“What are you doing?” said an elderly man who emerged from the house, dumbfounded.
“I’m bringin’ you a load of wood!” shouted the driver.
“I don’t have any money for this,” the man said.
“It’s free,” answered the driver.
“I don’t take charity,” said the man. “Take it to somebody else.”
Rural and isolated, mountainous Southern Appalachia by necessity has instilled in its settlers a rugged, sometimes stubborn self-sufficiency. Coupled with the generational poverty that still exists in one of America’s poorest regions, it means that many people still struggle with basic necessities like food, shelter, water and warmth.
But that same individualist spirit brings with it an Appalachian paradox, a square-deal, quid pro quo communal ethos that may be a memory for much of society but is still very much alive in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
“I won’t take that wood ‘lessen I can do something for you,” said the man.
Paid up front
The man behind the wheel of the green 1972 Dodge D-300 dump truck that day — and most days since 2005 — was Richard Reeves.
Reeves, 69, was born and raised in Haywood County; like many men of his generation, he served in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, but then worked as a longshoreman in Virginia before coming home for good.
“I couldn’t wait to get away from Haywood County,” Reeves said. “But then I couldn’t wait to get back.”
Upon his return, Reeves pursued a career in education; he was the first principal at Central Haywood High School and retired as principal of Meadowbrook Elementary in Canton in 2005.
With time on his hands and brush on his land, Reeves set about clearing some ancestral family plots the day after his June 30 retirement.
“My plan was to sell wood,” he said.
One day that November, Josh Pearman, the youth minister at his church, Long’s Chapel United Methodist, approached him.
“Aren’t you cuttin’ some wood?” he said. “We’ve got a family in the church that’s hurtin.’”
Reeves took the family a load of firewood, and a few weeks later, took some to another family in the church.
“Course, a cord of wood doesn’t last too long, so it wasn’t long before the first family needed more,” he said.
More than 12 years later, Reeves says he’s delivered at least 2,800 cords.
Stacked in a single row end-to-end, those cords would stretch 9 miles; were they stacked neatly on a football field (including the end zones), the pile would be over 6 feet tall.
A cord of wood retails for about $225 in Haywood County today; by that measure, Reeves has watched an astonishing $630,000 in free wood pass through his hands.
Adding in the volunteer help and donations he’s received over the years — including the Dodge — Reeves’ wood ministry has probably contributed more than a million dollars worth of warmth to the area’s neediest citizens.
By another measure, Reeves has spent about 5 hours per day, 6 days a week — he tries not to work on Sundays, he said, but will if there is a need — splitting, stacking and delivering the wood. Even at $10 an hour, he’d be about $150,000 richer for his labor.
Reeves regrets not a moment of it, even though he could have spent those 15,000 hours on the golf course, fishing, clearing his own land or getting paid at another job.
“God paid me up front,” he said. “When I get to thinking like that, I say, ‘God forgive me, you know I’m sorry. You paid me up front. I’m 70 years old — I’ve got two wonderful children, five grandchildren, I’ve had great health, a retirement check, a social security check. It’s time to give back.’”
A tisket, a tasket
Standing in 82 year-old Cecil Jones’ driveway with a Dodge full of wood, Reeves responded to Jones’ demand that he wouldn’t take the wood unless he could, somehow, strike some semblance of balance in the transaction.
“Well, what are you thinkin’?” Reeves asked Jones, who didn’t know that Reeves was coming; a family member had gotten word to Reeves.
Reeves never accepts pay for his efforts, and he eschews gifts except when he knows that refusing them may offend; to date, he’s accepted a coffee cup holder, a jar of pickled beets, two tomatoes, two jars of walnuts, six jars of pickles, an assortment of Christmas candies, some Burger King coupons, a haircut and a walking stick from Canton resident Herbert “Cowboy” Coward, who played an important role in the 1972 Burt Reynolds flick “Deliverance.”
“I’ve got a wood shop out back,” Jones said. “I make gun cabinets, tables, chest of drawers and caskets.”
“There you go,” Reeves told him. “You can make me a casket, and I’ll take care of you on the wood.”
Not long after, Reeves was presented with a handsome wooden casket, into which he didn’t hesitate to climb.
“You don’t see too many times somebody in a casket unless they’re heading on,” he laughed. “So we had a little fun with that.”
Reeves has the casket in storage at his father-in-law’s place; he’s been trying to convince his wife to let him use it as a coffee table but has thus far been unsuccessful in that effort.
Regardless, one day that casket will lie beneath the ruddy orange soil in Waynesville’s Maple Grove Methodist Church Cemetery, and Reeves, in turn, will forever repose in it.
Until then, he’ll lengthen that 9-mile-long stack of wood, reaping what he’s sown in a hardscrabble region that nonetheless perseveres through the individual, communal, “do unto others” spirit of a proud people moved by faith to give what they can, when they can, how they can.
“I get a lot of warm fuzzies from this,” he said. “When I was in the school business, not everybody waved at me with all four fingers. But in this job, everybody’s glad to see me.”