Mining Swannanoa’s rich motherlode of tales

Rob Neufeld
The Asheville Citizen-times

William Cornelius Burnette, a Swannanoa farmer, could make a fence post that looked like a giant sharpened pencil. He could scout out and haul the perfectly forked sourwood tree and hew it into a farm sled in three days. He gathered herbs, ran a dairy farm (before the state’s Grade A requirements priced him out), made molasses, mined mica and snagged trout (before the city’s dam dried up Bee Tree Creek). He danced.

Burnette loved to dance. His dance team performed at Bascombe Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival every year from 1933-41.

When the Baptist preacher came to say, “Brother Burnette, you have sinned,” and, worst of all, “it was printed in the paper that you led a dance team,” Burnette defended his pastime and joined the dance-tolerant Swannanoa Christian Church.

Big dog, Shep

In the days before TV, when people depended on storytelling for entertainment as well as companionship, everyday stories had a decent chance of achieving legendary status.

For instance, there’s the tale of the rampaging lion.

Burnette’s sons, William and Talmadge, were walking along a dark road one night to go see a silent movie at Swannanoa High School. There were rumors that a lion had escaped from the Recreation Park zoo.

Suddenly, a loud noise alerted the boys, and a beast leapt out of the bushes and knocked Talmadge over with its paws — and then licked his face.

It was Shep, the big dog that the Burnettes had adopted after someone who had boarded with the family left it behind.

As any hunter will tell you, dogs are such good subjects for stories. Once, Shep got into a fight with a giant groundhog, which seemed to be his match. Talmadge intervened in the stand-off, wielding a mattock. Talmadge’s strike missed and glanced Shep, which was not good for the groundhog, on whom the dog inflicted the anger stemming from its shame.

(Talmadge Burnette recorded his Swannanoa family experiences in “Looking Back,” published in 1997.)

The good doctor

When tall tales serve as social capital, people have to help create them, either through heroic acts or pranks. And that brings us to Dr. James Buckner, the doctor who couldn’t refuse a house call.

Buckner came to Swannanoa in 1910 after graduating UNC Medical School in 1908. Once, he got a call from Kelly Shope on Old Farm School Road telling him that a lady across the river was having a difficult childbirth.

It was snowing, it was nighttime and the only way to cross the river from Shope’s place was to wade it, which the doctor did. Upon his icy return, the doctor was treated to a big chair by a roaring fire.

Perhaps it was by that fire that he conceived of one of his practical jokes.

Swannanoa folks had been noticing that funny things were going on: money missing from the State Agricultural Research Station’s produce stand pail, and then returned — little things like that. It was thought by some that some kind of woodland elf was about.

The Shopes were more concerned about ghosts.

In the middle of the night, they’d awaken to banging sounds. Peeking out their front door, they’d see their rocking chairs, unoccupied, bumping against the house. It went on for some weeks.

Then, one night, they heard the sound of crackling wood in their living room. Mr. Shope got out of bed to investigate and found Dr. Buckner asleep in a chair, having made his own fire.

Awakened, the doctor accounted for his role in the ghostly manifestations.

He’d been serving as doctor for the Bee Tree Lumber crew up the mountain and, coming back late at night, always passed the Shope residence. He had taken to rocking their rocking chairs and running off when the Shopes ran out. This night, he was just too tired to stay out in the cold.

(The Buckner material came from David Rozzell of Swannanoa, collector of local doctor stories.)

George Coggins, mythologist

One of the great storytellers of the region was George Coggins, builder of Westgate Mall and son of Henry Allen Coggins, called the Mayor of Bee Tree.

Henry was “a star pitcher at Wake Forest College,” George told Dorothy Joynes in a 1992 interview now owned by Special Collections, Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

George’s dad came “up here and started baseball in Asheville,” he said. “So he was traveling a lot playing baseball. He married my mother (Vara Elizabeth Keen) ... and (they) raised nine children between innings of baseball, one for each inning.”

One night, George and his brother, Eldridge, were possum hunting on the family’s acreage in Bee Tree, “and we treed a possum in the ground. We tried to get the possum to get out. We made a stick with a little fork on the end of it. You put it in the hole and twist it and it gets the possum hide caught in it, and he comes out with it.”

When the possum emerged, George noted, “he had something interesting all over him. It was a new mineral we hadn’t seen before in the ground, and it was known as vermiculite.”

George found out about it by taking a sample to the Bureau of Mines. This was around 1920. Vermiculite, a material that expands and becomes lightweight when heated, was just being discovered as a valuable home insulation product.

“I got interested in that,” George said, “and built a plant at Bee Tree. Later I built a plant at Tigerville, South Carolina.” Coggins had many other tales, which rival those of Davy Crockett, also once a Swannanoa resident.