Van Burnette continues region’s high-spirited past

Shelly Frome
Special to The Black Mountain News

By mid-May, Hop ‘N Blueberry Farm is in full swing. Tourists venture to the North Fork Valley to take in the joys of sustainable living that include hops growing in a burgeoning yard and monarch butterflies lighting on fields of milkwood and zinnias, as well as pollinator maze, medicinal herbs and more.

Deep in winter, as much of this lies dormant, farmer Van Burnette sitting by his vintage chestnut table, is apt to become wistful about his heritage. At times like these, he slips into his role as one of the area’s foremost chronicler and teller of tales.

Burnette — “Farmer Van,” as he is sometimes called — doubtless harkens back to the Revolutionary War when one of three Burnette brothers was accosted by Major Patrick Ferguson over in Rutherford County. At the time, Ferguson threatened to tar and burn every citizen who refused to pay tribute to the king.

“We’re talking here about the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780,” said Burnette, “and a decisive victory for the Patriot militia. My relatives were involved in that, and some of the skirmishes took place on a piece of their property as the Over The Mountain Boys met up with the British forces and beat them.”

Burnette’s story continues. In the late 1700s, two of the brothers, he said, crossed the Blue Ridge to Old Fort and then went on to the Swannanoa Valley. Thomas Burnette liked what he saw and settled deep in North Fork 219 years ago. The piece of property Van Burnette occupies now has been in the family (on his grandmother’s side) for 169 years. It is part of his family’s original 5,000 acres.

Burnette’s “Farmer Van” nickname honors his ancestors’ colorful past, one that involved — and involves — the local tourist trade.

“During the late 1800s into the early 1900s, this was the main “start up,” the only way you could go up to Mount Mitchell. Folks stayed down here first (in Black Mountain) or went about halfway and spent the night at the Mountain House, a three-storied building right on the ridgeline. (There) they were served duck and caviar, which was brought in. A lot of famous people stayed at that place ‘til it eventually burned down.”

Because the area had the best water in Western North Carolina, liquor became another staple.

“Everybody was involved in it,” Burnette said. “Right above here was 50 acres of corn. Around Prohibition when things started to tighten up, the industry really got going. The kids would bring wood.

“You had to walk a different path so nobody would know where the stills were. They’d hide the bottles and crates under a big stack of hay, right out there along the side of the road for the bootleggers pickup. By growing hops, I try to stay in the family ties to our profound industry.”

At this juncture, Burnette’s thoughts gravitated to what he said was an abiding sense of community that he experienced as a boy.

“There weren’t that many houses back then, and everybody knew everybody. It was a mountaineer tradition,” he said. “There was no electricity. You had to be self-sustaining, and you had to depend on your neighbor. Everybody worked together and made it work.

“You helped each other out. If somebody was out baling hay, you’d stop by and jump in. You wouldn’t even ask. If you brought your sorghum to grind up for molasses, everybody would lend a hand. There were grist mills and saw mills and liquor stills. And everybody knew me. ‘Oh, you’re Thad Junior’s boy,’ they would say.”

Burnette began to recollect tales his grandfather told him. Like the one about a cousin who, while trying to impress his teenage girlfriend, mischievously and unwittingly set fire to a hay stack, causing gallons of hidden liquor to explode. Or the one about another cousin who rode a steer all the way to Old Fort and got into all kinds of trouble.

Fittingly, our chronicler paused for a moment and said, “You see, ‘family’ with me is really strong, and I’m proud to have the last name of Burnette. Proud to know all these stories that were told to me and proud to tell them.”