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Originally published: 2012-02-24 09:29:17
Last modified: 2012-02-24 09:29:55

The Linville debating society

Michael Hardy / (

We are blessed here in Avery County to have some good, early histories. The county was just a little more than 20 years old when Horton Cooper penned his first account. And then we have great people like Aunt Zona, Scotty Wiseman, Shepherd Monroe Dugger and Dr. Mary Sloop, penning accounts of their lives in the area, going back to before Avery County was even created. We are truly a better place, historically speaking, because these people left us accounts of their lives.

Of course, there is still much work that needs to be done. We need a documented history of Avery County, all 100 years of it. We need a documented history of Newland, which will turn 100 years old soon. How about a history of Carey’s Flats? Or Elk Park? Or one of the other many great communities that make up our wonderful county?

All of this takes research, and talking to people who they themselves, or their ancestors, have lived Avery County’s history. One of the places to dig is newspapers from outside the area. The piece about the auctioning off of the town lots in the last column from a Charlotte newspaper is extremely important. Save for one little mention by Lees-McRae College founder Edgar Tufts, there is not really much on that important day in June 1912 – the day that Newland really began.

This week’s piece, also found in an out-of-town newspaper, is not quite as important, but nevertheless, it provides a glimpse into our past. Everyone of these glimpses add depth to what we already know. The writer seems surprised at what he finds in Avery County: Intelligent people. For generations, color writers had distorted the view of mountain people: those who came from off and painted a picture for the world. Yes, there were poor, ignorant people in the mountains then, just like today. But those same people exist today in the impoverished areas of major cities as well.

“Debaters in the Mountains” is the title of this article by Garrett P. Serviss and appeared in Saginaw News (Michigan) on Oct. 21, 1922.

“Staying for a few weeks recently in the mountains of Avery county, North Carolina, which are dominated by the lofty, multiple-peaked, precipitous father mountain, one of the most inspiring eminences that mark the site of the ancient Appalachia, the eastern backbone of America, I became greatly interested in a debating society which held its meeting in a mission house, in the little, green mountain-ringed valley of Linville.

“The debating society, or debating school is an American institution for voluntary education with which I was familiar during my youth, in eastern central New York, but which I supposed had ceased to exist, like the lecture platform of former days.

“I could hardly believe my ears when told that on a certain night people told that on a certain neighboring mountain villages would assemble in the mission house and listen to an oratorical discussion by two or three speakers on each side of the time-honored topic: ‘Resolved, that the works of nature make a stronger appeal to the human mind than art.’”

Auditors come Long Way

“I was on hand, in a front seat, half an hour before the chairman took his place by a little table with its kerosene lamp. Three summer guest from the nearby inn were selected as judges. The audience included men, women, boys, girls and even two children in arms, and some had come three miles, or more over the crooked mountain roads. There was also present a considerable number of golf players, and other transient residents, apparently keenly curious to hear what this Abraham Lincoln of the mountains would say. They knew him well, having often bought apples from his basket.

“He was short but an athletic man, with a large nose and blue-gray eyes. He had a good voice but a bad habit of dropping his tones at times almost to a whisper.

“His manner was dramatic; his reliance was upon eloquent description, not upon close argument or logic, so that while he was no Lincoln, he might have been called an echo of Patrick Henry.

“He called Grandfather Mountain to his aid, and rested his case upon it. He personified the towering crest, with its marvelous environment of clinging forest and impenetrable ravines of bold, jutting, promontories of rock, cut sharp against the high blue of the sky, or curried round with clouds, and of enormous supporting buttresses reaching miles away for a firm bracing hold to enable them to resist the pressure of that mighty pile. He pictured the wonders of the woods, the beauties of the little green nooks and valleys opening here and there, like cups cut in the adamant of the mountains, catching the dew and the star light far above the utmost reach of the lower world. He described the mountain flowers and the wild laurels with which the rugged sides and aspiring brow of ‘Grandfather’ were bedecked in summer, and the whirling, gleaming snows that surrounded his lone, proud, unbending head in winter.

“’What appeal has man’s little art to equal this?’”

Decision for Mountain Man

“A visiting city preacher rose against him, with elegant pulpit eloquence, but the man of the mountains, with his ‘grandfather,’ got the unanimous decision of the judges.

“A week later the debate was on the topic, ‘Resolved, that woman wields a greater influence over man than money.’

“This time, somewhat to my surprise, ‘Abraham Lincoln’ was for the negative, i.e., against the women. He man an amusing onslaught upon money, fashion, society, conventional follies, etc., and again got the decision of the judges. And again there were people who had come from miles to attend the debate. I was assured that this was a regular institution of the neighborhood, and the quality and conduct of the audience confirmed the statement.

“Beyond Bibles and school books, there are not many books in these mountain valleys, lying 4,000 feet above sea level, but where the moon has climbed high to peep into them. A native Abraham Lincoln is a godsend to them – a self educated man, who reads with a purpose, who thinks over what he reads, who calls his fellows, men and women, to assemble periodically and listen to debates on various subjects of general human interest, and whose main desire, as he told me, is to spread as widely as possible the knowledge that he has acquired, to obtain more, and to promote American patriotism by American methods.”

“To obtain more” – maybe that is what we should all aim for, to obtain more, and then to “spread as widely as possible the knowledge that he has acquired ...”