Old Fort’s Gateway to the 1930s

Tom Flynn
Special To The Black Mountain News

Daniel James Brown’s non-fiction “The Boys in the Boat” takes a poignant, focused look at a year – 1936 – often obscured by the broader era of the Great Depression that engulfed the entire decade.

By far different means, Old Fort’s Mountain Gateway and Heritage Center offers a glimpse into a single year in the Depression – 1937.

It was in 1937 that the building at 24 Water Street housing the museum first opened. Like the oarsman Joe Rantz in Brown’s book, it is a hearty product of the era from which it sprang. The museum is more sturdy than statuesque in design, and extends back toward the town’s Mill Creek.

Its porch faces a 75-foot cedar tree that has sprung up in the ensuing 80 years between it and the stone gazebo just beyond. Below the gazebo and fronted by a large stone bulkhead is the creek, swollen and flowing quickly last week from the recent snow.

The building is constructed of native river stone and hewn lumber that required extensive labor simply to get to the site. From there, masons, carpenters, plumbers and electricians were all put to work, along with “unskilled” laborers, to shape it into the museum that we know today.

That labor was the project’s true rationale. The community center that ensued was one of 3,984 projects completed in North Carolina by the Works Progress Administration between 1935-1940.

In total, the WPA employed 125,000 people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds across the state during its lifetime. Although no figure is attainable as to the residual employment of the projects, a figure in the millions in the next 75-plus years certainly is plausible.

“It was built as a community center and became a community museum in the 1960s and 1970s,” said Brittany Bennett, the museum’s historical interpreter and site rental manager. Gov. Bob Scott put the state’s official stamp on the museum in 1971.

“In the 1980s it became a part of the state-owned North Carolina museum system,” she added. The museum is still run by the state as part of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Its role today is impressive in scope, “Since we’re owned by the state of North Carolina, we represent not only McDowell County, but 39 other counties in the western region of the state as well,” said Bennett.

Inside the building are a series of exhibits exploring the region’s history, including one – surprisingly – tracing the area’s earliest European settlement to 16th century Spanish explorers.

More contemporary exhibits include one on electricity, much of which delves into the same period when the building was first built. It includes a sign from the 1930s from the Carolina Power & Light Company imploring consumers to “Give Something Electrical This Christmas,” with illustrations of a vacuum, lamp, and iron to help clarify the specifics.

Although amusingly outdated now, the sign is further evidence of the conscious effort required to pull the country out the Depression.

The grounds outside the building including several cabins later moved to the site –

requiring labor, again, decades later – from their original western North Carolina locations to illustrate the nature of rural living.

Beneath the cabins and closer to the creek is the stone Sam Gray Ampitheater, “People rent out the building and grounds for small weddings and special events. The ampitheater is especially popular,” said Bennett.

The Mountain Gateway Museum and Heritage Center is open Mondays from 12-5, Tuesday – Saturday from 9 to 5, and Sundays from 2-5 pm. It can be found online at