Old Fort’s mural trail highlights town’s history

Tom Flynn
Special to The Black Mountain News

Local history buffs and lovers of outdoor mural will like The Seven Wonders Trail, a unique series of paintings of Old Fort’s manmade and natural attractions, tightly woven through the town’s central business district.

Each of the seven stops on the trail features a painting rendered by a member of the nonprofit Arrowhead Artists and Artisans League, or A3L. The artists’ works are interpretations of drawings made by students at nearby Old Fort Elementary School.

“The students drew pictures and submitted them, and they (A3L) chose the best of those and gave them to the artists and they re-intrepreted them,” said Jackson Rector, a woodcarver and league member working in the gallery on a recent Wednesday. “The league chose seven artists who contribute to the gallery to paint them,” he said.

The first stop on the trail adorns the outer wall of the visitor center for the Blue Ridge Traveler’s Town and Trails. The organization and the office are the public face of the McDowell County Tourism Development Authority. The first painting depicts the impressive Catawba Falls. Created and drawn by Christian Hawiotte, a student at Old Fort Elementary, it was interpreted by A3L’s Helen Sullivan.

Margaret Fretwell works inside the visitor’s center and has a wealth of knowledge about the region and the paintings’ subjects. “For each painting, there’s a plaque, the student’s name and the artist’s name,” she said. “They had a small ceremony for each one. It’s really been a great thing.”

Not officially on the trail, but certainly worth seeing, is a large mural entitled “A Time to Build,” just outside the front door and to the right of the visitors’ center. It was inspired by a painting of the same name by local artist Nada Carroll and was later reinterpreted as the imposing mural by a collection of A3L artists. The mural offers a historical glimpse into the town’s earliest Native American roots, as well as an inclusion of its more recent place as a railroad hub.

In a reversal of the process utilized in creating the trail, Old Fort Elementary students later drew their own interpretations of the mural.

The next stop on the route is a painting of Point Lookout Trail, conceived by local student Zach Wright and interpreted by A3L artist Marsh Wood. The Point Lookout Trail was once a section of U.S. 70 and today is an oft-visited biking, running and cycling destination.

From there the trail makes five more stops. Included in its range of topics are the nearby Mountain Gateway Museum and the picturesque Old Fort Train Station with its granite, hand-carved arrowhead monument just outside. Davidson’s Fort Historic Park, the Wolfe Angel statue and a depiction of the nearby Andrews Geyser round out the collection of paintings.

A map to the trail, available in the visitors’ center, provides the location of each stop, as well as a brief historical description of the subjects the paintings entail. The center and the trail prove an ideal starting point for locating the real-life locations and scenes depicted.

The mural collaboration of the Chamber of Commerce, A3L and Old Fort Elementary helped to local students appreciate the arts and Old Fort’s history. “By getting art into the elementary schools, hopefully it sticks,” Rector said.

Founded by local artist Helen Sullivan, A3L is in its third year of operation. Its gallery, located at 78 Catawba Ave. across from the visitors’ center, is open to the public. The visitors’ center is at 91 Catawba Ave, and on the web at A3L can be found at