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Latest books by Phoebe Leggett bring her back to her Swannanoa Valley roots
Growing up in the North Fork area of Black Mountain, Phoebe Leggett would write poetry on her family’s farm. She continued to ply her craft long after moving away from her hometown, authoring a dozen self-published books.
Writing has helped Leggett cope with grief and overcome trauma, but her latest books bring her full circle to her Swannanoa Valley roots.
“My dad was a poultry farmer and he sold eggs to customers all over town,” Leggett said. “We worked on the farm and I never left our small town until after I graduated Owen.”
She continued to write and produced a fictional novel based on an abusive first marriage, she said.
“Then my son was killed in car crash in 2004,” Leggett said. “I wrote a book about that as a way of helping me heal and grieve. Writing has really helped me deal with what’s going on in my life.”
When her mother, Nada Kathleen Ledbetter, passed away over a decade ago, Leggett placed a box of her belongings in a closet.
“I just didn’t want to deal with it,” she said. “I had a lot of personal issues at the time and was already dealing with a lot of death that touched me personally.”
It wasn’t until she attended the 100th family reunion of the Shope, Burnette and Gregg families in Bee Tree in July of 2017 that she decided what to do with her mother’s stuff.
Born Nada Kathleen Shope, but known to friends and family as “Kat,” Leggett’s mother had already told some of her childhood stories growing up in the Swannanoa Valley.
“Mom had told me she’d written some memoirs,” Legget said. “I left the reunion and went home to look through her stuff.”
Her immediate first thought after examining the trove of anecdotes, photos and journal entries was “this needs to be a book,” Leggett said. It was there that the idea for Her Name Was Kat: My Mother’s Memoirs was born.
"The beginning of the book is comprised of her memoirs in her own words," Leggett said. "She hadn't written a lot, but it was pretty profound and talked about her childhood."
The process of writing the book brought Leggett closer to her mother, she said. She learned from the class superlatives in her mother's yearbook from Swannanoa High School (which combined with Black Mountain High School in 1955 to form Owen) that she was voted "class flirt."
"I learned a lot about her family and her," the author said of her mother. "It really made me see her in a different way."
One thing that became clear to Leggett was that her mother was exceedingly proud of her heritage. The Shope family was among the first white settlers in what was known as the "Swannanoa Settlement" in the late 1700s.
When John George Shope, Jr. and Phillip Shope moved to Western North Carolina in 1756 after they married sisters from the Gragg family in Virginia, Leggett said. Today, there are over 8,000 descendants of the Shopes and many gather every year for the Shope, Burnette, Gregg reunion in Bee Tree every year.
The whole family, and especially her mother, would look forward to these reunions every year, Leggett said.
"She considered herself the matriarch of the family," she said. "Our family was very tight and mom kept everyone connected. She loved her family."
In fact, as she delved into her mother's belongings, Leggett discovered information about the Shope family and was inspired to begin working on another book - Our Heritage: The Shope, Gragg, Burnette, Jarvis, Robinson Connection - concurrently.
"I decided that this all needed to be recorded too," she said. "A lot of what I learned was too good not to be written down. It was very interesting to write this book because there is a ton of history."
The book traces the family history back to southeast Germany and then to England in the early 1700s, when the first Shopes, under various spellings of the name, embarked on a journey to the new world, according to Leggett.
"People came over on ships and the conditions on those ships were hard," she said. "There is a lot of historical information in the book that I think would be interesting to people who aren't even in the family."
Leggett takes a close look at each branch of the descendants of the first Shopes in the area and how the family connects to the others in the region.
Both books, like all of Leggett's work, are available on Amazon.com under the author's name.
Writing Our Heritage and Her Name Was Kat gave her a unique understanding of where she comes from, she said. The process also helped her understand more about herself and her family that has remained so close over the years.
"Knowing the past helps make the future more clear," Leggett said. "I'm glad I had the opportunity to write these books."