Information on Ashe and Watauga Counties
By Zoe van Buren
Bessie Eldreth was born in 1913 in Ashe County, North Carolina, and spent nearly her entire life in Ashe and its neighboring Watauga County. Her family maintained strong ties to Ashe County, where she lived throughout her married years near Creston and later Todd. In the 1970s, Eldreth bought land in Watauga County from her own earned money, where she would continue to live near her children after the death of her husband in 1976.
Ashe and Watauga Counties lie high in the Blue Ridge mountains of northwestern North Carolina. Home to the Cherokee and Watauga tribes, the region became an early site of native contact with Spanish explorers in the mid 16th century, and later with English and French fur traders. In the years before the American Revolution, Dutch, German, Scotch-Irish, and Swedish settlers populated the region, many drawn to the northward running New River that winds through the counties. The town of Boone was built around the store of Jordan Councill, Watauga County’s largest slaveholder. Although the area is currently almost entirely white, Native American and Black communities have long called Ashe and Watauga Counties home, despite popular impressions of the region’s homogeneity and lack of racial tension or exchange. Influences of Appalachian race relations are reflected in Eldreth’s narratives.
Poor roads and mountain elevations isolated the area up through World War II. Farming and timbering were the principal occupations of the region from the 1870s through the 1970s, while much of the economy has turned towards tourism in more recent years. Appalachian State University resides in Boone, and is home to around 20,000 students. Formerly the Appalachian State Teacher’s College, the university now has four undergraduate colleges and a host of respected graduate programs.
Watauga County has a rich cultural history, and is known for its distinct mountain speech, ballad traditions, and musical legacies. Doc Watson was one of Watauga County’s most influential residents, with long family roots in the Deep Gap community. Beech Mountain is home to the Hicks, Harmon, and Presnell families, including renowned Jack Tale teller Ray Hicks. Frank Proffitt, Sr., singer and banjo player whose “Tom Dooley” was popularized by the Kingston Trio, was raised in Reese. Dulcimer and banjo makers Leonard and Clifford Glenn hailed from Sugar Grove. Ashe County was the birthplace in 1887 of fiddler G. B. Grayson. Bessie Eldreth learned her songs from family members, recordings or radio, and in church, and encountered other more famous local traditional musicians only later in life. She lived, however, in a milieu where traditional music was valued by local listeners as well as, later, by aficionados from elsewhere.