Our Avery County: Avery County’s ‘history on a stick’
There are eight North Carolina Highway Markers in Avery County. Twenty-seven other North Carolina counties have fewer. These cast aluminum markers are sometimes referred to as “history on a stick.”
In 1935, the North Carolina General Assembly established a program “to provide for the erection of markers at points of historic interest along the public highways.” The program was based upon one started in Virginia in 1926. In January 1936, the first marker in North Carolina, indentifying the home of John Penn, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was unveiled in Granville County.
To date, there are 1,560 markers in our state, the most recent ones being dedicated in Beaufort and Orange counties within the last month.
Avery County’s first marker was erected in 1938. The marker, on Highway 19-E, marked the route of the Overmountain Men on the old Yellow Mountain Road. The Yellow Mountain Road, also at times called Bright’s Trace, is the oldest established road in Avery County.
A year later, a second marker was dedicated at Cranberry, describing the iron ore mined until 1930, and its use by the Confederacy.
In the early 1940s, the program placed markers on all of the major US highways entering our state. The one at US 19-E, where it crosses from North Carolina, reads on one side “Colonized. 1585-87, by the first English settlers in America; permanently settled c.1650; first to vote readiness for independence, Apr. 12, 1776.” Those entering the state on the Tennessee side can read how Tennessee was “Settled before 1770 by North Carolina-Virginia pioneers, ceded by North Carolina to the United States, 1789, admitted to the Union, 1796.”
Two markers came in 1949, and both are located at the entrance to Grandfather Mountain. One is dedicated to the French botanist Andrew Michaux, who visited Grandfather in 1794. The other is dedicated to American botanist Asa Gray, who also visited Grandfather in 1841.
It would be 22 years before another marker appeared. In 1971, a marker was erected in Banner Elk to commemorate the life of Shepherd M. Dugger, the famed author and educator. Dugger is buried in Banner Elk Cemetery, a block or so away from the marker.
Twenty-two additional years would pass before the next marker, just a block from the marker to Dugger, appeared in Avery County. This marker, appearing in 1993, addresses the beginnings of Lees-McRae College, the Presbyterian school founded in 1900 by Edgar Tufts.
The next marker appeared in 1997. This one, on Highway 221, commemorates the founding of The Crossnore School by Dr. Mary Martin Sloop.
There are undoubtedly many other markers that could be erected in Avery County. High on that list could be one to Newland and Avery County itself, the last county established in North Carolina. One might mark the site of Childsville/Calhoun, the first county seat of Mitchell County, located near Avery County Airport. A third might be for the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, or maybe for the Old Yonahlossee Road, or perhaps one could be placed at Linville Gap, the highest point served by a railroad in the eastern United States.
Much work remains, but we can enjoy the markers we already have. Just be sure you signal before stopping suddenly to read one.
Editor’s note: All quotations taken from “Guide to North Carolina Highway Historical Markers,” 10th Edition (2007).