Fork to work in Washington’s logging boom. Fremont’s wife Joan, who died last year, made sure folks in Hod’s home county learned that he had been chosen as the model for a special commemorative poster.

Next we talked with Henry Buchanan of Sedro-Woolley two years ago when the local school system granted diplomas to those who had dropped out of high school to fight in World War II. Buchanan, who couldn’t find work locally, headed out to Washington where he located both a job and a wife – the former Louise Blanton who grew up in Ochre Hill. And how did Buchanan, who’s lived in Sedro-Woolley since the 1940s, find out about his chance to receive his high school diploma? He read it in The Sylva Herald. Henry, like many in Skagit County, still subscribes so he can keep up with his local connections.

As best we can figure, the Jackson County-Skagit County migration goes back to around the turn of the 20th century.

“Some of our best people are leaving here for Skagit County,” reported early editions of the Jackson County Journal, Dan Tompkins’ paper that flourished in the early decades of the 20th Century but became a casualty of World War II and ceased publication in 1943.

Skagit County, Wash., and Jackson County, N.C., are very similar. Both provide mountains and great fishing – here, it’s trout; there, it’s salmon. We have a national park; they have a national park. Jackson County has The Sylva Herald; Skagit County has The Skagit Valley Herald. We have Western Carolina University; they have Western Washington University.

And the folks who left here for there kept their culture intact for a number of years and maintained close family connections. Many families in the area still celebrate their reunions on the same day the family in Jackson County does. In Skagit County, they used to have events called “Tar Heel Picnics” where they played bluegrass music.

On a visit to the area in 1983, I learned that Washingtonians even have a special name for the type of dancing we know as “clogging.” They call it the “Tar Heel Stomp.”

We plan to keep talking to Kathy, Vicky and Ted as they plan next year’s festival. Who knows – maybe we can even swap stories about our counties’ shared heritage.

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