Hemphill legacy will live on through Black Mountain park

Arthur Joe and Mary Hemphill give their most generous gift after they're gone

Fred McCormick

It’s often the things you love the most that tell your story when you’re gone. Arthur Joe and Mary Hemphill cared for their community, the natural beauty surrounding it and the preservation of both.

It's likely no surprise to those who knew them best that the Hemphills, well-known in the community for their generosity and kindness, would make what might be their biggest contributions after they'd died.

Mary and Arthur Joe Hemphill at property in McDowell County that the couple placed into a conservation easement in 2003.

Arthur Joe and Mary had been married for 55 years when the former Black Mountain police chief died suddenly in 2009. Mary, who like her husband was a native of Black Mountain and active member of the community, passed away at the age of 80 in February of this year.

Mary left 25 acres of land within the city limits of Black Mountain to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to be developed as a park, according to Bryant Webster, the executor of, and attorney for, Mary’s estate.

"We've been in discussions with Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy since Mary's death, because they get the title to the property, according to the will," Webster said. "They're not in the business of managing a public park, so they are having discussions with the town of Black Mountain about possibly managing the park. The town is interested, but it will take some time to determine exactly how legally we can do this."

While the gift of what Webster calls "an amazing place for a park" is obviously a generous one, Mary didn't stop there. Her will stipulated that her house and adjoining houses she owned be sold to fund the park, according to Webster.

Arthur Joe and Mary Hemphill preserved hundreds of acres of land in their lives and left 25 acres to developed as a park in Black Mountain after Mary passed away earlier this year.

"In addition to the land she also left the seed money for the park work," Webster said. "We've already sold those properties. It's not a huge sum of money, but it's substantial."

While there is no timeline for development of the land, Black Mountain was "excited and thankful" for the property, town manager Matt Settlemyer said.

"We've walked the property," he said. "We have an idea of what kind of opportunities exist there. It's all very preliminary, but there are definitely options there."

Hemphill also left commercial property to be sold to fund additional conservation easements for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.

"Basically, the vast majority of the Hemphills' land wealth is going, through the conservancy, to benefit the public," Webster said.

This wasn't the first time Arthur Joe and Mary Hemphill conserved land for the benefit of others.

In 2003 the couple put 350 acres of land in McDowell County, near the headwaters of the Catawba River, into a conservation easement with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Webster said. The Hemphills held on to another 10 acres, which was added to the easement through Mary's will. Another 15-acre piece of property in McDowell County will be put into a conservation easement in the future, according to Webster.

The Hemphills did not have children of their own. But they had a lot of love to give, and the Swannanoa Valley was often the beneficiary. They were known for looking after many children in need who they referred to as their “adopted children.” Arthur Joe, as he was known to his friends, cared greatly about conservation, Webster said.

Joe, as Webster called him, was the forester at Ridgecrest. “He had a real love of conservation and taking care of land, in a ‘wanting to leave things better than he found it’ kind of way," Webster said,

Robert Goodson knew Arthur Joe growing up; the two became close following retirement. They would frequently hike to the mountain peaks surrounding the Swannanoa Valley.

Joe Hemphill, front, and Robert Goodson at the peak of Mount Mitchell during one of their many hikes.

"He didn't consider himself an owner of land, he considered himself a caretaker, a steward," Goodson said. "He and Mary shared the same philosophy."

Mary's love for everything living was well-known, according to Webster.

“Mary was a plant and animal lover,” he continued. “You couldn’t injure, damage, kill or otherwise molest any living thing in her presence. Whether it was a poisonous snake or a poisonous spider or a butterfly.”

She also loved the man she affectionately called "My Joe," according to Goodson.

"She didn't do anything after he passed away that she didn't think that he would've approved of," he said.

Something else near and dear to the hearts of the Hemphills was the Swannanoa Valley Museum, and Mary's will also reflected that. She allowed the museum first rights to select items from her home for its collection following her death.

"The Hemphills were avid readers," said Anne Chesky Smith, the director of the museum. "So as a result we were able to find fairly rare books about the Swannanoa Valley. In addition to the books, we found a bottle from the (Rafeal) Guastavino estate and a bottle from the North Fork Dairy."

The museum also found scrapbooks with old photos of the Hemphills and the town, Smith added.

Arthur Joe would "bust the buttons on shirt with pride" if he knew of Mary's efforts to preserve that land, Goodson said.

"They were so unselfish," Goodson said. "They were interested in the future of the area, and they were interested in the past. They wanted to preserve the history and the land. They really wanted to leave something to the public down the road."